Problems of Public Works in Prisoners’ Communication

face of a prisoner

Prisoners remain members of the polity punishing them. One aspect of that membership is continuing participation in symbolic publics through access to public works: books, recorded music, radio, and television. However, a well-functioning polity is not created and sustained merely with public works. The communicative structure of public works has communicative weaknesses. Those communicative weaknesses can undermine public accountability for imprisonment.

Public works encapsulate relations of address to form a group of third-person equals. A person becomes a member of a work’s public simply by gaining access to the work and directing attention to it.^ Discussing his experience of reading in prison, Malcolm X declared, “Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.”^ At the same time, a public work can invite anyone to dwell imaginatively in prison. Actual personal characteristics and physical circumstances are irrelevant:

Even the most misfitting child
Who’s chanced upon the library’s worth,
Sits with the genius of the Earth
And turns the key to the whole world.^

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

The imaginary equality of persons in symbolic publics makes prisoners’ public position like anyone else’s. No particular person in such a public has a particular claim on any other. Among a symbolic public, second-person address has no existential significance.

stereotype of
Mary J. Thackeray, Department of Library Extension, Brooklyn Public Library. “What Do Prisoners Read?” The Library Journal, Nov. 1, 1921, p. 900, earlier printed in the New York Times Magazine.

Public works build empathy rather than agency. Public works tend not to encourage readers to evaluate their own choices and make their own moves.^ One ex-prisoner explained:

Now that I’m out of prison I think about the other guys I met in Collins Bay {prison} who sunk themselves in remote crevices of time dwelling on Glenn Miller’s music. Or the ones who bought guitars and practiced ten hours a day, but never learned more than four or five cords. And the guys who build their dreams of a happy, prison-free future on a girl they’ve modelled after someone they knew in grade three. Or the funny ones who only live for the moment when they can get out and they can buy a ’49 Ford, just like the one they had back in ’58. All chromed. If only they can get that car, then everything will be all right.^

Public works have well-bounded narratives that seek to absorb the public in their plots’ characters. Stories of vicious, incorrigible criminals’ horrible acts and of heroic prisoner-revolutionaries struggling against the capitalist-imperialist state’s brutal prison regime are popularly plotted public works. Even works that that do not plot characters often acquire in public circulation a plot that expresses character. For example, readers commonly perceive “who” and “to whom” in reading tribal academic texts. Character is more important than plot in public works.

Public works create labile emotions that don’t motivate action. Modern popular reading (novels) typically includes subplots, changes in location, and developments over many days. Characters’ circumstances often change greatly in location, story-time, and emotional state in brief periods of reading-time. Since texts are fixed and public circulation of texts is temporally organized (“What’s the latest news?”; “What are they reading or watching now?”), a symbolic public’s compassion typically shifts relatively quickly from person to person over time.^ Compassion experienced from public works differs from compassion experienced in a personal encounter. Putting a book down doesn’t imply lack of accountability or ill will. That differs from letting a person down or putting a person down. Scientific research indicates that persons over-estimate the suffering of disabled persons.^ Even extraordinarily heightened textual representations of prisoners’ suffering do not necessarily induce action to help prisoners.

Public works do not imply the responsibilities of ordinary communication with intimates. Public works support voluntary relations among strangers. Relations among intimates have significantly different communicative qualities than relations among persons in a symbolic public. For example, a successful author, imprisoned, wrote poetry. One of his poems presents the difficulty of personal communication with his family:

they would be hurt,
or used to blackmail
me, I
never once asked to

my family
cannot know

This lie,
to the softness of a favourite shirt
disintegrates when I touch it.^

Another prisoner explained:

It’s unquestionably a mixed blessing, this business of visits. Visits probably cost an inmate three times as much as they’re worth; a single hour visit is often enough to throw a man into a frenzy for a week; a regular weekly visit can keep an inmate unsettled through his entire term. Nevertheless, I’ve rarely met an inmate who would turn down a visit if it was offered, and many use up their entire mail ration (two letters a week) to arrange for them as often as they can. … The trouble with visits is that they won’t let you forget.^

For prisoners, emotional balance in visits with family and friends isn’t clear:

I had many visits from them, and all of them were bittersweet affairs. … I never tried to figure out whether the pleasure of those visits outbalanced the pain.^

Communication with intimates recognizes difficulties of communication and demands action in response to them:

in an atmosphere tense with the sense that two weeks or two months of the past have to be lived up to date in two hours, the opportunities for misunderstanding are myriad. I won’t even try to remember how many of my nights after visits have been spent penning long, apologetic letters to my girlfriend trying to explain my clumsy behavior to her, her perplexing behavior to me and our duplex confusions together.^

Unlike personal communication, public works suspend time and serve memory authoritatively among strangers.^ In a two-hour movie presentation of a famous inmate’s life, communication difficulties typically play no part in the audience’s relation. For public works, the imperatives of wide public circulation constrain emotional complexity and dynamism in communication. Public works don’t engage persons with prisoners in the way that personal communication does.

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