I watched the Ferguson decision with my cellmate as it was announced, and I monitored the noise in the pod to see if there was any reaction. It became clear there would be no indictment as count time and lock down was approaching, and it also became clear there would be no reaction in my neighborhood; a place where callous police interdiction and surveillance have reached their intrusive totalitarian pinnacle in our society.
As an example, until very recently, the correctional officer was considered a sufficient presence for security and operations of the prison environment within TDOC. Now, however, I wake several times a week to the sound of some inmate screaming the warning "Green Team in the pod! Green Team in the pod!" Every prison now employs a full time "elite" para-military security team dressed in green fatigues and equipped with tactical gear. There are usually between four and six members of this team who serve at the warden's discretion and at his or her direction. These teams maintain a near-constant presence of fear and intimidation. It is very much like every little suburb or neighborhood in Tennessee having a convoy of SWAT trucks assigned to it on a permanent basis – which, in reality, is not unlike the truth in some neighborhoods and cities in America, and this brings me to an important point.
Some would say prison is supposed to be this way. Prisoners have proven themselves to be dangerous and therefore must be controlled and punished. But the reality is that prison has become merely one point along a continuum of judgments built into our society about people who live in certain places and the way we feel we must treat the people who live in those neighborhoods. Prison happens to be at the bottom of the continuum of fear and interdiction. Yet it is just another place where a huge number of people, who are still part of American society, though rendered invisible, must live. For me this is simply home. And I know that millions of other prisoners in our country and tens of thousands in our state, still consider themselves citizens and participants in the social order because we are still, for now, participating with your increasingly intolerable criminal justice system.
It should not be surprising that prison requires the participation of the prisoners, but it is understandable that people find it so at first when so much money is spent on expensive things like metal fences, and guns, and walls, and other visible signs of the power to restrain. In reality, prisoners know they could decide to leave en masse at any time with their far superior numbers, if they had nothing to lose, nothing left to live for. But most of us (less than before since mass incarceration and modern draconian sentencing laws were implemented) still hope to move back to our home neighborhoods the legal way one day because we still love our homes and our families and our communities and our state and our country.
So if prisons are truly just neighborhoods of normal people extending below the rock-bottom lines of race and class disparity on the field of economic desolation; and if it is the stomping giant called our historical legacy that has pounded these craters called prison into that landscape, then one would think that here of all places one would find unrest about Ferguson. But I find almost none, and I wonder why?
I now live in a pod which epitomizes the fear and tension exemplified by Ferguson. Once inside the prison system, individuals are subject to the ultimate in dystopian surveillance policing reflected over and over at different scales like a fractal. Being a disciplinary unit, the pod I live in is double or triple distilled so to speak. I discussed these policies in a previous post. What is the result of such policies? Extremely high rates of addiction and poverty coupled with distrust and hostility toward one another with an almost playful, childlike acceptance of or dependence upon the presence and actions of the authorities who rule over the inmates with often open disgust.
Perhaps it is a law of human nature that once you cross a threshold of deep dehumanization, resistance is no longer to be expected. Almost everyone in here lives as though what they are experiencing was as inevitable for them as the gravity that holds them to the earth. When every single immediate fact surrounding them, and everything in their history seems to agree, it is difficult to argue with the hard look in their eyes that says, "I was born for these chains, and I know I will die in them as my fathers did." But the real telos of this system is the simple stark fact that many of my brothers in prison have ceased to even see the chains as chains at all, and instead choosing the last defense available for men given no realistic way to earn dignity and status: to embrace the negative image with pride, to become the anti-hero, and to make their last appeals only to those few who understand and to God, while disappearing into the haze of drugs and alcohol.
We are living, yet we can’t breathe.
Perhaps there is a disconnect between those outside the prisons who criticize the severity of the criminal justice system, and those in here who have lost any sense that they have a legitimate voice of dissent. If anything, given our long experience inside the crucible which most people never see, many just raise their heads momentarily and stare, but the sounds of their chains, our chains, and the old hard voice of their protective skepticism drowns out the media blitz.
The Sunday shows broadcast discussions about the grand jury process, and policing reforms, and community demographics into my cell, and I shiver inside, afraid to hope that this vision of oppression and the need for change is reaching critical mass. I urge my brothers to lift up their eyes, but I think in the end it is the last great sign of our humanity that we so desperately fear the cruelty of false hope.
Hear us. We are living, yet we can’t breathe.