on jails and exaggeration's antonym
It says something about a state when the architect of a prison is later locked up in it. It almost sounds like an idiom: to be confined by your own design.
But what does it say?
That the architects of mass incarceration bear more criminal responsibility than many of the millions behind bars? That culpability rests less on individuals than on the system itself? Or that a state paranoid about its grip on power begins purging its ranks and, inevitably, leans on punishment — whether the dungeon, the gulag, or the archipelago of jails, prisons, detention centers, and the punitive surveillance regime that proliferates in the United States today?
In the late 1880s, architect Miguel Macedo designed Mexico City’s Lecumberri Prison. Macedo leaned on Jeremy Bentham’s model of the panopticon, made famous in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which is based on the alleged deterrent function of total surveillance — or even the possibility of total surveillance. If you know they always could be watching, the idea goes, then you won’t do whatever it is they don’t want you to do.
As Foucault and others argue, the logic extends far beyond the prison walls, with the panopticon’s chilling/deterrent effect creating “docile bodies” for the state to push around as it pleases.
During the Mexican Revolution, Macedo was locked up in Lecumberri, the very building he designed. A half a century later, one of Mexico’s greatest 20th century writers, José Revueltas, was also detained in the joint — for supposedly inspiring the 1968 student protests that culminated in the Tlatelolco Massacre. While there, he wrote a horrifying and beautiful novella El Apando, or The Hole.
The book centers on three inmates desperately trying to get their hands on drugs. Two of the inmates exploit and brutalize El Carajo, or The Prick, who suffers from serious mental and physical health problems. They convince The Prick to have his mother sneak in the narcotics on a visit.
The book culminates in an internecine brawl between guards and inmates, the Prick’s buddies beating the shit out of him, the guards getting on the take, and everyone clobbered, tatterdemalion and suppurating and in absolutely awful state.
For a taste of the style, here’s Revueltas describing The Prick’s one good eye glancing at the gladiola pinned to his lapel:
El ojo sano y la flor resultaban nauseabundos, escalofriantes. Era una fresca flor, natural y nueva, una gladiola mutilada, a la que faltaban pétalos, prendida a los harapos de la chaqueta con un trozo de alambre cubierto de orín, y la mirada legañosa del ojo sano tenía un aire malicioso, calculador, burlón, autocompasivo y tierno, bajo el párpado semi-caído, rígido y sin pestañas…
His good eye and the flower were stomach-turning, blood-curdling. The flower was natural and freshly picked, a mutilated gladiola missing petals and pinned to the threadbare jacket with a twist of rusted wire, and his pus-caked good eye had a malicious look to it, calculating, sarcastic, self-pitying and tender underneath the drooping and lashless lid…
Despite the grotesque depictions in The Hole, any novelization, or in fact any representation, of prison probably minimizes the reality. Which brings me to the subtitle, and the need a better antonym for exaggerate.
The etymology of the word is Latin, exaggeratus, meaning to heighten, amplify, or magnify, and is derived from aggerare, to "heap up, accumulate,” to pile on.
Minimize or downplay don’t carry the weight, nor do they have the opposite sonic impact of ex-agg-erate, which, fittingly, sounds like a word covered in muck.
Dexaggerate, perhaps? (It is in the urban dictionary.)
(Another) Etymological Aside
It’s been suggested that the Mexican homophobic slur jota, Spanish for the letter J, comes from the Lecumberri Prison. Supposedly the wing of the prison where gay men were held — “donde encerraban a los homosexuales, los invertidos, las lilas y los fifíes,” as Miguel Capistrán writes in México se escribe con J, or Mexico Is Spelled with a J — was shaped like a J.
But, Capistrán specifies, it was actually Lecumberri’s precursor, the Belén (or Bethlehem) prison, where the “desviados,” “lilos,” and “inglesitos” were held, and which was, weirdly, also shaped like a J.
(Thanks to Caroline Tracey for the nod to Capistrán.)
A Political Shiv
I’ve been reporting for the last few months on a local jail in Tucson. At this point, I get nearly daily updates from a host of sources about the ongoings inside: the discovery of gnarly-looking shanks, critical levels of understaffing, as well as inmate overdoses, near-deaths, and — on average once a month — deaths.
Last week one of my sources told me that two inmates had overdosed in one night. Both of them received multiple doses of Narcan, guards performed CPR, and they were rushed to the hospital. Both men survived. After their partial recovery, they were sent back to jail.
A couple days later, the same source told me that three shanks had been discovered in the jail in one night. The inmates are scared, the source told me — both of each other and of the guards. He shared photos of the shanks.
In my latest article for AZ Lu, funded by a Solutions Journalism grant, I analyzed what “solutions” might be able to fix the deadly state of the jail. I looked both at local efforts in Tucson and reform attempts in New York, Houston, Oklahoma City, and a host of other jurisdictions.
The big takeaway, at least for me, is that even with smart, well-intentioned people at the helm, with millions of dollars to throw at the problem, the crisis of death and misery in the nation’s over 3,000 local jails is basically unfixable.
Bail reform or eliminating cash bail, increased inmate programming, better medical care, better training for the guards, reentry programs — all good and necessary work. All of it would mitigate suffering in jails and prisons and be beneficial to people both inside and outside of them. But none of those are ultimate fixes.
Even a single night spent in jail can be deadly: 40% of all jail deaths occur in the first week, and the majority of sexual abuse in jail occurs within the first 24 hours of lockup. A night or two in jail can lead to loss of employment or loss of custody.
Studies have shown that any time spent in jail leads to increased recidivism, higher conviction rates, and longer sentences.
Every expert I spoke with said that the best and only real way to make jails safer is to keep people out of them, to lower the jail population. But what’s that end game of that effort? If you play it out another couple of steps, we’re getting close to abolition.
For a lot of people that might be a startling or even ridiculous idea. Without wading all the way in, let’s just consider one aspect of abolition, and one which has nothing immediately to do with prisons or jails, and which I think a lot of people can agree on.
The majority of people who die in a prison or jail today are detained because of complications related to homelessness, drug addiction, or mental health problems. If we could dramatically reduce homelessness, treat underlying causes rather than punish people for substance abuse, and figure a way to properly handle mental health problems, jail populations — and the very need for jails — would plummet.
As Critical Resistance explains in its definition of abolition, “we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future.”
In other words, the abolition of prisons is less a project of “burn it down” and more one of radical optimism: that we, as a society, can do better.
One group of people I’ve spent a lot of time with over the past six months or so, who know and demand that we do better, is the mothers (and sisters) of sons (and brothers) who have died in the jail. Their sons, their babies, their brothers, made mistakes, or somehow got caught up in life’s rush, and then, without even a trial, they were dead.
Those moms have certainly been intensely critical of the jail, but they also consistently remark on our collective failure to help people fighting addiction and mental health problems.
In other words, if we want to fix jails we need to fix society. No small task, I know.
“Mijo!” The Prick’s mother calls out, shortly before witnessing him get clobbered to the edge of death. “¿On tá mijo?” My son! Where’re you, my son?
Ending with a couple other recommendations, some books I’ve recently loved:
-John Vaillant’s The Tiger
-Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory
-James Salter’s Light Years