America's Jails

The Search for Human Dignity in an Age of Mass Incarceration

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Derek S. Jeffreys
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , June
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jails are different than prisons. They contain people who have been arrested or charged, but not yet convicted of a crime. In America's JailsThe Search for Human Dignity in an Age of Mass Incarceration, Derek S. Jeffreys draws this distinction to suggest that the neglect and brutality individuals experience in these institutions is outrageous. Many remain incarcerated not due to their posing a threat to others, but rather they cannot afford bail. Thousands are jailed for behavior associated with mental illness and many in jail are innocent, making their sufferingmore disturbing.

Jeffreys is not an abolitionist; he believes jails are necessary for a “violent few” (170). Although even in these cases, jails remain suspect given their capacity to violate human dignity. As Jeffreys defines it, dignity includes an individual’s unique qualities and ability to transcend one’s immediate circumstances of existence. As in Catholic Social Teaching, dignity is inherent in all people, regardless of their actions. However, dignity does not have to be grounded in religious ideas (88). Neither is it merely a function of neurological impulses, logical determinations, or collective application of a social construct. Rather, in the tradition of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, Jeffreys maintains that people perceive one another’s dignity instinctively through affective responses. Exposure to jail conditions necessarily elicits emotional reactions based on an innate sense that thinking, feeling beings should not be mired in their present deplorable circumstances (94).

However, we still jail the most marginalized people given that our disgust, contempt, and fear blind us to their dignity. Incarceration only exacerbates their stigmatized status. Jeffreys acknowledges that these affective responses have complex biological and culturally specific roots that can be difficult to unearth and dislodge. For example, slavery and Jim Crow inculcated a disregard for African American life that explains why America’s majority-Black jails do not mirror their more humane, racially homogeneous Scandinavian counterparts.

Nevertheless, we are not entirely susceptible to our disgust, contempt, and fear. Jeffreys argues that, regardless of their origins, we can choose to resist these impulses and act differently toward people in jail. Policies promoting greater oversight and transparency, eliminating cash bail for most crimes, and improving mental health care can facilitate this process. The more people are aware of what goes on inside jails, the more likely they are to care. The more humanely we treat people in jail, the more we recognize and respect their dignity.

Jeffreys claims his phenomenological framework addresses the powerful role of emotions in ways evidence-based and legal approaches to jail reform do not. Historically, scientific tools have exacerbated rather than eliminated fear and “human folly” (143). Prone to anti-Black bias, statistical risk assessments frame people as the threat they might pose rather than as individuals deserving of the chance to live good lives. Similarly, human rights language does not convey what life is actually like for people in jail, especially the hopelessness they experience. Given the importance of affective responses toward incarcerated people in motivating reform, communicating these feelings is vital.

Jeffreys presents a valid critique of legal and evidence-based models, but his own work could be more fully foreground the life experiences they efface. He recounts specific cases of horrific abuse and alludes toconversations with incarcerated people “who express deep despair at their treatment” (95). Yet these stories are always about them, not from their own perspectives. Jeffreys recalls having to “retreat” from a woman in the Cook County Jail’s mental health facility (32). His phenomenological corrective might be more compelling if he had included her own words describing how it feels to be held in a ward where she cannot receive visits from her children. If impossible to acquire through ethnographic interviews, such firsthand accounts are available in written sources and only bolster his affect-centered analysis.

Jeffreys is also correct to warn against overconfidence in evidence-based approaches, which have done little to produce lasting change in jail conditions over the past two centuries.Unfortunately, history does little to recommend human emotion as an alternative foundation for reform. Moral panics fueling “tough on crime” policies have been as common as the moral outrage against them. While he calls for transparency, oversight, and education, Jeffreys also places faith in individuals who actively resist institutional pressures to disregard the dignity of incarcerated people. In turn, they “inspire” and “move” the rest of us to make similar decisions. Instead of relying on people to challenge structural constraints through sheer force of will, we might ask why these activists are able to “go against the grain.” Perhaps by doing so we can discern ways to make their respect of dignity more ordinary than extraordinary. Their admirable actions should be the start of our questions, not the end.

Finally, while Jeffreys’ book ends with individual heroics, a collective reckoning seems an equally appropriate response to the indignity of America’s jails. Jeffreys suggests that the history of slavery and Jim Crow helps account for our particularly cruel jail conditions.If it is the unique factor blinding Americans to the dignity of the incarcerated, addressing this history is a fundamental step in opening our eyes. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) established the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama for this very reason. This public monument recognizing the 4400 Black people lynched between 1877 and 1950 is an integral part of the EJI’s work challenging contemporary criminal justice policies. To paraphrase EJI Director Bryan Stevenson, in light of such history, we must ask ourselves not if people deserve to be punished, but whether we deserve to punish them. Even gun violence in Chicago, which Jeffreys attributes to, “a deeply disturbing disregard for human life,” has roots in deliberate policies of residential segregation and economic deprivation in Black communities (35). Any effort to recognize the dignity of people in jail, then, must be accompanied by reflection on the legacy that throws into question America’s moral authority to incarcerate them.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephanie Gaskill is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Derek. S. Jeffreys is Professor of Humanistic Studies and Religion at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. His work focuses on ethics and violence, and he has written books on Pope John Paul II, ethics and solitary confinement and ethics and torture.


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