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Jun 14, 2009

The American Gulag

The prison system in the United States gives a hard meaning to the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Just as the prison keeps its inmates out of public view, the buildings themselves are placed well off the main roads in what are often economic dead zones. Few ever go by the place, and no one ever needs to go inside unless you work there, are making a delivery, or want to visit with an inmate. And most of those people won’t be allowed to see anything like this:

This stunning photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein shows a prisoner’s hands being held out in order to be handcuffed before he is taken to a shower. I find the image deeply disturbing–as if it were something I would see because I was already insane, looking down the asylum hallway and still accosted by hideous visions distending reality. The hands lie there as if the body is a corpse, worse, as dismembered body parts. The sickly green color scheme, hard surfaces, and sharp, metallic fixtures are a nightmare of institutional authority gone horribly perverse. The red stains on the wall and the white stains on the linoleum floor look like traces of bodily fluids, and the yellow lines suggest a steady traffic in gurneys and terror always rationalized by official procedures.

The image doesn’t tell only one story, however. Those hands may be murderous. Tattoos are commonplace today, but in this tableau the heavily tattooed arm seems demonic, as if the outer sign of snakes writhing within. There seems to be no place for innocence in this world, which can only provide further justification for rough justice, inhumane conditions, and policies that do more to perpetuate violent crime than prevent it.

This marked, abject body waiting to be shackled is a fitting reminder of the cesspool at the end of America’s criminal justice system. (“Criminal justice system”–a phrase in which each term twists the others.) The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world; only Russia is even close, and the European states are far, far below. The causes include both excessive income inequality and the disintegration of the family. Given that both conservative and liberal arguments are proved correct, you might think that a strong bi-partisan effort could be made to keep millions of Americans out of prison. Think again, for why would anyone bother to fix something they never see?

This image and others like it can be seen in the exhibition “Behind Bars: Photographs by Andrew Lichtenstein” through January 4, 2009 at fovea in Beacon, New York. Lichtenstein’s portfolio includes the eloquent book Never Coming Home, which documents the funerals of eight soldiers killed in the Iraq war. You can see one of those heart-rending images in an earlier post at this blog on Shared Suffering in Iraq and America.


The American Gulag


10 Responses

  1. Lateef says

    Excellent pick for an article. Thanks for bringing this up…I’m not sure Americans really know what’s going on – if they did, perhaps the ‘rehabilitation vs. incarceration’ conversation would begin.

  2. c... says

    Such a powerful image … but … i’m curious about the description of the image as a prisoner’s hands held out to be handcuffed because that can’t possibly be one person (unless the person has some sort of unusual physique). Our thumbs are usually out, not in, when our hands are palm up. I’m guessing that the visual impossibility of the image probably adds to the sense of disembodiment / dismemberment even if we don’t identify the cause…

  3. Lucaites says

    C. Imagine that your back is to the door and your hands are thrust through the
    wall so that once you are shackled the shackles are behind you … then the thumbs would be turned in.

  4. starbuck says

    I think the analysis of violence above is problematic. Violence on the part of the “waiting to be shackled” can only be assumed by the surroundings (prison) and our cultural readings of the surroundings (ex: Law and Order, Oz).

    To me the only violence actually indicated in the photograph is the process of imprisonment, a process which if it doesn’t manifest in real live violence, at its very base lies on the threat of violence as a means of control.

    “The causes include both excessive income inequality and the disintegration of the family.”

    Don’t the causes of incarceration lie at the feet of those doing the incarcerating? It also seems like the disintegration of the family (whatever that means) could be an effect of mass incarceration.

  5. I wouldn’t disagree with any of starbuck’s comments except for some of the implications about what I was thinking. One point I was trying to make was that American imprisonment is inhumane even if those inside did terrible things to get there. That doesn’t mean that all those inside are in that category. More generally, I was trying to get past the standoff between competing liberal and conservative narratives: those inside may deserve punishment, but they don’t deserve whatever happens there, and if you want to reduce crime you have to look beyond individual criminality to the fact that violence and theft are symptoms of social organization. There seems to be a strong correlation between low crime and a broad distribution of social goods like good jobs, education, health care and other things that make it easier for people to stay together and keep one another out of trouble.

  6. starbuck says

    Mr Hariman

    If it sounded like I was trying to pin anything in particular on you, I didn’t mean to.

    My primary point was that we have to come to grips with the fact that state violence is still violence, and that we have to rethink the way we think about the state and thus justice.

    As far as getting beyond the liberal/conservative narratives, I come to you as an anarchist.

    Thanks for your response.

  7. Ann Marie says

    This is quite a striking photograph, and I think the accompanying essay is insightful. One thing that struck me that I did not see mentioned was the discarded cereal box on the floor. The bright cartoon colors of the cereal box are jarring against the starkness of the prison and the disembodied arms. As Mr. Hariman points out, prisons are usually far off the beaten path to be hidden from the public, but for me, this one piece demonstrates that, despite that isolation, corporate america still makes its presence felt.

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