As awareness of the inequalities baked into our carceral system rises, we still treat those who have “done their time” as unequals.
Want to vote for people who will ease these restrictions? In many states, you can’t. Despite recent efforts to restore voting rights, the majority of states continue to impose restrictions on formerly incarcerated individuals.
Why does this happen? Since 2016, my psychology lab at Columbia University has studied how children and adults think about morality. Part of our focus is psychological essentialism—the view that people’s behaviors and characteristics come from an internal “essence” that makes that person who they are.
These “essences” are often seen as an unchanging, an inherent part of someone’s identity. When we describe someone as having a “criminal nature,” we are using essentialist language. The use of such language communicates the belief that incarcerated people are inherently bad and can’t change—not even after leaving prison.
In more than 500 interviews, my team asked children and adults to define the words “prison” and “jail.” Six- to eight-year-olds were more likely than adults to think that these words referred to places where someone might go because of the kind of person they are. Children said things like “prison is a place where bad people go” or talked about jails housing “bad guys.” The “badness” of incarcerated people was more salient to children than anything else, like the fact that people often go to prison because they did something illegal, or that they can’t leave whenever they want.
Adults typically defined prison in terms of behaviors, saying things like “prison is a place where you go when you break the law.” But when asked why someone might break the law, adults, like children, focused on internal qualities. They thought people might break the law because “they have no sense of right or wrong,” out of “evilness,” or simply because they found it “fun” to commit crimes.
If that’s how people explain incarceration, of course they wouldn’t trust people who have left prison. It makes no sense to allow evil people to participate fully in society.
In fact, a follow-up study from my lab shows that attributing transgressions to internal qualities can reduce generosity toward people who have done something wrong. In that study, we told adults about two different people. One person, we said, was bad because something inside of him, like a chemical in his brain, made him that way. The other person was equally bad, but for a different reason: he had learned to be bad from other people.
Then, we asked participants to divide five lottery tickets between the two characters.
Even though they heard about two people who were equally “bad,” adults’ generosity differed sharply. On average, they gave fewer than half the tickets to the person whose badness was attributed to an internal “essence.” Talking about people as though they are inherently, irredeemably “bad” can reduce the extent to which others are willing to share with them.
This matters for people in prison, who are often described as unchangingly bad. In a culture that thinks its incarcerated citizens are evil, it can be difficult to give them anything, including the benefits of full citizenship. What if we instead talked about the behaviors and social forces that lead to incarceration?
What if our policies took seriously the idea that once people have served their sentence, their debt to society is paid?
Policymakers are not the only people who can create change. Anyone can call lawmakers and send postcards. When we enter the voting booth, we can cast our ballots with an eye toward expanding the electorate for next time.
We can also take actions in our day-to-day lives that may seem too small to matter but, together, add up to a more just world. When we talk about wrongdoing, we can describe behavior, not character. We can talk about “people who have committed crimes,” not “evil criminals.”
Our legal system says that after people serve their time, their debt to society is paid. True reform must take this idea seriously.
Incarcerated people are not irredeemably bad people. The sooner our society starts talking and acting like that’s true, the sooner we can become a place where, to borrow the phrase used by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, no one—not an incarcerated person, not me, not you or your best friend or your child—has to be reduced to the “worst thing [we’ve] ever done.”
Larisa Heiphetz is a professor of psychology at Columbia University and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. She welcomes comments from readers