Cultural theorists such as Henry Jenkins, Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler, Robert Hassan, and Manuel Castells, have written extensively on the role of network communications technologies in reconﬁguring contemporary culture. While the penetration of the “information society” is now widespread in U.S. culture, not everyone is an equal participant. As an extreme case in point, the American prison population, currently at 2.3 million, is institutionally excluded from equal participation in the information society and its network economies, attributed by some scholars as due to the prison’s historical logic of highly regulated communication ﬂows.
Some theorists of network culture argue that one quality of network cultures is their tendency to be all-embracing: their connectivity has a compounding effect that encourages networks to become ever more dense. Hassan calls this permeation of networks into culture the “network eﬀect”, a social pressure to participate more deeply in the information society. This network effect provides a theoretical lens for looking at prisons within society. An analysis of the debates surrounding correctional policy reveals the social forces both internal and external to the prison system pressuring prisons to adopt more liberal networked communication technologies and philosophies.
Outside the prison walls, discourses on the crisis of the prison reveal the ways in which networked communication has penetrated the prison via contraband communications technologies and channels along with an exertion of social pressure by journalists and academics, on prisons, to reduce the use of isolation in the correctional system. Internally, debates on the reform of the prison by correctional personnel reveal the ways in which the penetration of network communication into the prison is asserted as a means of encouraging a more effective, efficient, and affordable institution able to remain competitive and socially relevant in a neo-liberal economic framework which is itself a contributor and effect of the information society.
Cultural transitions involve a series of messy and unpredictable power negotiations between various cultural stakeholders, and the internal and external influences of this so-called network effect on the prison do not stand unopposed. Both within and outside the prison walls, stakeholders resist the penetration of network communication—mainly by expressing the desire to keep historical continuity with a policy of isolation. This juncture between isolation and networks is the central problematic nexus in contemporary debates about the role of prisons, their function and modes of operation. Any effective and thorough understanding of correctional policy and issues in an information society must therefore proceed from a communicative, as well as punitive, framework. This thesis attempts to map that framework, with the goal of encouraging a more informed and democratic conversation about correctional policy debates in America and abroad.