Personal Communication with Prisoners is Publicly Significant

face of a prisoner

Public policy toward communication with prisoners would benefit from more appreciation for ordinary practices of communication. A recent philosophical analysis of criminal punishment argued:

criminal punishment should be conceived of as a communicative enterprise that aims to communicate to offenders the censure they deserve for their crimes, and thus to bring them to repent their crimes, to reform themselves, and to reconcile themselves with those they have wronged.^

Such communication primarily concerns authoritative communication with the person being punished. Authoritative communication with prisoners conveys to them social rules that they must obey. Authorities’ communication with prisoners might also help to generate knowledge useful for authorities designing rehabilitation programs. Such communication clearly serves, at least formally, the public interest.

Much communication is neither authoritative nor instrumental. Personal communication with family and friends has largely driven the development of the communications industry over the past century. Personal communication emphasizes mutual subjectivity rather than distinctive authority. Personal communication is a natural human activity, not an instrument designed to serve public purposes. Most communication with prisoners, like most communication with other persons, is non-authoritative, non-instrumental communication with family and friends.

Prisoners’ communication with family and friends has important systemic consequences. Understandings created through such communication connect to wider networks of shared representations:

Systemic deficiencies are experienced in the context of individual life histories; such burdens accumulate in the lifeworld. …Besides religion, art, and literature, only the spheres of “private” life have an existential language at their disposal, in which such socially generated problems can be assessed in terms of one’s own life history. Problems voiced in the public sphere first become visible when they are mirrored in personal life experiences.^

Public action to address systematic problems in imprisonment might develop from public representations mirrored in personal life, or from the prevalence of similar private, existential encounters. Other possibilities for personalization and democratic significance exist outside the conceptual categories public and private. Even apart from anyone’s ability to provide good reasons for an action, interpersonal communication has great significance for public action.

Prisoners’ communication with family and friends mitigates structural weaknesses in public communication. Prisoners are related to other community members. Prisoners are highly disproportionately men. Prisoners suffer from imprisonment. These are easily accessible, incontestable truths. However, deliberative democracy and vigorous competition in symbolic markets systematically suppress effective expression of these truths. In prisoners’ communication with family and friends, personal relations, male identity, and suffering figure centrally and evoke responses.

Providing prisoners with adequate communication services at reasonable charges is in the interests of everyone participating in democratic self-governance. Greater prisoner communication with family and friends improves prisoners’ prospects for re-entering successfully the outside world as tax-paying, law-abiding persons. Expanding secure, monitored communication opportunities for prisoners increases data for forensic analysis and legitimate law-enforcement actions. Expanding such communication opportunities also fosters development of the inmate communication service industry. Most importantly, prisoners’ communication with their families and friends are crucial to the democratic governance of punishment. Reforming and expanding communication with prisoners should be an important aspect of the ongoing, profound communications revolution.

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