Stephen Newman

Prison As Punishment — Is It Enough? By Stephen Newman

I pose to you an interesting question: Does a criminal get sentenced to prison AS the punishment, or does he get sentenced to prison TO BE punished?

Many don’t understand this distinction, but once you’ve been locked up for many years, it makes perfect sense. I’ll explain…

When an inmate is sentenced to prison, his entire life is destroyed. He loses his job. He loses his wife and family. He loses his freedom. He can’t even do the simple things, like take a private shower, or order a cheeseburger at McDonalds. For many, they lose all of their money, their house and cars get reposessed, their family members gradually (or not so gradually) stop communicating with them, and they’re stuck in a cell — for 5 years, or 10, or even for life, thinking about everything they’re missing out on. That is what a prison sentence is supposed to be. Prison is supposed to be the punishment.

But a growing number of people, many with good intentions, prescribe to the philosophy that criminals get sent to prison TO BE punished. Prison, in and of itself, isn’t punishment, they think. They believe an inmate should get treated poorly, while locked up, as a constant reminder of how terrible he is. These people don’t fully recognize how severe of a punishment it is to essentially have your entire life ripped away from you. To lose everything. That’s not enough for this group of people. They think the real punishment should begin once a person gets to prison.

This can be accomplished by some or all of the following: guards talking down to inmates, guards ignoring inmates, counselors responding to complaints with “if you don’t like it, don’t come to prison”, the kitchen supervisor ordering cookies that expired over two years ago (because we are inmates and we should feel lucky to get cookies at all), or any other action that makes life as miserable as possible for inmates…where we are treated more like animals, less like humans.

Most people in society don’t even realize that they share these views. I witnessed an inmate, in a therapy group, tell a mental health clinician here how he was having a hard time in prison, being away from his wife and family. Her response was, “do you guys get three meals a day here?” When he said yes, we do get three meals a day, her response was, “you guys should count your blessings Do you know in Mexico prisons, if you don’t have money to buy food, you starve. You don’t eat. At least here they feed you, and the food always smells so good!”

Over the years, I’ve received countless letters from friends and penpals who shared similar sentiments. They mean well, I’m sure, when they say things like, “At least in there you don’t have to worry about bills,” or, “You get free food and your laundry is done for you, and you have more cable TV channels than I have, because I can’t afford cable,” or, “It’s a good time to be in there, honestly, because the world is not in a good place right now and gas is expensive and the economy sucks and it’s so hard to find a job.” I’ve even heard, from several people, “Sometimes I wish I could be an inmate and be where you are, so I could get away from all my stress and responsibilities.” To them, not only is a prison sentence not a punishment, it’s actually a benefit — a stress-relieving vacation. (Side note: For true vacation bliss, I recommend the Post Ranch Inn, in Big Sur, California.)

Those who make comments such as these don’t realize the magnitude of a prison sentence. They don’t see prison, itself, as a punishment. (Wow. These inmates get free meals and TV and free haircuts and they don’t have bill collectors bothering them, it can’t be so bad). It’s this logic that then lends itself to a slippery slope: “They need to be punished more, they have it too good in there.”

Years ago, Nancy Grace was on TV, complaining when she was touring the chow hall of the jail where Casey Anthony was housed: “Oh. My. Gosh. Look at this. They PROVIDE her with FREE salt and pepper shakers. How nice of them. I’m glad my tax dollars could help make her food more palatable!” Nancy’s attitude was — she’s a scum of the earth inmate, let’s punish her by depriving her of basic spices for her food. And indirectly, the clinician saying “the food you guys get always smells so good” echoes this same belief system. We should feel fortunate that our food tastes good, because it’s more than we deserve in here, they think.

In fact, just saying “you guys” automatically sends of a vibe of “I’m better than you guys are….that’s why you guys are locked up here and I get to go home every night.” Imagine if she talked to blacks, or hispanics, or mentally handicapped people, or Jews, or transgender people, and referred to them repeatedly as “you guys.” Wouldn’t that sound discriminatory? But to talk down to inmates, to treat us like second-class citizens…that’s just business as usual. After all, we’re here to be punished, right?

— Stephen Newman is a curious observer of human nature, an expert chess player, and a prison inmate in Idaho. For lunch today he opened a pouch of diced ham, poured it into a bowl with mayonnaise, mustard, and lemon pepper, then chopped celery up in his mouth, spit it into the bowl, and mixed it all together for a gourmet ham salad. He ate it with yesterday’s stale tortilla chips left over from lunch. For dessert, he ate three Chocolate Mint sandwich cookies that his mom sent him on the quarterly prison care package. And he’s about to eat a fourth one once he submits this blog to InmateBlogger. He can be reached via email at —

Stephen Newman
DOC #90843


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