Thursday, July 18, 2013

GUEST BLOGGER: Stacy Bell McQuaide

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?

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