Ethics of Resistance

Portrait of Male Prison Guard Outdoors, Michigan State Penitentiary, Michigan, USA

Prison guards daily engage in caging, beating and sometimes killing people. Fortunately, in the UK, prison guard recruitment is down, prisons are understaffed and the entire structure is verging on collapse. Living within the prison enclosure, I can testify that these staffing issues — resultant from poor wages and terrible working conditions — are problematic for prisoners. Being locked in a 12 X 7 cage for two or three days, sometimes longer is where the road to madness lies. Whilst tirelessly advocating for expanded rights, privileges, increased wages and better living conditions for all prisoners, a proper social critique of prisons includes celebrating the public withdrawing their labour from the prison industrial complex, for whatever reason. Even understaffing causes short-term difficulties for prisoners.

Violence against prison guards is an entirely expected and legitimate form of resistance. Whilst I never personally engaged in any physical resistance, I do not condemn any and all acts of violence against guards. Ancillary and tertiary staff, from psychiatrists and nurses to chaplains and social workers, live in a moral grey zone, and each act of prisoner resistance against them should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Primary cagers include the prison guards up to prison governors (or wardens in the US), essentially all operational staff. I personally will not condemn acts of violent resistance against the aforementioned, however I did not engage in them. Tactically and strategically, acts of physical violence against prison guards have the effect of uniting a kind of hyper-fraternity amongst staff. They have little or no impact outside of the act itself. Additionally these acts can lead to added lengthy prison sentences. Although I cannot give a blanket endorsement of acts of violence as tactically sound, when directed against guards, they are however always ethically and ontologically justified.

Pernicious, the figure of the prison guard, stalks the halls of oppression with jangling keys. Engaging in daily micro-terror rituals, these cowards enjoy sadistic violence as long as they control the scene. Control, humiliation, domination, discipline and supremacy of force couple with creepy ‘friend gestures’ — made easier by the institutionalisation of longer-term prisoners who then bond with their captors. Adapting to prison requires negotiating with prison guards for ‘privileges’ (in my case, toilet paper, cleaning cloths, etc.), allowing some degree of ‘friendly banter,’ assisting with feeding prisoners on ‘basic’ (where they are allowed out for only 1 hour a day), bringing books for other prisoners from the library to the wing (prisoners rarely leave the wing, unless they have a job within the prison or attend a math/English class), but still maintaining an antagonistic distance from the guard figure. Nearly all the guards I encountered — surprise ! — maintained fairly far-right views. English nationalism (in the UK) is popular amongst some, almost all have no moral or ethical difficulties with locking (the same) people in cages for weeks, months and sometimes years. This speaks to a potentially serious pathos of institutional/psychic power which cannot be met with mere negotiation; therefore, outright physical resistance, in the form of acts of individual violence all the way to prison ‘riots,’ are justified.

Arguing that people are in prison because of what they’ve done is absurd. Parametrically applied laws and codes are but a chimera. Weapons dealers, genocidal national figures, financial (Wall Street) terrorists, wealthy fraudsters have all done far, far more harm than anyone currently sitting in a prison cell. Celling away ‘the offender’ is a way of negating, via Christian redemption narratives and Benthamite utilitarianism, abjectivity itself. Wretched, dejected, low and miserable the imprisoned offender sits outside society and simultaneously at its centre. Behind walls, multiple gates, hallways and doors upon doors temporality-itself and spatiality-itself alters, slows, congeals, stagnates, and horrifies. Conceptualising dying-behind-bars is always already a death. From arrest, seizure and processing, prisoners are held in a suspended state of animation. Time itself flows thickly. The guard actuates oppressive processes of spatial and temporal suspension, making themselves always already complicit in severe ethical, moral and ontological violations against living-beings and even Being itself.  Ritualised caging of fellow beings in an institutionally sanctioned, socioeconomically motivated, racially abusive hyper-structure, being the fleshy part of the cold, dead hand of the State, the prison guard debases itself. Placing itself against freedom like few other professions in society, the prison guard looses all rational ethical rights derived for being-with Others.


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