Prisoners’ Relative Deprivation in Personal Communication

face of a prisoner

Prisoners have had relatively poor opportunities to use widely available personal communications technologies. From an early-nineteenth-century ideal of suppressing communication through ad hoc liberalization to the present, prisons have significantly restricted visits, mail, and telephone calls between prisoners and their family and friends. In 2005, more than three decades after the development of email, prisoners could not use the Internet or send email.^ Prisoners were not allowed to use mobile phones. Prisoners could not use text messaging, social networks, or other new communications technology. Prices for telephone calls with prisoners were much higher than prices for telephone calls with non-prisoners. That situation remains largely unchanged.

Prisoners have been much better integrated into the public circulation of informative and narrative texts. Most prisoners in U.S. state prisons had access to library services by 1850. About 1875, prison libraries held more books per prisoner than public libraries held books per person outside prisons. At least some state prisoners had access to a wider range of reading material than was typically available in public libraries of that time. In the late 1920s, most prisons had twice weekly film showings for prisoners. Less than a decade after the first public radio broadcasts, a few prisons were wiring individual prison cells to distribute programs from central radios.^ Television is now widely available both inside and outside prisons. While prisoners currently spend about as much time watching television as do free persons, prisoners spend about seven times as much time reading as do free persons.

Lack of concern for prisoners in democratic society isn’t a consequence of prisoners being marginalized in the circulation of public works. Prisoners aren’t marginalized in the circulation of public works. Prisoners are marginalized in personal communication with their families and friends.

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