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Definition: Imprisonment from The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

A type of incarceration reserved for those convicted of the most serious offenses (felonies). A person sentenced to serve more than one year of incarceration is sentenced to a term of imprisonment and will typically serve that term in a state or federal prison (as opposed to a local or county jail).

See also

Felon/Felony, Jail, Prison/Prisoner, Punishment (psychology, sociology)

Summary Article: Incarceration and Recidivism
from Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory

From 1930 to 1972, the United States experienced a relatively stable incarceration rate that hovered between 93 and 137 inmates per 100,000 individuals in the population (Blumstein & Beck, 1999). However, since the early 1970s, the United States has been in an era of mass incarceration, with currently more than 1.6 million Americans serving time in a state or federal prison (West & Sabol, 2009). If one adds to this the more than 785,000 individuals incarcerated in local jails, the number of people currently behind bars is a staggering 2.3 million people with the figure rising each successive year (Minton & Sabol, 2009). This sanction has become so pronounced that since 1972, there has been an unprecedented 600 percent increase in the number of individuals locked up, with more people currently incarcerated than working at both McDonald's and Wal-Mart combined worldwide (Nellis & King, 2009; Pager, 2007). Notably, this massive explosion in the inmate population has been a uniquely American phenomenon making the United States the largest incarcerator in the world with an imprisonment rate of 760 per 100,000 population (World Prison Brief, 2008).

In light of this expansion, various scholars have sought to explain this massive increase in the use of incarceration in the United States. However, even though one in every 99.1 adults is currently behind bars, much less research has been done on the impact that incarceration has on the post-release criminal behavior of individual offenders (Warren, 2008). Since such a massive number of people are incarcerated, it is imperative to understand how this sanction impacts an individual's future criminal behavior. This entry discusses this limited body of research in three sections. First, the three competing perspectives that have been utilized to explain the effect of imprisonment on future criminal behavior are presented. Of these perspectives, one, specific deterrence, argues imprisonment will lead to a reduction in an offender's criminal behavior, while the other two, the “schools of crime” and labeling perspectives, contend that imprisonment has an iatrogenic effect on offenders. Second, the extent to which released state and federal prisoners are rearrested, reconvicted, and/or re-imprisoned after release is discussed. This research shows that recidivism is quite high among releasees reaching rates well above 60 percent. Third, the findings from the existing empirical research analyzing the association between imprisonment and recidivism are also presented. This empirical research can be classified into three distinct categories. First, many studies have compared similar individuals sentenced to custodial sanctions versus non-custodial sanctions and their subsequent criminal behavior. Second, analyses have been conducted to assess the impact that serving a longer versus shorter sentence in prison has on recidivism. And third, researchers have investigated the effect that serving time in a prison with harsher versus less harsh prison conditions has on post-release criminal behavior. Findings from each of the three categories of empirical research are discussed in order to gain a thorough understanding of the effect that imprisonment has on an individual's criminal behavior after release.

Perspectives on Imprisonment

Scholars have long theorized about the impact of imprisonment on recidivism. Some have argued that serving time in a prison exacts a cost that the individual does not wish to endure in the future and will consequently lead to a suppression of criminal behavior. These commentators, often economists, posit that prisons have a specific deterrent effect on the subsequent criminal behavior of offenders. However, other scholars have suggested that prisons are not a deterrent and, in fact, have a criminogenic effect on offenders, increasing their chance of criminal behavior after release. One group of theorists offering this criminogenic perspective has postulated that prisons foster criminal behavior because prison is a place where individuals learn from and associate with other criminals. This group conceives prisons as “schools of crime.” Another set of scholars have proposed that imprisonment is criminogenic because serving time in prison stigmatizes an individual which leads to further criminal behavior due the disruption of conventional bonds to society and associations with others who are similarly stigmatized. The term “prisoner” is seen as a label that has detrimental impacts on the future of the prisoner, which can create circumstances that makes crime highly likely for the individual. Each of these perspectives is discussed as follows.

Specific Deterrence

Deterrence theorists see individuals as rational beings who weigh the costs and benefits of crime. The theory argues that when the costs of crime (e.g., prison) outweigh the benefits of the criminal act, the individual will not engage in the behavior. Thus, individuals are seen as weighing serving time in prison and the benefit of the criminal act when deciding whether or not to engage in crime. Three factors are especially relevant in this cost-benefit analysis: the severity, certainty, and celerity of the punishment. The impact of imprisonment is most closely related to the severity element of deterrence. Prisons are seen as being one of the most severe sanctions that the criminal justice system can impose on an individual, second only to capital punishment. Imprisonment inflicts both direct and indirect harms on individuals, such as the loss of freedom, employment, and relationships as well as many psychological harms. Also any factors that make prison life even harder, such as serving more time or being housed in an institution with very harsh conditions, amplifies the perceived costs of future punishment for an individual. Therefore, according to deterrence theorists, the prison experience, with all its hardships, likely makes the costs of crime outweigh any benefits, which leads to a suppression future criminal behavior.

Schools of Crime

In contrast to deterrence theorists, there is a widely supported belief that prisons are criminogenic and serve as a criminal learning environment for offenders. Much research has shown that prisons are often marked with an oppositional subculture that supports criminal behavior, with both importation and deprivation theorists making this argument. Importation theorists have postulated that prisoners bring or “import” into the institution the same set of criminal values and beliefs that led them to crime in the first place. This view has become especially salient in recent times with the influx of street gangs now behind prison walls. Deprivation theorists, on the other hand, have argued that the oppositional subculture is formed as an adaptation to deprivations of the harsh prison environment. When individuals come to the institution, they are faced with the “pains of imprisonment”—loss of liberty, autonomy, goods and services, heterosexual relations, and security—and adapt to this by forming a subculture that is opposed conventional society. Regardless of whether this oppositional subculture forms in response to importation or deprivation, as offenders come into the institution, they are exposed to this subculture and begin to internalize these pro-criminal values and beliefs, learn criminal rationalizations, techniques, and skills, and are reinforced by their fellow inmates. Inmates, thus, become prisonized, which increases the likelihood of future criminal behavior once released.

Labeling Theory

The third perspective of imprisonment, labeling theory, also sees prisons as having a criminogenic effect on future criminal behavior. Labeling theorists posit that imprisonment can lead to subsequent criminal behavior in two ways. First, labeling and stigmatizing offenders as criminal can cause them to adopt a criminal identity. Thus, offenders begin to view themselves as criminal and act accordingly. This is often referred to as the self-fulfilling prophecy. While in prison, the offender is treated as a criminal for a long period of time, which gives ample opportunity for them to adopt and internalize this image of themselves and act in accordance with this criminal self-identity.

Second, labeling theorists argue that the label “prisoner” is extremely stigmatizing and knifes off many conventional opportunities available to offenders. Once a person is “marked” as a convict, people begin to view this person as suspicious and untrustworthy. Thus, prosocial friends and family often no longer associate with the individual, leaving the person to associate with other antisocial individuals. Also, it becomes very difficult for these individuals to obtain work as many employers are reluctant to hire ex-convicts. Faced with a lack of prosocial associates and employment, these individuals often find themselves in highly criminogenic situations.

Recidivism After Release

To determine the impact of incarceration on crime, many scholars have focused on the recidivism rates of those who are released after a period of incarceration. The majority of offenders do return to the community, with 95 percent of all state prisoners being released from prison, according to Timothy Hughes and James Q. Wilson. Thus, it is imperative to understand the impact that serving time in prison has on subsequent criminal behavior. It has long been established that the recidivism rate of offenders being released from prison is exceptionally high. In fact, in a study of 272,111 former state inmates released in 1994, Patrick Langan and David Levin found that within 3 years of release, 67.5 percent of the prisoners were rearrested for a new offense, 46.9 percent were reconvicted for a new crime, and 25.4 percent were resentenced to prison. The rate of recidivism is even more shocking when examining reoffending within 6 months of release, with roughly 30 percent of the prisoners being rearrested in that time frame. These releasees accounted for 4.7 percent of all arrests for serious crimes between 1994 and 1997, and 8.4 percent of homicides in the 3 years following their release. Consequently, as the research shows, two-thirds of people being released from state prisons are returning to crime, with many engaging in serious criminal behavior.

Although less striking than those of state prisoners, the recidivism rates of offenders released from federal prisons also are high. William Sabol, William Adams, Barbara Parthasarathy, and Yan Yuan found that 16 percent of federal prisoners released between 1986 and 1994 returned to prison within 3 years. Just as with state prisoners, federal prisoners quickly recidivate after release. Of the more than 33,000 offenders returning to prison, 54 percent did so within 1 year of release. Notably, Sabol and his colleagues also found those who spent more time in prison (5 or more years) were significantly more likely to return to prison than those who spent less time in prison (less than 5 years). This shows that more time in prison is associated with increased recidivism.

Imprisonment and Subsequent Criminal Behavior

As evidenced by the high recidivism rates of both state and federal prisoners, the idea that imprisonment substantially reduces the amount of crime committed by offenders is questionable. However, one must be careful in interpreting the high rate of recidivism as evidence that prisons are completely ineffective. Just examining the recidivism rates of released prisoners does not provide any information about the crime that would have been committed if the offender had not been in prison. It also does not allow for a comparison of the recidivism rates of those sentenced to non-custodial sentences. Thus, it is imperative that studies assess similar individuals who have been sentenced to custodial versus non-custodial sanctions, similar individuals who have been sentenced to more time versus less time, and similar individuals who have been sentenced to harsher versus less harsh prisons to determine the true effect of imprisonment on crime.

Custodial Versus Non-Custodial Sentences

Four reviews of the existing literature on the effects of custodial sanctions versus non-custodial sanctions have been conducted in recent years. Each review has generally found that custodial sanctions are more criminogenic than or have similar effects on recidivism as non-custodial sanctions, thus showing more support for the criminogenic effect of prisons than for the deterrent effect of prison. In 2000, Paul Gendreau, Claire Goggin, Francis T. Cullen, and Don Andrews conducted one of the first meta-analyses on the effects of custodial versus non-custodial sanctions. This meta-analysis was expanded in 2002 by Paula Smith, Claire Goggin, and Paul Gendreau. In both systematic reviews, the authors found that incarceration was associated with a 7 percent increase in recidivism when compared to community sanctions; however, this effect was reduced to 0 when weighting for sample size. Even more telling, in the Smith et al. meta-analysis, it was discovered that when the sample was restricted to only studies with a strong quality of design, the criminogenic effect of a custodial sanction was even stronger, with incarceration associated with an 11 percent increase in recidivism.

Four years later, Patrice Villettaz, Martin Killias, and Isabel Zoder conducted a third review examining the effect of custodial versus non-custodial sanctions on recidivism. They found, in 41 percent of the comparisons, non-custodial sanctions were associated with lower recidivism; in 7 percent of the comparisons, custodial sanctions were associated with lower recidivism; and in 52 percent of comparisons, no significant differences between custodial and non-custodial sanctions in recidivism were found. Overall, the review found prisons had either a criminogenic or null effect on recidivism.

Finally, Daniel Nagin, Francis T. Cullen, and Cheryl Lero Jonson found results consistent with the other reviews. Examining 48 studies (6 experimental/quasi-experimental, 11 matching, and 31 regression-based studies), incarceration was found to have either a null or slight criminogenic effect on recidivism. Therefore, across four reviews of the literature, little evidence has been found for a specific deterrent effect of prisons. Instead, the research has shown that incarceration generally has either a slight criminogenic or null effect on recidivism when compared to non-custodial sanctions.

More Time Versus Less Time in Prison

Just as the research on custodial versus non-custodial sanctions found no specific deterrent effect, the research on serving more versus less time in prison also shows a criminogenic effect of prison. There are currently three reviews of the literature focusing on the effect of time served and recidivism. Gendreau et al. and Smith et al. found that serving more time is associated with a 3 percent increase in recidivism when compared to those serving less time in prison. Nagin et al. also found no support for the specific deterrent effect of serving a longer sentence. Reviewing two experimental and 17 non-experimental studies, Nagin et al. found that serving more time had either a null effect or a slight criminogenic effect on recidivism with no studies showing a deterrent effect. Thus, there is no support in the three major reviews of the literature for the specific deterrence argument calling for longer sentences.

Harsher Versus Less Harsh Prison Conditions

There is also little support of the specific deterrence argument that harsh prison conditions lead to lower recidivism rates. Using a sample of federal prisoners, M. Keith Chen and Jesse Shapiro found that inmates placed in higher security levels do not have lower levels of recidivism than those placed in lower security levels. In fact, they discovered that being housed in a higher security level was associated with either an increase in recidivism or no difference when compared to those housed in lower security levels. Thus, once again the existing research has found no deterrent effect of prisons.


In the past 40 years, incarceration has become an increasingly used sanction. With more than 2.3 million people currently behind bars on any given day in this country, it is imperative that policymakers and scholars understand the long-lasting implications of this practice. Although, in theory, prisons have the possibility of reducing recidivism, the extant research has shown this is not the case. Rather, prisons, as they are currently being run, are contributing to the very problem that they are attempting to solve. It is crucial for policymakers to move away from deterrence-oriented sanctions and embrace more therapeutic sanctions that have empirically shown to have a suppression effect on recidivism. Until these more effective sanctions are implemented, there is little hope that incarceration will have a deterrent effect on crime.

See also

Becker, Howard S.: Labeling and Deviant Careers, Gendreau, Paul, D. A. Andrews, and James Bonta: The Theory of Effective Correctional Intervention, Irwin, John, and Donald R. Cressey: Importation Theory, Lemert, Edwin M.: Primary and Secondary Deviance, Stafford, Mark C., and Mark Warr: Deterrence Theory, Sykes, Gresham M.: Deprivation Theory, Toch, Hans: Coping in Prison

References and Further Readings
  • Blumstein, A., & Beck, A. J. (1999). Population growth in U.S. prisons, 1980-1996. In M. Tonry & J. Petersilia (Eds.), Crime and justice: A review of research-Prisons (Vol. 26, pp. 17-62). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Chen, M. K.; Shapiro, J. M. Do harsher prison conditions reduce recidivism? A discontinuity-based approach. American Law and Economic Review 9 : 1-29., 2003.
  • Clemmer, D. (1940). The prison community. New York: Christopher.
  • Gendreau, P.; Goggin, C.; Cullen, F. T.; Andrews, D. A. The effects of community sanctions and incarceration on recidivism. Forum on Corrections Research 12 : 10-13., 2000, May.
  • Hughes, T., & Wilson, D. J. (2003). Reentry trends in the United States: Inmates returning to the community after serving time in prison. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.
  • Irwin, J. (1980). Prisons in turmoil. Boston: Little, Brown.
  • Irwin, J. (2005). The warehouse prison: Disposal of the new dangerous class. Los Angeles: Roxbury Press.
  • Irwin, J.; Cressey, D. R. Thieves, convicts and the inmate subculture. Social Problems 10 ((2)) : 142-155., 1962.
  • Langan, P. A., & Levin, D. J. (2002). Recidivism of prisoners released in 1994. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.
  • Lemert, E. M. (1951). Social pathology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Maurer, M. (1999). Race to incarcerate. New York: New Press.
  • Minton, T. D., & Sabol, W. J. (2009). Jail inmates at midyear 2008: Statistical tables. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.
  • Nagin, D. S. (1998). Criminal deterrence research at the outset of the twenty-first century. In M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and justice: A review of research (Vol. 23, pp. 1-42). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Nagin, D. S., Cullen, F. T., & Jonson, C. L. (2009). Imprisonment and reoffending. In M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and justice: A review of research (Vol. 38, pp. 115-200). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Nellis, A., & King, R. S. (2009). No exit: The expanding use of life sentences in America. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
  • Pager, D. (2007). Marked: Race, crime, and finding work in an era of mass incarceration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Pyle, D. J. (1995). Cutting the costs of crime: The economics of crime and criminal justice. London: Institute of Economic Affairs.
  • Sabol, W. J., Adams, W. P., Parthasarathy, B., & Yuan, Y. (2000). Offenders returning to federal prison, 1986-97. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.
  • Smith, P., Goggin, C., & Gendreau, P. (2002). The effects of prison sentences and intermediate sanctions on recidivism: General effects and individual differences (User report 2002-01). Ottawa: Solicitor General Canada.
  • Sykes, G. M. (1958). Society of captives: A study of a maximum security prison. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Warren, J. (2008). One in 100: Behind bars in America. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.
  • West, H. C., & Sabol, W. J. (2009). Prison inmates at midyear 2008: Statistical tables. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.
  • World prison brief. (2008). London: King's College London, International Centre for Prison Studies.
  • Villettaz, P., Killias, M., & Zoder, I. (2006). The effects of custodial vs. noncustodial sentences on re-offending: A systematic review of the state of knowledge. Philadelphia: Campbell Collaboration Crime and Justice Group.
  • Jonson, Cheryl Lero
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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