Caleb Smith’s The Prison and the American Imagination is a startling work that wrestles with how our society’s conceptions of “the criminal,” “the prisoner,” and “the disciplinary institution” have become literally carved into our landscapes and branded on our psyches
“The carceral network does not cast the unassimilable into a confused hell; there is no outside. It takes back with one hand what it seems to exclude with the other. It saves everything, including what it punishes. It is unwilling to waste even what it has decided to disqualify. In this panoptic society of which incarceration is the omnipresent armature, the delinquent is not outside the law; he is, from the very outset, in the law, at the very heart of the law, or at least in the midst of those mechanisms that transfer the individual imperceptibly from discipline to the law, from deviation to offense.” –Michel Foucault
In his seminal book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault lays out the groundwork for how political movements have sought to reform prisons and their inmates, always starting not from the premise that incarceration is a failed enterprise, but rather that humanist discourses of reform are concomitant with penitentiary practices. The prison was born out of prison reform, and will forever be an institution that is at its very core about narratives of reformation, salvation, and unceasing change.
Following that thread of perceived redemption in the stories we tell ourselves about incarceration, Caleb Smith’s The Prison and the American Imagination is a startling work that wrestles with how our society’s conceptions of “the criminal,” “the prisoner,” and “the disciplinary institution” have become literally carved into our landscapes and branded on our psyches. The governing ideologies of America’s great systems of control have seeped into the wider social milieu—we are, and have been for centuries, living in a grand carceral continuum. The inmate’s body has become the blank screen onto which we can project our fantasies about space, captivity, freedom, justice, and salvation; the prisoner is caught as both an object of oppression and a subject of freedom. And, as “prison reformers” have always notified us, the way we treat those who are incarcerated is the litmus test for how much we value human rights and liberty. How, then, can we begin to understand the realities and implications of brave statements like Malcolm X’s “America is a prison?”
At the Imprisonment of a Race conference at Princeton University this spring, we met up with Caleb Smith to discuss what he calls “the erosion of the hard and fast distinction between what we call ‘inside’ and what we call ‘outside.’”
As we have written before at Silence Opens Doors about the architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, prisons were once designed to resemble the dungeons of times past, whereas on the inside, Quaker reformers were constructing a system of punishments that were meant to humanize their charges and lead them to spiritual enlightenment. These gothic nightmarish structures were a reimagining of the individual at the line separating captivity and freedom—the body was segregated from all others, but the mind could wander off to commune with higher beings.
Terror was inspired in the surrounding communities by just the thought of what went on behind the prison walls, and their lack of knowledge about the real goings on led to fanciful beliefs of physical torture and torment as in medieval dungeons. The reformist projects of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were bound up in these fantasies. From the beginning, our imaginations have led us to political and social myths about incarceration and the dehumanization that occurs under the ever-watchful eye of the state.
“There is a wish among those of us who think there is a prison crisis, that if we can just expose what is happening, bring it into public view that a democratic society, that a humane society would not allow this to happen.” Smith spoke to us about the central paradox of incarceration: inmates are held captive in plain sight, and we as activists, concerned citizens, and scholars of justice have to shine a light on what is already before our eyes. The prison walls have been built in order to separate the incarcerated from the “free,” and yet those walls are our point of contact. The challenge, then, is to make that point of contact into our common cause, to reframe the menacing nature of the prison itself in order to establish meaningful change.
According to Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, “one in three young African American men is currently under the control of the criminal justice system—in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole—yet mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial justice or civil rights issues (or crisis).” Furthermore, America now imprisons a larger percentage of its African American community than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. We are certainly living in the era of “Law + Order,” get-tough-on-crime ideologies, three-strikes laws, zero tolerance, and a whole host of other slogan-ridden policies that have fundamentally shifted how liberty and freedom are parceled out in our society writ large…but not how we think about those concepts. Smith writes in The Prison and the American Imagination that “the ideology of toughness, of retribution, or of mere containment displaces the enlightened, reformist language of mercy and healing.”
It is easy to blame the mass media for the lack of awareness of the injustices of the justice system and our failures to protect civil rights, but that is almost missing the point. As Smith examines in his book, literature, history, and law have become so interwoven that we cannot look at captivity as a problem in need of easy solutions, and returning to reformist ideals may not be our best bet. The gothic battlements of Eastern State Penitentiary, Sing Sing, and Auburn and the Roman columns of New York’s Tombs once signaled the solidity of the carceral presence in our society; today, they prisons have been cast out to the periphery and farmed out to rural areas. Whereas architecture used to cause community members to tremble in fear before the prison walls, today, the popularization of crime in the media has inoculated us to the horror of incarceration. Our imaginative response to the prison as the locus of systems of control has changed. In this post-Guantanamo world, it is vital that we reclaim the humanity of the humans held in our prisons, and reaffirm their subjectivity. We must, in Smith’s words, “discover a language that refuses both the prison’s dehumanizing violence and its captivating vision of human redemption.”
“I haven’t seen the night sky for a decade. During the early sixties in San Quentin, ‘lockup’ meant just that, twenty-four hours a day, all day, a shower once a week, and this could last for months (it’s not changed much). On a shower walk one day in ’63??, a brother called me to his cell for an opinion on this work he was doing on his walls. He had drawn in the night sky with colored pencils and against it, life size, lifelike (he was good), female comrades—some with fluffy naturals like my sister Angie, some with silky naturals like my sister Betsy. He had worked on it for three months. It was enormous—beautiful, precise, mellow. When he finished the last strokes the pigs moved him to another cell and painted over it, gave him a bad-conduct report, and made him pay for the new coat of paint. That brother didn’t draw much any more last time I saw him.” –George Jackson