The Deliberative Problem of Prisoners’ Communication with Family and Friends

face of a prisoner

Prisoners’ communication with family and friends was an awkward issue for penal reformers who advocated suppressing prisoners’ communication. These penal reformers were concerned about corruption and contamination.^ They imagined hardened, highly skilled criminal-prisoners teaching and corrupting largely virtuous but temporarily fallen women and men. While different observers might assign different proportions to the dangerous and virtuous share of prisoners, these proportions aren’t relevant to the effects of prisoners’ communication with family and friends. Communication with family and friends would not present a risk of corruption for hardened criminals, since they are presumed to be already hardened in crime. Communication with family and friends would not present a risk of corruption for virtuous prisoners, because their family and friends were presumed to be virtuous. Why then suppress prisoners’ communication with family and friends?

Suppressing prisoners communication with family and friends makes little sense in the context of prisoners’ prospective release. Released prisoners who while in prison had little communication with family and friends would have a more difficult time re-establishing relationships with family and friends. Reformers didn’t want prisoners to form friendships in prison that would continue outside of prison. They imagined that solitude in imprisonment promoted virtue. Solitude in imprisonment was likely to contribute to solitude in life after imprisonment. Only peculiar Quaker penal reformers favored solitude and silence for the general public.

Penal reformers solved the deliberative problem of prisoners’ communication with family and friends mainly through silence. Jonas Hanway emphasized suppressing prisoners’ evil communication. While Hanway presented the prisoner’s father as a virtuous figure, Hanway pushed prisoners’ communication with family and friends into the background in his public discussion of prisoners’ communication.^ In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Hanway was publicly honored and celebrated for his contributions to penal policy and philanthropy. Hanway helped to associate evil communication with prisoners’ communication. He contributed to the rise of the early nineteenth-century transnational consensus that prisoners’ communications should be suppressed. Hanway would not have been so influential if policy deliberation had been more sensitive to values associated with prisoners’ communication with family and friends. Structural biases in public deliberation devalued prisoners’ communication with family and friends.

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