what dreams may come

Via Ivy Onyeador at UCLA, I’ve come across this inspiring essay by Walidah Imarisha, who talks about the importance of science fiction in helping us envision social change:

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.

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2 Responses to what dreams may come

  1. Eric says:

    I have to admit, one of my first thoughts reading this is to wonder how we fit the neutralizing function of incarceration into things.

    I come at this, to be clear, as an assistant public defender with more than seventeen years experience, who came into this job believing firmly that the primary function of “punishment” should be rehabilitation, who came into this job extremely skeptical of the ideas of deterrence and opposed to the notion of retribution. And I remain committed to the idea of rehabilitation, and skeptical of deterrence, and opposed to retribution. And I do believe the prison system(s) as presently broken are irredeemably broken.

    But I’ve also come to appreciate that there are people in the world who are not salvageable, and not “mentally ill” in any useful sense (e.g. some may or may not meet a clinical definition of psychopathy, and psychopathy may or may not constitute a mental illness depending who you ask); and since I don’t believe it’s moral or proper for the state to murder them, I don’t know what we do about them. It’s not about what anyone deserves–I still, after all these years, agree with Hamlet that if you gave every man what he deserved, few would escape a whipping; but there are people, tragically, who really can’t be trusted in society no matter what you try to do for them, for whom being returned to society is not just a threat to potential victims, but a threat to themselves (after all, there will be awful consequences for them as perpetrators, too, though so many of us may naturally find it harder to muster sympathy).

    I don’t write this to disavow an abolitionist dream. I still believe, as exhausted as I am, that you aim higher than you can hit because that’s the only way you’ll ever get any higher at all. I still naively adore that Star Trek vision of the future where there’s no money and crime is a mental aberration treated by beaming a light in your eye (though I suppose you can find a certain horror in Trek‘s “rehabilitation colonies” for the criminally insane).

    But I also have to confess seeing a certain tragic naivete in Ms. Imarisha’s post: she’s thinking clearly of the vast majority of people who we put in prison because of our own incompetence and shackling to our own bigoted history: the people who are in prison for possessing substances that should be legal (or at least not illegal), those who did desperate and foolish things because society denied every reasonable opportunity that might have been offered to somebody richer or even paler, those who committed reckless and stupid acts because of the poor insight and judgement that comes with youth or perhaps because they were never taught any better by those who failed them. The people I still grieve for because I’m so often such little use in standing between them and the gnashing teeth of the machine. But even if we finally aimed high enough to keep those people safe and well, I’m afraid that there’s a subset of the population that may never fit in, and then what? I just don’t know. I just don’t.

    • thehandsomecamel says:

      Yeah — I don’t know either. In the spirit of the above I’ll tell you my most science-fictional, unlikely hopes.

      For a while I’ve contemplated a three-pronged approach. First, imprison MANY fewer people, by de-escalating the drug war, “broken windows” policing and the criminalization of youth. We could probably also get a fair distance toward that goal by reducing sentences and using alternative means of control where people remain in their communities — house arrest perhaps, and/or halfway houses. (If we wanted to be really ambitious and pie-in-the-sky, we could also de-segregate our society and rethink our school system.)

      Second, once we’ve freed up those resources, there might be a lot of people for whom we could provide a rehabilitative (or, in my framing, ritualistic) prison experience. Hopefully in most cases it wouldn’t need to eat up years or decades of a person’s life — indeed, I think the idea of “X years in prison” in proportion to the severity of a crime is hopelessly flawed. And as I suggested above, it could be a fairly severe experience. But it might also be understood, explicitly, as a sacred, purifying experience by which you expunge the social breach and regain your identity with the community. I have arrived at that idea, in part, by reading oral histories of tribal approaches to criminal behavior. Many premodern tribal units, eking out survival in an unyielding world, could not really afford to lose even one person to banishment or capital punishment. So there was often a period of ritual banishment, followed by some sort of rapprochement guided by an elder figure. (Or, sometimes, families might sit down and work out a resolution, as in Crow Dog’s Case.) One problem, of course, is that vast modern urban communities are the opposite of tight-knit; we can lose one in every fifty or sixty men at any one time and not even notice it. So there’s less incentive for us to find a way to repair the wound created by anti-social behavior. But I nonetheless try to be optimistic that there could be a cultural shift away from the purely retributive.

      Then the third part is, as you say, what to do with people who are something more — not victims of a system run amok, not (just) the desperate poor, not just hapless fools who make bad decisions. If you want my most science-fictional, imaginative view of what an ideal society might do with those people (apart from figuring out how not to produce them in the first place), I would actually say it should look a lot like my kid’s school. Which is to say, there’s a fair amount of freedom, but when interpersonal conflicts arise, there are people who can intervene, both to keep everyone safe and to help the prisoners work things out. And the process doesn’t end until people feel the problem has been resolved. I don’t know. It couldn’t work exactly the same way. But I sort of imagine a monastery, staffed by physically fearless, utterly egoless monks — people who could devote a lifetime to healing the most dangerously damaged among us. Maybe teach them to garden, or bake bread, or make beer. The point would not necessarily even be to make them safe to release, although it might happen sometimes. The point would be the process — a slow process of partial and often-reversed reclamation.

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