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

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.

[flv: 592 333]


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.

[flv: 592 331]

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

Supermax Solitude

Activist and filmmaker Laurie Jo Reynolds has made a film called Space Ghost that compares the disconnection felt by astronauts as they separate themselves from the earth, with the disconnection of prisoners who become isolated from culture and human connections:

Space Ghost compares the experiences of astronauts and prisoners, using popular depictions of space travel to illustrate the physical and existential aspects of incarceration: sensory deprivation, the perception of time as chaotic and indistinguishable, the displacement of losing face-to-face contact, and the sense of existing in a different but parallel universe with family and loved-ones.

Laurie Jo is also an organizer of the Tamms Year 10 coalition, a group that is advocating for the reformation of the Tamms super max prison located in Southern Illinois.

From their website:

In 1998, the first prisoners were transferred from prisons across the state to Tamms CMAX, in Southern Illinois. This new “supermax” prison, designed to keep men in permanent solitary confinement, was intended for short-term incarceration. The IDOC called it a one-year “shock treatment.” Now, ten years later, over one-third of the original prisoners have been there for more than a decade. They have lived in long-term isolation—no phone calls, no communal activity, no contact visits. They only leave the cell to exercise alone in a concrete box 2 to 5 times per week. They are fed through a slot in the door.

These activist contend that the disconnect these prisoners experience is tantamount to torture. Charles, who has been confined in Tamms since 1998 points out, “I will ask you, lock yourself in your bathroom for the next 10 years and tell me how it will affect your mind.”

These disruptions are a kind of gap, breaking relationships that aren’t merely superficial, but are critical connections at every level of our being.