The Incoherence of Prison Law
In recent years, legal scholars have advanced powerful critiques of mass incarceration. Academics have indicted America’s prison system for entrenching racism and exacerbating economic inequality. Scholars have said much less about the law that governs penal institutions. Yet prisons are filled with law, and prison doctrine is in a state of disarray.
This Article centers prison law in debates about the failures of American criminal justice. Bringing together disparate lines of doctrine, prison memoirs, and historical sources, we trace prison law’s emergence as a discrete field — a subspeciality of constitutional law and a neglected part of the discipline called criminal procedure. We then offer a panoramic critique of the field, arguing that prison law is predicated on myths about the nature of prison life, the content of prisoners’ rights, and the purpose of penal institutions. To explore this problem, we focus on four concepts that shape constitutional prison cases: violence, literacy, privacy, and rehabilitation. We show how these concepts shift across lines of cases in ways that prevent prison law from holding together as a defensible body of thought.
Exposing the myths that animate prison law yields broader insights about judicial regulation of prisons. This Article explains how outdated tropes have narrowed prisoners’ rights and promoted the country’s dependence on penal institutions. It links prison myths to the field’s central doctrine, which encourages selective generalizations and oversimplifies the difficult constitutional questions raised by imprisonment. And it argues that courts must abandon that doctrine — and attend to the realities of prison — to develop a more coherent theory of prisoners’ constitutional rights.
It is a pity indeed that the judge who puts a man in the penitentiary does not know what a penitentiary is.
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