Backing, as ever, into the obvious, I realise that the central theme being interrogated through this blog is power. The power of punishment, the power of researchers and the power of space. The visual imagery collected here to my mind comes closest to evoking Foucault’s concept of power, flowing through the spaces and actors who are simultaneously also its effect. That is, power is not an entity which is wielded consciously by one against another, as if it could be contained in a bucket and flung out. Rather than acts of (or actors with) power let’s start thinking about states of power.
Focusing on a state, or situation, of power draws in people, objects, spaces and relationships connecting them together in a web through which power circulates and is maintained. I would like to use some blog entries to explore specific themes emerging from this, and the first one that came to mind is complicity. Complicity is an issue raised immediately for the researcher working with human subjects where maintaining a critical distance is prerequisite to the scientific aspiration of objectivity. Through this project, however, a second complicity problem we worry about finds a place to get some attention. This is our complicity as researchers in reinforcing particular states of power in which subjects of punishment are degraded, oppressed, dehumanised or infantilised, and humiliated.
I am about to give two examples of this, and I warn you the first one is upsetting.
In 2005, I joined a tour of CYA facilities (California’s juvenile prison system) with a group of summer law interns at the Youth Law Center. The YLC had sued over conditions at this particular institution so it was also an opportunity to research how conditions had changed. We were taken through cell blocks, past the mostly Latino and African American inmates in the general population, shown the boxes that look like standing coffins used to discipline them (since found to violate the US Constitution’s 8th amendment, I believe), given access to empty class rooms, empty workshops and empty playing fields. Like all prison tours I have been on it was a mixture of glorifying and sensationalising prison as a dangerous, sexy place on the one hand, and on the other a place where rehabilitation was at least theoretically available.
Towards the end of the day, we were seated in two rows of folding chairs in a rec room while a prison guard led in an obedient line of juvenile inmates. The white, middle aged and moustachioed male guard called each youth forward to describe for us the crime that led to him being incarcerated. The first young man called (‘X, tell ‘em what you did.’) stepped forward and began a monotone recital of his part in a brutal gang rape of a young boy. This was the prison’s attempt to show off its juvenile sex offender treatment programme. Everything about the situation horrified and sickened me. The guard calling the young man to speak to strangers about such a traumatic experience, the youth’s rote recital evidencing for me how regularly he was being called on to do it, us sitting there complicit as polite listeners in our own traumatisation and shaming of this person. Our complicity, moreover, was achieved in an underhanded way. We were not told what would be happening, and were only grateful to sit down after a physically and emotionally tiring walk around the grounds. If we were to say we did not want to hear the boys speak we would be rejecting them and their humanity, their voice. Early into this re-telling, I interrupted. Shaking, I asked the guard on what authority or treatment expertise he was requiring these youths to re-live their crimes, and did he have their consent to do so. The guard simply looked at the boys and asked them if they would refuse to speak, and none of them replied. We sat there for half an hour listening to their horrible stories. It took every atom of will I possessed in my body to mount even this minimal challenge to this guard, and just as important, to this setting with its explicit and implicit architecture of control. I had nothing left though I look back and wished I had walked out. (But could I have? The door was manned by another guard.)
The second experience draws once more on the work Beth Weaver and I did on ‘user views’ of punishment. Here I want to recall the process of interviewing prisoners. The prisoners were led in for interview, often not making eye contact as we walked into interview rooms. Prisoners were required to sit facing the window in the door to allow for observation by staff. The size of the room also meant researcher and researched were required to sit on opposite sides of a table. This spatial dimension of control is powerful enough, and simply by sitting on the side of the table facing away from the window the researcher is established as more powerful than the prisoner. Like anyone working in this age of ethical review/IRBs, Beth and I spent weeks preparing our ethical protocols, designing a clear consent form and allowing for numerous opt outs (such as to opt out of having the interview recorded). In the end, none of the prisoners I interviewed spent more than one minute looking through the material we prepared before signing their consent. I cannot claim to know the reasons for this willingness to sign away the rights to their words being used in my research but wonder if it is part of an acculturation to constant privacy invasions inherent in an institution like prison. If so, a tool we prepared so carefully to ensure we were respecting the rights of the people we wanted to learn from became simply one more way of demonstrating and thus furthering their subordination.
Complicity is enacting and effecting, sometimes unwillingly and unconsciously, particular forms of control. Criminological research is always complicit.