The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Do Prisoners Deserve to Be Human?

Flickr/kIm DARam

The Other Journal featured an interesting two-part article last week by Andrew Krinks. Krinks interviewed 5 inmates at a “supermax” prison in Tennessee. They have all been sentenced to death for their crimes. Krinks describes the prison’s surroundings (an industrial area outside Nashville) and the restricted lives that the inmates lead (“Whenever my feet hit the ground, they hit concrete.”). With it, Krinks makes the case for seeing how the environment and practices of incarceration ultimately fragment and abolish human meaning in the lives of its inhabitants. He also talks about how inmates strive to restore that meaning. It’s a fascinating article; I recommend it to you (part one, part two).

The article caught my attention because of its focus on the body in its environment. Krinks looks at the surroundings and makes an argument for understanding the human within it. He looks at how the structures and systems that delimit these prisoners suck the meaning out of their embodied lives. This meaninglessness is not the punishment intended by the justice system, but it is a by-product of the efforts at containing them. One inmate told Krinks: “. . . these cells close in on some of these guys.” Krinks sums it up: “It is all to easy, when one is so thoroughly cut off from others and from the outside world, to eventually become cut off from oneself.”

In other words, the incarceration techniques being used to punish criminals does more than imprison their bodies. It can also dehumanize their souls. This dehumanizing, I believe, is an unintended, but very real, consequence of prison technologies.

The prison environs represent an extreme edge of the ways that our man-made surroundings can shape our bodies, our habits, our identities, and our souls. But this shaping isn’t only true for extreme environments. It’s true for more moderate ones as well. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a more moderate example. Although the effects themselves may not as extreme, the subtlety of these moderate environments can be deceiving. Their moderation does not mean they are any less pervasive. They may have just as much impact on us. But to what ends?

A few years ago, my friend Mike returned from a trip to New York City. When I asked him about his trip, he described it with one word: “dehumanizing.” The sheer volume of people and the density with which they pack themselves in, he described to me. And Mike’s not some rural bumpkin; he lives in the city of Chicago.

What I would, in fact, suspect is that all man-made environments are, to one degree or another, dehumanizing. And I would suspect that they are dehumanizing to the degree that they are man-made. Yet, also, I would suspect that they can be humanizing to the degree that they point beyond themselves to something universal, and ultimately to God. (In fact, research suggests as much.) Hence, because a prison—both in its environment and its routines—is entirely man-made and self-referential, it is one of the most dehumanizing places on the planet.

By the same argument, a city is more dehumanizing than a rural setting. Why? Because of it environment and its routines. The habits it cultivates and the meaning it embodies are largely constructed by humans. (See Ellul's The Meaning of the City.) You will walk faster on a city sidewalk than in a small town. The buildings and streets are usually symbols of human activities—for better and worse. The exception proves the rule: New York’s Central Park is a respite from the pace and symbolic overload of New York City.

The city and the country remain clear extremes. However, something like a suburb is a bit more complicated. Much of these planned communities include things like trees and grass and open sky, but much of the man-made stuff is disguised with landscaping. How are we to understand this fundamentally man-made landscape? How should we think of it in relation to an English garden? Landscaping has completely subjugated natural growth to the landscaper’s will; the garden on the other hand is cultivated by a gardener in a more stewardship role. The two remain much closer than the skyscraper and the farm. But they are not the same. Even these subtle differences matter may effect subtle differences in us humans. Their impact does not have to be equally extreme to be equally pervasive.

Whatever these effects may be, and however deep they go, it is worth considering the man-made world and its impact on our bodies, our habits, our identities, and our souls. If we feel a sense of ennui, what role do our surroundings play? If we experience joy or rest, what kind of spaces bring that forth? If we feel abstracted or if we feel centered, what are we doing and where are we doing it?

Andrew Krinks’s article is titled “Soulful Resistance,” suggesting that handcuffed bodies are not handcuffed souls. But if we can more clearly see our surroundings for what they do, then perhaps “resistance” could give way to something more like “cooperation.”