Earlier this year, the New York Times obtained more than 2,000 photographs documenting conditions inside the St. Clair Correctional Facility, a state prison in Springville, Alabama. It published five of them, writing of the rest, “It is hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication — they are full of nudity, indignity, and gore.” Upon receiving the same photographs from the Southern Poverty Law Center — which has spearheaded multiple lawsuits against the Alabama prison system in the past two decades — Splinter published a larger selection, describing the images as “both repulsive and newsworthy.” Indeed, they illustrate vividly the degree to which prisons across the United States translate the public’s thirst for punishment into habitats of sustained torture. Several of the photos depict blood-soaked torsos pocked with knife holes. Gore saturates bathroom floors and serves as ink for despairing messages scrawled on walls. Close-ups of slashed wrists and incinerated bedding in solitary-confinement cells — set ablaze, in many cases, to catch the attention of guards during medical crises — merely hint at the degree to which these institutions both facilitate the suffering of those they contain and then ignore their pleas for mercy. “As with war, it is impossible for the public to truly grasp the hideousness of what is happening without being able to see it,” Splinter’s Hamilton Nolan writes.
It is insufficient to say of such violence that it is the inevitable result of concentrating depraved people in a confined space. More than half of state and federal prisoners are mentally ill, and prisoners meet the threshold for serious psychological distress at three times the rate of the general population. Suicides in prison outpace murders threefold. The psychological erosion that takes hold during incarceration manifests itself in ways that would devastate even the best-adjusted free person: social isolation, a plummeting sense of self-worth, and degrees of interpersonal distrust and suspicion that verge on paranoia. The most pathological forms of conflict resolution that exist outside of prison are magnified inside. If civilian life greets mental illness, interpersonal conflict, and social dysfunction with state-sanctioned violence, imagine what happens in a place where almost no mechanisms for nonviolent mediation exist; where everyone but the armed guards lacks any social or political capital that might improve their lot; and where the worst mistakes a person has made — and, in all likelihood, ever will make — become the justification for the near-total abandonment of their humanity by the state.
So when Americans talk about incarceration, they are not actually talking about proportionate consequences for bad behavior. They are talking about physical and psychological torture. They are talking about civil death. Some imprisoned people have done monstrous things, but a government that is willing to build a system of punishment based on its most vicious denizens — and then routinely emulate their behavior and call it justice — has no moral standing that retributive vigilantism does not share. It is an empty vessel for the basest whims of its residents. It is a sham on par with the liberative pretensions of America’s slave-owning founders.
Yet many Americans seem oblivious, or indifferent, to the reality that millions of their countrymen are routinely stripped of their civil rights and subjected to such degradation. One would be forgiven, hearing the arguments against allowing incarcerated people to vote that have unfolded in the past several days, for believing that disenfranchising prisoners is part of a self-evidently reasonable process by which people who do bad things get put on a timeout from society. It is an old debate about an even older practice, but gained traction on Monday when Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, was asked by an audience member at a CNN-hosted town hall whether he thinks incarcerated people should be permitted to cast ballots — including people who have committed serious violent crimes, like the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy,” Sanders replied. “Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away and you say, ‘Well, that guy committed a terrible crime; not going to let him vote. Well, that person did that; not going to let that person vote.’ You’re running down a slippery slope.”
Sanders is right, particularly on the latter front. (The efficacy of punishment is a bigger debate.) The franchise has throughout U.S. history been allocated based on ever-shifting standards of “fitness.” The unfit for decades included women, people who did not own property, and almost all black people. Only when the powerful were compelled to treat the vote as an inalienable right was progress made. And to this day, that progress is incomplete. The notion that voting is not a right, but a privilege — and a politically expedient one for Republicans, at that — is used to rationalize a range of suppressive measures, from prisoner disenfranchisement to restricting the ballot to persons with government-issued identification cards and, if GOP legislators in Florida get their way, people who have completed their sentences but not paid the attendant monetary fees. In this light, rescinding the franchise from anyone is not just a slippery slope that endangers the rights of everyone. It facilitates a self-fulfilling prophecy: The people whose lives are most thoroughly controlled by the state become those with the least say in how it operates.
The fallout from this gap is apparent in what poor stewards Americans outside of prisons have been for their incarcerated counterparts. The starkest evidence lies in places like St. Clair, but facilities across the country boast conditions that are only slightly more humane. In all of them, almost every pretense of rehabilitation has been abandoned in favor of punishment. And the extremity of that punishment is dictated almost entirely by what voters and officials outside of prison are willing to stomach — which, as one can see, is practically bottomless in its appetite for degradation. It is hard not to conclude, given such conditions, that punishment has become an endgame uninterested in whether it is just or effective in reducing crime. Its goal is to inflict relentless pain. And given that other constitutional rights for prisoners remain intact, at least nominally — including freedom of worship and speech — revoking the franchise assumes an arbitrary tint. Its reflexive defense is that prisoners have proven themselves unfit to make laws, having broken them. But this argument withers under scrutiny.
If committing crimes precludes one from being fit to vote, for example, one must account for the rampant criminality of many elected lawmakers and the countless ways they criminalize everyday life — a level of discretion that has, in the past, been used specifically to restrict voting rights. If one narrows this rubric so that only violent criminals are disenfranchised, one must account for much of violent crime’s roots in policy failures — like poverty, segregation, and inadequate mental health resources — and how imprisoning their victims, who are frequently victims of violence themselves, all but guarantees perpetual indifference toward them. This is to say nothing of the vast majority of people who violate laws but never get caught, let alone sent to prison, and a lack of evidence that proclaiming fitness in such a haphazard way creates a more responsible electorate. In fact, few who disagree with Sanders even bother making this case. Most are content to presume that anything besides the status quo is outlandish. “You lose your freedom,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg said of what happens in prison — as if its reasonability were self-evident. “And I don’t think during that time it makes sense to have that exception.”
No shortage of rigorous and eloquent arguments have been made for allowing prisoners to vote, both before and since Sanders’s comments. Earl Warren’s majority opinion in 1958’s Trop v. Dulles U.S. Supreme Court case makes the oft-cited constitutional argument for doing so: “Citizenship is not a license that expires upon misbehavior,” he writes. “And the deprivation of citizenship is not a weapon that the Government may use to express its displeasure at a citizen’s conduct, however reprehensible that conduct may be.” Two states — Maine and Vermont — already allow it, as do countries as structurally and culturally disparate as Japan, Sweden, Zimbabwe, and Peru. Letting prisoners vote is central to legitimizing American democracy. But there is perhaps no more vivid illustration of its opposite than what it is like to actually be in prison. Civil death precipitates civil invisibility. Prisoners have no say in their lot, and American voters and elected officials have responded by punishing their silence with torture. It is hard to say whether this would fundamentally change upon re-enfranchisement — only that leaving it up to the rest of America has mostly made it worse for those affected, even after official investigations are conducted and vows made to improve conditions, as occurred recently with the Justice Department and Alabama. Prison itself is the problem. A society that expels from its conception of humanity so many people who are sick, or in pain, or who make mistakes based upon which their entire lives are suddenly deprived of the opportunity for redemption, is an immoral society. But most Americans will not see that unless prisoners have a voice in that society. Giving them the vote is not the whole answer, nor is it the only one. But it is an essential beginning.