A prisoner’s perspective can increase support for reform

  • Americans are often skeptical of prison reform
  • An online experiment showed telling prisoners' stories can help
  • Long-term impact of this intervention is yet unknown

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 20: State lawmakers join formerly incarcerated New Yorkers, faith leaders and activists during a rally to launch a post-budget effort to pass parole reforms in New York State before the end of the state legislative session on June 2 on April 20, 2022 in New York City. Speakers called for the passage of the Elder Parole and Fair & Timely Parole bills to help reunite families and end the crisis of death in prison. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — America has one of the world’s largest prison populations, leading some people to advocate for reforms that would both reduce the country’s reliance on incarceration and improve conditions for those who are behind bars.

But many Americans are skeptical of changing the system, making political support for reforms like reducing sentences for offenders or expanding educational opportunities for prisoners less feasible.

But presenting people with personal stories from a prisoner’s perspective may help change that.

UC Berkeley graduate student Jesse Harney was inspired to test that theory after quarantining during COVID-19.

“I was trying to get adjusted to the space and being in my own room. And then I was thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t even imagine what people who are incarcerated are going through right now,'” she said.

She read an article in the publication “The Marshall Project” by a prisoner named Jerry Metcalf titled “No, Your Coronavirus Quarantine Is Not Just Like Being In Prison.” The piece described Metcalf’s life in prison and his fear of contracting the virus while incarcerated.

“I’m scared to death. I may die all alone in prison without any of my loved ones around to comfort me and send me off,” Metcalf wrote in the essay.

The article sparked her 2021 experiment to test the power of “perspective-getting,” which involves reading or otherwise viewing someone else’s perspective.

She asked participants to read the article, then answer questions about if they supported prison reforms like increasing access to personal protective equipment in prisons, providing free phone calls for prisoners and using alternatives to incarceration like community service.

“Being exposed to somebody’s, specifically Jerry’s, perspective of what it was like to be incarcerated in the pandemic did significantly increase self-reported support for prison reform,” she said.

While the experiment was born out of the pandemic, Metcalf’s perspective increased support for reforms beyond simply giving participants information about COVID-19 in prisons. Harney noted in her study accompanying the experiment that “receiving the perspective-getting narrative resulted in a 3% increase in support for prison reform initiatives, compared to receiving information alone.”

Harney was not able to see if the perspective-getting exercise had long-term effects — what she recorded was a change that occurred shortly after reading the excerpt — but she would like to study that in the future.

The study also took place early in the pandemic, meaning the results may differ if people read the same passage today. In the future, she would like to try it as a field experiment — conducting via door-to-door canvassing as one possibility — rather than as an online exercise.

But she argued that the study has implications for how to create empathy for populations of disfavored people like America’s prisoners.

“Perspective-getting in particular — hearing the experience of those who’ve experienced the system — is incredibly powerful. It’s definitely not some fix-all solution but by and large, I think this can really be powerful for fostering empathy,” Harney said.


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