Do Movies Make Us Stupid About Prisons?


Keith Humphreys recently attended a dinner party where everyone he talked to seemed quite sure they knew everything there is to know about prisons. Most of them were dead wrong:

Nobody is informed about all areas of public policy. And most people don’t have trouble admitting that they don’t know anything about, say, the US-Brazil diplomatic relationship, Libor rate management, or sugar subsidies. But for a subset of public policy issues, a large number of completely ignorant people are dead sure they have all the facts….Prison is one of those areas, and I strongly suspect it is because there is so much fictionalization of it. If I were bored, I am sure I could easily list a hundred movies set in prisons. The Big House is also a common backdrop for TV shows, novels and comic books.

I suppose that’s part of it. But here’s a different theory: When it comes to issues of general public interest (i.e., not Libor or sugar subsidies), the less people know about something the more confident they are in their opinions. Everyone with the manual dexterity to hoist a beer can regale you with confident answers to all the ills of society, while in the very next breath insisting that you don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to subject X. That’s a lot more complicated than you think.

Subject X, of course, is something they happen to know a lot about, probably because they work in the field. But it doesn’t matter. The fact that they’ve learned to be cautious about the one field they know the most about doesn’t stop them from assuming that every other field is pretty simple and tractable.

I am, of course, a professional in this kind of behavior. But lemme tell you, this blogging stuff is a lot trickier than you’d think. There are no easy answers to doing it right and attracting a large audience.

As for prisons, click the link if you want to learn five things that you might not know. But since you read this blog and are obviously smarter than the average bear, I will be disappointed if you don’t already know at least one or two of them. You do know that the prison population is shrinking, don’t you?

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And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

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