America and the prisons we inhabit

 

Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings,

to convert the population into specimens in a zoo—

obedient to our keepers but

dangerous to each other.

                         (Angela Davis)

There is no justice in this world or the other

It may sound like a political heresy, but contrary to what many well-intended liberals say, there has never really been Justice, particularly if the concept is understood as a universal idea that somehow can guarantee just behavior or just treatment around the planet. What humanity has witnessed so far have been historically and socially constructed judicial forms and practices, by which groups or classes exercise their power over others in order to consolidate their own status. In other words, justice has varied both in form and content depending on the classes in control of society at a given time.

Currently we live in capitalist times and our existence is marked by the capitalist society we inhabit. Only the disingenuous or those affected by chronic historical naiveté can be surprised by the following affirmations: first, there is a general ‘lack of justice’ in American society, a fact empirically verifiable on an almost daily basis through the media and characterized by the deep inequalities that mark the nation.

The second affirmation is the realization that the bulk of legislation and laws existing in the country are meant to protect big property or to expand it (for example, the newest tax bill which among other things cuts corporate income tax by 14%, repeals the 20% alternative minimum tax that ensured profitable corporations pay at least some symbolic tax, and the territorial tax exemption for money made by American corporations overseas). In the words of the Marxist sociologist Harman Mannheim: “The history of criminal legislation in England and many other countries shows that excessive prominence was given by the law to the protection of property.” Mannheim’s perspective illustrates that the idea of justice—criminal legislation—does not occur in the abstract, but is permeated by the material interests of the rulers in power who are typically interested in perpetuating their economic privileges.

Conversely, there is no evidence that there is justice in the afterlife either, no matter how strong a believer or righteous practitioner of any given religion you may have been. That is to say, no matter how well you have combined both the theory and practice of your beliefs throughout your life— a hard to find combination— there is no warranty for a favorable verdict that will sentence you to spend eternity in unending bliss without getting bored with the passing of time. Ironically, the existence of multiple religions claiming at the same time a monopoly on truth, and to be the sole beneficiaries of a ‘divine judicial system’ in the hands of their own deity leaves much to be explained. How can non-members of the religious organization find any justice at all, since each religion claims to be the right and accurate one?

The penitentiary society

When it comes to incarceration, we are number one! We have indeed the highest incarceration rate in the history of the planet. We may have no justice but we sure have prisons and lock up people. According to the NAACP, in 2014 the correctional population in the US was 6.8 million. A similar report by The Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit organization aiming to put the problem of mass incarceration on the national agenda, points out that the American criminal justice system has more than “1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails as well as military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in US territories.” While these figures are record high, they nonetheless fail to reflect the uneven distribution of incarceration affecting communities of color, particularly black and Latino communities. According to the Guardian, in 2016 black Americans were incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white people and three times higher than Latinos. The penal system in America, as Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, and others have argued, is part of larger disciplinary network of punishment within a certain class/race system that works against black and brown bodies.

The panoptic society

According to the French philosopher Michele Foucault, disciplinary societies have a tendency to develop extreme and sophisticated methods of surveillance to subdue their citizens. He illustrated this predisposition by using the image of the “panopticon.” This is defined as a circular prison with cells around a central observation well from which prisoners could be observed at all times creating a situation in which the prisoner is seen but doesn’t see or know when he/she is being observed.

According to Thomas McMullan, writing for the Guardian (7/23/15), the panopticon is based on “the principle of central inspection,” which, given the current development of digital surveillance and data capture, can be also recreated in a variety of less intrusive forms. Suffice here to mention a report by HIS Markit, which indicated that “the installed base of surveillance units in North America is expected to grow from just 33 million in 2012 to nearly 62 million by the end of 2016.” A different report, this time by Statista, a company specializing in the creation of dossiers for the industrial world, noticed how in 2014 the United States had the largest number of video surveillance cameras per thousand people – 125; followed by the UK with 91, and China with 97.

This gloomy scenario gets worse when we consider that surveillance data has transcended the limits of the government and reached the world of profit ruled by corporations. In the words of McMullan, “with the advent of wider network systems, heralded by the likes of Google’s Brillo and Apple’s HomeKit, everything from washing machines to sex toys will soon be able to communicate, creating a vast amount of data about our lives. And this deluge of data won’t only be passed back and forth between objects but will most likely wind its way towards corporate and government reservoirs.” The cruel irony is that a society with a constant gaze on its citizens has decided at the same time to close its eyes when it comes to acknowledging the basic needs of its members such as health care, livable wages, housing, education, social security, etc.

The prison house of language (with apologies to Frederic Jameson)

A prison is not only for material bodies. There are prisons of the mind and these are perhaps more dangerous and oppressive than their physical counterparts. It was the Italian Marxist revolutionary Antonio Gramsci who used the concept of ‘cultural hegemony’ to point out the different ways that dominant classes are able to impose their world views, interests, values, morals, explanations of events, perceptions, and ideas in general, so they can become universally accepted and unquestioned by most of society. This was possible, according to Gramsci, through the use and manipulation of the different ideological apparatuses of the state such as government institutions, educational institutions, religious organizations, and the media.

The advantage of this approach is twofold. On the one hand, it allows the dominant classes to make their own ideology the accepted “cultural norm” of society, or to put it in Marx’s words: “ the dominant ideology of a society is the ideology of the dominant class of such society.” Second, it allows domination and control of its citizens, via control of their minds. They need not have recourse to the direct use of force via what Gramsci called the ‘repressive apparatuses of the state’ such as the police, the military, the judicial system, the penal system, etc. Political hegemony, under this light, really aims to imprison and control the minds of the people.

The Trump administration recently provided a glimpse of the role of language and ideological manipulation when it became public that some CDC (Center for Disease Control) officials discouraged including in the institutional language key word words such as  “vulnerable,” “diversity,”“entitlement,” “transgender,” “fetus,”“evidence-based,”and “science based.” 

Similarly, in March of this year, the Department of Energy (DOE) banned its members from using phrases like “Paris Agreement” or “climate change.” By consciously eliminating concepts from the public discourse, the administration is limiting the human, political and scientific understanding of the American people. The anti-scientific, bias-based policies of the administration bring to mind the famous aphorism by Ludwig Wittgenstein: “ the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” In other words, the more limited and restricted the vocabulary of an individual, the more limited and restricted his/her vision and understanding of reality. This is the newest prison house of language the administration wants us to inhabit. What’s going to be banned next? Polysyllabic words?

The gaze of the people

It is important for all of us to reinforce our forms of struggle and resistance against the penitentiary society in which we all live. We must let all our watchers know that we are also keeping an eye on them—that our collective memory will preserve their names and their actions, that we are not willing to peacefully fall into the abyss of their jails or mental prisons, that we are willing to re-create, and re-incorporate in our vocabulary and political practice words such as class struggle, rebellion, resistance, civil disobedience, and the possibility of constructing an egalitarian society for a free humanity.

Enrique Quintero lives and writes in Grays Harbor County.

 

2 Responses to “America and the prisons we inhabit”

  1. Robin Bartels

    Enrique! You are a fabulous writer, look forward to your pieces every month. Thank you. Just a question though: where did the Spanish language translation go in the new W.I.P? Did they remove it?!

  2. Enrique Quintero

    Robin, thank you for your generous comments. I will share with the collective your question re. the Spanish language to be included in future WIP issues.