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What Prison Really Means

November 2, 2008

At first blush, incarceration would seem to involve a loss of physical mobility – you have to stay in the prison all day and all night. You can’t go anywhere else. But you might have TV to watch, videos, recorded music, e-mail, mail mail, the Internet, even the prison library. So, the inability to move about outside the prison can be adapted to.

But there is another, more-serious deprivation that lends much to what a freedom lover understands as true prison: the prohibition of exchange. This article in today’s Wall Street Journal describes a situation familiar to students of POW camps, concentration camps, and other long-term detention facilities: the emergence of substitute monies. But what emerges in this article that wasn’t previously familiar to me is that federal prisoners, deprived of the right to possess money, are further deprived of all rights to exchange, at least through any medium such as cigarettes or, in this case, mackerel!

My understanding of what constitutes freedom has taken a great leap from this illustration of what it is to be deprived of freedom. And keep in mind: the progressive daily circumscription of our freedom to exchange with each other is subtle. To start with, you don’t have to be in prison to be fully subject to it.

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