Imagining Prisons

Eastern State Penitentiary, from the series "Abandoned Souls" by Ted Daniels. Click the image to see more.

I never imagined that my interest in William Faulkner would have anything to do with the prison project I’m developing, slowly but surely, for Killing the Buddha—until I read Caleb Smith’s The Prison and the American Imagination. Faulkner was keenly curious about what it was like inside the Southern prison—and inside the mind of the prisoner, as I discovered in Smith’s chapter on the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Though Faulkner was more interested in psychology than policy, his fictional windows into convict life are part of the cultural history of American prisons that Smith traces in the book. Our captivation with captivity has shaped the U.S. prison system.

Smith, an assistant professor of English and American studies at Yale University, edits, which explores what he calls “the imaginative life and afterlife of the U.S. penitentiary.” In KtB’s effort to kill the buddhas of American incarceration, we invited Smith to participate in our “Prison-Spirituality Complex” panel discussion this past spring. Smith talked about the redemption stories that have shaped the history of incarceration and the current sprawl of prisons that seem to have no aim but expansion. Here is an afterlife of that conversation.

What have you learned from teaching Yale students about the history of American prisons?

My students at Yale come from several worlds. A few years ago I taught a seminar, “American Literature and the History of Punishment.” One of my students had a brother who was incarcerated, and he was doing some teaching in a Connecticut prison. Another was the daughter of a governor. I had to learn how to find a common language for our group, to mediate these wildly different perspectives on power in American history.

What has impressed me most, in teaching these materials, is that most students are surprised to discover that the prison has a history at all—that there was ever a time when there was no prison system. The institution, which was invented just two centuries ago, has come to seem natural and inevitable. Part of the work of learning and teaching the history of the prison, then, is to make it appear strange again—to take an imaginative step outside its imposing shadow, into some other light.

You’ve written recently in the New Haven Advocate that the walls of the penitentiary replaced the scaffolds of public execution by the mid-19th century. In The Prison and the American Imagination you argue that the imagination displaced the public spectacle of punishment. How so?

The prison emerged out of a crisis in the older penal practices of public torture, humiliation, and hanging. The reformers came to feel that those violent spectacles had a corrupting influence on the public. The prison promised to remove punishment from the town square, into a controlled and secluded space. More and more, the relationship between penal violence and the public at large was mediated by published pamphlets, newspaper accounts, novels and poems. This was the archive I set out to explore in The Prison and the American Imagination.

In the third chapter, you discuss “The Meaning of Solitude,” from the desert hermits of the early church to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s vision of the transcendent soul. What is problematic about the tendency among certain religious people and writers to romanticize solitude? What is the meaning of solitude in the contemporary American imagination?

Emerson, Thoreau, and their contemporaries developed a profound critique of the institutions of social control—the forms of surveillance and coercion that left “man,” as Emerson put it, “clapped into jail by his consciousness.” But they responded by calling on their followers to practice a discipline of ascetic individualism that, in the end, had a great deal in common with the fantasies of solitude that had been developed by the prison reformers. In a letter to his aunt, Emerson once allowed himself to dream of “a protestant monastery.” It’s a phrase that could easily have been applied to the New Hampshire State Prison, which Emerson visited in the winter of 1828.

Last fall in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande wrote about long-term solitary confinement as a form of torture. In your book you talk about prison reformers’ unwavering faith in solitary confinement as a means to spiritual rebirth. You show how such efforts at rehabilitation “required harming inmates in peculiar ways.”  What are the particular harms of solitary confinement?   Would you say that these harms are more damaging than blatantly vengeful forms of punishment, because they are the consequences of attempts to humanize prisoners? Do you think solitary confinement is a form of torture?

When he visited Eastern State Penitentiary, Charles Dickens wrote, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” For nearly two centuries, solitary confinement has harmed and killed inmates, often under the pretense of reforming them. “Torture” is a contested word with many definitions, and I sometimes wonder if it has the effect of normalizing the kinds of violence that lie outside its boundaries. There is no doubt that solitary confinement is a degrading and violent practice.

In the book, you discuss how the history of incarceration in America has been shaped by the debate over two approaches to criminal justice—one that is motivated by vengeance and one that aspires to reform criminals. In “Ordinary Injustice,” you argue that the debate between vengeance and reform has lost its vitality. How so?  And what has replaced vengeance and reform in public debates on prisons today?

From the founding of the prison system forward, there was a serious, lively debate about the purpose of punishment: Should the prison be devoted to vengeance, making criminals pay with their time and their blood for their transgressions against society? Or should it be devoted to reform, mending broken lives and making better citizens? Each position has its contradictions, but each links punishment to a certain theory of justice. Can we say the same thing about the vast, sprawling prison system of our own time? Some see it as the triumph of a vengeful ideal of punishment. But I wonder if our system has any connection, anymore, to the ideal of justice. The prison has become a warehouse for the poor and the undesirable. It seems to be built on fear and confusion, not on any shared sense of justice.

Many rehabilitation programs have been farmed out to religious organizations. What do you think of the shift from government-funded (presumably secular) rehabilitation programs to faith-based programs?

In a local, practical sense, I tend to favor reforms that would make living conditions more tolerable and expand access to education and treatment inside prisons. But I remain deeply suspicious of the premise that prisons can or should be used to force inmates through a process of spiritual mortification and resurrection.

How have Christian views of resurrection and mortification shaped American prisons?

The modern penitentiary, with its dual aims of punishment and rehabilitation, was conceived around the turn of the nineteenth century, and it was shaped by the prevailing ideologies of its time. When the reformers imagined the transformation of the criminal into a model citizen, they used the language of spiritual redemption. The Quakers, for example, were deeply involved in the movement that produced Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary; its system of full-time solitary confinement was thought to cultivate reflection and penitence. The evangelical and temperance movements shared an ideal of personal conversion. Monastic traditions, too, informed both prison architecture and the legal concept of “civil death,” which stripped away convicts’ civil rights. The penitentiary was supposed to be a place of redemptive suffering on the way to a spiritual and civil resurrection.

What do you mean when you say that prisoners at Eastern State Penitentiary were buried alive?

The English novelist Charles Dickens used the phrase “buried alive” to describe the inmates at Eastern State after his visit in 1842. While he was there, he met a prisoner-poet called Harry Hawser who used a similar phrase—Hawser wrote that that the captive in the penitentiary was “fated to a living tomb.” Both of these lines belong to a tradition of protest literature that has used the imagery of live burial to expose the hidden suffering of inmates behind prison walls. What I found more surprising, as I looked into the ideology of the reformers who built the penitentiary system, was that this humanitarian movement also used a language of living death to describe what inmates would go through. They used the legal fiction of “civil death” and the ceremonial violence of mortification, which they saw as a precondition for the prisoner’s redemption and resurrection into society as a new, rehabilitated subject.

What do words like penitentiary and correction mean about how prison reformers imagined prisons in the 19th century?

We sometimes forget that the root word of penitentiary is penitence, a concept that binds the prison system to a long history of ascetic suffering.

In the book, you critique the humanizing language of 19th-century prison reformers. What have been the consequences of reformers’ calls for more “humane” prison institutions?  What, if anything, is the contemporary incarnation of “humanitarian intervention” in prisons and the language of prison reform?  What alternatives do you envision?

“Humanity” was a key word for the reformers who built the first penitentiaries. They insisted that inmates should be viewed not as aliens or monsters but as members of the common circle of humanity, to be treated with at least some minimum standard of sympathy and charity. Today, protests against torture and against the most brutal prison conditions often are often made in the language of human rights. As I worked on The Prison and the American Imagination, I became concerned with this paradox: The ideal of human rights was part of the ideology of the movement that built the prison system in the first place. Again, I would not oppose any humanizing reform in practice, but I will also argue that, in the long run, the goal of shrinking or dismantling the prison system should be distinguished from the dream of incarceration as a humanizing discipline. I don’t mean to undermine the work of human-rights advocacy; I do mean to honor the depth and seriousness of the problem of the prison by not making it appear simpler than it really is.

How has our penal system been shaped by the legacy of slavery, and how does that relate to the fact that half of America’s prisoners are African American?

This is a huge question; it would take a whole shelf of books to answer it in full. In the South, the transition from the antebellum plantation to the Jim Crow “prison farm” makes it clear that the penal system became an instrument of racial oppression in the aftermath of Emancipation. In places like Mississippi’s Parchman and Louisiana’s Angola, the labor discipline and dehumanizing violence of slavery were reinvented under the sign of criminal justice. But even in the North, where prison reform was linked to the antislavery movement, there was a racism in the administration of the penal system before the Civil War. In The Prison and the American Imagination, I discuss a report by a Philadelphia physician who determined that black inmates at Eastern State were dying at a disproportionately high rate because they were racially incapable of reflection and self-discipline. In any case, the incarceration of African Americans on a massive scale in today’s prisons is a scandal. The penal system is obviously racist, and the comparison to the old plantations is irresistible.

What do you make of the rapidly accelerating expansion of the American prison system in the last forty years?

Since the 1970s, the American prison has become a vast, sprawling thing, one of the largest institutions of human captivity in the history of the world. There are many forces behind this expansion—the so-called War on Drugs; the rise of modern conservatism, with its “tough on crime” ideology; the disappearance of social welfare programs; the discovery by corporate interests that there is big money to be made in the prison system. One of the ironies of recent American history is that conservatism, which claims to be the enemy of big government programs, has produced this enormous, incredibly expensive system that state budgets can hardly afford to sustain. The best account I have read is by the Berkeley sociologist Loic Wacquant, in Punishing the Poor, a book that shows how the dismantling of welfare and other social programs has forced huge numbers of people into the prisons and jails.

Along with the political and economic crisis of the prison system today, I’m interested in what fantasies of justice the institution might be imagined to fulfill. Since the founding of the prison in the nineteenth century, there has been a debate between vengeance and reform—between those who want the institution to punish offenders harshly and those who want it to treat them with mildness and humanity in the hopes of rehabilitating them. Some have suggested that today’s system represents the triumph of vengeance over reform. I’m not so sure that there is any connection, anymore, between the institution and a common ideal of justice that could be widely shared by the public. The more I learn about it, the more I think that the contemporary prison is different not just in size, but in kind, from the penitentiary system of an earlier time.

What is the role of imagination in how Americans view prisons today?

Those of us who resent the injustices of the prison system sometimes like to believe that, if people only knew how violent and degrading prisons are, they would rise up and call for reform. The truth is that the violence and degradation of prisons are topics of endless public fascination. There is no end to the representation of prisons on television, in the movies, and in journalism. But there is no widespread, mainstream resistance movement. I suspect that the prison has become so disconnected from any common sense of justice that these stories and images are mainly a sensational form of entertainment

What do the publication of prisoners’ writing and the production of prison documentaries (in photography, film, and musical recordings of prison songs) show about the representation of prisons in American public culture? What do you make of the proliferation of prison writing and arts programs?

Of all the varieties of rehabilitation and education programs offered to inmates, none could be closer to my heart than these workshops in the arts. In my book and in my teaching, I do my best to honor writings by prisoners and ex-prisoners, from a little-known nineteenth-century poet who used the pseudonym “Harry Hawser” to contemporary authors like Jimmy Santiago Baca and Victor Hassine. I am not quite comfortable with the boundary that is sometimes drawn around the category of “prison literature.” I try to show how prison writing overlaps with and intersects with writings about prisons from the world at large.

In an interview with Religion Dispatches you said you wish you’d have paid closer attention in the book to writings by and about incarcerated women. Why?

I did discuss a few examples of writings by and about imprisoned women, but much of my attention was devoted to how reformers and others imagined the ideal prisoner, and the ideal prisoner was almost always presumed to be a man. Both the harsh discipline of solitary confinement and the promise of a return to full citizenship were thought to be inappropriate for women. But the more I learn about the history of the incarceration of women, the more I think it illuminates, by contrast, the peculiar kinds of masculinity attributed to male inmates. Meanwhile, the formal and informal confinement of women, from the prison and the reformatory to the nightmarish domestic space described in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is part of the long captivity narrative of American history.

In some of your public readings, you’ve gotten flack from activists who criticize your work on prisons as too scholarly to effect real changes in the system. How do you respond?

I don’t believe that scholarship is the enemy of activism. Since at least the 1960s, there has been a deep, mutually sustaining relationship between the two, embodied by people like Angela Davis, Michel Foucault, Erving Goffman, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. I’ve been involved in various ways with the movements for criminal justice reform, death penalty abolition, and immigrants’ rights, and I have written for activist papers like the New Haven Advocate. The Prison and the American Imagination is something else, a work of historical research and cultural criticism. I don’t flatter myself that such a book is going to bring down the system. I do hope to honor the seriousness of the problem of the prison by not making it appear simpler than it really is.

What are the buddhas of American prisons—ideas that may lead us to enlightened complacency about incarceration—and which of these prison buddhas do you want to kill?

The fantasy that society should transform offenders into model citizens by locking them away in prisons.

What are you working on now that you’re on sabbatical?

I’m writing something called “The Oracle and the Curse,” about the public culture of justice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My first book focused on punishment; here, I’m looking more closely at criminal trials and other ceremonial scenes where justice is in dispute. On one hand, I’m interested in how courts represent themselves as the voice of the law; as the English legal scholar William Blackstone put it in the 1760s, judges are supposed to be the “living oracles” of timeless customs founded on the laws of nature. On the other hand, offenders have also appealed to “higher law” to exonerate themselves in the court of public opinion. “The crimes of this guilty land,” John Brown wrote on the day he was hanged, “will never be purged away but with blood.”

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.