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December 14, 2016

"Why All Americans Should Go To Prison: Out of sight, out of mind isn’t good enough."

The title of this post is the extended headline of this new Ozy commentary. Here are is how it starts and ends:

Americans love their prison entertainment.  How could they not lap up the best moments of Orange Is the New Black, what with the lesbianness and the realness … the prison wars, the guards’ criminality, the racial commentary and, um, the lesbianness.

Sure, it feels authentic, but how would the audience know?  Safe to say that few of OITNB’s millions of fans have spent even a moment in a lockup — although probably half are engaged in the illicit sharing of Netflix passwords. Remote and security-sensitive, prisons aren’t exactly accessible to the general public.  States consider visits a privilege, doled out for the incarcerateds’ good behavior.  To enter, one must be on the prisoners’ approved visitor list or in an organized volunteer program.  Even the Supreme Court has come down in favor of strict visitation policies.

This is wrongheaded.  We believe every American should be required to visit a prison.  After all, some two million of their fellow citizens are incarcerated — that’s almost 1 percent of the population.  For the most part, those on the outside ignore this significant minority: Inmates don’t much figure into discussions about policy, which is one reason it took decades for politicians to start dismantling mass-incarceration policies that had long ago been deemed expensive and ineffective.

Isn’t it weird that the first sitting president to visit a federal prison was … Barack Obama, in the last year of his second term?  While there, he was surprised to discover that three fully grown men were housed in a minuscule 9 x 12 cell.

The idea of mandatory prison visits isn’t ours; law professor Neal Katyal tweeted about it this fall.  “The bottom line is, until you experience it and understand the total disconnect between life inside and life outside, it’s really hard to understand who you want to punish and how,” Professor Katyal told us on the phone....

Katyal tells of one Iowa judge who visits every single prisoner he puts behind bars to see how they’re doing. Instead of mandatory minimums, how about mandatory visits from all?

I have been to a handful of prisons to visit clients over the last two decades (and I also got to tour a local jail as part of serving on a grand jury). But I often think I ought to make more of a habit of visiting active prisons and jails, especially because I often go out of my way to tour famous old prisons (e.g., Eastern State, Alcatraz, Moundsville) whenever my travels allow it.

Remarkably, and usefully for those unlikely to be able to head right now to any nearby graybar hotel, this lead piece this morning from The Marshall Project is headlined "Let’s Go to Prison!: A national field trip to Incarceration Nation, under the shadow of Donald Trump." The lengthy article does not substitute for a prison visit, but it highlights a project by the Vera Institute of Justice very much in the spirit of the Ozy commentary. Here is a passage providing the backstory:

[Last month brought] the Vera Institute of Justice's "National Prison Visiting Week." Through a series of field trips to 29 facilities in 17 states, Vera welcomed a diverse array of community members — from bankers to prosecutors to real estate agents to teachers, doctors, and clergy — into Incarceration Nation.  The goal was to promote the value of transparency: to demonstrate that if corrections officials allowed people in, the sky wouldn't fall.  In the process, the organizers hoped, both staff and visitors would engage in a "re-imagining" of the very purpose of a prison: Is it punishment? Incapacitation? Deterrence? Rehabilitation?

The event was conceived during the administration of the first president ever to visit a federal prison, and in anticipation of a next president who had vowed she would reform criminal justice “from end-to-end.”  So the election of Donald J. Trump, less than a week earlier, left many participants wondering whether this field trip would still be the new beginning that was intended, or rather a last gasp of idealism about reform.

December 14, 2016 at 10:26 AM | Permalink


Or, as Foucault put it, "justice no longer takes public responsibility for the violence that is bound up with its practice."

Posted by: Bryan | Dec 14, 2016 10:48:35 AM

Unfortunately, as I have witnessed time and time again, Americans as a culture neither care much about democracy nor do they care about the fate of their fellow citizens. Debs' famous claim that "while one soul is in prison I am not free" is an idealist's view of the world; it certainly isn't a sentiment that the overwhelming majority of Americans have ever shared. Thus I not think that mandatory prison visits are likely to make them share it; the more likely outcome is a sharp rise in the amount of schadenfreude in the world.

Posted by: Daniel | Dec 14, 2016 3:16:05 PM

Television isn't quite like real life. Real life tends to be more boring, tedious and so on. So, fans of a t.v. show might not think much of a visit, especially since things are probably different when the tour groups leave. But, probably good to get some experience here, even if it is an imperfect reflection of reality and won't change many minds. At the very least, judges, legislators and the like should get a flavor of things.

(For instance, when a right to die case was up at the Supreme Court, one justice asked if the state advocate ever saw someone in a PVS. "Yes," he saw the woman in question herself.)

Posted by: Joe | Dec 14, 2016 3:26:42 PM

Surprised that President Obama was the first president to ever visit a federal prison. I agree with the overall message of the article, the idea that we as Americans should at least attempt to empathize with our forgotten fellow citizens. I am glad that many tv shows and movies have shed light on the fact that we have a mass incarceration problem that needs to be addressed. In addition, i also feel optimistic given that some of our leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan and others share in that sentiment. I think too many Einsteins, Van gogh's, Mandela's, etc, are rotting in prison with their talents/gifts hidden from the rest of us and its unacceptable.

Ismail-3L at Moritz

Posted by: Ismail | Dec 14, 2016 8:58:01 PM

I think visiting prisons would have the opposite impact than what author of the commentary thinks. As law student intern, law clerk for an appellate court, public defender, and prosecutor, I have seen a lot of prisons and jails -- both older institutions and newer institutions.

I think that most Americans when they think of prison think of the older prisons -- dank and dark institutions with inmates behind iron bars. Most of the newer institutions look much cleaner -- more pod-based with day rooms and less imposing cell-blocks. There is a certain substantial segment of society that thinks that prison should be unpleasant and sees the modern design as too much "Club Fed" and not punitive enough. (I know when my county wanted to replace our WPA-era jail with something more modern, we really had to emphasize that the old design was dangerous to jail employees. Concerns about the inmates did not really move the folks that we had tour our jail.)

Tours are going to keep visitors separate from the risks faced by inmates. Similarly, a one or two hour tour in which the visitors are out before the prison is locked down for the daily count will not give visitors any sense of how grinding it can be too live with the daily restrictions imposed by prisons for months or years. As a result, for most people, not already inclined to sympathize with the inmates, what they will see in a short tour is not going to look that bad. This is especially true if the people giving the tour included the statistics about who is incarcerated. (In my state, approximately 50% of those in prison are for offenses against the person and most of the remainder are either repeat offenders or failed on probation.)

Posted by: tmm | Dec 15, 2016 12:32:50 PM

Unless you have family or friends in prison, a visit to prison wouldn't do you much good, you'd think the same thing that the rest of us used to think, "won't ever happen to me or mine so why should I care".

Obama visited prison, did it make any difference, no. Four to six inmates still crowded into tiny cells meant for two, meals that are "children's portions" and often unidentifiable, protein still stolen from the kitchen and "sold to inmates by inmates" who work in the kitchen. Nothing has changed, only the family and friends of inmates care, to a group of outsiders "visiting" a prison, it would be like a trip to the zoo. Do you ever come home from those trips thinking "we really should let them out, being locked up isn't good for them." I doubt it.

Posted by: kat | Dec 15, 2016 1:44:35 PM

There are no visits allowed in federal prisons. It's true that federal prisons look like club med on the outside, that's why they are good for the community. There are so many contracts and jobs created. Landscaping contracts, food vendor contracts, maintenance contracts etc. They run like a well oiled machine with very little humanity and no tolerance for individual decision making. This is in stark contrast to the variables found in state and local facilities - especially local.

Posted by: beth | Dec 16, 2016 11:28:48 AM

Beth, you are mistaken, federal prisons do have visitation just like state prisons.

Posted by: kat | Dec 17, 2016 10:17:32 AM

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