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.


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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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 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.

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.

George Prochnik’s Pursuit of Silence

“As we all know, absolute silence is impossible—it’s the ending of all vibrations, total death,” states George Prochnik, the author of the new In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (Doubleday, 2010). Our sonic landscape is a mixture of signal and noise, silence and form, and Prochnik’s pursuit is to take our aural “temperature,” to encourage us to think about our sonic architecture. Take a short soundwalk through any American city and the level of noise is overwhelming; we decide to combat the sonic vertigo caused by blaring horns, engine roars, babies’ cries, and machine hums by turning on our iPods and tuning out. As Prochnik argues, the problem begins at the exact moment that we reach for a noise-making device to re-upholster our sonic environments, to combat an uncomfortable level of noise by adding yet another layer of sound. In Pursuit of Silence puts forth the claim that we have lost our ability to listen to the many textures of the world and to inject our personal space with varied levels of silence.

Edited into our interview with Prochnik is sound from As a database of sound recordings submitted by sensory ethnographers and sound artists from around the world, the Freesound Project offers us a window back into the realm of silence. The Project works on the same level as Prochnik’s oft-repeated quote from Thoreau: “silence has different depths, like fertilities of soil.” If there are different textures to our acoustic landscape, it is vital that we recover the experience of them and the ability to listen closely and find meaning.

What do we mean when we talk about silence?

In a Bookforum review of Prochnik’s book, J. Gabriel Boylan summarized the dangers of constant exposure to noise: “It turns out that the peak of brain activity, of thinking, comes in the tiny pauses between sounds, when we simultaneously process the previous sound and anticipate the next. When noise never abates, brain activity tends to flatline.” The disappearance of silent spaces is endangering our ability to obtain a reflective, active state of mind. One of the most dramatic moments in Prochnik’s latest effort comes when he spends a night shift with a police officer in Washington, DC who frequently responds to calls of domestic violence. He tells Prochnik how the scene upon arrival is frequently one of deafening noise—layers of televisions, radios, stereos, and the inevitable screaming of the angry parties—but when he asks that these devices are turned off and the couple sit down quietly, the violence comes to a halt. We are, as Prochnik puts it, “living after the third sonic fall,” in a moment in history when we have taken the decibel levels of the Industrial Revolution and two world wars and added a third layer of noise on top. As a result, we’ve lost the close connection with our environment—that heightened awareness and ability to be surprised—that comes with the ability to pluck out sonic information from the general hum of life.

As Prochnik told Paul Holdrengraber in a conversation at a recent NYPL Live event, “the quest always begins in silence, whether it’s an animal stalking its prey or a thinker answering a question. The start of the question is silence.” During the course of his “quest” in the book, he encounters the “boom car” fanatics of Florida, neuroscientists who are looking at how consistent exposure to noise rewires our neural pathways, architects working to transform spaces for the deaf community, friends at the Brooklyn Friends Meeting House, and more. In the end, he writes that “instead of being against noise, I think we need to begin making a case for silence.”

As Prochnik states, we’ve turned “so many of our public spaces into noise dumping grounds and what we can put into a direct feed into our ears is somehow more interesting.” We put on our earbuds to exert at least a minimal amount of control over the noise, and in so doing enact a tiny personal protest against the barrage of sound that ultimately further removes us from our environment. The simple act of tuning out erases deliberate thought, i.e. silence, and causes a deficit of listening. “I don’t think it’s about fabricating silence,” Prochnik told us, and rather “it’s about defabricating the noise.”

Building Silence

“Silence doesn’t just happen magically, it needs a space.” Prochnik’s assertion speaks to the need to find what he calls “that aural truffle.” When Prochnik turns the lens back toward his own environment (that of Midtown Manhattan), he discovers the allure of the pocket park for providing that “site of refuge” from the proverbial hustle and bustle. Also called a minipark or a vest-pocket park, these tiny patches of green space are squeezed into the irregular waste products of zoning codes or haphazard development.

The first pocket parks were built in the years following World War II, when the frequent bombing campaigns in Europe turned the urban layouts into Swiss cheese-like schematics. Today, in particularly blighted urban environments like Detroit and Philadelphia, city officials have made it a priority to develop more of these pocket parks out of the empty lots that are cropping up every day. In Philadelphia, for instance, the population of the once-bustling industrial hub has dropped 26 percent since the 1960s, from a peak of 2 million to less than 1.5 million today. The infrastructure and space could support many more residents, but the 25,000 vacant lots (the highest per capita rate in the nation) have led to a city plan that is needlessly sprawling. The Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Philadelphia Green program has launched a campaign to inform city officials on how to build in more green space, at once reclaiming the vacant land and providing a vessel of solace within a city littered with assaulting noise.

As Prochnik makes clear, these reclaimed holes in the city grid do not produce silence exactly, but rather something akin to silence. In a world that lacks “acoustical contrast,” it is comforting to be able to sit down and observe the many layers of aural information that rise above the baseline. In one section of In Pursuit of Silence, Prochnik visits with some of the leaders of the sound mapping initiatives taking place right now by the European Environment Agency—initiatives that are mired in bureaucracy and produce maps that are essentially endless data streams that might never actually catalyze change.

“Rather than just being against noise and telling people who have no experience of silence, ‘be quiet,’ people who at this point literally don’t know what the means, we’ve got to start showing them what it means to be for silence,” Prochnik told us. “We’ve got to give them the space to do it and it’s got to be experiential.”

Silence Now


Avram Finkelstein, a member of the Silence=Death Project, talks about AIDS, ACT-UP, institutional silence, Holocaust imagery, street art, and the making of an iconic political image. The pink triangle, silence=death poster became representative of AIDS activism during a period when literally, a deathly silence was imposed upon the AIDS crisis. Ronald Reagan, then president, simply pretended it didn’t exist. The conflation of the health crisis with gay liberation further complicated the situation politically. Avram talks about the radical possibilities envisioned by the poster, and the ability for repression to reconstitute itself even where you least expect it.

“Silence is death” implies action, action of resistance and action of oppression. On the other hand, institutional democracy establishes an equivalency between silence and death that ensures that we are perpetually, all, silent and dead. Power is segregated and protected from the effects of speech and action. It is deaf, and increasingly alienated from “speech” that is not “spending”. What precedes any ability to act is the necessity to locate oneself in the network and answer the question: what/who am I connected to? What are the limits and boundaries of my silence/death? What is my sphere of action/life? How can we fight the inverse proportionality between the magnitude of the AIDS crisis and the amount Americans give a shit about it?

Deterring Vagrants

In traditional societies and settings, sound can take on a sacred quality—the ringing of bells, chanting, blowing of horns are all meant to invoke the gods’ passions and attentions. At the turn of the last century when the mechanical revolution turned aviators and broadcasters into secular gods, the hum and roar of industrial machinery took on this sacred aspect of noise. Power is displayed through displays of noise; sound is a conduit for whatever a culture or individuals hold as the divine.

What we can call urban white noise may not be taken as sacred, but it is held up as a fact of life to be guarded, a basic human right. When state- or city-sanctioned brash displays of noise (parades for example) occur, the intrusion in the sonic landscape is meant to draw the populace out of their safe indoor enclosures and into the streets for approved gatherings. As Jonathan Sterne wrote in Open, Muzak was developed a few decades ago in order to mimic this urban white noise, and create boundaries between the inside and outside. Now, store owners broadcast their Muzak into parking lots to claim that territory (which once was a space perfectly balanced between the public and private) as “inside.” As he states, “it takes a space that lies ambiguously between public and private and renders it as a private space.”

The main motive, he finds, was always to drive away unwanted customers and loiterers—particularly those “dangerously” aimless teenagers. He continues:

Soon after the success of a 7-Eleven convenience store in Edmonton [Canada], other downtown businesses joined together to blast Muzak in a city park to drive away ‘drug dealers and their clients. Police say drug activity has dropped dramatically.’ By the end of the year, the New York Times hailed this new use of programmed music as one of the major events of 1990. Following trial runs in western Canada, the Pacific Northwest and Los Angeles suburbs, in 1990 and 1991 Southland Corporation installed Muzak speakers in the parking lots of its 7-Eleven stores all over Canada and the United States. Soon after, the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal began using programmed music to deter loitering. By 1992, it had become a familiar tactic: A group of Cincinnati merchants is among the newest clients piping Muzak into the streets to repel teenagers and vagrants. ‘We’re trying to cut the crowds of young kids’, says Robert Howard, president of the Corryville Community Council.

Today, we can see how the evolution of this intrusion into environments that were previously sacredly quiet: a TD Canada Trust ATM at Front Street East and Jarvis Street in Toronto has committed the ultimate social and sonic violation. As reported by the CBC, what is being called “a vagrant deterrent system” was set up that would broadcast a piercing, screeching sound all through the night to keep the homeless and vagrants from using the then-unused ATM booth as a shelter. It has been sounding off for the past month, and, as the article says, “repeated attempts to nix the noise have fallen on deaf ears.”

Besides invading the private spaces of the neighbors, the “vagrant deterrent system” offends the social system by using noise to keep spaces enclosed. When once sound was used to pull people together, why are we constantly using it to keep what are thought to be “outsiders” outside?

Silent Sound

There were rumors during Operation Desert Storm that the United States military was using an ultra-sophisticated mind-altering technique that amounted to “silent sound” weaponry, which was reported in a March 26, 1991 newsbrief by ITV News Bureau Ltd (London). It is alleged that the U.S. PsyOps team took over FM transmitters in Riyadh after a military command-and-control system was destroyed, and began broadcasting signals on the 100 MHz frequency. Embedded in the radio signals was a subliminal system that was capable of implanting negative emotions—fear, anxiety, despair—into the minds of the listeners. Not just telling them how to feel, but making them feel it.

The technology that is capable of this “mind alteration” is called the Silent Sound Spread Spectrum (SSSS) or S-quad, and was developed by Oliver M. Lowery in U.S. Patent #5,159,703. The patent’s abstract reads: “A silent communications system in which nonaural carriers, in the very low or very high audio frequency range or in the adjacent ultrasonic frequency spectrum, are amplitude or frequency modulated with the desired intelligence and propagated acoustically or vibrationally, for inducement into the brain, typically through the use of loudspeakers, earphones or piezoelectric transducers. The modulated carriers may be transmitted directly in real time or may be conveniently recorded and stored on mechanical, magnetic or optical media for delayed or repeated transmission to the listener.”

Scientists since his patent’s approval have been studying exactly which brainwave patterns produce which emotions, and by broadcasting the same patterns over the airwaves, the emotion can be silently triggered in any humans within earshot.

Whether or not the reports of silent sound technology are science fiction or the rantings of paranoid individuals, the implications for the imposition of emotional noise into unsuspecting individuals is terrifying. We have the capability to simultaneously broadcast terror abroad and bliss on the homefront; the soundscape and emotion-scape are able to be entirely manipulated by human hands.

Who controls noise, and shouldn’t our ears be liberated from such manipulative wave patterns? Shouldn’t we expect to be able to “hear” (as in, recognize that we are hearing a message) the weapons used against us and our enemies? Is there a difference between silent sound weaponry and the Long Range Acoustic Device?