Questioning crime: social harms and global issues
Questioning crime: social harms and global issues

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Questioning crime: social harms and global issues

3.4 Prisons and social harm

Prisons, as conceptualised through the idea of the prison industrial complex, can be seen as creating and exacerbating ‘social harms’. A zemiological approach can be applied to prisons to identify and illustrate different types of social harm.

Hillyard and Tombs (2007) argued that there are four main types of social harm. These are:

  • Physical harm (for example harms involving death, injury or illness)
  • Financial harm (for example harming the income, job security or credit rating of individuals)
  • Psychological harm (such as mental illness or anxiety)
  • Cultural harm (this is referred to by Hillyard and Tombs in terms of ‘threats to cultural safety’ – such as racism or disruptions to community life – but you can consider it quite broadly for the purposes of this activity).

Activity 6 Harms and prisons

Consider each of the categories of harm set out by Hillyard and Tombs (2007), examining how they could be argued to connect with prisons and those who might be connected with the industrial prison complex. You should write your ideas in the box below.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


There are numerous ways in which prisons, and the wider idea of the prison industrial complex (including as a global industry), can be seen to connect to or indeed cause or exacerbate social harms. The following are some examples but you may well have thought of others.

Physical harm: This could result from physical attacks in prison, an increased likelihood of becoming dependent on drugs, lack of exercise and the lack of control prisoners have over their own diet. These impacts of prison are likely to be have long-term effects, being felt by individuals not only during their time in prison, but also subsequently, following release.

Financial harm: In their writing, Hillyard and Tombs (2007, p.14) point to the possibilities of ‘the loss of a job and diminution of future employment prospects’ which will of course potentially have a considerable impact on future income. It is also likely to affect credit worthiness and time spent in prison may also reduce pension entitlement. Increased government spending on prisons might draw resources away from benefits and government services on which more disadvantaged members of society may rely.

Psychological harm: Loss of liberty, physical harm and financial harm can all have serious psychological impacts (and these in turn can make physical health worse). Mental illness, self-harm and suicide are evident in prisons. Hillyard and Tombs (2007, p. 14) note that imprisonment can result in the loss ‘a home, a child or a family life, and ostracism by society’ each of which in itself can have an adverse impact on mental health.

Cultural harm: Hillyard and Tombs note that processes of criminalisation and punishment tend to fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable in society. This can lead to a loss of cultural connection through, for example, unemployment and potentially, to support services. Where a significant proportion of a community is affected by imprisonment (as is the case in some Black communities in the USA) community and family life can be seriously disrupted and the whole community may suffer stigma by association with criminality.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371