Incarceration is the detention of a person in jail or prison. People are most commonly incarcerated upon suspicion or conviction of committing a crime. Incarceration rates, when measured by the United Nations, are considered distinct and separate from the imprisonment of political prisoners and others not charged with a specific crime. Historically, the frequency of imprisonment, its duration, and severity have varied considerably. There has also been much debate about the motives for incarceration, its effectiveness and fairness, as well as debate regarding the related questions about the nature and etiology of criminal behavior.
The above mentioned opinions often inform debates about the goal of incarceration: should the emphasis be on punishment or rehabilitation? Arguments have been made on both sides of the issues, and larger societal perspectives have shifted from one side to the other over the years.
Those who favor punishment often contend that the practice serves both as revenge for the wronged and for society, i.e., "payings ones debt to society" and as a deterrent against further crime. On the other hand, those who favor rehabilitation argue that by trying to change a criminal's behavior, recidivism rates can be reduced, and both the criminal and society can benefit from improvement.
Wilkenson (2004) notes that overall heterogeneity of a society may provide a meta-explanation for the variance in incarceration rates: There may be a multi-directional causality where close-knit societies are least likely to offend against one another. Knowing ones' neighbors may hence bridge econometric explanations across communities. Or put another way, except perhaps for crimes of passion, people do not offend against people they know well. Penology and justice studies emphasize description and analysis of antecedents of criminal behavior and outcomes of consequences imposed by criminal justice on the criminal behavior. An example of a modern quantitative study of factors influencing the criminal behavior is the study by Krus and Hoehl (1994).
In the study by Krus and Hoehl, variables that might explain differences in incarceration rates among populations were located by a computer-aided search of the compendium of world rankings, compiled by the Facts on File Corporation and the World Model Group, containing over 50,000 records on more than 200 countries.
They argued that predictor variables explained about 69% of variance in the international incarceration rates. Cited as especially important were unequal distribution of wealth (the explanation perhaps favored by liberals) and family disintegration (the explanation perhaps favored by conservatives). According to Krus and Hoehl, these variables act in concert: the presence of one variable does not always precipitate crime, but the presence of both variables often does precipitate crime.
The United States' incarceration rate is, according to official reports, the highest in the world, at 737 persons imprisoned per 100,000 (as of 2005). A report released in 2008 indicates that in the United States more than 1 in 100 adults is now confined in an American jail or prison. The United States has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's incarcerated population.
In 2006 the incarceration rate in England and Wales is 139 persons imprisoned per 100,000 residents, while in Norway it is 59 inmates per 100,000, whilst the Australian imprisonment rate is 163 prisoners per 100,000 residents, and the rate of imprisonment in New Zealand last year was 179 per 100,000.
In 2001 the incarceration rate in China was 111 per 100,000 in 2001 (sentenced prisoners only), although this figure is highly disputed. Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in forced-labor camps for criticizing the government, estimates that 16 to 20 million of his countrymen are incarcerated, including common criminals, political prisoners, and people in involuntary job placements. Even ten million prisoners would mean a rate of 793 per 100,000.
Ireland has the lowest prison population with 3417 prisoners incarcerated. Ireland has relatively low crime rates and those rates continue to fall. Ireland received 101 reports of homicide in 2003. Also reported were 4763 cases of assault and 2463 sexual offences.
Denmark also has a low incarceration rate with a total of 3774 inmates in the country. Denmark has 59 people in prison for every 100,000 citizens. 62 violent crimes such as rape, murder, robbery, and aggravated assault were reported. There were 322 Property Crimes reported.
India has the lowest incarceration rates with only 281,000 prisoners in their jails. This is just a fraction of their total population, 1,129,866,154. India reported 1,764,630 crimes in 2007. There were 236,313 assaults and 111,296 burglaries.
In many countries, it is common for prisoners to be paroled after serving as little as one third of their sentences. In the U.S., most states strictly limit parole, requiring that at least half of a sentence be served. For certain heinous crimes, there is no parole and the full sentence must be served.
Trends in criminal sentencing in the United States include a move toward determinate as opposed to indeterminate sentencing.
Severe punishments (such as beatings, prolonged sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, chaining) have been often inflicted on prisoners. There are many reasons given for justification of such punishment. In the 16th century, the Bishop of Trier, Binsfeld, in his Tractatus de Confessionibus Maleficorum (1596) claimed that
A movement to abolish cruel treatment of prisoners began during the Age of Enlightenment and continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. However, there have been continual arguments for severe punishments, perhaps increasing somewhat in the early years of the 21st century. Contemporary justifications for such punishment often revolve around the "rights of the victims". Often underlying these perspectives are opinions that stress the vindictive eye-for-the-eye notions of the Old Testament and Qur'an , over the notion that the primary goal of incarceration should be the reform and reeducation of prisoners to facilitate their re-integration into society.
Within the framework of penology, the trend toward increasing the severity of punishments is reflected in publications such as Block's (1997, p. 12) advocacy of policy initiatives aimed at increasing the unpleasantness of prison life that would likely be "a cost-effective method of fighting crime” and Arpaio and Sherman's 1996 book claiming that the increase in the severity of treatment of prisoners will result in decrease in recidivism. Arpaio and Sherman proposed to increase the severity of imprisonment by the construction of tent prison camps in the Mojave Desert where summer temperatures reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, by serving prisoners foul-tasting food, by humiliating prisoners by cross-dressing, and by reinstatement of the chain gangs. Mauer (1999, pp. 92-93) documents some other the measures used to implement the increasing the unpleasantness of prison life policies that include shooting around prisoners to keep them moving, forced consumption of milk of magnesia, placing naked inmates in strip cells, and handcuffing inmates for long periods of time.
As noted above, cruel treatment has long been a feature of incarceration. Taken to extremes, such treatment might be described as torture.
Torture has, for much of history, been seen as a tolerable or even necessary component of imprisonment, whether performed as punishment or as part of interrogation. Recent controversial cases described by critics as torture of incarcerated persons include the Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba scandal.
Please see the main torture page for further information.