How Prison Turns First Time Non Violent Offenders into Seasonal Non Violent Offenders

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According to a report by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), about two thirds (68%) of 405,000 prisoners released in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years, and three quarters (77%) were arrested within five years. This report collected data on a sample of former convicts from 30 states in the United States. The data was collected for five years subsequent their release in 2005.

Prisons are supposed to be punishment in the form of rehabilitation. Their purpose is to encourage redemption and help convicts become better members of society. The idea of incarceration is to direct offenders towards change in a positive direction. However, there has been a long standing debate on whether prison in effect directs a constructive change in offenders. More often than not, prison is believed to worsen the behaviours of offenders. Penologists believe that prisonization enhances antisocial tendencies, hence, increasing the likelihood of criminal activity in the future. This paper aims at examining the relationship between prisonization and recidivism.

The Psychological Impact of Prisons

The aim of prisons is to rehabilitate criminals from crime. Be that as it may, prisons do not necessarily help improve the lives of criminals. Infact, researchers have found prisons to produce negative, long lasting change. The psychological effects of imprisonment vary from individual to individual.

The word 'institutionalisation' portrays the procedure by which prisoners are molded and changed by the institutional situations in which they live. Once in a while called 'prisonization' when it transpires in remedial settings, it is the shorthand articulation for the negative mental impacts of imprisonment. The prison life demands psychological adaptations of extensive degrees. Prisoners are exposed to a new culture, extremely different from their own culture. Prison norms are expected to be incorporated into one's way of thinking, emotions and responses.

New inmates often find it stressful and difficult to be forced into a rigid institutional routine, being deprived of privacy, being reduced to a stigmatized label and being limited to barely any material conditions. Prisoners need to make adaptations to these unnatural and abnormal conditions. The severity of these adaptations depends on the length of prison sentence. In some extreme cases such as solitary confinement, prison can be seen as a form of torture as no postitive effects of the punishment have been proved. These practices have caused many adverse psychological effects on prisoners such as delusions, dissatisfaction with life, claustrophobia and depression.

Furthermore, these psychological adaptations due to institutionalisation can be seen to influence future criminal behaviours and violent tendencies towards others and self. Prisons require inmates to relinquish their freedom and autonomy of making choices and decisions. Hence, some prisoners may adjust to muting of self-initiative and independence and become increasingly dependent on an institution to make decisions for them. Inmates tend to be so dependent on external constraints that they tend to lose the capacity of self imposed limits to their actions and control their behaviour. Hence, if and when this external authority is taken away, gravely institutionalised individuals find themselves unable to know how to refrain from being ultimately harmful things. Further, other psychological adaptations include interpersonal distrust and suspicion, psychological distancing, social withdrawal and isolation, and incorporation of exploitative prison norms and culture into life outside prison. These tend to be an extensive problem as former convicts are unable to maintain relationships and live in a society. These psychological adaptations give rise to tendencies of perpetrating intimate partner violence, child abuse and neglect, self harm, structural violence and many other such forms of violence towards others and self.

Additionally, violence amongst prisoners or against correctional staff can cause considerable physical and psychological harm and violent indiscipline has been associated with inflating chances of reoffending after release. Prisoners get used to living in a cycle of violent behaviour which affects their ways of thinking and responses. They develop the habit of responding with aggression and violence. Hence, upon their release, they find it difficult to readjust their violent prison mindset.

Recidivism and Factors Contributing to Recidivism

Recidivism, or return to prison ensuing a relapse in criminal activity, is the result of a multitude of social and environmental factors. There are a number of studies which examine the contributing factors to recidivism amongst released convicts. High rates of recidivism are usually due to employment status, gender, and age. Most former convicts seeking employment are rejected due to lack of vocational training, low levels of literacy, lack of social skills, criminal history and other such factors. In order to make it more plausible for former convicts to be able to overcome unemployment hurdles, prisons have started vocational training and educational classes for convicts. However, former convicts still find it extremely difficult to get employed. Hence, relapsing to criminal behaviour. A 2004 study by Solomon AL shows that 89% of former convicts who violate the terms of their probation are found to be unemployed at the time of the violation.

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Further, with regard to gender, research finds that men are more likely to get arrested again due to engagement with criminal peers, possessing weapons, and aggressive behaviour. The other factor contributing towards recidivism is age. A study conducted in the United States by Sampson RJ found that recidivism rates decrease consistently as age increases. Youths are seen as more likely reoffend compared to older convicts due to excessive future opportunities restricted.

Furthermore, the support of family is another contributing factor towards recidivism rates. Sometimes, the lack of support and helplessness upon release can motivate former convicts to want to return to prison. This is because they feel like prison is the only place they belong. Hence, lack of support, communication and care from families are associated with higher recidivism chances.

Additionally, drug abuse is an important contributing factors towards recidivism. Drug addicts and alcoholics are commit crimes motivated by their desire to sustain their habits. Several convicts develop drug problems during their time at prisons. On the other hand, some serve time because of drug related crimes such as consuming and selling drugs. Usually, they only serve short-term sentences. Hence, they only have a short term access to treatment and other related facilities in detention institutions and are at a higher risk of reoffending.

Goche Tegeng and Hayelom Abadi conducted a study exploring the factors contributing to recidivism in the case of South Wollo and North Wollo correctional centres in Ethiopia. They used a cross sectional study to the population at a particular point in time. They used mixed methods (qualitative and quantitative) to complement data found from each method. For the quantitative study, they selected 107 recidivists based on comprehensive sampling techniques. For the qualitative study, they conducted 11 in depth interviews with recidivists selected using purposive sampling. The researchers used three data collection methods - Survey, in depth interviews and key informant interviews.

The results showed 100 out of 104 were males (96.2%) and 4 out of 104 (3.8%) were females. The respondents ages ranged from 16 years to 64 years. The mean age was 24.27 years. In terms of education, 27 (26%) of the respondents were unable to read or write. In terms of family, 76 (74.5%) of the respondents were married. Further, 49 (47.1%) of the respondents had an income below 500 birr and 34 (32.7%) had a monthly income between 500 birr and 1000 birr. Furthermore, 71% of the respondents said the highest rate of reoffending was twice. The former convicts engaged in repeated crimes of thefts (58.7%) compared to more violent crimes such as homicide (2.9%). The study also found that unemployment and economic factors are the cause of recidivism. Also, 58 (56.3%) of the respondents also believed the same.

The respondents claimed it was hard to find employment due to their criminal backgrounds and hence, were forced to relapse into criminal behaviour such as theft. Despite, having attended vocational training programs and taken educational classes during their time in prison, they still were unable to find jobs. Moreover, the study found that a huge number of recidivists were living with family problems. Results showed that 57 (55.3%) of the respondents admitted to having grown up without love and affection from their families. Additionally, 33 (31.7%) of the respondents faced psychological problems ranging from depression and anxiety to psychotic tendencies before imprisonment. Hence, the offenders may not have responded to punishment in the form of imprisonment. Their criminal behaviour tendencies may not decrease until their psychological problems have been cured. Lastly, 31 (77.5%) of the recidivists admitted to having committed a crime to satisfy their drug addiction.

Therefore, the study proves that all the above mentioned factors contribute towards the likelihood of repeated criminal behaviour. A book called “Life after Murder” by Nancy Mullane also studied recidivism rates. Mullane studied and observed 988 convicted murderers after their release from prison in California over 20 years. She found that out of 988 murderers, only 1% were arrested for new crimes. Further, 10% were arrested for violating their parole. However, none were sent back to jail. Additionally, she also found that there was a higher recidivism rate amongst non violent convicts. The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics also found the same higher recidivism rate amongst non-violent convicts. However, they also found that 10% of convicted murderers were arrested within 6 months of their release in 2005 from prison in the 30 states they studied.

Overall, there are a number of plausible factors that contribute towards recidivism and prisonization is only part of the problem.


Imprisonment is an expensive penalty aimed at its presumed ability to reduce post-release reoffending by convicts. However, as seen by the empirical evidence above, it is clear that prisonization and recidivism have a positively correlated relationship for first time non violent offenders. The high rates of recidivism amongst the population of first time non violent offenders stems from their short term prison sentences. A short sentence does not permit enough time towards the necessary behavioural changes required for these convicts. However, they still undergo psychological adaptations in order to survive in a prison environment.

These psychological adaptations can be extremely damaging to their sense of self and independence. Additionally, they may suffer from interpersonal distrust, social withdrawal, and psychological distancing. They may also try to enforce prison norms into their daily routine. These factors may contribute towards their lack of job opportunities. Moreover, the evidence shows the fundamental reason for repetitive criminal behaviour is a result of unemployment and economic factors. First time non violent offenders are forced to commit additional non violent crimes due to lack of job opportunities, lack of finance, lack of familial support and drug addictions. In terms of violent offenders, they usually serve long-term prison sentences. Hence, they have more time to benefit from treatments and other such initiatives in the prisons.

Nevertheless, this can also have a larger negative psychological impact on the inmates and may make their criminal behaviours worse. Moreover, most prisons are not able to successfully intervene in the criminality of the offender populations it serves. Recidivism rates are an important outcome variable that measure the effectiveness of these criminal justice agencies.

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