[Disclosure - I do a lot of work for clients whose research focuses on substance use and the justice system. I’m not an expert by any stretch but I have a weird level of access to primary information as a result, which I will obviously not be discussing in any detail]
Prison is a complicated concept. The justice system in the UK is simply wrong. It focuses on retribution rather than rehabilitation, and does nothing to address the root causes of a lot of crime. One of the key issues that I have identified from being party to research in this area is that people become trapped in cyclical offending, often tied to poverty, mental health, and substance addiction. These things cannot be fixed through retributive justice.
Also, and this is possibly controversial but borne out through evidence I have been witness to, for some people whose imprisonment is driven by the factors I just mentioned, prison is actually a welcoming environment. The world is complex, dangerous, cut-throat. The rules are not clear. Authority structures are not clear. The daily grind saps your spirit, having to provide for yourself in order to simply get up and do it all again tomorrow. In prison there is structure. There are authorities to be either respected or resisted, but they are clear. You are fed. You can sign up for activities (a diminishing number of activities, but activities nonetheless). I can see the appeal of this myself, as I struggle with imposing order on a chaotic world. It’s the same reason people join the army.
So people who do not have skills that are determined useful by society, who are enmeshed in poverty, who have limited capacity for survival in this shitty world, can see prison as almost a refuge. While inside they get little rehabilitative help in order to allow them to integrate with the outside world better, to not face the same challenges that led them to prison in the first place, and so when they are released it is no surprise that they reoffend. The world still doesn’t work for them, and they felt better inside.
My personal view is that prisons, properly managed under the right philosophy, could be a huge engine of social good - the people I’m talking about in the preceding paragraphs are mainly a threat to themselves. They need help and skills. If we didn’t have such a hard-on for retributive justice as a society, if prison didn’t carry the stigma of being the ultimate naughty step but was instead a refuge of last resort for helping people better understand how to function in a society that is not made to accommodate them, and to signpost them to further help on release, then that would be incredibly healthy. As it stands, we treat someone who commits a long-planned murder within the same framework as someone who steals vodka from a corner shop. This is barbaric.