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After Guantánamo: The Crisis of U.S. Prisons and Lessons from the Medieval Past

The incoming Administration is to be lauded for its intention to dismantle the Guantánamo Bay prison, whose very existence, let alone the activities reportedly carried out within it, undermine the U.S.’s claim of promoting democracy and human rights. But if prisoners’ rights are evidently so important, and if we seem to agree that we are judged by how we treat the weak and disenfranchised, why have our leading politicians (including Barack Obama and John McCain, to judge by their campaign websites) avoided addressing the intolerable realities of U.S. prisons and their inmates?


At 2.3 million, the U.S. prison population is the largest of its kind in the world. And at an annual cost exceeding $70 billion, it is also the most expensive one. But prisons’ enormous scale and increasing dysfunctionality bothers few.

Disregarding convicts is easy enough; we pass by them daily in blissful ignorance thanks to manipulations by architects and city planners. Some Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) organizations, however, would go even further. In the view of Stop BHOD, for instance, the New York City Department of Corrections’ intention to reopen the Brooklyn Prison undermines “economics and the best interests of the community and city as a whole.” Such responses, which exploit popular unease about living near convicts, imply that inmates are not people, but environmental hazards. Like airports or antennas.

If the urban cosmetics of anti-prison NIMBYs prevail, one percent of all Americans will be presently excommunicated. That’s one medieval practice we should avoid, especially at a time when incarceration is becoming increasingly common: at the current rates, one out of every fifteen U.S. citizens born in 2001 will spend time behind bars during his or her lifetime.

Excommunication aside, some medieval practices can inform present-day incarceration. For despite crowding, poor sanitation, and low security, medieval prisons witnessed limited violence, few deaths, and infrequent escapes. Far from the stereotypical dungeon, they were publicly funded, centrally located, and easily accessible places of detention, coercion, and punishment. As such they served as visible symbols of justice and provided a reliable blueprint for future institutions. Hardly did they foreshadow the “black flower of civilization” which Nathaniel Hawthorne would later bemoan.

Hawthorne was right, of course; the prison’s march into modernity is a story of civic failure. Most recently, the incarceration binge triggered by the War on Drugs precipitated an unprecedented brutalization of inmates’ lives and a growing intolerance toward them. It also transformed prisons from penal institutions to warehouses of social marginals. Despite their titles, corrections officers nowadays are trained to manage inmates, not prepare them for reentry. Small wonder that recidivism rates are approaching seventy percent, despite the best efforts by families, prison staff, parole officers, and others.

Yet prisons steadily proliferate, mainly due to sentencing policies and the promise of privatization. One outcome is that new facilities are progressively larger and farther removed from the urban centers where most convicts originate. The expansion and ruralization of prisons forces convicts into crowded, noisy, ultra-violent cages with little access to their families and communities and a growing racial disparity between inmates and staff.

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Half of all convicts today are not violent offenders, yet they live in singularly lethal environments: prisons and jails report three-thousand deaths annually, including fifty homicides and five-hundred suicides; and almost five percent of all inmates complain of being sexually victimized by other inmates or staff. Compounded by substance abuse, material poverty, the deprivation of autonomy and security, and, perhaps most importantly, the severing of social ties to the outside world, such institutions present prisoners with fewer chances of surviving imprisonment unscathed, let alone emerging from it prepared for life at large.

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Medieval prisons, by contrast, acted as penal corridors to and from free society, not as dumping grounds for deviants. Their daily operation afforded face-to-face interaction with the outside world, whether for legal and financial affairs, labor, religious worship, or nourishment. Such frequent contact between prisoners and free society today would counteract what scholars call “prisonization,” or the process of conforming to prison subculture. It would also curb corruption and mitigate major pains of prison life, notably lack of family ties, often cited as a main factor driving inmate suicide rates to nearly five times higher than in the outside world.

Isolated, mammoth prisons exacerbate these already numerous pains of captivity by casting millions further into social oblivion. Let’s change this by insisting that penal incarceration refocus on loss of liberty. How? By ensuring that prison sentences are meted out thoughtfully, served locally, in smaller institutions wherever possible, and with structured, indeed obligatory interaction with free society. By following these guidelines we will be reminding both convicts and ourselves of our mutual responsibilities toward one another.

Guy Geltner

Dr. Guy Geltner is the author of The Medieval Prison: A Social History and is a postdoctoral fellow in medieval history at Lincoln College, University of Oxford.

Republished with permission from the History News Network.