Knowledge about Prison Conditions Eclipsed Ordinary Communication with Prisoners

face of a prisoner

The potential significance of ordinary communication with prisoners for public action depends on the circumstances of ordinary life. In late eighteenth-century England, prisoners typically could communicate relatively freely with family and friends. At the same time, life expectancy at birth was about 35 years^, half of married persons were unable to sign their names to the marriage register^, and nutritional and health burdens made the typical man about four inches shorter than a comparable man in England today.^ In these circumstances, the struggle for survival consumed a large amount of persons’ time and attention. Most persons had meager resources for public action. In addition, the electorate was limited to only about 17% of men.^ Like the vast majority of men who lacked voting rights, women undoubtedly engaged in highly valued ordinary communication with imprisoned men who were their husbands, boyfriends, sons, fathers, neighbors, and friends. Women, however, also lacked important jobs and offices through which personal understandings could produce public action. These circumstances of ordinary life greatly limited the effects of ordinary communication with prisoners on public policy.

In these circumstances, knowledge about prison conditions came to dominate public deliberation about prison conditions. From the rise of natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, knowledge became a domain consciously separated from common understanding developed through ordinary communication.^ In the 1770s, extraordinary personal effort, influential social actors, and particular interests created knowledge about prison conditions. Such knowledge became enmeshed in vigorous competition among authorities. Proponents of the emerging field of social science and social work created institutions to support this knowledge. They argued that it had great scientific and humanitarian promise and deserved public support.

Ordinary life has changed to make ordinary communication with prisoners potentially more significant for public action. Personal understandings not formulated as knowledge claims, not offered to and produced from public deliberation, and not emerging from communicative competition, can significantly affect political choices in particular circumstances. In England today, most persons live above subsistence levels. Circumstances of ordinary life include universal education, universal communications technologies (e.g. the Internet), and universal adult democratic franchise. Compared to persons living in eighteenth-century England, persons likely to engage in ordinary communications with prisoners have much better opportunities to shape punishment policies through actions that do not create knowledge. Developed interests in knowledge have obscured the growing public value of prisoners’ ordinary communication with family and friends.

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