When we talk about a world without prisons; a world without police violence; a world where everyone has food, clothing, shelter, quality education; a world free of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism; we are talking about a world that doesn’t currently exist. But collectively dreaming up one that does means we can begin building it into existence.
Of all these, to me the most difficult to visualize is the “world without prisons,” and it’s no surprise to me that Imarisha starts her essay by saying that “[w]hen I tell people I am a prison abolitionist and that I believe in ending all prisons, they often look at me like I rode in on a unicorn sliding down a rainbow.”
I know what she means. Near the end of my Eighth Amendment class, after we’d run through the bulk of the doctrine, our professor had us read some excerpts from several philosophers exploring the concept of “decency,” which comes up occasionally in the Supreme Court opinions on prisons. Spinning out some of these philosophers’ ideas and trying to apply them to prisons in my response paper, I, too, began to feel that I was drifting toward fantasy:
Rawls’s line of thought requires something more specific than a general moral floor, though—for him, decency is a procedural floor. A decent system includes, at a minimum, some way to have one’s reasons and needs heard. In death penalty cases, perhaps the relevant system is the state or nation as a whole, and in the U.S. the right to be heard is protected under due process. But a prison is a sort of society unto itself, and Rawls’s description of the “decent” society might very well describe a decent prison, too. One can imagine a prison which provides channels for representatives of “groups” to address the administration—representatives who must be heard by an official who genuinely believes that the process accords with a “common good idea of justice.” One can also, at least in theory, imagine a prison system that allows for open dissent. But at this point we have moved so far from what our current prisons look like that I think we would have to radically rethink the purpose of prison to achieve it.
But once I’d given myself permission to “radically rethink,” I moved on to ideas that really did seem like science fiction—including a prison whose function is ritualistic rather than either punitive or deterrent:
Here I think Margalit proposes something compelling. He notes that punishment is associated with causing suffering, but that not all suffering is indecent. For Margalit humiliation (which he seems to define as an attack on human dignity) is the hallmark of indecency. Thus, suffering which does not demean a person’s dignity is not humiliating, although it may be quite painful. Margalit compares prison to basic military training and suggests that humiliation is usually present in the former but not in the latter. And, he suggests, we ought to think about whether we can find a way to make prison more like basic training—possibly quite painful and spartan, but not an affront to the prisoner’s reasonable sense of human dignity. Margalit describes basic training as an “initiation rite” and recruits as “liminal social beings” who are being transformed into full members of the society. Perhaps, he says, “we can transform prisoners into civilian ‘recruits.’”
What I find immensely attractive about Margalit’s approach is that it aims for rehabilitation—indeed, full reentry—without the scientific hubris of 20th-century attempts at the same project. For Margalit, rehabilitation might be achieved, not through top-down therapeutic tinkering, nor through aversive conditioning via brutality, but through the social mechanisms of ritual and identification with the society. In a way, Margalit’s idea is related to Kekes’s notion of rule-based conformity and identity-conferring conformity. If the traditional view is that the humiliation and torment of prison provide a powerful incentive to conform to society’s rules, Margalit’s idea is that punishment ought to bring the prisoner back into identity with society by subjecting him to a harsh, but not humiliating, ritual.
However, at least in the chapter we read, Margalit does not explain what this identity-conferring punitive ritual would look like. There are already “boot camp-style” prisons and juvenile “boot camp” diversions that are intended to instill discipline and pride through the same techniques used in military training. But they always strike me as fundamentally misconceived for at least two reasons. First, military enlistment in the U.S. is voluntary. The military has strongly resisted the idea of reinstituting the draft because it believes that volunteer soldiers train harder, are more disciplined, have more group cohesion, and fight more courageously. If correct, this suggests that an initiation rite imposed against someone’s will is not likely to be fully effective. And second, whether they start out as draftees or volunteers, soldiers are celebrated in almost every society; in the U.S., they are practically made sacred, at least in principle. Yet this is exactly the opposite of the way we think of people who have come through the prison system.
I have, candidly, no idea how to turn this general notion—a non-humiliating, even celebratory ritual for reintegration and re-identification with society—into a functional program. And many have tried and failed to imagine a more humane, rehabilitative approach to dealing with people who commit anti-social acts. But speculative fiction (what Imarisha calls “visionary fiction”) exists to fill that distance. It draws, if not the map, at least a map, against which other maps can be checked. The best SF also maps out the likely pitfalls. Even so, it remains inspiring: it makes the thrilling new idea a concrete, human-scale possibility.
While we are waiting for the future, here is something else moderately inspiring: a short documentary on a “tech incubator” program at San Quentin. The name is somewhat misleading–it’s really more of a business/enterpreneurship incubator, as many of the prisoners’ business plans are not strictly tech-related. But watching these men–some of whom have been in prison since before the internet–charged up with the idea of creating something of their own is still pretty moving. It’s especially astonishing when you realize that even the incubator program doesn’t get them access to computers–some of the men have Twitter accounts and blogs, but they have to hand-write tweets and posts that volunteers then send out for them.
The video also highlights an important, grim point: many of these men are drawn to entrepreneurship because they understand that it will be difficult to get someone to hire them after they’re released. The title, “The Last Mile,” refers to the fact that most recidivism occurs within six months of a prisoner’s release. That suggests that there might be a key period of re-adjustment and re-integration, during which the former prisoner is either able to reconnect with society or not. The incubator program, by giving the person a concrete, socially-connected goal to think about, is perhaps a way to bridge that transition. Who knows? It seems like a very modest proposal, and one assumes the documentary presents the most successful participants. But it’s one small way to think differently about our awful project of imprisoning each other.