I’m in Appalachia, watching snow fall on daffodil buds and the new green leaves of day lilies that will bloom, I am told, on the first day of summer. Once again, I’m working with the Thousand Kites project, artists and activists using theater, film and computer media to surface the emerging story of our nation’s prison-industrial complex and its effects on families and communities. (By now, I’ve written enough that touches on the culture of punishment to start a new category; if you’d like to read earlier posts, on my home page under “Blog Categories” on the right, click on “Incarceration Nation.”)
On Friday, I had the pleasure of meeting a couple dozen college students visiting Thousand Kites’ home base at Appalshop. They were here from NYU for a spring-break immersion in the community cultural development practices employed by filmmakers, audio artists and theater makers at this community arts center. I dropped in just in time to see short audio, video and theater pieces they’d crafted in just a day or two with artists from Roadside Theater, the Appalachian Media Institute, Holler to the Hood and the union of Appalshop filmmakers (you can click on links for all these projects on Appalshop’s home page).
The core of these Appalachian artists’ work is the first-person story. Virtually everything they do is grounded in local people’s narration of their own lives and histories, passed down through living memory. For some of the students from New York, even a brief experience of sharing and working with such stories had been eye-opening. Some of them expressed shock at encountering persistent local problems—water pollution from mine runoff, abuse of prescription drugs to stave off despair—sharing the feeling that where they came from, “somebody” would have fixed the problem sooner.
I sat there thinking about the AP story from last November a Thousand Kites artist had forwarded to me a few days earlier:
A record 7 million people—or one in every 32 American adults—were behind bars, on probation or on parole by the end of last year, according to the Justice Department. Of those, 2.2 million were in prison or jail, an increase of 2.7 percent over the previous year, according to a report released Wednesday.
More than 4.1 million people were on probation and 784,208 were on parole at the end of 2005. Prison releases are increasing, but admissions are increasing more.
One in 32. I’m certainly acquainted with at least 200 people. By that reckoning, I ought to know perhaps half a dozen people currently behind bars or out on probation or parole. But firsthand, I know only one. I looked at the fresh-faced, polite and talented students and thought this: if our web of relations don’t contain the average number of inmates, then others are making up the difference. From the AP story:
Racial disparities among prisoners persist. In the 25-29 age group, 8.1 percent of black men—about one in 13—are incarcerated, compared with 2.6 percent of Hispanic men and 1.1 percent of white men. And it’s not much different among women. By the end of 2005, black women were more than twice as likely as Hispanics and over three times as likely as white women to be in prison.
I’ve been interviewing the Thousand Kites artists about their work. More than one of them quoted a comment shared by a participant in one of the story circles they use to gather narratives: “When you incarcerate a child, you incarcerate the whole family.” Each family system finds a new, distorted configuration around the absence of a key member, throwing everything—livelihood, relationship, the hope of a future—out of whack. In the new prison-industrial complex, where prisons are profit centers and prisoners are shipped far from home to isolating, inhumane (and for the states that house them, lucrative) “super-max” prisons, the economic demands on families are multiplied: traveling long distances for rare visits, paying fees comparable to overseas calling for the privilege of speaking with their incarcerated loved ones, paying extortionist rates for snacks and toiletries from the commissary.
Having become Incarceration Nation divides us in two, and that division starts very early. Individually, each of us bears our scars and burdens from childhood; no one’s path is perfect. But most of the NYU students did not come up in low-amenities/high-security ghetto schools, were not subjected from kindergarten to the educational triage that marks them as expendable, were not watched with a suspicious eye by every shopkeeper, police officer and security guard whose path they crossed. If every child received the quality of attention and support our society gives to its most privileged, Incarceration Nation would exist only in some dark imagination.
I was stewing on these thoughts when I interviewed another Thousand Kites artist. I told him that first-hand I known only a couple of people who’d wound up in prison (plus the draft resisters I’d worked with during the Vietnam War, but while that had been a Hobson’s choice, it had been theirs to make). I had a hard time finding myself in the prison story, I said, except as a citizen and taxpayer. How would they reach others like me?
It’s a much bigger story, he told me. If you include the people who live by and from the prison-industrial complex, most of us have only one degree of separation. “Do you know any criminal lawyers?” he asked me. How about probation officers? Chamber of Commerce types who tout prisons as economic development schemes? Contractors who get rich building our gulags, and the countless workers they employ? People who work for the corporations that supply their high-priced phone service or stock their inflationary canteens?
We are all in it up to our necks. Incarceration Nation is the co-creation of 300 million people. When the Department of Justice releases its 2006 figures next November, the total will exceed 7 million. Thousand Kites is one of many efforts to awaken us to that nightmare reality, inviting us to change the dream before it changes us beyond recognition.