As I refer to it, the cushty-cell-theory, that is to say, the idea that prisoners shouldn’t be any better off than the worst off in open society is common. But, it is not an argument; rather it is an extension of bitterness and misinformation.

It makes no sense to hold the conditions of a single institution, the prison, to the lowest identifiable standards of society elsewhere. To do so is prejudice.

The following passage from the provocative and authoritative The Oxford History of the Prison (Norval & Rothman, eds.) sets out to explain this idea:

Inmates are the best and the worst among us. They include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Thomas More, Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell – a very mixed group but not lacking in virtue – and a long list of highly principled dissenters. There is no point in cataloguing the worst. Prisoners are ourselves writ large or small. And, as such, they should not be subjected to suffering exceeding fair expiation for the crimes which they have been convicted. Below that admittedly vague ceiling of suffering, they are entitled to a reasonably safe, clean environment. They must be spared cruelty, cruelty being defined as violations of their bodily and psychological integrities beyond the legitimate necessities of their punishment.

There is one theme, however, that has complicated this whole analysis of appropriate prison conditions – the alleged principle of “less eligibility.” It is the idea, which dates back to at least the nineteenth century, that the prisoner’s condition must not in any particular be preferable, more comfortable, or more adequate than those of the worst off members of the community who have not been convicted of a crime. Otherwise, it is suggested, a positive incentive is created for those worst-off citizens to commit crime so as to improve their conditions. This is a daft idea, but it captures men’s minds. Happily, it is not taken seriously by prison administrators who know that if they are not to operate death camps, their prisons must be run by consent. The administrators hold the ultimate power at the periphery, but within the walls power lies with the prisoners. In the end, the prison embodies the largest power the state exercises over its citizens in time of peace. If the balance between authority and autonomy is struck fairly here, it is not likely to go far wrong elsewhere.

[Emphasis mine]

To postpone all standards for society’s incarcerated class is to distinguish oneself from them. It becomes an “Us & Them” scenario, in which abuses are tolerated or ignored.

I chose to focus on this repugnant prejudice-masked-as-theory for Wednesday Words because I have been troubled for many years at the acceptance and even casual sadistic humour in mainstream society regarding prison violence.