For as long as anyone can remember, a battle has waged in prisons, jails, and other incarcerated spaces between light and darkness. Not in the metaphorical, moral sense, but in the literal sense. Incarcerated spaces are well-lit areas.

In most county jails, the lights in the dayroom and in the cells are controlled by the staff. They tend to have two settings, bright and dim. At ten p.m., or whenever the lights “go out,” the staff will switch the lights in the cell from the bright setting to a more dim one, that still allows easy visibility for the staff members.

In prison cells, the lights in the cell may be controlled by the occupants of the cell, and usually have three settings: bright, dim, and off. But even when the lights are off, the dayroom area just outside of the cell is still well lit, so it’s never actually dark in the cell. A few minutes after the light in the cell goes out, your eyes adjust, and everything in the cell is visible.

Incarcerated people often cover the lights with paper, or something more permanent if we can. The staff comes through and threatens us with some disciplinary action if we don’t uncover the lights. So we do, then, a few days go by, and the light covers go back up.

Most incarcerated people don’t consider the concerns of staff legitimate, but the argument they always give for light is safety. C.O.s argue that they cannot keep us safe, or themselves, if they cannot see. We argue that they have flashlights, use those. Let us sleep. Maybe there won’t be as many conflicts between us and staff.

For incarcerated people, this is a hot button issue. It’s hard to sleep with the lights on every night. To compensate, almost every cellmate in prison I’ve had has constantly kept the lights off, doing everything by the light outside of the cell, and the light of the TV.

It isn’t just those of us in prison who are thinking about privacy lately. In many ways, this battle between light and dark parallels a conflict I see playing out in the larger world, though with sone important differences. In incarcerated spaces it’s the struggle between privacy and safety, in the larger world, it’s the tension between privacy and convenience.

From what I read, Facebook, Amazon, and other social media entities have every one of their subscribers under surveillance. And everyone knows it. Someone goes online and looks for the healthiest cat food. Next thing she knows, she’s receiving ads, and videos talking about how much better cats are than dogs. In essence, her search history is being exploited in an attempt to profit off of her financially.

These companies study their customers in order to determine their likes and dislikes in many more ways than mere retail purchases. They also pay attention to their customers political views in order to create a pleasurable experience. If you consider yourself to be progressive, it’s nice to see a news feed championing the issues that are important to you.

But there’s a problem. Humans suffer from something called confirmation bias. That is where we accept evidence that supports our preconceived notions, and reject evidence that goes against what we already believe. (You may think you don’t suffer from this, but that’s probably just more evidence that you actually have it worse than most. Google it.)

Even knowing this, the people who participate willingly give up their privacy for convenience. It feels good when the nice people at Amazon can anticipate your needs and recommend nice things. It probably isn’t anywhere near as creepy as it looks from the outside looking in (or do I mean the inside looking out?) Anyway, it’s startling to see people out in the larger world freely giving up their privacy. Every person I know in here longs to return to a time when we could just sit in the dark, no one watching us, telling us it’s for our own good.

These companies work hard to convince us they are providing a service that is more valuable than our privacy. Perhaps, upon my release, I’ll agree. More likely though, I’ll remember, the loss of privacy is rarely benign for long.

Written by James King

James recently had his sentence commuted by Governor Brown and will go before the parole board as early as this spring, to be considered for release. He is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

You may write to him at the following address:

James King CDCR # V-69030 2–W–10 
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974


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