Academic journal article Social Justice

Imprisoned Bodies: The Life-World of the Incarcerated

Academic journal article Social Justice

Imprisoned Bodies: The Life-World of the Incarcerated

Article excerpt

WHY PAY ATTENTION TO THE EXPERIENCE OF THE IMPRISONED? THERE ARE SEVERAL important reasons, some sociological in nature, some phenomenological. I begin with the former. One reason, in 21st-century America, to focus on inmates is simply because there are so many. The United States now incarcerates over two million men and women. (1) In 1972, the United States held a little over 300,000 inmates (see Justice Policy Institute, 2000). This six-fold increase in the last three decades is a result of myriad factors, including the war on drugs with its focus on criminalization and punishment, and an overall trend toward longer sentences and reduced use of parole. The incarceration binge has continued largely independent of criminal activity. Crime has decreased for the last nine years, (2) during which time the prison population has risen precipitously.

Our incarceration rates are six to 10 times as great as similar Western industrialized countries. For example, we hold more prisoners in one state (California) than do the nations of France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined. The United States, though it has but five percent of the world's population, holds fully one-quarter of the world's prison population (Ibid.).

We might say the U.S. has embarked on a unique social experiment. In response to a complex variety of social ills, we respond with one "simple solution": place an ever-increasing proportion of our citizens in cages. Needless to say, this strategy has disproportionately affected minority populations whose social position is already disadvantaged. Though African-Americans compose 13% of Americans, they represent 46% of all inmates in U.S. prisons. Fully 63% of inmates are either Hispanic or black. (3)

For sociological reasons alone, it is thus important to pay careful attention to the experience of these two million. Their presence has been erased from the common society, but must not be from our scholarly and public discourse. Otherwise, the wisdom of our prison "solution" will continue to go unchallenged.

In addition to the sociological import, the experience of inmates has phenomenological meaning. Phenomenology developed as a branch of philosophy dedicated to investigating and describing the structures of human experience: time and space as lived, movement and perception, the embodied self in its encounter with objects and Others. But what happens to all these when a human being is confined for decades on end, often in cells the size of a normal bathroom? What then becomes of lived temporality and spatiality? What then the relation to one's own embodiment, or that of other people? To investigate these is to understand better the human capacity to construct a life-world even in the most constrained of circumstances.

From a sociological and phenomenological standpoint, issues of power are key within this world. The severe constraints mentioned above are imposed by state power in response to individual behaviors judged intolerable. We might say the prison exists to disempower the individual, and re-empower the threatened state. Yet the prisoner is not passive in this equation. His or her construction of a life-world is not only provoked by mechanisms of power, but constitutes a strategic response to them, sometimes carefully reasoned through, sometimes pre-thematic. I will thus examine the inmate's life-world as an active constitution. We will find that the inmate's experience of space, time, and body are interwoven with strategies of resistance, reclamation, and escape vis-a-vis a hostile environment.

Philosophically, I will draw on the work of a variety of Continental philosophers, including Heidegger's phenomenology of the life-world, Merleau-Ponty's focus on the lived body, and Foucault's attention to the body in the field of power relations. I will also draw heavily on work I did with inmates, mostly serving life sentences, in the maximum-security Maryland Penitentiary. …

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