Theorists use a range of scales to identify the turning points of democratization and de-democratization. Some prefer to focus on political rights, as in the difference between citizens in a republic or a monarchy. Others look for factors like the presence of elections and contestation. These procedural elements are relatively superficial indicators of defining democratic governance. In contrast, Charles Tilly’s Democracy focuses on deeper layers of relations between citizens and their governments. Among his considerations are the broadness of rights among citizens, how equally they are treated, and their security from arbitrary state actions. This approach provides not only a look at democratic features “on paper,” but also a more substantive way to scale democracy in practice. “Democracy will turn out to be a certain class of relations between states and citizens, and democratization and de-democratization will consist of changes in those sorts of relations” (Tilly, 12).
Viewed through this lens, the deplorable status of U.S. prison inmates is a troubling example of democratic erosion. Since the rise of strict drug laws and longer sentences in the 1970s, the U.S. prison population has swollen from 200,000 to 2,000,000 (The Sentencing Project). The notion that prison serves a dual purpose of punishing and rehabilitating inmates withers under this reality. As both popular perception and policy attest, prisons are chiefly domains of perpetual suffering. Those inmates who find themselves in the outer darkness face increasingly long odds of redemption back into society. Whether it’s due to the state’s lack of capacity or its lack of desire to protect them, their status reflects a decaying justice system.
First, consider the scariest boogeymen within the prison system. Felons convicted of violent and sexual crimes (murder, robbery, rape) inspire the lowest levels of public sympathy, so their case is particularly instructive. With the exceptions of Maine and Vermont, states disenfranchise felony convicted inmates throughout their terms. Most other states restore voting status only at the end of parole or probationary periods; in nine states, felons stand the chance of never regaining the vote (ProCon.org). Why? Resisting an emotional response about the awfulness of their crimes, and considering that they have been sequestered from free society with the intent of reentry, we must ask; what purpose does disenfranchisement serve? And that’s only with the worst inmates in mind. Now consider the multitude of unexceptional inmates in the same situation.
The societal implication appears to be that felons should be busy suffering about the past, not thinking about the future. There’s a certain logic here for life sentences and death sentences, where participation in the free world has been officially precluded. For all other inmates, I contend that they are suffering, but should nonetheless be encouraged to think about the future if we are to take rehabilitation seriously. It’s the apparent lack of seriousness that exposes the non-democratic operation of these institutions.
Free society doesn’t hesitate to use inmates for political purposes. In the current presidential election season, candidate Mike Bloomberg used prison labor out of Oklahoma to staff a phone bank for his campaign (Wamsley). He cut ties with the prison after the story was published but it’s telling that inmates can be used to prop up a candidate while simultaneously being barred from voting for one. The problem is more systemic than a single campaign. In rural towns where prisons tend to be located, state officials have been known to draw district lines around prisons.
This “prison gerrymandering” leverages non-voting inmates to inflate the representation for sparsely populated voting districts (Wang). A notorious case from 2008 involved a backhoe operator in Iowa who won a city council seat with two write-in votes from his wife and neighbor. His rural district was drawn around a penitentiary that housed 1,300 inmates who couldn’t vote (Roberts). These are just a few more examples highlighting the drift of democratic institutions away from the citizens they are meant to represent.
It’s not only that “correction” facilities are abandoning an important aspect of reintegration; Tilly’s note on protection from arbitrary state action also deserves attention. Rampant neglect in U.S. prisons is a well-documented phenomenon. A Justice Department investigation that began in 2016 and concluded last April found abysmal conditions, for example, in the Alabama prison system. Bodies of inmates discovered long after death, torture, and homicides have featured in the lives of inmates for years. The report detailed “multiple incidents including stabbings, a sleeping man attacked with socks filled with metal locks and another man being forced to perform oral sex on two men at knife point” — all taking place in a single week (Benner).
Among other failures to protect inmates, the prisons neglected to separate sexually abusive offenders from at-risk individuals such as gay and trans people. Inaction is a de-facto policy. From December 2019 through February 2020, 18 inmates in Mississippi were either murdered, said to have committed suicide, or died of “natural causes” (Beveridge). It is difficult to imagine a more forgotten and abused class of citizens, and American law has codified this situation for decades.
In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Farmer V. Brennan, which involved the 8th amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishments. Dee Farmer was a trans inmate in an Indiana prison when she was raped and contracted HIV. She sued on the grounds that the state had failed to protect her. In its response, which remains the precedent today, the Supreme Court ruled that “the amendment outlaws cruel and unusual ‘punishments’, not ‘conditions’” (Library of Congress).
The U.S. government is aware of the conditions within its prisons. These overcrowded, understaffed, and insecure environments are products of criminal justice and budgetary policies. When inmates are arbitrarily blocked from a path back into free society, it signals that they’re not wanted in free society. When their safety and well-being are deprioritized, the message becomes even more blunt; You’re not in prison to be rehabilitated, you are there to rot. A democratic country with this degrading relationship to a significant portion of its citizens shows signs of democratic decay.
Beveridge, Lici. “Mississippi Prison Crisis: 18th Inmate Dies Since Dec. 29, Second in 24 Hours”. USA Today. February 16, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/02/16/mississippi-inmate-deaths-18th-dies-state-prison-since-dec-29/4779704002/
Benner, Katie. Dewan, Shaila. “Alabama’s Gruesome Prisons: Report Finds Rape and Murder at all Hours”. New York Times. April 3, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/03/us/alabama-prisons-doj-investigation.html
Library of Congress. U.S. Reports: Farmer V. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825. (1994). https://www.loc.gov/item/usrep511825/
ProCon.org. State Felon Voting Laws. 2020. https://felonvoting.procon.org/state-felon-voting-laws/#alabama
Roberts, Sam. “Census Burau’s Counting of Prisoners Benefits Some Rural Voting Districts”. New York Times. October 23, 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/24/us/politics/24census.html
Tilly, Charles. Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2007.
The Sentencing Project. Trends in U.S. Corrections. 2019. https://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf
Wamsley, Laurel. “Bloomberg Campaign Vendor Used Prison Labor To Make Presidential Campaign Calls”. NPR. December 24, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/12/24/791194618/bloomberg-campaign-vendor-used-prison-labor-to-make-presidential-campaign-calls
Wang Hansi Lo, Kumari Devarajan. “‘Your Body is Being Used’: Where Prisoners Who Can’t Vote Fill Voting Districts”. NPR. December 31, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/12/31/761932806/your-body-being-used-where-prisoners-who-can-t-vote-fill-voting-districts