A common science fiction trope is the dystopia that punishes even minor crimes with the death penalty. The trope shocks audiences because we know this is not how a free and fair society functions. In the United States, most crimes are nonviolent. We’re aware that good people can make mistakes, and without a strong social safety net, others may run out of options. That doesn’t even take into account the people who are wrongfully accused or convicted.
But even as we denounce cruel punishments, our stories spread a darker viewpoint: that every prisoner is an evil person who might as well die. This attitude fosters cruelty and negligence that kills real prisoners, especially in the United States.
My fellow Americans, we have met the dystopia, and it is us.
Content Notice: Discussion of cruel and deadly mistreatment, including the prevalence of suicide, sexual assault, and denied medical care in US correctional facilities.
The Cruelty of the US Prison System
Our stories aren’t told in a vacuum. We need to understand how our narratives address or reinforce problems in the real world. Otherwise, we could inadvertently strengthen cultural messages that are doing harm. In the case of the US prison system, the harm is astounding.
Bias Greatly Influences Who Is Imprisoned
It’s difficult to quantify how biased the US justice system is, because we aren’t even collecting all the data we need to check. In particular, much of the data we have on arrests categorizes race as either Black or white. That probably means some Latines are being lumped in with white people, inflating the number of white people arrested. Even with these problems, the limited data we have suggests racial bias at all levels of the justice system: police stops, arrests, bail, convictions, sentencing, and probation.
For instance, even though white and Black Americans use drugs at similar rates, Black Americans are 2.7 times as likely to be arrested for drug offenses. At the state level, Black Americans are 6.5 times as likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses. As another example, FiveThirtyEight compiled data on arrests and killings in the 37 largest cities in the US. They found that in 34 of them, Black residents were arrested and killed by police at higher rates per capita.
The data correlating mental health problems and incarceration is also alarming. People struggling with mental wellness are overrepresented in prisons, and they are more likely to be arrested. One study of inpatients at psychiatric hospitals found that 71% of them had been arrested at least once.
Then, once people are arrested, the American bail system ensures that only those with money are given freedom. If someone is too poor to pay bail, they have to stay in jail for months, regardless of their innocence or guilt. This often means they’ll lose their job in addition to the income they would normally earn during their stay.
It’s also more difficult for people to prepare for trial while they are detained. Then they may be brought before a jury wearing cuffs instead of nice clothes. Prosecutors can also use pretrial detention as leverage to get people to plead guilty in a plea bargain – even if they’re innocent. As a result of these factors and more, people who can’t make bail are more likely to be convicted and serve longer sentences.
Naturally, studies have shown bail is not applied fairly. Black Americans between the ages of 19 and 29 receive significantly higher bails than any other group. Unsurprisingly, Black Americans are held in pretrial detention at a rate that is five times higher than for white Americans.
Finally, harsh police interrogations can actually get innocent people to confess to crimes. In many states, police are allowed to lie to suspects during interrogations. After the police insist for hours that they have irrefutable evidence of guilt, innocent people can doubt their own memories. Obviously insincere confessions can also be taken out of context and used in trial.
This is a justice system designed to tear down people who are already marginalized and vulnerable. While the United States is not alone in having these issues, we have the world’s highest rate of incarceration per capita. The US holds roughly 2 million people in our jails and prisons.
Prisoners Are Grossly Mistreated
Based on 2021 estimates, between 41,000 and 48,000 people are being held in solitary confinement in US prisons. This means they’re being isolated in a cell for at least 22 hours a day and for at least 15 days running. These cells are generally windowless and about the size of a parking space. The United Nations has classified solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 days as torture.
Prisoners can be put in solitary confinement for just about any reason. Prisoners have been subject to isolation for having the wrong tattoo, in retaliation for reporting assault, or just for being trans. While someone is in solitary confinement, they can’t receive visits from their family. They are often banned from having phone calls, and they may not even be able to send letters.
The UN classifies solitary confinement as torture for a good reason. Even people who start with good mental health often endure permanent psychological harm from being in isolation. People who are already struggling with mental health issues are even more at risk. Yet some prisons even put prisoners in isolation for “mental health watch,” which is like trying to staunch someone’s wound by stabbing them.
This cruelty only adds to the number of people with mental health conditions who are imprisoned. Yet three in five prisoners with a history of mental health issues don’t receive any treatment. That leads to cases like Dashawn Carter’s. He missed nearly 100 medical appointments because corrections officers didn’t escort him to his clinic. He died by suicide in May.
Public health crises can make prison conditions much worse. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, prisoners were highly susceptible and received inadequate care. The recommendation by public health officials was to release as many prisoners as possible. Instead, many prisons engaged in mass isolation. In April 2020, about 300,000 prisoners were being held in solitary confinement.
In many Southern states, heat waves threaten prisoners who aren’t adequately protected. In Texas in particular, prisoners are left to die of extreme heat because correctional facilities won’t install air-conditioning. As the climate warms, this problem will only get worse.
But as bad as prisons are, the most deadly place is actually jail. That’s where people are detained for shorter periods. Most people staying in jail have not yet had their day in court, and they might not even be charged.
In the year following the death of Sandra Bland in July 2015, the Huffington Post found that 811 people died in US jails. This is almost certainly an undercount. Most jails are not required to publicly disclose the deaths that happen in their custody. The Huffington Post did extensive research to find these deaths.
The biggest killer of people in jails is suicide, particularly in the first 72 hours. That’s when people experience the sudden loss of freedom and bodily autonomy. It’s hard to understand the impact this has if you haven’t experienced it. You are stuck in a small room until someone, somewhere, decides you can leave. When will that be? Who knows. Until then, you can’t go to work. You can’t see your family. You can’t choose when to shower, what clothes to wear, or what medications to take. You probably have nothing to do except contemplate your situation. Under these conditions, people can unravel quickly. Jails are supposed to monitor prisoner health and prevent harm, but they often fail to do so.
In addition to suicide, there are cases such as the death of Abby Rudolph, a teen who was arrested for shoplifting. Once in jail, she started to go through severe drug withdrawal. Over four days in jail, her condition went from bad to worse, but she was not given any medical treatment. Her death was easily preventable; she simply needed some intravenous fluids and medication.
In every instance, studies aren’t demonstrating that these cruel practices make anyone safer. It’s just cruelty.
Stigma Enables Mistreatment
It’s no surprise that private prison systems would leave prisoners to die so they can make a bigger profit. Nor is it surprising that prison staff would lock people away in solitary confinement because it’s convenient. But how do they get away with it so often? Sure, some states have better protections than others, but why aren’t there robust federal laws?
It’s because the public hasn’t demanded a fairer and more humane justice system, not to the extent that it needs to. For most prisoners who suffer mistreatment or death, there isn’t a large enough public outcry in response. In fact, when it comes to prisoners, the public can be outright bloodthirsty.
For instance, it’s generally illegal to let prisoners cook to death. Judges have consistently ruled that extreme temperatures violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Yet states like Texas and Louisiana have refused to install air-conditioning anyway. They claim that it’s too expensive, but this is obviously an exaggeration at best. Some of these prisons already have air-conditioning for prison staff but not for prisoners. The two states have also spent millions battling lawsuits over their refusal. Installing air-conditioning would save money at this point.
The real reason they refuse is that they don’t want to look like they are “pampering” prisoners. This is the “tough on crime” rhetoric that so many politicians have spouted to get more votes. In fact, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, the public approved funding for a new jail after local leaders specifically promised it would have no air-conditioning.
Texas and Louisiana aren’t the only places that mistreat prisoners because of stigma; they’re just the most obvious about it. In every aspect of the US justice system, stigma can encourage and enable cruelty. Instead of focusing on how we can prevent people from committing crimes in the first place, public attention is usually focused on how hard we can punch every criminal.
This is where stories come in. The more privileged someone is, the less likely they’ve had personal experience with the criminal justice system. Without personal experience, people are unlikely to spend their time thinking about prisoners or their welfare. In these cases, their opinion of what prisoners are like and how they should be treated may be determined by the stories they consume.
This cruelty to prisoners is partly our doing. We need to take responsibility, do better, and insist that others do too.
Rethinking Criminal Antagonists
Stories need antagonists. The more violence a story has, the more the storyteller seeks antagonists who attack without much explanation and who the hero can kill without remorse. In many speculative fiction genres such as science fiction or other-world fantasy, heroes might fight robots or hordes of undead. But if the story takes place in the real world, antagonists are usually human beings.
Our Twisted Depictions of Criminals
For a long time, storytellers have used criminals as a source of fictional human fodder. The innocent hero is minding their own business, when a criminal attacks! Maybe they attack the hero, maybe they threaten to shoot up a convenience-store clerk, maybe they grab an old lady’s purse. Then the valiant hero gives this criminal a flying kick right in the crotch!
Beloved heroes such as Spider-Man and Batman fight random criminals often. Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man needs an evil neighborhood armed robber to beat up. The entire premise of Batman is that the city of Gotham can only be saved if a vigilante personally punishes every criminal. And this isn’t even counting the great many stories that glorify the police as heroes, such as Law & Order.
Storytellers use criminals largely because we don’t want to invest time in explaining who low-level antagonists are and why they’re attacking, or bother with tracking their welfare after the hero beats them up. Their purpose is to be dehumanized, disposable people. In Batman v Superman, Batman even uses a branding iron to torture the people he catches.
This perpetuates a toxic mindset that sorts humans into two groups: criminals, who are inherently violent, and law-abiding people, who do no harm to others. Under this mindset, the people labeled as “criminals” are an undifferentiated group of evildoers that heroes can kill without remorse.
In turn, this makes people believe that if we just got rid of every criminal, there would be no crime. This not only justifies violence, especially police violence, but also ignores the systems that lead people to commit crimes in the first place.
The prison population, in turn, is seen as an extension of this evil group of disposable people. Most stories don’t make any distinction between antagonists doing violence on the street and the prisoners in jail. And they often portray every prisoner as a violent, irredeemable criminal.
For instance, in The Dark Knight Rises, the villain Bane releases everyone in Gotham’s Blackgate Penitentiary under the assumption that they’ll be his henchmen. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the largest group of inmates – making up 45% – are in for drug offenses. So Bane is expecting a bunch of weed dealers to support his takeover of the city with violence. In the movie, they totally do!
In Black Widow, the heroes cause an avalanche at a prison and then leave all the desperate prisoners to die. This shows just how little we care about the lives of the people we imprison.
Punching Up vs Punching Down
The more powerful a group is, the better they are at shaping public discourse. The people who are most mistreated in our justice system – poor people, people of color, people facing a mental health crisis – don’t have well-funded PR departments. This means when we want a quick antagonist, the negative stereotypes about vulnerable people will spring to mind. If we aren’t careful, we’ll punch down at them.
All too often, stories feature drug offenses or petty property crimes like purse grabbing. By exaggerating their frequency and making them look more violent and threatening, we are contributing to a bloodthirsty “tough on crime” mindset. These crimes are often motivated by poverty. They reflect our failure to provide equal opportunity to everyone.
The true solution is not for Batman to beat up each criminal but for him to invest his vast wealth in improving opportunities. If people feel that they have a bright future and a stable job ahead of them, they are less likely to resort to drug dealing and robbery. If people’s physical and mental wellness are addressed, they’re less likely to self-medicate with drugs or engage in disruptive behavior.
But rather than taking billionaires like Batman or Iron Man to task for hoarding wealth the public needs, storytellers are very likely to make billionaires the heroes. When not fighting petty criminals, they’re shooting scores of flunkies and throwing them off buildings. Then after killing 100 flunkies, the hero might agonize over whether to take the life of the rich villain at the top.
Our stories don’t have to be this way. In reality, powerful people frequently hurt others because they can get away with it. Let your hero punch them instead.
Unfortunately, powerful people are more likely to have the law on their side. In many cases, they’ve already shaped those laws to their own benefit. You might wonder how a hero is supposed to punch someone who’s law abiding. Remember: morality and law are not the same thing. In fact, being moral but unlawful is to a hero’s benefit. That makes it easy to explain why the hero keeps their identity secret and why the police aren’t helping them.
The police themselves are one of the biggest sources of supposedly lawful violence that your hero can stop. When police officers use excessive force to hurt vulnerable people, they have immunity laws and powerful unions that keep them from being held accountable.
The police are also more likely to spare unlawful but privileged groups. In the US, there’s often disturbing connections between the police and white-supremacist groups. Without bias favoring right-wing extremists, the Capitol Police would probably have seen the Jan 6 attack coming.
So next time you’re looking for human antagonists, you might consider:
- Predatory billionaires
- Unethical corporations
- Villainous police officers
- Privileged criminals such as wealthy assassins
Sometimes the mafia is a good antagonist, but it depends on context. Some mafias are composed of marginalized people who end up joining out of desperation. Others have more privileged members. If your hero fights a mob boss, consider how you’re depicting the flunkies. Don’t make them into human fodder.
Depicting Prisons and Prisoners
The Prison Is Responsible for Prisoner Safety
Despite what Orange Is the New Black would have you believe, in US prisons, prisoners typically shower with their clothes on. One reason is that they’re afraid of being sexually assaulted. Is making every crime punishable by sexual assault what we want for America?
Sometimes, the answer is a shocking “yes.” Many stories include jokes about the rape of villains heading for prison. The assumption is that imprisonment isn’t enough to give the audience catharsis, only sexual violence is. This is a disturbing failure of basic empathy.
When someone is put in prison, they lose their autonomy, their career, their relationships, and any other dreams they had for their life. Storytellers are capable of making these sacrifices feel real to our audience. Advocating for rape as a quick and easy alternative is beyond reprehensible.
To disguise how cruel this is, our stories portray assault as inevitable in a prison environment. If it’s inevitable, then the prison – and the public by extension – isn’t at fault for allowing it to happen. But that’s a lie; we are at fault.
When we capture someone, lock them in a facility, and put them under guard, their health and safety becomes our responsibility. That’s because we’ve rendered them helpless to protect themself. A prisoner only gets medical care when the prison chooses to provide it. They are only safe from harm when the prison chooses to protect them.
It’s the prison that has the power, not the prisoners. Everything that happens in a prison is ultimately under the prison’s control, including homicide, suicide, and any type of assault. So much violence happens in prison because prisons have created an environment that allows or even encourages it to happen.
To put responsibility for prisoner welfare where it belongs, our stories must show the power that prisons have and how this power is being abused.
You might show how:
- The prison does not respond in a timely manner during emergency situations.
- Guards and other prison staff don’t help prisoners who ask for it or discourage prisoners from asking in the first place.
- Guards or other staff take advantage of their position of power over prisoners.
- Prisons are understaffed, leading to neglect and insufficient oversight.
- Prison facilities lack basic necessities such as temperature control or good sanitation.
- Prisoners are exploited monetarily through forced labor and fees for accessing basic necessities.
Let’s not forget that other prisoners are not the only source of danger in prison. Prison administrators leave prisoners to die from the heat. Guards assault prisoners or punish them harshly for arbitrary reasons. Medical staff deliver substandard care. Prison staff are also the biggest source of contraband, delivering restricted substances that result in prisoner overdoses.
Yet our stories rarely show cruel treatment by the prison or its staff unless the heroes are specifically political prisoners. In these cases, the binary has flipped: the heroes are innocent, so the prison is criminal. Is it too hard for us to understand that just because someone deserves punishment, it doesn’t mean they deserve a cruel and unusual punishment?
Prisoners Are Human Beings
If you want to depict criminal antagonists, you don’t need to represent every criminal. Your story might feature only highly paid assassins. But when you depict a prison, it must reflect the diverse group of people who are prisoners. It will never be okay to characterize all prisoners as violent.
That means sparing the time to show most prisoners as relatable and sympathetic. If you have only a brief depiction and violent prisoners are the primary focus, it will create the impression that all prisoners are violent. Prisoners that do cause trouble should still be humanized.
It’s easy to tell when stories are dehumanizing antagonists, because they stop acting like rational beings. They’re more like video game enemies that are “auto hostile,” attacking the closest player character regardless of what the player does. Dehumanized antagonists also lack self-preservation instincts. They’ll keep attacking the hero until the hero kills them, even if they’re obviously outmatched.
It’s questionable if any humans should be depicted this way, much less ones who are in such a vulnerable position. So when a prisoner instigates a conflict, it needs a cause. That cause may be more emotional than rational, but it still has to be understandable. If it looks like a quick excuse for violence, it’s not good enough.
If someone beats up an antagonistic prisoner, then what happens? If you cut away immediately afterward, you’re sending the message that their life doesn’t matter. Follow up with the injured antagonist. Depict a dramatic conversation with a protagonist as they wait for medical help to arrive.
Depicting prisoners as protagonists should be a great opportunity to humanize them. If you have a prisoner as a protagonist, you should use that to build empathy and understanding. But naturally, storytellers have also found a way to mess that up.
In many stories, protagonists in prison are portrayed as “not like other prisoners.” The protagonist is a good person whose life has gone awry, whereas everyone else is a hardened criminal. Often, this is partly because the storyteller needs a source of tension once the protagonist is in prison. They provide that by showing other prisoners immediately bullying or threatening the protagonist, often including threats of sexual assault.
Meanwhile, the guards or other prison staff usually fade into the background. This is so that the audience doesn’t ask why the prison isn’t protecting the protagonist from threats to their safety. Once again, this absolves the prison of responsibility in favor of demonizing prisoners.
If you don’t have time to create a more nuanced and ethical portrayal of prisoners and prisons, don’t depict them at all. You have other options for creating tension and conflict, even if you need to avoid fantastical antagonists.
Storytellers frequently echo what they’ve seen in other stories. When so many stories are demonizing and dehumanizing a group of people, learning how to do better can take some effort. But the better we do, the easier it is for the storytellers who come after us.
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