The Real Walking Dead

Joshua M. Price's 'Prison and Social Death'

by Jon Morris

1 December 2015

This book is about society. Shifting the focus from the individual (crime) to the social (punishment) is not so much a political choice as it is an ethical imperative.
 
cover art

Prison and Social Death

Joshua M. Price

(Rutgers University Press)
US: Jul 2015

“Sometimes I don’t feel like a Dead Man Walking, I feel like The Walking Dead.”

—Troy Davis, convicted of the death of police officer Mark MacPhail, executed 21 September 2011

“Doesn’t everyone know someone in prison or on parole?” a woman asks rhetorically at a meeting of the NAACP. It’s a powerful question, and Joshua M. Price makes it the title of a chapter in his new book Prison and Social Death

I have had only one experience with the American penal system, and that was tangential. When I was still a teenager, a close friend of mine was arrested for breaking into homes (when the occupants were out) and selling their stolen antiques. There were others involved, but he accepted sole responsibility when they were caught, and consequently he was sentenced to serve a year in prison.

To this day I’m embarrassed to say that I only went to visit him once, and then only after a mutual friend insisted. Looking back, it must have been a rather low-security facility. I remember we were searched before entering, but the large visitors’ room was filled mostly with families and the few guards present ambled about for the most part unobtrusively. Yet, I couldn’t wait to leave. It was a disturbing and frightening world.

The experience left me feeling sullied, as if by merely knowing someone incarcerated I was guilty by association. I was resentful of my friend, and more than a little ashamed. Or was it humiliation that I felt?

Price reminds us that “the distinction between shame and humiliation is crucial, even if they sometimes coincide.” Shame is essentially introspective, something between the individual and his or her sense of conscience. Humiliation, instead, “involves stripping people of dignity, honor, or pride, rendering them helpless, and making them the object of contempt.” The humiliation, alienation and violence of American prisons is systemic, methodological. What I experienced as a visitor was nothing in comparison to what prisoners and their immediate family suffer.

“To be sentenced to prison is to be sentenced to social death,” Price says without exaggeration. It’s an indelible mark, permanent despite the putative goals of rehabilitation and the spurious promise of a second chance. Social death follows the individual beyond prison walls like a contagion, affecting their status as parolees and afflicting even family and friends they come into contact with. This is disturbingly revealed over and over again in the interviews Price and his students conducted over a period of years on behalf of the NAACP as part of an investigation into healthcare complaints by current and former prisoners and their families in Binghamton, New York.

Though published by a university press (Rutgers), Price’s book is unlike the academic fare many will be used to reading. Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben get brief mention, but to his credit Price is more interested in actively listening than in theoretical connections or statistical analyses. After all, he says, disinterested numbers “do not capture the experience of being subject to the arbitrary tyrannies and caprices of parole agents,” prison guards and medical staff, and other judicial authorities. The testimonies, instead, do: in both their graphic imagery and disturbing repetition.

Price remarks: “The stories people in jail told me were often harrowing. We interviewed someone who had gone into a diabetic coma when denied his insulin shots; a woman who showed me her swollen limb, whose skin was peeling, and who told me she was worried she had gangrene but could not get medical attention. I interviewed people forced to languish in their cells for days with a burst appendix or a fractured vertebra before they received anything other than Pepto-Bismol or Advil.”

Price rightly argues that such neglect amounts to additional punishment. Prison violence “cannot be limited simply to intentional physical abuse by other incarcerated people or by a specific guard or guards. It involves institutionalized forms of mistreatment, including poor health care.” His research reveals a systemic policy under which women are denied prenatal medical attention and forced to give birth in shackles or prohibited from breastfeeding their newborns. Transgender individuals, he finds, are regularly denied the right to express their identities or very deliberately thrown in with a general population and subjected to rape.

A disproportionate number of the incarcerated are, of course, African-American. In a chapter titled “Racism, Prison, and the Legacies of Slavery”, Price notes that while “it would be an oversimplification to reduce the complex social and political pressures that gave rise to the northern [American] penitentiary to white anxiety over black emancipation ... the coincidence is striking and cannot be ignored.” Nor can the parallels between how prisoners and slaves have been treated. The sexual exploitation of African American female prisoners by white male guards is only one parallel; the convict labor leasing program is another.

Price pays special attention to the practice of “natal alienation”, the forced separation of families. Under slavery, “even when a family was together, as on a plantation, each [slave] had to be made powerless vis-à-vis the others. An enslaved person could be whipped or sold off at any time, and other slaves were in little position to do anything. The institution of slavery made it difficult, moreover, to transmit one’s heritage to one’s progeny. In effect, one’s family and community ties had little or no legal or social standing.”

Today, a majority of the people in prison are parents, Price points out. As a matter of policy they are physically and legally separated from their children and spouses. The impact of these forced separations is of course not limited to the prisoners themselves, even after their release. No-fraternization rules that forbid them from associating with other felons are often interpreted to include family members. “Consequently, the parole office sometimes separates spouses, as well as parents and children, even if their crimes are not linked or are decades old. These rules force a wedge in families.” The birth of organizations such as the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership is a testament to both the ubiquity and painfulness of such practices.

It wasn’t always so. In the past, isolation was meant to ultimately serve a redemptive function. In a chapter on the history of the penitentiary in America, Price observes that social isolation and even solitary confinement were at one time intended to spiritually rehabilitate transgressors. Prison life would emulate monastic life. Quaker “reformers framed their experiment as an enactment of symbolic death followed by rebirth and redemption upon release,” and family members might joyfully meet newly-released loved ones and celebrate their return.

Eventually, of course, the psychological affects of solitary confinement could not help but be noted, and yet, despite two centuries of evidence, special housing units continue to be a mainstay in American penitentiaries. 

Skeptical readers may lament the fact that Price rarely cites the offenses for which the prisoners he interviews have been incarcerated. If he only occasionally mentions the more draconian sentences that are received for petty crimes, this is because his book is not about crime, but punishment. In fact, it is really a book about society, and shifting the focus from the individual to the social is not so much a political choice as it is an ethical imperative.

Indeed, any consideration of the role of the American penitentiary that limits itself to the crimes of individuals and fails to consider the impact of race, poverty, neoliberal policies of Social Darwinism and competition, and the spectacle of violence as entertainment (to name just a few of the constellation of factors that contribute to criminality), would be myopic and willfully ignorant.

That said, Price is not naïve about his own presuppositions and blindspots, or about the reliability of the testimonies he chronicles. “I want to think about careful, critical advocacy aimed at stopping violence and sexual assault of incarcerated people, especially women, when deception, dissimulation, and silence are important tools of their resistance and their daily survival, and an understandable response to hostile treatment and oppressive conditions.”

The incarcerated are often retaliated against for speaking to him by being subjected to strip searches and cavity checks, or having their time allotted for personal visits curtailed. He is working under the auspice of the NAACP, but what if his research and efforts come to nothing? “If telling the truth does not lead to any change, then one’s sense of isolation may be merely confirmed.”

Ultimately, he concludes that his project has been a failure, a failure that he documents point-by-point at the end, in the hope that future reformers practicing what he calls a “politics of towardness” might learn from the mistakes he and his fellow reformers made pursuing changes of prison and parole policies in upstate New York.

Despite what the author perceives as his personal failures, Prison and Social Death is an urgent, moving and compassionate book. The many accounts of injustice and cruelty that Price documents give voice to a political immediacy and become what another would-be prison reformer, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, called a “collective assemblage of enunciation”.

At the “Schizo-Culture” conference held at Columbia University in 1975, transcripts of which were recently edited and published by Sylvere Lotringer in Schizo-Culture, Deleuze was joined by Foucault and others in arguing for prison and psychiatric reform. At a roundtable discussion there, Foucault says: “I think that what has happened since 1960 is characterized by the appearance of new forms of fascism… And the role of the intellectual, since the sixties, has been precisely to situate, in terms of his or her experiences, competence, personal choices, desire—situate him or herself in such a way as to both make apparent forms of fascism which are unfortunately not recognized, or too easily tolerated, to describe them, to try to render them intolerable, and to define the specific from of struggle that can be undertaken against fascism.”

This is exactly what Price has done.

In a very brief aside that perhaps belies its personal significance to the author, Price paraphrases philosopher Avishai Margalit when he says that “a decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate people.” One might argue that it is this ethos that sets the tone for the book.

Prison and Social Death will appeal to general readers and academics alike, and should be required reading for anyone who desires a better understanding of the American penal system and race relations, contemporary human rights issues, and the sort of reforms that will have to be made before we can say with any real confidence that we live in a decent society.

Prison and Social Death

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