Inside Out was tops today. After the students returned from their administration led tour of the prison, I felt that conversation opened up a bit, and we finally got the opportunity to address what it actually feels like to live in this environment.
Prisons are sealed just as much to keep people out as to keep them in and when people do get in, administrators go to great lengths to control this experience. Judging by their comments, the impression that the students were left with, I think, seemed to have to do with how we, the prisoners, were spoken to and about. Funny how the dynamics of a relationship are sometimes evident in the utterance of perhaps a single syllable. A manner of speaking is telling and hard to disguise. Thus harsh treatment can be inferred from words alone. The hole was a stop on the tour noticeably absent, by the way.
A prison’s life blood is secrecy, invisibility, and isolation. These are conditions necessary for its existence. Journalists who might rush in to extremely dangerous, war infected locations, are missing in the prison. To effectively report on prison life one would actually have to be a prisoner, and it’s probably not that there aren’t journalists crazy enough to go to such lengths, it’s that the stigma of “criminal,” or “felon,” is so damaging to one’s reputation that the foundation of credibility necessary for trust would be in the very attempt to gain access, be utterly annihilated.
It is left to the prisoner himself to report on his conditions and this is problematic for many reasons. First, any such account would be written in first person, and writing in this voice is at the expense of objectivity. Second, all prisoners would suffer the aforementioned crisis of credibility. Third, a prisoner might be discouraged from total revelation for legitimate fear of staff reprisals. Fourth, there’s no guarantee that a prisoner’s prose is as perfect and presentable as it needs to be to be printable. Fifth, the concentration required to write anything of any coherence is impossible to sustain for any duration of time. And I’m undoubtedly leaving out plenty of others.
Most discouraging, however, might be a form of self-censorship. On some level, despite the hostility and haughty impudence we might display, we find it virtually impossible to not internalize the shame that is heaped upon us on some level. We accept that horrible people deserve horrible conditions. To document this is only to confirm that the system is performing as intended. Why bother?
I bother because I believe that the American Prison Enterprise (APE) is shamelessly amoral and immoral. It is, for example, immoral to place all those convicted of felonies in the same Procrustean bed. There are very good men in prison who don’t deserve to have their lives all but destroyed by the incarceration experience. There are people here for driving on a suspended license, for smoking marijuana, for stealing beer. Someone needs to shake a fist in Leviathan’s face. Someone needs to stand up and say, “No, Enough!” There are people here for far more serious crimes, but what is the point, especially when one considers that well over 90% of prisoners will eventually be released, to make it almost impossible to imagine an existence free of brutality and exploitation? For everyone’s benefit, why not attempt to create an environment conducive to enlightenment?
It is strange that the logic of destruction succeeds in half-measures. In days of old, a prisoner’s status was exceedingly grim. You were either exonerated or hanged. Though harsh, at least this approach didn’t leave anyone in moral limbo. If we have come so far as to decide that it is wrong to take someone’s life for stealing bread, say doesn’t it make sense, even if we are to insist upon punishment, to nurture the value of this life as much as possible? Ironically, then, the modern-day architects and custodians of the American prison phenomenon are actually more culpable then their draconian forebearers precisely because our lives are deemed to have value. What could be more morally execrable than to concede the worth of a human life, but to then throw up obstacles to discourage the development and expression of such worth?
Complementing the prison’s natural shield from journalistic inquiry is a multidimensional invisibility. There are a number of factors both practical and nefarious which make this a highly desirable quality of the APE. First, land on the edge of town or claimed from a cow pasture hundreds of miles away from major population centers is bound to be extremely cheap. Second, it’s quite evident that the prison arrives as a gift of political patronage especially to conservatives who possess weltbild that make its rationalization possible. A prison becomes economically vital to a community without another stable job base. The fortunes of many rural towns become inseparable from the prisons they host. So, if it’s generally understood that the town’s preservation is dependent upon the prison’s preservation, towns folk tend to support candidates who speak directly, even if through the coded language of tough-on-crime rhetoric, to give assurances that at the vary least the status quo will be maintained. This has a broader corrupting influence too, because opposition parties know traditionally for giving some voice to those typically left out of the process – minorities and the poor significantly over-represented by almost any prisoner population – view prison reform as politically toxic. ”Prison reform” is heard as economic devastation, and it becomes very difficult to starve the beast out of existence without risking the literal starvation of people within these communities. So, having conceded all issues related to public safety, prions, law enforcement, and defense and the massive economic power that goes along with them, progressives are relegated to staking their positions on a hodge podge of issues with far fewer financial implications: gay marriage, abortion, assisted suicide, etc. Not only is prison virtually invisible as a political issue despite being called by Adam Gopnik the essential fact of our current era (paraphrasing), very few people even those you would expect to be better informed, lack an even basic awareness that crime is at an all time low. I tested this myself by asking several bright Lewis & Clark students whether they were aware that the FBIs own statistics show that there has been a dramatic decrease in crime over the last twenty years. The only two who did, and I asked five or six of them, were ones who ha read an article the previous week that I had recommended that disclosed such data.
Another factor contributing to the invisibility of the prison, just like almost anything connected to “criminal justice” is that there seems to be very poor data collection and analysis. The “hole” is a very, very common use of punishment in prison, but from an informational point of view, it is virtually without dimension. I don’t believe anyone tabulates who goes there, why they go there, how long they stay, the likelihood of return, etc. This is but one of the numerous examples of an instance where there is such an omission. I am going to presume that among my readership the relationship between data and problem solving is self-evident.
As Angela Davis herself observed, prison, as a concept is disconnected from the imaginative realm, the realm of possibility. Because expectations are so low for prison, it is isolated from the usual pressures of innovation but it need not be this way. Prison should not be the dark closet of our collective consciousness that it is. By opening it up, to students, and the public generally, by collecting and measuring data, we would be able to take the important steps to let the light shine in.