The Power of Story: From Hearing Incarcerated Voices To Changing The Justice System

Hannah Spadafora
12 min readJul 3, 2021
Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash
Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Stories move us as human beings. In the United States, over 2.3 million (2,300,000) people can tell detailed stories of state and private run correctional facilities. These people are forced to live in tiny cells or crammed into packed room within jails, prisons, and detention centers across the country. Some of them have done bad things. Some of them have made mistakes. Some have been victims of mistaken identity, or falsified circumstance. Regardless of the reasons people end up stuck behind bars, research on the consequences of prison and jail time for inmates is disheartening, tragic, and demands change.

During a two-year thesis project as a grad student (2013–2015) and a thirteen-month internship with The Incarcerated Voices Project (2014–2015), I listened to over a hundred (about 115) first-hand stories from individuals across the United States who were currently or previously incarcerated. Most of these stories were shared via letters sent to the Incarcerated Voices Project from jails and prisons that participated in the program, but I also recruited currently free, previously incarcerated individuals for in person interviews and accompanying surveys.

These contributor stories contained diverse responses, but kernels of similar grievances remain. Some of these regard law enforcement using excessive action or conditions of deprivation during imprisonment voiced by many participants. Others concern devastating disruption to social and family connections, with relationships inside and outside the correctional walls complicated — or for too many, cut off — and their experiences in life marked by extended disconnection from warmth. The psychologically damaging effect of isolation noted in the shared narratives is worsened in cases where human rights protections are violated by the extended time in seclusion with isolation cells that literally preclude all human connection. Beyond this, limitations on education, sanitation, health care, reading material, and opportunities for growth are significantly distressing to participants. For those who get out, difficulties are extended with the…

Hannah Spadafora

Hannah Spadafora is a writer living in the Atlanta area with multiple cats and underused degrees in anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies.