Philosophy in Prison: Truth and Lies Regarding Incarceration

“Philosophy in Prison” is a series of posts generated for the APA Blog by Professor Gabriel Rockhill’s philosophy course, “Class, Race and Social Transformation,” which took place in the Spring semester of 2017 at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania. This post is the sixth of six.  You can see more posts from the series here.

There are so many stereotypes about prison that it is hard to get to the truth of what it is like to be behind bars. In what follows, we have drawn on our own experiences to debunk some of the standard myths, which portray the penitentiary as a place far superior to life on the streets, where you can live comfortably off of taxpayer money and work to make more, where you have solid and reliable healthcare, and where you never have to worry about food because of the expensive meals you get. After calling into question these positive stereotypes, we then turn to one of the prevalent negative stereotypes: that prison is dominated by savage violence.

One of the interesting things to come out of our discussions of these stereotypes is the fact that the positive ones tend to be those of people who come from black and indigenous communities like our own, where there are few opportunities and many dangers in the outside world so that life in prison is represented positively. In contrast, our discussions with our professor, Gabriel Rockhill, brought out more of the negative stereotypes, which we all recognized as being more common in middle-class white communities, revealing the extent to which these illusions themselves are bound up with class position and racial background.



A. J.

One of the widespread misconceptions about prisons is that inmates are living free off of taxpayers’ money, and that they are also provided with opportunities to work and make money themselves.

This is not true. People who are incarcerated face the same dangers as those who are trying to survive in our communities, if not more. They are paid around 42 cents an hour for a 6-hour workday, which is a slave wage. This may add up to about 50 dollars a month in income. From their salary, they may have to pay copays for medical expenses, healthcare products, and other costs. Those who don’t have a job or family to send them funds may resort to stealing or jailhouse hustling.

There are garment shops where prisoners are being paid slave wages for a prison complex that makes millions. They produce T-shirts, undergarments, boots, etc. Capitalism is in full swing in the prison, and if anyone is making it off scot-free on the backs of someone else’s labor, it’s the capitalists who are profiting from prisoners’ work.



S. W.

There appears to be a perception of those who are incarcerated as being well taken care of in prison and living a relatively comfortable life, and people often point to healthcare as a case in point. As someone who has been incarcerated for ten years, I can say that I have had the opportunity to see firsthand the extent to which reliable healthcare is lacking for those in prison.

There is a commercial that you can see on the outside where an elderly person presses a button when they fall and can’t get up, and medical staff arrives almost immediately. On the blocks on the inside, you can call for a medical emergency and wait 20 minutes or more. If it is a heart attack, for instance, it is more likely that death will arrive before the doctors, as just happened again on our block last week.

It is not just emergencies, though. There is a general lack of concern. There are cases, for instance, where you have blood work done for years, and then all of the sudden you are told that you have stage 4 cancer. The medical support is absolutely insufficient.



G. J.

The public perception of prisoners is often that they eat very well and that they do not have to pay for anything. Compared to some people on the outside, it is assumed, in fact, that they eat a lot better and get expensive food that some people can’t even afford.

I can tell you from the inside that the food is awful. I can hardly eat it without feeling sick to my stomach. The administration must order the absolute lowest quality food they can find. And I’m sure they don’t care how bad the food is that they give us. I am so sick of eating sub-grade food and being hungry most of the time.

The stereotypes about getting good food are not true. Prisoners do not get a well-rounded, nutritionally adequate diet, as prescribed by the U.S. Department of Health.



G. J. and S. W.

There is often a perception of prisoners as crazed psychopaths who just fight and kill one another all the time. People see it on TV, and they think that inmates are a bunch of animals with weapons, who deserve to be locked away. This reaffirms the assumption that there are simply people who are ‘naturally’ prone to violence, and that the rest of society should be protected from them. These hardened criminals, moreover, form gangs—like animals form herds—that run the prison according to the rules of the jungle. All of these misperceptions serve to reinforce the ideology according to which prisons are absolutely necessary to protect the rest of society from the animals.

The reality is that there is very little violence in prisons. The majority of inmates are docile, mostly defeated individuals. Folks are either seeking a better way to get home, or they become complacent and the only thing that matters is the phone, games, TV (particularly sports), or music. Now and then, you may hear of a fight, but you hear more of folks dying from cancer than fighting. The true violence of the prison is that violence that is perpetrated on the prisoners by society and the staff.

2 thoughts on “Philosophy in Prison: Truth and Lies Regarding Incarceration

  1. Punishment is suppose to act as a deterrent, but levels of recidivism often show how ineffective this can be; it has even been claimed, for example, that ‘the most effective way of turning a non-violent person into a violent one is to send him to prison’ [Garbarino, 2010], to say nothing of the emotional damage it might cause. In fact, those more punitive systems of justice around the world, such as operate in the USA or UK, correlate with re-offending rates of 60-65%, compared with less punitive systems in Sweden or Japan with re-offending rates of 35-40%.
    [P216 ‘The Rise of the Mutant Ego’].

  2. With all due respect to the opinions offered here, which I strongly endorse, I’d just like to add one calmer thought to the discourse of the prison system, stereotypes, and race class gender etc. From my experience with the prison system, the police, and the probation and parole system, it appears to me that the number one goal for anyone caught up in that system is to figure out how to get out of it, following from the Marxist slogan: You can get yourself into anything, but how do you get out of it? (Credits to Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, Harpo et al). The prison system really is a revolving door, and once caught up in it, it becomes very difficult to get out of it, because parolees, ex-cons, and felons are constantly under scrutiny (if not actual surveillance tailing or electronic monitoring…) by the parole/police system, and always have the presumption of guilt, when facing judges lawyers and police, and trying ti defend themsleves against criminal allegations, whether false or true. And I’d have to say that the parole/police system often appears to want to see parolees fail, probationers break probabtion, ex-cons become neo-cons, and ex-prisoners end up back in prison again. (So much for Mister Faubel’s ‘recidivist rate’!) And I know that I’ve been approached, many. many times by police who tried (whether deliberately or not, or simply because of bad police training…) to provoke me to do something that would give them an excuse to arrest me, or worse. (Example: A Tucson police officer (female) who approached me eating a PB&J sandwich on a sidewalk, who put her hand on her gun, and said: Go ahead and try to reach for that knife. But there are many, many examples, not all black and white, which you can see on YouTube, in full living color…) What’s necessary, in these situations, is having the self-discipline not to respond to provocation, not to do something stupid, and not to respond to physical or psychological violence with violence, which can be extremely difficult when two or three or more police officers are putting the squeeze on you, putting pressure on you, pointing weapons at you, and downright making you do something stupid. Which just might get you killed. Or worse… So I’d have to say that, more than Marxist discorse about the captalist system, or Black Panther discourse about racism, or LGBT discourse about sexism, and all that jive, what guys in prison really need is self-discipline training and non-violence training, to help them stop themselves from doing something stupid, and to help them stay out of prison, next time. Which is what Malcolm X got from studying the Muslim religion, despite the Nation of Islam jive about white racists (‘blue-eyed devils’ etc.) and the current horrible trend of Islamist terrorism, which actually promotes self-sacrificial martyrdom (sometimes called ‘suicide by cop’ …,), which is clearly a dead-end, and doesn’t get you out of anything. But if studying the Koran and praying five times a day toward Mecca helps promote self-discipline, I’d say it’s a good thing. Native Americans might get it from Sun Dance and sweat-lodges and medicine ceremonies. Whatever. But the number one thing is still to get out of prison, and not to get stuck in that revolving door, and keep going ’round and ’round with the prison/parole system, until you end up doing life in prison. Or worse, you end up dying in prison, whether by state-assisted suicide, or not…

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