Every Wednesday, I go to Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville to facilitate a discussion group with prisoners on death row and philosophy graduate students. It’s a nice prison, as far as prisons go: clean, suburban-feeling, with a soapy smell that lingers on my hands and clothes after I leave. The reception area is filled with motivational posters of determined mountain climbers and goal-oriented rowing teams. Beyond the checkpoint, an ordinary sidewalk leads to death row. The path is lined with beige wooden fences and topiary shaped like giant bathtub stoppers. We pass through a series of grey doors and empty hallways until we reach the smiling faces of ten men who have been condemned to death by the state of Tennessee.
We talked about whether Socrates was a political prisoner, which raised the further question: What is a political prisoner? Is it someone who is punished by the state for their beliefs or political actions? What about the person who is disproportionately punished for a crime in order to serve the interests of a few politicians seeking re-election? And where does this leave the prisoner who commited a crime, perhaps a horrible crime, but has managed to transform themselves within prison thanks to formal and informal educational opportunities that they never had on the outside? At what point does a prisoner become political, and what sort of resistance is possible for those who aspire to be principled rather than spineless?
There’s a saying in prison: “Do your time – don’t let your time do you.” Prisoners are encouraged by wardens and pastors, parole boards and philosophy professors to learn new things, to reflect on their experience, to make something of themselves in prison. “I didn’t read at all before,” said a supermax prisoner interviewed by anthropologist Lorna Rhodes. “I have an eighth grade education. But in there I learned to discipline myself. I want to read. I want to be an individual” (82). This prisoner’s desire for self-discipline would have been music to the ears of Jeremy Bentham, who designed the panoptical structure that shapes modern penitentiaries and, in Foucault’s analysis, also shapes modern subjectivity. The panopticon individualizes subjects by isolating them from one another and exposing them to the surveillance of a constantly present, but unseen and unverifiable onlooker. To “want to be an individual” is to empower oneself through submission to the norms that define legitimate personhood. It is to cultivate the habits of PERSERVERENCE, AMBITION, and COMMITMENT to the point where one no longer needs to be locked in a prison cell. A series of motivational posters will do.
What are the possibilities for resistance in a panoptic society where we derive power and even pleasure from self-discipline? In his later work, Foucault considers the possibility of shaping one’s existence through aesthetic practice. In a 1982 interview, he says:
"You see, that’s why I really work like a dog, and I worked like a dog all my life. I am not interested in the academic status of what I am doing because my problem is my own transformation . . . This transformation of one’s self by one’s own knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience. Why should a painter work if he is not transformed by his own painting?" (131)
Everyone in prison is an artist, it seems. They paint, they draw, they write poetry, they tattoo themselves and others. When they don’t have access to standard art supplies, they become even more creative, using toilet paper or white bread to create papier-mache sculptures, or scraping the pigment from M&Ms or Skittles to use as paint. Richard Odom, a participant in our discussion group, makes doll furniture out of discarded toilet paper rolls. He says, “Society has flushed us down the toilet, but we can still make something beautiful with the leftovers.”
Another prisoner, Derrick Quintero, wrote this short poem in response to our discussion of the Panopticon:
Stand up prisoner
Now sit down you prisoner
Stand up prisoner
Derrick describes his artistic practice as a form of political expression and a never-ending process of self-transformation:
"I have never considered myself an artist… [But] Similar to the statement of the women’s movement of the 1960’s, I consider everything that is personal as political. I hope that my art is understood as an evolution of my political relationship with my imminent world. Some things – within my sense of right and wrong (justice) – have matured and some have remained stagnate. I hope that I am now a much evolved and spiritually enlightened being."
Derrick writes from a position where self-transformation is both demanded of him and refused to him, where no matter how spiritually enlightened he becomes, he is still condemned to be executed. He and the other 3,169 prisoners on death row in the US have been framed as icons of the unreformable, irredeemable, and unforgivable. They may “work like a dog” to transform themselves, but this is not their job. They have been assigned to another post, to provide a different set of aesthetic and anaesthetic services.
Their job is to provide a concrete illustration of evil, to contain this evil within a single body, and to allow themselves to be flushed out of the world through the apparently painless and humane procedure of lethal injection. By disappearing behind the mask of the villain, the monster, the cold-hearted killer, the death row inmate slips a sedative to the audience, allowing us to fall asleep at night knowing that our families are safe and that justice has been done.sodium thiopental. The anaesthetic is followed by a paralytic, which prevents the face and body of the prisoner from moving or twitching in a way that might disturb the witnesses, who may include members of the victim’s family seeking closure for their loss. Finally, a drug is administered to kill the prisoner by stopping his or her heart.
In one of those ironic twists that the US prison system is so good at producing, there is currently no legal source of the anaesthetic, sodium thiopental, and the existing supply in many states has passed its expiration date. This banal fact is helping to prolong the life of some prisoners on Tennessee’s death row, and countless others in states that have not yet managed to switch their protocol.
But in order to perform the anaesthetic function of soothing public anxieties around both violent crime and the violence of the criminal justice system, the prisoner’s own aesthetic practices must remain invisible. The job of the death row inmate is not to transform himself, but to remain the same throughout an appeals process that can last years or even decades. As Samuel Gross observes:
"The man you wanted to kill was the abusive robber, high on crack, who pistol-whipped and shot two customers at a Seven-Eleven store in 1984. Instead, in 1990, the state electrocutes a balding, religious, model prisoner in a neat blue-denim uniform." (qtd in Garland 2010, 47-8)
It is by not changing – by not converting to Islam, not (re)discovering Christianity, not reading Plato with a bunch of grad students, not writing poetry, and not making doll chairs out of toilet paper rolls – that the death row prisoner serves his political-theological function. What are the possibilities for self-transformation in a situation like this? When your life is structured by the imperative to stand up/sit down/stand up, how do you find a way to sit and to stand with dignity?
Our last text in the Plato course was the Phaedo, the dialogue that recounts Socrates’ final hours before he is forced to drink the poison that will numb his body and stop his heart. The class was divided; some found Socrates’ arguments for the immortality of the soul compelling, and others thought he rejected the knowledge and pleasures of the body too harshly. Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman made a compelling case for transcendence: “If the way forward is blocked, then you’ve got to rise up.” Another prisoner argued that state execution twists the meaning of life and death: “They’ve stolen death. A perfectly natural thing has been taken and used as a tool… No one has the right to do that, to take death and use it for their own purposes.”
There are countless prisoners on death row who are working harder than we can imagine to transform themselves and to build a meaningful sense of community. We could learn a lot from these people if we weren’t so determined to kill them.
The art in this blog post was created by prisoners on Tennessee's death row. It is currently on display at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Gallery. For an insider's account of our discussion group, see this article by Alu Ali Abdur'Rahman and Derrick Quintero, originally published in the Riverbend prison newspaper, The Maximum Times."