The Political Economy of Prisoner Voice and Collective Action in the U.S. Prison System

Kaitlyn Woltz

Advisor: Peter J Boettke, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Christopher J Coyne, Jayme Lemke

Online Location, Online
April 26, 2021, 01:00 PM to 02:00 PM


This dissertation examines understudied aspects of the criminal justice system in the US: the role of prisoner voice in that system and the impact of the growing system of incarceration on US democracy. It follows the Ostromian tradition of recognizing the ability of those constrained by institutions to change them. As part of this dissertation, I constructed a unique database on prison journalism and conducted archival work to access US prison newspapers.  

Chapter 1 examines the role of prisoner voice in the process of criminal justice reform. I leverage the economics of bureaucracy and analytical narrative methodology to examine the influence of avenues for prisoner voice on criminal justice reform. I find that prisoner voice—through the avenues of prison journalism and prisoner litigation—serves as an information channel in state criminal justice bureaucracies, holding bureaucrats accountable to their superiors. I conclude that prison journalism is the only avenue for prisoner voice that influences reform in ways that align with voters’ interests.  

Chapter 2 examines the function of prison journalism in US prisons. I leverage the economics of bureaucracy and analytical narrative methodology to explain why prison wardens allow prisoners to produce newspapers and circulate outside the prison. I find that prison newspapers served as information channels that helped wardens to monitor their subordinates and protected them from being used as political scapegoats by their superiors in the criminal justice bureaucracy. 

Chapter 3 examines the effect of the US system of mass incarceration on democracy. I leverage Tocquevillian political economy along with an Ostromian emphasis on democratic institutions of governance. Through a survey of the literature on the collateral costs of incarceration, I conclude that mass incarceration erodes the associational life of former prisoners, undermining democracy.  

This dissertation has implications for efforts to reform the US criminal justice system. Any reform efforts need to consider the incentives of those working within the system. They also need to leverage prisoner voice as a source of local knowledge about the incentives of officials and those incarcerated. In this way, prisoner voice may provide a guide for effective reforms. Avenues for prisoner voice may also serve as a possible means to overcome the erosion of associational life that results from incarceration.