do prisons really encourage reform?

The prison service in its many forms, a deterrence for some, an ongoing social issue for others. Is there safety in numbers?

The justice system globally has always been a hot topic of debate. What does society want from the prison system?

Aside from the obvious detainment of criminals and a safer society, the majority would mention reform. The justice system and utilisation of prisons can be heroic, cruel, right, and wrong all at the same time. Case to case, things are different- so how can it be known if prisons really encourage reform in such a complex environment?

It may seem simple at first; an individual commits a crime, breaks the law, and goes to prison for justice to be served and to become a reformed character. However, the more you investigate prison systems around the globe, it is easy to see that it is not always this straightforward. This becomes particularly evident when exploring the extreme differences in prisons internationally. At one end of the spectrum is Bomana Prison in Papua New Guinea which has one of the highest crime rates in the world. In this prison, there are no reform schemes, only survival with prisoners living amongst each other with little to no protection from guards or the authorities.


In 2020, The Guardian revealed leaked images found of eighteen asylum seekers still locked up in terrible conditions inside the prison “despite widespread concerns for their health, welfare and legal rights”.

The Guardian also highlighted that of the asylum seekers that signed an agreement to return to their original countries “few are willing to speak about the Bomana prison for fear of being returned” and indeed one Iranian asylum seeker commented of the conditions in Bomana as being “designed to torture people”. These stark conditions seem a world away from Halden Prison in Norway that has earned itself the reputation of ‘The World’s Most Humane Prison’. At Halden, the criminals are just as dangerous, but they are treated in a way that is uncommon of the justice system comparatively with other prisons internationally. The prison was designed to reflect life outside the institution as much as possible, with the sole aim of the reform and rehabilitation of its prisoners. For example, prisoners can earn the privilege of family stays, periods outside to go to work, or even on a date.

There are no conventional security devices in the prison and prisoners are even given their own mobile phones. You can also forget about grim conditions with the prison winning awards for its interior design. The prison has, of course, been criticised for being too liberal but evidence would suggest that there is lessened crime, with the governor of the prison claiming that he doesn’t remember the last time there was violence in the prison.

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By Michaela Hall: Culture COLUMNIST

It seems bizarre that both of these maximum-security prisons provide such a different experience for prisoners who may have committed the same horrific crimes.

While Bomana is criticised for being too cruel and inhumane without a focus on reform and rehabilitation, Halden is criticised for focusing too much on this and being too humane and ‘easy’.

It is interesting to consider that Halden, which has become world-renowned and received international media coverage for its attempts and successes at reform (something that everybody claims to ideally desire from a prison system) is often ridiculed for its approach. Of course, there are extents to which both punishment and reform can co-exist but perhaps this is an equilibrium that doesn’t truly exist.

In recent years, prisons have become a more common topic in the widespread media. Partly responsible for this are documentaries such as The World’s Toughest Prisons and individual investigative shows that see celebrity figures and reporters such as Ross Kemp, Piers Morgan, and Anne Widdecombe explore the different prisons around the world, speaking to the prisoners who live the differing experiences.

Most will agree that crime deserves to be punished, after all that’s why laws are in place -to protect society and its citizens. This is rightly, the top priority for prisons globally, preventing danger. Alongside high crime rates globally and a shortage of prison spaces, it can perhaps seem that reform is a bonus by-product in the exceptional cases such as Halden where this is achievable.

All cases are different, and one size certainly doesn’t fit all, but even with the right intentions- do prisons even have the capacity to encourage reform, or is there a larger authoritative power needed to enforce this motivation? The everyday citizen is progressively starting to question the role of our prisons in true justice and reform but perhaps what is really starting to reveal itself as a true priority is the issue of how nations work together globally to create the balance that is needed for a truly safe society- Is prison always the answer?

MACKAYAN: do prisons really encourage reform?

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