Eastern State Penitentiary’s ‘Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration’

Part two: When facts hide the truth

As I walk through Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), I look for the museum’s most recent exhibition, Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration. The exhibition provides information on racial and other statistics of prison population. A large graph outlines the racial breakdown of the incarcerated and reiterates what we know: Black people represent the largest growing percentage of prisoners. What isn’t explained is the way racism becomes intensified in prison.

The trees in summer 1959 bore strange fruit. (Drawing courtesy of Reginald McFadden, Attica prison)

Meet the inmates

Douglas was one of only two black students in my prison art class until one day he was dragged out and thrown into solitary confinement. He was drawing a still life of flowers when guards ran into the room, rushed him out into the glass-windowed hallway, and began to beat him. The guards’ action was so sudden and aggressive even the lifers were stunned. One prisoner recovered quickly and announced, “Welcome to prison.” It wasn’t the first time I witnessed abuse — some guards cared little what I saw — but it was the most severe example.

I recall Reginald McFadden who, as a 17-year old in 1971, was incarcerated at ESP. Presently serving life in Attica, New York, Reggie describes being raped by ESP guards, but after 45 years has no way to verify that rape.

The displays explain that childhood poverty, poor role models, poor education, and sexual and/or physical abuse determine future incarceration. We understand abusers create abusers, but how do we understand accountability in terms of the generalized societal violence of an entire race upon another race?

When I asked Reggie to draw what he remembered from childhood, he drew a lynching. To what extent did this memory impact his subsequent violence? More important, how is our society held accountable for Reggie’s life of violence?

Why them and not us?

At ESP, Troy Richard’s installation "Criminal Us" seeks to determine the false parity between individuals convicted of crimes and individuals who were not. Anonymous handwritten testimonials are posted describing incidents of misconduct, but the visitor does not know whether or not the writer is incarcerated. It is not surprising to me that many push the limits of the law, and I’m not surprised by the injustice of incarceration.

Instead, I would be interested in reading individuals’s understanding of why they were not held accountable. Did they see themselves as having more privileged positions? Did that discrepancy matter to them?

I think of Raymond Palmore, who has served 25 years since he was 17 years old for a crime committed with friends who were never convicted. How do these friends experience his incarceration? Do they see Raymond as more guilty, stupid, or unlucky? Was it just because Raymond was the single member of the group who could not afford private counsel?

In polite company

ESP’s exhibitions provide information under the assumption that information begins conversations. However, it is information presented with a certain slickness. In “Six Voices,” a video by Gabriela Bulisova exploring the lives of six individuals affected by incarceration, the video has a produced quality that interferes with my feeling for the individuals, making them just more stories on a screen.

It wasn’t until this week, when I visited Alcatraz that I realized how different ESP’s exhibition is from typical prison tourism, where the focus is to entertain an audience that sees crime as a curiosity and not something relevant in their lives. Alcatraz devotes a single paper poster hanging in the exit stairwell as a nod to current prison issues. But Alcatraz has tourism revenue that would be jeopardized if the museum were to challenge visitors to experience prison as more than entertainment and interesting crime facts.

Once present-day mass incarceration is brought to the public’s attention, what is required from that public? Is the visitor encouraged to become politically involved, and if so, to what extent do reforms affect the prisoners?

Does prison reform work?

A friend sent me an email regarding legislation passed in Albany that limits solitary confinement in New York. They assumed I would be pleased by this change. Instead, I was reminded of guards’ response to legislative changes.

Noticing a row of prisoners in the prison law library working on their appeals, I asked the guards about them. To my surprise, one answered, “Bring on the reforms. An inmate working on appeals in the library after we break his rights is the best-controlled inmate.” In prison, power governs power, and what happens in the state capitol is effective only if a particular prison security unit deems it so.

The uselessness of prisoners’s appeals was echoed by a district attorney acquaintance who confided she was disgusted with inmates’s endless appeals protesting violations of their rights.

How much does legislation amend the rights of any people? Recent events suggest that despite laws in favor of equality, we have not yet learned to live with differences. A conversation on mass incarceration demands a more fundamental look at ourselves asking how the central ideals by which we live create disenfranchised individuals. We’re taught to strive for the best (best school, best neighborhood, best job) in a structure that can only determine “best” economically. From this central ideal, a periphery is created, which by definition negates that ideal. This periphery is furthered negated through identification as criminal, mentally ill, and other labels that can be manipulated when necessary.

Without challenging ourselves and holding ourselves accountable for creating a throw-away periphery that does not fit into our standards, prisons and the guards we hire will exist to do exactly what we want them to do. There is no prison industrial complex to blame. Mass incarceration is within us. 

To read part one of Treacy Ziegler's two-part series, click here.

Our readers respond

Rick Soisson

of East Falls/ Philadelphia, PA on July 18, 2016

Treacy, I have admired your writing about art, but I have some quibbles here — particularly with the Raymond Palmore story, which suggests, without particulars (who did what; what was the crime?), that Palmore's problem was a lack of money. Also, regarding your compelling ending, yep, I'd agree, we have decided to keep guns everywhere, and decided capitalism has "won" — so, absolutely, everybody wants the "best," especially those who will never get it, except possibly, materially, for a time...illegally.

Author's Response

Yes, Rick, I am suggesting that Raymond did not have the money for the same defense that his friends, who were not sentenced, had when they committed armed robbery as teenagers. He also did not have an intact family that the others had. I’m not sure if the law saw him as the leader, although Raymond says he was not. Reportedly, no one was physically hurt, and I’m not sure if any money was gained. But Raymond has not wasted time in prison; he is enrolled in the college program and is a counselor in training. California law is now looking at the sentencing of the many inmates who were juveniles when they committed their crimes but were sentenced as adults. I don’t know to what extent this has helped.

Allison Wilson

of Ithaca, NY on July 19, 2016

I really appreciate your tackling a difficult subject and hearing your informed point of view. I am currently reading Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, an important book by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. My guess is that you and he may have reached similar conclusions through your different research and experiences. Glaude discusses what he calls the "value gap" in America — that politically black lives are valued less than white lives (therefore, it is not only the KKK that are white supremacists; America is a white supremacist nation). This is clear whenever police kill black people and no one is held accountable. It explains why we have mass police harassment of black people and mass incarceration rather than a living wage and decent jobs, housing and schools for all our citizens. It helps explain why America feels justified in waging horrifically one-sided wars on non-white nations.

Until black lives are valued equally in practice, not just in theory, we will continue to be a white supremacist nation, and all of us, black and white, will suffer spiritually. But clearly blacks will continue to bear the brunt of material suffering, to our national shame.

Author's Response

Thanks, Alison, for your comments and mentioning that book. I haven’t read it yet. For a criticism of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, which so many think of as a must-read for mass incarceration, read Greg Thomas’s essay here.

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