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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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