Survivability, Prison Reform & Abolition

Private Prison Stocks Are Shooting Up After Trump Win Image Courtesy Mother Jones

Liminal, transitional, stages between and betwixt prison reform and abolition are necessary for prisoner survivability, reducing prison populations and, most importantly, challenging normative ideological frameworks around punitive ‘justice.’ At the same time, reform must not be mistaken for abolition, nor can it act as a ‘substitute.’ Unwavering calling for an immediate end to mass incarceration globally, prison abolitionists must perform two tasks simultaneously: Improving living, working, educational, nutritional, medical, etc. conditions within the confines of the prison-industrial complex and calling for its immediate abolishment. Prison is abolishable; prison, whereby people are placed in cages en masse, is a historically anomalous moral aberration. Arising in Western Europe, the contemporary prison-industrial complex comes from ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘progressive’ ideologies of ‘reforming’ the prisoner’s subjectivity, ‘normalising’ his (or her) behaviour, affectivity and psycho-spiritual orientation. Obedience via humiliation, physical punishment, confinement and institutionalisation generate quite the opposite. Whilst ‘reformed’ and ‘successful’ cases of people ‘reconciling with society’ (Michael Santos) do occur, these figures usually go on to critique the prison system (a valuable contribution) without becoming abolitionists. Calling attention to the anguish, nihilism and suffering inflicted by mass incarceration, Santos does open the debate by his own return to ‘normal society,’ and thereby creates a space for discussing prisoners’ rights. Admiring his work, I also find inadequacies: he has no in-depth critique of economic, racial and structural apparatuses that place people in cages. He does note racism, economics and education as serious causes of incarceration, yet simultaneously calls for a ‘reconciling’ with the very ‘society’ which produces- and is- these apparatuses. Motivational positive psychology also plays an important role in his post-incarceration experience, potentially as a defence/healing strategy given the incredible- and ineffable- trauma of 26 years in a cage. Given his experiences I can only applaud his recovery, strength and fortitude, however, as a critical friend I must question his call to reconcile with a ethically and morally rotten society.

Engaging, evolving, advancing and envisioning a burgeoning compassionate connectivity requires ending retributive punitive measurements. Essentially, whilst forgiveness isn’t politically crucial, a degree of empathetic under- and inner- standing is. Whilst Hannah Arendt seminally stated, “Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history,” I might suggest that empathy is a royal road to reversing, or in fact actuating an originating. Birthing new paradigms around care, taking-care, taking-understanding and being-With requires a revolutionary, and difficult, connection to ‘the Other.’ This Other is both the face we encounter ‘outside’ and the ‘Otherness’ inside ourselves, that part of ourselves foreign, alien and uncanny. Unexpected slippages of the ‘inner’ Other (dreams/nightmares, outbursts, etc.) remind us that we are, paradoxically, connected to other Others by alienation, an alien inside and outside. Alien to ourselves and Others, we are more than mere subjective and reflective neo-Cartesian thought-bodies; whether consciousness purely manifests itself yet focuses on its projects, aims etc. (Sartre) or if the unconscious exists as an entity (Freud), a remainder remains: abject and sublime, preciously intimate and simultaneously sutured to relations with Others. 

The inability to think oneself as other is the augury of fascism. Ominously looming, Spectral Fascism is now, again, material reality. It no longer haunts, it lives among us, contouring space/time, political assemblages and reality itself. Nominal democracies, long ignoring basic needs of their citizenries whilst enriching and protecting their elites, have lost any semblance of an active or quasi-influential dēmos. During the 1960s and 70s, US America’s political, economic and cultural tableaux began to be radically rearranged. Anti-war, Civil rights, Black power, Latino/immigrant, union, Queer and feminist organising pressed for greater freedoms: economic, mobile, affective, relational, etc. Freedom was – painfully – ‘on the march.’ Responding to a growing crisis of its legitimacy, including a tactically and mentally unsound president, the State – supported by millions of ‘ordinary hard-working Americans’ – voted to reverse freedom’s march. On November 4, 1980 Ronald Reagan won 43 million votes to Jimmy Carter’s 35 million. ‘Middle America’ responded to Reagan’s individualism, de-contextualising message. He proclaimed, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” Placing the onus on the individual alone, Reagan – and his followers – attempt(ed) to hide that Otherness within them, isolate ‘criminality’ from contingent events of living, and worse exculpate themselves from violences committed by the State.

From Reagan’s support for genocide in Guetamala, ecocide (“A tree’s a tree. How many more do you need to look at?”), The Influence, in How Ronald Reagan’s Drug War Fuelled American’s Addiction to Racist Ideaswrites:

On June 24, 1982, President Ronald Reagan issued one of the most devastating executive orders of the 20th century. “We must mobilize all our forces to stop the flow of drugs into this country” and to “brand drugs such as marijuana exactly for what they are—dangerous,” he said, announcing his own War on Drugs.

It was an astonishing move. Drug crime was declining. Only 2 percent of Americans viewed drugs as the nation’s most pressing problem. Drug treatment therapists were shocked by Reagan’s unfounded claim that America could “put drug abuse on the run through stronger law enforcement.”

Americans somehow fell for this myth. And two years later, during his reelection campaign in 1984, Americans fell for another Reagan myth: the good “morning in America” he peddled about the better economy.

It may have been morning in America again in certain rich and white neighborhoods, which had awakened to prosperity repeatedly over the years. But it was not morning in America again in the communities where the CIA-backed Contra rebels of Nicaragua started smuggling cocaine in 1985. Nor was it morning in America for black youths in 1985. Their unemployment rate was four times the rate it had been in 1954, though the white youth employment rate had marginally increased.

Nor was it morning in America when some of these unemployed youths started remaking the expensive powder cocaine into more cost-effective crack to sell so they could earn a living. Then, the Reagan administration wanted to make sure that everyone knew it was not morning in America in black urban neighborhoods, and that drugs—specifically, crack—and the drug dealers and users were to blame …

White and black people were selling and consuming illegal drugs at similar rates, but black users and dealers were getting arrested and convicted much more. In 1996, when two-thirds of the crack users were white or Latino, 84.5 percent of the defendants convicted of crack possession were black.

Even without the crucial factor of police officers’ racial profiling of black people as drug dealers and users, a general rule applied that still applies today: Wherever there are more police, there are more arrests, and wherever there are more arrests, people perceive there is more crime—which then “justifies” more police and more arrests.

Since heavily policed inner-city black people were much more likely than white people to be arrested and imprisoned in the 1980s and 1990s—since more homicides occurred in their neighborhoods—racists assumed that black people were actually using more drugs, dealing more in drugs, and committing more crimes of all types than white people.

These false assumptions fixed the image of the dangerous black inner-city neighborhood as well as the contrasting image of the safe white suburban neighborhood—a racist notion that affected the decisions of so many Americans, from housing choices to drug policing to politics, that they cannot be quantified.

The “dangerous black neighborhood” conception is based on racist ideas, not reality. There is such a thing as a dangerous unemployed neighborhood, however.

Policing, prosecuting and imprisoning form the trifecta of globally nebulous disciplinary, imprisonment, and apartheid circuit-boards. Connection via repression, an intimacy of abject-relations between guards and prisoners, ‘suburban- rural-‘ whites and ‘urban’ Blacks, Palestinians and Israelis, ‘ordinary working families’ and ‘criminals,’ etc. confounds and obscures the social tissue, a connective tissue that holds us to-gather. To be a living-being is to be Being carved from Being, a living-being is alterity from Being-itself. It’s very ‘animation’ or ‘motility’ – not to mention its subjective and reflective consciousness – relies on this distance from Being. Nothingness is the medium of this distancing; an infinite sea of Nothingness can open an ‘I don’t know’ (Seung Sahn) agnosticism, a radical openness to the Other which compels we demand their freedom against tyranny. Existing is itself radically difficult, and survivability, let alone love, are communal (‘kin’) activities; under macro-State politics solidarity with oppressed people is   the only ethical and moral response to the proposition that: The alien(ation) in me connects me to the alien(ation) in you. 

——– Whilst I do not necessarily agree with or even understand some of the text below, I have included it as it is correspondence between Seung Sahn, a Zen teacher who spent time in prison) and a prisoner. I used meditation whilst I was in prison to survive, and I can say that I learned a great deal about myself; I fell into a series of terrible psychic abysses, psychophysical illnesses, and other issues. I am placing this here – for any prisoner who might have the ability to access my website and wishes to reflect on meditation, etc. Ultimately, solidarity with prisoners like Jamie Nolan, with whom I worked full-time as a prison librarian, and Andrew Elliott, got me through the terrifying experience. The text below raises questions of how we help people whilst they are incarcerated via necessary reforms and also aim for abolition. These are not mutually exclusive, however, as Angela Davis has noted reform can act as a block or distraction from abolition. Reform limits the imagine of the general public and theorists alike, for abolition requires folding the very socioeconomic disciplinary-retributive and individualist-parochial paradigm – a paradigm that continues to expand its hegemony. Pressing for freedom under contemporary fascism is no easy matter, yet we must. We must or we loose the precious thing that makes existence. To cage someone, or to sit idly by – saying nothing – whilst someone is placed in a cage, whilst millions are tortured in this way is an unacceptable attack on Being-itself. I am going to say, honestly, I ‘don’t know’ how to fully engage in resisting this attack – yet my aim is queer and straight.

(Please consider writing to an LGBTQ+ and/or HIV+ person in solitary confinement)

From Only Don’t Know — Seung Sahn


Atlanta, Georgia June 8, 1978 Dear Sir:

One of your students suggested that I write directly to you and that you would be kind enough to offer some advice.

I am incarcerated at Atlanta Penitentiary and would like to have a suggestion on how to practice Zen while I am in prison.

I have already read many books on Zen, including the essays by D. T. Suzuki.

Sometimes when I feel as thought I have achieved satori, I seem to lose it and fall back to my old self again. Why am I unable to maintain my gains in the area of Zen?

Thank you.

Sincerely, Robert

June 20, 1978 Dear Robert,

Thank you for your letter. How are you? It is wonderful that you wrote to me directly.

In your letter you said you are in jail. That is a wonderful Zen center! I also have been in jail.* Maybe that jail made me become a Zen master. Perhaps jail will also make you become a Zen master!

You said you have read many books on Zen. That is not good, not bad. If your direction is clear, then all Zen books, the Bible, and all the sutras will help you find your true way. But if you have no direction and you read many book about Zen then your mind will be filled with thinking. Thinking is desire, and desire is suffering. So this thinking and understanding cannot help you.

What is your correct direction? Do you have one? You must show me! If you don’t understand, throw away all your books! I ask you, what are you? When you were born, where did you come

from? When you die, where will you go? What is your name? How old are you? These are all simple questions. Maybe you say, “My name is Robert.” That is your body’s name. What is your true self’s name? Perhaps you say, “I am thirty-five years old.” But that is your body’s age. What is your true age? Tell me, tell me! If you don’t understand, only go straight — don’t know. Don’t check your feelings; don’t check your mind; don’t check your understanding.

Next, you sometimes feel that you have experienced satori. This is feeling satori; when this feeling disappears, satori disappears, so it is not correct satori. True satori is unmoving, unchanging; it has no feeling, no thought. It is no-satori. The Heart Sutra say, “No attainment, with nothing to attain.” You must attain that.

I often talk about primary point. What is primary point? Imagine a simple scale. When there is nothing on it, the indicator point to zero. When you put something on the scale, the pointer swings to read the weight. When you remove the weight, the pointer returns to zero. This zero-point is

primary point. After you find your primary point, then good feelings may come or bad feelings may come, so your pointer swings in one direction or the other, but this doesn’t matter. When the feeling is over, the pointer will swing back to zero.

But if haven’t found your primary point, then it is like taking a heavy object off the scale with the pointer still indicating ten pounds, or only returning part of the way back towards zero. Then you have a problem. Your scale does not weigh accurately. If you put another heavy object on it, it might break completely.

So first you must find your primary point. Then you must keep it strong. A taxi has weak shock absorbers, so it bounces up and down when it hits a small bump/ a train has strong shock absorbers, so it is very steady, no matter what. If you keep your primary point, your mind-spring will become stronger and stronger. A big problem will come and your mind will move, but it will soon return to primary point. Finally your mind will be very

strong, and it will be able to carry any load. Then saving all being from suffering is possible.

Zen is not special. If you make something, if you make “special,” then you have something: you have “special.” But this something, this “special” cannot help you. Put it all down. What are you doing right now? When you are doing something, you must do it. Most people only half-experience things, because their mind is carrying the weight of some previous experience, thought, or feeling. So they cannot connect with other people and this world. But when you put it all down and just do it, from moment to moment, then you are already complete. Then you will find your primary point. Then you will understand your correct situation and your correct job. To do this must only go straight — don’t know it doesn’t matter if you are in jail or out of jail; already you will have freedom from life and death.

Here is a kong-an for your homework:


Master Hyang Eom said, “It is like a man up a tree who is hanging from a branch by his teeth. His hand cannot grasp a bough, his feet cannot tough the tree; he is tied and bound. Another man under the tree asked him, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China?’ If he does not answer, he evades his duty and he will be killed. If he answers, he will lose his life. If you are in the tree, now how do you stay alive?”

I hope you only go straight — don’t know, soon find your primary point, finish your homework, and save all being from suffering.

Yours in the Dharma, S.S.

* Seung Sahn Soen Sa’s prison experience is recounted in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha.

Atlanta, Georgia June 8, 1978

Zen Master Seung Sahn,

Thank you so much for your letter. It was very nice to hear from you and to receive your advice.

I am most puzzled by your statements regarding satori. Isn’t it true the goal of Zen is to achieve satori, a state of intuitive awareness? You say that true satori “is unmoving, is unchanging; it has no feeling, no thought.” These are all negative expressions of satori. What is it in the positive sense? Is it not a state of total happiness, a whole and complete mind?

You say there is nothing to attain. Please explain this to me in terms of satori. How do I reach state of satori? How will I know when I am in a state of satori?

I am awaiting your response. I am sure that you are very busy, but I wonder if you are could make recommendations on how I can advance my Zen training while I am yet in prison?

There is great deal of noise in prison and I am having difficulty connecting while sitting in my cell. Furthermore, I am not sure of hat I should be doing while concentrating during the time I sit Zen. Can you advise me on how to go about meditating properly and what goals, if any, I should keep in mind?

Yours in the Dharma, Robert

July 24, 1978 Dear Robert,

Thank you for your letter. How are you? My reply is a little late because I have just finished Cambridge Zen Center’s yong maeng jong jin and we have just returned to the Providence Zen Center.

In your letter you say you want satori. If you want satori, satori is far, if you don’t want satori, you can see, you can hear, you can smell — everything is satori. So put down “I want something.” If you keep I-my-me mind and try sitting Zen, you will not get

satori for infinite time. If you make your I-my-me mind disappear, then you already have satori, OK?

In your letter, you also said that is noisy in your prison cell, so you have a problem when you meditate. If you mind is noisy, even if you go to a mountaintop, it is noisy. If your mind is not noisy, even you are in a busy factory, it is very quiet. How you keep your just-now mind is very important. You check inside, and you check outside — checking, checking, checking — so you have many questions. Put it all down. Then the whole universe is very quiet.

The Mahaparinirvana-sutra says, ”All formation are appearing and disappearing. That is the law of appearing and disappearing. When appearing and disappearing disappear, that stillness is bliss.”

You asked for the recommendations on how to advance your Zen training while in prison, and what goals to keep in mind. “I want to try something. I want something. I want to get something.” If you make this “I” disappear, then “I want to try something, I want something, and I want to get something” will all disappear: you are already complete. Where does this “I” come from? An eminent teacher said, “Without thinking, just-like-this is truth.” Descartes said, “I think; therefore, I am.” If you are not thinking, what?

Being in prison is sometimes very difficult. But if you make your opinion, your condition, and your situation disappear, then a difficult situation is OK; noise is OK; your mind will be unmoving. So, when you are doing something, you must do it! That is Zen.

I hope you only go straight — don’t know, which is clear like space, make I-my-me disappear, attain enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.

Yours in the Dharma, S.S. __________



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