Removed from Society: The Prison System and the Geography of Nowhere
by Chase Dimock
As the threat of Hurricane Irene loomed off the eastern coast last week, it was discovered mere hours before its arrival in New York that despite the city’s historic mandatory evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents, there was no plan to evacuate the estimated 14,000 prisoners held on Rikers Island. With the swift and efficient evacuation of the free citizens of New York, Mayor Bloomberg and the city government were praised by the media for taking steps to avoid a possible Hurricane Katrina style catastrophe. Yet, by failing to evacuate the prisoners of Rikers Island, they set themselves up to the possibility of replicating one of the most egregious episodes of human rights abuses surrounding Hurricane Katrina: the abandonment of the prisoners of the Orleans Parish Prison. According to the ACLU, prisoners at the Orleans Parish Prison were left locked in their cells as the flood reached the prison and were left without food or water for days until they were evacuated.
The incident at the Orleans Parish Prison received little notice from the mainstream press that preferred to chronicle the hardships of more sympathetic victims of the disaster. From the wardens that refused to evacuate them to the media that failed to cover them, it is evident that our society turns a blind eye to the notion that a prisoner has the same human rights and deserves the same consideration as free civilians. Upon becoming a criminal, the person in question cedes some essential element of humanity, as if his or her crime has voided his part in the social contract and his crime has been permanently etched into the offender’s DNA. What most effectively reinforces this view of the criminal in the public’s opinion is the prison space itself. Prisons are spaces that are removed from civic space of society. Once inside this space, the criminal becomes stripped of their humanity and is known only in the abstract for their crime and as a statistic in the ever-expanding, voiceless US prison population.
The Rikers Island incident illustrates how even in the minds of public officials, the prison space is considered to be somehow geographically outside of the civic space in which it physically resides. As Julianne Hing writes in a piece for Colorlines:
Over the weekend Bloomberg announced that inmates would not be evacuated from the prison because it did not fall in the mandatory evacuation zone. However, on the city’s emergency zoning map, Rikers Island was not categorized under any zone at all. While the surrounding areas around Rikers were categorized as zone B or zone C, places of lesser danger that would likely only be seriously impacted in case Irene became a Category 2 or 3, on the city’s zoning map Rikers sits alone as an empty dot swimming in the middle of other zones where emergency plans were already in place.
Rikers Island literally has no place on this map, indicating that it is somehow not physically present in the space it occupies because as a prison, it is supposedly removed from society and removed from the consciousness of those inhabiting civic space.
With the incidents at Rikers Island and the Orleans Parish Prison in mind, I came to think of the geography of imprisonment in my home state of California. Although these prisons would never have to worry about something like a Hurricane evacuation, the prisoners incarcerated in them nonetheless face the challenge that not only is their existence ignored by the masses, but their prisons are largely invisible to the public as well. The vast majority of state penitentiaries are built in the middle regions of the state in the Central Valley and the Central Coast. This strategic location plays upon the concept of space shared by most California residents for whom the central area is an excluded middle. Having been raised in Los Angeles and educated in Northern California, I have become aware of how the physical geography of California that can be measured in miles contrasts from the social geography of the land and how the residents conceptualize distance and boundaries.
While the physical geography of California stretches along a curved latitude of earth bordered by Mexico at the south and Oregon at the north, the social geography of the state is more an archipelago consisting of the two metropoles (Los Angeles and San Francisco) with networked outposts of civilization in what is considered to be otherwise barren space between the northern and southern areas. While Norcal and Socal are seen by their inhabitants as world epicenters of culture, industry, and finance, the 300+ miles between the two is thought of as barren agriculture. Thus, farm workers have also historically suffered the same public invisibility while campaigning for their rights as well. Although I have driven through this area several times traveling from school to home and back, I had never invested much thought into the lives and industries of Central California. As a UC Santa Cruz undergrad, four times a year I drove past the prison in Soledad (3.5 hours south of San Francisco), and thought only “It must suck to live here”. The flourishing of the prison industrial complex in my home state over the span of my short life time has in part been permitted by similar dismissive attitudes of the other 25 to 30 million inhabitants of Northern and Southern California.
We base our modern beliefs in the system of crime and punishment on the idea that one who has committed a crime must be removed from society. Whether one believes in the prison system as deterrence or incapacitation, it is agreed that the function of the prison is to remove the offending individual from the society against which he or she has offended. What I find intriguing in this conventional wisdom is the idea that one can be “removed from society”, as if society is a space that can be located within a specific physical location that one can depart. Implicitly, if a criminal is sent to prison in order to be removed from society, then it holds that the prison itself is not a part of society. This line of reasoning would somehow ignore the ways in which ideologies of power, race, and human rights from society are reproduced and reconfigured within the prison space so as to produce behaviors compliant to recognizing the legitimate power of the state to punish and police incarcerated bodies. For the prison system, this assumption of a removal from society allows for a treatment of the incarcerated body outside of the most important feature of society that prevents the abuse of state power: the vigilance of civil society. While prisoners constitute their own unique form of a community, they are by definition unable to form a civil society as they have no rights to freely organize and have few avenues for the redressing of grievances. Outside of the vigilance of civil society, the incarcerated population falls from the memories and collective consciousness of society as a whole.
By viewing the prison as a space produced by society that reproduces state ideologies of the incapacitation and rehabilitation of the criminalized body but yet remains somehow removed from society itself, we can see how the Central Valley of California became the ideal location for these prisons. In her chapter on the political economy of the small, Central Valley town of Corcoran from Golden Gulag, Prison Abolitionist Ruth Gilmore describes the constellation of prisons, “Thirteen new prisons (plus five old facilities) light the night sky along the Central Valley’s “prison alley”- a 375 mile stretch from Tehachapi to Folsom” (129). I find the phrase “prison alley” to be appropriate as a characterization of this land. An alley naturally has connotations of a narrow space built for the purpose of transportation between areas of importance. The areas of importance suggest Northern and Southern California, the thesis and antithesis of the California dialectic in which the Central Valley becomes not the synthesis, but the excluded middle ground.
The Central Valley becomes such an attractive area for the building of prisons due to its excluded middle status. Anyone who makes a rest stop along I-5 in Buttonwillow or Kettleman City remarks that they are in “the middle of nowhere”. Yet, this attitude ignores the reality that the Central Valley has boomed in population over the past view decades as cities like Fresno and Bakersfield have swelled with the housing boom. Even to the residents of these newly paved suburban avenues creeping significantly closer than LA or the Bay Area to a prison town like Corcoran, the prison still remains in the geography of nowhere. Nowhere appeals to the average Californian as the idea space for the incarceration of criminals under the philosophy of the necessary removal from society because no place is truly removed from society and thus there is nowhere for the criminal to be placed. As a space outside of the Norcal/Socal imagination of the average Californian, the Central Valley thus satisfies the spatial affect of nowhere that they wish to project upon the criminalized body as an entity removed from society. The Central Valley becomes a 100-degree Siberia.
In Gilmore’s analysis of the economic misfortunes of Corcoran, a heavy emphasis is placed on how this pervasive sense of “nowhere” prevented the city from reaping the economic advantages that the city council assumed would follow from the construction of the two prisons. Gilmore asserts that Corcoran’s economic problems proceeded from a misuse and misunderstanding of the nature of their surplus land and surplus population. With the economic hardships that befell the cotton industry in the city in the 80’s, the major companies that owned the farmlands in the region sought to liquidate a portion of their assets in the form of selling land for the purpose of development. While selling the land to the government for the sake of building the prison presented the highest grossing option in terms of a dollar figure for the cotton companies, the use of the land for the prison actually decreased the productive capacities of the land for the community of Corcoran. Although the companies made less money on the land growing cotton, the city and its inhabitants made more money with the land in the form of farmland than it has in the form of a prison. This is chiefly due to the fact that the prisons hired fewer locals on that land than did the cotton farm. While it was assumed that the city’s population would expand with the creation of these jobs in the prison, little net gain has resulted outside of the statistical formality of counting the prisoners themselves as residents of the city.
Those that worked as guards and other positions in the prison came from outside the city and commuted there to work. Gilmore writes, “CDC employees shunned both localities because of their lack of retail, entertainment, and educational amenities. In addition, the town’s isolation added several thousand dollars to the cost of a new house — because of transportation charges — compared with similar abodes in larger cities” (158). This pervasive sense of the prison as located in “nowhere” extends to the psyches of those who labor in the prison itself. Despite Corcoran’s attempts to revitalize the city and attract new residents who work at the prison, the presence of prison space within the city limits overtook the social geography of the city and further enforced the status as a nowhere land.
One of the steps that we can take toward reforming the public perception that prisons are outside of society and exist in a space of nowhere is to reconceptualize “nowhere” as not an empty geographical space, but as any social space that is commonly overlooked or ignored. Gilmore argues, “The places where prisons are built share many similarities with the place prisoners come from. Rural communities stuck in economies that have languished for more than twenty years have not profited from prisons as expected. Rather, they continue to struggle for the same kinds of opportunities and protections that urban mothers want for their biological and fictive kin” (247). This observation signals a radical reconfiguration of the social geography of California. While we think of the metropoles as the very epicenter from which all the riches of cosmopolitan society emanate, we often completely disregard the lives of those dwelling in the exact center of downtown urban areas.
Downtown Los Angeles sits in an extreme dichotomy of affluence in the form of the financial and jewelry districts and the abject poverty of skid row; two different social geographies that converge in the same physical geography. Those that live within a blighted community find themselves imprisoned in their own perimeters of “nowhere”, a physical space bordered by skyscrapers and traveled by the movers and shakers of Los Angeles’ financial district, but rarely noticed by the larger population except when one of the inhabitants transgresses against their own personal space. Similar to the experiences of the farm workers in Corcoran, the monolithic presence of state economic and disciplinary power has in no form elevated the financial or social status of those inhabited the same physical space. It is only fitting that when an individual in the urban spaces transgress against the law, they are transported to a place like Corcoran, from one social geography of nowhere to another where the incarcerated and free citizens of the city share the same designation as nowhere incarnate. Thus, the prison system in California is not alone in its manipulation of the semiotics of nowhere. Rather, it is one of many spaces in the larger cultural imaginary that overlooks or represses the experiences of marginalized populations who lack visibility.