Public discourse has not fully valued prisoners’ communication with their families and friends in the free world. In the nineteenth century, imprisonment became the predominate form of punishment in industrializing countries. Philosophers, philanthropists, politicians, religious and civic leaders, and government bureaucrats sought public knowledge about prison conditions and vigorously discussed the effects of prison design and administration. They determined isolation, solitude, and silence to be the best treatment for prisoners.
Early nineteenth-century public deliberation about penal policy focused on the value, cost, and means of eliminating prisoners’ communication with other prisoners. Prisoners’ communication with family and friends was scarcely a topic of discussion. Compared to communication among prisoners, prisoners’ communication with family and friends relates more tangentially to the design of state institutions. It highlights differences between the ideals of public deliberation and the class basis of its practice. Prisoners’ communication for family and friends offers an unpropitious subject for claims of technical expertise and for the promotion of knowledge. These aspects of communicative structure fostered public deliberation forming an implicit consensus to suppress prisoners’ communication with family and friends.
Legitimate penological interests have enlarged prisoners’ opportunities to communicate with other prisoners and with family and friends. From the mid-nineteenth century to the present, prisoner population growth, fiscal constraints, and pragmatic administrative practice expanded prisoners’ opportunities to communicate with other prisoners. During that time, prison officials, acting in accordance with their individual legitimate authority, produced a general, uncoordinated, publicly invisible liberalization of prisoners’ communication with family and friends.
The public value of prisoners’ communications now tends to be discussed quite narrowly. Problems of prison overcrowding and prison rape are now typically considered without considering whether more or less communication among prisoners is generally desirable. Prisoners’ communication with family and friends is now typically discussed in terms of constitutional rights of prisoners, rational prison management, and prisoner re-entry into free society. The more general public interest in prisoners’ communication with family and friends remains largely unexpressed in public discourse.