Ending Incarceration in America

Media is the fourth branch of government, one whose role is to inform the public, so people can hold their government accountable. In a world where communication of reality and propaganda are indistinguishable, I can no longer trust communication to be indicative of reality.

My goal in this paper is to develop methods of persuasion, to the end of aiding incarcerated individuals present their case for freedom to clemency boards. Persuasion is largely dependent upon the relationship between trust and communication, as well as the forces that motivate people to act.

Before we begin, it is important to clarify that justice is defined and standardized by people. It must then be ensured that there is democratic and universal access to shape the idea of justice by which people are prosecuted. With this foundation, we move on to defining clemency, and eventually move towards analysis and developing a stance.

Clemency can be broken into pardons, commutations, and reprieves. Pardon absolves the sentence, commutation changes it, and reprieve postpones it (Ridolfi & Seth 2009, Paper 3, Pp 28). Mayors and clemency boards judge the individual applying for clemency, and decide what, if any, form of clemency will be granted (Sliwinski 2011, Chapter 1, Pp 25, 26).

Clemency boards consider what was done by the individual being evaluated – religious, educational, vocational activities, that show how an individual has changed, and that they are ready to be safely reintegrated into society (State Clemency Project 2020, Pp 4). An interview where the individual recounts what they have done is not entirely trustworthy in itself. Inherent to clemency is the idea that the judicial branch of the United States of America makes mistakes, due to vengeful accusers, errors of jurors and the courts, or inaccurate testimony, and that the mistakes should be rectified (Ridolfi & Seth 2009, Paper 3, Pp 29). Even if the judicial branch worked the way it was intended to, clemency is cogent whenever the freeing of an imprisoned person would benefit society more than it would harm it. In other words, clemency is a process by which “representatives of the state who are not judges or lawyers consider the human cost and consequences of the decision to execute…” a sentence upon an individual, and grant reprieves, commutations, and pardons where they are due (Thomas 2012, Chapter 1, Pp 266).

In the discussion of clemency and imprisonment, it is important to acknowledge that the governmental agencies and private companies that source goods and labor from prisons are financially motivated to keep the system the way it is. In other words, the structures resisting industrial and categorical clemency are the very superstructures benefitting from imprisoning people.

Clemency can be used to curry favor, like the way Abraham Lincoln allegedly employed it (Madar 2015). Something existing for the good of the community is yet again used to further an individual’s agenda. There are two ways I see to go about bringing change – a revolution, or a slow process of implementing transformations. Regardless of the approach, change has the result of upsetting those who were well in the old way of doing things.

An upheaval and breakdown of the judicial system would allow for it to be rebuilt. If we get rid of our idea of the incarceration system, we are able to imagine a rehabilitation system. William Darity Junior effectively explained how to go about making reparations, and although the procedure was designed with restitution for bondage in mind, it can be abstracted to any form of restitution. The process Darity Jr. presents is one of three parts; first, an acknowledgement of wrong and a promise to make it up; a series of actions to the end of redressing the wrong that was committed; and finally, a mutual acknowledgement between the culpable party and the victims that the redress was sufficient and the matter is settled (Darity 2021). This could work on a large rehabilitation scale! Darity presents us with an ideal revolution, which has traction in conversations of the troubled penal system, and so it would serve us well to also consider more gradual changes that could be made.

With clemency as our ally, we can work the incarceration system towards ending hopeless imprisonment. To be able to effectively persuade a governess to grant somebody clemency, we must first understand what motivates her to act. A governor is a person, and a person is motivated to grant another person clemency by feelings of sympathy, empathy, and pity, as well as the knowledge that in the given case, the current sentence is harmful to both the individual and the community.

A definition of terms seems a natural place to start. For the following, let us understand empathy as the act of abstracting a person to only their pain, in order to understand and share that pain. This understanding of empathy is similar to one of pity, except that in pity, one does not understand the nature of the individual’s pain which they contemplate. While pity and empathy present an experience of emotion independent of reason, sympathy blends the two. In order to sympathize with someone, one must understand the place that the pain has within the individual, as well as understand the pain itself. In other words, we cannot be sympathetic with someone until we can relate to the experiences that contextualize their pain.

To incite sympathy, an effective method could be to present an individual in a painful situation, and accurately represent an abstraction of that painful emotion which allows the observer to rationally connect that situation to their own experiences of similar pain.  For example, if a cat is playing with a mouse, the argument here is that it would be rather effective for me to try to incite empathy in you for the mouse by making you understand the mouse’s emotional situation (which would be undeniably difficult because humans do not thoroughly understand the fear nor pain a mouse feels as it is batted around by a cat) by presenting the situation of the mouse, and following it with a sequence that causes the audience to call upon an idea they already have of being played with and hurt. Do you remember when you were in that car crash? Do you remember how it felt when you flipped over your bike’s handlebars? What about the time you were bullied in the schoolyard? Then, through an abstraction of experience that simultaneously fits both experiences, make the connection between the experience of the audience and the subject incontestable. Those are experiences of emotional and physical trauma. This mouse is experiencing emotional and physical trauma.

At this point, you might feel bad for the mouse, as it continues to lose heart before you. The step that would bring this feeling of empathy to be more than just a feeling would be to rationally connect your experience with that of the mouse. You are both a part of the same evolutionary force, being two mammals on the same blue marble, experiencing these same experiences of trauma, and you want the other to help you.

We can feel empathy for somebody in a situation which we cannot relate to, as we can feel for the mouse without understanding it’s experience. Did you emotionally connect to the mouse in this example? What about rationally? The stronger the rational connection between beholder and subject becomes, the more that empathy becomes sympathy. When our experiences reflect the subject’s pain, our resolve to act will be strong. Sympathy is founded in understanding the experience of another, and that is where its power (and weakness) lies.

Inciting sympathy as a fusion of reason and emotion is a strong method for manipulating people to do what they can to help their kin. While this sort of manipulation can bring about progress, it is a movement devoid of soul. An evolving inspiration is far more valuable than a code that determines action. So, after having explored a persuasion protocol, if you will call it that, I want to shift gears towards a looser, more conscientious method of planting persuasion, and providing the ingredients so that the audience can persuade themselves. To illustrate this approach, please consider the following;

How would the incarceration system be impacted by the belief that everyone has the capacity to change for the better before they actually start to change? Perhaps instead of a system that locks people up, it could become more of a rehabilitation system. I remember that when I did something wrong as a child, my father would confine me to my room to give me time to think about what I had done. I believe that having that time to reflect was crucial, albeit that I only used that time wisely because I knew I would eventually leave the room, and live out my new understanding. A system that helps people to process their values and incrementally implement change may allow for society to regain trust in the individual, instead of the current system that takes advantage of those who need help.


  1. Ridolfi, Kathleen M. and Gordon, Seth, “Gubernatorial Clemency Powers: Justice or Mercy?” (2009). Northern California Innocence Project Scholarship. Paper 3, Pp 28, 29.
  1. Sliwinski, Sharon, “Human Rights in Camera.” (2011). University of Chicago Press. Chapter 1, Pp 25, 26.
  2. State Clemency Project, “Taking Stock of Clemency in the Empire State.” (2020). NYU Center on the Administration of Law, Pp 4.
  3. Thomas, Kendall, “Sensible Politics.” (2012). Zone Books NY. Chapter 1, Pp 266.
  4. Madar, Chase, “The Case For Clemency.” (2015). The American Conservative.
  5. Darity, William Jr. , “Why Reparations Are Needed to Close the Racial Wealth Gap.” (2021). The New York Times.

 Why Reparations Are Needed to Close the Racial Wealth Gap – The New York Times (nytimes.com)