Communication Among Prisoners No Longer a Public Concern

face of a prisoner

Most prisons’ ordinary regime of confinement is now not directed toward suppressing communication among prisoners. Prisoners typically eat together, exercise together, and work together without rules forbidding communication among prisoners. In Britain, Canada, and Scotland about 1995, more than a quarter of prisoners in non-local prisons apparently shared a sleeping space with another prisoner.^ More detailed data for the U.S. indicates that 83% of prisoners in state and federal prisons shared a sleeping space with other prisoners in 1997. Only 17% of state and federal prisoners were housed in cells holding a single prisoner. While prisons now restrict some forms of communication, they do so for purposes of security and order, not because suppressing communication is itself a penological goal.

Prisoners per Sleeping Space in U.S. Federal and State Prisons, 1997

architecture typearchitecture shareprisoners per sleeping space
12345 or more
all prison architectures100.0%17.2%43.7%3.0%2.3%33.8%
open dorm26.9%0.6%1.0%0.5%0.4%97.5%
dorm with cubicles14.8%27.3%32.0%4.0%7.1%29.5%
unit with cells38.3%26.8%68.8%2.8%0.6%1.0%
unit with rooms18.3%12.6%65.5%6.3%5.0%10.6%
other architectures1.7%25.0%17.4%1.5%1.2%55.6%
Source: see prisoners per sleeping space in US prisons in 1997.

Communication among prisoners has largely disappeared as an issue in current public deliberation. In 1995, about 16% of U.S. state prisons were under court order to limit their prisoner populations.^ Discussion of prisoner overcrowding, however, no longer typically concerns its effects on communication among prisoners. Prison overcrowding has become an issue with respect to prisoners’ rights, prisoners’ health, prison violence, and provision of services to prisoners.^ A male prisoner raping another male prisoner until very recently was commonly treated as if it were a joke or just punishment. The number of persons experiencing inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization while legally incarcerated in the U.S. is roughly estimated at 60,000 per year. In stark contrast to the intense early-nineteenth-century concern about communication among prisoners, relatively little concerns now exists even with respect to highly abusive communication among prisoners.

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