A House Divided, with Screws and Croakers

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

By C J Oakes

The title for this paper was chosen for the purpose of highlighting two important factors in understanding the objectives of punishments in the United StatesCorrectional system. One saying goes that ‘a house divided cannot stand’ and another states that ‘an ounce of cure is worth a pound of prevention.’  In applying these old bits of wisdom to the modern corrections, it becomes clear that the current prison system is seriously flawed.

NOTE: It deserves mentioning that punishment and sentencing goals are the same thing; the courts refer to sentencing goals while corrections departments refer to punishments.

Why Punish Crime?

English: Aerial view of Eastern Oregon Correct...
English: Aerial view of Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, Oregon. Français : Vue aérienne du Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, prison à Pendleton, Oregon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prior to the development of the modern prison system, societies worldwide practiced punishment for criminal behavior; punishing deviance is a practice as old as man.  The Code of Hammurabi of ancient Babylon listed numerous offences that were punishable in one way or another and the Bible records punishing the man Cain with banishment after he killed his brother (Genesis 4).  Punishment for crime has been accepted throughout history but only with the advent of the penitentiary did humans begin attempts at adding purpose to punishments (Foster, 2006).

Humans still punish, but the modern criminal justice system attempts to seek the most suitable method of punishment for the crime and the criminal.  There are five primary goals to punishments:

  1. Retribution
  2. Deterrence
  3. Incapacitation
  4. Rehabilitation
  5. Restoration

Over the last several decades of American history, the criminal justice system has undergone several transformations with some favoring social reforms while others favor stronger punitive actions.  It is a debate that is sure to continue for many years, for it is driven primarily by opposing political ideologies.  Hence, the criminal justice system in the United States, being as it is affected according to the ever-changing winds of politics, is a house divided (Foster, 2006).

However, the division runs deeper than national politics.  Many articles have been written describing prison culture; the language developed by convicts attests to the truth of this claim.

Ask the average person on the street what a

English: The number of adults in the U.S. corr...
English: The number of adults in the U.S. correctional population. Parole is the red line. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • screw
  • a croaker
  • a fish, or
  • a kid is…

and he or she will likely answer that these are

  • hardware,
  • a kind of fish,
  • something that swims, and
  • a goat.

If someone identifies the terms with

  • a prison guard,
  • a doctor,
  • a new inmate, and
  • a young, male prostitute

…it would be very clear that this person has served time in prison (Foster, 2006). A common language is one identifier of culture.  So, the prison system has clearly developed a culture apart from that known by the average American.  This is important to note because if a punishment has a goal beyond simple revenge or protection of the public, then to achieve that goal one must consider how competing cultural forces play a role.

For instance, in the case of rehabilitation, a person can only be ‘rehabilitated’ if they can be persuaded to believe that rehabilitation is both necessary and beneficial.  However, if the goal of incarceration is retribution or incapacitation, no such persuasion is necessary.  Finally, if the goal is deterrence, persuasion may carry the opposite effect.

The Role of Values in Punishments

In his book, A Question of Values, sociologist Hunter Lewis describes how people develop their values.  No consideration of the punishment objectives of rehabilitation or deterrence could be complete without first considering the impact of human values.  The reason for this is simple: Values develop over time and in different ways.  Whereas the values of an individual may be strong, the values of a group tend to be stronger.  Lewis explains this by describing the various blood ties that are responsible for creating what he terms “emotional values systems” (2003, p. 72).  These values systems are what would have been termed tribal values in the past but are nothing more than the values collectively shared by a group such as a family, work-group, or nation.  In the case of the modern prison system, the very different effects of emotional values systems can be readily seen by the interactions between convicts and guards.

English: Sullivan Correctional Facility annex
English: Sullivan Correctional Facility annex (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Foster relates how convicts have adopted an informal code that includes the avoidance of interaction with guards (2003).  This fits, for the emotional values system imposes certain conditions as informal rules for membership.  In the emotional values system, members must have an external enemy and contentions with this enemy provides stimulus to the group for growth and continued existence (Lewis, 2003).

If we apply this connection to the prison system and factor in the goals of sentencing, a very clear picture develops that shows how impossible the goals of rehabilitation and deterrence are for most inmates.  Any attempts to rehabilitate a person who considers himself a member of a group at odds with the prison system are sure to fail; in making such attempts a sort of battle occurs–us versus them.

At the core, any attempts to rehabilitate must take into consideration the social values constructs in a person’s life. Even with such knowledge, a member of the group will likely resist efforts to change their behavior unless enough compelling evidence is presented to completely alter his values.

In recent years, sentencing guidelines have focused on the hard-line approach to crime and punishment.

This is in large part due to the utter failure of the system to effectively rehabilitate criminals.  Evidenced is the so-called ‘three-strikes’ laws and truth-in-sentencing.  Starting in the mid-1980’s, the commission of crimes took startling turn.  Deterrence failing, many, especially members of gangs and juveniles, seemed to commit crimes as if earning a badge of honor.  Not surprisingly, this is the same era of the rise of prison culture into the mainstream by way of music videos and movies.  The teardrop tattoo, symbolic of either the death of someone close or that the wearer had killed another human, began to appear with greater frequency.  This simple detail demonstrates how the element of shame has been removed from many convicted people and has been replaced by honor.  In such a climate, deterrence efforts transform into encouragement to commit more crimes.

Menard Correctional Center in 2006
Menard Correctional Center in 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hence, without developing an alternate strategy for modifying behavior on a large-scale, the modern prison system is left with only the goals of retribution and incapacitation.  This appears to be the direction the nation is going (Foster, 2006).  However, this is not without drawbacks.

In the case of retribution, the emotional values system of groups affected become strengthened.  In other words, as more retribution occurs, the stronger and larger the group becomes.  This being the case, the current course is sure to create even more criminals.

Continuing this line of reasoning, the only remaining valid goal of sentencing is incapacitation.  However, with budgets already straining, further long-term incarceration is becoming a burden few are willing to bear.  Many states are already beginning to alter the way they look at criminal behavior and seek alternate forms of punishment as a result of fiscal cutbacks and restraints.

In separate studies in 2002 by LuWanna Brown and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections a glimmer of hope appeared.  A possible link between the funding of programs aimed at improving the lives of children and a reduction in later criminal behavior was found.  In the states that spend monies on youth development, incarceration rates are considerably lower than in the states that do not.

Perhaps an ounce of cure is better after all.

Although the solution to the problem of how to best punish criminal behavior is elusive and difficult, it is a problem that must be tackled and soon.  With some states and the federal government increasing sentencing (favoring incapacitation) and others increasing social programs (seeking solutions to the core problems of criminal behavior) the United States’ correctional industry has become a house divided.  Whether it will fall or unite remains to be seen.


  • Foster, B. (2006). Corrections: The Fundamentals. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentis-Hall.
  • Lewis, H. (2003). A Question of Values: Six Ways We Make the Personal Choices That Shape Our Lives (3rd ed.). Mount Jackson, VA: Axios Press.

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