For many people, punishment for misbehavior or an infraction of the rules is one of their first long-term memories. So there is a popular belief that the principle of punishment can be transferred to the wider social arena with regard to prisons. In truth, this rationale is also associated with a desire for retribution, which is different than punishment, and opinions are polarized regarding the idea of rehabilitation -- seen by some as "soft on crime."
Punishment: Severity and Context
The idea of punishment is closely associated with the idea of rehabilitation when we employ it with children, for example. We believe that providing negative consequences for off-limits behaviors will lead to avoidance of those behaviors, and the goal is not to exact revenge but to better enable children to function in society. Psychological research published by W.J. and Henry S. Einstadter, in "Criminological Theories: An Analysis of its Underlying Assumption," showed that mild punishment, used consistently and immediately, in conjunction with positive reinforcement for desirable behavior, is effective at changing behavior. The same research indicates that harsh punishment actually leads to evasion, alienation and redirected aggression.
Words and Realities
Most prisons state that their primary purpose is rehabilitation. The word "penitentiary" has, as its root, "penitence," suggesting that the incarcerated is being given a chance at redemption. The reality does not always square with this stated mission, however. Many prisons are overcrowded, poorly supervised bureaucracies, where inmates are in danger and suffer abuse at the hands of guards and other prisoners. Popular support for harsh prison conditions is associated with the desire for retributive punishment rather than corrective punishment. The assumption that punishment is retributive sets up the idea of punishment versus rehabilitation, whereas corrective punishment can lead to rehabilitation that provides education, deals with substance abuse and encourages spirituality.
Making the Example
One of the arguments for punishing with an eye to inflicting suffering is not centered on the person being punished -- who is counted as being outside the human community when a crime is committed. Rather, this is an example of retributive justice as a warning and a deterrent to others who have not yet committed infractions. This argument is not supported by follow-up research by Anthony Schembri of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice on the "Scared Straight" program, where young people are exposed to prisons and prisoners with the assumption that the program will deter crime. His study demonstrated that exposure to prison and prisoners corresponds to a higher rate of criminal offense.
Worsening the Problem
A counter-assumption to the idea that harsh punishment will lead to worse behavior is that retributive punishment -- as opposed to rehabilitative punishment -- actually leads to greater and greater degrees of criminality, and that prisons are colleges for crime. This argument suggests that, in the long term, society will bear a greater cost for retributive punishment because, when convicted criminals are released – as many will be – they will return to a life of crime, often escalating the severity of their offenses.