Will Roberts, University of Richmond Class of 2021, Fall 2020
Table of Contents:
Portland State University professor Anoop Mirpuri opens his 2019 article, A Correction-Extraction Complex: Prison, Literature, and Abolition as an Interpretive Practice, with a scene in which he and other university faculty have just returned to campus from a training session at a maximum-security prison for faculty wishing to teach inside the prison. Sitting around a seminar table, the group is prompted to discuss what they learned on their visit. Mirpuri writes:
“…leaving untroubled the belief in prison education as an unequivocal good, the prompt elicited an affective staging of each participant’s individual growth. Among the things learned, there was an emphasis on the humanity of the incarcerated, the good fortune enjoyed by us on the outside, and what the prisoners were able to teach us. The room became flushed with pathos; its exhibition appeared to endow us with virtue.”
Aside from the group’s lack of resistance to this “affective staging” — its failure to contextualize their visit with regard to the “multivalent history of prison education, the long dark side of education’s liberatory promise” — what weighs on Mirpuri is the possibility that they were extracting value from prisoners insofar as their experience of the prison made them feel more virtuous and empathetic. As Mirpuri writes, “We were institutionally positioned to relate to and experience ‘the prison’ simultaneously as a source of value, humanization, and security.”[i]
Mirpuri highlights the sort of affective staging 16 Bars prompts. But the affective appeal of individual rehabilitation and redemption obstructs our view of the systemic and racialized oppression and exploitation from which the stories told in 16 Bars emerge. In this case, presenting music made by people in the jail as evidence of their ability to be reformed as individuals reinforces the assumption that the jail’s function is to segregate criminals from the wider community while reforming them into productive members of society. This reinforces the belief that, in fact, its residents are criminals – many are awaiting trial and cannot afford bail – and that their incarceration is the result of individual failures. The racialized and systematic captivity of mostly poor Black people remains unchallenged because of the film’s fixation on individual failure and redemption. Ironically, focusing on the jail studio as a rehabilitation asset prevents the film makers from taking up the critical analysis of the system that incarcerated musicians have offered in their music.
16 Bars director Sam Bathrick insists that the film isn’t telling people how to feel about the system. Rather, it’s the story of why the four men are in the system. Bathrick has said:
“I think we all know that there’s an issue with mass incarceration. The stats and figures for the U.S. are staggering. It’s a massive story and its hundreds of years old, and sometimes it feels too big to really even feel what it means. This film tells a micro-story: four men who are trapped in the system and trying to find a way out.
But the problem of mass incarceration is not universally understood. Many know that a lot of people are locked up, but not everyone thinks that’s a problem, let alone a systemic one. Indeed, legislatures, local agencies and agents sometimes deny the existence of systemic racism, often through the rhetoric of law and order, liberty and individualism. Donald Trump’s recent executive order to promote “patriotic education” grounded in the “principles of our founding” in order to combat curricula that view the United States as “…an irredeemably and systematically racist country” exemplifies this stance. Such a “patriotic education” would help maintain a strategic innocence and avoid facing the truth about how carceral institutions destroy communities and lives. Bathrick’s desire to avoid “telling people how to feel” about the system results in no telling of the system.
On his track Lost Ones, Teddy raps:
Nah, don’t talk about freedom, just look what they did to King
They kill all our leaders
Lock a dog in a cage and mistreat him
What you think gon’ happen once you release him?
Yeah, how much more a human being?
And this can’t be true what I’m seeing
But it is, and it is what it is, and they miseducating our kids
It’s time that we face all our fears and erase all our tears
And boycott them malt liquor beers, you won’t sell that malt liquor here
Old English was a slave ship, we gettin’ minimized, dying of genocide in the same sip
Instead of putting money in the school system, they take money and build a new prison. And guess who’s going in it? Prison-industrial complex, a one-way ticket because of my complexion
In the final lines above, Teddy points out that the new $34 million Justice Center was built while the Richmond Public School system remained chronically underfunded. “And guess who’s going in it?,” he asks. 16 Bars ends with a choir of elementary-school children, gathered in Speech’s home studio, singing the chorus to Teddy’s track Inspire. Meanwhile, Teddy is shown living on the streets of Miami. Touching on topics such as slavery, crack, eviction, inadequate child support and discrimination against felons, Teddy raps: “See the vision, feed the children ‘cause the race gon’ take a village. Educate ‘em ‘bout the system that’s designed to keep ‘emprisoned.” In trying to tell Teddy’s story and why he’s in the system, 16 Bars’ rehab gaze doesn’t account for the systemic racism that Teddy raps about. He says explicitly that his Black skin is a “one-way ticket” to prison, that the system is designed to keep him in prison. But this isn’t explored.
Though politically expedient, liberal discourses of rehabilitation and humanization focusing on individual choice divert critical analysis from the systemic nature of social and carceral institutions. They uphold the inevitability of the institutions and demand that change takes place only on the institutions’ terms. Rehabilitation is a good thing. It is a good thing that people incarcerated in the city jail are allowed to make music. But we must also recognize that carceral rehabilitation happens within the confines of the system that renders Teddy’s Black skin and locale a “one-way ticket” to the Justice Center. The celebratory framing of rehabilitation and music making inside the Justice Center – with its “state-of-the-art technology” and “evidence-based behavior modification” program – distracts from, and may alleviate any guilt that might be associated with, the underfunding of public schools, discriminatory policies against formerly incarcerated people and the city’s history of harming Black communities through a plethora of racist city planning and banking practices. Visions of social justice and progress in the terms framed by carceral institutions amount to what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism.” Such visions evoke a sense of possibility, hope and progress, but “actually make it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or people risks striving.”[i] When we celebrate the expressions of incarcerated people primarily or only as evidence of their individual rehabilitation, we misunderstand the jail/prison as a site of humanization and we overlook such expressions as testimonies against systemic oppression and exploitation.
[i] Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press, 2011.
[i] Mirpuri, Anoop. “A Correction-Extraction Complex: Prison, Literature, and Abolition as an Interpretive Practice.” In Cultural Critique 104, pp. 39–40. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.