Summary and Keywords
The variables impacting how one experiences imprisonment are far ranging. George Jackson (1994), a pivotal character in American penal history, wrote that, “[b]lackmen born in the [United States] and fortunate enough to live past the age of eighteen are conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison” (p. 4). Ruth Wyner (2002), incarcerated 40 years after Jackson under vastly different circumstances, describes a very different sort of bleakness associated with her incarceration:
One evening, just before I settled down to try to sleep, I allowed myself to remember my daughter in a way that I usually suppressed: remembering and feeling all the love that I had for her, every bit. A huge chasm grew inside me, dark and raw, and my throat constricted as I felt enveloped by the sadness. This was what was inside of me when I allowed myself to touch it.
Such personal experiences of incarceration offer a window into how prisons function, or often more correctly, fail to function, from the point of view of the prisoner. These perspectives are vitally important to a fulsome understanding of incarceration because prisoners and their experiences paint a picture of confinement that is patently different from those described by penal officials and governments.
There are numerous issues that shape the experiences of confinement, both historically and in the present day, a list longer than can be adequately addressed in this entry. Still, there are key concerns that recur in the literature and in ongoing debates about incarceration. Included here are human rights abuses, overcrowding, the overuse of solitary confinement, the situation of women prisoners, the incarceration of indigenous peoples, and health, especially mental health concerns.
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