What Is a Prison?
A prison is a place where certain people can’t leave because they are not allowed to leave and are trapped. But the idea of prison is not that simple. The person in prison, the prisoner, can disregard their lack of permission to leave and find a way to escape their prison. They may be recaptured or killed in the process, but that is a risk they are willing to take to regain their freedom. Therefore, the degree to which someone is a prisoner is related to the ability of others to maintain them contained. This ability can be exercised either by breaking the prisoner’s will to escape, by designing the prison in a way that is harder to escape, or both. The prisoner is generally understood as someone who committed a crime and, thus their imprisonment is morally accepted and considered legitimate. But suppose the case of a prisoner who did not commit a crime but was charged and convicted of committing a crime. We may not be aware that they are innocent, but the prisoner is aware. In another case, an innocent person could be abducted by a criminal and imprisoned by the criminal in a secret place. Thus, a prisoner does not need to be a criminal.
The definition of prison and prisoner conveys a certain phenomenological pattern in the mind, one where the individual who thinks about the prison sees, in their minds, a certain image of a prison and a prisoner. Those images are associated with certain patterns, such as a large building with numerous cells, each cell with one or maybe two individuals, prisoners, which can be observed through their prison doors because they are made out of bars, spaced out enough to allow someone to see inside without allowing the prisoners to escape. Here we see another pattern in prisons, the fact that prisoners often have no privacy. This pattern is fairly widespread, but it is not true for all prisons and is not required to imprison the prisoner, so it is not a necessary condition for the definition. It is, however, a possible pattern with all its respective consequences for the condition of the prisoner qua prisoner.
Having established this working definition of prison, its epistemology, and phenomenology, we can then start breaking it apart. Perhaps there are other places that could be prisons, given our working definition. If we focus on epistemology and set aside our working phenomenology, we can maybe find other places that are prisons. Let’s consider the example of an airplane. An airplane is a place where the people within it can’t leave because they are not allowed to leave and are trapped. That is the situation within which the passengers of the airplane find themselves, which is identical to the prison. Once the plane is flying, the passengers can’t physically leave. They could open a door and jump out, but they would certainly die. They are also not allowed to leave, as opening the door could endanger the plane and other passengers. The airplane, thus, fits the definition of a prison.
Perhaps one could object by pointing out that the passengers agreed to enter the airplane while the prisoners didn’t agree. It is true that, usually, prisoners don’t agree to enter the prison, but there are times when they reach deals with law enforcement where they agree to go to jail, perhaps for a smaller sentence, for instance, if they release some valuable information that they have, testify against someone, or whatever other deal they could make with law enforcement. Thus, disagreement to enter prison is not a requirement to be a prisoner. What this reveals, however, is that the will of the individuals in question is important. As we have discussed previously, the will of the prisoner plays a role in their imprisonment. We can thus set aside prison as a place and explore the idea of prison as being a state of mind.
As we discussed previously, breaking a prisoner’s will to escape is one way in which their existential status, as a prisoner, can be maintained. That means that the state of mind of the prisoner is relevant to their status as prisoners, and the degree to which they are a prisoner. Their state of mind is one where they feel trapped. The feeling of being trapped, of feeling constrained and unable to move, is part of their state of mind. This state of mind is created not only by the prisoner’s inability to leave their location but also by the general sameness of the moments they experience. It is not just a spatial phenomenon but also a temporal phenomenon. The walls of the prison don’t change over time. There isn’t much to experience in the prison and there isn’t much to do. For those reasons, every moment in the prison is very similar to every other moment. This creates within us an incredibly unpleasant and harmful state of mind. We have been built to experience a lot of stimulation. Our minds require that stimulation to be healthy. Therefore, without that stimulation, over long periods of time, it becomes more unpleasant and harmful to us. This is why, for instance, in the airplane, we have a wide range of entertainment to choose from. We are given a wide range of music to choose from, movies, the internet, and food. We are kept mentally stimulated so that we can mask our physical imprisonment. That tells us that the degree of imprisonment is as mental as it is physical if not more mental than physical. It also tells us that imprisonment can be masked. We will address the mental degree of imprisonment first.
We have established that a prison is a place where we are not allowed to leave and we are trapped. However, as we further established, a prisoner can enter a state of mind within which they can’t leave. But that state of mind doesn’t have to be one where their will to leave is broken. It can be a state of mind where they are willing to stay imprisoned because they are being mentally stimulated and they are better off choosing to stay than choosing to leave. First of all, their mental stimulation distracts their attention from their condition. It is better for their state of mind to forget their existential state than to be aware of it, so they choose to be blind to their imprisonment. Second of all, this tells us that there are no limits to the size of the prison so long as the mind is distracted by stimulation. We thus find ourselves trapped on this planet, but stimulated enough throughout our lives to not notice our imprisonment. We have such a range of options to experience, such a degree of space, and such limited time to experience everything that we usually don’t notice our existential state. Furthermore, our own bodies are prisons. We can’t escape our experiences of the world through our bodies. It is only when we have problems with our bodies that we generally become aware of this. We always experience the world through embodied experiences because those are the only experiences we can have so long as we are alive.
Finally, let’s address the masking of our imprisonment. We have established here that a prison can exist that is as big as the planet and more mental than it is physical. It is thus possible to imprison someone without their awareness. The prisoner has their will restricted, but they are stimulated enough that they don’t notice their imprisonment. They may be willing to go along with their imprisonment not just because they are distracted from it but because the alternatives are worse so they are left with no better choice. Let us consider the case of the employee. Nearly every day, the employee goes to work when they are assigned to go to work. Once they arrive, they are told what to do by their superiors. Their job is often not very stimulating and is repetitive. Some people have more stimulating jobs, which are considered better. The employee stays at work and does their job for as long as they are told. Their will is completely restricted by their “superiors” and, ultimately, every employee’s will is restricted by their employer for the entire duration of their work. The employee then goes back home and gets distracted by some kind of mental stimulation. Maybe they watch Netflix, or scroll down on Instagram, on their phone. Perhaps they work more than one job and all they have time for is to take care of their most basic necessities such as eating and sleeping. They feel completely trapped in their situation, but they don’t have the ability to leave. They are prisoners. Some are more trapped than others. Some have more time for themselves and more money to work with, so they can get more distracted than other employees. But every single one of them experiences what we have covered here. They are all prisoners.