Penology: Definition & Aspects

Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson, we will learn about the study of penology and how it applies to our modern day society. We will discuss the varying interests of penologists as they relate to the broader context of crime, punishment, and sociology.

What is Penology?

Despite the sound of the term, the word penology has absolutely nothing to do with pens! Rather penology is narrowly defined as the study of prisons which have been used, in some variation, for hundreds of years to punish people who have committed crimes. Some argue the focus of penology is on prison management and prison administration, specifically, while others argue the focus is broader and includes how crimes are defined and punished. The term penology is derived from the Latin root 'poena' which translates to 'penalty'. Literally translated, penology is the study of a criminal and legal penalty. Penology falls under the broader umbrella of studies known as criminology, the study of crime, and even more broadly under sociology, or study of how people interact in society.

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

In current applications of the term, a person who studies penology may choose to focus on the various methods of punishment used by societies, such as imprisonment, and the philosophy behind them. Penologists focus on how punishment for the same crime varies from country to country and why. For example, in some societies theft is punished by chopping off the thief's dominant hand. A penologist would be interested in why this particular punishment is used, for this particular crime, within this culture and society. He might examine in-depth what it means for the punished thief to return to society, now missing a hand. He could also be interested in the role of the person responsible for administering such punishment, or how that punishment came to exist for that crime, within that society, in the first place.

An even more prominent issue penologists study is the death penalty and the rationale behind its use, as well as the manner in which it is carried out. Not every country has the death penalty and the use of it varies across international borders and over time. Some countries, and even several states in the United States, have recently abolished the death penalty as a method of punishment. Public sentiment has shifted over the years regarding its use and it is constantly being reformed.

Prisons in the United States

Alcatraz Prison Cell
Prison Cell

For penologists strictly interested in prisons, or correctional institutions as they are now called, there is much to be learned. Some of the first known prisons existed hundreds of years ago. They were primarily used in monarchies for people who committed economic crimes, such as not paying their taxes. Alternatively, prisons were used to house the homeless and those charged with public intoxication. While people can still be imprisoned for these same things today, there are many other reasons why people are sent to prison. As the nature and definition of crime expands and grows, so too does the legal system's prescribed punishment for these crimes. Thus, in the US, most states' penal codes, the documents which entail the prescribed punishment for various crimes, has grown exponentially in recent decades. Furthermore, as more individuals are sentenced to serve time in prison as a result of mass incarceration,the imprisonment of many people as a result of harsh sentencing guidelines in a society, the manner in which prisons are run has shifted.

Exterior of Alcatraz
Exterior USP Alcatraz - night

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