(First, some personal context: My dissertation topic will be on the phenomenon of inmate wildfire fighting. To prepare for this, I have four comprehensive exam topics that I’ll write in September, for which I’m preparing by reading tons of stuff about each topic. Two are relevant to this essay, and are probably why I am writing it to begin with. One comprehensive exam topic is called ‘Masculinity.’ The other is called ‘The Categorization of Criminals and Heroes.’)
About six months ago, I was on tumblr and saw that someone reblogged something from Hot and Busted. I clicked on the link and discovered that the website is an aggregation of hot guys’ (subjective to the owner of the website, I guess) mug shots. My friend, a fellow anthropologist, and I both noticed that the website mostly featured images of white males – the few black men were mostly celebrities, like Tyler the Creator and a historic mug shot of MLK Jr. We ruminated on it a little, were mildly disturbed by the existence of it, but concluded that at least the website’s owner was objectifying white criminality, rather than walk the much trodden black-guy-with-neck-tattoos-is-hot-because-he’s-bad territory. I noted that a lot of the dudes on this website had charges of drug possession, a few with other non-violent charges. A lot of them look stoned as hell in their mug shots. What I saw was mostly, on the spectrum of acceptable immorality, the type of crimes we can forgive.
A few days ago the mug shot of Jeremy Meeks went viral. As most people with the internet and/or TV know, he got caught in a multi-agency sting to arrest active gang members on weapons charges. After the Stockton Police Department Facebook page posted his mug shot (I could, and maybe should write an article just about this very action) and it garnered a viral-level amount of views and comments, the whole world had something – mostly pretty concise things like “dayuuummmn” or “ew no way” – to say about it. I suppose I’ll now include myself in that group.......
For the rest of the article, visit PopAnth and read on!
I was looking through some emails today and came across the very first "thick description" I wrote for an anthropology class when I was but a wee undergraduate at the U of A. For those who don't know, what we call thick description in anthropological writing is the act/process of being somewhere and simply taking it all in. So if you're somewhere doing research, it is important to recognize both who and what is around you - from the ground you're walking on, to the seat you're sitting in, to the clothes and shoes on (or off) the people around you, to the noises, and the smells, and the sensual world that envelops you. This anthropologist named Clifford Geertz (and others, too) said that this sort of "thick" description is important, because the social world can be thought of as a web of significance. Even something that seems unimportant may be the thing that makes the whole world tick. The assignment was to go somewhere and observe, with an anthropologist's eye, what was happening around us. I remember being really proud of this little piece of writing, even though this was before I understood that thick description wasn't supposed to include my personal opinions or assumptions. It still makes me happy, because I can remember sitting on the bus to the county jail (where I decided to do the assignment) and thinking, "If this is anthropology, I'm in."
Maybe I should not have done this. Maybe I shouldn’t have put on perfume, or worn this shirt. But I am here, so I might as well write. It’s running late, and a group grows larger around the designated stop for bus 23, destination Laos center. I will not ride this bus to its terminus; instead I will take it to a stop called “Silverlake/County Jail.”
At 11:53, 8 minutes later than scheduled, the bus comes. Getting off are people that look tired, maybe, or distraught. Or maybe they just look like they didn’t want to ride the bus this particular Saturday, and had to. I stand in a line of twenty or so people. Two men motion for me to go ahead of them. Both of these men are wearing Vietnam veteran caps. I nod, and take my place, waiting to board.
I choose to sit in the raised portion of the bus towards the back. These seats are not padded, and face towards each other. The reason escapes me as to why this portion is raised, but for all intents and purposes, it fits my needs. Four seats away from me, as well as directly across from me, two mothers hold infants close to them. The women are dressed in lace tops and tight jeans, and have no carriers or diaper bags. One has a bag full of magazines and soap from Walgreens. The infants are both asleep.
The seats are hard, and grey. As I look down at the lowered portion of the bus, I see another woman holding a Snapple bottle, with her eyes closed. She is wearing pink high heels and large, gold earrings. I imagine her earlobes will be sore later. The two Vietnam vets are gripping the poles of the bus, and when we leave the station and move quickly away from downtown Tucson, one of them holds his head and rocks slightly. Perhaps he is about to trigger. I rehearse my counseling bit in my head. I know I have jumped to conclusions, when rather suddenly, he pulls out a picture from a brown, faded leather wallet and shows it to a stranger. It is too far away to hear what they are saying. The photo is passed around to another man, then the woman with the pink heels and Snapple bottle. I wished I were down in the lowered portion of the bus so I could hear who this photographed child was. At the next stop, a woman and her school aged daughter board. This child runs to the veteran and kisses him, and sits on his lap. I believe it is the child in the picture. They were - the veteran, his daughter and his granddaughter - eventually to get out of bus at the jail. A Saturday family outing.
The scenery changes to a bilingual one. Just less than ten minutes have elapsed from downtown Tucson, and mesquite trees have given way to taquerias and vacant lots. There are mesquite trees here, too, I suppose, but they look different when their branches are intertwined with plastic bags blown up from the wind. A man and his two sons board the bus, talking car-talk. The man sits down in the seat beside me, blocking the view of one of the mothers with the sleeping child. The man points out car after car in the used lots we pass. The son asks what kind they are, and the father responds, listing obscure details of the model, the engine type, and the price of the transmission. How fast it goes, this type of thing. The children are far apart in age, it seems, with the elder son being sometime in high school, and the younger one being no older than 10. They stop talking when one of the infants on the bus begins to cry. Then the man looks over at me and says, “prison two days in a row, I guess its gotta be a bad week for me.” I’m not sure what to say, so I just say, “wow.” We passed a car lot that has signs in Spanish, some of which are translated to English. One of those translations reads ‘Got a Job? Get a Car HERE!’ The older son sees this, and asks his dad, “Dad, could you try and get a car there? Over there, dad?” The father doesn’t here his son’s quiet voice over the din of the bus engine.
I ask the father if the stop is coming up soon. It’s been about twenty minutes. He nods and asks whom I’m visiting. I feel foolish and voyeuristic and I say a friend. He smiles and puts his arm behind my seat, which I noticed earlier was riddled with stale pink gum. “I don’t bite,” he said, and I reassured him I wasn’t thinking that. In fact, I felt it was a gesture of mutual experience, or understanding. Both mothers and infants, along with now about 30 other people, are slowly standing. I follow suit, and when the bus stops, every single person exits. Not one remains. The photographed child holds her mother’s hand while they wait for the veteran grandfather to slowly descend the steps. I climb down to the high curb, and the car-knowledgeable father looks towards me, expecting me to walk with them. “You better hurry, its busy on Saturdays,” he says. I tell him I need to smoke a cigarette before I go in. I am a liar.
I cross the street, and wait for the northbound bus to come. Already, a woman is crying at the bus stop. I sit next to another Vietnam veteran. If public transportation is a microcosm of any given society, I have sorely misread my own. I ask him where he’s headed, and he says back home. He just visited a friend who got busted for violating his parole. We talk about how he got caught under an army tank for two and half days after being shot in the stomach twice in a place called ‘rock city’ in Vietnam. He told me how, when the hospital plane landed in the USA, students threw eggs and lettuce at him and told him to go back to Vietnam, you baby killer. He is in a wheel chair, one leg amputated and the other atrophied from disuse. His chest is barrel shaped and his breathing is heavy. He says the VA treats him well.
I sit in front of the weeping woman on the way home. The seats face in a different direction on this bus, forward, and more secluded. I wonder if Suntran does this on purpose, so people leaving jail would have more privacy. I doubt it. I wonder if the crying woman is thankful she does not have to face anyone during this. A man next to me is carrying a bag full of rolled white socks. I ask him what they are for, and he says they are for his brother. They didn’t let him take them to him, but they let him keep them. That doesn’t always happen, I guess.
This bus ride is more somber. Less crowded. There is much less anticipatory camaraderie. No pictures being passed around this time. The route is exactly the same as it was on the way to the jail. I sit close to the Veteran and I listen to his labored breath. His wheelchair allows him to recline, and he does so and closes his eyes. I wonder what the bus is like at 3 pm, when visitation hours end. The shocks on this bus are better than the first. The engine noise is always the same – loud. Loud enough to block out, for example, someone quietly crying.
When I get off the bus again downtown, a man is standing with his daughter, holding a pink foam crown that says happy birthday. The little girl is wearing a pink dress to match. I wonder if they will let him take the hat in to the visitation room. It seems to be for the little girl, so I hope they do.
-- September, 2007
I was staring at my bookshelf this morning, as I usually do in the early hours before I really open my eyes to the world outside of screens and lamp-lit rooms. This time, I was looking for a book. I had just read Margaret Atwood’s review of David Eggers’s new book The Circle, in which she determined that Eggers was writing about facebook, and this new social media world we live in, as a sort of prison. She situated Eggers’s new book within other literary prisons, of course Orwell’s 1984, but also Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim living in a glass cage always looked upon as an object, as an otherworldly animal by his alien captors. These types of prisons, she wrote, were all shot through with stares and machines, never hidden, maybe exalted, but always inescapable. Reading this, I had an inkling thought.
We anthropologists always talk, and talk and talk and talk, about Foucault’s panopticon, which as we know was actually Bentham’s idea first. You know, self governance by being watched and watching each other, all that jazz. It’s interesting, I thought, that even in a class I took called “Prison Nation Time” - taught by an academic who finds little value in Foucault and instead reads Bentham and Gramsci and Aristotle - even there we never really looked to any other written genre as a viable alternative to finding prisons, those cages in our literary midst.
We defined prison in an interesting way in that class, which I intend to mine for my dissertation - prison not as a “culture” or an “other” or even an actual place. Instead, we talked about prison as, for all intents and purposes, the abject requirement of the nation, the constitutive outside to the moral inside. It is, actually, not even distinguishable as “outside,” because for those who are locked up, getting out is never an option. Inside and outside, as a binary concept, is erased, while the deontology-as-necessary-for-ontology stays in tact. I haven’t yet figured out what neatly takes that analytic place, but I think it has something to do with folding up past and present, there and here, moral and immoral, into some kind of way more complicated thing.
So, OK, I thought. I have a penchant for Vonnegut, so when Atwood referenced him, I pulled down some of his books off the shelf. What about Vonnegut’s cages? He actually writes about this in Breakfast of Champions as well as Slaughterhouse. Vonnegut liked cages. Like this quote, about the bird in the gilded cage:
Then he thought about what Bill himself might want. It was easy to guess. “Bill,” he said, “I like you so much, and I am such a big shot in the Universe, that I will make your three biggest wishes come true.” He opened the door of the cage, something Bill couldn’t have done in a thousand years.
Bill flew over to the windowsill. He put his little shoulder against the glass. there was just one layer of glass between Bill and the great out-of-doors. Although Trough was in the storm window business, he had no storm windows on his own abode.
“Your second wish is about to come true,” said Trout, and he again did something which Bill could never have done. he opened the window. But the opening of the window was such an alarming business to the parakeet that he flew back to his cage and hopped inside.
Trout closed the door of the cage and latched it. “That’s the most intelligent use of three wishes I ever heard of,” he told the bird. “You made sure you’d still have something worth wishing for—to get out of the cage.”
There’s this trope that just keeps emerging in Vonnegut, the see-through cage, the freedom that seems there (it’s glass and zoo-like, in Slaughterhouse Five) but never actually is. And then there’s the matter of time and space as it relates to being trapped in them. Vonnegut has some stuff to say about that, too. From Slaughterhouse:
Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.
The serenity prayer’s a nice touch, Vonnegut, especially when we’re talking about prison here. But anyway. I could find a million quotes from Orwell, too, or Atwood, or LeGuin, or Gibson, or TS Eliot, or Borges or….
The prison isn’t new. The prison industrial complex, in fact, isn’t new. Nor is the panopticon actually the way people in prison conceive of their experience (probably because the idea never took off, officials opting instead for entire islands as penal colonies), though of course governmentality is there, it haunts us all. I guess all I’m saying is that I want to look at prison not just as Foucault does, not just as anthropologists or academics do. I want to see it as glass, as gilded, as all-seeing, as past and present and future all rolled up into one. I want to look to fiction, because as Margaret Atwood says in her review,
Social media is in part a performance, as is everything “social” that human beings do; but what happens when that brightly lit arena expands so much that there is no green room in which the mascara can be removed, no cluttered, imperfect back stage where we can be ‘“ourselves”? What happens to us if we must be “on” all the time? Then we’re in the twenty-four-hour glare of the supervised prison. To live entirely in public is a form of solitary confinement.
What happens when public becomes solitary, the prison becomes us, and we all become a little more monstrous?
For my paper on inmate firefighting programs as both the trap (neoliberalism’s refining spirit, governmentality’s pervasive reach) and the working of the trap (physical labor as personal transformation, friendship and becoming forged in risk), I’m using three different epigraphs. One for the introduction, the first section, and the second section. They are:
I like this as an intro, because as referenced in my earlier post about prisons as not just spaces but times, there is a futility in trying to change these things. But there may be room to move within them, on the edges of them.
This is setting up the section on prison work programs fitting nicely into the neoliberal mode of positive governmentality. That is, yay, work programs shape you into “productive” members of society, look at how you’ve paid for your sins! There’s so many quotes from inmates that can be interpreted as a straight forward performance of this neoliberalism in action.
I don’t just want to explain how prison work programs, and the people that do them, are enacting neoliberalism. That’s boring and easy and lazy. After recognizing this as a fact, I want to spend some time thinking about how the work done out on the fire lines may actually be transformative in a meaningful way for individuals who do it, it may serve as some kind of “becoming.” I like how Nabokov writes “captivatingly majestic,” I like the use of captive there, talking about a man who is sentenced to die the next day. In that book you can’t tell the difference between his dreams and reality, the oppression and the freedom, and that’s what I want to explore.
When he walked into my office, I was surprised to see how tall he was. He wore a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt, his hair slicked back in a ponytail. He had headphones on, and the music was loud enough that I could hear it – heavy metal, full blast. I had read his application that he had filled out in the waiting room, so I knew he was only 23 years old, that he had lived his whole life on the Tohono O’odham reservation until he went to prison at age 19, time served for possession with intent to sell. Yet these were the only things I gleaned from his application, because the lines under the questions I had crafted to get a sense of what I could help him with, What hobbies do you have? What were your favorite subjects in school? If you could describe an ideal Saturday, what would it be?, were filled in with just one word, over and over again: No. No. No.
I was only a few years older than he was, but his height and demeanor belied his young age. I asked him to remove his headphones, which he did, begrudgingly. What unfolded afterwards was, at the time, what I considered my first failure at my job. I had worked as a Mentoring Associate for over a year, matching volunteer mentors with individuals who had just been released from prison – some re-entering after a year, some after two decades. Yet after dozens of clients, he was the first I felt helpless about, the first I couldn’t imagine a positive future for. In contrast to him, most of the men and women I met in my office were excited. Our introductions came within 24 hours of their release, and they spent our first meetings revealing their enthusiasm about starting over, staying clean, changing for good this time. I supported this self-affirming ritual. As they explained their job prospects, the support of their sponsors, and their general optimism about starting anew, I responded with “What you did was in the past, you did your time. This felony isn’t your identity. It’s just an obstacle that you can overcome.”
But with him, the young man with the heavy metal music, there was none of this unbridled self-motivation. Monosyllabism was his forte, until I became frustrated enough that I finally broke my thus-strained professionalism.
I spewed, “Do you even want to do this program? It’s not required, you know.”
“I just want to go back to prison,” he said, his first multi-word sentence since his arrival.
Less than a day after he got out, this was what he wanted. He had no hopes of a better future in Tucson, no dreams about picking himself up by his bootstraps. He wanted back in. I asked him why, and silence filled the room. I shifted in my seat. I didn’t want to fill the pregnant pause with my motivational interviewing techniques. I only wanted to begin to understand.
Finally, he muttered, “I want to go back because I know people in there. I don’t know shit out here. I sat at the bus stop to come to this appointment and a lady didn’t want to sit next to me. I don’t want to be outside. People are mean to me out here.”
He picked up his earbuds and pressed play on his cd player, as if our time together was over. And it was. I let him go.
“‘Peace, pot, microdot. It’s just a phrase old hippies use.’
'How are you doing?' 'Good, except I just found out the world was going to end in 2012.'
Now that I know I’m leaving this job, I feel compelled to write again. I feel ashamed I haven’t written down the things that have and haven’t mattered. After you immerse yourself in a world for a while, it seems normal. These people I’ve talked to day in and day out seem like people I’ve known for a while. Stories I’ve heard before. Will I ever forget how to talk to the recently released? They are still in prison, some of them. Prisons in their minds. Many of those that have sat across my desk are not memorable, maybe because they think they don’t need to be remembered. Monosyllabism is the quickest way to freedom - freedom from connection, others. I am the other, and have never pretended not to be. I have to google ‘peace pot and microdot’ because of my lack of experience with LSD, with prison jargon. Maybe because I’ve been here long enough, I have heard enough stories of Hep C and running the yard and write ups for not wanting to work in the kitchen (dish soap is harsh, and you can’t sneak salt into the food) - maybe all these things turn into just another day on the job. But how about the people that tell me these stories? Some of them recount prison stories with pride, some with shame, some with marked indifference. Some refuse to share these stories all together. And here I am, the benevolent voyeur, trying to pry betterness out of them. I tell them that this was their past, not their identity, that they have changed. Most of them agree, repeating it. But those who agree, and then up in prison again, how about them? Do they remember lessons they’ve learned, out here, in there? In there, out here. Again, again. The rat race, the safe place. The cycle. It all seems obvious, that they should never have been inside. Is that the final lesson I will learn? That no matter what people say to get out and stay out, it is what we as society does to them to get them there in the first place?”
—Written March of 2010, the day after I found out I was going to grad school, after a few week hiatus from writing at the job.
ok. this is hard to process. first of all, whoever was the creative director behind this photo shoot needs to understand that not all prisoners have scabies, nor are they locked in a rat infested cell in a boat’s dungeon in the 18th century. secondly, drunk driving is a terrible thing, but i agree with previous comments about racist, prisonist (my new made up word), fear-driven, disgustingly insensitive ‘awareness’ campaigns like this one.
3 populations come to mind when i try to say what i need to say about this image, all populations of which i have had some contact with at their most vulnerable, and who i assume would be hurt by this advertisement: 1) sexual assault survivors, whose trauma should never be marginalized into a billboard, 2) former prisoners, who, i repeat, DO NOT LOOK LIKE THIS (nor usually act like the ad suggests), and perhaps most importantly, 3) the aware, conscious public who has been mentally degraded by assuming it would buy into this not-even-stereotypical fear mongering campaign and this terrible, terrible attempt at public health.
i am now researching the makers of this advertisement and writing a letter. it will have big words, this letter, but not so big of words as to guarantee that the reader understands how mistaken they were in thinking they could get away with this, this great assault on all sorts of human dignity.