Current Affairs

Getting Past Punishment

Prisons are dystopian microstates that operate on senselessly cruel bureaucratic logic.

The excellent Intercept reporter Liliana Segura recently wrote about a visit she made to an American prison, accompanied by a family member of an incarcerated man. When they arrived, they saw a dejected-looking older woman returning to her car. Prison authorities had prevented her from visiting her loved one because she had “too many keys” on her keychain. She offered to return to her car and take off the extra keys. They not only refused, but said she was not allowed to attempt another visit for 30 days.

Segura herself was also denied. First the guard told her that she had violated the rule against having jewelry. (She had forgotten that she was wearing a small nose ring.) Then she was told that the person she was visiting had had their visitation privileges revoked anyway. For an entire year. Nobody had told him, and nobody could say why. Segura says that this is common, and she has seen it at prisons across the country:

I’ve been to a bunch of prisons in a bunch of states. The rules are always changing, always arbitrary. What is consistent is the casual cruelty; the indifference; the way some seem to relish denying visits for any reason they can… This is a thing that always gets to me after visits: It’s not just the trauma for those inside, but the endless harm to those who try to maintain connections to loved ones. Most people don’t have the resources to just adapt; to try again next time. Families become fractured. 

I’ve seen a bit of this myself. When I was in law school, I participated in a program where law students would visit a maximum security prison in New York for group conversations with prisoners. Several times, groups of law students made the two-hour drive to the prison only to be turned away. Every year, the administrators used to make us make a special trip out to the prison where we wouldn’t get to visit with the men, but simply had to sit around waiting to get new visitor photo IDs. It ended up taking an entire day.

I experienced something similar when I was writing about Robert Pruett in the months before Texas executed him. The Texas prison bureau wouldn’t admit me to see him because I wasn’t from an “approved” publication. He died without us ever getting to meet one another, simply because bureaucrats in the prison system decided not to let him be visited by journalists. 

Segura points out how absurd and vindictive these visitation denials are: If we really wanted to minimize the chance that prisoners would re-offend after their release, and improve the chances that their own children would have, we would encourage them to maintain strong family ties. Putting difficult burdens on visitors makes it less likely that they will continue to visit. From the perspective of rehabilitation and crime reduction, it’s absolutely senseless to turn away someone’s mom or sister because they have too many keys on their keychain. As Segura notes, these practices seem mostly to be about keeping people “in their place.”

I noticed something perverse on my own visits to a prison. The correctional officers seemed to hate it when the prisoners were happy. They seemed to feel that there was something wrong, something unacceptable, about letting people have what they wanted, and they seemed determined to take away anything that could provide a sense of satisfaction and agency, even if it was harmless or even beneficial. I vividly remember how one young inmate had tried to get the authorities to let him teach a course on feminism for his fellow prisoners. He had read widely on the subject since discovering that his hero Frederick Douglass had been a feminist, and believed that many men there would actually welcome opportunities to learn more about how gender worked. And the problem was not that the other men disagreed or were skeptical of his idea for a class. It was that the prison authorities steadfastly refused to let him do it, because this was not one of the approved instructional topics.

I still get angry when I recall the last time I saw him, how beaten and depressed he seemed after having his project killed for no reason. Here was a bright young man doing his best to become more thoughtful and humane, and to perform the difficult work of helping others do the same, and he was shot down by bureaucrats for no reason. He didn’t seem quite the same afterwards, and seemed to feel as if there was no point in trying things.

I understand why prison officials are like this, though. If you believe that prison is supposed to be a place of punishment, then it’s true that letting prisoners design courses and have fun conversations with law students seems… well, a bit like freedom. Visits allow an incarcerated person to feel, for a moment, as if they’re not completely imprisoned. They bring the outside world inside. If the purpose of prison is to cut someone off from the outside world, no wonder visits seem a threat. Some places now deny visits entirely, providing only a simulation of a visit through “video visitation” phone calls. I’m sure part of that is because it saves time/money and prison authorities simply don’t care about the families of the incarcerated, but denying visits also flows directly from the logic of the “punitive mindset.” Prison isn’t meant to be a place where you’re happy, it’s a “penitentiary” for you to do “penance” in. The sensory deprivation, the colorless walls, the hard beds, the bad food: It’s not just because it’s cheaper to provide those things, but because prisoners are dehumanized and making them miserable is part of the purpose of the institution.

I’ve always been horrified by this mindset. It strikes me as totalitarian. It justifies building dystopian cities—that’s really what prisons are—and keeping people in them just to make their lives worse. It does not care at all about the question of what works to reduce crime and rehabilitate people.

This is the sense in which I am absolutely a “prison abolitionist.” To me, being a prison abolitionist does not necessarily mean you think there will never be any circumstances in which anyone will have to be kept apart from others. Rather, it means an objection to the modern day prison as the institution by which order is enforced. Perhaps incorrigibly violent people need to be restrained somehow, but there’s no need to put them in a place that is deliberately squalid and miserable, to deny contact with others for non-safety related reasons, to impose an ever-changing set of arbitrary bureaucratic regulations. What we’ve got to get past is the “punitive instinct” that sees happiness in prisoners as some kind of failure of justice, and instead sees it as a sign that we have not yet lost all of our humanity.

It’s so easy to come up with arguments that justify dystopian misery. The Chinese government has all sorts of public safety explanations for why it is currently rounding up millions of Muslims and keeping them in re-education camps. If you believe that “crimes must be severely punished,” and “the rule of law means there must be consequences for socially harmful actions,” you can come up with all sorts of explanations for why it’s important to make sure prisoners don’t experience too much freedom. I’m sure the correctional officers who denied Segura’s visit would argue to the death that they were right and had good reasons, and that actually keys pose a serious safety hazard and the Rules Are The Rules. Every regime that commits monstrous acts against people has its excuses perfected. But one of the central lessons of the 20th century should be that it is not acceptable to be a petty bureaucrat who fails to ask the question: “Is the system I am part of justified and humane?” “Just doing my job” and “rules are rules” are recipes for atrocity.

We have to get past the punitive mindset. The petty bureaucracies that govern prisons are socially harmful, because they enforce rules without any regard to whether those rules are doing any good. (Half the time, they seem to just make up the rules to cause the maximum possible inconvenience to inmates.) We have to become the sort of people who do not treat these kinds of everyday routinized cruelties as inevitable or acceptable, and who care about making everyone better off rather than simply imposing senseless misery in the name of justice.

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