Prison Communicative Structure Affects Justice-System Performance

face of a prisoner

Communication isn’t limited to public works. Public works are broadly accessible symbolic works that now compete for attention with similarly situated works. To appreciate the range of communicative structures beyond public works, consider the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It describes forms of personal communication (exercise of religion, physical assembly of persons, verbal address between persons) and forms of public communication (making laws, petitioning the government). It also refers to communication in competition for acclaim (lawmakers making laws) and communication in competition for attention (printers printing newspapers). A broad concept of media that encompasses both newspapers and telephone calls obscures important differences in communicative structure.^

Penal incarceration fundamentally concerns changing a person’s communication opportunities. In the early nineteenth century, the consensus of penal experts was that incarceration should seek to cut off all communication between the prisoner and the outside world. That view has slowly changed. An important 1974 U.S. Supreme Court opinion observed:

Whether an O. Henry writing his short stories in a jail cell or a frightened young inmate writing his family, a prisoner needs a medium for self-expression. (Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 428, 94 S.Ct. 1800, 1818 (1974), dissenting opinion of Justice Thurgood Marshall)

Self-expression is vital for all human beings, including prisoners. Self-expression emerged as a major explanation for literary authorship in early nineteenth-century British Romanticism. Communication through a variety of communicative structures has personal and public value beyond self-expression. How prisoners’ communication is balanced between public works and personal communication with family and friends affects the political governance of punishment.

Communication across prison walls has been relatively heavily weighted toward public works and away from personal communication with family and friends. Prisoners have been relatively well-integrated across prison walls in the circulation of public works. Prisoners read many more books than persons living in the outside world do. Prisoners watch as much television as free persons do. Prisoners’ opportunities to communicate across prison walls with family and friends, in contrast, are tightly constrained. Personal communication with family and friends across prison walls is typically limited to a small number of personal visits, telephone calls, and letters. Prisoners’ communication with family and friends is greatly reduced relative to now-normal constant, real-time electronic connectivity with friends and family through mobile smart phones.

Prisoners’ communicative position lessens accountability for prisoners’ sufferings. Public works favor communication that encapsulates address third-personally, that emphasizes character, and that is emotionally labile. These formal characteristics tend to make communication with prisoners an experience of temporary empathy, rather than a personal cry evoking accountability. The heavy weight of public works in communication with prisoners biases citizens away from politically effective understanding of prisoners’ sufferings.

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