Samples Crime Punishment vs Rehabilitation

Punishment vs Rehabilitation

1157 words 4 page(s)

It is estimated that 1.2 million Americans are housed in the prison system. In comparison to Canada, England, and Japan, the United States has the highest rate of incarcerated individuals (Elrich, n.d.). Once a person is in the prison system, there are many questions posed by society and prison workers. Can inmates be rehabilitated? If then can be rehabilitated, then what is the best method? Some individuals feel that inmates should be rehabilitated through tough, harsh punishments, such as back-breaking labor. Other feel that hard labor is inhumane and does not help to rehabilitate felons. Much of the treatment methods employed depended on the state where the individual was serving their sentence.

In the past, using chain gangs, defined as group of prison inmates who are bound together when performing work outside the prison, were relegated as an effective method for rehabilitating prisoners. In Georgia, chain gangs and hard labor were used in the early 1900s as punishment to inmates for their crimes. Many prisoners felt that this method was quite abusive and demeaning, former inmate Robert Burns writing about his chain gang experiences in his autobiography. Burns’ book alerted society to the harsh prison system abuses that were occurring (Davis, 2010).

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In 1932, the movie “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” based on Burns’ autobiography, portrayed the South as a violent and unforgiving geographic location that punished inmates. In the movie, white people in the South are relegated as the dominant race, who engage in Groupthink. Groupthink is a type of oppressive thinking that closes off outsiders’ viewpoints, even if the outsider view is more ethical or just, i.e. Hitler deciding to murder Jewish people (Davis, 2010).

One factor to consider when examining the efficacy and fairness of chain gangs is racism. In 1908, Georgia Law reinstituted chain gangs again with female inmates granted an exception of having to participate. However, African American women were still forced to join chain gangs and work on public roads and be servants in white homes while serving their final sentences on parole (Haley, 2013). Hence, do chain gangs rehabilitate prisoners or perpetuate racism and inequality?

The movie “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” and Burns’ book inspired opposition to using chain gangs as rehabilitation, then just as quickly faded, society indirectly supporting chain gangs as an effective method of prisoner rehabilitation (Davis, 2010). Burns managed to escape from prison, starting a small, successful business in New Jersey (Davis, 2010.

This back-and-forth feeling about chain gangs and hard labor as rehabilitation continued. Yet, hard labor continued to be employed with inmates as the best option. By World War II, Georgia was once again more concerned with reform and better prisoner treatment, Georgia’s Governor Ellis Arnall wanting the eradication of chain gangs. Arnall also pardoned Burns for escaping prison, citing Burns’ small business as evidence that the former convict has been fully rehabilitated by hard labor (Davis, 2010).

Not all states in America clung to chain gangs and tough labor as the best ways to treat criminals for as long as Georgia did. In spite of being the first state to institute prison labor as punishment in 1776, requiring prisoners to pay the price with street and highway reconstruction, Pennsylvania also paved the road for more humane reform. In 1789, Pennsylvania’s Prison Society, devoted to ameliorating harsh, unfair conditions for prisoners, suggested that solitary confinement with working shops for prisoners should be used. Public labor for inmates was then abolished (A historical overview of inmate labor in Pennsylvania, 2014).

Walnut Street Prison became the state’s first penitentiary state prison, helping to rehabilitate by expanding the prison system and replacing back breaking work for prisoners with softer trades, such as stone sawing, nail making, and weaving. Like many states, Pennsylvania experienced a waxing and waning in regard to types of labor assigned to prisoners for the next two centuries. Today, the Pennsylvania Correctional Industries teaches inmates to work in trades based on individual skill level with the goal of self-sufficiency versus work as punishment (A historical overview of inmate labor in Pennsylvania, 2014).

Yet, the debate still remains on whether prisoner labor helps or hinders society, mainly through the private industry method. On one hand, some employers feel that that their cost is lower, not having to pay health insurance or sick leave for inmates. Others feel that inmate labor eliminates jobs for individuals in mainstream society. In Texas, 150 non-jailed workers were laid off from Lockhart Technologies, Inc., incarcerated individuals taking over the jobs. Laundry and recycling services have also been infiltrated by inmate work programs (Whyte & Baker, 2000).

American society still appears to support convict labor as an effective method for prisoner rehabilitation. Over the past two decades, 36 states have enacted legislation that supports convict labor, mainly through commercial enterprises. However, prisoners are minimally compensated for their wages. In 2000, about 80,000 inmates in the United States were employed in some type of commercial activity, making about 21 cents per hour (Whyte & Baker, 2000).

A looming question remains. Does hard labor help to rehabilitate prisoners? While some people in the past have claimed its value, such as the Georgia Governor who pardoned Robert Burns, times have changed. While hard labor can keep a prisoner busy, research on whether hard labor reduces recidivism rates is sparse. According to one study, the state of Florida’s hard labor program was not shown to decrease recidivism. Recidivism rates seem more connected to vocational and educational training. Research has shown that inmates who receive educational and vocational training have a 43% lower chance of recidivism. Prisoners who engaged in vocational training while in prison were also 28 % more likely to find post-prison employment, this factor linked to lower recidivism rates among prisoners (Rand Corporation, 2013).

Punishment for prisoners has remained a controversial topic. While historically, hard labor and chain gangs were used to punish inmates for their crimes, more humane methods such as prisoners working in private industries has prevailed. However, some dissension has erupted over privatizing inmate labor, some individuals feeling that this takes jobs away from non-jailed individuals. While prisoners performing hard labor does not appear to reduce recidivism rates, inmates who received educational and vocational training have a significantly lowered chance of recidivism.

  • A historical overview of inmate labor in Pennsylvania. (2014). Retrieved from Pennsylvania Correctional Industries:
  • Corporation, R. (2013, August 22). Education and vocational training in prisons reduces recidivism, improves job outlook. Retrieved from Rand Corporation:
  • Davis, D. (2010). I am a fugitive from a chain gang and the materiality of southern depravity. Mississippi Quarterly, 399-417.
  • Elrich, R. (n.d.). Prison Labor: Workin’ for the Man. Retrieved from People. umass. edu:
  • Haley, S. (2013). Women, gender, and prsion: national and global perspectives . Chicago Journals, 53-77.
  • Whyte, A., & Baker, J. (2000, May 8). Prison labor on the rise in US. Retrieved from World Socialist: