Prisons In America: Incarceration as Political Philosophy

In the second installment of this 2-part series, Sean Beaudoin and Meg Worden discuss the prison system in America in a broader sense, looking at incarceration as a highly intentional system of control, as well as a rarely-examined political philosophy. Meg Worden spent 2 years in a Federal prison camp for conspiracy to distribute MDMA.


SB: We could spend this entire interview talking about all the ways in which America is a fantastic place to live. Instead, we’re here to try and grapple with the fact that our country also operates what is essentially a for-profit penal gulag. Even worse, it exists, without pretense or apology, in the midst of a populace that is indifferent toward, or entirely ignorant of it.

MW:  Yes. I suppose. I’m not sure I’m firmly in the camp of fantastic, and more precariously in the camp of feeling so inundated by freedom propaganda in the face of a rising police state.  I believe in holding on to hope, however. The ignorance is waning. We have the ability to communicate across a huge platform with immediacy. Our technology allows us to look into locations and lives where we ordinarily would never have access. We finally had a president visit a prison (outrageous that it has never happened before) and he made some compelling and compassionate statements about the need for changes in the system. Seeing leadership give the situation a nod, versus a tone deaf and myopic tough-on-crime stance, was hopeful. We still have a very long way to go to get to humane institutions that protect and rehabilitate without regard for class or race. Perhaps the insane costs of our penal system is tipping the scales towards reformation.

SB: I’d like to avoid statistics as much as possible, if only because everyone seems to have their own set, but before we go any further, we need some baseline context. Depending on your source, (mine, for sake of non-partisanship, is the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, or BJS), we have the world’s largest prison population (more than China and Russia combined), as well as the highest per-capita incarceration rate. We have somewhere around 2.5 million people incarcerated in Federal and State prisons. There are around 75,ooo juveniles also incarcerated. So, somewhere around 1 in 100 Americans are currently in jail, a vast majority for non-violent offenses.

MW: Yes. These statistics are pretty accurate to what I’ve read also. And it’s not like they’re hidden in the depths of some university research facility, they’re all over the Internet, often with infographics, videos, and lists that put us above countries we consider being “Third World.” There are so many facets feeding this system, from economic imbalance, lack of quality available healthcare and housing, underfunded schools, and unreasonable drug laws, it’s hard to know where one could even find an inroad into change that wouldn’t collapse in on itself. In addition to the problems for the people in the system, the people outside of it are taught that it is working and they don’t need to pay attention. There’s a lot of “don’t look at the man behind the curtain” going on. Unless it touches a person personally, or someone a person personally knows — and many times stigma keeps those people silent about their experiences — it is easy not to think about. They imagine it’s working fine, that it’s a problem politicians will effectively solve. I think at our core we still believe someone up there has our well-being at heart.

SB: We have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its inmates, which should lead us to conclude that American Exceptionalism turns out to be about the high quality of our criminal underclass. Or that, as a culture, we have officially fetishized punishment.

MW: Or we have fetishized victimization and normalized isolation. Barring actual personal responsibility to protect citizens, the definition of justice seems to have morphed into the near-obsessive need to hold someone accountable for each and every grievance. The promise to the “victim” is that the incarceration or death of those responsible will eradicate the pain of their loss – a fact actually proven erroneous. This functions to the such an egregious extent that an entire race and class of people (white, wealthy) has set themselves apart from the “criminal element” in order to isolate from the perpetrator paradigm and retain power by maintaining assumed victimization. It’s myopic and nonsensical, and so deeply entrenched into the “white lie” that it’s invisible to the children being raised with the narrative of entitlement. “You can do or be anything you want if only you work hard enough” just doesn’t apply across the board.

SB: I just read a statistic that there are more black men in prison right now then there were enslaved in 1850. African Americans make up 13.6 percent of the population, but account for 40.2 percent of all prison inmates. I don’t see how it’s possible for any rational person not to conclude that prisons in America are part of a calculated system of social control, and that system is motivated by hierarchies of race and class.

MB: The evidence is pretty overwhelming. Not long ago I read the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander which makes a compelling case for the organization of our justice system as a racial caste system. The War on Drugs particularly targeted unemployed, inner city inhabitants who are primarily of color. There is ample evidence that drug usage and crime is not skewed heavily towards any particular race of people, while drug sweeps, patrols, random searches, and use of force absolutely are.

SB: The influx of drugs that mysteriously flooded the inner cities during Vietnam, combined with a huge upswing in arrests and changes in sentencing laws effectively dismantled the black and Latino political movements of the 70’s. The inequity in the sentencing structure between crack and powdered cocaine in the 80’s continued a premeditated and highly effective system of social control of a potentially volatile community, while also meting out absurdly long sentences for a particular underclass, simply because they couldn’t afford a higher-quality drug. Decades of injustice later, these guidelines are finally being amended by the Obama administration.

MW: The inequity of the sentencing guidelines between different drug classes absolutely has a history of racism. The result of guidelines that put sentencing for crack at virtually one hundred times that for powder cocaine was the product of runaway populism around politicians vying to appear toughest on crime. Somewhat related: I didn’t know until the recent legalization of cannabis in my state that even the name “marijuana” is a name made up by the U.S. to sound Mexican. It isn’t even a Spanish word. Just a tool to blame a population of people for corruption and remove their rights, particularly as a voting block, but also as neighbors, business and property owners, and community members. The oppression of people of color is epic, and so very tired.

SB: Since 1989, 1,655 convictions have been reversed nationwide, a great majority of them for black and Latino males. Either it’s a massive coincidence that bad convictions are disproportionately levied against people of color, or our justice system is intentionally levied against people of color.

MW: At this point it’s pretty hard to argue that the disproportionate amount of convictions period are levied against people of color. There are far more people of color incarcerated for crimes that are equally, or often less, prevalent in their communities than white communities. The real difference is the amount of police surveillance, random searching, and arrest quota motivation in certain neighborhoods.

SB: Given that the fifteenth Amendment (passed just after the end of the Civil War) precludes convicted felons from voting, and having a record makes it extremely difficult for any former convict to get a decent job, the American penal system has very deliberately rendered many African American men non-citizens.

MB: Considering the importance of democracy, ownership, family, and the ability to earn a viable income as markers of relevant personhood in our culture, the penal system has actually rendered many African American men non-human. Targeted as “dangerous” from their teen years, swept into the system, rendered powerless to care for themselves and their families, they are then crucified in the media as absentee fathers, creating unstable family units that breed more crime. It’s truly horrifying, how the human psyche can be so blind when their own lives are not at stake. The consequences of standing up to this kind of injustice makes people appear to favor violence and corruption versus peace. Everyone wants to belong to the side of right. Social acceptance is at stake and it holds great weight.

SB: The Reagan administration, along with the Republican party at large, managed to de-fund and essentially gut the national mental health care system during the 80’s, dumping thousands of severely mentally ill onto the streets. Many of these people ended up in prison, forcing the prison system to act as de-facto institutions warehousing people with psychological problems, without addressing any of their theraputic or pharmacological needs. Which in turn forces guards to interact with people they are untrained to diagnose or respond to, as well as forcing inmates to deal with unpredictable and highly unstable presences in their midst.

MW: Years ago I was in a writing group with one of the chief psychiatrists at a men’s federal medical facility — famous for being the place where John Gotti died. There were inmates there assigned on the basis of their proximity to family, but was also a place where the elderly came to die, and the severest cases of mental illness were warehoused, really. Like you said. His stories could have been fictional horror, these people, inadequately cared for, suffering invisibly behind a landscaped facade because of a legitimate lack of alternatives. Even in the camp where I was, the need for mental health care was overwhelming compared to the staff available to treat inmates, rendering much of the efforts superficial. I was one of the very few fortunate people to access private therapy and I got really lucky. My psychologist was enthusiastic and compassionate. But again, I was able to seek out a thing that I was aware of, a thing I understood how to pursue. There were only a small handful of us getting this kind of care.

SB: One of the memes of the 80’s that still hasn’t left us, along the lines of “bomb them back to the stone age” or “America: love it or leave it” was “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” It has always seemed bizarre to me that the notion of endless incarceration is never rebutted by a very simple statistic: 90% of all people convicted will eventually be released. At no point is any consideration given to the fact that locking someone in a cage with other desperate people for years on end, with no attempt to address issues of education, addiction, abuse, or rehabilitation, in many cases means returning convicts to society in worse condition than they entered, a very real threat to those who think mass incarceration makes them safer.

MW: And, in fact, the increased crime rate and detriment to society that comes along with 700,000 people being released each year, who, on account of their unemployability will either remain unemployed, or return to crime to support themselves. Often, because of the time nonviolent offenders spent with violent offenders, the nature of the crimes increase rather than decrease. The penal system is creating a need for itself with a proven record of inefficacy. Our brains love to grab hold of a narrative and promptly forget to stay awake to its truth. “Lock them up and throw away the key” is a handy way to exist in a precarious world where there is more to gain from distancing oneself from the actions of a perpetrator, than finding a connection, and doing the far more complex work of curiosity, compassion, and integration. Empathy is completely absent in a culture that deifies the material successes of the individual.

SB: I have started to think of myself of a determinist, by which I mean, I don’t believe in Free Will. I think all of us do exactly what we would have done in any particular circumstance, based on a combination of our genetic makeup, personal history, and physical characteristics. When I’ve expressed this notion in the past, those that disagree invariably say that acknowledging a lack of Free Will strips us of personal responsibility, which is the first step to the eventual breakdown of society. For one thing, I think the perception that we have Free Will acts as an emollient, probably evolutionary, that protects us from immediately choosing a nihilistic path. Second, I still believe that we are all responsible for the genetic and environmental (sometimes lucky, often neutral or unfortunate) hand that we have been dealt, regardless. I bring this up because it obviously has great implications in terms of the criminal justice system. Being born into poverty, or amid constant violence, or with neural deficiencies in impulse control, compassion, or aggression, will vastly increase the chance that you will spend a significant part of your life in a cage.

MW: I am not one who is going to argue with your determinism. It is a fact that while our prisons house a few people who are legitimate perpetrators whose incarceration protects others, the majority of its inhabitants are, themselves, victims of a significant structural failing of support systems. It is also a fact that, on account of the unequal rates at which some communities are imprisoned versus others, those communities with higher rates of arrest have come to accept the inevitability of serving time, and in that acceptance, they relax their standards of ethics as well as create something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Prison time is even a right of passage now for some of the more heavily targeted populations. In order for prison to be an effective deterrent to crime, one has to believe that the system works, that imprisonment is avoidable, that it is something to be avoided.

SB: Alright, tell me what you think of the death penalty.

MW: I think the death penalty is a barbaric act of hubris. It’s expensive, requires decades of housing before it’s enacted, and proven to provide little to no solace to victims. And, of course, death row is populated disproportionately by poor people of color. One of my favorite things I’ve ever had the opportunity to do is to hear Sister Helen Prejean (most well known for the portrayal of her anti-death penalty activism in the movie Dead Man Walking). I cried through the whole talk.

SB: I certainly think there are people who commit such heinous acts that they have basically forfeited their right to continue breathing. So in that sense, I am pro-death penalty. Jeffrey Dahmer, for instance, did not need to continue breathing air. Neither did Timothy McVeigh. The problem is that I also don’t believe we are capable, either as individuals, a society, a culture, or as arbiters of punishment, to always make the correct decision about who should or shouldn’t be tried under death penalty statutes, or how that death should be administered. And I don’t think we ever will be. In that sense, I am 100% against the death penalty, mainly because we cannot be trusted with it. How many death penalty cases has Barry Sheck’s Innocence Project overturned through the use of new DNA testing technology? How many poor men of color were put to death unjustly over the last sixty years because this technology didn’t exist then? I think the death penalty should be abolished immediately, or at least until we are technologically generations ahead of where we are now.

MW: The ability to decide who lives and who dies is inherently fraught, and the reality of the death penalty, even when “deserved,” is decades of being housed on death row before execution. The current format is inefficient and ethically problematic.

SB: Most countries view solitary confinement as torture. We use it randomly and widely as a systemic method of control. Were you ever in solitary? Did others you served time with view it as an unbearable punishment? Did you happen to read about Robert King, who was part of the Angola Three, who spent almost thirty years (!) in solitary confinement, only to have his sentence eventually overturned?

MW: Yes. I heard about him. Solitary confinement is uncontested in the world of psychology for it’s irreversible and detrimental effects on humans. Babies that don’t get held will die. Humans need contact. It’s also incredibly disturbing to me that I can’t find an actual statistic on how many inmates are in solitary confinement right now in our country. The numbers range from 25,000-80,000. That seems like way too vague of an answer, with way too great a portion of our population enduring irrevocable damage to their psyche. I didn’t experience solitary confinement. Our low security prison camp sent women to the county jail for segregation and punishment. I stayed out of trouble and, after moving through county jail on my initial journey to prison, didn’t go back. While I was in county jail, we were on nearly complete lock down. I’m sure it’s better to have other humans around when you can’t see or go outside, but being in constant close proximity to so many other people has its own set of challenges. Once a week, we went to a small, filthy concrete room that had vents instead of glass windows, but we still couldn’t see out. That was our recreating time. One hour a week. I called that room the “Pet Carrier.” I really don’t know how people survive solitary. Or, if they really do. There is just so little reformative structure in the experience of incarceration.



SB: Rape in prison continues to be a punchline in books and comedy routines and certain types of films, a sort of shrugging admission that sexual assault, or the fear of it, is an unspoken component of any given sentence. What conclusions have you drawn about sexual violence as an element of control, and the role of gender in single-sex environments?

MW:  Some of the same people are able to decry rape culture on campus and, in practically the same breath, casually laugh at prison rape. It’s definitely more common when talking about men’s prisons where it is also more of a problem, and carries a greater stigma where male homosexuality is concerned. As if the people it happens to are weak and deserving of such a thing — the absolute loss of power and control over life and body. Female prison sex seems to end up being the stuff of pornography. Clearly, a different vibe. Not less dangerous, but possibly considered more consensual? Less about power and violence? The threat of rape in my prison was negligent, but the desire of inmates to partner intimately and in a sexual fashion was high. It was fascinating to watch the fluidity of gender in the single-sex environment — the way that relationshipping as both a basic human need, as well as a coping mechanism for co-dependence, was activated for different people. It was a spectrum of choices just like on the outside, but women only, so deviations in people’s gender identities were, perhaps, further pronounced in a place where there was less distraction or judgement. Of course, when we start talking about human sexuality and gender identification anywhere the conversation is consistently individual. Prison seemed to distill and isolate this phenomena, as it did so many things about human interaction. This topic could easily be a book-length conversation. I wish there was more awareness. It’s really hard to bear the rape jokes. Those men/people have feelings, fears, often a fragile sense of self, and they are the sons, brothers, fathers, and friends of people just like anyone else. No one deserves to be raped. Rape is never, ever, okay.

SB: The case could be made the prisons are a perpetual self-sustaining machine that actually provide zero deterrent effect. In other words, crimes can be identified and prosecuted to fill every cell, and the actual number has no relevance–cells will be filled regardless, because profit can be made regardless.

MW: This is an excellent summary of the current prison system. The inclusion of prisons in a capitalistic economy is inhumane and oxymoronic. The current model of crime deterrence is sustained by continued crime. I feel like we could draw parallels here to healthcare in the U.S. as well. Iatrogeny at its finest.

SB:  Can you tell us in terms of your personal experience about the long-term psychological effects of incarceration, punishment, stigmatization, and regret– how these things are taken into effect as it relates to a particular crime, and what the price for that crime ultimately ends up being?

MW: I stand by the notion that it is miraculous when someone makes it through the system and is able to function at all. For the first few months out of prison I couldn’t sleep in the bed (I slept on the floor because it was harder), go into large, brightly lit stores, hear the sound of keys, or stop feeling like I was constantly being watched. Even a decade after release, I have sensory input sensitivities, symptoms of PTSD such as nightmares, anxiety, memory loss. I am irrationally nervous in government buildings, around law enforcement or security officers, manage depression, and the constant threat of re-stigmatization every time I have to fill out an application for a rental property or professional license. This is one of the primary reasons I am self employed. I struggle regularly in ways that are directly related to the (relatively) short time I spent inside, and I have a lot of privileges not afforded to others. I feel both incredibly lucky, and also incredibly sad. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the people that don’t have even a sliver of a chance at sustainable freedom. The powerlessness is oppressive to the point of defeat.

SB: Okay, let’s conclude by talking about rates of recidivism, and the huge number of obstacles –against all logic–placed in front of people who have served time successfully reentering society.

MW: I can’t seem to find much past a 2005 study which might be indicative in itself, but can’t imagine there has been a decrease in rates considering the bulging inmate population nationwide.

From the Bureau of Justice website:

In 2005, when 404,638 prisoners in 30 states tracked after their release from prison, the researchers found that:

  • Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.
  • Property offenders were the most likely to be rearrested, with 82.1 percent of released property offenders arrested for a new crime compared with 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.6 percent of public order offenders and 71.3 percent of violent offenders.

And concerning the huge number of illogical obstacles, they are countless and enmeshed in every single activity of the day, which most people take for granted. From the near impossibility of finding realistic sources of income, to the crippled ability of many to organize their own time in a world that is wildly chaotic compared to prison. The expectations of integration are out-sized, unsupported, and appear to serve the revolving door business model of prisons versus the health of individuals that should be allowed to care for families, neighbors, and contribute to the economy and the direction of our country’s government. We have more of our citizens incarcerated per capita than any other nation in the world. And somehow we still call ourselves free.


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About Sean Beaudoin and Meg Worden

Sean Beaudoin is an essayist and the author of five novels. His short story collection "Welcome Thieves" will be out with Algonquin Press, March '16. Meg Worden is a health coach, speaker, business owner, and writer who works in Art Advocacy and Economic Empowerment. @MegWorden
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