There’s a reason, I think, that American history lessons end with World War II. We are too afraid to teach children what comes after that. The glowing portrait of the USA as cowboys of the world who saved the West from Nazis was exploded by the atomic bombs we dropped on a broken island empire. Our heroic self-image would be absolutely decimated by the horrors committed in Vietnam, by our silent alliance with authoritarian regimes, our machinations in the Middle East for no greater purpose but jockeying for pride of place with the Soviets, and our consistent oppression of Black Americans in our own country: the rise of prisons as a system needing to be filled with the bodies of men we don’t want to care for in our cities.
Last night I watched Ava DuVernay’s Thirteenth, which echoes the history I have been reading in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and the conversations I’ve had with my friend the Dante scholar who sees Dante’s Commedia, particularly the response of the Purgatorio to the Inferno as a stirring warrant for prison abolition.
It’s difficult for us to see—because there have always been prisons, there has always been captivity—just how unjust and how cruel our current incarnation of incarceration it is. As I read Alexander’s work, and hear the history echo in DuVernay’s film, I feel that old sense of awe: there’s a whole history with a set of facts they know and have been taught but I have never learned. And without these histories, it is impossible to make sense of the present.
It’s hard to see, because we are not part of the population that it targets, and thus it is designed to stay hidden from us. Sin thrives in the shadows, in the warehouses on the edges of town we ignore, in the building whose purpose remains a mystery to us. I was thinking of our prisons as I read the the continuing horror story of China’s Xinjiang concentration camps that systematically torture millions of Uighurs fund our global supply chain.
Between 2017 and 2019, the CPC supplied at least 80,000 “graduates” of the concentration camps as labour to factories outside Xinjiang. The products they help make — from designer shoes to smart phones — course through the world’s markets. Cotton harvested in Xinjiang goes into the cheap garments sold by our retailers. To consume made-in-China products is, not to put too fine a point on it, to become implicated in the subsidisation of slavery.Kapil Komireddi, “Show no mercy: The tragedy in Xinjiang“
Reading Komireddi’s article in Critic, I gasped multiple times. The hate focused in on a single human person for no reason, for absolutely no reason other than the obliterating hate that wishes he were not on this earth and resents his presence. The hate that would rather annihilate than decimate—the sort of hate that hopes by its virulence to remove that person’s presence and memory from the earth—is the sort of demonic hate that one can never quite believe is real. It defies imagining.
But we see its seeds laying coiled in its snake form in our darkest moments, in the worst of our offenses. I heard my gasps of horror echoed in my tears of compunction. Watching Thirteenth, I gasped the same chokes of horror as I watched police offers kneel on prisoners, as you see the insides of prisons and you know why we are not allowed to go there. If we went there, the prisons would no longer stand.
The common response to prison abolition is that there are many violent people, that there are actually guilty people, and where would they go? Obviously, social sin needs to be answered with penance and reparation. Our current system is in no way such a system. It’s a systemic scapegoating and isolating of undesirable populations. It is a human sacrifice, parsed out in terms of: is it not better that this man die so that the rest of the people may live?
We think we are enlightened, but we are still splattering the blood of our neighbor on the altar to dark gods who spring from the corners of our fearful imaginations and mirror the lusts, fears, and greeds of our bloodthirsty seeds of violence.
There is less correction than coercion, less restoration than dehumanizing. Nothing about the current system of punishment is just. And clearly, it’s not working. The number of criminals who never go to jail is legion. We see criminals getting away with murder and never go behind bars. Harvey Weinstein got a slap on the wrist for years of preying on women. White-collar criminals who plunder families of fortunes lounge around in mansions. Obviously, our justice system is predicated upon some other principle than, well, justice.
Today, two men escaped from Riker’s Island, and I gasped when I saw the headline. Not a gasp for fear or horror, but, maybe solidarity or sorrow or heartbreak. What a rush of freedom they must feel, the sheer elation of being back in the world of living men tinged with the dread of being pulled back into hell. What human being could not understand those gasps?