All punishment comes to an end. Most periods of imprisonment are term limited, and ninety-five percent of prisoners will eventually leave prison. Though it is tempting to think of the “end” in concrete, factual terms—for example, as the moment when the prisoner is released—this concept also has normative dimensions. Core to the notion of term-limited imprisonment is the “principle of return”: the idea that, when the prisoner has completed his or her time, that person is entitled to return to society. Yet, for the principle of return to be meaningful, it must include the idea of a fair chance of reestablishing oneself in the community. The “practices of incarceration”—including the prison environment and prison programs—are thus critically important because they can either facilitate or impede a prisoner’s reentry into society. However, apart from the question of whether conditions of confinement are cruel and unusual as defined by the Eighth Amendment, these practices of incarceration have largely avoided scholarly scrutiny.
This Article uses the case study of higher education programs in prison to expose the interdependence between the practices of incarceration and the principle of return. Drawing on original interviews with key stakeholders, it investigates how the features of higher education programs reflect and reinforce core beliefs about the goals of punishment and the state’s responsibility towards those it incarcerates. The Article critically examines the dominant harm-prevention justification for prison higher education, and the desert-based objection to it, finding that both are inadequate for failing to take into account the principle of return.
This Article espouses an alternative approach that would recognize the ongoing relationship between prisoner and polity and devise incarceration practices accordingly. Building on insights from communitarian theory, this approach, which foregrounds the prisoner’s status in the polity, uncovers pervasive “us-versus-them” narratives in the prison context. The first such narrative is between prisoners and those members of the polity who view prisoners, falsely, as having forfeited their claims to membership in civil society. This view of prisoners, as members of a permanent and lower caste, is in direct conflict with the principle of return, which mandates that prisoners have at least a plausible hope of basic reintegration into society and that they avoid further harm—what might be termed “punishment-plus.” The Article also scrutinizes a second, more localized “us-versus-them” narrative between prisoners and correctional officers, which arises from their similar backgrounds and the common deprivation experienced by members of both groups.
Finally, the Article recommends institutional design changes to mitigate “us-versus- them” dynamics: empowering stakeholders, for example, by affording correctional officers educational opportunities that would help professionalize their role and ease their resentment towards prisoners; and increasing exposure and empathy between incarcerated and non-incarcerated populations, such as by piloting a program that would employ recent college graduates to teach in prison. These and other proposed reforms would refocus the conversation around imprisonment to account for the central role of incarceration practices in revitalizing the principle of return, as well as the inextricable connection between prisoner and polity.