Purpose of Prison

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Understanding the purpose of prison involves recognizing its responsibilities to society and the reason for justifying the need to have a place of punishment.

People naturally feel that causing pain is somehow wrong. However, does this factor in when it comes to prison and punishment? 

How is it justified to punish someone through imprisonment when punishment is the infliction of pain on people who have done wrong?

This article discusses prisons, their types, and how they are managed. Also, this article explores the different reasons that justify having correctional facilities to understand the purpose of prisons.

If you need a facility locator to get contact information for prison facilities near you, visit LookUpInmate.org. You’ll have access to an extensive database of more than 7,000 correction facilities in the United States.

What Is Prison?

The Office of Justice Programs defines prisons as state or federal housing facilities for people convicted of crimes and serving sentences longer than a year. 

The state uses prisons as a form of punishment and a source of deterrence to prevent people from committing crimes. Simply put, a prison is a place to lock up criminals who threaten public safety. 

In the United States, prisons are part of the criminal justice system. The Federal Bureau of Prisons manages the federal prisons in the country, while the Department of Corrections of every state manages its state prisons. 


  • The entire U.S. prison population is almost two million as of 2023.
  • As of 2023, there are currently 98 federal prisons, 1,566 state prisons, 3,116 local jails, 1,323 juvenile correctional facilities, 181 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian country jails.
  • Over 200,000 prisoners are serving life sentences in American prisons as of 2023.
  • Two-thirds of the total prison population is not yet convicted and awaiting trial or sentencing.

Types of Prisons

Correctional institutions in the United States can be divided into jails and prisons. Prisons can be further subdivided into federal and state prisons. 

Prisoners are sent to their respective facilities through a segregation process based on prison sentences, evaluations, and jurisdictions. 

Offenders of federal law are sent to federal prisons, while state law violators convicted of felonies and other serious crimes are housed in state prisons. 

On the other hand, jails detain people after an arrest, house inmates with misdemeanor terms, or hold defendants in custody for pretrial or sentencing hearings


An ever-present aspect of prison systems is the emphasis on supervision. 

The National Institute of Corrections (NIC) introduces Strategic Inmate Management (SIM) to prisons to assist prison staff in maintaining the safety and security of their facilities. 

SIM integrates direct supervision technology with inmate behavior management philosophy to improve the effectiveness of prisons and jails in housing convicted individuals. 

Surveillance is part of the prison environment, and inmates must get accustomed to prison life

However, excessive surveillance can result in institutionalizing inmates. Institutionalization can cause long-lasting effects like chronic distrust, difficulty maintaining relationships, decision-making problems, and difficulty socializing. 

Institutionalization happens to inmates who have served long sentences in prison with a highly regularized and rules-oriented way of life. Institutionalized individuals tend to become less independent and unable to think for themselves. 

Order and Discipline

Prison administrators maintain appropriate discipline and order to ensure the safe custody of all inmates

The responsibility of maintaining order in the facility falls on the shoulders of prison administrators. They have to ensure that prison riots and fights are reduced or avoided. 

There are different ways to enforce discipline and order inside prisons:

  • Conduct personal and cell searches to prevent contraband entry.
  • Remove items that can be potential weapons. 
  • Use solitary confinement for violent criminals. 


Managing the thousands of correctional facilities in the United States is accomplished by several departments. 

Here are the agencies that work together to ensure prisons are functional institutions protecting the public’s safety and the rights of the incarcerated. 

  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons is responsible for managing the federal prisons in the United States.
  • The National Institute of Corrections aims to help federal, state, and local correctional facilities improve the country’s corrections practice.
  • States Department of Corrections of every state oversees the management of the state’s prison system.  

Development of the Prison System

Early colonial prisons were harsh, dark, dank places where incarcerated individuals were isolated inside inhumane, secluded cells. 

Prison authorities didn’t understand prisoners’ human rights back then. People then were more into the idea of “redemptive suffering,” believing that severe punishment could make prisoners worthy of forgiveness. 

The Three Prisons Act (1891) was the first step toward improving U.S. prisons. 

The Act gave Congress the authority to build the first three prisons in the country and create the federal prison system. These three prisons were United States Penitentiary (USP) Leavenworth, USP Atlanta, and USP McNeil Island (closed in 2011). 

Moving forward to the 1930s, Congress established the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which played a central role in shaping the U.S. corrections system as we know it today.

The Emergence of the Penitentiary

The English jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham advocated the concept of prisons being “penitentiaries,” or places of punishment and reform. 

Meanwhile, English prison reformer John Howard wrote books exposing the appalling state of prisons in England and Wales. 

Bentham and Howard’s works caused public outrage in England, eventually leading to reforms and the creation of a national system of inspection. 

The United States caught up with the idea of penitentiaries by the late 19th century. The country slowly developed the concept of prisoner reform and the correctional facility. The reforms resulted in the creation of the first penitentiaries in Pennsylvania and New York

The creation of modern penitentiaries is the product of years of trial and error. Over time, modern prisons began incorporating educational programs, rehabilitation programs, and work projects. Today’s prisons aim to use better prisoners’ time while they’re locked up behind bars. 

What Justifies Punishment?

Punishment refers to the act of causing pain to a person who violated a law by someone with the authority to do so. Punishment comes in varying forms, like fines, sanctions, and the deprivation of freedom, by imprisoning convicted individuals.

Positive results often validate the justness of an action. In the case of punishment through imprisonment, its validation can be seen through perspectives of retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation. 

1. Retribution: Punishment is justified because justice is served. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant stated that the justification for punishment is guilt for the crime.

When a wrongful act is done to someone, it’s justice to punish the doer of the crime. However, Kant further stated that punishment should be proportional to the crime committed.

Still, critics argue that retribution alone isn’t enough to justify punishment because of the following questions:

  • Is it possible to create a satisfactory punishment scale for all crimes? Is it challenging to rank and order crimes?
  • Can punishment alone address the underlying reasons that led to the rise of criminality?

There are many answers to these questions, but the actual data on whether retribution is effective is still highly debated.

2. Deterrence: Punishment is justified because the pain of punishment may help deter a would-be criminal to continue doing criminal acts. Some believe that the justification of deterrence lies in its possible crime-preventing benefits in the future.

However, many criticize the deterrence theory because its supposed effectiveness doesn’t yet have conclusive proof. Also, some argue that there’s a chance that punishments may not be proportional to the crime committed. 

3. Incapacitation: Another purpose of punishment is to stop a criminal from continuing to harm other people. 

Punishment like imprisonment incapacitates the criminal through imprisonment and, in severe cases, capital punishment or the death penalty, in which the criminal is removed from society through death. 

4. Rehabilitation: The idea of rehabilitation as a justifier of punishments came later than the previous justifications. 

In the lens of rehabilitation, incarceration doesn’t only punish criminals. Prisons can be used as a controlled environment to encourage personal reform in criminals. 

In addition, a prison system emphasizing reform will likely end up with the unending application of interventions. 

The Purpose of Imprisonment

Imprisonment has a crucial role in the criminal justice system of every country, not only in the United States. Prisons are often used to uphold the rule of law by designating a place where criminals are deprived of freedom.

As tackled in the previous sections of this article, a prison’s purpose is to provide deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution, and incapacitation through deprivation of freedom and confining them in a controlled environment where reform can begin.

What Justifies Imprisonment?

The primary justification for imprisoning criminals is to help law enforcement maintain public safety. 

The first step to protecting the public is to detain or arrest a criminal and prevent them from harming others. 

Next is to bring the offenders to a fair trial and, once incarcerated, provide programs that will reduce the risk of recidivism rates or reoffending chances. 

Advocates of prison reform believe that reducing recidivism is possible if the inmates have access to education, vocational training, and work programs. 

Through these programs, prison facilities aim to both protect society from crime and to protect detainees from succumbing to a life of crime. 

Should Prisons Be Privatized?

Privatizing prisons results from the government’s inability to cope quickly with issues of overcrowding and lack of health services and treatment programs in prison facilities. 

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of prison privatization in the United States:


  • Private prisons can help reduce prison overcrowding by building prisons funded by private corporations. 
  • Private companies have the means to help the government in providing prison-related services.
  • Private prisons offer innovative programs in health care, mental health, and rehabilitation for different addictions through effective health services.


  • Private corporations can exploit prisoners for corporate gain and profit.
  • Private prisons are expensive, and there is a growing fear that privatized facilities may deny taking in high-maintenance prisoners to avoid increased costs. An example of high-maintenance prisoners is convicts on death row. 

The Significance of Prison Reform

Prison reform is crucial because any improvements in the prison system will affect the lives of almost two million people incarcerated in America’s prisons and jails. 

Through state legislators, prison reform can take shape and address issues that plague correctional facilities in the country. 

The focus of prisons is not only to punish but to provide convicted felons a chance for reform so that they become better versions of themselves. 

The essence of prison terms is for criminals to feel the consequences of their crimes and hopefully cause remorse and repentance. 

A Brief History of Prison Reform

Prison reform stems from people with the courage to point out prison issues and demand change. 

Since the reforms ushered by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham and social reformer John Howard during the 18th century, prisons gradually became places of rehabilitation and not only punishment. 

The roster of prison reform activists didn’t end with Bentham and Howard. From the 18th century until today, courageous people from all walks of life continue to point out issues with incarceration. 

The English reformer Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) pointed out women’s problems in prison. She petitioned for reforms after raising awareness about the issues faced by women inmates. She was such a driving force in prison reform that she was nicknamed “the angel of prisons.”

The English novelist Charles Dickens also advocated changes in the horrendous living environment of inmates in solitary confinement. He woefully described men in this form of imprisonment as people buried alive and cut off from the world.

In the United States, the concept of humanitarian reform also changed the prison systems in the country. Rehabilitative programs are slowly transformed into voluntary programs, not coercive ones. 

Advocacies like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spearhead the promotion of prison reforms in U.S. prisons and offer services to prisoners needing assistance. 

America’s prisons are full of people who have lost their way, and it’s up to society to guide them back to the right path. Through positive prison reform, these individuals will have renewed hope for a brighter future.

To learn more about the different prison facilities in the country, visit LookUpInmate.org. This website provides access to over 7,000 U.S. correctional facilities, including federal and state prisons, local and county jails, military prisons, and immigrant detention facilities.


1. Components of the US Criminal Justice System
2. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023
3. No End In Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Sentences
4. Organization, Mission, and Functions Manual: Federal Bureau of Prisons
5. Massachusetts Department of Correction
6. Before looking ahead, you must look behind
7. Prison
8. Topic two – Justifying punishment in the community

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