We learned it while attending a weekly meeting for our social-justice group. In a circle of chairs, 20-odd prisoners sat hosting a half dozen people from the outside. And through two hours the conversation stayed moored to the problems that allowed this scene to take place. Everyone wearing khaki uniforms had skin in this game. They had already lost a great deal. And they knew firsthand how people with no skin in the game — those who preside over the carceral state — had blithely devised system after system and policy after policy that only aggrandized their power, while leaving communities underfunded, police militarized, and voters feeling compassion fatigue for the caged and marginalized. Outside guests often found themselves surprised by our sophisticated understanding of complicated issues — and the commitment, despite serious disagreements, to persuasion through reasoned debate.
That was it. That’s when we realized that, as prisoners, we can help advance conversations on decarceralism by offering careful, nuanced, and experience-derived perspectives to people on the outside.
As we attempted to carry this lesson into our writing practice, we found something amiss in the kind of writing prisoners are often expected to engage in, even in forums dedicated to countering the myths that sustain America’s exceptional carceralism. In our experience, editors by and large welcome — some might even say encourage — accounts of suffering and protestations of resistance to oppression, rather than reasoned analysis grounded in the very harms we live in the flesh. This impulse is understandable, surely: Forums that contest mainstream media distortions relating to prisoners naturally promote certain alternative narratives about them. But these narratives, in their less malign way, can easily become as reductive and limiting as those they hope to counter.
Forums that contest mainstream media distortions relating to prisoners naturally promote certain alternative narratives about them. But these narratives, in their less malign way, can easily become as reductive and limiting as those they hope to counter.
Reacting to the near-ubiquitous public perception of prisoners as monsters, many well-meaning editors wishing to showcase the humanity of prisoners seem to feel a kind of moral imperative to have incarcerated writers parade stories of trauma in what they write. That is, in the going market for pity, they seem to want prisoners to play the sad-eyed and floppy-eared puppies in the pet-store window, there to catch attention and bring consumers through the door, nothing else.
Yet prioritizing narratives of trauma and heroic resistance can mean neglecting the reasoned analysis that we’ve found so effective in other settings. Just as no one expects pet-store puppies to explain the socioeconomic structures that proliferate the kennels from which they come, so forums that incentivize prisoners to play puppy hardly ever request that they supplement that spectacle with cogent analysis of the policies that produce it. Discussing the serious stuff, they may think, should be left to the big dogs — the professional advocates with .edu and .org email addresses.
There are two possible reasons for this tendency. One, they may think it’s the best use for our time and energy. Two, they may think it’s all we’re capable of.
Reductive: yes. Limiting: absolutely.
As imprisoned writers, especially in the current environment where our voices are often silenced or drowned out, the temptation to simply defer to these editors is real. But we shouldn’t. When it comes to conversations about policies affecting the carceral state, it’s quite literally our lives that are being discussed. We’re the ones with firsthand experience. We’re the ones driven by desperation to brainstorm better approaches. So we’re the ones that should speak up on these issues — as we both did last year in publicly opposing Washington state’s misguided decision last year to shut down a number of prison units under the guise of reform and progress. One of us did so in this publication.
When it comes to conversations about policies affecting the carceral state, it’s quite literally our lives that are being discussed. We’re the ones with firsthand experience. We’re the ones driven by desperation to brainstorm better approaches. So we’re the ones that should speak up on these issues.
Rather than reflexively endorsing the plan that shut prison units just because that seems decarceral, or rejecting it out of hand because the state proposed it, we analyzed it. That meant distinguishing sharply between legislative enactments and court decisions that actually free people and the plan the state Department of Corrections proposed: a cost-cutting response to a decreasing prison population that would crowd those of us remaining behind bars into fewer living units. It meant putting the proposed closures in the historical context of prisons built mostly in rural areas, far from the urban populations they cage. And it meant assessing claims that the cuts would be reinvested to improve release outcomes for people in light of the educational opportunities the plan would eliminate. Above all, it meant judging the plan by its foreseeable outcomes for broader decarceral progress.
Speaking up against the system this way can be intimidating, no doubt. While there are no royal roads to reasoned analysis or simple routes to open-minded inquiry, research in social and cognitive psychology has deepened our understanding of how people think and argue in dialogue. We understand better than ever the biases and fallacies that beset human thinking, which must be confronted for public deliberation to work. Moreover, we know what is at stake when discourse degenerates: We now have abundant evidence that most public deliberation can promote ideological extremism, impede cooperation, exacerbate conflict, encourage status-seeking behavior, divide people into in-groups and out-groups, and amplify biases. The broader contours of the malaise are ably sketched by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s Grandstanding: A Field Guide, while Steven Pinker’s recent Rationality offers one kind of antidote by summarizing ways to make reasoning more effective.
But Aristotle’s tripartite framework for understanding rhetoric, a staple of composition texts, remains how most students learn argument. It construes persuasive force as resulting from balanced discursive combinations of logos, ethos, and pathos — appeals to logic, to the character or authority of the speaker, and to emotional sympathy. But those who teach Aristotle’s approach to rhetoric often fail to emphasize a crucial caveat that Aristotle certainly understood: Rhetorical force and sound argument are separate magisteria. Sound argument focuses on presenting evidence and explaining how that evidence supports the conclusion argued for; rhetorical force focuses on how to influence people. As savvy political campaigners and social influencers know, persuasion has little to do with presenting reliable evidence that convincingly supports a claim. People have little idea how to judge sufficiency of evidence. They do know whom they like, and they really know what they like to feel. But such knowledge provides a poor map for what is real — as philosophers might say, as a basis for judgment, that is anything but reliably veritistic.
More from our decarceral brainstorm
Every week, Inquest aims to bring you insights from people thinking through and working for a world without mass incarceration.
Sign up for our newsletter for the latest.
The dismal empirical reality is that considerations actually relevant to informed, intelligent judgments in matters of strategy and policy are not what most people — editors and readers included — usually find most rhetorically compelling. Indeed, much rhetoric works by disabling our capacity to reason. The “affective contagion” from pathos can poison respect for contrary evidence and makes people rationalize their prior attitudes. And ethos? A few may prize character traits that indicate reliability — probity, open-mindedness, thoroughness, attention to nuance. But the traits that carry the strongest appeal to most people under the rubric of “character” are closer to signals of partisan identity: a willingness to advertise belonging to the same ideological or even ethnic tribe by repeating accepted nostrums. Even logic’s mighty formal fortress crumbles under all-too-human pressure.
Valid logical arguments from faulty premises may yield false conclusions, of course. The deeper problem is that real arguments about policy and strategy simply don’t comprise chains of deductions. Rather, they involve informal reasoning — reasoning that depends on inferences from evidence that is always incomplete, relies on unstated premises, and contains inconsistently used and ill-defined terms, speculative predictions, and loose analogies. Worse still, what passes for thinking is really what social scientists call motivated reasoning, which is far from careful, unbiased, skeptical scrutiny: Such reasoning merely rationalizes — finds specious reasons to endorse — arguments whose real appeal consists in making people feel better about themselves.
Realities that dismal may seem to invite surrender. Certainly, no forum or movement — including those dedicated to countering America’s exceptional carceralism — is immune to the pernicious features of public discourse. But resistance isn’t futile — certainly not to anyone taking on the challenge of undoing mass incarceration undaunted. All of us — editors, readers, and writers, incarcerated or not — can resist the degeneration of discourse. And awareness of the flaws that beset our reasoning helps us ask really searching questions about the arguments we make, encourage, and applaud.
This does not mean embracing stiff pedantry or abjuring the special authority of relevant lived experience. But it does mean rejecting bullying rhetoric — of the kind we have all seen — that turns a controversy over policy and strategy into a litmus test with which to divide inquirers who share common goals into two camps, the bravely devoted and the insufficiently passionate. And it does require distinguishing carefully, but sharply, between those who rely on the strength of their arguments and those who instead rest on claims about their own virtue. For the possibility of conversation, or even conversion, depends on a shared intention: on the basic dialogic generosity of assuming that those with whom we disagree may not see the evidence or follow the argument that supports our conclusion, and then taking responsibility for helping them do so.
For the possibility of conversation, or even conversion, depends on a shared intention: on the basic dialogic generosity of assuming that those with whom we disagree may not see the evidence or follow the argument that supports our conclusion, and then taking responsibility for helping them do so.
None of this is easy. Structural challenges are seemingly everywhere. No matter how rewarding the end result, writing is always difficult, filled with lulls and frustrations and feelings of inadequacy. And being in prison makes this worse. It’s not only the pandering to pathos many editors call for, but also the harsh realities on the inside: lack of access to research materials, isolation from peer-review communities, retaliation from pissed-off or jealous guards. Couple all this together, and writing from emotion can seem pretty attractive and at times like the only option at all.
But there are problems with taking this road. Excessive pathos can tempt a writer to exaggerate — to make his suffering more intense in hopes of making its emotional appeal more compelling. Such exaggerations, though, tear at the credibility of us all. Consider, for example, an imprisoned person who claims he and his cohorts are “living in raw sewage.” Such talk, while certainly evocative, can hyperbolize actual conditions. Having foul odors burp up from a shower drain (which is no doubt disgusting) is not the same as wading through or sleeping atop human refuse. This is one example, but there have been at least a dozen more equally exaggerative we’ve encountered so far this year. And when it comes to these and other extreme claims, at best readers will wonder: How am I to believe the trauma-laden details of the author’s own up-from-squalor story if he’s willing to exaggerate something that others can easily disprove? At worst, they’ll wonder: Does this writer’s willingness to inflate his hardships suggest that all imprisoned writers are feckless propagandists?
To be sure, for those who don’t already care about our decarceration, vivid depictions of suffering surely have a place. It’s good to try to make people feel what we feel, to the extent we can, with words. Most of our readers will never experience what we’ve experienced: They’ll never be separated from everything they love, caged in a dirty and cramped cell, guarded by people conditioned to hate them, and told to act normal — as if what’s happening to them isn’t absolutely fucking crazy. But getting people to feel the system is wrong cannot help them understand what must be done to change it — it can only give them reason to try. As Marx knew well, proletarians had no need for lectures to feel their oppression; rather, they needed to understand what could be done to overcome it.
Decarceration will take an immense political struggle. The insight and ingenuity of prisoners in service of this effort will be crucial — both to see through the rhetoric that dignifies mass incarceration to the sordid dehumanized realities it yields and to understand how those realities could be different. But it remains to be seen whether their contributions to public deliberation can succeed in fostering understanding — or will merely entrench the biases, enmity, hysteria, and status-seeking that can sully deliberative processes in most domains.
The authors met through University Beyond Bars at the Washington State Reformatory, where they led debate classes before the prison’s closure last year.
Image: Jr Korpa/Unsplash