To a nation of jailers:
A notable demand that is made upon the citizens of the United States of America is that of jury duty. Although many despise, hate and avoid it, there is a general sense that the task is necessary. We believe a society is only just if everyone shares in the apportionment of guilt.
To this demand of jury duty, I would like to add another, and in the same spirit. I propose that all citizens of the United States of America should serve a brief sentence of incarceration in our maximum-security penitentiaries. This service, which would occur for each person once in a decade, would help ensure that the quality of life within our prisons is sufficient for the keeping of human beings.
Once all you citizens of the United States are passing in and out of prison on a regular basis, will the conditions there not seem singularly urgent?
The new population of inmates would not be separated from the general population. They would be like any others, and treated like any others. The length of incarceration would be randomly determined, anywhere from three to 90 days. Crucially, you would not be told in advance how long you would have to be there.
And of course, while you are in prison serving your incarceration duty, your behavior will have to be perfect. If you were to fight with another inmate or rebuke a guard, your time might be extended, and that would go for everyone: peons, aristocrats, elected officials. All elected and appointed officials, judges, federal, state servants, members of the military, would participate in incarceration duty. There would be no putting it off.
Just think, if everyone in the United States were to become, within a 10-year period, familiar with what it is like to be incarcerated, is there any question that the quality of our prisons would improve? It also follows that the skill and understanding of our juries might grow apace, as they would now know to what they were condemning those they condemn.
I understand that people have lives to live, and pressing things that must be done. You consider my proposal and you think to yourself that however nice this sounds, however right it is, you just don’t have the time. But it is my humble belief that our jails and prisons are already full of people who have lives to live, people who have things that must be done. We must homogenize and justify our culture, and everyone must be availed of the opportunities that now only a subsection of our society enjoys. By that I mean: a visit to prison, and a set of coveralls.
I wonder, once all you citizens of the United States are passing in and out of prison on a regular basis, will the conditions there not seem singularly urgent? Just picture congressmen, priests, stock traders, truck drivers, people of every faith, color, description, all for once sharing in something.
Shall we not bring this unspeakably filthy laundry out into the open air?
Jesse Ball is a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. In 2017, he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.