Social Justice Matters: The Myth of Cushy Prisons

I recently re-encountered one of the more bizzarely pervasive myths about prisons when I was talking about the prison abolition movement with a friend: The idea that prisons are ‘cushy.’ This person was trying to argue that because conditions in prisons are so terrific, prisoners have it better when they’re incarcerated than they would in their own communities, which is such a tangled mess of complicated and erroneous ideas that I hardly know where to begin.

So let’s start with the premise: Prisons are ‘cushy.’ This assumption is based on the idea that prisons provide ‘perks’ to prisoners beyond the food and shelter they are required to offer to inmates. And before we get ahead of ourselves, need I remind you, gentle readers, that ‘four hots and a cot’ is not actually a given in prison? Some prisoners have their bedding taken away as a form of social control and punishment, many prisons are so crowded that there are actually not enough beds for everyone, and don’t even get me started on prison food. Well, ok, I’ll start: Meal services can be suspended or interrupted for a variety of reasons, the quality of the food is often very poor, and people with dietary restrictions (religious and health-based) often have difficulty getting adequate nutrition in prison.

We’ve also talked about the lack of access to health care in US prisons; I have a hard time calling any environment where people die from treatable medical conditions ‘cushy.’ I struggle to think of how one could apply this word to an environment where access to everything from a doctor to your legally prescribed medications is predicated on whether you are ‘good’ and who you know and how the guard is feeling on a given day. It’s true that many people outside the prison system lack access to health care too and that is also a problem, but prisons are a closed system; they claim to provide health services to prisoners and they do not, and it is impossible to get care from an alternative source. This is not cushy.

These are these mythical prisons I hear about where everyone has television to watch all the time and gets to wander freely all over the prison and has access to a library and heaven knows what else. This is ‘cushy.’ Let’s break these assumptions, just three examples of how prisons are ‘cushy,’ down one by one, shall we?

Television. Yes, some prisons do have television or allow prisoners to install televisions in their cells. There’s a pretty simple reason for this: When you are confining large numbers of people in a closed space, it creates crowded and unhealthy conditions. Many prisoners are bored, restless, and under considerable stress. Television, here, is a tool for keeping prisoners complacent. The threat of having television privileges revoked can be used to try and make prisoners more compliant. One might in fact argue that television is a necessary part of the security system in most prisons, because, basically, it’s used to control prisoners. This is not my definition of cushy, personally.

Wandering freely. Sure, if you mean minimum security prisoners in their own units. Depending on the prison, it’s not uncommon to, shockingly, allow inmates out of their cells during daylight hours when they’re being ‘good,’ although they are still confined to their units and have limited outside privileges. Uhm, people? This is not cushy. Would you like to stay in your bedroom with a toilet in the corner all day, or be allowed into the rest of your house, too? How would you like it if you could only go in the front yard during authorized recreation periods? Some prisons do indeed have ‘amenities’ like weight rooms which prisoners can use (again, when they are being ‘good’) but may I refer you to the television issue, here? When you are confining people, you have to give them something to do. This is pretty basic. This is not about ‘entertaining’ prisoners, it is about trying to prevent huge security problems.

And for many prisoners, this mythical walking around is just that: A myth. Solitary confinement continues to be widely used in US prisons, with prisoners spending 23 hours a day in complete isolation. This is done for a variety of reasons, as I discussed last year, and it is a form of torture. Guess who tends to be most at risk of ending up in solitary confinement? If you said ‘young men of colour,’ have a cookie.

Libraries. Yes, many prisons have libraries! Did you know that these libraries are often stocked with legal references because inmates are not legally entitled to representation for appeals and civil suits (like, say, suits to demand potable water in prisons), and thus must represent themselves? Furthermore, some prison libraries even have other books, like novels and references and a variety of other things, donated by an assortment of people and organisations? Are we really considering access to reading material a ‘privilege’ (this is something I firmly believe should be a right for all people)? Oh, wait. In many prisons, it is: Access to the library is controlled and if you are ‘bad’ you do not get to use the materials there.

People who think that prisons are ‘cushy’ generally think that incarcerating people is a terrific thing to be doing, although they might feel some lingering guilt they want to dispel by suggesting that prison is just so darn nice that really ‘they’ are better off in prison than in the outside world. If there’s one thing I know about human beings, it is this: We are never ‘better off’ when we are trapped, when we lack all bodily autonomy and personal freedom, when everything we are allowed to do is at the whim of other human beings. There is no ‘better off’ in prison. And there is certainly nothing cushy about it.