The Functions of Incarceration and Implications for Social Justice


  • Aimee Pitt University of Sydney


This paper analyses the core functions of the carceral system, focusing on the concepts of justice, punishment, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation. There is a significant number of prisoners in Australia, and a wide variety of factors that contribute to the causes of incarceration. Although individualistic ideas about criminal behaviour permeate much of the discourse on crime, there is ample evidence that crime is tied to social inequities such as poverty, intergenerational trauma, homelessness, mental health issues, disability and substance abuse (see Baldry, McDonnell, Maplestone & Peeters, p. 155; Butler et al., 2006; Department of Justice, 2003, p. 26; Mullen, 2001). This paper explores the issue of incarceration through a social justice lens, utilising rights-based and emancipatory frameworks. It concludes that the functions of incarceration are both ineffective and unjust. The role of social work in responding to these issues is considered, and it is argued that social workers are well placed to challenge injustices in the carceral system. Social workers are able to support prisoners and ex-prisoners, advocate for community-based alternatives to incarceration, and work to address the underlying causes of crime. Ultimately, social workers can engage with emancipatory processes through the application of evidence-based research, policy and activism.


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