On the day after Christmas, I wandered the French Quarter. Jazz and street performers and strollers and couples carrying beer down the narrow lanes. Christmas decorations and humidity and 80-degree heat. People from all over the country and all over the world, converging on a slice of NOLA like ants on bit of powdery-sugary beignet. As tourists, we needed to see this bit of New Orleans. The place people go to celebrate and revel and buy things. To gather.
Sitting in a cafe, with my daughter, eating a beignet and sipping a latte, I thought about a bit of history I read in New Orleans (Wildsam Field Guides).
From “Le Code Noir” 1714:
XIII: We forbid slaves belonging to different masters to gather in crowds either by day or night, under the pretext of a wedding, or for any other cause…under penalty of corporal punishment, which shall not be less than the whip. In the case of frequent offenses of the kind, the offenders shall be branded with the mark of the fleur-de-lis.
Now, of course, the fleur-de-lis has other meanings, too–of NOLA’s comeback after Katrina. Of strength in the worst times.
It symbolizes the lily, and French royalty.
And I always just thought it pretty—symbolizing light, and life, and perfection. Like Jean d’arc. And lilies. I do love lilies.
How you view history, and reality, depends on seeing past what you want to see. Point of view, I’ve learned from writing fiction, is critical.
Like the carefully made-up, carefully preserved older white lady who squeezed past our table at the café and remarked, with (somehow) a bright smile and a simultaneous expression of repressed distaste, “My! Such a…diverse crowd!”
Perhaps if she only wants to look in a mirror, she might just stay at home. I say that as a recovering mirror-gazer. I think I’ll try, hard as I can, to wonder as I wander, so I might just begin to see past the fiction in the history I was taught.
The small man Builds cages for everyone He knows. While the sage, Who has to duck his head When the moon is low, Keeps dropping keys all night long For the Beautiful Rowdy Prisoners. —Hafiz
The beautiful, rowdy prisoners.
It is their ghosts I think of as I walk past cell after cell. (I know. It’s easy, in such a ruin, to imagine ghosts.)
Silent screams echo through the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary in the trendy Fairmount neighborhood of urban Philadelphia. This prison, now an historical museum site, has not housed inmates since its closing in 1971.
Maybe it was the humidity, pressing down on me the hot summer afternoon I visited. But I felt what I felt. I felt heavy layers of despair. I heard voices, and not just the recorded ones in the audio headset. I also heard the voices of prisoners past and prisoners present, calling me to attention.
This place was, back in the early 19th century, thought of as a ground-breaking, humanitarian response to reforming criminals. The Quaker-inspired system was based on the belief that solitude and work would allow convicts to focus on their wrong-doing, and become truly “penitent.” Prisoners, many in for crimes like horse theft, saw no one, spoke with no one, touched no one, and smiled at no one, day after day. When necessity forced prisoners to leave their cells, they were hooded so that they had no visual interaction with other humans.
Eastern State is where solitary confinement was pioneered, and perfected, the audio recording hissed in my ears, as I peered in cell after lonely cell. The Pennsylvania System, as it was dubbed, was hailed as a model.
It didn’t work. It did not reform.
But “solitary” remains a punishment used at many modern prisons in the US and is even used on prisoners under the age of 18. US state and federal prisons are currently holding as many as 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement or isolated housing, according to ACLU reports.
Human Rights Watch notes that as of 2006, the rate of reported mental health disorders in the state prison population is five times greater than in the general adult population.
What 17-year-old deserves solitary confinement? What mentally ill person deserves it? Which criminals deserve this, exactly? And who is empowered to decide and implement this torture that takes place far from the eyes of mainstream society?
As Charles Dickens said, after visiting Eastern State in 1842:
“….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
I wonder at how I have slumbered. In the courtyard of Eastern State sits a sobering, three dimensional bar graph, charting the rate of incarceration in US prisons versus the rest of the world. The US has achieved world domination here. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
Processing all this, I walk the corridors of Eastern State. A fog of cognitive dissonance begins to cloud my mind. The light here is soft, and beautiful as the light through any rose-windowed cathedral. The arched corridors are beautifully proportioned. In its heyday, Eastern State was hailed as a model of justice and technological advancement. On the surface, it appeared to be such a good idea. An unquestionable system, implemented by a government that knew what it was doing.
This is a reminder, one of the little voices whispers to me.
A reminder to wonder, to question. A reminder to look beyond, to see what is really happening.
I’m not entirely sure what all this means. But I know it’s not good. I keep reading. The United States prison population has increased by 500% in just thirty years. I learn that that minorities and impoverished people—the most voiceless, the least powerful— are far more likely to end up doing time. Hard time.
Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, prisoners are being put to work filling government contracts. Think “slave labor.” Federal Prison Industries, also known as Unicor, uses prisoners for labor, and pays as little as 23 cents an hour. And, according to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, thirty-seven states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations who bring their operations inside prison walls.
Suddenly, as I write this, I hear other voices too, jeering ones, asking me if I’m forgetting the victims, in all this wondering? No, I’m not forgetting.
But there can be many kinds of victims, after all. And many kinds of crimes, not all of them carried out by individuals.
The ghosts in my head remind me to keep wondering, to keep questioning why we as a nation keep building so very many cages.