The United States embodies many contradictions: its economy exists thanks to slave labor, yet it praises equality and the free market; it calls itself a democracy, yet restricts voting rights at every turn, insures that those with money have unwarranted political influence, and appointed Bush II to office despite his loss of the popular vote. It is the richest nation, yet its infrastructure is crumbling, its schools are decrepit, and, in general, its population suffers a lower quality of life (exacerbated by poverty and lack of access to necessities like food and health care) than its “developed” counterparts.
But there is one contradiction that is perhaps the most poignant, obvious, and undeniable fact of U.S. life: the country is supposed to value freedom above all else, yet imprisons more of its population than any other place on Earth; one out of every hundred U.S. citizens is incarcerated.
Until recently, this grim reality has, somehow, not been enough to bring a discussion of imprisonment and the enormous constellation of related issues — race, gender, crime, sexuality, the war on drugs, and so on — into the public sphere. Of course, many groups and movements have known this and have been speaking out for decades and decades. But now, at long last, the issue is beginning to become a matter of public discourse. There’s Michele Alexander’s helpful (if also problematic) book The New Jim Crow, published in 2010. There’s 2012’s The House I Live In, a disappointing but heartfelt documentary about the drug war and its relationship to the U.S. practice of mass incarceration. There was, most recently, John Oliver’s quick and helpful introduction to the central facts and related issues (the jaw-dropping racial disparities among inmates, which are the intended result of drug laws which he identifies as “a lot racist,” and the terrible conditions faced by inmates, for example).
One aspect of Oliver’s presentation stands out the most, though: the short compilation of clips taken from popular TV and film, all of which make light of prison rape. Oliver uses these clips to make an argument about how popular culture minimizes, trivializes, normalizes, and even makes comedy out of the terrifying realities of life in prison, and he’s right. But there’s so much more here. For starters, these clips hint at the deeply sexual nature of racism and imprisonment. They raise issues of sexuality and masculinity / femininity, social constructs which are deeply embedded in the thinking upon which our gender-segregated prisons are built. And they lead to questions: Why are prisons so frequently settings for pornography? Why are certain sexualities criminalized?
In making the connection between popular culture and our understanding of imprisonment, we must understand that popular culture is an important barometer and modulator of public opinion. And of course, there must to be a larger, more meaningful discussion of these issues that goes beyond the thoughtless, cruel deflections and distortions of reality that popular culture peddles.
One productive way to explore, challenge, and expand our current understanding of the realities we face is by continuing to examine the ways prison and popular culture intersect. In U.S. popular culture, police and law enforcement are so often glorified, people in jail are so often shown to be clearly in the wrong, and the underlying logic and ethics of locking people up go mostly unquestioned. The reality, of course, is much different.
Finally, it seems, the public is starting to do the work of understanding the reality of mass incarceration (which of course also means understanding racism, the manufacturing and dissemination of ideas about “criminality,” the nuances of our legal system, our economic and caste systems, and so much else). It shouldn’t have taken so long. After all, many of the people locked up are our friends, classmates, neighbors, and family members.
But now, we’re here. And so this column, along with the many other available resources, is here, too, as a place to explore and help sustain a much needed public discussion. Anyone willing to look will find an enormous body of literature by, for, and about people living in the U.S.’s prison facilities. This column seeks to engage with that body of work and with popular culture more generally in order understand and spread knowledge about the current status quo and so to help people work toward alternatives.
In the last few weeks alone, a state-sanctioned murder in a prison death chamber has gone awry, and one writer has called the entirety of Gaza an “open-air prison.” It’s clear that the subject of imprisonment — which touches the lives of so many every day — has far reaching implications for how we understand the U.S., its citizens, its culture, and its place in the world.
Eric Van Hoose is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati. He writes a monthly column for Full Stop about prisons and popular culture.