floods reaching prisons

Removed from Society: The Prison System and the Geography of Nowhere by Chase Dimock

As the threat of Hurricane Irene loomed off the eastern coast last week, it was discovered mere hours before its arrival in New York that despite the city’s historic mandatory evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents, there was no plan to evacuate the estimated 14,000 prisoners held on Rikers Island. With the swift and efficient evacuation of the free citizens of New York, Mayor Bloomberg and the city government were praised by the media for taking steps to avoid a possible Hurricane Katrina style catastrophe. Yet, by failing to evacuate the prisoners of Rikers Island, they set themselves up to the possibility of replicating one of the most egregious episodes of human rights abuses surrounding Hurricane Katrina: the abandonment of the prisoners of the Orleans Parish Prison. According to the ACLU, prisoners at the Orleans Parish Prison were left locked in their cells as the flood reached the prison and were left without food or water for days until they were evacuated.

The incident at the Orleans Parish Prison received little notice from the mainstream press that preferred to chronicle the hardships of more sympathetic victims of the disaster. From the wardens that refused to evacuate them to the media that failed to cover them, it is evident that our society turns a blind eye to the notion that a prisoner has the same human rights and deserves the same consideration as free civilians. Upon becoming a criminal, the person in question cedes some essential element of humanity, as if his or her crime has voided his part in the social contract and his crime has been permanently etched into the offender’s DNA. What most effectively reinforces this view of the criminal in the public’s opinion is the prison space itself. Prisons are spaces that are removed from civic space of society. Once inside this space, the criminal becomes stripped of their humanity and is known only in the abstract for their crime and as a statistic in the ever-expanding, voiceless US prison population.


We base our modern beliefs in the system of crime and punishment on the idea that one who has committed a crime must be removed from society. Whether one believes in the prison system as deterrence or incapacitation, it is agreed that the function of the prison is to remove the offending individual from the society against which he or she has offended. What I find intriguing in this conventional wisdom is the idea that one can be “removed from society”, as if society is a space that can be located within a specific physical location that one can depart. Implicitly, if a criminal is sent to prison in order to be removed from society, then it holds that the prison itself is not a part of society. This line of reasoning would somehow ignore the ways in which ideologies of power, race, and human rights from society are reproduced and reconfigured within the prison space so as to produce behaviors compliant to recognizing the legitimate power of the state to punish and police incarcerated bodies. For the prison system, this assumption of a removal from society allows for a treatment of the incarcerated body outside of the most important feature of society that prevents the abuse of state power: the vigilance of civil society. While prisoners constitute their own unique form of a community, they are by definition unable to form a civil society as they have no rights to freely organize and have few avenues for the redressing of grievances. Outside of the vigilance of civil society, the incarcerated population falls from the memories and collective consciousness of society as a whole. > [Read full essay at As It Ought To Be]




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