Digging into Dignity

March 9, 2022

Image of bars with the word Dignity? behind them

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I’m fairly new to the work of prison reform. Most of my background has to do with the economic and environmental justice issues that surround natural disasters. Digging into the history, literature, and practice of this new prison-focused space has led me to reflect on a whole host of questions. 

As I continue to grapple with those questions in the coming months, my blog posts may occasionally be about that process – documenting my surprises, thoughts, hopes, and concerns as I explore this new area of work. In doing so, my goal is in part selfish: that I’ll further my own understanding through reflection. But I also hope that, at least sometimes, the reflections of someone with “fresh eyes” can offer perspective that may be helpful to others, whether we’ve been working on these issues for months, years, or decades.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about Jonathan Simon’s point that we need to “reimagin[e] [correctional] practices in the United States through the lens of human dignity.”  I find myself wrestling with two main questions. 

The first question is about how the lens of human dignity might focus our attention within the world of possible correctional reforms. How would reform grounded in human dignity be different than, say, reform motivated primarily by a concern about constitutional rights, or the public costs of our criminal justice system, or harm done to communities, or prevention of harm? 

At least one part of the answer, I think, is that unlike a primary concern for human suffering or pain, dignity demands a positive affirmation of baseline conditions – it aspires upward, instead of simply trying to minimize harm. It also seems to me that focusing on human dignity calls into question all moments of a person’s experience, not simply the worst moments of that experience or moments when a particular right is violated. A person’s dignity is defined by all moments of their day. Focusing on human dignity asks us to consider everyday experiences because those daily realities make up so much of the cumulative experience of incarceration. 

This lens helps us center the routine experiences that incarcerated people and scholars alike tell us are crucial.

This broad concern with seemingly small, routine conditions matches what both research and testimonials tell us about the experiences of people who are incarcerated. In his classic work The Society of Captives, Gresham Sykes concludes that the defining feature of incarceration is that “life in…prison is depriving or frustrating in the extreme” (p. 63). When Jerry Metcalf, describing his experience of incarceration in an essay for The Marshall Project, says “I’d been methodically shamed and humiliated,” it is precisely the everyday, “normalized” routines and practices of prison that he is referencing. These everyday experiences contribute to the cumulative and serious harm that people who are incarcerated often suffer. Part of the reason that a concern for human dignity is a helpful lens, then, is because this lens helps us center the routine experiences that incarcerated people and scholars alike tell us are crucial.

The second question I’ve been wrestling with is this: Is dignity a low bar, or a high aim? In some sense, “mere” dignity seems like a very low bar to set for people’s experience of incarceration. Why “human dignity,” instead of, say, “human fulfillment,” “human support,” “human kindness,” even “rehabilitation”? All of those seem like they could be more positive, aspirational framings through which to reimagine incarceration than dignity, which we might think of as a very baseline demand. When I think about it this way, I wonder if we should be aiming for something higher than dignity. 

At the same time, maybe true human dignity requires at least the possibility of all of the above – fulfillment, kindness, support, rehabilitation. Perhaps dignity is a continually unfolding concept, asking us to do better now, while conditions are egregious, and better tomorrow, when they’re a little better, and better still the day after that. I think this is the framing I’ve landed on for myself, at least for the time being. To me, the strength of framing prison reform through this particular idea of dignity is that it is flexible enough to continually ask us to be better regardless of the improvements we may make. Working towards an unfolding idea of human dignity holds space for a changing and growing understanding of our overarching goals without giving up on a commitment to do the work in front of us, to make lives better today in whatever small ways we can.  


"Degree of Civilization” is the blog of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab, its title adapted from Dostoyevsky’s famous quote, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Our blog posts will explore and analyze the dehumanizing and dangerous conditions in our nation’s prisons and jails and the critical need for effective independent oversight and meaningful data about what’s happening behind the walls. We’ll be commenting on recent news and developments; analyzing data that highlights trends that affect the safety and health of the people who live and work in correctional facilities; and reflecting on the lived experiences of people who are incarcerated. The entire PJIL team will be contributing to the blog, so you are sure to hear different voices and approaches to these issues.


  • Headshot Joshua McClain.

    Joshua McClain

    Josh is a third-year dual degree student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and UT School of Law. Prior to graduate school, he worked with Legal Aid of North Carolina, a civil legal services provider, filling an interim role with the Durham Eviction Diversion Program and working as a paralegal for the Disaster Relief Project. With the Disaster Relief Project, he helped low-income clients in eastern North Carolina navigate the long-term hurricane recovery process and saw how race and socioeconomic status shaped access to resources. He graduated from Kenyon College in 2019, where he completed research on North Carolina bail bond schedules and punitive trends in victims' rights amendments. At PJIL, Josh provided research and produced written materials to support the lab's portfolio of projects, including the National Resource Center for Correctional Oversight and the Louisiana Jail Standards Project.

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