Changing the subject: conversation in supermax



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CHANGING THE SUBJECT: CONVERSATION IN SUPERMAX

Lorna A. Rhodes

Here is a map of our country:

here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt.

From Adrienne Rich, Thoughts for a Prologue (An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991, Norton, 1991)
we are true warriors … /And we’ll author our own lives

From a poem by a long-term supermax prisoner

“Supermaximum” or control prisons are designed to produce a profound social exclusion, both within prison systems and in relation to the outside world. Prisoners in these facilities are held in single, sometimes windowless cells for 23 or more hours a day. They are fed through a hole in the door and taken out, under guard, only for showers or brief exercise in solitary yards. Sophisticated technologies of control, including intensive panoptical surveillance, keep human contact to the barest minimum. This form of confinement is generally considered to be “solitary” and is widely criticized for its deleterious effects on the mental condition of prisoners.

In this essay I explore a paradoxical effect of supermax confinement: in many of these prisons inmates can talk with their immediate neighbors, and even hold shouted discussions with others held nearby. Using the work of the social psychologist Michael Billig (1997;1999), I consider how these conversations reflect specific conditions of possibility inside the prison and provide one avenue for understanding prisoners’ relationship to the current exclusionary public agenda. This essay draws on ethnographic work in which I was able to talk with prisoners about their experience of living in Washington State control units.1 I confess at the outset, however, that it did not occur to me or to the colleagues with whom I worked that “conversation on the tiers” might be a topic to explore with these “solitary” inmates. Only after reading Billig did I realize that they told us about it anyway and that some of our interviews describe the effects on conversation of immobility, the absence of face to face interaction, and the magnification in isolation of cultural preoccupations imported from the outside world. My focus here is on one preoccupation in particular: the verbal persecution of presumed sex offenders and the figure of the injured child as the inspiration for this persecution.

Supermaximum incarceration is in many ways an obvious instance of what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life” (1995). The prisoner, stripped down to a mere body to be managed, is held in a kind of suspended animation as a “simply living being” (2004:70). His condition results from the application of an intensive political technology and is advertised as the necessary and lawful exclusion of the most dangerous. Agamben describes bare life as both outside and inside the political; the sovereign is defined by the power to exclude, which is in turn dependent upon the absent presence of those who are excluded. The supermax design seems clearly intended to produce this exclusionary, inside/outside effect. But what of the prisoners who are simultaneously abandoned and made to hold still as instances and representations of the power of the state? For them, the issue is how to be both outside (where they are by virtue of their exclusion from citizenship) and inside (where they also are, because their situation is defining of the limits of that citizenship).2 What I will argue here is that as prisoners struggle with this position, the peculiar conversational dynamics of the supermax unit intersect with popular ways of positioning oneself as a liberal subject to produce a hidden and problematic outpost of the public sphere.

The contemporary version of the control prison was invented at the beginning of the massive expansion of the US prison complex in the early 1980s. Multiple influences have fed this expansion, including a punitive individualism that frames crime only or primarily in terms of individual choice.3 Control facilities are a distilling of this logic within the prison system, a limit-case of the ideology of choice. They deprive prisoners of all but the most minimal options, offering the “choice,” for example, of returning a meal tray or keeping it in one’s cell as a gesture of defiance. Defiant behavior is then cited as proof that this form of confinement is necessary.4 This logic rests on a larger neoliberal and neodarwinian conception of public order in which segments of the population are written off as unfit for public life. At the same time, however, the supermax participates in what Nikolas Rose calls a technology of responsibilization (1999:74) in which even the unfit are expected to understand that they are “obliged to be free, to … enact their lives in terms of choice” (1999:87, italics in original). The conversational dynamics I describe here are a window onto one way in which this articulation of constriction and possibility – structural suppression combined with incitement to agency – unfolds under the most limiting of conditions.

In this essay I explore a particularly toxic aspect of supermax incarceration. It is important to note, therefore, that I am not attempting to present a singular “truth” of solitary confinement. Any truth of solitary – including the assumption that it constitutes inevitable sensory deprivation with inevitably mind-destroying effects – cannot do justice to the complexity of human experience even under profoundly difficult conditions. Although these environments are generally numbing and destructive, prisoners can also react resiliently by engaging for example, in religious devotion, a flourishing yoga practice, or inspired political writing. I also want to note that my observations here rest primarily on what I and my colleagues learned from interviewing prisoners; interviews were open ended, conducted in private, and engaged a wide range of prisoners with supermax tenures of differing lengths. I have been able to observe first-hand some aspects of the interior environment of these prisons – the distortion of sounds, the fragmentary conversations heard on the tiers, the possibility and difficulty of speaking through cell doors, and the rising noise level at night. But given the extreme nature of this form of confinement and its inaccessibility to prolonged or round the clock observation, what prisoners are able to say in interviews is akin to messages in bottles – small bits of a larger picture, smuggled out. Some prisoners described conversations in which they were personally involved; others took the position of observers, telling an outsider about the social scene in which they found themselves. I take these conversations as commentary on their formation as subjects, not as direct reports of their behavior or identities (Kulik 2004). Finally, I am not writing here about those prisons, edging even closer to torture chambers, where double doors prevent all sound from reaching the solitary inmate.


phantasmagoric interiors

Phantasmagoria: 1) figures on a screen that dwindle or enlarge and rush toward the observer 2) constantly shifting succession of things seen, imagined, as in a fever. (Websters New Universal Unabridged Dictionary)
Prisons have always employed some form of isolation or segregation to separate out troublemakers or simply to punish. The old segregation units still functioning in some institutions tend to be relatively primitive in terms of administrative organization. Supermax units, in contrast, are a new technology involving intensive forms of administration: practices including tight feeding and exercise schedules, programs for behavior change, and elaborate computer systems for tracking and surveilling inmates.5 At first glance these places appear bright, clean, orderly – and curiously empty. The densely walled cells with their steel doors, arranged in rows on tiers and separated by concrete and Plexiglas walls into “pods,” seem completely inimical to any kind of social interaction. But prisoners describe an environment in which certain important features are not immediately visible. One of these is that inmates are able to “earn” radios and eventually television sets. The other is that sound penetrates the cells; it is possible to talk to one’s neighbors and even to have a general, if shouted, “discussion” on a tier.6

Between 1998 and 2001 I and my colleagues at the University of Washington interviewed 97 prisoners in three of the state’s control units.7 One purpose of our study was to discover who actually lives in these facilities, thus troubling the assumption often made by corrections departments and conveyed to the public that control unit prisoners are adequately described by the phrase “the worst of the worst” (Lovell et al. 2000). Our second purpose was to document prisoners’ responses to solitary confinement, particularly its effects on their mental state and the meaning such effects had for them.8 Critical accounts of supermax prisons emphasize the negative effects of solitary confinement on the mental condition of prisoners who experience extreme states of rage, depression, or outright psychosis (Haney 2003; Kupers 1999). These psychological consequences are framed in individualizing terms, with some inmates seen as “vulnerable” and in urgent need of efforts to get them into less restrictive settings. Kirki and Morris, describing the Tamms supermax in Illinois, write that “these are harsh conditions for anyone, but … they are formidably harsh … for the mentally ill and those teetering on the brink of mental illness” (2000:401). This contention is confirmed by our interviews, in which some prisoners described mental deterioration ranging from depression and compulsive thinking to hallucinations and overwhelming rage.

However, as Kurki and Morris point out, conditions in supermax are harsh in and of themselves. Many of the prisoners we spoke with did not describe clinical symptoms, but simply stressed the difficulty of managing and resisting this environment. Here a man talks about trying to sleep despite constant noise, 24-hour lighting, poorly-regulated temperature, insufficient food, and the ever-present threat of further punishment.

In here you never really get good sleep. It’s just broken up into parts throughout night and day. You’re always tired because … the light is always on. You wrap your head with a T-shirt, but then the T-shirt comes off while you’re sleeping and the light wakes you back up. Then they have these fans that are noisy. And it’s hard to sleep because the cell is cold. I’m constantly in my bed just to stay warm. And if you try to cover up your [air] vent, your cell [is] not as cold but I don’t cover mine up because I don’t want to be stripped naked [punished by losing clothes, possessions and yard time], you know, stuck in the cell. I think we all experience low energy in here from the cold, not being able to sleep, and [from] the small amounts of food.

This prisoner portrays his confinement primarily as the lonely endurance of arduous conditions. As the psychologist Craig Haney describes and many of our interviews confirm, such deprivation tends to erode the social self; over time the prisoner may find it increasingly difficult to interact with others or even to be in their presence (2003; Gilligan 1996; Kupers 1999). But this account also hints at a larger social environment, one in which “we all” experience these conditions – including the condition of individualized exclusion -- as a collectivity.

One of the collective conditions most vividly described by prisoners is the noise that permeates these units. Cell doors are opened and closed; tier gates clank all day and at times during the night as officers make rounds. Officers talk and laugh with one another, propel rattling meal carts, and enter vacated cells to knock on walls and fixtures in search of signs of escape. Prisoners shout, bang on their fixtures and doors, and call out to one another. These sounds ricochet off the concrete walls and steel doors, and are distorted in the cavernous, reverberating interior. “It’s the noise,” said one man. “At night, they have janitors that clean and make noise. That wakes you up; that breaks your sleep, what little sleep you get. [During the day, people are] making noise or cops are also on tier. The doors are opening, shutting -- the noise is a big thing.” Looking through the small Plexiglass window in the cell door, the prisoner can see only what is directly in front of him. He hears distorted and disembodied echoes and reverberations, what one prisoner described as a “jellybowl” of sound. Inmates speak of confusing incidents in which they are overwhelmed by their inability to locate the source of a sound.

I hear people calling me. I’ll get up and go to the door and say, What, what? And, you know, it was just somebody else talking to somebody else. A lot of times when you’re standing at those doors and you’re hollering out the door, you get a ringing sound in your head … I seen a thing on Discovery one time where sound was capable of breaking a cement wall. That’s what it reminds me of, because I’ll be yelling so loud and then all of a sudden it’s like a metal vibration. It’s very disorienting -- yeah, it ain’t very good.

Sometimes inmates described this phantasmagoric quality of sensory experience in visual terms, as shifting shapes that might or might not be “something there.” More commonly, like this prisoner, they emphasized sounds seeming either faint and unclear or loud and exaggerated, their source nowhere and everywhere. “There's a lot of reverberations. It's hard - - there's somebody always dinging out [going mad] or somebody crying or hollering.” Prisoners spoke of hearing the guards threatening them, and then wondering (or realizing) that they might have imagined voices where there was only sound. Many complained about being in close proximity to others who were endlessly raving, shouting or banging on metal doors and sinks. Although some inmates spoke of their own difficulties in sorting out which sounds (and less commonly, sights) were “real,” many more pointed to others – insane prisoners called ‘dings” – as evidence of the madness-inducing potential of this environment. They described themselves, in contrast, as “strong minded.”

Prisoners who marked themselves as strong minded insisted that they were able to stay sane in the face of conditions clearly detrimental to the “coherence of the self” (Gilligan 1996).9 They expressed a “stubborn sense of agency” (Bosworth 1999:2) that emphasized the centrality of the will. For example, self-efficacy could be indicated by the appropriation of the prison’s schedule as one’s own.

I would probably sleep from breakfast until lunch unless I had morning yard, then I would go outside, do my bench pull-ups. Go back to the house [cell], or take a shower then go to the house. Eat lunch, then you’ve got from lunch until 5 o’clock for when they give dinner … that’s how you program your time. You look forward from one thing to another.

It is not obvious from the phrasing here that this prisoner only “goes back to the house” because two guards pull him from the yard, cuff and shackle him, and decide, with no input from him, whether or not he will take a shower. Instead, he employs a “strategy of reclamation” (Leder n.d.: 9) in which he “programs” and “looks forward,” internalizing coerced activity as his own.10 This strategy can give way to more toxic forms of rumination, in which the main imaginable activity is future crime. A different inmate talked about how, under the restricted stimulation of the supermax cell, obsessive thoughts would overtake him.

All day long I was thinking about chopping people up, chopping their families up and stuff like that. If I keep on going that way, I’m going to be in prison for the rest of my life and I’m going to burn in hell. If I keep going that way, I’m going to get out and be a serial killer

Beyond the issue of the content of these thoughts – which this prisoner claimed had been interrupted by a religious conversion – this comment illustrates something happening to the process of thought itself. Some prisoners called this a “sharpening” of their minds under the glare of intense confinement. One described the “strong person with a strong will” who is gradually “remade” – not into the model citizen imagined at the birth of the penitentiary, but rather into the “violent potential” that results from honing thoughts of retaliation and revenge.11

In the remainder of this essay I take up the interaction between the strong-minded prisoner and the conditions for conversation created by the facility in which he is held. Just as the interior of the supermax unit magnifies and distorts sounds, so also it can become an echo chamber for speech and ultimately for thought. It becomes a public space, but one in which the public life outside is prone both to intensify and to congeal. “Strength” itself becomes the magnification and assertion of a toxic form of citizenship, one that distills latent possibilities for action and enables an unusually “public” voicing of hatred and violent intent.


unspoken matters

In Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious, Billig argues that repression is best understood not as a psychic operation in which instinctual responses are pushed down into the unconscious, but rather as the active production of both the interpersonal and the interior “unsaid.” “What is said,” notes Billig, “habitually ensures that there are unspoken matters” (1999:216). By this he means, first, that throughout life the habits of acceptable speech are internalized, ensuring that the fabric of social interaction also becomes the interior speech of thought. Secondly, he means that language itself is habitually – that is, repetitively, predictably – suppressive. Turn taking, redirecting, and other rules of ordinary conversation set up an inevitable tension between what should and should not be spoken; these, in turn, offer and shape opportunities for transgression. Conversation is thus at once productive and repressive, but not because it is subject to primarily unconscious processes below the level of words. Rather, the unconscious is produced by language in the first place.12

Under ordinary conditions of human interaction, conversation is made possible by many small but essential agreements governing turn-taking. One point Billig emphasizes is that “Routinely, we are able to change the subject, pushing conversations away from embarrassing or troubling topics” (1999:51). Jarvis Jay Masters provides an example of this in Finding Freedom, an account of his incarceration at San Quentin. In a chapter entitled “Scars,” he tells how an attempt to discuss his own encounter with “repressed” material is rebuffed by his peers. He had been reflecting on how the childhood experiences of abuse and neglect that had scarred his body had previously seemed disconnected to his current situation as an inmate with a life sentence. At that point he noticed something that had been until then invisible to him. “I looked around the yard and [saw] that everyone else had the same deep gashes – behind their legs, on their backs, all over their ribs – evidence of the violence in our lives… (1997:67)” When Matthews decided to broach the subject of his own experience to his friends, men he had known since they were together in juvenile detention, “what I [said] saddened them. [But] they avoided making the connection between my experiences and theirs” (1997:71). They remembered their histories but interpreted them differently. One man, John, “explained that his father loved him enough to teach him how to fight when he was only five years old… Laughing, he [pointed to a nasty scar] and told us that his father had hit him with a steel rod when John tried to protect his mother from being beaten… He could remember every detail… yet … he wanted nothing of what he shared with us to be interpreted, even remotely, as child abuse” (1997:68-9).

Masters found, in other words, that these men had “repressed” their experience, not by forgetting it or relegating it to some domain beyond language, but by pushing it away through their use of language itself. Asked about his scars, John “seemed ashamed. Avoiding our eyes, he mumbled a few words ...” (1997:69). Even when persuaded to describe what had caused them, he insisted “The day I got used to being beaten … was the day I knew nothing would ever hurt me again” (1997:71).13

I will return to the content of this conversation, but first, consider here what we normally take for granted. John is able to change the subject. Even in a prison yard he can use his body and voice to signal his unease. In fact, in the very process of admitting he was changed by what happened to him, he is able to reproduce the means by which he learned to dismiss that change. In terms of habits of talk, the prison yard Masters describes is no different from any other conversational environment. But in a supermax unit something is different: it is a uniquely difficult place to change the subject. Although, as Billig notes, “turn-taking systems are vital for social life” (1999:83) men confined on supermax tiers are able not only to call and shout to one another, but just as significantly, at one another. Prisoners complain that it is impossible to divert or interrupt a neighbor determined to dominate the space of the tier. Conversation on the tiers is thus affected by the possibility that some topics can be pushed further than they might be in any other setting.
solitary” … and not

The cell doors in supermax facilities are made of heavy steel (not barred), often with an additional steel plate that extends to cover the crack between the door and the frame. The small window is made of thick Plexiglass. Nevertheless, by standing right against the door and aiming one’s mouth toward the edges, one can make oneself heard on the other side.14 In some prisons the pipe chase carries sound as well. Prisoners sometimes speak matter-of-factly of the conversations made possible by these features. This man is describing a neighbor known also to the interviewer:

[There are] some real cunning fellows out here, a lot of them have got some kind of game goin’ on all the time. [But he] did not. All he wanted to do was to die. I got to talk quite extensively to him. And there's no doubt in my mind - he tried to commit suicide a number of times before he committed those murders. We talked about it. Yeah, I was right next to him.

Some prisoners spoke of positive effects from this potential for intimacy. “You’ve got to get around good people,” one explained; like the prisoner quoted earlier, he took up a position of agency despite his actual lack of control over the composition of his tier. Inmates spoke of talk with “good people” – friends from the streets or general population or new acquaintances made in supermax itself – as something that could, with a bit of luck, become a routine part of intensive confinement. “But usually everybody, from breakfast until, you know 11:00, 12:00 at night do their talking, communicate with their partners on the tier or whatever …” “During the day, there might be people talking. And I don’t hold it against them because I talk too.” In these conversations alliances may be made or solidified, news discussed, help proffered.

I got a couple good partners on the tier, next door to me, so I can talk to them and communicate and shit. See, I’m on a good place right now, and how we lucked out is my tier is all [from a prison where he was held earlier]. I know everybody. So we don’t have no spastics like the people who go crazy. We got all good people. Because [control unit] time is real easy if you don’t have nothing annoying you. It’s real easy to get annoyed, you know what I mean?

Indeed, prisoners described a huge potential for interpersonal annoyance in this environment. Many were quick to insist that they tried to avoid interaction. “You don’t want to get to know anybody in here, really.” “Prison is basically mind your own business and do your own time and then you don’t have no problems.” One inmate gave this example of the unpredictability of casual engagement with a neighbor.

My next door neighbor was a mental health patient, [he had] some type of mental health problems, and me and him were talking every now and then. And one time I said to him, What time did they [the guards] say you were getting yard? And he snapped and freaked out. What, am I a cop or something? What, am I the police? And he just freaked out.

But even those who claim that they “keep to themselves” describe a situation in which certain hazards are difficult to avoid. One man said:

The only thing you can really do is just sit in your cell and mind your own business. I don't really talk to [but] one person, right next door. He is from the same type of gang I am. I just keep to myself … But I am not afraid to speak my opinion. If somebody is saying something that I don't agree with, I am not going to stand there and just let him. Hey, that is wrong. You shouldn't even be talking like that.

The movement here from minding one’s own business (at least as an ideal) to policing the talk of others points to an important feature of life in the larger prison environment. There, where prisoners must share a cell and are managed in groups, the need to gain power over interactions with disliked or dangerous others is a pervasive theme. “Respect” consists of elaborate rules governing speaking, turn taking and staring. One man, speaking of the fear of making a mistake, said, “I’ll be talking to somebody and next thing you know I might say a word that just might hurt his feelings … And … you’re talking to people in prison. You’ve got to watch what you say because you can get big problems!” These rules of respect are a surfacing into conscious concern of what Billig calls “norms of politeness” that cannot be broken without “speakers feel[ing] that social and moral infractions have occurred” (1999”84). “Politeness” in this sense does not imply decorum; rather it is a general and usually unspoken agreement among speakers as to how speech is to proceed. These norms govern give and take with such force that transgressions “are likely to be judged in moral terms” (1999:85). Billig’s point is that this structuring of conversation insures that transgression will occur. “Because talk depends on the constant practice of order and restraint … the very conditions of language may create hidden temptations, which need to be routinely suppressed, if conversation is to be successfully … accomplished” (1999:84).15

The supermax environment upends the practice of “order and restraint” by providing an opportunity to talk without being interrupted or stopped. “Talking shit” is what prisoners call talk that transgress the rules of ordinary conversation both in its content and in its disregard for the feelings those nearby. The prisoner who provokes those around him from the safety of his supermax cell is called a “cell warrior.”

Cell warriors can talk all the shit they want because they’re in the cell and you can’t get to them. If you get next door to one of these guys, you’re going to go crazy. He can jump on his [metal] bed when you’re trying to sleep. I’ve had one guy, this bastard, he would time it perfect. I would be just about going on to a deep sleep. Bam! He’d bang on his bed. Just one time, just jump on his bed. And for 72 hours straight every hour on the hour, bam, bam. It would drive you mad. [And], you know how they got everybody’s name and number up there in the office? So this bad guy, he’d been [in supermax] for six, seven years, so that’s going to do something to your mind anyways. He’d go read the board and find out people’s names and he’d come back and just start talking shit. It’s going to suck you in. You’ve got someone talking out on the tier, yelling your name out and all that shit. And it’s going to drive you nuts to where you want reply. That’s their whole program, seeing what kind of reaction they can get from people around them.16

This comment starts with the crazy-making, infuriatingly regular noise of a neighbor deliberately banging on the metal bed in his cell. But blending with and emergent from such noise is the species of verbal aggression made possible by these units. The inmate quoted has lost the capacity to control social interaction; he can be provoked indefinitely with no way to signal (or force) the other to stop what he is doing. “It is crucial,” Billig says, “that speakers recognize when one another’s turns of speaking and silence are coming to an end” (1999:84). This recognition is as important to an argument as it is to a courteous exchange. Here, however, taking a turn (“wanting to reply”) is hazardous because the prisoner being targeted would reveal his presence; none of parties here – the cell warrior, the person he insults or the surrounding “audience” on the tier – can see one another. The architecture of the supermax unit, then, provides an opportunity to transgress the normal limits imposed on conversation. While the “good neighbor” conversations described above subvert to some extent the isolation imposed by these prisons, the relationship between the cell warrior and those forced to listen to him introduces a different dimension altogether. It is the stripping down of the prisoner – the removal of one of the most basic of social options – that makes him vulnerable to this form of forced intimacy. Yet at the same time, that intimacy is not just a contradiction of his isolation but an expansion of it.
hating the baby raper

Here were America’s lost children – surviving in rage and in refuge from society. (Masters 67)
Crimes against children are a preoccupation of many prisoners. In general population, the more aggressive may search out and persecute known or suspected sex offenders. Prisoners also police one another, so that avoiding any contact with sex offenders constitutes an avoidance of moral contamination and a matter of social survival.17 “You’re not supposed to talk to child molesters and rapists or anything like that,” a prisoner explained, for so doing “could lead up to a violent type of thing in population.” The potential for unearthing and making use of an inmate’s crime is what the prisoner quoted in the previous section meant when he said that a “bad guy” could find ammunition for his verbal assaults by learning names and numbers from the office board.18

Thus a major area of intensity and hazard in supermax involves the presence of sex criminals and especially of child molesters. One long term control unit prisoner said that much conversation on tiers consists of details of crimes about which inmates “exaggerate and brag.” “I’m a crack dealer, a bank robber, a murderer. It’s a lot of conversation about nothing, you hear it a thousand times. But rapists keep it quiet.” This remark reflects the hierarchy of crimes in the prison’s general population, where murder is opposed to sex crime as a prestigious offense. This prisoner went on to explain: “It’s the outlaw code, outlaw moral values. This is an unacceptable crime. The bracket of the snitches [informants to the prison system] and the child molesters is the lower bracket.” One prisoner, who wore a faded but spectacular tattoo of a warrior, had been returned to prison for attacking and almost killing someone he believed was a child molester.

We are the pieces of shit of society. People don’t like us [but] it’s hard for [us] to accept that. I mean, you try to find something good about yourself …well, one of the things is child molesters. Once you’ve been in prison for awhile you hate child molesters. Are we going to let them walk around with a smile on their face? We try to express a lot of compassion for children in society so we’re not complete beasts. It’s just one way that we try to make up for what we’ve done. So we’re not so bad. But it is bad … you have this head of steam as you come out of prison. Like me shooting that guy, it’s stupid.

A former prisoner made the same point:

Inmates are the bottom of the barrel and fingers are pointed at them. [With sex offenders] they have a chance to point to someone else, so they’re not on the very bottom. And someone who is preying on children is most likely weak [himself] so the inmates can prey on him.

Expressing compassion for “children in society,” pointing the finger away from oneself to those who harm them, offers an escape, at least momentarily, from being the lowest -- a “beast” -- oneself.

These comments also suggest the possibility, or even the felt necessity, of vigilantism in the name of the child-victim. The “outlaw” acts outside the law because he finds it inadequate to the horror of the crime; despite the consequences, he has some expectation that his intervention will be appreciated – if nothing else, when he is returned to prison. In this fragment of a poem, a prisoner whose “reputation” was based, in part, on the purity of vengeance expressed in his own crime, attacks the stupidity of the legal calculus.

Because while you keep the righteous outlaw locked away in these dungeons/You pander to these miscreants/And child molesters/And rapists/Even releasing the predatory cowards/Back into your own neighborhoods/To prey on your wives and children/And you actually have the audacity /To feel good about yourselves for/Keeping the real bad guys slammed.

Speaking of the hatred of child molesters, this man said, “When we leave and take this back to society we [that is a murderer like him and a sex criminal] are on two different levels. You’re an outcast, and it’s like you’re a sheep and I’m a wolf. We can’t leave this world behind.” It is “our” neighborhoods to which rapists are returned, yet “your” wives and children on whom they prey. And “you” are an outcast and a sheep, “I” am a wolf, but “we” are the ones bound to the world of prison. What is happening in this slippage between “we” and “you?”

James Kincaid describes sexual child abuse as a culturally resonant and historically specific story that took shape in the early 1980’s and gained speed in the mid-nineties. In this story – regardless of its details or permutations -- “we protect the fundamental idea … that child molesting is a clearly defined … discernable activity engaged in by others who can be … identified and punished, maybe even eliminated altogether” (1998:23). The vulnerable child – “not yet burdened with adult responsibility” (1998:15) -- and the molester or predator are mutually dependent images of innocence and “motiveless malignity” (1998:88) According to Kinkaid this is a Gothic tale “we” are telling ourselves, “a master story of evil and innocence [in which we] “regard the dangers as ubiquitous and inhuman, demonic” (1998:74). Folding the possibly skeptical reader into the cultural “we,” he explains that “I am speaking of stories that blow through all of us … We who? ‘We’ is the we watching 60 minutes, protecting our children, chemically castrating “sexual predators” (1998:5). Kincaid of course acknowledges the diversity of this we, but he insists that it has, at this point, no outside. “We all” participate by virtue of consuming the ubiquitous imagery of child vulnerability and by aligning with the powerful innocence projected onto children in a variety of cultural products.19

It is this “we all” that prisoners, in their hatred of the baby raper, claim to join. In the revealing grammar of the prisoner who spoke about not being a beast, one of the “good things” you can “try to find about yourself” is “child molesters.” The good here is ordinary citizenship, the public “we” that hatred of the molester allows one to participate in. Kincaid himself makes this point, noting that those who kill convicted sex offenders in prison are acting out the revenge fantasy implicit or explicit in the public story. “We include within the Gothic circuitry [of the story] even prisoners, who are provided a role that allows them rewarding social responsibility, making the murder of jailed sex offenders not uncommon. The recent translation of ‘sexual offenders’ into ‘sexual predators’ transforms these particular criminals into ogres, beyond redemption and with no claim on human civil rights” (1998:11). Kincaid quotes the Los Angeles Times of February 2, 1995: “The fact is that monsters prey on children … with alarming frequency and constant vigilance is demanded” (1998:73). “Righteous” prisoners respond to this demand, interpolated as citizen warriors who have taken upon themselves – at least hypothetically -- the defense of “our” neighborhoods. They thereby become like wolves, not full members (with wife and children) but both outcast and inside “society.” One prisoner said, “I do think that there’s some people that might deserve [to be killed], but I don’t feel that the guy that I’m accused of killing, I don’t think he deserved that.” To kill someone who deserves it is to be simultaneously an outcast and the “responsible” agent of a moral agenda that the law is too weak to support.

Kinkaid’s use of “we” thus offers an important clue to what happens when the preoccupation with child abuse enters the phantasmagoric interior of the supermax. What is unsaid in the gothic tale of abuse circulating outside and into prison is that the listener can – even must, if he is to be morally whole – take matters into his own hands. “Pedophiles have not really been … ‘othered,’ or marginalized; they have been removed from the species, rendered unknowable” (Kincaid 1998:88). Supermax confinement allows this othering to be ratcheted toward annihilation, producing a speaker whose threats cannot be curbed, a target who can neither leave nor change the subject, and an audience that cannot not hear. One prisoner described the effect of being forced to listen to the taunts of his fellows. “I was in the hole in county jail because they can't put me anywhere in general population ‘cause everybody knows what I went down for in 95. People like to talk shit to me while we're locked up in the isolation and anytime I get out of isolation I beat the hell out of [them].”

But there is, of course, more than one layer to this play of the said and unsaid unfolding in supermax, for the same conditions that enable such verbal persecution can also foster a rejection of the taunter/tauntee dynamic. In one “good neighbor” story, the sex offender next door became a player in a drama of rescue and redemption. The slips and hesitations in the first part of this quote suggest either the contaminating effect of contact with a sex offender or the speaker’s inadvertent admission of complicity.

I’ve been persecuted many times because other sex offenders-- uh, I’m not a sex offender-- but other-- sex offenders -- I shouldn’t have said “other”-- but a sex offender, uh, like [my neighbor] uh, anyway, he’s a sex offender, and he’s a Christian but he’s on many mental health drugs. I got him off most pills. And he’s walking with the Lord a lot more now, and he’s not sleeping all day. I would talk to him, even though all these other people I’ve known in prison, they [would say] ‘Okay, so you’re telling me you’re going to put your arm around a child molester or rapist?’ And before I would never have done something like that. Never. I would have assaulted him.

A similar willingness to help was expressed by an inmate who said “If [my neighbor] was on main line [in general population], I wouldn't give him the time of day. Because to me, other people that saw him would think he's a rapo. [But in here] what are they [other inmates] gonna do?” “Usually, said another prisoner, “I wouldn’t ever talk to those people in my whole life. When I wasn’t a Christian, I would just jump on top of those people.” Paradoxically here, the lockdown environment provides security for a new freedom of association.

These men describe themselves looking back at a younger, less religious, and/or more intolerant self, and use the contrast to chart a change in attitude; for this purpose the code governing inmates’ behavior toward sex offenders opens up an area for transgression and a new self-definition. Some of those who had made this change told of attempts to police others by interrupting their shouting on the tiers. “I find myself yelling out on the tier at the individuals that are causing this [preying on child molesters], saying ‘hey, I am not sure you are aware of what you are doing.’”

Whether a prisoner transgresses the unsaid in the larger tale of abuse (I will act out society’s hatred) or in the tale told in prison (I will be kind to child molesters), he insists on his integrity as a social actor. He positions himself as a “warrior” or rescuer, not a victim. But perhaps some of the charge carried by this insistence is coming from repression occurring closer to home, for what has been repressed, according to Billig, is what has been “argued down” in the process by which internal speech mirrors interaction. “What is not said, but could easily have been, and, indeed, on occasions is almost said but then removed from the conversation, becomes of prime significance” (Billig 1997:152). The almost-removed, that which haunts a conversation in which it is not said, shows up in our interviews as it does in Masters’ account of “scars.” Hesitatingly, a few prisoners spoke of how the isolation and “time to think” brought back memories of injuries and violence in their own lives.

The longer I’ve been in here the more it starts to come back … the bad memories come instead of the good memories, all the bad things … in here after a while it just starts coming back to haunt me, man. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, and I’ll be totally upset.


I see myself slipping into somewhere I don’t want to go … it is like my mind is trying to go somewhere else. Something real bad happened to me [as a kid] and I used to try to do things else when it was happening, block it off and go to a different place.

One man, who regarded the murders he had committed as relatively benign in comparison to child abuse, described a revenge fantasy that had preceded his crime. “I used to go out late at night and walk and walk … deep down inside I feared I could go on a serial murder spree, maybe [killing] child molesters to get back at what happened to me as a kid …”

These are the same prisoners who insist that they are strong minded, not vulnerable. But as this last quote suggests, perhaps the victim nearest to hand haunts their fury at the child molester and their preoccupation with the figure of the child who has been harmed.20



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