The Carceral Continuum: Interview with Caleb Smith

“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 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

The Women of WORTH

The United States is home to about five percent of the world’s population, but can lay claim to twenty-five percent of the its prisoners. In 2006, more than seven million or one in twenty-one adults in this country were either incarcerated, on parole or probation. Contrary to stereotypes or what the mass media would have us believe, the majority of these individuals are not violent criminals: nonviolent offenses like drug possession make up thirty-one percent of all state felonies and economic crimes like burglary or fraud another thirty-two percent. Many are women.

According to a new report titled “Mothers Behind Bars” (PDF) released two weeks ago by the Rebecca Project for Human Rights and the National Women’s Law Center, the number of women in prison has risen at a higher rate than that of men since the introduction of mandatory sentencing policies for many drug offenses. The new report also stated that most of those women incarcerated for drug use or possession are nonviolent, first-time offenders, and about two-thirds have at least one child under the age of 18.

What are the challenges for incarcerated and formally incarcerated women—particularly those who have children? How can a penal system built around a “control and punish” model get support to those children without jeopardizing the mother-child relationship? And further, upon the mother’s release from treatment or prison, how can we foster a restorative justice system that helps families heal together?

Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH) is an advocacy and consulting group formed by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, and they are taking on these challenges. Their expertise, experience, and leadership as a collective is able to speak to power the need to reform policies and perceptions regarding incarcerated women.

Silence Opens Doors was at the RISE Conference 2010 on October 23, an interdisciplinary meeting among social workers and activists, to document WORTH’s roundtable on organizing for criminal justice reform. Present on behalf of WORTH was co-founder and chair Tina Reynolds, outreach coordinator Maxine King, and co-chair Carole Eady.

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In 2007, the group The Sentencing Project released a report titled “A Twenty-Five Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society,” which found that drug offenders in prison and jails had increased by 1100 percent since 1980, and that nearly six in ten inmates in state prison for a drug offense have no history of violence or high-level drug-selling activity. Confirming what has already become a commonly held suspicion, people of color comprise 37 percent of all arrestees for drug crimes although they only make up 14 percent of all drug users. The system of mass incarceration of drug offenders puts the cohesiveness of family units at risk, and the runaway focus on people of color is symptomatic of a systemic racial bias. As Anne-Marie Cusac infers in Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America, American society has transformed drug users into drug “fiends,” with all of the devilish connotations that word implies.

WORTH, though, goes beyond the statistics and criticism of the corrections system in this country to forge communities of support for those behind bars and those who have been through it. The group moves beyond rhetoric, and into a realm where real networks can emerge to help one another navigate the tangles of a legal and foster care system that punishes women and mothers twice-over.

Tina Reynolds and Carole Eady both each lost one of their children due to a law passed in 1997 called the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), which allows states to begin to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for longer than 15 months. In an age when the average sentence for a woman who commits a nonviolent crime is 19 months, the ASFA law extends the trauma of imprisonment and separation out into the rest of a family’s life. Not only do formerly incarcerated women have to fight to get to know their children all over again, they have to do so in a hostile environment in which they are fighting for their parental rights.

As the members of WORTH explained at the RISE Conference 2010, the huge crop of women being released from prison (about 70,000 annually since 2001) have other fights to wage as they try to re-engage with their communities. Many have to rely on shelters. After the 1993 Crime Bill, they are not eligible for Pell Grants, the primary source of funding for prison-based education, meaning that they cannot use their sentences to pursue higher degrees. If a woman has done her time and is committed to change, what support is this system offering to her?

The report mentioned at the top of this post by the Rebecca Project and the National Women’s Law Center echoed WORTH’s proposal of a way out of this Gordian knot: the continued expansion of community-based alternative sentencing programs, including drug-treatment programs, for mothers who have been convicted of nonviolent offenses. The report advised that “these treatment programs permit mothers and children to heal together in community-based facilities and consistently show successful outcomes for children’s health and stability.”


This newest report—in which only one state, Pennsylvania, received a grade of “A”—looked at three crucial ways that women interact with the justice system. It focused on prenatal care, the shackling of pregnant women during childbirth, and community-based alternatives to incarceration that enable mothers to be with their children. This second area of analysis, shackling, is an issue that WORTH has been particularly involved in.

Back in July 2009, WORTH and the Correctional Association of New York held a rally to petition Governor Patterson to enact the Anti-Shackling Bill into law. Tina Reynolds herself experienced shackling during the birth of her son. One a week in the state of New York, a woman in jail or prison goes into labor and has the same experience. Most of these women are locked up for drug offenses, and quite often, they are “severely restrained,” in the words of one New York Times article from the time of the rally, during childbirth to ward off any highly unlikely (if not impossible) escape attempts. The Times story continues to say that “while their bodies heave toward childbirth, they become walking, clanking jail cells.”

After years of advocating for the Anti-Shackling Bill, Governor Patterson signed the bill into law in May of 2009, thereby removing this practice from all state prisons and the jails that serve the 62 counties in this state. New York became only the fifth state corrections system in the nation to have legislation in the books that prevents the restraint of pregnant inmates.

CONTROL: The Rise of Extreme Incarceration (trailer)

Control: The Rise of Extreme Incarceration is a feature-length documentary that traces the largest expansion of punitive power in the United States. The movie focuses on three conditions that push our penal system to the brink: the implementation of long-term solitary confinement, the criminalization of mental illness, and the incarceration of juveniles. Over the last 40 years, our system of incarceration has metastasized into virtually every aspect of our culture and has permeated our entire social structure. Political activists face a two-tiered system that openly punishes them for their political beliefs. The mentally ill are bounced back and forth between a “public” space that has little tolerance for aberrant behavior and a prison that offers little hope in the way of psychiatric treatment. Children are forced to attend school alongside armed police officers, as they watch their friends, family, and themselves, get caught in the sticky web of law enforcement. Today, our complex penal system has swallowed up 7 million American citizens and its long shadow is cast over millions more; American society relies more heavily on imprisonment and punishment than any other on record.

Penetrating the regime of silence of this entrenched system, Control acknowledges the trauma generated by incarceration through interwoven portraits of three key characters and their friends, families, and advocates. Ojore Lutalo, a former member of the Black Liberation Army and an identified anarchist, was released from Trenton Prison last year after spending nearly 30 years in solitary confinement. Luther is a 16-year-old living in the Bronx who was arrested this past spring for the first time. In November, he goes to trial on a case that could possibly put him behind bars for years. Leah, the godmother of a mentally ill man in solitary confinement, was driven to become an outspoken activist for the rights of those incarcerated with psychiatric disabilities.

Control traces these stories out in order to help incite a cultural shift in the way we think, see, and ultimately, tolerate the hardships bred by our system of mass incarceration.

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Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities (RIPPD) is an activist group in New York City that is working to end the practice of incarcerating people with mental illness.
This video documents RIPPD’s campaign to bring Community Crisis Intervention Teams to the NYPD. After police in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, killed Iman Morales by taser, RIPPD wants to change the way police interact with community members by creating specially trained advocates to de-escalate situations, breaking the cycle of violence.

The video is a production of the Red Channels Media Collective.

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When Radio Goes Silent

Radio Silence is the latest installation piece by digital media artist Zach Poff, and it was on display at Devotion Gallery in Brooklyn, New York from July 2 to July 11. Sponsored by free103point9, the piece is concerned with the natural and unnatural pauses in speech that occur during radio broadcasts, and these sites for reflection or response become charged with a certain potency. Poff engineered a system whereby eight radios would be tuned to different stations on the broadcast spectrum and only one could “speak” at any given time; when two of them spit out a silence of any sizable length at the exact same moment, the installation would switch between stations. What emerged was a dialogue across speakers, across stations, and across languages.

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“The technology behind this piece is kind of a union between the physical handiwork and the less physical—but still physical—handiwork of wiring it together in the mind of the computer.” Poff was careful, though, to make sure that discussions about the piece did not devolve into questions of what sort of computer programming he used, or which wires are connected to which radios. Radio Silence is concerned with technology, but only so much as it allows us to open up a discussion about our relationship to that technology, and how broadcasters are manipulating it to forge dialogues. In a nod to John Cage, Poff accepts that his role in the creation of the work was just to manufacture a potential for this dialogue: “The details are left to chance, but the structure is very clearly constructed. In doing so, my sense of authorship here is purely in the discovery of a structure, or the conscious creation of a structure. I let all of the details bump into one another as they may.”

When the average listener thinks about their radio consumption, it is generally which personality on the AM dial they subscribe to, or which FM station jives the best with their musical taste. We very much curate our own radio experiences, while remaining aware of a fundamental rift between the AM and FM bands that has been cultivated by broadcasters over the last several decades. There’s a lot of strong personalities on AM radio in particular, and FM “seems to represent this newer kind of focus on a massive variety of programming. In a way, it’s like cable television: little niches grow up and become these channels.” Both Radio Silence and his earlier Video Silence disrupt the standard broadcast communication model of single transmitter reaching multiple receivers by forging connections between the transmitters, and thereby rendering them as receivers to the radio brethren. By bringing different radio speech acts into a manufactured dialogue with one another, Poff is interested in revealing moments of simultaneity that can be “just as telling as if there was a real conversation going on.”

“My original goal in a way was to say: If I talk really quickly with no pauses, I leave behind a residue that’s extremely compact. And that residue has a certain kind of volume curve to it. Its negative space—which is how I’m considering silence in this context—has certain contours that would reflect something about the voice.” Think of the difference between an angry, loud shock jock and the slower, more reflexive pacing of a preacher on Sunday morning prayer service and the well-modulated, calm voice of a public radio journalist. “We’d notice something,” Poff says, “in those silences that would inform us about that voice that we’re not going to be able to hear.” In the end, Poff’s original goal didn’t lead to the intended statement about some sort of discovery of the use of silent pauses in different speech acts—the pauses are just a change in signal, and he turned to these as potential entrypoints into constructing a dialogue.

One of the most startling effects of Radio Silence—particularly when placed in relation to Video Silence—is the myriad silences evident during radio broadcasts, but which we choose to tune out. Because video broadcasts are typically more carefully constructed and edited before going live, and because there are many more genres of broadcasts populating television (drama, comedy, etc.), the silences that exist on television are there to lend meaning to the surrounding dialogic space. A well-placed moment for character reflection—that not-as-rare-as-you-think shot of a character just looking or thinking—has the potential to be at once comedic, heart-wrenching, thoughtful, and revelatory. Poff found in Video Silence that, because of the compression of television broadcasts, every silence or breath was just as loud as the surrounding speech or music, creating a highly equalized sound environment. On the other hand, and because of the dearth of narrative and fictional programming on American radio stations, radio broadcasts exploit their silences mainly in order to allow the listener to simply make sense of what they are hearing. Pauses occur between words and sentences in order to indicate phrasing, and although these silences might have been inserted to incite the same comedic, heart-wrenching, thoughtful, or revelatory feeling, without the visual clues they seem like just part of the cadence of the speaker. When you listen closely to Radio Silence in its installation setting, what immediately pops out is the shuffling of papers, constant pops, flat-line hisses, and empty static occurring on the seven non-speaking radios. It calls attention to the actual sound of radio, the aural byproducts of someone sitting before a microphone, attempting to cover up with their voice the natural state of that frequency on the dial.

In the installation piece, Poff further played on our assumptions about radio by stripping away from the device everything that we normally associate with radios, leaving just the speaker. Gone are the tuning dials, the antennae, the digital presets, and in their place is simple aluminum armature wire bent into the shape of a traditional radio. “The idea here is that each one of these has a potential to it—it’s empty, you can literally put your hand through it,” he says. It’s a nod to the notion that we all think that technology “comes down to us from the heavens,” and that the things that make the radio work cannot be understand, and that’s perhaps not the point. The shapes themselves seem just as crucial as the dialogue going on aurally or technologically: Poff has chosen to allude to eight standard radios that we all can place within a historical trajectory in the development and maturation (and perhaps recent downfall) of radio—a cathedral-style early monolith, the standard tabletop model, those awkward-looking cube radio alarm clocks, a small transistor radio. These shapes are all familiar to us as remnants from the history of broadcasting in this country, and it is significant that the radio as a physical object has undergone a much larger transition in form than that of the CRT televisions Poff used in Video Silence.

Whereas television is just now making its first move away from its earliest technology of CRTs and curved glass toward impossibly thin LCD screens, the guts of radio have remained astonishingly the same, while the shape and size of the device has shifted around it. Radio Silence forges a dialogue across the stations on the spectrum, but it also encourages considerations of the long and storied history of radio, from families sitting around cathedral-style radios to single individuals plugging in to their iPod Nanos, now complete with FM radio bands. “The device, as though it were just airdropped down from some foreign government, arrives at our doorstep and in a way,” he says, “we build our own model of how to interpret it these forms that we are surrounded with.” Our relationship to these devices and the role they play in our lives is constantly shifting, and it is almost our duty as listeners to pay attention to what’s left out of the broadcast stream so as to better understand why we do choose to tune in when we do in an era that is overflowing with media options.

“Even as the broadcasters freak out about peer-to-peer sharing of whatever form, we’re still in many, many ways dealing with the reverberations of broadcast,” Poff states. “There is a part of Radio Silence that is concerned with that. What happens when you take sound bites from a variety of sources and put them together?”

What emerges is a deeper understanding of how we interpret media conversations, and conversations between media. And this isn’t about ideology or political stance—Poff is not concerned with pitting the Right against the Left or vice versa, but rather revealing how we construct those “battles” in the first place. Perhaps it’s worth returning to Video Silence, in which Poff used a similar mechanism to exploit the silences on network television, to answer the question of what does silence mean in broadcasting. Is it just dead air, or is it a site for potential?

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Fighting Prisons

Activists and organizations working in and around prisons gathered at the 2nd US Social Forum in Detroit to share knowledge and make connections across what proved to be a diverse and vibrant landscape of practices. Over 50 panels were convened, involving hundreds of individuals representing communities from all over the country. Addressing the crisis happening in the incarceration system, people agree, requires a broad-based approach that includes different strategies, tactics, and angles of approach. Below are 4 topics we feel represent that diversity and provide a rough schematic of the range of ideas and activities.

* Prison Abolition:

Depopulating prisons and even eliminating the system of locking people up as a response to social problems altogether is the goal for most prison activists. It forms the “no compromise” framework that drives most of the activism regarding incarceration. David Stein talks about Critical Resistance, a national organization of individual chapters, which firmly calls for prison abolition and actively fights any expansion of the prison system. In the video, he describes some of the strategies the organization has used to fight new prison construction, some of the alliances created through that fight, and the importance of combatting the creation of every new cell.


Critical Resistance

* Advocating for Incarcerated People:

Imprisoned people face myriad of life-threatening obstacles on a daily basis. Natalie Holbrook, who works with the American Friends Service Committee in Michigan, is part of a direct advocacy program that addresses the needs of imprisoned people on a case-by-case basis. At least 40% of the cases her group gets involved in have to do with physical and mental health issues that are not being addressed by the correctional system. Holding the system accountable for its actions and failures, she says, is critical. Her office also maintains important contact with people who are being held in long-term extreme segregation, offering kind words and the reassurance that someone, indeed, is monitoring the situation.


Prisoner Advocay-AFSC Criminal Justice Office

* Addressing Trauma within Communities:

In order to respond more effectively to harm and abuse within our communities, a growing number of activists are developing liberatory programs to address harm and trauma without resorting to oppressive and retaliatory systems. Micah Frazier works with Generation 5, a group committed to ending child sexual abuse in five generations. They use transformative justice to help train community members to better recognize and respond to harm.


Generation 5

* Immigration, Criminality and Confinement:

The efforts to criminalize millions of undocumented people currently living in the US will greatly increase the number of jailed people and represent an unacceptable expansion in the logic of the social “value” of prisons. Luis Fernandez works with the Arizona based Repeal Coalition, which fights to overturn anti-immigrant legislation. He talks about the challenges of working within a system that literally does not recognize the validity of entire communities, and that uses racism and economic enticements to factionalize the movement.


Repeal Coalition

Border Action Network

No More Deaths

The Invention of Solitary

Situated in the thriving neighborhood of Fairmount in Philadelphia lies a decaying ruin: Eastern State Penitentiary. Back when this iconic prison admitted its first inmate in October of 1829, the then-magnificent building was up on a hill far from where most Philadelphians lived, and it was a site to be feared. Behind its massive stone walls was a carefully engineered, painstakingly designed set of cell blocks lined with small cells where inmates would be held in perpetual solitary confinement. What would later to termed the “Pennsylvania system” of justice, this machine was thought to be able to admit hardened criminals, give them time for ample reflection (23 hours a day in absolute quiet), and turn them back out onto the city’s streets as reformed, reflexive, spiritual men and women. After Eastern State was closed in January of 1970, it was essentially left to the elements.

We met with Sean Kelley, program director at Eastern State Penitentiary, on Cellblock 12.

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When Eastern State first opened, it attracted a wealth of tourists and visitors from around the country and from abroad—both day-trippers looking to admire the clean machinations of a state hell-bent on reformation of its worst criminals and representatives from governments from Europe searching for a solution to keep their own underclass in line. Kelley estimates that around 300 prisons were built in Europe that were based on the Quaker model at Eastern State—as large a footprint in the European disciplinary psyche as Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon model that Foucault made so famous. The effect was the same: a complete separation from others would lead toward inner reflection, a sterling example of how systems of power regulate individual bodies and minds.

As Kelley describes in the video above, the practice of long-term solitary confinement was eventually abandoned in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because it was deemed too cruel and inhumane to maintain. The next move in this disciplinary system was to “modernize” solitary toward what it is meant to be today: a system of punishment within the general prison population. “You still needed a prison inside of a prison because the problems that exist outside always exist inside the prison, too,” he explained. “The lesson of these Eastern State-inspired prisons was that people hate this, they absolutely hate it. It’s an unnatural state of living, and so if you really want to get someone’s attention, just cut them off from human contact.”

Those that could not conform to the strict rules of Eastern State after 1913 were held in the “Klondike” temporarily. What is called “the hole” in most prisons, the “Klondike” is a disciplinary room dug out of the side of Cell Block 14, and is only accessible by descending a very steep set of stairs. At the bottom, about a half dozen 4 foot by 8 foot cells have been dug into the walls—a set-up that is completely immersed in darkness, without electricity, running water, or ventilation. In a move that eerily recalls the current use of “the hole” in prisons across the country, solitary confinement was used not for redemption, but purely for punishment. Resembling sensory deprivation rooms (but housed in a dank cellar), the “Klondike” subterranean cells were eventually forcibly abandoned after a state penal commission suggested in an August 1953 investigation that the living conditions in this special cellblock were beyond barbarous.

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“Eastern State pretty thoroughly discredited the idea that solitary confinement will reform individuals: the idea that you can take someone bad, isolate them, and they’ll spend time looking into their hearts and becoming penitent, that, I hope, is an idea that we are past,” Kelley told us. “However, there is this pendulum swing in prisons that goes between whether we try to habilitate people or whether we try to punish them harder.” As has been well-documented by numerous scholars and activists over the last three decades, the system in America is swinging right back toward vigorous and vicious punishment, and away from purely reformist intentions.

Loic Wacquant, a professor of sociology who has been mentioned on this site before, has traced the evolution of the social state into the penal state, in what he labels “the great penal leap backward.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics tells us that in 1975 there were 379,393 inmates in county, state, and federal prisons, as compared to 1,931,850 in 2000. As Wacquant writes in Prisons of Poverty, “one might think that after 15 years [from 1975 to 1990] of such frenetic growth American jails and prisons would reach saturation and that certain…homeostatic mechanisms…would kick in…But America’s carceral bulimia did not abate: at the end of the single year 1995…an additional 107,300 found themselves behind bars, corresponding to an extra 2,064 inmates per week.” (During this same period and even a bit before, crime rates began a long, steady decline that has never been proven beyond a doubt to be the result of these policies of enforcement.) And it wasn’t that the numbers of inmates were just on the rise, but rather their sentences were getting longer and solitary confinement was being deployed more frequently to keep certain prison populations under close control. In Punishing the Poor, Wacquant explains how our obsession with “insecurity” has led to an amalgamated discourse that “is amplified and ratified by the prefabricated productions of a certain magazine sociology that shamelessly lumps together schoolyard brawls, stairwell graffiti, and riots in derelict housing projects.”

Recognizing the dangerous slope that we are currently sliding down, the American Friends Service Committee’s STOPMAX Campaign and organizations like it around the country are building a network to abolish solitary confinement, which has become the preferred control mechanism for the mentally ill and politically vocal inmates. The “tough on crime” mentality of the last few decades has offered us a return to the policies that made Eastern State a beacon in its time, without the curiously benevolent motivations. When the prison in Marion, Illinois was put into unending lockdown in 1983, America saw its first supermax prison arise out of a penal state, establishing a revised Eastern State-like system in our time.

“What you don’t see as much of is a government like the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the 1810s and 1820s, saying let’s try something really expensive and new, and let’s try to find a way to give people options and make them better by opening up different experiences to them. Different tools and a different education,” Kelley explains. “As much as we are horrified by the way that the inmates here were treated—which by all accounts was an extraordinarily difficult experience—at least they were trying to make the inmates better people when they left so they wouldn’t have to keep coming back here.” The officials at Eastern State were careful not to have the inmates under their care just sit and suffer—they provided a Bible to each inmate (although many were functionally illiterate at best), taught them a trade, and offered moral/spiritual counseling. Although a bit paternalistic, these practices, Kelley believes, signaled a good faith effort toward reformation of the inmates and the correctional system as a whole.

“The idea almost seems naïve now, like it’s almost become a do-gooder idea: that people can change.” Even though the Quaker philosophy underpinning all of the reform efforts at Eastern State eventually backfired and was cast aside, the essential goal was a good one. In Kelley’s words, it was “to make a good neighbor” out of those who formerly were not welcome in society. Of course, in the early years of the prison’s life—at a time when photography and fingerprinting were still decades away—it was impossible to track recidivism or to quantify the successes of this effort. The question remains, though: what if our correctional systems today abandoned practices that over 100 years ago were deemed too cruel, and instead initiated a reform effort for the twenty-first century? What if the balance between punishment and reformation was finally found?

The Story All Around Us

Listen to This: Crown Heights Oral History Project is an audio archive that attempts to supplement the official history of this dynamic community in central Brooklyn, bringing together the personal histories and memories of longtime residents of a storied neighborhood. Program director Alex Kelly brought together five students from Paul Robeson High School to invite Crown Heights residents to share their stories—in their own voices. The result is a group of over 40 conversations, each with its own particular perspective on a complex community that is composed of a variety of ethnicities, languages, histories, and cultures.

The act of recording and giving voice to hidden narratives opens up questions not only about the nature of identity in a hybrid neighborhood, but more importantly about whose stories rise above the din and whose get swallowed up in a textbook’s lessons.

We spoke with Monica Parfait, one of the students involved with the project, about creating a new history for this corner of New York City.

Listen to some of the stories recorded by Listen to This.

eunice oden Eunice Oden Eunice Oden: A Southerner at heart, Eunice speaks about her first experience in New York City after growing up in North Carolina.

eunice oden Michoel BerhmanMichoel Berhman: A resident of the neighborhood for 34 years, Michoel explains the patchwork of cultural enclaves (including the one he calls home, the Lubavitch) that make up Crown Heights.

eunice oden Stefanie Siegel Stefanie Siegel: At a time when Paul Robeson High School is in danger of closing, Stefanie describes the challenges facing the school and how students and teachers can take control back.

eunice oden Melina BernadineMelina Bernadine: In a community that has at times been overrun by riots, crime, and drug use, Melina recalls how “somehow things started to change.”

eunice oden Meredith Staton Meredith Staton: After 50 years in the community, Meredith speaks to the impact of the riots in 1991, but also about the importance of moving on.

Black-and-white photographs by Cheney Orr.

Quiet Time

As the pace of life quickens, the number of applications for ten-day silent meditation retreats has gone through the roof.
A story by Greg Emerson Bocquet.

No talking. No reading. No writing or listening to music, or checking voice mail. For practitioners of Vipassana meditation, who follow these rules for ten, 20, even 60 days at a time, going “off the radar” means exactly that.

While most people accustomed to the fast pace of modern living would consider breaking off all communication with the world impossible, more and more are turning to the practice of Vipassana to help quiet their minds. Since the group’s only advertising is a website that provides information about courses and registration, this increased interest is generated purely by word of mouth. But it is not only the New Age, spiritual types who are drawn to this form of silent self-observation; these days, people from all walks of life and all ages, cultures and religious backgrounds attend the basic ten-day courses.

Barry Lapping is one of a handful of practitioners who, after learning the technique from S.N. Goenka, the modern leader of the Vipassana tradition, brought it to the United States in 1982. “From the very young to the very old, the highly professional to the CEO, to the ditch digger, to the unemployed, the white, the black, the yellow, the red, all of these people have come,” Lapping says. “Because every human being—no matter where they’re from, what nationality, what race, what religion—every human being works in exactly the same way.”

The numbers back up Lapping’s claim. He runs the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne, Mass., which is able to accommodate 140 meditators at a time, making it the largest center of its kind outside of India. These days, every course has a waiting list, each with up to 100 names. Last year, 7,161 people participated in the ten-day retreats—the most common of the Vipassana courses held throughout the country—and hundreds signed up for the three-day, 30-day and 45-day courses.

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For those who are uncertain about taking the plunge into silence, the fact that the retreats are absolutely free helps many decide to give them a try. All retreats are funded by donations from people who have already completed a course. Besides allowing the group to claim nonprofit 501(c)(3) status, the arrangement has philosophical underpinnings. “There is no commercialization in this process,” Lapping says. “People can give whatever they feel, understanding that everything they have received in these ten days is because of the donations from the people who have come before.”

So far, the system works. It takes about $600,000 per year to run the courses and maintain the center, and according to Rick McCabe, the group’s treasurer, the donations consistently produce a surplus.

“If donations drop off because of this recession we are in, we will be fine for a few years,” McCabe says. More than fine, the center is expanding. Construction has begun on a massive gold-topped pagoda that will provide individual meditation cells for course participants.

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What’s It Like?

The retreats, which happen throughout the world and at 23 locations in the U.S., bring participants together in quiet, rural settings to sit and meditate for ten hours a day. While the practice is taught in group meditation sessions, the experience is highly individual. For first timers, the initial sensation tends to be one of utter physical pain.

Brent Kim, a 30-year-old who works as a public health researcher, took his first Vipassana course in India in 2007. The overwhelming discomfort proved to be more than he could handle, and he left the retreat on the fourth day. “The first day I sat to meditate for ten hours, but it felt like 30,” Kim says. “With each progressive day, my knees hurt, my back hurt and the more I would mentally complain, the more the pain hurt. I couldn’t handle it.”

Students are expected to endure the pain, trusting that the body will learn to sit without changing position so the mind has a chance to take over. Justine Ngo, 26, remembers very distinctly the moment the transition occurred. “It was day six that I finally sat for a full hour. That was when I first discovered the difference between the physical and the mental discomforts,” she said.

While many participants undertake the practice to process some mental turmoil, the application form for a Vipassana course specifically warns against people with mental disorders taking part. Sometimes, the mental and emotional stress can be overwhelming. Dmitri Iarikov, a 25-year-old student at Virginia Tech, says his emotional state changed from hour to hour, every day, ranging from moments of divine enlightenment to emotional despair.

“There were days when I was wishing that the pain would start, because all this fear, this anxiety, would come up and I would just wish my knee was just hurting,” he says. “So I would focus on that instead of being between my ears again thinking, thinking, thinking.”

Back in the Real World

On the last day of the course, students are once again permitted to speak, allowing them to share their impressions of the previous ten days. But ten days of silence effects each person differently. While Kim remembers a failed first attempt at starting a conversation, Iarikov describes the opposite. “When they actually let us talk to people and let us out of this little world we were confined in,” he says, “it’s like this valve just went off and all the steam came out.”

Often the biggest challenge for the practitioners is to maintain the mental balance and control over their stress levels once they return to the real world. Teachers recommend a minimum of two hours of meditation per day, following the Vipassana teachings of self-observation for an hour in the morning, an hour in the evening.

While ten days may seem like a long time, these retreats are meant as an introduction to the practice, not a miracle cure for life’s ills. “After ten days, you realize that even after all that focus, all that amount of work, you have a great feeling,” Ngo says. “But you’re just scratching the surface.”

This story first appeared in FLYP Media in June 2009.

Tale of a Walled Town

Ours is a grimy bit of blue;
And very small;
And sunbeams scarce adventure to
O’ertop the wall.
A bird that flutters swiftly by;
A wind that passes with a sigh;
A cloudlet sailing slow and high;
And that is all.

O matins, and O vesper bells,
Toll slowly!

A city of a thousand cells—
A thousand individual hells.

Incarcerated in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadephia in 1916, Clarence Alexander Rae, a convicted book thief, penned the internal experience of a life interupted. The narrative he traces through his book of poems, A Tale of a Walled Town, follows the path of subjection, the result of inescapable regimes of surveillance and control. Dedicated to “Our Lady with the Lamp,” it is one of the earliest tales of captivity to emerge from the modern prison complex, an outcropping of reformist practices that ultimate strove to control the body so as to free the soul for enlightenment.

In his recent book, The Prison and the American Imagination, Caleb Smith calls the prison narrative “the first distinctly American literary genre.” He cites Mary White Rowlandson’s 1682 text, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, as one of the earliest captivity narratives, and perhaps one of the most fascinating. Abducted by what she labels the devilish native peoples and held in slavery while they massacred the settlers of New England, she describes the horrors of being held against one’s will. Her six-year-old daughter dies, and Rowlandson’s madness drives her to hug the corpse through the night until it is torn from her: “I cannot but take notice how at another time I could not bear to be in the room where any dead person was, but now the case is changed; I must and could ly down by my dead Babe, side by side all the night after.” Echoing the work of sociologist Loic Wacquant, Smith concludes that “the captivity narrative has served to reinforce, perhaps even to create, identities in conflict: white against red, or against black, or against shades of brown.” In a strange way, the prison narrative is the most American of all, and the one in which our systems of disenfranchisement and prejudice are erected and enacted.

When a prisoner first arrived at Eastern State after the usual surrender of possessions would, he would be stripped down, his hair shaved close, he’d be numbered, then led to his box of solitude with a hood over his face that obscured all light and sensation. In the early years before they instituted hoods with holes for the eyes, he’d never leave his cell without all of his senses being enshrouded in darkness. There would be no letters or news from his family on the outside, and only the occasional word from a guard could be heard—he was essentially, Smith argues, buried alive and transformed into bare life. The only book that was allowed in the cells was the Bible.

The building itself was the hailed as the perfect system of the time, and its architect, John Haviland, became the prison architect of the 19th century on the backs of this effort. Eastern State accepted its first inmates in 1829, but wasn’t completed until 1836. The radial plan allowed the 450 solitary cells (each with a small skylight) to be policed efficiently—long rows connected the wings to a central command center. Inmates found themselves in a very small, vaulted cell with a bed that was hung from chains, with a small space for their required work. A small peephole allowed the guards to look in whenever they felt the urge, and food and materials relating to their work was passed through a small slit in the door that remained closed when not in use. The real surprise was the water tap and flush toilet in every cell, at a time when many in the city just a few miles south of the walls did not have such luxuries.

There is something distinctly Poe about all of the tales from the inside of this early supermax; the narratives of these inmates is thoroughly gothic with its medieval iron gates, deep shadows, unnatural solitude, and persistent nagging of emerging psychoses. Perhaps Edgar Allan Poe, residing at the time not too far away from the prison walls, wrote in the shadow of Haviland’s much-praised architectural feat. The prison’s first board of directors wrote that the architecture would “turn the thoughts of the convict inwards upon himself, and to teach him how to think.” In effect, the total immersion in solitude would lead the convict to split his criminal mind from his “penitent” mind, and hence our word “penitentiary.” In the mind of the Quaker reformers who inspired this new prison philosophy, the inmate would eventually wrestle with this split until they reached a state of passivity and contentment—a mythology of resurrection if there ever was one.

While in the 18th century justice was carried out within communities that inspired their own form of punishment (mainly focusing on the Hammurabian eye-for-an-eye style), the turn of that century saw the rise of institutionalized punishment. The Walnut Street Jail was built in 1790 by a bunch of Quakers living in Philadelphia, and was effectively the first prison that was focusing on reforming its inmates. Buildings built for mental and physical torture, these early jails (like New York’s Newgate Prison of 1797 and Auburn Prison of 1816) had moved the hangmen outside but kept the interiors similar to those more medieval-styled sites. Inmates would mingle and live in giant pits of rooms, and the overcrowded spaces essentially gave rise to a population better trained in all acts of criminality. Eastern State, in some ways, was seen as a vast improvement on these earlier conditions, and even the eyes of civilized Europe turned toward the building for inspiration. Charles Dickens famously made a visit to Eastern State during a trip through the States, and the master of sympathy found something he didn’t expect. He wrote that the inmates were “dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair,” and wondered of one prisoner “why does he stare at his hands and pick the flesh open…and raise his eyes for an instant…to those bare walls?”

By the end of that century, the Supreme Court was investigating the mental anguish of enduring long-term solitary confinement, which Dickens surmised was “immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” A century after total solitary confinement was abandoned at the prison, Eastern State shut its doors in 1971, and has since been allowed to degrade into a glorious ruin that perhaps, poetically, mirrors the degradation that occurred in each prisoner’s mental and emotional life. National Geographic’s recent special, Solitary Confinement, featured some inmates being held in solitary in the Colorado State Penitentiary, and many of them stated how they would act out just to get a hit from a guard’s club. That one touch—no matter how brutal or how much it reasserted the power differential—would remind them that they are at the bottom of it all a part of the human community. And when we read the tales from Eastern State, the lore of the old world, it is easy to see a sort of neuroses that we have toward those who are confined—the hoods, the vaulted ceilings, the rupturing of all ties to the outside, the obsession with reform and the inability to make that happen. There is more to be said about the Quaker ties, and certainly with the Biblical and resurrectionist undertones of much to do with the early solitary confinement set-ups, but it’s worth just drawing it back to today’s prisoners, Eastern State’s legacy.

Listen to a piece from June 2009 by the National Radio Project, which spoke to some inmates being held in solitary confinement, and some of the family members on the outside.