At a time when citizens are being incarcerated in historically unprecedented numbers, the very humanity of the imprisoned population has never been in greater jeopardy.
“I turn and turn in my cell like a fly that doesn’t know where to die.”
– Antonio Gramsci
When I was eighteen, I had a prison pen pal I’ll call Perry. I discovered him though a poetry journal published by of all things an intimidatingly named “supermax” penitentiary in Washington state. Among the doggerel, mostly free verse of a Beat or Slam variety or indifferently rhymed rap, was one standout poem about apartment squatting, smoking GPCs and sleeping al fresco beneath a freeway interchange. Astonished that verse so expertly turned could appear in such an unprepossessing publication, I felt myself moved to contact its author, Perry. I sent off a letter written in careful fountain-pen cursive to an address that was really only a number listed at the back of the journal.
A few weeks later a gray envelope arrived with my name and address written in tiny block letters and an official red stamp assuring me that the contents had been thoroughly inspected before leaving the facility. Inside was more poetry and a brief autobiography of Perry’s life from age five to 23. His parents divorced when he was six. He dropped out of school and ran away from a domineering stepfather midway through the eighth grade. By twelve he was already hot-wiring cars and stealing cases of beer. His girlfriend at the time, a teenaged prostitute who sur le pavé went by the name Star, was uninitiated to homelessness whey they met. Together they got on best the they could on the mean streets of Seattle. Parks and abandoned houses bore their names, poetry and lyrics, which they etched into benches or scrawled on bare stucco walls and “popcorn” ceilings.
I wrote back, sharing details of my life (painfully mundane in comparison — guys, term papers, pimples) and a correspondence blossomed, over the course of which I discovered that Perry languished in solitary confinement for inciting a prison riot a few years back. He had taken it upon himself to organize a protest of cruel indignities suffered by his fellow prisoners — rotten food, shit-smeared cells, and, improbably enough, cavities left to fester (dental care, according to the sage opinion of the warden and cadre of turnkeys and screws, was a luxury). As proof of these abuses and of the righteousness of his cause, Perry sent me a clipping from The Washington Post that documented the riot, which, on balance, was surprisingly peaceful affair; nobody was injured, nobody died. Perry failed in his agitation, however. No wrongs were righted. Instead, a few days after the riot, as Perry was preparing to be transferred to a higher security prison, the head prison guard confiscated his drawings and poetry and burned them in the tiny garbage can inside his cell — and made Perry stand there and watch.
Even now, it’s strange to think that all Perry’s letters came from a cell eight feet by twelve feet, secreted away in a place where the glaring, greenish florescent lights never switch off, where men are disallowed the simplest converse, where aggression, aggravated by the uniform dreariness of prison life, flares at the slightest provocation, and where during the interminable hours of fitful catnaps and of thumbing potboilers donated by charitable old women a tiny ember of humanity yet burned, smoldering with longing, with grief, with regret for the sad waste of a life worn away behind bars.
A culture of fear makes for a collective Imaginary populated by all sorts of malign powers.
Perry started off in juvenile detention for stealing a car and ended up in a supermax for protesting an intolerable situation. And he had really no hope of ever getting out. Even to my eighteen-year-old mind, the tragic arc of Perry’s life seemed a great injustice, something that shouldn’t have happened, that could have somehow been prevented.
As my life became busier and more complicated, as I began dating, traveling and entertaining thoughts of graduate school, I eventually began to forget Perry. His letters went unanswered. Over time, they arrived less frequently. Then, they stopped altogether. In retrospect I was perhaps carried away by the seeming illicitness of the situation. Perhaps I sensed that I should never have started writing to Perry in the first place. It was errant foolishness, I suppose, for a bored co-ed to have initiated a correspondence with a man in prison and an unconscionable cruelty, I’m certain, to have ended it.
It’s been ten years or so since I’ve heard from Perry, but I couldn’t help but think of him when I read an article in ScienceBlog documenting the public outrage occasioned by the administration of the swine flu vaccine to prisoners in Massachusetts. “State legislators are already complaining that there are other, more vulnerable groups that deserve to be at the head of the line,” the article reports. As if the wantonness of liberal officials in a “blue” state weren’t egregious enough, the Pentagon has even gotten in on the act. It plans to vaccinate the 215 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, The Miami Herald reports. Pushback against these vaccination initiatives has been swift and sure. Representative Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan, has launched an investigation into the recent spate of prisoners receiving swine flu vaccinations with the intent of ferreting out the bleeding-heart offenders of the common weal, while Representative Mike Pence, a Republican from Indiana, has presented the two vaccination programs as incontrovertible evidence of President Obama’s creep toward socialism. “Certainly, at a time of such acute shortages Americans have to come before ‘terrorist detainees,’” the ScienceBlog article reports Pence as stating. He continues: “[T]his is exactly the kind of misadministration of healthcare … that ought to give the American people great pause about [the Democrats’] massive government-run insurance plan.”
The nineteenth-century Russian novelist and one-time convict Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If our correctional institutions do in fact present this absolute measure, then we are confronted with the sad truth that the United States isn’t terribly civilized. This is especially true if we Americans consider that, as sociologist Barry Glassner famously pointed out, ours is a culture of fear.
A culture of fear in many respects represents a return to primitive stage of cultural development, one subject to forces and vicissitudes beyond that culture’s control or comprehension. A culture of fear makes for a collective Imaginary populated by all sorts of malign powers. Every stranger is a potential demon, goblin, bugbear or ghoul intent on harming others simply to satisfy his devilish impulses (particularly if said stranger has brown skin). Inner-city “superpredators” lurk in every alley, middle-eastern terrorists down every jetway. People subject to culture of fear rationalize the inherently irrational simply as a matter of reflex, and the barbarities — and the profits — which flow from this reflexive tendency are appropriately staggering.
A spirit of devil-take-the-hindmost permeates our nation. We find ourselves with zero tolerance, just saying no to this or that. Three strikes and we’re out, we’re told by the very same government which vows to get out of the way of our enterprising ambitions by removing all the nets there to catch us should we fall. The song remains depressingly the same.
One would, for instance, imagine there are more pressing concerns than the state’s decision to inoculate a few inmates. The outrage these prison vaccinations have inspired prompts one to consider why American’s have it out for their incarcerated fellow citizens. After all, there are approximately 509 imprisoned Americans per 100,000 people in the United States. And many of those prisoners are rotting in their cinder-block cells because they smoked a joint at the wrong time, or blew through a red light, or urinated in a parking lot after one too many shots of Jägermeister, or ran away from home. Not exactly Charles Mansons or Ted Bundys, or even Bonnies and Clydes. Yet they’ve nonetheless been designated homo sacer, individuals who have forfeited their right to life, whose health and well-being are no longer inalienable rights, but privileges conferred at the whim of increasingly draconian apparatuses.
And it is perhaps these very apparatuses which are the real source of the resentment currently directed at prison inmates as a result of the flu-vaccine brouhaha. For a zero-tolerance society is not one which manages to effect an absolute distinction between criminals and law-abiding citizens, but one which manages to blur it. A zero-tolerance society’s members are all criminals in potentia if not in actuality, and are therefore in need of constant surveillance and discipline.
The true criminals hold court in the glass spires of lower Manhattan, conjuring the “exotic instruments” of our impoverishment.
Such was French theorist and historian Michel Foucault’s conclusion, anyway. In his masterful study on the advent of the prison, Discipline and Punish, Foucault writes of “the carceral city,” a product of “imaginary ‘geo-politics.’” The carceral city corresponds to a model involving “not [a] ‘center of power,’ not a network of forces, but a multiple network of diverse elements — walls, space, institution, rules, discourse.” The consolidation of this multiple network of diverse elements institutes “a whole series of ‘carceral’ mechanisms which seem distinct enough … but which all tend, like the prison, to exercise power of normalization.” What, one asks, is the essence of this power of normalization? It is none other than the bone and sinews of capitalist social relations — commerce and the pursuit of profit.
It seems, then, that the more outraged we become at the bailouts and the rampant corruption, the more we want to see those already in vulnerable positions punished to a greater extent, if for no other reason than to assuage our own consciences as citizens of the one big carceral city that is Fortress America.
And what a change this is from attitudes of yesteryear: An article from a 1971 edition of Life celebrates the successful rehabilitation of American prisoners through, surprisingly enough, conjugal visits; “Too often, the human communication necessary to a family’s well-being is destroyed by the cold rules of partitioned visiting rooms,” the article claims, “and as family bonds break down, so do the inmates chances of leading a stable, law-abiding life after his release.” Imagine a society concerned with rehabilitating criminals so that they may enjoy stable lives. Indeed there was a time in this country when it was quite conceivable that we could do without prisons, thanks to various reforms. In 1972, there were less than 300,000 inmates; now there are over two million. Perry’s greatest misfortune is that he was born too late.
But progress is a thing of the past and the prison industry is big business. “No other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its citizens,” California Prison Focus informs us. And many of those imprisoned citizens are sitting in private prisons, of which there are over a hundred today (compared with five ten years ago), supplying a large portion of the market for such goods as paints and paintbrushes, stoves, body armor, and office furniture. But it’s also an industry that creates jobs for law-abiding citizens, and that’s always good, right? Drive down that lonely stretch of Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson and you’ll see billboard after billboard urging you to embark on an exciting career in criminal justice.
As we rant and rave about our suppliers of body armor and cubicles receiving the H1N1 vaccine, we conveniently forget that another group of criminals also received their dose ahead of time: Goldman Sachs. But these scoundrels don’t sit behind bars, assembling the instruments of our own imprisonment. They hold court in the glass spires of lower Manhattan, conjuring the “exotic instruments” of our impoverishment.
Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.
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