Prisoners Out of Sight, Out of Mind for Public

face of a prisoner

In 2003, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, addressing a large and important meeting of lawyers, declared:

When the prisoner is taken away, our attention turns to the next case. When the door is locked against the prisoner, we do not think about what is behind it. … As a profession, as a people, we should know what happens after the prisoner is taken away. … Out of sight, out of mind is an unacceptable excuse for a prison system that incarcerates over two million human beings in the United States.^

In 1869, a book containing a woman’s first-person account of her experience as a matron of a woman’s prison was published in New York. That book ended with an urgent appeal:

Every one who has the cause of humanity at heart will echo the cry, open the doors of our prisons, as the doors of other public institutions are thrown open, so that those who support them may have an opportunity to inspect them.

It is the right of every tax-payer to know what is done within our prison walls at all times. It is the duty of every Christian man to make himself acquainted with the moral bearing of the discipline which obtains within them.

It is the duty of every religious woman to see that her fellow woman is not trampled down in degradation and vice, lower than her own sins would carry her, by the heel of her master in discipline.

Let the prison doors be opened, and the inside of them exposed to the view of all. Knowledge awakens interest, and interest leads to action.

If the people of this land could be roused to examine the subject, our prisons would soon be managed upon principles which would tend to the elevation of the wretched beings who now come out of them more degraded and hardened in the commission of crime than they go in.^

Prominent civic organizations inspected prisons and engaged in public discussion of prison policies in nineteenth-century America. The Prison Association of New York was a leading example of such a civic association. These organizations functioned according to a public knowledge / public action model of progressive political change.

The public knowledge / public action model of progressive political change has significant, systemic weaknesses. Particularly in the Internet era of rapidly expanding communication possibilities, gathering and maintaining public attention at a national political scale is difficult. That’s true even in relation to the fundamental government function of criminal punishment. Moreover, the imperatives of seeking public attention create biases in communication. In nineteenth-century public deliberation, international experts on prison policies formed a consensus that prisoners’ communication should be suppressed. By the late twentieth century, the public knowledge / public action model spurred an extraordinary rise in incarceration based significantly on grotesquely false public information.

Democratic change doesn’t depend only on the public knowledge / public action model. Personal experience and personal communication isn’t equivalent to acquiring public knowledge. Persons can act publicly out of convictions and understandings that they cannot explain through public reason. Effective democracy depends not just on public discussion, but also on personal communication and personal experience. Improving communication between prisoners and their families and friends can help to counterbalance weaknesses of public knowledge and mass communication.

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