Friday, January 15, 2010

Part SoapBox, Part Book Review, All Ladysquad!

A Note on the Text:
Once again: Long. Does it make up for it if it's extremely informative? Hm.

Ladies and jellyspoons! I just finished reading Wally Lamb's Couldn't Keep It To Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters, and OH MAN do I recommend it. It's a few years old now, published in 2003, but it certainly packs All Kinds Of Punch. Parts of it are funny, parts of it are gut-wrenchingly, sad, and it makes you feel--well, complicated. As you may have gathered from the title, it's a collection of stories from incarcerated women at the York Correctional Institution, compiled and edited by Wally Lamb during the Writing Class he (volunteer) teaches there.

It is an excellent introduction for people who aren't quite ready to dive into the Prison Reform movement the way I did, rather naively, when I jumped unprepared into that "Radical Theories of Punishment" class with Angela Davis. It's a deeply fraught issue, especially when I think of it in context of my sister--a lawyer in New Orleans. Last year, she worked for the DA's office in a parish just across the lake from the city, where she assisted with criminal court cases. She would frequently call me up to report her success-- "We just won our case! This rapist who beats his wife was found guilty! Next week we're going to push for either life in prison or the death penalty!" On the one hand, hella Hooray, Rapists & Beaters are definitely BadBadBad.

On the other hand, fuck! Destroying this man, either by taking away his civil body or his actual body, doesn't actually fix the patriarchal system which encourages this behaviour. It won't make the rape victim un-raped, or the wife un-beaten. It fixes the immediate, personal issue, but it doesn't change the social constructs at play. It might, arguably, even make it worse, because it tells the Individuals In Power that they have the right to judge who gets to die, who gets to be undead, and who gets to actually live.

(continued after the jump)

Set aside the rapist example for a minute. We'll come back to it, but right now we have to think about a criminal that will make you less squeamish. Drug possession or trafficking, theft, assault, let's think that type of crime. Badass movie-style crime, you can get behind that, right? Okay, so they're still wrong. But! Who is more likely to need to steal? Who is more likely to live in certain neighborhoods with high crime rates? Which groups are more likely to lead lives that drive them to heavy drinking and rage? Oh, what? What's that? You think that this might be an issue of class and poverty? And that certain social groups are more ostracized based on certain factors, on social bias and institutionalized -isms*?

Well, I think you're hella fucking right. I know that I quote this all over the place, but in class one day Angela Davis explained the system like this:

It is illegal to sleep under the bridge. It is equally illegal for all persons to sleep under the bridge, and anyone who sleeps under the bridge faces the same punishment. However, only certain kinds of people are forced to sleep under the bridge based on their circumstances.

She was, I believe, paraphrasing Anatole France (The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. The Red Lily, 1894) but I like her explanation the most, especially because it lends itself to the continuation--all those convicted of sleeping under the bridge are (theoretically) subject to equal punishment, but not all those serving that punishment are equally punished.

Which brings me back to Wally Lamb! I'm going to use just one story from the book, because I don't want to ruin all the stories for anyone who does want to read it, from the section "Faith, Power, and Pants" by Bonnie Foreshaw.

Okay, I'll admit that part of me picked this one because it fits with Georgia Nicholson-style imposition of "Pants!" to make things funny (Couldn't Keep It To My Pants, by Wally Lamb--see? Instant funny) but mostly because she is the perfect example of how an equal punishment can be unequal.

Bonnie is Jamaican, and after what she describes as a "wild" youth, she found solace in a very devout Rastafarian faith. This included, among other things, not cutting her hair, covering her head and Not Wearing Pants. No pants! Only skirts. This was fine at first, but the facility decided to impose greater and greater restrictions (ostensibly, just to assert power, because someone higher up decided so). They took away a lot of privileges and then--they imposed a very strict dress-code, including pants.

Bonnie asked her supervisors weeks in advance about her concerns--her concerns being: according to my religion, God will forsake me if I put on those pants--and she was ignored. She asked multiple officers multiple times, began to have anxiety attacks, nightmares, depression and general trauma. On the day when the pants arrived, she refused, telling them that another inmate, a jew, was never forced to eat pork, and she should be given equal consideration. As punishment for her continued refusal, they sent her to Solitary Confinement (please do not get me started on Solitary Confinement. What a fucking nightmare--Angela Davis has made me relentless about this issue. It is inhuman to stick people in dark boxes! I do not care if they are killers or rapists! It will only make them worse! Do not put people in dark boxes! Don't do it! Don't!). Eventually they compromised--well, sorta. The Deputy Warden offered to put the pants on her, that way God could only get mad at him.

What. The. Fuck, y'all.
They eventually reversed their decision, but not before she'd worn pants for a good ten years or so, which had led to therapy and lots of prayers for forgiveness. [Unrelated, but still infuriating: she's serving a 45 year sentence for First Degree Murder, though Lamb notes that she should have been charged with manslaughter, because it was an accident. Genderclassracebiaswhaaaat!]

So, hell, if the system is grounded in a Judeo-Christian bias, it alienates non-Judeo Christians. If the institution is founded on a masculine system, it alienates women. If it is founded on a gender-normative system, it alienates queer and trans-folks. Do you see? Do you see how a 10 year sentence for a white, hetero, male-identified male is different than a 10 year sentence for a white, queer, MTF transman? Do you see how the "no visitors!" rule differently affects a woman with children?

It's an incredibly flawed system. The idea of the American prison (which, btdubs, totally revolutionized the punitive system the world over) is founded on the idea that the Civilian has rights, and that to punish the Naughty Civilian, you take those rights away. It doesn't take into consideration that different groups have different access to those "inalienable rights." It also fails to recognize real and tangible differences in identity that affect the way that that person encounters and experiences prison.

[[ALSO, something to chew on after I've finished: Think about slavery. Those slaves weren't people, right? They couldn't vote, they didn't have rights, they were just farm tools! Except... They could be tried and sent to jail for committing crimes? Wait a minute--you can't try a plow for murder! "So what you're saying, Savanna, is that they could only become legally recognized human beings if they committed a crime? That the government, in a way, encouraged them to commit crimes so that they could be equal?" Yes, kiddies, that is what I am saying. It is unrelated to my current rant, other than the fact that it is Also Fucked Up.]]

Right on. So, I think that Wally Lamb's book does a good job of giving you varied inside peeks at that aspect of inequality, as well as other interesting and provocative ideas. I recommend it, and then I recommend (1) Golden Gulag, (2) Inventing the Savage, and (3) Global Lockdown, for anyone interested in more prison theory. I also recommend Angela Davis. In general.

Obviously I don't think that we should just set everyone free and let them do their thing. Obviously, there are some stone-cold crazies who need a different kind of help, (and don't ask me how to reform That Particular Institution, because I Got Nothin') but I'd say generally that we could go a long way by changing the way we react to crime--what we do now reinforces a hegemonic system; it only encourages violence and hierarchies. There is a great difference between revenge and restitution, and much more between revenge and reform.

*Oh come on, you know the -isms. Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Classism, Ablism.

Z: I'd be interested to hear about that Yoga-For-Prisoners project you were doing freshman year in this context. It seems like it would go hand in hand with Lamb's Writing-For-Prisoners scheme--you know, treating the convict like a person, a person who reacts to the stresses and catalysts of their actual life, using the means and the tools that are available to them, and making poor decisions because of it.

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