Wednesday, March 23, 2011

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A few hours ago, I returned to campus after bringing my Rhetoric and the Criminal Justice System class to the Indiana Women's Prison. We toured the facility for about three hours. I believe I can say unequivocally that my students were changed. All of them. One way or another I saw some sort of transformation take place, whether it was discovering a new sense of vocation or garnering the courage to open up about their own life's connection to the prison-industrial complex. As much as they thanked me for the experience, I'm grateful to them for moving me so.

There's a lot to talk about and I won't get into all of it. One particularly memorable moment was visiting the facility's mental health wing. The social worker in charge, a woman named Deborah, spoke to us for a good twenty minutes about the ins-and-outs of the facility. It was her discussion that convinced me this tour would be different than the public relations spectacle that was my tour of two Texas facilities several years ago. She unapologetically reflected on the abandonment of state mental health facilities in the 1970s, making damn sure my students knew that our nation's prison system is its mental health system. While I've heard my fair share of stories about rotten prison guards and other staff members, I was reminded that so much of what makes ours such a disastrous prison system is decided by individuals who rarely, if ever, set foot in such facilities. Indeed, today's exploding prisons are the product of the "tough-on-crime" feeding frenzy that predominated electoral politics in the 1980s and 1990s.

Without a doubt, the most powerful portion of these three hours was our discussion with five amazing women who call the facility home. Aside from the pieces of information they volunteered, we don't know why they were there. That said, I don't know all the things my own students have done and I'm not proud of every detail of my past. What we did know was that these were five women involved in one or more of the prison's volunteer programs. Some of them worked with the choir, whereas others participated in the prison's dog training program. They were lively, intelligent women who, obviously, had screwed up. One of them, now 30, had been there since she was 16. I am currently 30. That means this woman, who sent shivers down my spine with her testimony, was entering the system while I was fretting over getting my driver's license. A lot happens between 16 and 30. She has been enclosed in concrete and wire for all that time.

Now, let's be honest; no matter how polite the prison staff was, and they were lovely, we know these women were there for a reason. We were not going to get juicy bits about the ins-and-outs of the IWP (though they did have some choice words about the food). These women were exemplary inmates and we even overheard one staff member telling another than the women they chose would be "perfect" in this capacity. That said, I was astonished by the forceful critiques they leveraged against our unforgiving carceral society. They articulated, in ways that put my finest teaching and writing moments to shame, the utter inadequacy of the social safety net once someone leaves prison. They reflected on the punishing impact of incarceration on children, spouses, and parents. They were also sure to note that none of them are wealthy, for it is not the well-to-do citizen that does a full stretch behind bars.

Of all the things they had to say, I believe two will stick with me the most. Because this is a rhetoric class, we made sure to ask them their thoughts on popular and political representations of the prison system. While we've all encountered the cynical fellow citizen who rolls their eyes whenever you mention the words "television" and "prison cell" in the same sentence, I am so grateful these women have an opportunity to see how their world gets represented to the rest of us. They reflected on how fascinated the spectacle-consuming public is with the myriad gross exaggerations of a life that is, on most days, agonizingly banal. One woman also suggested that the unforgiving attitude many citizens harbor toward the incarcerated is a displacement of their own individual and societal guilt. Eat your heart out, Kenneth Burke.

They also spent a great deal of time reflecting positively on the programs in which they participate (two of the canines they were training for disability assistance were on hand). They associated the presence of such programs with the prison's low incidence rate relative to other Indiana facilities. As one woman put it, you don't do anything stupid because there is "something to be lost." Viewed one way, this may be a testament to the disciplining function of such programs. Indeed, I can name a wide range of prison scholars who would dismiss the choir or dog training as Foucauldian traps designed to discipline the incarcerated subject. Others would make a forceful argument for why more prisons should have such programs and, therefore, reduce both incidence and recidivism rates across the whole system. I believe there are kernels of truth in both these positions. Indeed, it is the gray area in the prison-industrial complex that makes it so damn compelling and frustrating. But there is another dimension to this simple statement on "something to be lost" that strikes to the very core of a nation that incarcerates one out of every hundred of its adult citizens. Who inhabits our prisons? Rarely are they people who feel they have something to lose. They come from poverty, racism, sexual abuse, addiction, and other vestiges of desperation that make one tragic choice seem perfectly rational amid an array of shitty options. One book I cannot get off my mind as of late is Erica Meiners's powerful Right to be Hostile. In it, she documents the deep structural connection between what passes for public education in many sectors of the country and the disproportionate level of incarceration among those very communities least academically served. Indeed, what remains to be lost and how on earth, in these times of austerity and corporate crime, can we give the most desperate among us the sense that they have something to lose?

In his book Fugitive Thought, Michael Hames-Garcia argues that "political prisoners" are "valuable and concrete theorists of justice." Indeed, I owe a wide range of my thinking on prisons, race, empire, etc. on the writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal, George Jackson, Angela Davis, and others. These brave, politically lucid souls have rightfully inspired movements. However, my students and I did not meet with revolutionaries today. These were not women consciously invested in dismantling the prison-industrial complex. I wonder if they could even accept a concept like prison abolition. Nonetheless, we witnessed brilliance while in their presence. Through their concrete, if unexceptional experiences, they theorized both justice and injustice. We can all learn a lot from them.

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Bravo, Bryan. Good stuff! I am so glad your class and you (both) got this opportunity!

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