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.

Sentences to Imprisonment Ignore Communication

face of a prisoner

In the U.S., a statutorily driven shift over the past twenty-five years to much less judicial discretion in sentencing has emphasized punishment being represented as months of imprisonment. Probation, parole, and other alternative sanctions imply different communication capabilities for persons being punished. Developments in communication technologies have greatly expanded possibilities for communicating with prisoners. Nonetheless, across the world, prisoners’ communication opportunities have had little importance in thinking about sentencing and punishment.

Equal sentences to months of imprisonment can lead to large inequalities in punishment. Imagine José, an illiterate immigrant not speaking the dominant local language, married, with five children and with a low-paying job as a dishwasher in a bustling city restaurant. He is imprisoned in a rural area more than 250 miles away from where he had previously lived. By the decision of the prison administrator of the prison to which José happened to be assigned, prisoners are permitted to receive visits only from immediate family, from 8am to 5pm on Saturday and Sunday, and for no more than one hour once per week. Visits are non-contact visits in which a glass partition separates prisoners from visitors.

Imprisonment is harsh, isolating punishment for José. Because visiting José is expensive and burdensome, his family and friends rarely visit him. Those rare visits have a much different communicative structure than the casual in-person communication with family and friends that was a major aspect of José’s life. Moreover, permitted communication excludes friends and extended family that were also a central part of José’s social world. Because José cannot read or write, he lacks the ability to communicate through letters. The relatively high price of inmate telephone service, along with his family’s low income, makes communication by telephone a major budgetary concern. Months of imprisonment for José mean months of exile from his normal world.

Contrast José’s prison sentence with another sentence to the same number of months of imprisonment. Imagine Daniel, who is single, with no children and with a job as a computer programmer. Daniel’s brother and father, who are the only relatives with whom Daniel has an ongoing relationship, live only a short drive from where Daniel is imprisoned. By the decision of the prison administrator of the prison to which Daniel happened to be assigned, prisoners are permitted daily visits, without specific time or frequency limits. No barriers are placed between prisoners and visitors. Prisoners and visitors are allowed to make ordinary bodily contact such as hugging. Any person not specifically found to present a security risk is allowed to visit a prisoner. Moreover, Daniel’s brother and father, as well as work colleagues seeking technical consultation, could each readily spend $100 per month on telephone calls with Daniel.

Imprisonment could have little effect on Daniel’s typical pattern of activity and social interaction. Daniel is an avid science-fiction reader, virtual-world participant, blogger, and email correspondent. Before he was imprisoned, he spent much of his work and leisure time alone in front of a computer. If a computer with a reasonably good Internet connection were installed in a corner of his prison cell, Daniel’s loss of physical freedom in prison would change little the liberty he exercised in the preponderance of his time before he was imprisoned. The cost to Daniel for communicating with his father and brother from prison isn’t economically significant for them. Since outside prison they typically communicated rarely, the actual cost of maintaining their normal level of communication with Daniel in prison is low.

Widely debated purposes of punishment have no clear relation to the communicative dimension of punishment. Incapacitating criminals, such as a murderer considered to present a risk of further physical violence, often does not require tight restrictions on non-physical communication with family, friends, and other persons. Retribution doesn’t imply any particular combination of loss of property, physical suffering, loss of physical liberties, and loss of communication capabilities. Holding constant some composite measure of punishment severity, more communication with persons being punished might promote general deterrence by increasing recognition among other persons of the punishing consequences of doing wrong. On the other hand, if persons being punished were idealized as heroic rebels, communication might weaken general deterrence. With respect to rehabilitation, increased communication with the outside world aids prisoners’ re-entry into that world. It helps prisoners to escape from a cycle of recidivism. Many prisoners, however, have difficult, painful personal and familial relations. Rehabilitation is easier to embrace as an ideal when communication restrictions give persons an opportunity to disengage from difficult relationships and shift responsibility to a separate class of rehabilitation professionals. Rehabilitation professionals have professional incentives to support rehabilitation. Depending on circumstances, communication with such professionals might be more or less effective than communication with family and friends in promoting released prisoners’ integration into law-abiding life.

In high-income democracies, most persons are much more concerned about public safety than fair and just punishment of persons convicted of crimes. Persons who have extensively studied the U.S. criminal justice system have concluded that it’s failing badly to provide fair and just punishment for reasonably defined crimes. The public largely doesn’t care about that failure. Crime and public safety are much more prominent public concerns. With new communication technologies, reasonably ensuring public safety is consistent with a wide range of possibilities for communicating with prisoners.

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.