Corrections: To many, the word is a euphemism---a less distasteful word chosen to represent jails and prisons. For many professionals involved in the justice system, though, the word represents a hope that the people they deal with can learn from their mistakes and return to society as productive citizens. The history of corrections is full of various interpretations of the purposes of removing criminals from society--a debate that continues in today's theories of corrections.
"Corrections" encompasses secure detention facilities like jails and prisons, but it also includes programs and personnel. Probation and parole, rehabilitation training, counseling, restorative justice and drug- and alcohol-therapy programs are all contained within the broad meaning of corrections.
The purpose of corrections is to separate criminals from the society in which they would operate. Corrections operate as part of the criminal-justice system, providing housing and programs for offenders who have been convicted of crimes that necessitate the loss of freedom for the offender. Incarceration is the most serious punishment (short of loss of life) to which a free society can condemn an individual.
Correctional practice is a developing science based on an evolving dynamic between two concepts: punishment and rehabilitation. Society demands that criminals be punished for their behavior; thus, they loose their freedom. Prisoners must also learn constructive behaviors and have positive role models if the cycle of recidivism is to be broken and the culture of the prison yard is to be changed. Social scientists have long argued that rehabilitation must be the dominant theory in correctional practice, if only to keep the prison population from overwhelming the physical facilities. Parole and probation were early attempts to reduce prison populations. Rehabilitation theorists advocate job-training, counseling and education programs as ways to equip inmates with the educational and vocational skills they need to become productive members of society. The current practice of "restorative justice" seeks to balance the concepts of punishment and rehabilitation by bringing offenders and victims together in attempts to repair the social and psychological damage done by crime.
For centuries, the answer to overcrowded prisons was either execution or shipping prisoners to colonies--either penal or proprietary. At the beginning of the 20th century, the work of psychiatrists like Freud and other scientists in the new fields of psychology and sociology suggested that punishment alone did not deter crime, and that many criminals became offenders because of illiteracy or a lack of economic opportunity. These offenders, social scientists reasoned, might be rehabilitated using a system of rewards like early release and shortened terms for good behavior. By the 1950s, the prison population had again grown to unmanageable levels, and social scientists were arguing that prisoners would never learn positive lifestyles if they were not involved in an affirmative program of education and vocational training. The concept of restorative justice---that both offender and victim have responsibilities in restoring the fabric of society that is damaged by criminal acts---is fairly recent.
Corrections still don't "correct" much. Professionals consider themselves fortunate when their rehabilitative (or "restorative") efforts reach as many as 10 percent of the offenders with whom they deal. Punishment helps cause the dehumanizing prison culture, not cure it. Overcrowding, lack of personnel, poorly run programs and the presence of violent gangs can only be changed by a society that is committed to addressing the causes of crime.