More Harm Than Good

Legend has it that our universe is balanced on the back of a turtle of enormous girth. A related story goes:

A bright young scientist was giving a lecture on cosmology, with a smattering of physics and astronomy for good measure. As often happens, the scientist was challenged by a member of the audience who wished to clarify what to her was an obvious error. She corrected the scientist by explaining the turtle legend. The scientist replied—tolerant smile and all—asking the obvious question in an attempt at making an appeal to reason: “If the world is on the back of a turtle, what is the turtle on?” But age, and real world experience made short shrift of the scientist’s response. The nice old lady trumped reason with logic: “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” she said, “but it’s turtles all the way down!”

(“Turtles all the way down”, n.d.).

Although I was released from prison over twenty years ago, I have not left that prison; I cannot un-turn that stone. Like the turtle, I carry my prison on my back. I work and come home to what—let's call a spade a spade here—is little more than a nicely decorated, slightly roomier, prison cell. I do not socialize. I would blame this on being introverted, as I usually do for many of my peccadilloes (particularly the ones that have social implications), but after polling my friends and other people released from prison, I’ve found that it’s turtles all the way.

Once you have been in prison long enough, your cell becomes your house. You call it that—your house. It means that to you. It is one of the few places where you are safer than not—once your door locks shut. Lockdown at night is a period of mixed emotions as you make the transition from your cell as cage to your cell as house. Once you’ve been in prison a while, you are in your house before lockdown every night without fail. Some people refer to this evolution as “becoming institutionalized,” and to be clear, they mean that derogatorily. Not yet blinded by societal pressures on the outside, a prisoner knows he should take control where he can. Society lionizes evolution in other contexts, but as in all things, the doer colors the doing, and the beholder always has a jaundiced eye.

You never really get out of prison. Not if you have spent more than three years at a stretch behind bars, behind walls, behind the steel and Lexan glass. Prison crushes confidence. You are only allowed confidence in a measure sufficient to do what is expected of you.

In prison, you learn to live an ascetic life. Possessions are things you will have to carry with you when you are inevitably forced to move—from one room to another, from one dormitory to another, from one prison to the next. Possessions are things that people in power can deprive you of; tools and levers they can use to hurt you. Imagine a treasured picture from a husband or wife—a family portrait, a talisman of better times, of hope, tangibly expressed—denied you on a correctional officer’s whim. Imagine, as often happens, important court documents mysteriously disappearing after a random cell search.

Before prison, I respected a badge, and a boss, and a uniform. Before prison, I was ignorant. I thought that the people who made the rules played by those rules. Before prison, I was unaware of what those in authority were capable of.

After prison, one is unprepared for the flux of features that make up life “on the bricks”—that place in society that’s a great stand-in for actual freedom. It does not help that what is expected of you can change from city block to city block—hell, from person to person. Your family has a different set of social expectations and makes different social demands than does your boyfriend or girlfriend, your wife or husband, or perhaps your mistress. Groups of your friends—both those who have never been to prison and those who saw a special on MSNBC or watched Orange is the New Black—now believe they understand what prison is like. Release is like a never-ending hyperbaric chamber. You are constantly depressurizing, hoping that one stupid action, one quick false move, one ill-considered reaction, does not land you back in prison. The rules in prison are static. There is one set of rules for dealing with correctional officers, another for dealing with lifers, another for dealing with dykes. But on the outside, every situation is constantly developing. There are no clear-cut rules until you realize, after the fact, that you made the wrong choice.

Discipline and Punish

Setting the tone for the discourse, we return to Michel Foucault who writes:

Foucault’s concept of the ‘carceral network’, also known as the ‘carceral archipelago’, refers to the network of institutions (schools, insane asylums, prisons, hospitals, and factories) where control of the said population reigns supreme. These institutions use a system of psychological control, fortified by the knowledge that punishment will surely follow any transgression, no matter how minor.

According to the Oxford Online Dictionary, panoptic is defined as showing or seeing the whole at one view. The etymology of this Greek word from the 1800s breaks down to simply pan (“all”) + optic (“seeing”) = all seeing (“Panoptic”, 2015). We shall call this the “Big Brother” effect. This panopticon, a theoretical concept of Jeremy Bentham, was a prototype of the modern prison—a circular institutional design that would keep prisoners isolated from each other but allow them to be observed at all times by the guards from a centralized tower. The prisoners would be unable to determine whether or when they were actually being watched and would therefore reflexively police themselves based on the knowledge that they could be observed. Foucault used the panopticon metaphor to explore the relationship between the power-knowledge concept (that comes from observing others) and systems of social control and people in a disciplinary situation.

Consider that society refuses to educate prisoners and refuses to make much more than a perfunctory attempt at rehabilitation while a prisoner is behind bars, but takes a “zero tolerance” approach to crime. Could it be that the unnecessarily high recidivism rates are related to the government’s refusal to provide meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation? When considered in light of the zealous proclivity for incarceration in this country, it is interesting to note that society believes expulsion to be inhumane.

The United Nations considers the forced expulsion of an individual from his country of nationality akin to a war crime. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, notes that, “everyone has a right to a nationality.” According to ABC, “The declaration, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 and written in response to the atrocities that occurred during World War II, also says, ‘no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.’” This raises a very interesting point. The government is aware that it is unlawful to expel a citizen, so it cannot use expulsion as a punishment, and yet it ensures that a citizen is permanently branded and thereon forced to live with the myriad “collateral consequences” of a criminal record. Citizens so branded are shunned from and persecuted by society, which is, in effect, a type of expulsion. This form of castigation is tantamount to torture.

As Foucault writes, “[Society] is unwilling to waste even what it has decided to disqualify” (1977, p. 301). Society acknowledges that they cannot completely get rid of you, so will instead make you serve some socially useful function. You will become the citizen to whom it is lawful to deny the ability to affect the choices of the government, and you will become the citizen upon whom it is appropriate to heap endless condemnation. Contrast this with the reality that none of us as adults signed an agreement—contractual or otherwise—with the government of the country where we were born. We are required to follow the laws of the land, whether or not they are logical or reasonable, and we are required to accept punishment for violating the laws no matter whether such punishments are just or whether our actions in thwarting an unjust law were moral. Under any other circumstances, this would be viewed as an unconscionable extortion. The words “perpetual total slavery” might be casually tossed around in a heated debate of this topic. There is no way to render oneself stateless, to step outside the circle of coercion to say to the state, “I have my own terms upon which we must come to an agreement before any arrangement can be made between us.” But throw in the illusion of democracy (that our government supports the rights and needs of its people rather than protecting the interests of the wealthy) somehow, just by being born, we have all agreed to be bound by this contract, though no individual has ever been given the opportunity to explicitly agree, nor has anyone ever had the precise terms of the agreement explained to him or her. Ignorance of the law, as we are obliged to know, is no defense.

At What Cost?

In defending the legacy of slavery, and the legitimacy of its semiotics, apologists inevitably come around to arguing the point that the “War Between the States” was not fought over the ownership of one race by another. Slavery is not the real reason for the war. That was a smokescreen designed to mask something more sinister. The North was insolvent and needed the resources of the South in order to survive. Far be it for me to state the obvious or to ask, scientist-like, how the South had amassed and intended to sustain its wealth. I am a turtle; I have an aversion to rabbit holes.

It is hard not to look at prisons and see them for exactly what they are. Prisons exist for no other reason than to enslave one section of the population and enrich, and thus empower, another segment of the population. Foucault would argue that prisons “regulate bodies” and trap individuals into assuming an identity they cannot renounce. The newly enriched segment takes public money to further enrich itself and to encourage the rest of society to act against society’s own best interests. A more psychologically sick and repugnant public policy is difficult to imagine. In their current iteration, prisons are a prime example of how capitalism perverts the nature of all those it touches—both the controllers and the controlled.

One of capitalism’s best known mantras is that if it does not make dollars, it makes no sense. But while everything has a cost, everything need not make a profit to be successful. Capitalism does not acknowledge that. The goal of capitalism is to transform everything into a profit center, and as a consequence, it causes real damage to the institutions and society around it. Fire stations, for example, need not be profit generators. It is society that benefits when trained, brave women and men risk their lives to extinguish random conflagrations. Schools likewise need not generate a profit. The benefits of a well-educated populace are too numerous to list. Somewhere along the way, we forgot that prisons and law enforcement need not generate a profit in order to provide society with its greatest benefit.

The Radiation in Perception

For something invisible, and difficult to quantify much less measure, perception is such a disproportionately powerful, pervasive force. Perception is to the intellectual what radiation is to the physical. In weak concentrations, radio waves make much of modern communication possible. In weak concentrations, perception can be beamed, a la the news, and, radiating from person to person, it is communicated, being no less effective for its invisibility. Like radiation, perception has a long half-life, lingering in the body long past the moment of exposure.

Like radiation, perception is deadly in higher concentrations. Kids with toy guns get shot and killed where the perception that black men are thugs, and thugs are dangerous, approaches the density of lead (oppressive force). Whole towns are fractured, physically rent, socially splintered, when perception refuses to allow that an armed, trained, officer of the law has acted excessively by shooting down an unarmed teen. Tamir Rice, killed at twelve, by perception, not reality. Mike Brown, killed by perception, not reality. Our perceptions inevitably become our reality and shape our identity. We must understand the consequences of this.

It behooves us socially to remember the past, lest we repeat the bad parts. However, some segments of our population long for a repeat, a resurgence of traditional games played with contemporary toys. And they seem to be winning by making use of the media to sway public opinion. The media tells the public what to like, what to hate, what to fear, and how much. The media is the public yardstick for rating fears in order of importance.

Media companies make more money by luring more people to place their eyeballs on advertisements of goods and services for sale. The greater the number of eyeballs, the greater the revenue, the greater the profits. Media companies must, of necessity, self-select the content, the messaging, that is least repellent to the greatest number of people. Studios pursue PG-13 ratings. Both studio executives and accountants prefer them. More people are likely to pay to see a movie that most people are allowed to see. Fewer people watch R rated movies, because fewer people are permitted to. The news operates on the same principle.

You will never see the full story of any issues reported on the news that could threaten network profits. You may see reports that prisoners are being housed in for-profit facilities, but the connection is never made between prisoners and slavery; between profit and forced labor. The companies that pay the media companies to advertise their products often own, have relationships with, or benefit from, companies that make large profits from convict labor.

The first slaves in the United States were prisoners. The East India company, along with other exploration outfits, needed cheap labor, and the crown needed to spend less money on housing and feeding a group of people likely to become dissidents and even greater liabilities. Win win for government and big business. This country was literally founded by slaves and criminals.

In 1844, Louisiana lawmakers contracted with plantain owners to allow these businessmen the use of convicts incarcerated at the Baton Rouge State Penitentiary as a private slave work force. One wonders how many innocent men wound up serving time in Louisiana who would not otherwise have been incarcerated absent the profit driving motive.

The link between state and commercial carceral interests has only deepened since then. In 2011, Management and Training Corp, one of the nation’s largest for-profit prison corporations, sued the state of Arizona because Arizona failed to maintain arrest levels promised in contracts signed by state lawmakers. That is so important it bears reiteration: a private corporation sued the state in court because the state had previously agreed to keep many more people in prison than it was now able to, and the corporation’s interest in maximizing profit prompted it to seek redress for lost profits in a court of law. Which state official could ever guarantee the size of a prison population? One would hope that could never be possible.

The United States rose to economic prominence on the backs of slaves and their unpaid labor. In one of the most cruelly ironic twists that history is famous for, state governments north and south of the Mason Dixon line rented convicts to commercial interests in order to rebuild the broken nation. America incarcerated the newly released slaves and their poor white counterparts and leased them to private concerns to rebuild the nation that broke itself freeing them. The price of the slaves’ freedom was bondage—this time by operation of law as opposed to ideology. It is in fact doubtful that capitalism is sustainable absent slavery. The world has never witnessed it if it is at all possible. Capitalism is inextricably linked with sweatshops. And is not a sweatshop just another form of prison? Nike, Sean Combs, Martha Stewart, Apple Inc., and their enormous fortunes, all owe their success to prisons, to slavery.

The Danger in Abbreviation

Most of us are completely uncritical about the beams that undergird everyday life. We take it on faith that we know what such words as, “humane” or “satisfied” or “truth” or “justice” mean, and we fashion policy, personal orientations, lifestyles, political platforms, and ideologies around them. For most of us, our likes and dislikes, our beliefs and values, our dreams for the future and our fears, are the product of socialization via advertising, not of objective self-examination.

An unfortunate thing about humans is that we are genetically predisposed to errors of judgment. A thing is seen as what it appears to be, though people’s perception of the thing’s appearance can vary wildly, depending on what we believe is good or bad, beneficial or harmful. An example of this can be seen in how easily we internalize the lie that black people are more violent than white people and thus more dangerous and to be feared and avoided. After all, that’s what is shown on the news. How could they say it on TV if it were not true?

The media is also responsible for propagating an unfounded link in the collective social consciousness between drug dealing and black men. In fact, statistics show that white men sell drugs at higher rates. Confirmation bias gets us every time. We are not even aware that we have perhaps selected a certain brand or flavor of the news because it uses a shorthand we already understand, skewing toward what we already believe to be true.

One of the side-effects of using shorthand is the erasure of nuance. When we abbreviate, the truth becomes more uncomfortable than the soothing lie. It is more comfortable to paint with a broad brush than to engage with truth’s nuances: black men are not all drug dealers; drug addiction is not a disease perpetuated by black men; drug addiction is an attempt by a damaged brain to experience healthy brain life. Scientists have found in replicated studies that happy mice, happy rats—rats who live in an environment that cater to their needs—do not become addicted even when drugs are available and prevalent. The same is true for humans. Study after study confirms this, yet the idea of the black man being an agent of infection has never enjoyed more entrenched support.

The fact that a given black individual may have never personally experienced racism does nothing to render the truth of racism false. The truth is supposed to be comprised of the facts, not our experience or perception of them. Put another way, the truth is what is left of an experience after you have stripped perception away. But truth is so much harder to apply than perspective. And labels are easier to apply than original thought, and they’re so much more susceptible to manipulation.

This relates to the issue of Dog Whistle Politics. Reagan used to talk about “Law and Order.” Everybody understood that what he meant by this: Keep the niggers in the slums and out of real America. Send the police into their neighborhoods to make sure they don’t get out and bother good white folk. Because when they come out of their holes, all they do is commit crime, and the victims are always the poor beleaguered white folks. To this day, Rudy Giuliani still talks this way about New York. “Black people commit crime against white victims.” If you watched the Republican debates when he ran for president, you can see the actual moment when America realized this guy is too racist to be president. He didn’t understand the Dog Whistle. He thinks he can say this stuff clearly, out in the open.

A Band of Brothers and Sisters

I read an article recently about an ex-con named Carlos who found a job with a foundation upon his release from prison. Carlos’s job entails picking up ex-cons upon their release and helping to ease their transition from prison to life on the bricks. In the article, the author relates that Carlos usually takes along a wingman—Roby. According to Carlos, Roby is much more outgoing, and conversation flows more easily between three people. As is his wont, Roby gets to talking about the prison menu.

About halfway through the article, I discovered three things. The first is that I still remember the prison menu day by day. The second is that a person I have never met, who was incarcerated in a prison in a state I have never been to, will not eat pancakes unless they are covered in peanut butter. Just like me—cue shock and confusion. And then the other guy says he is the same way, and that his family—like mine—looks askance at him whenever he slathers jelly on egg sandwiches. The last thing I discovered is that, despite intentionally eschewing one in college, I am nevertheless a member of a fraternity: the fraternity of prisoners.

I am what prison made me, and I carry all its lessons, its collateral consequences, with me still. Within me is a hermit crab turned inside out. My many temporary homes are ferried around on the inside, rather than the outside. “Prison continues on those who are entrusted to it, a work begun elsewhere, which the whole of society pursues on each individual through innumerable mechanisms of discipline,” says Foucault (302-3). The corollary to this is that this fraternity is entirely an object of the government’s own making. It is the only fraternity over which the government has complete and total control, without peep or protest from society. Embarrass female prisoners by refusing to provide sanitary napkins? Society has no problem with that. Allow an ambulance to sit outside a facility while a prisoner dies from a minor injury which, if treated earlier, would never have become life-threatening—all because prison officials could not manage to get their many forms signed fast enough to obtain authorization to press the button to allow the ambulance into the sallyport? Society has no problem with that either.

Even courts agree that prison officials have “extreme latitude.” The courts’ indefensible reluctance to interfere with the administration of prisons leads to absurdities, such as lawsuits being tossed out because the courts are unwilling to reach a finding of “denial of access to courts” in a case where a prisoner who had the only writing implement permitted him in a restricted housing unit where he is locked in a cell twenty-three hours a day, stolen by a guard.

All this control. TOTAL control. The one area in society where this is acceptable (read the 13th Amendment—I dare you). Yet society fails to force prison administrators to take responsibility for the high rates of recidivism. Why not exert control over something that could actually make a difference? Prisons and prison administrators have created an entire fraternity—a band of brothers and sisters who have never met but who all put peanut butter on our pancakes; who are quick to violence and long on survival; and who do not wear flip-flops outside the house—but if we do, never in socks, never in socks. You never know when some fool will try you.

Prison made me that way. They could have made me into anything. They could have taught me to be a project manager who uses Trello and Slack; could have taught me to be a litigator, fluent in writs and depositions; could have taught me to drive forklifts and show up to work early, leave late, go above and beyond, and take pride in my work. Instead they taught me not to respect authority, to question and challenge everything, to dictate how people treat me, to discern the scam artists from the merely incompetent—and to put peanut butter on my pancakes. Yet somehow, after being under their total custody, care, and control, that is my fault, not theirs.

Of course, this speaks only to the psychological stronghold of prison. The impacts of trying to live with a criminal record are much more damaging and far-reaching. They follow you to the end of your days. Society treats those so branded with scorn, tainted with bias and bigotry. The emotional turmoil that accompanies the resulting social marginalization, of being disenfranchised by those in positions of power, is difficult to endure. Feelings of anger and confusion are often followed by feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. These have lasting effects on a person. When one is made to feel “other”; when your every move is monitored and judged; when your very existence is questioned; it can be a formidable undertaking, to try to get past these feelings and collateral consequences, to move on and make a better life for yourself.


Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish (trans. Alan Sheridan). Pantheon, New York.


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