What is the Effects of Imprisonment


Rethinking’s Position

Those who are imprisoned represent the most marginalised, culturally censored, socio-economically disadvantaged and ‘powerless’ of society. Their lives have been shaped by the impact of social exclusion. Among other things, they are likely to be members of an ethnic minority, have limited education and a history of instability, unemployment or underemployment, substandard diet and housing conditions and inferior medical access.


All the available evidence tells us one thing – that prisons are in and of themselves criminogenic – i.e. they cause crime. If we want to make a sudden impact on the crime rate, one of the most effective things we could do is to have a target to reduce the imprisonment rate by 25% (i.e. from 200 per 100,000 to 150 per 100,000) by 2018. Sounds extreme? Not really. The next highest imprisonment rate amongst those countries with which we traditionally compare ourselves, is the UK, with an imprisonment rate of 154 per 100,000. A reduction of 33%, would put us on the same level as Australia. -


Rethinking wants to encourage more dialogue about the experience of imprisonment. That includes the collateral consequences of incarceration, its effect on the children, families and communities of prisoners; the experience and effects of home detention; the influence prison has during the different stages of a prison sentence, issues around penal design; the experience of elderly prisoners and the needs of the greying prison population; the rate of violence, bullying and sexual abuse in New Zealand prisons; the health and emotional needs of prison staff; and the health outcomes for prisoners.

This webpage will be progressively developed to address those issues,

The Impact of Incarceration on Juvenile Offenders

The impact of incarceration on juvenile offenders, Clinical Psychology Review 33 (2013) 448–459
New Zealanders Ian Lambie and Isabel Randell, of the University of Auckland, identify the growing body of research since 2000, which points to the negative effects of incarcerating youth offenders, particularly in adult facilities.


Increasingly, research points to the negative effects of incarcerating youth offenders, particularly in adult facilities. Literature published since 2000 suggests that incarceration fails to meet the developmental and criminogenic needs of youth offenders and is limited in its ability to provide appropriate rehabilitation. Incarceration often results in negative behavioural and mental health consequences, including ongoing engagement in offending behaviors and contact with the justice system. Although incarceration of youth offenders is often viewed as a necessary means of public protection, research indicates that it is not an effective option in terms of either cost or outcome. The severe behavioural problems of juvenile offenders are a result of complex and interactive individual and environmental factors, which elicit and maintain offending behaviour. Therefore, the focus of effective treatment must be on addressing such criminogenic needs and the multiple “systems” in which the young person comes from. Recent research demonstrates
that in order to achieve the best outcomes for youth offenders and the general public, community-based, empirically supported intervention practices must be adopted as an alternative to incarceration wherever possible.


Read the Article

The Cost of our Convictions – The Drug Foundation

The Drug Foundation’s recent posting, questions the cost of convicting and imprisoning young people for drug related offences. Every year there are two and a half thousand convictions of people aged 25 and under for possession and/or use of an illicit drug or drug utensil in New Zealand.
The Drug Foundation argues that young New Zealanders are often the ones being caught up in the criminal justice system. This is a bad thing for many reasons. It severely narrows opportunities: it’s harder to get a job, harder to travel, harder to get credit and harder to do many things most of us take for granted. It also exposes them to a negative environment, and it puts them in prison – a university of crime where drug use is rampant and joining a gang is often necessary for protection. All of this at a time when their brains and identities are forming.

Read the article

Intelligent Justice – Balancing the Effects of Community Sentences and Imprisonment

Internationally recognised criminologists Mike Hough, Stephen Farrall and Fergus McNeill, have prepared this pamphlet for the Howard League of Penal Reform.

This publication examines the perennial arguments around the efficacy of community sentencing over short spells in custody. An even-handed analysis shows that the picture is not a simple one, and necessitates a value-based approach to penal policy. Any cost-benefit analysis must take into account the long term impact of dramatic increases in imprisonment, which bring with them increases in a number of social problems that themselves sow the seeds for future crime: be it family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction or poor physical and mental health.


The authors suggest there should be a new emphasis on not simply the prevention of reoffending through deterrence or incapacitation, but on constructing a penal system which seeks to encourage compliance with the law. People respond best when buying into behaviour such as abiding by the law, rather than being constantly compelled or cajoled into doing so, has powerful implications for future policymaking. An overweening focus on containing risk, essentially basing a system on a fear of failure, precludes redemptive narratives that promise more success in changing lives and reducing crime.
This pamphlet rehearses the arguments for and against the effectiveness of custody. Advocates of alternatives to custody argued that these are not only cheaper but more effective in terms of reducing reoffending. They variously argue that:

(a) The general deterrent effects of tough sentencing are unproven
(b) The right sort of community sentences achieve lower reconviction rates than imprisonment
(c) They do so at a much lower cost than imprisonment
(d) They are less damaging than custodial sentences for individuals and communities.


Those who favour tougher punishment have counter-argued that:

(a) differences in reconviction rates are small or non-existent
(b) but in any case the way that reductions in offending are measured – using reconviction rates – fails to take account of incapacitation effects
(c) prison is cost-effective when properly and fully costed.


The authors also discuss the issue of prison as ‘incapacitation’ i.e. the proposition that crime that can be prevented simply by keeping people who offend locked up in prison, out of circulation.

Download the pamphlet here

Invisible Children – the Impact of Imprisonment on the Children of Prisoners

In 2009, Pillars embarked on a three year study of the children of prisoners. Invisible Children is the first-year report of a three year research project entitled ‘A Study of the Children of Prisoners’, the most comprehensive study of this kind ever undertaken in New Zealand. The researchers surveyed a total of 137 prisoners who had agreed to take part on a voluntary and informed basis.


The concept of ‘invisible children’, the title of the first year report, is derived from the international literature but is seen as particularly apt at this point in the project. Invisibility relates to children in the arrest, sentencing, incarceration, visiting, and health, educational, social and economic effects of parental imprisonment. They are invisible in both policy and practice, and their needs are rarely a priority. In support of this view, the policies and practices of a range of government agencies are discussed.


Read the first year report

Read the second year report


Te Puni Kokiri – A Study of the Children of Maori prisoners


This study reports on the Māori data collected as part of a research project on the children of prisoners carried out in 2009 and 2010, for Pillars, a community organisation that works with the families of prisoners. It begins with the voices of four tamariki who each have a parent in prison. They tell us about their lives, good and bad.

The report outlines issues around the high rates of Māori imprisonment, and discusses the relatively small literature. Māori make up just over half of the prison population, but there has been very little research that attempts to explain this, nor offer solutions to it. In particular, the high level of Māori imprisonment might now be considered to have reached the level of ‘mass imprisonment’, which implies a self-sustaining cycle of increased incarceration, reaching across generations.


The findings of this study – the first of its kind in Aotearoa New Zealand - shows where many of the problems lie and what kind of interventions may be successful. Community engagement, more effective health and education interventions and a justice system that is mindful of the needs of the children, can together go a long way towards reducing intergenerational imprisonment


Download this Report

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