This blog is a space to share ideas, advocacy, experiences and developments around incarceration, it's effect to self, family,community and the greater society.
The Guilford College Higher Education in Prison Initiative is an effort to bring higher education to those incarcerated in prison, developing not only the skills for critical thinking and engaged learning but also fostering a shared human connection and mutual respect between all.
GUEST BLOGGER: Stacy Bell McQuaide is a Senior Lecturer in English at Oxford College of Emory University. She volunteers at Lee Arrendale State Prison and has been leading classes for incarcerated women on reading and writing memoir since 2010.
What Does Auschwitz Have to Do with Mass Incarceration?
Earlier this summer I attended a conference about prisons in
Prague; afterwards I spent several weeks traveling in Eastern Europe and
visited two concentration camps.Stutthoff
is an hour from Gdansk, formerly the German city of Danzig, where WW2 began on
September 1, 1939.The barracks that
remain in that eerie museum feature art installations reminding us that while
the majority of souls exterminated there were Jews murdered in the Holocaust,
many others were incarcerated and killed for “crimes” ranging from resistance
against the Germans to homosexuality to being an intellectual. Next I visited
Auschwitz, arguably the most heinous prison conceived by humans, but I was so
numb from Stutthoff that not even the scale of Auschwitz II could move me.I passed through as quickly as I could and
did not allow my eyes to rest on the exhibits—thousands of pounds of human
hair, rows of immaculate tallits—designed to underscore not just the horror of
the Nazis, but the scale of that horror.
I was thinking about crime and how we define it, and
incarceration and how we use it, both as a means to a socially-sanctioned end.
Let me stress that I am not drawing a parallel between the mass incarceration
of Americans in 2013 and the extermination of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis. But
visiting the camps forced me to reflect deeply on my experiences since I began
going into prisons as a volunteer in 2010, and to consider what it means to be
complicit in a system that concentrates the ostracized other.
Today, when we consider the Holocaust and the murder of so
many millions, we decry the extermination of innocents; but as I walked through
the camps I was struck by the terrifying realization that the people interred
there were not innocent.Indeed, they
had been defined as “criminals” by the Nazi machine, and when you visit these
places, you have to confront the fact that the Nazi effort was made possible by
the complicity of many people.I’m not a
historian, and I don’t want to go into detail about that period of
history.I want to focus on the fact
that every social group throughout history has defined deviance and then has
struggled to deal with deviance collectively.“Crime” is any behavior proscribed by the state. Definitions of crime
are socially negotiated and vary across time and place—the definitions are
largely created by those holding greater agency. “Citizens” accept the
definitions that have been created for them, as they unconsciously maintain the privilege of the elite—a group that represents
the central aspirations of the culture.
In the superb documentary The House I Live in, historian Richard Miller explains how elite groups
preserve their power and status through the process of identification,
ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and finally annihilation. He makes an
explicit analogy between the Holocaust and the practice of mass incarceration
in the U.S. In response, David Simon, journalist and renowned director of The Wire, asserts, “The drug war is a
holocaust in slow motion.”
When I am inside prison, I always think about
confiscation:everything that has been
taken away from the women in my classes, not just their property and their freedom,
but in so many cases the opportunities and options that might have prevented
them from ever going to prison. But when it comes to rallying the public
against the terrible costly failure that is our incarceration system, those of
us who witness from inside have a lot of work to do around identification….working
to change the way “crime” is defined, working to change the way criminal
behaviors are associated with certain groups, and working to change the way
people inside are perceived by those outside. I hate when people say the
incarcerated have made “bad choices”—it is the most othering language
imaginable, as it pretends that everyone chooses from the same palette.
It is very easy now to believe that the Nazi reign of terror
was a sad anomaly in human history.“Never again, “ we say. Miller and Simon have a point.The U.S. has the world’s largest prison
population, a system that concentrates and in many cases annihilates
disproportionately minority populations of ostracized others whose choices were
narrowly circumscribed on the day they were born. How do we shake our national complicity in
this broken system?