Alexander O'Regan
Steve Badman

A Sound Solution or A Corrosive Cycle – The Reality of Incarceration

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This image is from the front page of a book entitled ‘Wish You Were Here – Teens Write about Parents in Prison’. It contains a series of true stories about children separated from their parents as a result of incarceration written by the children and parents themselves. Both children and parents express the pain and despair of such a separation in their stories and discuss how (if at all) they managed to keep in contact and how they coped with the difficult emotions of reunification following the parent’s release. The aim of this book is to aid other children in similar situations, providing them with advice and a sense of comfort in helping them to realise that they are not alone.
The image itself captures the true message of this book which is that the separation between a parent and a child as a result of incarceration poses a detrimental risk to the health of both child and parent. As is so evident on the faces of the people in this image, the pain and suffering of such a situation is unbearable for all involved.

Public Health Issue

The term ‘incarceration’ refers to an extreme environment where the notion of freedom is heavily restricted (McBride, 2010) and is most commonly associated with imprisonment. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2011 there were 29, 106 prisoners incarcerated in Australian prisons. These people have proven that they are unfit to live among society and therefore their rights to freedom have been liberated. However research has shown that the removal from society is doing more harm than good; arguing that the high levels of incarceration in Australia has become a serious public health issue. Clear (2008) of the University of Chicago defends this notion stating that incarceration has a number of negative effects including the destruction of social networks, social relationships and long-term life chances ultimately damaging children, family functioning, both mental and physical health and economic infrastructure. The question can therefore be raised as to whether incarceration is a sound solution or a corrosive cycle. As like the artefact depicts, the pain of family separation is unbearable and can ultimately lead to history repeating itself as to some it would seem that in this image the young boy is not looking at his father but rather at his future.

Literature Review

The concept of incarceration is an issue widely discussed throughout literature as with the rates of incarceration increasing so rapidly it has become an issue of great concern for many people. The true reality of the mass incarceration epidemic is highlighted by Masoglia and Warner (2011) who state that in America the number of those incarcerated every year is equivalent to the amount of those who graduate college. As a result of this several arguments have been made that although incarceration removes people from a society that they have proven they are not fit to coincide with, the negative consequences of incarceration are too great to go unnoticed. These particular consequences include the drain on economic infrastructure incarceration causes, the risks of physical and mental health issues that being incarcerated poses and the most concerning issue, the detrimental affect incarceration has on families and more importantly the children involved (Clear 2008).
Research has shown that the major increase in rates of incarceration over the last decade is placing a great strain on the economy. As with increased crime rates, comes a desperate need for more prisons, which is ultimately costing the government and taxpayers more and more money. An example of this is the Alexander Maconochie Centre in Canberra where it costs $504 a day to house a single prisoner. This particular prison contains 300 beds which therefore means that when full it costs the government $151, 200 a day to operate which equates to $55, 188, 000 annually (Prisoner cost blow-outs: Opposition, 2010). The reality of the effect this increase in incarceration rates is having on the economy is emphasised further by Tratchenberg (2007) who states that in California prisons cost more than their university system annually. From this it is evident that the cost of prisons is placing a great level of strain on the economy and if this pattern of mass incarceration continues the issues is only going to escalate further. In light of this prospect several studies have been conducted exploring other avenues of rehabilitation for criminal behaviour. One study found that drug treatment programs for drug related criminal offenders not only benefits society in the sense of reduced monetary costs but it was also proven to be a more effective method of rehabilitation and in turn prevents non-violent criminals from going to prison and then returning to their community more dangerous than ever before (Tratchenberg, 2007).


The other issue of incarceration concerning economic infrastructure is the difficulty criminals have finding a job upon their release. According to Kling (2006) the most important aspect of a successful reintegration from incarceration back into society is believed to be employment. Meaning that without employment re-offending is almost immanent subsequently aiding in a continual cycle of incarceration causing a number of serious public health risks. This is a concerning issue, especially when studies have shown that incarceration does have a negative effect on employment opportunities which in turn has a negative effect on earning capabilities (Western, Kling & Weiman, 2001). According to Harding (2000) there are a number of reasons for this including the general census of most companies that time in prison affects an individual’s ‘soft skills’ such as their ability to complete work on time, to focus on a task and to work independently due to the idleness in their work experience as a result of incarceration. Another assumption affecting employment opportunities is that incarceration affects an individual’s ability to function within a workplace and cooperate with co-workers and bosses as they have not been in a working environment for an extended period of time due to their incarceration (Harding 2000). Fortunately however Harding (2000) claims that there are now programs within prisons that allow prisoners to work and to be educated whilst incarcerated so that when they are released back into society they have not lost the knowledge and the skills required in a workplace. This is done with the aim of increasing ex-prisoners employment opportunities which ultimately increases their chances of a successful transition back into the real world.
Along with affecting economic infrastructure incarceration also has a major negative impact on the health of those who have been incarcerated. The reality of this issue is emphasised by Dumont, Brockmann, Dickman, Alexander and Rich (2012) who state that rates of physical and mental illness are a lot higher in prisoners than in the general public. This is generally the result of the fact that those incarcerated come from poor socio economic backgrounds and had poor access to good quality medical care before being incarcerated (Dumont, et. al, 2012). However research has found that poor health as a result of incarceration is not a direct result of incarceration but rather the product of the consequences that follow incarceration such as poor employment prospects, unstable income and the destruction of marriages and families (London & Myers, 2006). Issues that pose potential risks to an individual’s health and wellbeing, both physically and mentally.


Despite all of this, arguably the most significant public health issue of incarceration is in fact the destruction of families and the effect this has on the children involved. The pain of the incarceration of a loved one is great and for some too unbearable to face as according to Wildeman and Western (2010) incarceration is a major contributor of marital breakups. However this destruction becomes a much more serious issue when there are children involved. In America there are over 1.5 million children nationwide that have at least one parent in prison (Bilchik, Seymour & Kreisher, 2001). This is an overwhelming statistic as the effect of incarcerated parents is detrimental to a child’s health and wellbeing. Several studies have been conducted in order to establish how children are affected by parental incarceration with particular results stating that children with an incarcerated father are more likely to develop aggressive behaviour and suffer from attention disorders (Geller, Cooper, Garfinkel, Schwartz-Soicher & Minchy, 2012). Further research investigated the effect of having a mother incarcerated on children and evidence suggested that there was connection between incarcerated mothers and secretive and untrustworthy behaviour, behavioural issues and in some cases (mainly in daughters) signs of depression in their children. Within these studies there was also a great emphasis placed on the importance of mothers in a child’s early development and the serious effects on a child’s development separation from a mother as a result of incarceration can have on young children (Dallaire, 2007). The seriousness of this issue is further emphasised by Wildeman and Western (2010) who discuss the effects of parental incarceration on children and state that from their research it is evident that children with parents in prison are more likely to commit crime later in life, ultimately reversing any benefits of the prison boom and consolidating the fact that incarceration is in fact a corrosive cycle rather than a sound solution for anti-social behaviour. In regard to the seriousness of this issue it is evident that there is a need for intervention in order to prevent this corrosive cycle from continuing. Fortunately as this has become such a prominent issue over the last decade there are several government organisations that provide support for children who are faced with the issue of incarcerated parents. According to Johnston (2012) there are number of services for children with incarcerated parents and are all very effective in reaching out to children and their families and supporting them through such an ordeal. Needless to say however these are extremely important services in preventing a continuation of the current increase in incarceration rates and therefore it can be argued that the government should consider spending more money on these programs and preventing crime rather than on building more prisons in an attempt to cure it.

Cultural and Social Analysis
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2011 of the total number of prisoners incarcerated in Australian prisons 79% were born in Australia. However of the remaining 21%, 3% were born in Vietnam, 3% in New Zealand and 2% from both the United Kingdom and Ireland and the remainder from a range of other countries including Nigeria and Indonesia (ABS, 2011). This evidence therefore suggests that although majority of the prisoners incarcerated in Australia’s prisons are of Australian birth, 21% are not therefore meaning that the negative effects of incarceration are impacting on people not just from Australia but from several other countries and cultures.
The main concern surrounding the effect of different cultures involves the negative effect incarceration has on families and how destructive it can be. This is so as today’s western society is very much an individualist culture where there is high emphasis on the notion and importance of self and yet the pain of the destruction of a family as a result of incarceration is unbearable for all involved. Therefore it would seem that in a collectivist culture where there is a great emphasis on the importance of family the destruction of a family as a result of incarceration would be catastrophic.
In many collectivist cultures families are a big part of everyone’s life and in many instances people will live their life based on their family’s ideologies. For example a family from a collectivist culture may have a daughter in uni however if asked why she was there her response would most likely be, so that she can honour her family name. Families such as these are very reliant on each other as generally, the mother would be responsible for caring for the younger children and the father would be responsible for working long and hard to provide for his family. Therefore in the circumstance that the father of this particular family was to be incarcerated for participating in anti-social behaviour it would seem that this family would suffer greatly. As like Wildeman and Western (2011) suggest incarceration diminishes family’s earnings which in turn drastically reduces their resources. This is a serious issue because if a family is reliant on a single income and then this is suddenly cut off as a result of incarceration, the health of this family is at serious risk and the life chances of the children involved are greatly affected.
From this evidence it is clear that regardless of culture, the issue of mass incarceration in Australia is one of great significants and importance and is something that requires immediate attention. As it would seem that currently it is a major public health issue and is having a major impact on a large proportion of the Australian population in one way or another.

Analysis of the Artefact and Learning Reflections

Looking back at the chosen artefact it would seem that this is an effective case in point for this particular issue as based on the analysis of this issue it appears to be a true depiction of the reality of the true effect incarceration has on the public health of the Australian population. This particular artefact however effective it may be in depicting the reality of incarceration has many different meanings surrounding this particular issue. As for some the image may symbolise the pain and suffering of family destruction as a result of incarceration as the child stands, separated from his father by the cold reality of prison. However to me what this artefact symbolises is the corrosive cycle of incarceration as when I look at this image I see a child not looking at his father but rather at himself and at what his future holds.
As a result of this assessment piece I have become truly aware of the negative effects incarceration has on the Australian public. I have for so long been blinded by the ideologies that prison is the most effective form of rehabilitation for those who have exhibited antisocial behaviour. However I have now been awaken to the true reality of incarceration and the fact that it is doing more harm than it is good. This new found realisation of the true effect of incarceration will undoubtedly influence my future learning as I now realise that things are not always what they seem. This has in turn emphasised the true importance of investigating particular issues further in order to discover the true reality of what is really happening in the world.

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