What documents constrain, narrate, or liberate subjecthood?

Black and white photo of Alec Fisher
Alec Fisher is a PhD student in English at the University of Washington. Alec is also pursuing a concurrent certificate in Feminist Studies from the department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. Alec's research interests lie at the intersection of Cultural Studies, Carceral Studies, Queer Theory, and Black Studies. Alec studies how depictions of sexual violence in late twentieth-century U.S. prison autobiography and documentary film became a cultural tool for advancing administrative power over prison sexual violence and for defeating the efforts of emerging prison abolitionist formations. The "documents of subjecthood" emerge in Alec's work at the nexus of state record-keeping and survivor testimony.

Documenting Sexual Violence in Prison Autobiography

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a paradigm shift in how U.S. prisons were culturally represented. Public eruptions of prison violence in this era (e.g. Attica Rebellion) represented a new idea of the “violent prison.” The belief that imprisonment is a form of social penitence paid through personal suffering and subsequent self-transformation became culturally “residual.” In the now “dominant” ideology, prisons merely restrained irrational, exorbitant violence away from the public through establishing “law and order.” While prisons were historically violent places before the mid-twentieth century, a new culture industry sought to make prison violence into a “new” spectacle through making publicly available violence otherwise “hidden” from public view. People living both inside and outside prison walls often used an aesthetics of documentary realism (e.g. documentary film, prison autobiography) to make disclosures about life on the inside. During these years, largely considered the highwater mark of prison cultural production, a struggle for hegemony emerged between those who argued prison violence was a product of “unreformed” people or social “incorrigibility” and those who argued that U.S. incarceration was a system of racial domination that had to be abolished or radically transformed. While constant prison overcrowding in the 1980s and 90s left the U.S. prison system in material crisis, the new social idea of the “violent prison” left this prison system in cultural crisis because of the desire to protect those incarcerated individuals deemed capable of reform. This short essay attempts to place sexual violence within this broader cultural development of the “violent prison.”

During the late 1960s, the prison system in the United States became the direct target of radical social movements articulating a nascent prison abolitionist politics. The American Indian Movement, Black Radical movements, the Chicano Movement, and the radical arm of queer and trans movements began using prison autobiography to argue that the conditions of U.S. prisons could not be ethically justified. Figures like Angela Davis, George Jackson, Piri Thomas, and Leonard Pelletier used autobiography to present evidence to contest the race and gender-based violence that they argued was constitutive to the prison system’s function. In what Jordan Camp calls a “insurgency-counterinsurgency dialectic,” largely-white, reformist-minded authors also wrote their own autobiographies which cited their own traumatized childhoods and innate personal shortcomings as the cause of their imprisonment – not state power (14).

Autobiography, as the genre of personal development and self-reflection, the site where the capacity for prisons to be reformed and to reform individuals could be debated. While autobiography has historically been a vector for distributing ideas of liberal individualism, the aesthetic dimensions of the genre could be changed to demonstrate the development of other forms of political subjectivity. Autobiography, the genre of concentrated self-reflection, often rehearses the moral self-development necessary for participation in public politics. Specifically, reformist former prisoners narrated their moral self-development to dramatize the overcoming of personal deficiency through incarcerated self-reflection, emerging into the “outside world” with the ethical discernment necessary for political representation. For reformers, the goal of this political representation is to reform the very institution which enabled the development of their own ethical sense in order to perfect its edifying function. However, activists like Angela Davis explicitly rejected this self-centered ideology in order to trace relationships of political solidarity. Davis reflects on writing her autobiography, “The real strength of my approach at that time resides, I think, in its honest emphasis on grassroots contributions and achievements, so as to demystify the usual notion that history is a product of unique individuals possessing inherent qualities of greatness” (viii). Autobiography held political stakes because, unlike novels or poetry, which typically need interpretation to gather their full meaning, autobiography posits itself as an unmediated reflection of self-evident social realities. At issue in mid-century prison autobiography: Who could mobilize the aesthetics of documentary realism to speak to the “truth” of prison violence? Was the “new” prison violence caused by imprisonment itself or the personal deficiency of the individuals involved? Could prisons themselves be “reformed” to restore individuals to social functioning or did U.S. punishment require, as Angela Davis and George Jackson argued, wholesale transformation?

During this period, state and national Supreme Courts deliberated whether this “excess” violence could undermine the ethical viability of incarceration writ large, challenging its capacity to reform individuals as a “residual” but important function of the institution. In the latter half of the twentieth century, courts faced a barrage of Eighth Amendment challenges which used sexual violence to frame imprisonment as “cruel and unusual.” In a largely understudied history of the U.S. prison expansion, the threat of sexual violence slowly emerged as a facet of the new “violent prison” that might legally justify forms of self-defense such as escape or murder. In People v. Noble (1969), for example, the Michigan Supreme Court supplied that prison escape could still be prosecuted in the case of imminent threat of rape:

The problem of homosexuality in the prisons is serious and perplexing, and never more so than in a case such as this where such activity is forced upon a young man against his will. However, the answer to the problem is not the judicial sanctioning of escapes. While we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of this defendant, it is easy to visualize a rash of escapes, all rationalized by unverifiable tales of sexual assault. The solution must rather come from some kind of penological reform. (918, emphasis added)

In Noble, the ethical validity of U.S. incarceration could remain intact through propping up “penological reform” as the long-term solution for sexual violence. This need for reform became urgent for law-makers after People v. Lovercamp (1974). In this case, a California appellate court broke from Noble, arguing that Marsha Lovercamp, a straight white woman, was justified in escaping in order to flee threats of sexual assault by five black “lesbians.” When the U.S. Supreme Court finally took up the issue of prison sexual violence in Farmer v. Brennan (1994), the majority opinion held that a federal penitentiary had acted with “deliberate indifference” toward Dee Farmer, a black trans woman put in medium-security where she would statistically face an increased risk of sexual violence. Justice David H. Souter explained the majority opinion: “Being violently assaulted in prison is simply not ‘part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society’” (834). Contra the “acceptable violence” of incarceration, sexual violence was not an assigned penalty. Even as the court deemed prison sexual violence “inevitable,” it still represented an infringement of personal rights solvable through “reform.” Using the momentum of the Farmer decision, victims of prison sexual violence began lobbying the U.S. Congress to enact the “penological reform” argued for in Noble. Mid-century reformist ideology pre-emptively transformed judicial precedent to posit reformist solutions as the exclusive response to prison violence. By becoming part of judicial precedent, reformist ideology preserved the ethical viability of incarceration during the massive expansion of prisons and prison violence from the late 1970s into the present.

Autobiographies about experiences in prison became important cultural evidence in support of the reformist solutions they were concurrently lobbying for -- even as the autobiographical statements themselves were often contradictory or undecided about the status of incarcerated sexuality. For example, Stephen Donaldson, a white survivor of gang rape by a group of black cis men in 1974, created the organization Stop Prison Rape which led national prison sexual violence reform campaigns which led to the Prison Rape Elimination Act. In his autobiography, Donaldson writes, “All the coercion, trauma, the de-masculinization, the degradation are inherent in this abomination, with only differences of degree—important as they may be to us inside—between one human zoo and another. . . . There is, ultimately, no prison rape issue. There is only the prison issue” (qtd. in Jackson 201). Rape is produced by imprisonment and yet the “differences of degree” of violence are nonetheless important to lived experience. Despite this critique of rape as a structural crisis of imprisonment, members of Stop Prison Rape published popular autobiographies which often end with the authors becoming proper citizens through participation in reformist activism. Meanwhile, 1970s anti-racist and feminist activists rallied around women of color who defended themselves against sexual assault while incarcerated, using the occasion to argue for the abolition of U.S. imprisonment as a technique of racial domination. For example, after activists like Angela Davis and Rosa Parks made her into a cause célèbre, in 1974 Joan Little became the first woman to be acquitted for murder in self-defense against a sexual assault in prison.

In 2003, the “penological reform” outlined in Noble became realized in the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), an administrative law which governs most U.S. confinement facilities in the present moment. PREA sought to establish a zero-tolerance policy for sexual violence; to develop national standards for detection, prevention, and punishment of sexual violence; to standardize definitions for data collection; and to increase accountability for officials who fail to meet these new standards. The Prison Rape Elimination Act is often regarded as an outgrowth of the new “carceral feminism” which, like the Violence Against Women Act, sought to eliminate gender-based violence using the prison-industrial complex. For Jessi Lee Jackson, the original crisis conditions of the “violent prison” have been reproduced through reform so that the same “disciplinary monitoring” needed for “supporting prisoners” can be used to “injure” them, creating a “biopolitics” that acts as a “necropolitics” (211). The creation of PREA has not so much eliminated the threat of the violation of Eighth Amendment rights so much as suspended their violation within an administrative security apparatus.

Works Cited
Abraham, Shara. "Male Rape in U.S. Prisons: Cruel and Unusual Punishment." Human Rights Brief. Vol. 9, no. 1, 2001, pp. 5-8.
California Court of Appeals. People v. Lovercamp. 11 December 1974. https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/3d/43/823.html
Camp, Jordan. Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State. University of California Press, 2016.
Davis, Angela. Angela Davis: An Autobiography. Random House, 1974.
Franklin, H. Bruce. Prison Writing in 20th-Century America. Penguin, 1998.
Jackson, Jesse Lee. “Sexual Necropolitics and Prison Rape Elimination.” Signs. Vol. 39, no. 1, 2013, pp. 197-220.
Kunzel, Regina. Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality. Chicago UP, 2008.
Lloyd, David & Patrick Wolfe. “Settler Colonial Logics and the Neoliberal Regime.” Settler Colonial Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 2015, pp. 109-118.
Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture. Vol 15, no. 1, 2003, pp. 11-40.
Michigan Court of Appeals. People v. Noble. 26 June 1969, http://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/1297266/people-v-noble/.
Thompson, Alan et al. “The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA): An Evaluation of Policy Compliance With Illustrative Excerpts.” Criminal Justice Policy Review. Vol. 19, no. 4, 2008, pp. 414-437.
United States Supreme Court. Farmer v. Brennan. 12 Jan. 1994. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1993/92-7247