It would be grossly negligent to assume that the “feel good” stories featured in special segments on the news – or most recently, The Kelly Clarkson Show – about Soledad State Prison are a reflection of the reality of what it means to be an incarcerated person in this city within a city, just off Highway 101.
The reality is that this prison – and CDCR as a whole – functions in anonymity with autonomy in Vatican-like fashion where those outside its domain know nothing of the many human and civil rights violations occurring daily within the walls of these gray wastelands except what the prison itself makes available through curated statements and carefully crafted press releases.
And when those who are not connected to the prison – and therefore have no vested interest in maintaining the fictitious public image the prison seeks to portray – are granted access and are in a position to convey the full story, they are allowed to film only “special events.” It is the coverage of these events, and subsequent exposure, that eclipses and distorts the reality of what it means to be incarcerated at Soledad State Prison.
It is understandable – the urge of those who want to help and who truly believe they are being helpful by writing articles, filming and reporting on incarcerated people at Soledad building tiny houses for the unhoused, or spearheading a fundraiser to pay the tuition for a young Black boy to attend a prestigious private school, and countless other pro-social activities initiated by incarcerated people here at Soledad. However, the politics of respectability (or uplift suasion) painting a positive image of incarcerated people does more harm than good, and in fact perpetuates racist ideas about prison if you’re not, in the same sentence, talking about the ugly reality of mass incarceration and all that upholds it, i.e. predatory capitalism, anti-Black racism, classism and exceptionalism.
In 1979, Audre Lorde delivered a speech at New York University titled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Within this title is the idea that there exists a system that must be dismantled, but that it cannot be done by utilizing the tools designed for its maintenance. Drawing on the historic symbolism of slavery, the “master’s house” that she was referring to in her speech is the entire system of white supremacy, or what bell hooks refers to as white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy.
Lorde was speaking to a room filled predominantly with white feminists who allowed their identification as “feminist” to blind them to the fact that they were mostly white while claiming to be there to discuss “the role of difference within the lives of American women; differences of race, sexuality, class and age.” Lorde continued, explaining, “The absence of these considerations weakens any feminist discussion of the personal or political.”
It is upon this premise that this piece is founded. Failing to discuss prison in its entirety, in my opinion, weakens any discussion about systematic change. Lorde asks, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” She continued with the answer, stating, “It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”
Among the “tools” of racist patriarchy are the lenses through which we examine these various systems. In the above instance, Lorde was speaking towards a Eurocentric vision or approach amongst feminists, as it concerned white supremacy. As it concerns prison, one of the most obvious expressions of white supremacy, the prevailing approach has been a reformist approach, which is simply another shade of Eurocentrism.
The absurdity of reform becomes apparent when we realize that subsumed within the idea of reform is the belief that that which is being reformed is good at its core, that it only needs to be polished. However, we know based on countless studies and firsthand experiences that prison is actually rotten at its core.
Rooted in slavery, prison will never be divorced from anti-Black racism no matter how vehemently prison spokespeople try to convince us that it is a thing of the past. Therefore, to discuss prison without including in that discussion its harsh reality while only highlighting exceptionalism does a disservice to, and derails from its onset, any discussion of systemic change.
Showcasing exceptionalism in the prison context without telling the full story perpetuates the myth that prisons work, that prisons are a good thing, or at the very least, necessary. It also perpetuates the idea that certain people deemed unexceptional belong in prison and that incarcerated people need only apply themselves in order to reap the “benefits” of incarceration, i.e. job placement in an outdated skill, favorable rapport with officers and other prison officials who, because of that rapport, make recommendations for parole by writing “good guy” chronos (we’ll touch more on that later).
This is problematic because it assumes that those who fail to reap the above mentioned “benefits” do so by their own lack of merit. When we look at the demographics in regards to who is granted parole, for instance, we see that it is Black people who receive the highest level of denials.
Following the existing narrative, this would mean that Black people largely fail to apply themselves and therefore do not “deserve” to be granted parole. This, in turn, suggests that Black people belong in prison. However, we know this is not the case. We know that these disparities exist due to implicit as well as explicit biases on behalf of correctional officers, parole board commissioners, and other prison officials who largely view Black people as threatening, difficult and therefore undeserving.
Recently, Politico published an article about Black employees at CDCR headquarters in Sacramento sending out an open letter to Ralph Diaz, after he, as secretary of CDCR, sent out a memo to address racism in the department after the killing of George Floyd. The open letter from about 25 Black employees detailed “issues with the agency’s hiring practices, lack of support for Black employees and lack of representation.” It went on to recount “experiences of being passed over for promotions, retaliated against for speaking up about discriminatory behavior, stereotyped as ‘angry Black women,’ and described as aggressive and disrespectful in their communication style.”
In a system where the Black employees of said system face the aforementioned discrimination, is it really a surprise that incarcerated Black people are subjected to the same, and often worse, discrimination in that same system? What is sad is that we already know the answer to that question. It’s a well known fact that incarcerated Black people have an entirely different experience when it comes to the criminal legal system. However, we have been socialized to accept punishment as the only response to crime, and therefore, the systems responsible for performing that punishment are accepted as necessary, and the treatment meted out by these systems is normalized, even by people who claim to be fighting injustice.
Incarcerated people are expected to silently endure torture. Incarcerated people who speak out against injustices, because of these racist views about “criminality,” make people uncomfortable, even so-called supporters.
I have been cautioned by multiple individuals who, out of a clear understanding of how morally corrupt this system is, have warned me that my speaking out against systemic racism while being incarcerated in that system probably isn’t the wisest thing to do and that I should even wait to tell my story until I get out. It’s either that or face the probability of being denied parole for speaking the truth. My response has always been this: If people in so-called “free society” aren’t being holistic about the stories they share with the public, then it is the responsibility of people incarcerated in places like Soledad to do so.
I cannot bring myself to censor my speech about something that is so very wrong. What we are talking about is urgent as countless people continue to languish in places like this for 20, 30, 40-plus years for no other reason than the color of their skin and the way they make those in authority positions feel uncomfortable about their racism. My question is, aren’t we moving towards a system of restorative justice, where not only is the focus on repairing the harm that was done between people, but also holding systems accountable for the harm they cause? If so, we cannot pretend that injustices do not exist, or that, as slavery was depicted in films like “Gone With the Wind,” prison is this utopian microcosm of society where incarcerated people are treated with the utmost respect and given everything needed to re-enter society.
When we look beyond the statistics and into the lives of people in prison, we can clearly see that there is nothing exceptional about successful incarcerated people, Black or otherwise. Incarcerated people step into their humanity daily, and it’s not because they are exceptional or because of prison conditions. Incarcerated people step into their humanity daily in spite of prison conditions, facing racial discrimination and various other forms of dehumanizing treatment, including but definitely not limited to unhealthy living conditions and violent physical abuse.
Incarcerated people continue to reach beneath the hurt and humiliation to find the strength to carry on with daily activities, including attending self-help groups like Life C.Y.C.L.E. to read John Steinbeck novels with children from Palma High School.
These are the people sitting next to Lisa Ling with smiles on their faces while their hearts hold preventable pain and anguish. Just because their every word isn’t about the many indignities they endure doesn’t mean these indignities do not exist. Their silence should not be mistaken for solace, nor their smiles for contentment. They would simply rather suspend a harsh reality than to languish in the sorrow of their daily existence, even if only for a moment through the lens of a camera. One need only look at images of enslaved Africans next to their so-called “slavemasters” to see their historical equivalence.