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.

Angela Davis On Reparation, Reconciliation, And Prison Abolition

In Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, New York, 2003, pp. 106) Angela Davis writes:

It is true that if we focus myopically on the existing system–and perhaps this is the problem that leads to the assumption that imprisonment is the only alternative to death–it is very hard to imagine a structurally similar system capable of handling such a vast population of lawbreakers. If, however, we shift our attention from the prison, perceived as an isolated institution, to the set of relationships that comprise the prison industrial complex, it may be easier to think about alternatives. In other words, a more complicated framework may yield more options than if we simply attempt to discover a single substitute for the prison system. The first step, then, would be to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system.

There are several, by now familiar, components to such reform then. Among others: decriminalizing some activities currently deemed illegal (ending the ‘War on Drugs’ would be an exceedingly good start); reviewing and revising sentencing guidelines (and investigating racial disparities in sentencing); increasing oversight and monitoring of penal facilities to diminish abuses like assault and rape within its confines; restoring the rehabilitative and reformatory capacities of prisons by facilitating the education of inmates; etc.

Yet others call for more radical reconceptualization in the direction of “a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.” In the reparative dimension Davis cites the work of the Dutch criminologist Herman Bianchi whose work on restorative justice includes suggestions that “crime needs to be defined in terms of tort” i.e., turning it into an offence against a person rather than the state, and thus replacing imprisonment with other impositions that would attempt to make good the harm done to the victim. In the dimension of reconciliation, Davis recounts the powerful and moving story of Amy Biehl, who was murdered by young South African men in Capetown in 1993. (Biehl’s killers apologized to her parents during the review of their amnesty petition to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; later, her family reconciled with two of the killers–Easy Nofemela and Ntoboko Peni–and even employed them in administrative positions in their memorial Amy Biehl Foundation.)

Implicit in such discussion of reform are, of course, a set of questions pertaining to punishment, revisiting which is an essential step to this process: Why does a social group punish? How does it select those it punishes? What punishment is suitable and appropriate for a particular crime? It is in exploring the space of possible answers to these questions that a society’s most fundamental presumptions about punishment, morality, and justice will be made visible; and it is in exploring alternative answers to the ones currently given that more creative opportunities for reform will present themselves. These opportunities to explore and evaluate alternatives will only be possible, of course, if those who intend to reform heed Peter Biehl’s words, that “sometimes it pays to shut up and listen to what other people have to say, to ask: ‘Why do these terrible things happen? ‘ instead of simply reacting.”