Friday, July 11, 2014

I Went to Prison

 I was very happy about this squirrel
Today began and ended with squirrels. This morning there was a squirrel just outside our window, which I got irrationally excited about and took many pictures of.

Class began with a morning excursion to the now defunct Eastern State Penitentiary. Our tour guide Adrienne provided a historical perspective of the criminal justice system which I had not previously considered. The Eastern State Penitentiary was unique and revolutionary to the justice system in the United States and elsewhere. Previous to the Eastern State Penitentiary, punishments were either brutal, painful and involved public humiliation or consisted of chaotic, overcrowded jails were petty thieves and debtors and serial killers were all housed in a single room. The Eastern State Penitentiary provided a radical new model for punishment. It was founded by reformers (including Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush,) and was intended to be rehabilitative rather than merely punitive. The Eastern State Penitentiary was also the first instance of the use of solitary confinement. Solitary confinement was intended to help prisoners reflect on their actions and become better people, though it is known now that solitary confinement is incredibly traumatic. 
A cell in the Eastern State Penitentiary

While we walked through the prison, the layout reminded me of a panopticon, since the building was designed so that a guard could observe the entirety of every cell block from the center of the prison. (As overcrowding occurred and the prison was expanded this no longer became possible)

Like so many other buildings in Philadelphia, the outside of the Eastern State Penitentiary resembles a castle. In this case, the effect was specifically calculated to inspire fear and awe. The prison was intended to scare citizens into good behavior. I thought this was an interesting contrast to how previous methods of punishment were used to inspire good behavior. While in earlier systems, punishments for crimes involved making examples of individual lawbreakers, the Eastern State Penitentiary attempted to achieve the same goal architecturally by looking scary.

For our next activity, we listened to the artist Jesse Crimes talk about his experience of the criminal justice system. We also saw an amazing piece of art that Jesse made with hair gel and a plastic spoon on prison sheets and smuggled out of prison in pieces. The artwork was a triptych with portions representing hell, earth, and heaven. Figures of ballerinas were transposed onto the work with missing heads and the faces of celebrities. Jesse said the ballerinas represented societal norms. While in prison, he read a lot of philosophy, including Foucault and Dante and their influence was present in the work. 
Part of the art Jesse created while in prison

Jesse talked about how the system dehumanizes people and enforces separation. For instance, when inmates organized to protest the loss of their visitation rights, many people were relocated to different prisons and new prisoners from rival groups were brought in to maintain a climate of separation and disunity. Hearing Jesse's story an seeing the art he created was amazing. 

We ate lunch in the city, at a pizza place, because there wasn't time to go back to campus for lunch at the Huston Market. Afterwards, we walked past some truly awesome murals. (I like murals. A lot.)

Philadelphia is famous for its murals. This one is
my favorite so far.
When we got back to the classroom, and its beloved air conditioning, Dr. Kirk James gave an amazing talk in which he explained how the prison-industrial complex is designed to oppress marginalized groups. Kirk talked about how mainstream society otherizes minorities in order to perpetuate the cycle of mass incarceration and recidivism. Both Dr. Kirk and Jesse experienced the prison system form the inside after being convicted of drug possession as college students, in both cases for minuscule amounts of drugs. It is amazing that both of them overcame that and made or did positive, constructive things despite the injustice they experienced.

While walking back to the quad from class, Other Julia and I encountered a very curious squirrel, which displayed no fear of us whatsoever. Other Julia's Russian-accented narration of the squirrel's antics sent me into paroxysms of laughter which I did not recover from for at least five minutes. 

After I recovered from the hilarity of the squirrel situation we returned to the dorm, and shortly afterwards we went to see a movie, called Tammy with Donna. While we walked to the movie theater, the sky was beautiful. The movie itself was alright, but had I been given a choice I would have preferred to catch up on sleep. Tomorrow we go to New York City. I am excited by the prospect of returning to NYC, but I am even more excited by the prospect of going to sleep as soon as I finish this blog post. Goodnight. 

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