Out of prison?
I was on the bus when my mother called. She wanted to meet me downtown and I answered the phone saying: ‘Hello. I just got out of jail. Where do you want to meet?” Suddenly, the woman sitting next to me grabbed all her things and moved away, right to the front of the bus. I didn’t understand her reaction until later. I am out of jail. The woman probably thought I was a robber or a murderer and excluded completely the possibility of me being a sociologist working on HIV and sexual health polices for inmates.
However, my experience in jail helped me to learn a lot of things. Inmates are also normal people. They could be guilty. They could be innocent, as Taryn Simon, the New York photographer, has showed us in her amazing exhibition The Innocents. They could deserve their punishment but they are still human beings. Last week, as part of the Berlinale Film Festival, I had the opportunity to see some Italian inmates performing Shakespeare on the big screen, the movie “Cesare deve morire“, winner of the Goldener Bär in 2012 and directed by Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani. Art, then, was considered as a form of freedom. A similar role has played the graffiti, particularly in Alcalá-Meco in Madrid, when some professors and social workers use street art to promote self-assurance and creativity among youth prisoners. They decorate their own wall. Jail is the home of some of us.
The political uses of the prison system, however, could be veiled. Jails also contribute to social control of dissidents and enemies of the state. It could be also interpreted as a political struggle of racial and ethnics groups, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore denounces. The Brazilian movie “Carandiru”, for example, still terrifies my mind. It was not simply a movie. It was reality depicted on the screen. The Carandiru massacre in 1992 was considered a major human rights violation. Honduras, today, cries for the prisoners. Comayagua was designed for 250 inmates but was currently holding 852 prisoners. According to local news, more than 300 inmates have lost their life in a fire. A short circuit is considered the potential cause of the tragedy. Indeed, the tragedy goes beyond the fire. What kind of policies and legislation system allows this kind of abuse in terms of jail population? The same overpopulation was noticed in Carandiru. Are these the usual conditions of any jail in Latin America? What about United States or Europe?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in her conference last week in the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Berlin, mentioned that 1 in 4 of world inmates is imprisoned in United States. What kind of alternatives do we have to imprisonment? Do we care if they get AIDS or dengue fever, if they have something to eat or not, if they have a place to sleep or if they die in a fire? Do we really care?
The need to be empathic and understand criminality as contextual and linked to both local and global tendencies in our system of production and consumption as well as other geopolitical or ideological reasons has been exposed in recent scholarship. I am not suggesting keeping some dangerous people in the streets. I am pointing out the necessity to consider alternatives to imprisonment, to create preventive policies instead of repressive punishments, to understand crime as socially created. I also believe we need to label some forms of deviance as non-criminal practices. Even more: The urgent abolition of any kind of death penalty.
The topic is controversial, for sure, but there are some basic liberties and rights that we have to grant to the imprisoned population. Preventive strategies and education can achieve a more tolerant and non-violent society. Let’s remind the words of Victor Hugo, the French poet: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”
Maybe prisons as we know them are out of date…