Gary Cox is a member of HofMN and an inmate at the Oak Park Heights prison. He is co-editor of the prison inmate publication, "A New Perspective," from which the following is excerpted.
The proverb "out of sight, out of mind" is likely familiar to most everyone. Yet how many of us fully appreciate just what a profound truth it actually expresses? Relatively few, I would hazard to guess. In short, we depend on our sense of vision much more than we realize – or should, once the scope of the situation is properly grasped. As the notoriously cryptic Yogi Berra might once have quipped: We are often blinded by what we can’t see. An example of this is prisons.
What are we to make of the ever expanding number of lockups in the world, and in the U.S. especially? When and how did incarceration become the primary mode of punishment for suppressing crime in industrialized countries?
Interestingly, prisons of this sort were invented in the 1790s – in (where else?) America. Earlier, jails, dungeons and the like did exist but they served mainly as holding facilities for people awaiting trial or as the temporary confines for drunks and petty criminals. Occasionally they also served as dumping grounds for the political enemies of the ruling elite – a more punitive and intimidating alternative to exile, it seems. Generally speaking, however, once caught and convicted (and I use the term “convicted” very loosely), your run-of-the-mill felon of this pre-incarceration era was likely to face only one of two fates: either some form of corporal punishment (being flogged or placed in the stocks, for instance) or deaths. That was pretty much it. The idea of locking someone away for years or even decades would’ve been considered, if not cruel, then certainly a waste of precious resources. Simply put, swiftly torturing and/or executing “serious criminals” was deemed the most pragmatic way of maintaining order.
As literacy rates increased and the printed word, particularly in the form of newspapers, became more prevalent, people’s opinions on issues involving crime and punishment began to evolve. By the late 1700s, primarily in Europe and North America, a demand for an alternative to these crude methods of crime suppression was eventually manifested. Influential segments of society came to view incarceration as being (at least potentially) a more humane and effective tool for dealing with the problem of crime. And hence “penitentiaries” and associated notions of “rehabilitation” were born. A sea change occurred wherein physical torments were largely replaced by psychological ones. That is, instead of attacking people’s bodies in order to impact their minds, we began assaulting their minds more discretely by depriving them of many of the joys and freedoms which lend life its essential value. Of course, the threat of physical force was always present in the event that a prisoner might resist these psychological measures (as it remains today), but more and more these overt acts of violence became the tactics of last resort. Thus the art of running a prison “successfully” came to be judged, in part, by how infrequently force needed to be used to gain compliance.
Yet even in those cases where physical violence is wholly absent from the prison experience, the pain imposed on the minds of prisoners over the course of years spent incarcerated is still quite substantial. Indeed, in much the same way boxing gloves merely hide from an audience the damage that is done to the brains of boxers, prisons hide from the public the full extent of the sufferings visited on the minds of prisoners. The fact is prison walls not only keep the “bad guys” in but serve equally well at keeping the eyes - and consciences – of the public out. And if you think I’m overstating the case then consider this argument: what person serving a lengthy prison sentence would not gleefully exchange the balance of their time for a good old-fashioned whipping? Or even an amputation? Would not literally giving one’s right arm seem a small price to pay when staring down the barrel of a twenty- or thirty-year stretch? Thus assuming society was “humane” enough to offer prisoners such a choice, no doubt many of us would exercise that option.
In the end, using prisons instead of whips may allow us to fool ourselves into thinking we’re more ethical and humane than our predecessors, but in truth these institutions have only increased our sophistication at masking the evidence of our cruelty. For when we’re forced to look at the scars on the back of a man who’s been whipped, for example, there’s no denying the suffering he endured – suffering that was deliberately inflicted on him. (And many of us would then likely feel some measure of guilt for what was done to him in our names.) But the same is not true of a man who has been kept in a cage for many years, deprived, tormented and harassed in an infinite variety of petty ways that a free and sane person could scarcely imagine. There’s nothing one might look at that testifies to the misery impressed on his soul. The “scars” are on his mind rather than his body, and so his pain becomes – for others at least – a purely abstract notion. Your average citizen would have no hope of comprehending the true dimensions of his ordeal. And that’s the way many modern societies want punishments meted out on their behalf: quietly, discretely, with no visible reminders of what’s actually being done. Put another way, the undeniable physical agonies of a man who’s been whipped – the screams, the blood, the scars – rocks our souls, while the more abstract notion of prolonged psychological torments being endured by a prisoner barely causes us to raise an eyebrow...Out of sight, out of mind.