Much of the debate arguing that prisoners should be rehabilitated answers the question by claiming that rehabilitating people can benefit society by preventing future crimes. I agree with this claim and affirm it as true. However, I think the case for rehabilitation can be made stronger by showing that prisoners have a right to rehabilitation. If this claim succeeds, then opponents of rehabilitation must explain why it is legitimate to deny prisoners this right.
My argument is that people have a right to not find themselves in a worse position, economically, socially, or psychologically, after their prison sentence. It is common for people to be shunned after their release from prison. It can be hard to shake the label of ‘criminal’, despite having served their time. I think this attitude is mistaken. After a person has served their time and been released, they should have the opportunity to reintegrate with society and live purposeful lives.
One key advocate of this position is Egardo Rotman. Rotman has argued that just as the state has a right to punish individuals for wrongdoing, the individual has a right not to be made worse off by the effects of the punishment (Rotman, 1990, 184). However, the reality is that people are frequently made worse off by their punishments. One way, amongst others, this happens is how for many, having a criminal conviction is a barrier to leading a law-abiding life on release. In 2016, only one in four prisoners (27%) had a job to go to after release. One in five employers (19%) said they exclude or they were likely to exclude prisoners from the recruitment process (Prison Reform Trust, 2017, 16). The result of this is that even after serving their punishment in prison, people are still being debilitated.
From the above point, it seems imprisoning people is making people worse off after their punishment should have ended. We must ask ourselves, is it fair if an offender who has served their time is not able to move on with their life? From this, I think there is a moral requirement for the state to counteract the disabling effects of punishment and to provide rehabilitation, as a right, to offenders. Essentially, as the state is harming people by imprisoning them, it has a responsibility to counteract the harmful results that the punishment brings.
One worthwhile model of rehabilitation is ‘humanistic rehabilitation’. This model affirms the principle of prisoners as possessors of rights. The importance of this principle is that this legal status gives prisoners a sense of self-worth and trust in the legal system. An issue with our current system is that prisoners often feel alienated from society and hold resentment towards the outside world. Rotman argues embracing this model of rights-based rehabilitation favours the prospect of “self-command and responsible action within society” (Rotman, 1986, 1026). Following Rotman’s view, I believe this type of rehabilitation can be achieved through providing relevant psychological care, education, vocational training, and purposeful work. By purposeful work, I mean work that requires some skills that will be a stepping stone to allow prisoners to pursue full-time employment in a similar field upon release. Not menial work that only succeeds in making the prospect of full-time employment unappealing, like untangling headphones or packing plastic spoons (The Guardian, 2009).
Here, I will note that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms all people have the right to work and education. Additionally, prisoners in the UK are entitled to the same healthcare individuals in the community receive, including mental health care. As this form of rehabilitation largely takes the form of education, work, and appropriate psychological treatment, the opponent of rehabilitating prisoners must explain why these rights should be removed from people in prison. I think there is no sound basis for removing these rights from prisoners. It is clear some rights can justifiably be removed from people. For example, the right to liberty can be removed for the justifiable reason of protecting the public from an individual and to protect the individual from vigilante reprisals. However, there is no justification for removing the rights to work and education that individuals enjoy before they are imprisoned. It would have no good end. Therefore, it can be shown that prisoners have the right to be rehabilitated.
Of course, the costs of the resources to achieve meaningful rehabilitation will be expensive. This approach will receive opposition from a public and political opinion that is generally punitive and other services across the country are strained. However, I would argue that this view is short-sighted. Whilst rehabilitating offenders is expensive in the short-term, if it is effective and crime goes down and communities get safer, then the cost has justifiable ends.
Ultimately, my argument is that prisoners have a right that entails that useful services should be provided, where appropriate and practically possible, to counteract the debilitating effects of prison. It is a case of justice that if prison makes people worse off, then the state is required to provide rehabilitation to counteract this. Prisoners are not sentenced to idleness, it is not necessary nor desirable. Instead, people’s time inside should be spent meaningfully, to allow them to reintegrate with society upon release.
Allison, E. (2009). A fair day’s prison work? | Eric Allison. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/joepublic/2009/sep/09/prison-work-exploitation.
Prison Reform Trust (2017). Prison: The Facts. Bromley Briefings Summer 2017. [online] London: Bromley Trust, pp.4-16. Available at: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Bromley%20Briefings/Summer%202017%20factfile.pdf [Accessed 9 Dec. 2017].
Rotman, E. (1986). Do Criminal Offenders Have a Constitutional Right to Rehabilitation?. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), [online] 77(4), p.1023. Available at: https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.co.uk/&httpsredir=1&article=6540&context=jclc [Accessed 10 Dec. 2017].
Rotman, E. (1990). Beyond Punishment. 1st ed. New York: Greenwood Press, p.184.