Why All Americans Should Go to Prison - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Why All Americans Should Go to Prison

Why All Americans Should Go to Prison

By Libby Coleman


Out of sight, out of mind isn’t good enough. 

By Libby Coleman

Americans love their prison entertainment. How could they not lap up the best moments of Orange Is the New Black, what with the lesbianness and the realness … the prison wars, the guards’ criminality, the racial commentary and, um, the lesbianness. 

Sure, it feels authentic, but how would the audience know? Safe to say that few of OITNB’s millions of fans have spent even a moment in a lockup — although probably half are engaged in the illicit sharing of Netflix passwords. Remote and security-sensitive, prisons aren’t exactly accessible to the general public. States consider visits a privilege, doled out for the incarcerateds’ good behavior. To enter, one must be on the prisoners’ approved visitor list or in an organized volunteer program. Even the Supreme Court has come down in favor of strict visitation policies.

This is wrongheaded. We believe every American should be required to visit a prison. After all, some two million of their fellow citizens are incarcerated — that’s almost 1 percent of the population. For the most part, those on the outside ignore this significant minority: Inmates don’t much figure into discussions about policy, which is one reason it took decades for politicians to start dismantling mass-incarceration policies that had long ago been deemed expensive and ineffective. Isn’t it weird that the first sitting president to visit a federal prison was … Barack Obama, in the last year of his second term? While there, he was surprised to discover that three fully grown men were housed in a minuscule 9 x 12 cell.

The idea of mandatory prison visits isn’t ours; law professor Neal Katyal tweeted about it this fall. “The bottom line is, until you experience it and understand the total disconnect between life inside and life outside, it’s really hard to understand who you want to punish and how,” Professor Katyal told us on the phone. When Katyal visits prisons, especially on a Saturday, he sees small children going to visit their fathers and mothers. They’ve often had to travel hundreds of miles and are heavily monitored. They go to exorbitantly expensive vending machines, bringing quarters to get their parents something special to eat. “It breaks my heart every time,” he says.


To be sure, if done for the wrong motivations, mandatory prison visits could go horribly awry. We’re thinking about the famous rodeo at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, for instance, which takes on a freak-show aspect that really rubs us the wrong way. But if prison visits were part of the high school core civics classes, for instance, they’d be likelier to receive respect. And by the way, the visits might serve as a deterrent to high school students … if they saw how different life is inside.

Even though prisons have become more security-conscious since 9/11, according to Eric Corson, head of the volunteer group Prisoner Visitation and Support, there are some who still find ways to visit. Katyal tells of one Iowa judge who visits every single prisoner he puts behind bars to see how they’re doing. Instead of mandatory minimums, how about mandatory visits from all? 

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories