". . . and the more the oppressors control the oppressed, the more they change them into apparently inanimate things."
- Paulo Freire
"Strip down to your skin, raise your arms above your head, open your mouth and stick out your tongue, lift your nutsack, bend over and spread your butt cheeks, squat, cough, stand up straight and lift the bottom of our feet." I slowly comply with the orders dictated by a correctional officer. I'm standing in an eight-feet-wide by fifteen-feet-long brick block encasement after visiting with my mother. The lighting is dim, and the paint on the walls is off-white. Only inches away from me are others submitting to the same orders. Contempt and frustration combine to form an emotional cocktail coursing through my veins while I tolerate repulsively jubilant side-talk of sports, jokes, and laughter from officers and devolved humans who have become "inmate things of the State" and who appear to be unfazed by this humiliating deviation from normal human interaction.
Lingering in the air of the poorly ventilated space is a musky odor that blends with the echoes of bare feet smacking against rows of square tiles on the smooth floor. Holding my breath for what feels like a slow-motion picture, I endure this divorce from humanity, a ritual of "thingafication," a concrete manifestation of the absract concept of dehumanization.
I hurry in a daze to cover my shame as I reach for my grey boxer-brief underwear, my socks, my glasses, symbolically reassembling traces of my formerly civilized life. Hunched over and occasionally glancing up to see through double-glass square windows, I peep to see if anyone on the other side is watching while the young white officer thoroughly examines the last two garments of my third-class citizenship. I reach for the state-issued blues, the denim uniform of an inmate in the Department of Corrections. Slipping through one leg at a time, I cover the lower half of my body with faded denim jeans glazed with long acrylic white strips on each leg bearing the misnomer, "TN DEPT OF CORRECTION." Next I slip into my overpriced peanut-butter-toned Timberland boots and duck into a baby-blue, prison-issued shirt with "TDOC" inscribed in dark blue letters on the back. Just beneath the seam of the collar of the shirt, printed in black ink is my TDOC identification number, which was assigned to me when I was first processed in 1989. Dressed with a pass for movement and an inmate ID card in my hand, I move toward the exit door gazing straight past the commotion of others repeating this same ritual in what is known as the shake-down room. I step outside onto the sidewalk of the prison compound encircled by razor-wire fences. Inhaling deeply, I regain my equilibrium as the fresh air tingles through my nostrils and revives my body and my being.
Variations of the ritual I have described take place in every juvenile detention center, every jail, every prison, and even mental health asylums all across the United States of America. This ritual serves as a reminder that I am some "thing" other than a United States citizen or civilized human being. I am a hybrid of sorts, not wholly human nor wholly other, something in between. My initial experience of this ritual occurred when I was a sixteen-year-old child. I was booked, fingerprinted, fully examined, tested for sexually transmitted diseases, questioned, and placed into an orange jumpsuit. It never occurred to me that something was happening to me during this process or ritual. I did not understand that the removal of each article of my clothing was a symbolic stripping away of my humanity in order to bleed me to civil death. On the surface, having the inside of my mouth probed, my genitals cupped, and the rest of my body viscerally probed and examined before I was ushered into a cell with a desk and a bunk seemed to be nothing more than a routine procedure. Twenty-eight years later, however, a close reading of Terror and Triumph, by Anthony B. Pinn informed me that what I refer to as a ritual of thingafication coincides with his historical account of slavery and the process by which a slave's quality was confirmed. "[A]n overseer [inspected and handled] the naked blacks from head to foot, squeezing their joints and muscles, twisting their arms and legs and examining their teeth, eyes, and chest, and pinching their breasts and groins without mercy." (PP. 30-31). While I stop short of equating the experiences of chattel slaves with inmates experiencing post-Thirteenth Amendment slavery as part of America's addiction to mass incarceration, I do recognize the similar processes or rituals by which humans are converted into things be decree of law. My intention is to introduce readers to a largely unknown reality that transmutes U.S. citizens into sub-human entities through legal definitions.
Colin Dayan clearly articulates how legal rituals make and unmake persons in her important book, The Law is a White Dog. She explores how the law constructs our identities and uses a type of magic to make spirits or ghosts come to life. "Specters are very much a part of the legal domain. Human materials are remade and persons are undone in the sanctity of the courtroom. Whether slaves, dead bodies, criminals, ghosts, detainees, or any one of the many spectral entities held in limbo in the no-man's lands sustained by state power, they all remain subject to undue influences and occult revelations of law's rituals." (p. 12). What is often framed in terms of security and penological interest is in reality an ongoing terror of dehumanization.
Another example of ritualistic dehumanization at the prison where I am confined is when correctional officers enter the unit dressed in military outfits indistinguishable from U.S. soldiers carrying military-style weapons and K-9 dogs. Prisoners are forced to disrobe in front of their cellmates while correctional officers bark orders consistent with the opening paragraphs of this essay. Prisoners are then escorted to a body-search machine dressed in a t-shirt, underwear, and shower shoes with their hands and arms behind their backs while a correctional officer grips their biceps as though they were under arrest. Then they are seated on a concrete floor in five rows of eight, facing the wall while correctional officers and their dogs comb through their personal property. An officer grips an assault-style weapon and paces back and forth with the weapon pointed in their direction as if they were detainees at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay.
Prisoners are treated as enemies of the State in Tennessee. Why must we be subjected to this level of cultural violence? I am not intimidated by correctional officers, but I do have reason to fear when I hear of officers beating inmates, abusing them by dousing them with scalding hot water, even killing them in the name of security. When a person is no longer considered to be a human, it is easy for agents of the State to display animosity toward them and violate their very humanity. "What I have tried to do is show that the shame that is Guantanamo has a history in our nation and in its treatment of its own. Which brings me to the origin and real impetus of this book: the uses of incarceration in the United States to criminalize, exclude, and do such violence to persons that they are returned to their communities - when they are - diminished and harmed sometimes beyond repair, or redress." (Dayan, p. xiv).
People often believe that criminals are sent to prisons in order that they may be punished. However, the prison itself is the punishment. It is a distinction with a difference. The punishment is the separation from families and the exile from society. We are under 24-hour surveillance, have limited contact with the free-world community, are locked down at least ten hours a day, and endure daily cell searches, inspections, and violence in every form imaginable. Yet some would impose even more tortuous conditions and treatment in order to punish inmates, misguided by the belief that harsh treatment will discourage prisoners from returning upon their eventual release. But living in prison and enduring the prison culture is the punishment. Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) believes that "a person is sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment." (Beyond Bars, Ross & Richards, foreward). Many prisoners are parents with very young children who may not be able to sustain family connections. In Tennessee, prisoners often experience the passing of their parents and other family members while incarcerated without the privilege of attending the funeral and seeing their loved ones one last time. There is more than enough revenge and punishment to go around in the lives of prisoners.
Dayan introduces the notion of "premature burials" and states that "confinement of prisoners in the United States became an alternative to slavery, another kind of receptacle for imperfect creatures whose 'civil disease' justified containment. I do not mean that slaves can be equated with criminals, as if slavery were a form of punishment. Rather, I am interested in how, once convicted of a crime, the criminal can be reduced - not by a master, but by the state - to a condition that is sustained under the sign of death." (p. 63). What Dayan refers to as a civil death is essentially a legal designation imposed on citizens who have been convicted in a court of law. Although inmates do not lose all of their constitutional rights, their rights are greatly diminished. "Imprisonment allows is to apprehend how the condition of being civiliter mortus, or 'dead in the law,' marks the disabled citizen as both a symptom and a symbol of afflicative punishment. Unlike slaves, felons remain citizens - citizens who are deprived of liberty. The character of prisoners, the alleged danger they pose to prison order, and the need for them to be transformed are all cited as reasons for the restriction of their rights and the resulting negation of their social and spiritual self. This legal curtailment coincides with the ways former slaves were effectively deprived of their civil rights and reduced to the status of incomplete citizens even after their emancipation. "As far as those imprisoned for life were concerned, the idea was to emulate the results produced by natural death." (pp. 63-64). Personhood ceases to exist after death. Though not dead in fact, the convict dies in a sense by virtue of the law.
This "thing of death" imposed upon the prisoner strips away his human identity and justifies a particular form of harsh treatment. All procedures or rituals exercised through the criminal justice system serve to perpetuate dehumanization and justify legalized slavery, allowing the Prison-Industrial Complex to profit off of the bodies of the poor. In the same way that the auction block imposed a status of non-being onto slaves who were transformed into chattel, modern legal rituals transform citizens into prisoners who are subjected to forced labor and whose bodies are controlled by corporate interests to make money. The law permits slavery and systematic dehumanization through mass incarceration of over two million citizens, many of whom are serving sentences for non-violent offenses. Moreover, none of those who are stripped of their rights by these laws had any meaningful say in the creation or application of these laws.
Pinn writes, "Slave auctions were a ritual by which the slave system enforced and celebrated the dehumanization of Africans. I refer to this ritual as a ritual of reference: it is repeated, systematic activity conducted in carefully selected locations that is intended to reinforced the enslaved status as object. Slavery as a major shift in being requires ritual expression that gives select behaviors their legitimacy and strength, or their power. It is through this ritualizing that the slave's status is given social force and meaning because it makes explicit the re-creation of the slave as a "thing." Through this ritualized manipulation of African bodies, new social arrangements complete with existential and ontological ground rules are put in place." (p. 49). This is precisely what happens today when American citizens are transmuted into prisoners through the ritual power of the criminal justice system. I am constantly reminded of my status as a convicted felon by processes authorized by law and carried out by agents of the State. I experience myself not as a man, but as a thing.
The perpetual rituals of thingafication suck the life out of my humanity, or vice versa, and consequently erase my social existence through the law and its language. I am obliterated by words such as "infamous," "criminal," "defendant," "felon," "inmate," and "prisoner." I am not a danger to anyone. I invite anyone who is willing to take the time to come to the prison, meet me, listen to me speak, and inspect my humanity. To whom can I call? Believers in God, whether Christians, Jews, or Muslims? Humanists? Who will assist in the abolition of post-Thirteenth Amendment slavery, mass incarceration, and the legal creation of permanent second-class citizens?
I close with the words of educator Paulo Freire: "Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human. Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. This struggle is possible only because dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves. This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection; only then will it be a praxis. True solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these 'beings for another.'" (Pedagogy of the Oppressed).