Prisoners As Subjects Unworthy Of Moral Concern

The Intercept notes–in an essay by Alice Speri–that ‘deadly heat’ is killing prisoners in US prisons, that state governments would much rather spend money on legal fees than on installing air conditioning. In one egregious instance, Louisiana spent one million on legal fees to avoid spending $225,000 on AC. As the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc put it to the Associated Press in June, installing air conditioning at Angola would open a “Pandora’s box.” and that his “biggest concern is the impact on the whole system and the cost.” As George Gale noted in response (in a comment on my Facebook page), “I suspect what he actually means is “The public would crucify us if we air conditioned prisoners!”

Indeed.

Not too long ago. I made the mistake of reading the comments section in an online article about Orange is the New Black. There, many commentators expressed anger and dismay over the treatment of prisoners that was depicted in the show. Unfortunately, their anger and dismay was directed at the coddling that the inmates seemed to receive behind bars: They watch television! They walk around in the prison yard! They get their hair done! They had a store where they could buy stuff! One commentator finally went right ahead and said it “These women have a better life than I do.” There was something pathetic about that claim, something that spoke to just how onerous she imagined her life to be if it could be compared to that of a prisoner locked up behind bars. (This is not to say that many living outside of prison do not have qualitatively worse lives than they would have inside but I do not think this person, with an internet connection and the time to read and comment on an article about a television show, was one of them.)

Somewhere in the retributivist argument that many folks employ, the following premise is smuggled in:

If you commit a crime, and are convicted of doing so, you thereby lose all and claims to any civil, constitutional, and human rights. Indeed, you cease being a human deserving of any sort of considerate treatment. You are, after all, a convicted criminal.

It will be noticed that in this case ‘convicted criminal’ has come to mean ‘degenerate sub-human lacking those vital features which make him or her a worthy subject of moral concern.’ It’s not an eye for a eye but rather body and soul for an eye. (It should be remembered that the ‘eye for an eye’ formulation includes proportionality in its claim.) As a result, it is not enough that prisoners are denied their freedom and choice, restricted to particular spaces, told when to wake up, go to sleep, put the lights out, exercise, served particular food items and not other (with some concessions made for dietary constraints), and subjected to–among many arbitrary exercises of power–violence and sexual assault from guards and other inmates. No matter. They deserve it, they asked for it, they got what was coming, if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime, they should have thought about this before they committed the crime: the list of stern platitudes directed at convicts is never-ending, a grand testimonial to the smugness and complacency and small-mindedness of those of us on the ‘outside’ who have lost our capacity for empathy, who imagine that the strong arm of the law will never be lowered on them, who imagine that when they make a mistake, the benevolence and forgiving that has been so carefully hidden away by the world so that it can better deal with its convicts will suddenly be directed at them. It won’t; to encourage vindictive and cruel retribution directed at others is to set up a store for oneself too.

Orange Is The New Black And The Privatization of Prisons

Spoilers Ahead. 

Orange is The New Black has attracted–not unjustifiedly–some flak for its powerful and painful fourth season: it has been accused of being ‘trauma porn for white people,’ and of having ‘failed the Dominican community.’ Still, the show has provided some powerful drama in those thirteen episodes, largely by throwing off any pretensions that were hoisted on it of being a ‘funny’ or ‘comedic’ look at what happens behind the walls of a modern prison, and by concentrating on those issues that are too often the stuff of contemporary headlines pertaining to mass incarceration: the privatized prison-industrial complex, the brutality of poorly trained prison guards and correctional officers, racism, violence, sexual abuse and assault, criminal activity behind bars, drug abuse, the complicated social dynamics of prisoner groups, prison protests, deaths in custody, and so on. (Orange is the New Black is set in a women’s prison, so these issues receive an interestingly different treatment because of its inclusion–even if incompletely, and often crudely–of the perspectives of lesbians and women of color. Despite its increasingly serious tone. the show retains its witty edge because of its sharp writing and because of the comedic talent of many of its actors.)

In the many indictments the show levels at our society, one stands out pretty clearly: the privatization of prisons, the transformation of incarceration into industrial endeavor. The show’s narrative and rhetorical arc in the third season was radically altered by its choice to concentrate on the privatization of Litchfield, and not coincidentally, that is precisely when the show took on its darker tone. The predominance of the economic bottom line, and the casual cruelty and indifference to human interests it brought in its wake ensured that change pretty quickly. Interestingly enough insofar as any sort of alliance between the various warring factions among the inmates ever emerges, it is in reaction to the lowering of the corporate boom on their heads: if prison administration was uncaring and callous before, then the new dollars-and-cents mentality is even more grim, ever more removed from the realities of their lives, one that demands, finally, even if only temporarily, the putting aside of differences.

As Orange is the New Black makes quite clear in its treatment of the death of Poussey–the show’s most traumatic moment thus far, the one that finally pushed it over the edge, and made clear the it was not in Kansas anymore–an innocent human being died as a result of the decisions made by those, and there were many, who chose to imprison her and her fellow inmates in the way they did. The overcrowding at Litchfield, the use of untrained guards, the tolerance of their brutality, the systematic, cruel, ignorance and indifference of corporate managers; they all applied that fatal pressure to Poussey’s windpipe; she died because a system’s weaknesses became too much for her to bear. As they have for all too many in real life. If Orange is the New Black can help us pay more attention to their fates, and to the actions that are required to ensure they are not repeated, it will have, despite some well-deserved criticism, done its part.

Prisons And Boarding Schools: The Informer Phenomenon

I’ve made note here, on this blog, on some interesting similarities between prisons and boarding schools: the discipline, the regulation of time, the uniforms, the social dynamics. Yet another similarity may be found in the ubiquity of informers: moles, spies, double-agents, leakers, snitches–call them what you will–conduits for the passage for information to administrative and disciplinary authorities on inmate (student) activity.

In my boarding school, where discipline was enforced by schoolboys themselves–the so-called ‘prefects,’ drawn from the ranks of the graduating class, the ‘sixth-form‘–informers were feared and despised alike (as they always are.) Complaints and mutterings about heavy-handed punishment–perhaps via the dreaded punishment drills–all too often, and mysteriously enough, found their way to the ear of the prefects concerned, and reprisals and crackdowns against those who had dared question authority quickly followed. The identities of the informers remained artfully hidden: they never informed carelessly enough to allow their cover to be blown;  “there were only three of us present when we talked about X; you and I were punished, so the informer must be Y.” Instead, these informers only informed when they were sure they had enough obfuscatory cover. (Shades of crypto crackers not making it too obvious that a particular cipher had been cracked by not acting too expeditiously or efficiently on the revealed information.) On one occasion, a large group of students in a classroom made some bitter comments among themselves on how some prefects had been a little too heavy-handed in their dishing out of corporal punishment during punishment drills; a day later, two of the students in that group found themselves dragged out of a basketball game and forced to perform a particularly exacting drill supplemented with occasional slaps to their faces and the back of their heads. (The informer’s most valuable reward–over and above any material benefit–was to be free of the worst of these disciplinary crackdowns.)

My post today is prompted by the note on self-policing in response to pervasive surveillance that I posted over the weekend; the methods change, the effects are the same. For of course, all too soon, we, the inmates, suspected each other to varying degrees and the quality of our conversations and interactions suffered as a result; we were not sure what would be reckoned as subversive or offensive. Planning for illegal activities like sneaking off for a smoke was obviously problematic, but what about saying something rude about a prefect or a teacher? Better to be safe than sorry; better to zip it.

The informers’ cover was not perfect, of course, and sometimes, by dint of informal detective work, a pattern of sorts of emerge, and a suspect or two would be identified. Reprisals against them were brutal; they came at the end of the year, when all scores were to be settled. Sometimes these consisted of beatings on campus; sometimes these took place off-campus. If this sounds horrifying, it should be. But then, so was the system of penal discipline imposed on the students in the first place.

The Least Interesting Character On Orange Is The New Black

That title goes to Piper Chapman. It is not often that the supposedly central character on a show can pull this off, but we have evidence now that such an accomplishment is possible. This is not just because Piper is guilty of being WASP’ily ‘precious’ or ‘special’ or ‘privileged’ in the way that her fellow inmates describe as her as being; neither is it because her on-screen persona can very often be teeth-grindingly irritating; and it certainly is not because she is capable of a great deal of pettiness and petulance. Quite simply, there just isn’t that much there. She doesn’t have great lines, and she has little substance to flesh out the front she puts on. Every appearance of her on screen is guaranteed to suck the life out of the episode; it is with relief that we welcome the show’s many other fascinating characters back on stage. (Taystee for instance.)

Piper’s background–shown in flashback, like that of many other characters on OITB–is not particularly intriguing: she ran drugs, was a small business owner in Brooklyn, once had a girlfriend, got engaged, and then got busted. (So unremarkable has this history been that I cannot even remember if we have been granted access via time travel to her childhood years, exposure to which in the case of the other characters has often been quite illuminating.) Her personal conflicts with her fiancée, Larry Bloom, are mildly diverting, but they do not make us empathize or sympathize; somehow, amazingly enough, we fail to feel the pain of a couple separated by imprisonment. (Indeed, her supporting crew on the ‘outside,’ including Larry and her brother, are far more interesting; the latter, especially, should have a spin-off show of his own.) Her relationship with her former partner in crime and girlfriend, Alex Vause, has its moments, but there again, it is sunk by a certain banality; would we care if they broke up or stayed together or punched each other out in the dining hall? Indeed, the injection of the used panty business and the new romantic interest, Stella Carlin the tattooed Australian felon, in the third season, seem like rather desperate attempts by the show’s writers to spice up not just Piper’s life in prison, but also our interest in her. It is just not clear why we should care about this woman with so many other interesting and intriguing women (and men) around. It’s OK to find a character hateful, or irritating, or offensive; it is fatal to find the character just plain boring.

It is not entirely clear to me how this state of affairs has come about. I have not read Piper Kerman‘s book so I do not know if such a banality is present in the original story that underwrites the show. Still, I can only hope–like some other fans of the show that I know–that when Piper’s sentence runs its term, she will be packed off to Brooklyn, and the show will continue without her.

‘Orange Is The New Black’ And Boarding Schools

As I make my way through the second season of Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s original series based on Piper Kerman‘s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison about her experiences at FCI Danbury, a minimum-security federal prison, I’m struck again by how much of the prison experience reminds me of my days–two academic years in all–at a boarding school. In saying this, I do not mean to, even for a second, minimize the hardships of the incarcerated, but rather, to point out how boarding schools create conditions analogous at one level to that of jails. Both are similarly inspired by confused notions of discipline and order; both show what happens when humans are confined and regulated by these.

It is all here: the correctional managerial staff i.e., the faculty; the supervisors and guards i.e., the prefects (drawn from the senior graduating class, thus forming a layer between us and school administration); and the inmates i.e., the students. We were subjected to regulation and discipline from on high, from our waking moments to ‘lights out’; we were subjected to arbitrary, often harsh disciplining from prefects (this included the usual ‘six of the best’ and punishment drills); we had fixed meal-times; our uniforms were prescribed and monitored; we could not walk with both hands in our trouser pockets; we could not complain about the food (the food parcels we were sent from home were quickly consumed by our ‘friends); we had limited allowances that we spent at the ‘commissary’; we could not meet our parents except at prescribed times and places (because my family was away in a distant city, I did not meet or talk to my mother for nine months); ‘sickbay’ was a refuge and relief; our every hour was planned and regulated. Some thirty-four years after I left my boarding school, I can still effortlessly regenerate the daily time-table for a school day, right down to the hours.

But the most interesting parallel for me is visible in the personal and social dynamics. Boarding schools, like jails, featured miniature societies, complete with their own pecking orders and hierarchies on the ‘inside.’ There were bullies and master manipulators–like ‘Red‘–who ruled the roost; they were feared and revered and resented in equal measure. There were weak ones–‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’–who were subjected to bullying and abuse. If you were smart, you sought out and found protection quickly. Some manipulators–like ‘Pennsatucky‘–ruled over mini-groups; their hold over these was–like that of ‘King Rat‘ in James Clavell‘s novel by the same name–a contingent matter, dependent on them being able to continually spin their web of control. The weak quickly came under such influence. Scores were settled by violence and intimidation; sometimes you were cornered in bathrooms, sometimes in a deserted dorm; when a fight broke out, no one intervened till a prefect showed up. And no one, ever, ever, complained about a beating.

When the academic year ended, discipline was relaxed for the last day or so–teachers left campus, prefects gave up the pretense of policing. More scores were settled, more brawls broke out; the buses to take us to train stations and airports for our journeys back home could not arrive soon enough.

And when I got back home, I kept the ‘best stories’ to myself. Folks back home ‘wouldn’t understand’; you had to be on the ‘inside.’ I could write a book about it all; someday, I will.