Should Life in Jail be Worse than Outside, on Principle? By Chris Barker

Sheriff’s House and Jail in Easton, Maryland, c. 1881

Approximately 2.3 million people in the United States are currently in prison or jail. (Prisons are run by federal or state authorities; jails are run locally.) China, a non-democratic regime with a population four times larger than the US, incarcerates fewer persons in per-capita and absolute terms. What’s more, most people in US jails today have not been convicted, meaning that they are being punished without trial. Since US jail admissions number approximately 11 million per year, pre-trial incarceration is, arguably, the real problem of ‘mass incarceration’.

The crucial concept governing carceral practices is something called ‘less eligibility’. The idea dates back to the English Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which codified English practices of dealing with the indigent. In 1832, the economist Nassau William Senior described how the ‘first and most essential of all conditions’ in administering relief to the poor (often by moving them into a workhouse) is that the indigent’s ‘situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class’. That is, the conditions in the workhouse should be awful: worse even than the poorest of the poor.

But even before Senior’s famous line, a different carceral ideal was afoot: equality. In 1791, writing specifically about criminal offenders, the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that ‘the ordinary condition of a convict doomed to a punishment that few or none but the individuals of the poorest class are apt to incur, ought not to be made more eligible than that of the poorest class of subjects in a state of innocence and liberty’. As the historian Janet Semple observed in Bentham’s Prison (1993), his rule of severity is not ‘less eligibility’ but a more commonsense equality principle – offenders should have access to no more resources than they had while free. ‘Bentham,’ Semple wrote, ‘did not envisage grinding his convicts down to below the level of the poorest of the poor.’

Other countries do not run their jails and prisons according to a principle of less eligibility. German prisons operate under an ‘approximation’ principle, wherein offenders’ rights to privacy, dignity and property are protected. Norwegian prisons use a similar ‘normality principle’, which holds that daily prison life should be, as far as possible, no different from ordinary life. Fellow Englishman and Bentham disciple James Mill embraced the normality principle in 1825 by arguing that inmates in pre-trial incarceration should be allowed to lead the same life that they enjoyed prior to arrest, including access to employment and freedom to make small purchases with their own money. Today, US jails and prisons have rejected these examples in thrall to ‘less eligibility’, and not just for the poorest of the poor.

Why are the carceral practices in the US so harsh? Part of the reason is the vestige of a Christian-inspired desire to reform the offender’s soul. Around the time of the Revolution, the penitentiary’s ‘unsocial manner of life’ based on order, obedience and silence could seem plausible only to those who thought that they could achieve a ‘new victory of mind over matter’. Today, prolonged solitary confinement is coming to be seen for what it is: torture. Another reason, identified in James Whitman’s book Harsh Justice (2005), is populism. Elected prosecutors and judges are guided by popular, punitive attitudes in a way that unelected bureaucrats in countries such as Germany (or Canada) are not. Survey research shows that Canadian and US attitudes about punishment are similar, but Canada has much more lenient sentencing policies than the US because bureaucratic appointees, not elected officials, make decisions about punishment. Another layer is race. Warehousing black males is clearly an outcome, and perhaps also an important aim, of US criminal justice. The result of this grab-bag of influences is segregation without soul-craft, and discipline and surveillance without reform.

If, as I think, the aim of punishment is rehabilitation, it is hard to justify less rather than equal eligibility. But not all agree that rehabilitation is the primary aim of punishment. Deterrence theorists think that controlling crime is the most important aim of punishment. Retributivists hold that punishment should repay the harm done to another in a like manner: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

As evidence that precisely the opposite happens in US prisons, The End of Punishment (2013) by the present-day retributivist Robert Blecker’s recounts an interview with a Tennessee Death Row correctional officer who feels like a waiter, and a guard who complains that Florida’s Death Row is ‘the best deal in the building’. Blecker is right that we should classify offences and offenders according to the severity of their crime. Perhaps the ADX Florence supermax prison should even be, as its ex-warden described it to CNN, ‘far much worse than death’ for the worst of the worst. But think about this: county jail is ‘hard time’, and harder than state prison, as I am told by a local jail administrator. Almost 500,000 held in US jails are being held pre-trial. The average jail time served is short. Offenders quickly return to their communities, but they are not prepared for re-entry. Even the average jail and prison time might actually help offenders to become worse.

Too often, the US conversation about criminal justice is about principles and theories of punishment: rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence. What I am arguing here is that these theories amount to little if we ignore less eligibility, or how we punish. Visiting a jail without an outdoor yard, where offenders have no physical contact with friends and family during their incarceration, or a prison where life unfolds within coils of obtrusive razor wire, is not a normal life, and doesn’t prepare you to return to normal life. As opinion in the US starts to move away from some punitive strategies such as solitary confinement, we should reconsider which of our other carceral practices meet or violate the crucial secondary principles (leniency, proportionality, egalitarianism) of a just criminal justice system.

In Germany, there are restrictions on types of uniforms, on partitioning visitors from offenders, and on the use of bars and peepholes in cells. There are also protections of offenders’ rights to privacy, information, public exposure, and leisure and culture, that do not exist in the US. In the US, courts have upheld the constitutionality of expressive punishments that demean offenders, pre-trial incarceration that looks punitive, and denials of privacy and dignity.

It is a tragedy if the attempt to have a just society with a suitable criminal justice system has been transformed into criminogenic warehousing, based on surveillance and discipline, which achieves few or none of the goals of punishment. It is foolishness to countenance such a system merely because it has not yet touched you. The road to the present state of affairs leads through less eligibility, which, on the surface, is a principle that makes sense: treat offenders to a life that is worse than life on the outside. After all, why should offenders have air conditioning if the farmer ‘living in innocence and liberty’ does not? But the answer is that it is too easy to forget the other constraints on the dignity, privacy and autonomy of those incarcerated in jails and prisons.

Our present system is costly and ineffective; it creates aberrant economies and empowers prison gangs that in turn influence street gangs. Prisons reproduce the cultural inadequacy of life on the inside on our streets and in popular culture, and when offenders are released into communities, their lack of rehabilitation justifies further segregation and other collateral consequences, such as employment and housing discrimination.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Chris Barker is assistant professor of political science at Southwestern College in Kansas. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Ordinary Philosophy’s 4th Anniversary

At Monticello, VA, with my Dad, John Cools, in 2015 for my history of ideas series following Thomas Jefferson in America

I published my first post for Ordinary Philosophy four years ago today, on April 23rd, 2013. Thank you, dear readers and listeners, for your kind attention, your encouragement, your corrections, your patience as I learn with and from you, and your hospitality and financial support (you know who you are!) for all of my traveling philosophy / history of ideas series.

Ordinary Philosophy has been one of the most satisfying projects of my life, and I look forward to continuing to share my love of philosophy, history, ideas, and travel for many more years to come, whatever form this will take.

I’m thrilled to share the news with you that I’ll be resuming my formal education at the University of Edinburgh this fall. What an adventure this will be! I’ll be living and studying in the center of the Scottish Enlightenment and the city of David Hume. He brought me here three years ago when I followed his life and ideas for my first history of ideas travel series. I’ll take this opportunity continue my Hume series as well. Though my studies will demand a great deal of my energy and attention, I dearly hope I’ll be able to devote more time to share more with you here at Ordinary Philosophy, not less, as I once again pour the bulk of my time, energy, and love into the world of ideas.

Yours, as ever, Amy Cools

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Selfie in the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library, 2016 Amy Cools

In the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library. Thank you, friends, for supporting my New York projects too! Ahhh, what a town…

Wall of Thanks

Patrons of the Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories Series

Funding: Ervin Epstein, MDIMG_7626

Lodging & Storage of my Stuff: the Cools-Ramsden familyIMG_7730

Funding: Genessa KealohaIMG_7858

Funding: Liz & Russ EagleIMG_8016

Patrons of the Margaret Sanger Series

Funding: Christopher Wallanderthank-you-christopher-photo-by-amy-cools-and-unknown-nyc-2016

Lodging: Magaly Gamarra Grant, Devin Cecil-Wishing, Sally Leethank-you-magaly-devin-and-sally-photo-by-amy-cools-and-unknown-2016

Patrons of the Frederick Douglass Series

Funding: Bryan Kilgore, Michael Burke, Veronica Ruedrich, Blair Miller, Alex Black

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Lodging: Roxanne, Fred, Aleph, Maya, Devin, Sally, Jim, Nerissa, Brennan, and JamesonIMG_4079
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~ And thanks to everyone else out there who contributed in so many ways!

What Ordinary Philosophy’s All About: Clarifying the Vision

People in a Public Square, Image Creative Commons via PixabayIt’s been an especially busy few weeks for me: studying, researching, writing, planning for my upcoming traveling philosophy journey and for the expanded future of Ordinary Philosophy. This year so far, I’ve had the great good fortune to meet some inspiring new people: passionate, thinking, active, and creative. I’ve also gotten to know others better as well, and am opening new doors and making new contacts every day. Our conversations have been inspiring me to think more clearly and deeply about my vision for Ordinary Philosophy, about my hopes, dreams, and goals, and about the wonderful people who will work with me to accomplish them in the future.

So I’ve just been looking over my introductory statement about Ordinary Philosophy, and thought it needed some clarifying and expanding. Here’s my vision as it stands now, best as I can describe it, and it’s beautiful to me. I hope it is to you too!

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Ordinary Philosophy is founded on the belief that philosophy is an eminently useful endeavor as well as a fascinating and beautiful one, and that citizen philosophers and academic philosophers alike share in making it so.

So why the name Ordinary Philosophy?

The ‘Ordinary’ in Ordinary Philosophy means: Philosophy is not only pursued behind the walls of academia.

It’s an ordinary activity, something we can do regularly whatever our education, background, or profession, from our homes, workplaces, studies, public spaces, and universities. It’s applicable to ordinary life, since it’s about solving the problems we all encounter in the quest to pursue a good, happy, and meaningful one.

It’s about seeking answers to the ‘big questions’ we ask ourselves all the time: ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ ‘What’s a meaningful life, and how can I make mine so?’ ‘What’s the truth of the matter, what does truth mean anyway, and how do I know when I’ve found it?’ ‘What does it mean to have rights?’ ‘How did reality come to be as it is?’, and so on.

It’s also just as much about the ordinary, day-to-day questions: ‘Should I take this job, and will it help fulfill my highest aspirations?’ ‘It is wrong to put my interests first this time, even if it will harm someone else?’ ‘What’s the difference between just talking about other people and malicious gossip?’ ‘Why should I go out of my way to vote?’

And in the end, it’s about living philosophy, about philosophy in the public square, and the stories and histories of philosophy as it is realized, personified, lived out by activists, artists, scholars, educators, communicators, leaders, engaged citizens, and everyone else who loves what’s just, what’s beautiful, and what’s true.

All of this is philosophy.

~ Amy Cools, founder and editor of Ordinary Philosophy

Fundraising Campaign for Frederick Douglass’ Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas Series

Frederick Douglass with his second wife Helen Pitts and her sister Eva, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsAs you may know, dear readers, I’m embarking on the travel portion of my fifth philosophical-historical themed adventure in mid to late March. I’m off to Baltimore, MD, New York, Washington DC, and other East Coast sites to follow in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you.

Every single bit helps, from $1 on up: directly through your contribution, and indirectly by inspiring confidence and enthusiasm in others who see the support already given.

As always, I count on you to help me accomplish what I do here; thanks to all who have contributed in the past, and thanks in advance to all who contribute in the future!

What the Frederick Douglass Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas Series project will produce:
– A series of essays on the ideas of Frederick Douglass, how they relate to his time and ours
– A series of travel accounts of sites associated with Douglass’ life and ideas throughout the East Coast. I’ll be seeking insights into how the places informed the man, and vice versa. These will double as historical-philosophical investigations to bring Douglass to life in the mind of the reader, and as inspiration for other traveling history enthusiasts
– A series of downloadable walking tours to accompany the travel series: just subscribe and download in iTunes, and you’ll have your own travel guides to East Coast places I travel to for this series
– Free educational resources: supplementary teaching materials on the life and ideas of Douglass
– And if all goes as planned, a book!

Budget: In the interests of transparency and so you know exactly where your hard-earned, generously donated funds go, here’s the breakdown:

Primary Goal: $2,500 – To cover airfare, lodging, ground transportation, and advertising for Frederick Douglass’ Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series
– Airfare: to DC or NYC about $500 (w/taxes and fees)
– Car Rental: average $28 / day = $392
– Lodging: average $50 per night, will be staying with friends some nights = $700
– Parking / Fuel / Public Transportation: average $25 per day = $350
Subtotal = $1,942

Any amount I’ve saved on the above costs or amount collected in excess will be spent on paid advertising (Facebook, Google Adwords, Bing, Pinterest, etc, even a radio spot if funds allow!), which will be listed here, so that the total spent comes to $2,500. (I also advertise in a wide array of free venues)

Secondary Goal: $1,500 – Monthly wages
This year, O.P. is making a big push to include an expanded and more in depth history of ideas travel series, more regularly published podcast with downloadable history of ideas travel guides, interviews with fascinating people, scholarship and educational materials, more great guest posts, and so much more! To accomplish all this, O.P. will need to pay its own expenses and if possible, wages, so I can throw spend less time at other occupations, throwing myself into O.P. with all the heart, time, and energy I long to dedicate to this project.

Please visit the Subscribe, Submit, and Support page to help me fund this project.

I thank you in advance, from the bottom of my heart, for any support you can offer

Sincerely,

Amy Cools

 

Welcome to the new Ordinary Philosophy!

Ordinary Philosophy, Writing a letter *oil on panel *39 x 29.5 cm *signed b.c.: GTB *ca. 1655, assemblage by Amy Cools 2015Greetings to all,

On this New Year’s Day, which also happens to be my birthday and therefore, personally, doubly a day of new beginnings, I’m looking forward to a more expansive, more energetic future for Ordinary Philosophy!

What is Ordinary Philosophy?

It’s a series of explorations founded on the belief that philosophy is an eminently useful endeavor as well as a fascinating and beautiful one, and that citizen philosophers and academic philosophers alike share in making it so. A citizen philosopher myself, I found that my experiences as an avid reader, an artist, a working person, an entrepreneur, a student, and a writer filled my mind constantly with questions and new ideas, spurring me ever on in the search for answers. As I’ve always been a restless and hungry thinker, I fell in love with philosophy, especially, practical philosophy and the history of ideas.

What is Ordinary Philosophy’s mission?

It’s always been to share this love of philosophy and the history of ideas with you. In my explorations, I’ve encountered the most fascinating, innovative, and beautiful ideas from the curious, thoughtful, questing, and inventive world out there, from academic philosophy to science to history to current events to politics to the arts and so, so much more; so much more, in fact, that I can’t possibly process it all on my own.

So here at O.P.’s new home, I’ve broadened the mission.

While there have been occasional guest posts, there will be much more of an emphasis on providing a forum for many more voices at O.P., representing views from all walks of life. O.P. will also publish many more reviews, recommendations, and links directing readers to the great ideas proliferating out there that may be of special interest to O.P.’s audience.

The Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series will also expand. Each series will become more in-depth, with more detailed explorations of the life and ideas of each subject and more resources for further exploration and study. The podcast will expand in tandem: new audio recordings of longer pieces published in O.P. for those of you on the go who enjoy the ideas found here but don’t always have the time to sit down and read. As time goes by, I plan to expand the podcast as well to include interviews and a series of downloadable travel guides to accompany the History of Ideas series.

To better accomplish this expanded mission, I’ve moved O.P. here to its new platform: easier to read, use, and share. So if you love great ideas and the pieces you encounter here, please support O.P.’s expanded mission by sharing as widely as you can.

Lastly, dear readers, I appeal to you: Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love, and depends entirely on your support. I’m determined to keep O.P. ad-free, but can’t do it without you. All financial contributions will be credited by name (unless anonymity is expressly preferred, of course!) on each project funded by their donations, and welcomed with deepest gratitude. Please support Ordinary Philosophy today!

Yours,

Amy Cools, founder and editor of Ordinary Philosophy

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

Welcome to the Podcast Edition of Ordinary Philosophy!

Hello dear readers, and welcome to the
podcast version of Ordinary Philosophy!

You can listen to the podcast here, on Google Play, or subscribe in iTunes.

Like many of you, I’m a big fan of podcasts, mostly because my life is very busy. One day in the future, I hope to have a lot more time to do each task one at a time, to really be present, as they say, as I wash the dishes, straighten the house, do the laundry, and perform all those other tasks that take up time, but not much thought.

But at this time in my life, between my day jobs, my creative projects, and spending time with friends and family (which I don’t do enough of these days, sadly), I don’t have enough time to keep up the world of ideas as nearly much as I’d like to by sitting down and reading. Instead, I keep myself informed and increase my education by listening to lots of podcasts: discussions with my favorite authors and thinkers, audio renditions of books and essays, debates, recordings of classes on my favorite subjects, and so on. I listen to these podcasts while doing those aforementioned chores, and let me tell you: as one who is not fond at all of household chores like doing the dishes and washing the floor, the podcast is a marvelous invention: they transform boring chore time into great opportunities for learning and exploration. I’m also an avid hiker, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to immerse myself in some fascinating ideas or discussion as I immerse myself in the beauties of nature.

To begin with, this podcast will simply consist of audio recordings of my Ordinary Philosophy pieces. Over time, I may add commentary and who knows, perhaps interviews and discussions with guests. We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, here’s Ordinary Philosophy in audio form: I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable!

… And here’s episode 2: Is the Market Really the Most Democratic Way to Determine Wages?
Originally published as an essay Feb 6th, 2014