“Nothing Stirred in the Air”

tags: criminal justice, prisons, Mass Incarceration, radical history, prison abolition

In the essay “Reflections on Being Buried Alive,” Susan Rosenberg describes her first time entering the Lexington High Security Unit for Women. Rosenberg, a white lesbian and member of several feminist and anti-racist revolutionary groups, writes:

We stood at the electronically controlled metal gate under the eye of one of eleven security cameras, surrounded by unidentified men in business suits. We were wearing newly issued beige short-sleeved shirts, culottes, and plastic slippers. We were in handcuffs. An unidentified man had ordered us placed in restraints while walking from one end of the basement to the other. The lights were neon fluorescent burning and bright, and everything was snow-white — walls, floors, ceilings. There was no sound except the humming of the lights, and nothing stirred in the air. Being there at that gate looking down the cell block made my ears ring, and my breath quicken. 1

What is remarkable about Rosenberg’s writing from Lexington is how it elucidates the material banality of carceral violence. A snow-white room. The humming of lights. Eleven cameras. Dead air. Her ears rang and her breath quickened, not at the spectacle of what was before her, but at its normality, its routineness, its technological perfection. The unimaginable violence of the Lexington High Security Unit was cloaked in a new visual episteme. It was clean, quiet, modern, rational, and orderly — men in suits, burning lights, plastic slippers. Lexington helped inaugurate a variety of psychological and physical contortions of the mind and body that are now so routine they remain invisible. Confronting the logics behind the unit would necessitate an epistemology able to see the rationality and mundaneness of contemporary carceral terror and its reproduction in walls, floors, and ceilings.

The Lexington High Security Unit embodied a new type of penal rationality that, even once Lexington was shut down in 1988 after Amnesty International declared it “deliberately and gratuitously oppressive,” has spread to over 60 prisons across the country and the world. 2 These “control units” — prisons within prisons — instituted a more permanent and more enduring form of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation, which in the mid-1980s would come to be called “super-maximum security” or “supermax” prisons. 3 In these units people are confined to six-foot by eight-foot cells for 23 hours a day, often indefinitely. There are no congregate exercise, dining, or work opportunities; no religious services; no relief. Most prisoners in control units will never see the horizon or night sky; they will never smell fresh air, hear trees rustling in the evening wind; they will never touch another human being. Many prisoners have lived in these “breathing coffins” for decades. 4 Prison administrators argue that control units assist with the management, control, and security of people who have been designated “violent” or “disruptive” — people who pose a threat to the safety and security of traditional high-security facilities and whose “behavior can be controlled only by separation, restricted movement, and limited access to staff and other inmates.” 5

Anti-racist, feminist, and queer activists were subjected to this new form of state violence before it rose to dominance in the 1990s. We can turn to their writings from prison as a critique of how carceral space was animated anew in the aftermath of the radical and revolutionary movements of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as how it began to target the feelings, senses, and affects of imprisoned people, which were believed to be potentially insurgent by the racial state. New forms of penal design thus targeted these feelings, senses, and affects in the name of counterinsurgency. When Rosenberg looked down the cellblock, she saw something she couldn’t yet describe — something prisoners continue to say is indescribable. She knew something was coming. And what she saw made her senses fail.

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