Applying Philosophy to Our Prison Problem

How did the United States go from a country that incarcerated roughly 500,000 citizens in 1980 to one that incarcerates roughly 2.3 million today? Civil unrest and rising crime were used to focus public debate on ideals of law and order. Those ideals were then employed to justify a criminal-justice system that, given social conditions, runs counter to race-neutral, fair ideals of law and order. But absent an account of how the misapplication of these ideals was overlooked, the story is only partial.

What allowed “the misapplication of these ideals” to be overlooked, argues Jason Stanley (Yale), is “dehumanizing propaganda.” Stanley makes the case in “The War on Thugs” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece is notable not just for its content but as an example of applied, public philosophy, the likes of which is good to see in the Chronicle (and would be great to see in publications that aim to reach more than the particularly well-educated). Stanley donated his earnings from the piece to the Prison Policy Initiative, a choice he explains here. He is also donating to the group all of the royalties from the sales of his new book, How Propaganda Works.

As the topic of prisons is gaining increased interest from philosophers, including those planning to teach units or whole courses on it, it would be helpful for readers to mention in the comments other recent philosophical work on prison or on matters relevant to our understanding of it.

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