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The Prison System - Alternatives to Incarceration


Part 3 of the 'Prison System' sector of the Criminal Justice Assessment Toolkit, produced by the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime in close co-operaiton with the Strategic Police Matters Unit of the OSCE Secretariat.


Prison populations around the world are increasing, placing enormous financial burdens on governments. In the meantime, there is growing recognition that imprisonment does not achieve some of its most important stated objectives, as well as being harmful – to offenders, to their families and in the long-term, to the community.

Imprisonment has several objectives. It keeps persons suspected of having committed a crime under secure control before their guilt or innocence is determined by a court. It punishes offenders by depriving them of their liberty after they have been convicted of an offence. It keeps them from committing further crimes while they are in prison and, in theory, allows them to be rehabilitated during their period of imprisonment. The goal of rehabilitation is to address the underlying factors that led to criminal behaviour and by so doing, reducing the likelihood of re-offending. However, it is precisely this objective that is generally not being met by imprisonment. On the contrary, evidence shows that prisons not only rarely rehabilitate, but they tend to further criminalise individuals, leading to re-offending and a cycle of release and imprisonment, which does nothing to reduce overcrowding in prisons or to build safer communities.

The majority of prisoners worldwide come from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Poverty, unemployment, lack of housing, broken families, histories of psychological problems and mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence are realities that are likely to be found in most offenders’ lives. Many are in prison for non-violent or minor offences. By using prison as an answer to all offences committed by such individuals, not only is the issue of safety in the community not addressed in any sustainable manner, the cycle of impoverishment, loss of jobs, weakening of employment chances, damage to relationships, worsening of psychological and mental illnesses and continued or increased drug use is perpetuated. There are also many health risks associated with overcrowded prisons, including the spread of infectious disease, such as tuberculosis and HIV. In many countries violence is a common element of prison life, especially where there is overcrowding.