Last week I listened to an excellent Snap Judgment episode about the Covid-19 outbreak at San Quentin prison. Listening to the inmantes speak about their conditions and the impossibility of preventing the spread of C-19 in that setting was heartbreaking, and it whipped me back to a field trip I took in college as part of a sociology course on crime and punishment. The course was excellent. (I think it might have been called Deviance and Social Control or something similar?) On our reading list for the semester was Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the general thrust of which haunts me to this day even if I can’t recall any of its specifics. What sticks with me was that the exploration of how we attempt to discipline the “criminal” mind through the architectural structures in which we cage the human body.
More haunting than the book, though, was our field trip to two New York State prisons. I’m not sure which prisons they were. I’ve looked on Google Maps and there are so many prisons in the state that I can’t figure it out. But one was a maximum security prison and one a medium security prison. Again, it was so long in the past that specifics of the visits have escaped me. But two images, or impressions, registered on me with such sickening clarity that I will never shake them.
The first was in the maximum security prison. We were somehow able to actually go into the prison. I don’t know if this is still possible to do, but at that time it was. The image that is seared in my mind is of coming around the corner in this gray, miserable hallway, to be shown one of the cells. The cell was on the righthand side of the hall, and it was unbelievably tiny—barely larger than the bathroom in my 80-year-old house. Two men lived in it, caged up, locked in. That was disturbing and sickening and made no sense to me, in terms of what benefit that might offer society. But what struck me profoundly was the line of young, Black men who were being walked down the hallway from one point to another. (Work to mess hall? Showers to their prison block?) These men were practically children, my age or perhaps a little older. Every single incarcerated person I saw in that prison that day was a Black or brown man. And I remember thinking, there but for the grace of God go I—and by that grace, I meant and mean, the cosmic coin flip of being born “white” in a nation that subjects the bodies and cultures of men and women of color to extremes of policing and prosecution and imprisonment and destruction.
The second searing impression was in the medium security prison, where the inmates all slept in bunkbeds in a giant room, similar to a school gym or a National Guard armory. There were probably 100 men sleeping in that space, and I remember that our professor had shared with us that the rates of HIV infection were in the double-digits in the facility. (This was the late 1990s, when HIV was still a likely death sentence.) And I remember thinking how many of these young men in that un-surveillable giant room ran an incredibly high risk of sexual assault and being infected as the punishment for their “crimes.” These were crimes, I knew, that I and my fellow students of privilege committed regularly, like buying, selling and smoking weed. HIV for smoking weed. It was unthinkable.
That class forever shaped my views on incarceration and criminality. But that day, specifically, made an overwhelmingly giant impression on me. The immorality and inhumanity of the systems of incarceration was so clear.
Listening to the San Quentin story brought me back to that day. It gave me opportunity to reflect on how much of my views on policing, the criminal “justice” system, sentencing laws, bail requirements, enfranchisement or disenfranchisement of felons, and much more, were informed by that class and that experience. That, in my view, is what an education is good for.