In a variation of an old theme, Jesse Ball suggests that we add a new duty to citizenship:
I propose that all citizens of the United States of America should serve a brief sentence of incarceration in our maximum-security penitentiaries. This service, which would occur for each person once in a decade, would help ensure that the quality of life within our prisons is sufficient for the keeping of human beings.
While this has been urged upon prosecutors and judges so they get an appreciation of what it means to cage a person for a period of time, Ball’s suggestion goes to a different purpose.
Just think, if everyone in the United States were to become, within a 10-year period, familiar with what it is like to be incarcerated, is there any question that the quality of our prisons would improve? It also follows that the skill and understanding of our juries might grow apace, as they would now know to what they were condemning those they condemn.
Putting aside the impracticalities of the idea, from inconvenience to lack of a sufficient number of cages, the idea has merit. No one has an appreciation of what imprisonment means until it touches their life.
And of course, while you are in prison serving your incarceration duty, your behavior will have to be perfect. If you were to fight with another inmate or rebuke a guard, your time might be extended, and that would go for everyone: peons, aristocrats, elected officials. All elected and appointed officials, judges, federal, state servants, members of the military, would participate in incarceration duty. There would be no putting it off.
Kinda sweet to think all the “important” people would have to suffer the indignities. Less sweet that you would too, but then, if the powerful are no more important than you, you are no less important than them.
So if this was feasible, would it accomplish it’s purpose? That’s where this quasi-Utopian scheme gets scary.
We must homogenize and justify our culture, and everyone must be availed of the opportunities that now only a subsection of our society enjoys. By that I mean: a visit to prison, and a set of coveralls.
I wonder, once all you citizens of the United States are passing in and out of prison on a regular basis, will the conditions there not seem singularly urgent? Just picture congressmen, priests, stock traders, truck drivers, people of every faith, color, description, all for once sharing in something.
There’s a sense about this reminscent of the “resistance” folks on the twitters that takes for granted that no one who experiences the world through their eyes can possibly feel differently than they do. It’s not just narcissistic, but delusionally myopic. The only explanation they have for not sharing their sensibilities is that people must not know about them, because if they did, they couldn’t possibly feel otherwise.
A visit to prison, even if compelled to wear coveralls, is still just a visit. The ‘loaf is repulsive, but the knowledge that there will be steak and caviar in a day or two will sustain you. It will be hard, like the first week of basic training, but if mindless compliance is good enough for our soldiers, can’t other citizens tough it out for a few days?
Rather than leave the pen with a sense of what it means to be incarcerated, I fear that many people, perhaps even most, will walk out saying to themselves, “that wasn’t very bad at all.” More importantly, it will solidify their believe that criminals (as opposed to citizens required to house with criminals until their return to the good life) deserve worse. Indeed, there’s a decent chance that many Americans will find that life in prison is better than their life on the outside.
While this will likely work with some, will it backfire with others? If it does, any hope of appreciation of the horrors of life in the prison system will not only be lost, but those inclined to wish misery on prisoners will enjoy the certainty of their “lived experience.”