Incarceration, Identity, & Plato’s Allegory of The Cave


Author: Tara DeWorsop, Ph.D. student in Multi-Sector Communications program

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” – Plato 

Penological research has extensively documented how incarcerated men’s identities are shaped by the prison setting, highlighting how these men cope with and adapt to the ‘pains of imprisonment’ through careful emotion management. Significantly less research has focused explicitly on incarcerated men’s constructions of their self identification and the role emotion and identity as it relates to environment and the other relates to it. My question is how an incarcerated individual might create identity while incarcerated when so many things are out of their control. In order to get to how one might be able to move beyond the confinements of incarceration to create identity, I must first outline some of the key impacts that prison setting has on men’s identities. First, however, let me start with what first creates an identity and some of the key factors that lead to the creation of a self that has a higher likelihood of incarceration. 

In ancient times, people with the disorder of leprosy were quarantined in isolated colonies, out of sight and out of mind. Today, society quarantines many trauma-impacted individuals in its own isolated colonies called jails, prisons, treatment centers and halfway houses. Many of them are perpetrators of trauma; however, many are also victims, and perhaps most are both. It is well known that trauma begets trauma — hurt people hurt people (Young, 2021). There is also a strong link between education and incarceration as described in the ‘School-to-Prison’ pipeline theory. Approximately 35% of people in prison do not have their high school diploma or high school equivalency diploma, compared to 18% of the general population (Wolf Harlow, C., Ph.D. 2003). Moreover, one in ten young males who do not finish high school end up in adult jail or juvenile detention, compared to one in 35 high school graduates (Dillon, S. 2009). These individuals, often victims of a failing public education system, fall into a “school to prison pipeline” that severely limits their future opportunities and heightens their susceptibility to recidivate. 

Given the deep and systemic failures in the country’s educational practices and substantial bodies of research from various fields that have consistently documented the long-term, detrimental effects of childhood maltreatment and trauma. We know from studies that those with ACE scores of four or higher are 20x’s more likely to be incarcerated at some time in their lives compared to the general population. In the health science field, a body of research—known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies—has raised awareness among health-care providers of the cumulative or dose-response impact of childhood adversity on long-term health and well-being. Recent research has suggested that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) impact a number of aspects of adult behavior and cognition, including hyperactivity, impulsivity, and criminality. (2021, Rush).

The allegory becomes complicated when considering the “cave” of the modern prison. Incarceration could be compared as going deeper into the darkness of Plato’s ‘Cave’. We must understand our past in order to understand your future. For Plato, the task of education is to free people from their shackles and show them the way out of imprisonment. His argument hinges on this point: To be educated is to be emancipated—not only individually, intellectually, and philosophically, but also socially, politically, and ethically. Education, he contends, is what makes justice possible. The existence of a cave, in which men remained prisoners from birth, tied by the neck and legs against a wall, is in this case a metaphor of the identity created from ACEs based trauma perpetuated through incarceration. 

In The Allegory of the Cave, Plato imagines that one prisoner is unshackled and led toward the cave entrance. Accustomed only to darkness, he is blinded by the fire. Gradually, he sees the people passing by. But the fire itself is so painful to behold that he returns to his seat – preferring the shadows on the wall. But suppose one prisoner is led up to the mouth of the cave. He is dazzled by the sunlight; it takes considerable time till he is able to see the beautiful real world outside. He feels sorry for the other prisoners. If this prisoner were to return and narrate his experience, the other prisoners would ridicule him, staunchly defending their own perception of shadows on the wall. They would dread the world outside their cave.

The prisoners in Plato’s Cave represent humans who have not sought to create their own identity and are living as reflections of their experiences. You could say they are trapped in their habitus. Bordieu’sHabitus is the learned set of preferences or dispositions by which a person orients to the social world. It is a system of durable, transposable, cognitive ‘schemata or structures of perception, conception and action’ (Bourdieu, 2002: 27). Habitus is rooted in family upbringing (socialization within the family) and conditioned by one’s position in the social structure. Bourdieu termed it ‘socialized subjectivity’ or subjectivity conditioned by structural circumstances. Habitus shapes the parameters of people’s sense of agency and possibility; it entails perceptual schemes of which ends and means are reasonable given that individual’s particular position in a stratified society. Through the Bourdieu’s lens of habitus, incarcerated individuals create their sense of identity from three fundamental forms of capital: economic capital, which is readily convertible; social capital, which is comprised of ‘social obligations’ or ‘connections’; and cultural capital or ‘cultural competences’, which can be embodied (internalized and intangible), objectified (cultural products), and institutionalized (officially accredited).

Husband, Father, Son, Provider, Protector, Caretaker… These are all titles that are related to different forms of capital, titles that many incarcerated men held prior to taking on ‘Felon’ and ‘Incarcerated Person’. The latter two, however, end up superceding the rest and incarcerated men have two choices: 1) Do whatever they can take preserve what made up their previous identity or 2) Create an entirely new identity. Research indicates that context plays an important role in an individual’s masculine identity (Connell, 1995; Demetriou, 2001; Lusher & Robins, 2010). Many choose the option to preserve and protect their former identity by continuing to the behaviors learned prior to incarceration. 

For example, within the prison context, features of masculinity such as dominance, power, and control are often on display (Seymour, 2003). Men may find it advantageous to adopt and amplify certain masculine traits while minimizing others.  This could come in the form of ‘chasing the bag’ (slang which refers to hustling or working hard – often in illegal or black market methods – to earn money) to protect economic capital and the identity of ‘provider’. It could also come in the form of multiple marriages in order to receive conjugal visits and continue the identity of masculinity as it relates to the other. This practice of marrying and divorcing multiple times over long periods of incarceration is understudied and, arguably, has a sizeable impact on the psyche and identity of incarcerated individuals. Though some may be rooted in love, I have learned from conversations with Thrive For Life Ignacio House scholars that these relationships are far more complex, dealing with power, exchange of different forms of capital and establishing the identity in relation to the other in these contexts. 

In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima describes the “Ladder of Love”. First, a person loves one body, and then he finds beauty in all bodies. After this, he must appreciate the beauty of souls over that of bodies. This leads to the love of activities and laws, or customs, leading to the love of certain types of knowledge. It ends in the pursuit of knowledge, or the love of wisdom, which is philosophy. Upon reaching this, the lover will see Beauty in its pure Form, and give birth not to an image of virtue, but true virtue.

Not all of the incarcerated individuals, however, are chained to their habitus. Whether in Plato’s Cave or at Thrive For Life Prison Project’s Ignacio House of Studies in the Bronx, many (formerly) incarcerated individuals actively seek to understand their past so that they may see beyond it. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato discusses a type of prisoner that is freed from their chains. Plato believes that these freed prisoners are the philosophers in pursuit of self knowledge and knowledge about the world.These philosophers are the people who decide to confront challenge, hold a true desire to find the meaning of life, and most importantly, decide to guide others, using their knowledge to open other people’s eyes. In Plato’s allegory, the sun represents Truth. It is this Truth, which the philosophers can see and seek to help others to see – the true meaning of life.

This think question has reinforced my belief that education, love, and access to tools for an examined life are essential inside prisons and post incarceration. I believe that the pursuit of knowledge is a form of self love. The Greeks had eight words for love, but I believe that Philautia (self love) is where one must start. Some of us are lucky to have been born into families and circumstances that encouraged this love. Others need to learn to love themselves much later in life. In order to care for others, we must first learn to care for ourselves. As Aristotle said “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.” We must also continue to encourage questioning. Questioning of the systems that lead to the dismal carceral state we are mired in now. Questioning of our habitus and the accepted ideas and practices we live within. Questioning who we are and why we do what we do. How we incarcerate people today is one of the greatest sins of our times, in my opinion. I hope that, through questioning and action, we might move towards a more humane system in this lifetime. 


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