Short Take: An Inconvenient Incarceration

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.”

19 thoughts on “Short Take: An Inconvenient Incarceration

  1. Roxanne Chester

    I have a better idea. How about if we all just obey the laws that we are so eager for various levels of government to create. Then we don’t have to worry about what incarceration is like much less work to ensure that the anti-social among us have the highest of standards of living. It is beyond bizarre to me that the people most eager to over-regulate, over-criminalize are also the people most likely to protest the harm it causes. For people who insist they are the smart and educated side of the political spectrum, they seem to struggle with cognition!

    1. SHG Post author

      If you weren’t so grossly simplistic, it wouldn’t be so bizarre. Unfortunately, “don’t commit crimes” is only a sufficient answer until about fifth grade. After that, it’s necessary to think harder.

      1. SHG Post author

        But consider that the attitude could well be what many take away from all this. It’s not nearly bad enough in there for those anti-social criminals.

      2. Billy Bob

        Salvador Dali-breath, there you go again! A tree branch? Where did that come from? There are tree branches in New England, and free-range ranches in Texas, and never the twain shall meet. (For the record, Bush#43 is actually a New Englander from Greenwich, CT. What an idiot.)

        Actually, I have been advocating this remedy for some time, but for judges and prosecutors. For the public-at-large, it’s clearly unworkable, as the Host points out. Plus, like he sez, it could conceivably backfire. Hey, a little bit of prison time never hurt anybody? N0t! It is pretty nasty, and the public should be educated as to those deplorable and inhuman conditions in the greatest country the world has ever known. Yea, you heard me right!

      1. Fubar

        I maintain Mencken’s head in a flask.
        So, on issues like this, I just ask,
        “Henry, whatdaya think?
        Should I have one more drink?”
        He assures me I’m up to the task!

          1. the other rob

            Ah, yes. Jeremy “13 Departments of State” Bentham, as a scholar of my vague acquaintance calls him.

            I had wondered when that Utilitarianist might show up. Have you looked at the wikipedia page on him recently? I can’t hep but suspect some SJW activity.

            I do like Mencken, though.

  2. DaveL

    It seems to me this would run into the problem of the measuring throwing off the measurement. There are about 1.6 million inmates in state and federal prisons. Only a fraction of those are in maximum security. If every adult had to serve a week every 10 years, that amounts to 1 week out of 520. Rounding off a little, let’s call that 2 people per thousand serving this “civic sentence” at any one time. That’s going to work out to roughly half a million people.

    Now, part of what makes prison, especially maximum security prison, a bad place to be is that it’s disproportionately stocked with really bad people. This little idea would throw that dynamic off entirely. The effect would be especially pronounced for women, who would make up half of “civic duty” inmates but only a small fraction of “real” maximum security inmates.

    1. SHG Post author

      My first reaction is that math is hard, so you’re a meanie. But then I thought of the commercial opportunities being prison vendor. And then I realized, just because people aren’t convicted and sentenced doesn’t mean they’re not bad people.

  3. Damn Yankee

    One whole week? Imagine what a lowly outsider could learn from the esteemed residents in that time:

    Hand-to-hand combat, improvised weapons, explosives, lock-picking, alarm-neutralization, escape and evasion, safe-cracking, drug manufacture, financial fraud, identity theft, toilet wine – oh, and the legal system, too.

    These skills and other valuable knowledge taken back into society by the citizenry will surely be used to prevent the social justice warriors from ever perpetrating this kind of nonsense ever again. I’m all for it!

    1. SHG Post author

      As DaveL points out, there will be more visitors than inmates. Chances are you’ll never get a chance to learn anything “useful” unless you sign up early.

  4. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Better yet, let’s have everyone charged and convicted for the federal laws that they inevitably violate daily, and we can all experience a “real” prison sentence. Those who miraculously fail to violate federal law can be questioned by the FBI and then prosecuted for a 302 violation.

  5. Jyjon

    And after spending a week in the slammer, they’ll work as a Public Defender for one inmate from begining to sentencing, since they’ll most likely loose. Then they’ll understand how hard being a lawyer is, and how we need to spend more money on the Public Defenders. And have them be Air Traffic Controllers for a day so they really learn to appreciate how important they are and how much stress they’re constantly under so they’ll be willing to help improve their working conditions, then after that….

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