This article takes a ‘look’ at prisons – why do we have them, what do people expect of them, what do they ‘do’ to people and should we have something else instead? Some of my observations have arisen from having carried out research and taught degree level sociology and social policy to maximum-security prisoners for five years. Some of my thoughts and feelings about prisons have arisen out of long conversations held with my ‘students’ and other prison staff during that time. More lately and after teaching for a number of years in university on courses on crime, deviance and penal institutions, I have firmly decided that, in order to reserve and retain some semblance of sanity, the safest thing to do is ‘observe and comment when asked’. The following is an article, therefore, that I was invited to present to the Association of Visiting Committees for Scottish Penal Establishments at their annual 2002 conference in Dundee on ‘Prisons: Value for Money or are there Alternatives?’.