What Is Prison Reform?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

Prison reform is an umbrella term that is used to describe many kinds of projects and programs that work to improve the conditions within prisons and, by extension, create a penal system that is more effective for society as a whole. In many cases, it has been found that a person's experiences inside of prison and the social and economic effects of being incarcerated create situations that lead to recidivism. This is opposite to the effect that prisons are supposed to have, which is to offer a sort of rehabilitation that will lead prisoners to not repeat their crimes or commit other kinds of crimes after their period of incarceration has ended.

A prison.
A prison.

The history of prison reform is quite long and varies greatly from country to country. As many people know, the prison conditions in one country are not necessarily anything like prison conditions in another. Each country develops its penal system based on the country's legal system, which is also affected by social and cultural factors. Some countries have very little reform and still maintain a penal system that has been in place for generations, while other countries have made many changes to their prisons in recent decades.

San Quentin State Prison in California.
San Quentin State Prison in California.

Many types of prison reform are aimed at prisoners who can expect to one day be released from prison. There are also kinds of prison reform programs that are directed at inmates who are serving life sentences, inmates who are facing the death penalty, and inmates who are likely to die before they complete their prison sentence. Although these prisoners are not likely to ever become a part of free society again, there are still prison reform programs that are directed at making sure that these people are treated in a humane manner and that their basic rights are upheld.

It is quite common for a prison reform project to target one population of inmates or inmates serving similar kinds of sentences. For example, there have been works to improve the living conditions of pregnant inmates and to make sure that these women are given proper medical care. There are also programs that work to offer alternatives to serving time in prison. These programs are often directed at nonviolent offenders and may include time spent in a rehabilitation facility or halfway house during which program participants are given various kinds of training, therapy, and assistance.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Discussion Comments


@livereal - There are problems in all countries in terms of penal systems and prisons, but I think it is widely accepted that some countries are far more advanced than others. It is complicated by the variability of resources and accessibility throughout the world. For instance, many poorer countries and those with very limited resources can’t hold as many prisoners. In terms of the prison buildings themselves, there are usually not as many and the ones that do exist can be very deteriorated. For this reason, these types of countries often use forms of punishment and incarceration that more developed countries would consider archaic.

Of course, this also lends itself to the belief that more developed countries are at least better in terms of prison systems than less developed ones. This is problematic, as there is still much progress and development necessary. As the article states, many countries are not operating in a way that promotes rehabilitation. Prison reform could seriously help societies beyond the prisoners themselves, as it would probably decrease crime and offer real solutions to problems of crime and criminality.


I am most interested in the idea that the article presents about convention and tradition. When it says that some countries maintain penal systems that have been in place for centuries while others are continuously making large changes in their systems, I am wondering which countries specifically fit these two separate categories. The idea of progress is very fluid, especially in terms of prison reform. For instance, while some countries would be considered far more progressive than others, to what extent do even the more progressive countries need to reform their procedures?

Another topic that I think needs to be explored is the extent to which prison inmates are involved in the process of prison reform. In the same vein, to what extent are their opinions on the topic considered valid or necessary?

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