“The value of blackness resided in its metaphorical aptitude, whether literally understood as the fungibility of the commodity or understood as the imaginative surface upon which the master and the nation came to understand themselves” -Saidiya Hartman in Scenes of Subjection
In 1989, a store called Corrections Connection opened its doors on South Main Street in Pendleton, Oregon. While the brick-and-mortar store has since closed, its products remain available on the Corrections Connection website, allowing virtual access to “durable” goods that not only “[fill] the needs of hardworking individuals or the casual dresser” but also serve as a “conversation piece.” This “conversation,” conducted honestly, might begin in one of two places: federal money from drug seizures and a plan to defray incarceration costs, coming together to form the Prison Blues program. Taking over a defunct 47,000-square-foot garment factory, the company has worked with eighty incarcerated individuals to produce a line that they describe as “the original, authentic, prison-made clothing brand.” While most beneficiaries of prison labor attempt to hide that fact, Prison Blues is remarkably candid and even celebratory about the work program. The site proudly proclaims that incarcerated laborers keep about twenty percent of their earnings, about $120 per month, while the rest of the profits go to reducing incarceration costs, touted as saving taxpayer dollars.
The garments, still produced and sold today, remain popular. A testimonial on the website’s homepage praises the “good work” of the “guys,” inviting the reader to rush to the production floor to give them “a pat on the back,” and admires the jeans for being “American-made.” Even if these incarcerated laborers do not continue to “tailor upon their release,” the consumer can rest assured “that they will have an applicable job skill as well as a work ethic that may have been previously lacking.” Not only does the consumer of Prison Blues support ‘American business’ in his choice of Prison Blues, but also the rehabilitation of the (male) prisoners. To consume these goods is to be a good citizen, reducing the tax burden of incarceration while promoting the transformation of deviant, idle, anti-State prisoners into hard-working “guys.” Prison Blues’ consumers are constructed, through the website’s curation of reviews and general rhetoric, as always-already law-abiding and productive white male citizens, whose national belonging never comes into question.
Built on the expropriation of incarcerated labor, the theatrics of the prison become apparent in Prison Blues’ moralization of two positions: one a criminal indebted to the nation, and the other an honest, hard-working man performing the rehabilitative savior from the outside. Within the theatre of the prison, itself produced through histories of slavery, these two subject positions – the criminal and the law-abiding citizen – are racialized. This racialization is encoded both in the coerced labor that produces the clothes and through the significations of the clothes themselves by those who wear them. As a costume, Prison Blues’ denim jackets and work jeans move against the black-and-white stripes or khaki jumpsuit of the prisoner, serving to fashion a form of white, masculine subjectivity. These can both be considered uniforms, serving to mark a population en masse rather than an individual. Yet in the pared down, rugged, denim aesthetic, the white everyman can signal his detachment from excess or luxury, positing labor not as instrumental but as a good in itself. The market-determined system of choice through which he acquires these clothes allows him to perform a kind of choice, his clothing marking a moralized simplicity of lifestyle.
The “everyman” lifestyle advertised by Prison Blues, along with citizens’ praising the ‘hard work’ of incarcerated workers, aligns with a conception of “American” labor devoid of class, race and gender relations. The purity of “hard work,” and the “ordinary” consumer’s recognition of that work, becomes the narrative through which the consumption of the citizen and the salvation of the incarcerated worker become intertwined. As seen in the testimonials, the consumption of these clothes is not just a matter of the individual citizen crafting his own style. For it is precisely through this narrative of noble consumption — that to consume the products of incarcerated workers is to encourage “hard work” and therefore to participate, as a proper citizen, in the prisoners’ salvation — that the dynamics of property, contract, selfhood and race are sufficiently concealed as to allow the citizen to be at once an ‘everyman’ and savior. By praising the prisoner’s ‘hard work’ and wearing the clothes with pride, the citizen imagines that he is not simply giving the prisoner a compliment but acknowledging and affirming his own vitality as a citizen with moralized purchasing power and consigning the prisoner to a form of vitality that is legible only through his labor. This imagined vitality conceals the precarity of the prisoner’s livelihood and the coerced nature of his labor, as well as the history through which the modern prison, the unacknowledged site of the citizen’s fantasy, actually emerged.
Inextricably bound to notions of property, contract, selfhood and race, the modern prison constructs two subject positions, whiteness and blackness, which Nikhil Singh describes as arising out of a racialized history of policing. These two positions are constituted such that whiteness is a position of propertied vitality that arises from contract relations, while blackness is imagined to be a threat to property and contract and “imagined to harbor a potentially criminal disregard for propertied order” (Singh 1091). The prison and the police function as a theater in which a white, propertied order is reified through the imprisonment of deviant bodies, marked primarily by race. The prison enacts what Saidiya Hartman terms the “afterlives of slavery,” and Fanon’s insight that the colonized people might as well be dead if their material and symbolic labor were not so profitable.
In “Whiteness of Police,” Singh argues that police function as a racialized counter-insurgent force that protects and upholds a certain property order based in contracts. Singh writes that policing “emerges from the governance of property and its interests in relationship to those who have no property and thus no calculable interests, and who are therefore imagined to harbor a potentially criminal disregard for propertied order” (Singh 1091). Inextricably tied to racial formations in imperialism, colonialism and slavery, modern policing emerges out of the establishment of slave patrols. First direct counter-insurgent measures, slave patrols and other militias designed to protect the masters and the institution of slavery criminalized blackness as disorder. Enacting this criminalization, the Georgia General Assembly proclaimed patrols should be instituted for “preventing the many dangers and inconveniences that may arise from the disorderly and unlawful meetings of Negroes and other slaves” (qtd. in Singh 1091). In the very act of meeting as a collective with sovereign interests, enslaved people challenged the dominant order of slavery that established their bodies and minds as mere fungible commodity, without desires and rights. In an attempt to preserve white definitions of property (with black bodies commodified as such), the Georgia General Assembly criminalized black collective life as unlawful disorder. His accurate assertion that the prison and its systems (policing, and later parole, welfare) are a core of state power aimed at “managing dispossessed and dishonored populations” gestures towards the specific biopolitical character of the prison, which racially organizes and manages criminalized populations such that they remain bodies to be excavated, a situation beneficial to the growth of capitalism (Wacquant 80).
While slavery ensured a source of free labor and confined enslaved people, the antebellum period posed the problem of legally freed black people, resulting in new methods of managing criminalized bodies. The immense productive capacity of the southern plantation system drove the expansion of the United States and growth of capitalism across the nation, but came under threat after the Civil War. Against this threat of disorder, abolitionists turned to the task of educating the freedmen and acclimating them to the hard-working American way. Hartman, in her study of early texts, educational manuals and other pamphlets aimed at freedmen, writes that these materials “strived to inculcate an acquisitive and self-interested ethic that would motivate the formerly enslaved to be dutiful and productive new laborers” (Hartman 3). This threat of the collapse of the southern economy, which would have likely led to the collapse of northern industry reliant on the export of cotton, drove reformers and other progressives to impress a pious work ethic by criminalizing and racializing vagrancy and idleness while cultivating consumer desire. Hartman argues that “the mobility of the freed, their refusal to enter contractual relations with former slaveholders, and their ability to subsist outside wage labor relations because of their limited wants” were criminalized to make the “formerly enslaved as rational individuals and dutiful subordinates” (4). Infamous vagrancy laws and the strict enforcement of exploitative tenant farming contracts criminalized a way of life outside of the propertied order defined by hard work (threatened by idleness) and property ownership (threatened by vagrancy and nomadism) as metrics of success. Through this criminalization, vitality is forcibly circumscribed within the realm of labor.
Although the criminalization of idleness and vagrancy supported the growth of capitalism, these crimes are distinctly racialized as Black. Singh terms the practices of policing aiming to manage these criminal populations as the “whiteness of police,” a term suggesting the manner in which policing is designed to uphold a propertied order defined as white. Singh understands whiteness and blackness as subject positions and modes of perception that, while correlating to and being produced out of racial identities, correspond to certain defined positions within racial capitalism rather than being “strictly reducible to specific white people or black people” (Singh 1096). He writes that in opposition to whiteness, which is a status of holding “social, political and economic freedoms” (1091), blackness, the primary object of police, “was by this time an increasingly thick and naturalized but also fungible way to define a (state of) being whose relationship to contract was untrustworthy and unstable and at worst null and void, requiring permanent supervision and when necessary direct domination” (1095). Thus, the idleness and vagrancy of the freedman, which challenge labor and land contracts, are dually criminalized and racialized.
The racialized architectures of prison cordon off the dispossessed into an invisible realm of social death, in which the body is ‘alive’ insofar as it can work and be punished for deviating, but ‘dead’ with regard to rights. The prisoner’s wage labor is conflated with his vitality and freedom. With the specter of antebellum slavery surfacing in the contemporary, the carceral institution functions as a source of undead social reproduction that enforces a neoliberal, white, propertied order by employing incarcerated bodies as foils for the dominant subjectivity. As a result, lack of work ethic, excessive leisure and pleasure, and immodest displays of wealth mark the criminal body, and constitute a threat to the moral order. The criminal is imagined as too lazy or pleasure oriented to agree to the compact that we describe as work ethic. Thus, the Prison Blues program defines hard work and honesty as the remedies to pay back the debts incarcerated individuals owe to society. Such debts are accrued through nominal action against property and capital, though being racialized as Black is itself considered such action when national belonging is constituted through whiteness and property. The national imagination thus confers and recalls citizenship in accordance with dominant subjectivity.
The policing of blackness thus enables and reproduces white hegemony. By criminalizing vagrancy, idleness and restricting black people’s rights through poll taxes and voter registration laws, the imprisonment of primarily black bodies reified contract relations, property and land ownership as proper. Linking colonial practices to the antebellum period, Lisa Guenther paraphrases Fanon to describe the colonial predicament: “The black man has no being in the colonial world beyond his opposition to the white man, who reduces him to a negative foil for his own identity while exploiting his labor and resources and disavowing their contributions to his own wealth” (Guenther 55). By demonstrating what and who the white order was not, the imprisonment of freedmen served to construct a white subjectivity aimed at preserving an order inextricable from the tenets of capitalism that demand a politically dispossessed class of unskilled laborers.
Although the policing of deviant bodies aimed and aims to assimilate them into a dominant, white order, a temporal separation emphasized in these freedmen pamphlets places the freedman in a positions of mimicry. Hartman points to the grammatical structure of these pamphlets that narrated the freedman’s desires in the future tense. The pamphlets often emphasized that the freedman “was eager to be…” suggesting a proper path towards assimilation, but placing the freedman always behind, as not quite realized (23). Although the logic of incarceration urges a path toward freedom through labor, the black body, even when attempting assimilation, can never fully become a part of the white order. The logics of assimilation and merit rely on the occlusion of structural anti-Blackness. Homi Bhabha crystallizes this asymptotic relation, suggesting that “mimicry is a production of the subject as same and other” (qtd in Hartman 23). For Hartman, anxieties surrounding the assimilation of freedmen into a white order also manifested themselves in minstrel theater. The popularity of black dandy character, who was found ridiculous by simply performing the typically white-coded role of dandy, in the minstrel show reinforces the category of blackness as laughably incompatible with the responsible ownership of private property and contract.
As a category for policing that requires surveillance and discipline (counter-insurgent measures to protect the white order), white (and broadly non-Black) subjectivity define themselves in opposition to Blackness. Riffing off of Orlando Patterson, Guenther proposes that blackness is a state of social death that finds historical roots in slavery, responsible for its errant action but not bequest to the benefits of whiteness as defined as social, political and economic freedoms. For the deviant, punishment produced not a soul and mind in need of rehabilitation, but “a contained and controlled body, pinned to itself and the master’s will, immobilized just to the point of remaining available for exploitation” (45). This punishment ties the body, mind and soul of the enslaved to the will of the master, ripping it of rights, agency, and subjectivity, while reinforcing the body’s responsibility to work and culpability with regards to crime. In the contemporary moment the subjection of people extends beyond the enslaved, the deviant freedman, and the prisoner to the contemporary disinherited, including the poor, the disabled, formerly colonized populations, and the disposable remnants of global capitalism. Worked to death between three part-time jobs with no benefits, unable to get welfare and facing imprisonment because compounded fines have led to unpayable debt, the dispossessed, like the enslaved before them, face a social death that effectively hides structures of oppression under the notion that the dispossessed squander their resources or otherwise violate their contract. Captured by the prison system, these new “prisoners are saddled with the blame for their own disinheritance” (58).
Part of how these structures of oppression are occluded is the manner in which, as Hartman asserts, freedom and vitality are aligned with labor. In the postbellum period, frequent references to the blood spilled during the civil war and the loss of white lives implied that the freedman owed a debt to the nation, which was to be repaid in labor with uncertain returns. Reminiscent of Corrections Connection’s description of the Prison Blues program, the pamphlets directed towards educating the freedmen framed an image of a joyfully bent back as prerequisite to freedom. Hartman writes, “[t]he back bent joyfully to the burdens foisted upon it transformed the burdened individuality and encumbrances of freedom into an auspicious exercise of free will and self-making. This unsettling description divulges servility and submission as prerequisites to enjoying the privileges of freedom” (Hartman 8). As submission to harsh labor becomes the key to freedom, structural oppression hides under the meritocratic notion that hard work pays off. Moralistic, neoliberal discourse suggests that individuals or family units unable to make ends meet are responsible for conditions that clearly arise from structural oppression. Acclimation to such conditions further entrenches the atomized character of society while those under such precarious conditions absorb and espouse principles of individual responsibility and self-maximization.
Loïc Wacquant, writing from a sociological perspective, suggests that prisons assist in sustaining insecure labor conditions, such that these exploitative contracts are accepted as a rational compromise or even as a welcome gift. As well as directly stripping families and individuals of wealth by seizing property, prisons and police departments mark prisoners through systems of parole and record such that gaining employment becomes difficult. Combined with the disruption of family support networks by capturing people that would otherwise provide income, the prison serves, Wacquant writes, as “a disciplinary instrument unfurled to foster the neoliberal revolution by helping to impose insecure labor as the normal horizon of work for the unskilled fractions of the post industrial laboring class” (Wacquant 74). Disguising structural oppression, prisoner rehabilitation programs train prisoners for return to civil society in which their livelihood remains precarious.
The transition from coerced labor toward a precarious life in civil society recalls images of postbellum America. Dennis Childs discusses a postbellum photograph of a fugitive neo-slave ‘treeing’ from the Louisiana State Prison Plantation, in which a convict, distinguished by prison stripes, clambers up a tree while a white prison guard, dressed in a bowler and a suit, sics a pack of dogs on the slave. Childs highlights the staged quality of the image, writing that the image casts itself “as an action shot of a prison plantation official fulfilling the heroic duty of apprehending a black fugitive neoslave” (Childs 17). Like the white ‘hero’ who captures the escaped fugitive, the police are held up as national heroes who are protecting communities from dangerous criminals. The quintessential image of the police officer running down a fugitive, a robber or a dope dealer functions as a means of “solidifying the dominative and free status of whiteness, through the visual reproduction of black enslavement, corporeal rupture and dehumanization” (18). A moment of racial self-realization, the image Childs describes materializes in the visual and written discourses of the prison, which define a free, white identity and relegates the defined other as mere bodies to be exploited for labor.
The same honest masculinity alluded to in Correction Connection’s description of the Prison Blues program is found in the posture taken up by the prison guard in Louisiana State Prison Plantation’s image. A clearly staged image, the white prison guard presents an air of calculated action, with his body restrained and his horse standing grazing in the background. Completing his job, the prison guard serves to incarnate this white male subject in the form imagined by the propertied, white, neoliberal order. Set against the figure of the fugitive, the man’s dress in particular suggests a moralized presentation of the honest man. Wearing a suit and tie unsuitable to the physical character of his work, the prison guard seems transplanted from a family photograph where he would stand as the patriarch, owning property, negotiating inheritance and securing an income. Prison Blues establishes a parallel relationship, employing the image of the incarcerated individual as lacking work ethic as a foil to bolster the white working-class, masculine identity. While the photograph of the prison guard celebrates what aligns with an upper or middle-class image of masculinity, the rugged clothing offered by Prison Blues celebrates a working-class man whose honesty derives from upholding the contract of waged labor, who has a certain loathing of leisure and excess consumption. Tied up in this loathing is the rhetoric mobilized against feminized subjects and Black people around consuming “luxury” products and in excess.
Encoded in images of white heroes and fallen black bodies is an assertion of white right to life. The prison’s biopolitical governance permits only the established white, propertied order, while demanding the suppression of those bodies that attempt to function outside of it. Only by disappearing, subjecting and criminalizing bodies defined along Singh’s notion of blackness could the white identity support its own actions and posit its superiority. Singh succinctly writes that “criminalization became indispensable to liberal governors, who worried from the very earliest development of US nationhood that the condemnation of blackness or redness alone was insufficient to justify the myriad wrongs committed by settlers, slave owners, and traders” (Singh 1093). Slavery, and the penal system function as institutions that consecrate the hegemonic identity. As the undead spectres of slavery and attendant anti-Blackness surface again in the prison system, the prison’s function becomes clear. The penal institution, incorporating systems of labor exploitation and anti-Black oppression, uses bodies as negative foils to define a hegemonic subjectivity always in crisis.
EGON CONWAY is a senior at Columbia College. He will pursue writing as he continues his life
in New York.
“About Us.” Prison Blues. Accessed 11 April 2017, http://www.prisonblues.net/about.
Childs, Dennis. Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. Print.
Guenther, Lisa. “The Racialization of Criminality and the Criminalization of Race: From the Plantation to the Prison Farm.” Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 39-64. Print.
Hartman, Saidiya. “Fashioning Obligation: Indebted Servitude and the Fetters of Slavery.” Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 125-163. Print.
Singh, Nikhil. “The Whiteness of Police.” American Quarterly 66:4 (2014): 1091-1099. Print.
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