Why are prisoners in the United States seen as political problems?

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Prisoners are political problems in the United States because once a criminal enters the criminal justice system, his fate becomes caught up in issues that are no longer simply private in nature. The criminal is a public concern because criminality itself is a breach of the public trust, and once the courts pass judgement on an individual, they are executing justice on behalf of the entire body politic. In the commonsense language of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a criminal was said to have violated the social contract that implicitly bound all citizens of a state to the rule of law. A prisoner is a political issue because, in having violated this sacred contract, he or she has willing extricated themselves from society as a whole, and thus their fate becomes more than the private concern of whatever individual the prisoner has wronged. It becomes a political question of immense social significance.

The punitive action that the state takes against a prisoner is a critical political act, because within the act of punishing is a representation of the cumulative morality of society. What behaviors the state deems to be appropriate and inappropriate, and then what punishment will be meted out against those who commit the latter, must accurately reflect the common sensibility of society as a whole. In his Theory of Justice, for example, John Rawls postulated that, hypothetically speaking, justice is meant to be “fair” because it is the manifestation of the collective agreement of society on what is or is not moral in society outside of any considerations of individual religion, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and any other irrelevant characteristics. Thus, prisoners, who are those individuals upon whom justice has been executed, are entirely political objects; they (theoretically) embody the purified will of the state outside of the constraints of individual prejudice.

However, although this model is helpful in describing ideal situations, in reality justice is not fair because it is executed according to criteria that is something less than entirely impersonal. This has been the argument of criminologists such as John E. Pinkard Sr., who have identified the racial bias that is implicitly connected with our subconscious association with the prisoner. Because African Americans are imprisoned at disproportionately large numbers in comparison with their total contribution to the population—37% of the prison population, but only 10% of the total US population in 2010, for example—prisoners have become a hyper-politicized issue today because they are examples of institutionalized racism in the American criminal justice system. According to this evaluation, and in contrast to what Rawls had theorized in the abstract, a prisoner is a political issue precisely because he or she represents the collective prejudices and abuses of society.

In sum, prisoners, whether they represent an impartial social consciousness or social prejudice, are important political issues because their definition and fate is determined according to politics that society has created.

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