We should listen not only to the reluctant praise carved out for a person's time behind bars, but the landscape that praise is situated in

-Eli Day

By Eli Day

“Maybe it’ll be good for him. He’s gonna get himself killed out here.” Long before he was ever first incarcerated, some version of this softly cruel nonsense clung to my homeboy, and clings to him still. This time, it came as we both stood at the doorstep of fourteen years old, the speaker sitting comfortably beyond the captivity they were now prepared to see a child thrown into. Sometimes, when a rare moment of slow and quiet adolescence would find its way to our corner of Detroit, the warning would echo back to me. I’d imagine the thing growing legs and hounding him right into the grave, a prophecy eager to see itself fulfilled.

It’s a strange thing, the American urge to “look on the bright side,” even when the bright side is just the glow from a house being swallowed by flames. At some point, we’ve all hoped to find a secret, secure chamber in our own burning houses. Sure, it might kill you in the long run, we tell ourselves, but perhaps it’ll keep you alive long enough for another solution to crawl through the wreckage and find you still breathing.

And so the idea of prison as a site of redemption towers in American folklore. An image practically conjures itself: The good-for-nothing banished from polite society, left to wrestle their demons in a dreary cell and eventually lifted up by some all-knowing prison elder who warns against the street life and helps light the path to something greater. Let us never forget that Malcolm X went from menacing the streets to menacing the halls of power. Or that a long parade of rappers have entered the confessional to reveal that if weren’t for their last trip upstate, they too might be littered among the dead.

The myth recently caught up with me, like an echo racing down a long corridor. On the hauntingly beautiful track “Sleep Walkin,” Sacramento rapper Mozzy honors the prison with an urgency that borders on gratitude: “My last trip to Quentin for that yeekey really saved me,” he raps. Quentin being California’s San Quentin State Prison, where he served a year on gun-related charges.

On first listen, lines like this present an awkward wrinkle for those of us who’d like to see America’s horrifically racist prison system evacuated and sealed shut before it can take any more into its jaws. Here you have one of the swallowed, hailing their separation from homes, from communities, from families of whatever sort, as its own kind of sanctuary.

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But this is only half the story, and in that way, not the story at all. Rather, it’s one made possible if your aim is not to tell the whole tale, but the one most flattering to your worldview. If we only listen long enough to hear that prison spared someone a worse fate, we can go on believing that such massive public investments in cruelty must be good for something. The truth, buried and bulging just below the surface, suggests otherwise.

Right before contemplating the prison as a refuge, Mozzy speaks to the horror of life beyond its walls: “I miss my brother Deezy, only if those bullets grazed him. Wasn’t no hatred in my heart until that happened, that’s what changed me.” Through this small window we see Mozzy as a man torn apart, plunged into the hopelessness that comes with the violent departure of a friend, and the awareness that as a child of the slum, you too sit on the razor’s edge of chaos.

I’m less interested, then, in what confessions like Mozzy’s say about the goodness of captivity and more in what they say about the world the captive emerges from. This doesn’t mean that we ignore Mozzy’s claim about what prison meant for him. But it does mean we grant the man a fuller agency by taking a complete and honest view of his position. One that looks not only to the small and reluctant praise he’s carved out for his time behind bars, but to the landscape he situates that praise in―a landscape that otherwise goes ignored.

Across his body of work, Mozzy has narrated a world on fire. For him, it wasn’t so much that prison was a sanctuary―it was just a place that held out the slim possibility of catching one’s fucking breath. Prison could never put out the fires that consumed his world because they were never his to begin with. Rather, they belong to a country that’s civilized enough to inflict massive misery through public policy, but never mature enough to admit it lit the match, even when we have the footage and unsealed presidential and congressional records to prove it.

In short: For the blackest and poorest among us, the world outside the cage is often bleak and uninhabitable from the start―and this is no accident. No one should be spared the grim conclusions that flow from this: That, at best, the cage serves as the worst possible refuge from the misery we’ve created outside of it. And at worst, and most frequently, its walls only serve to intensify every one of its horrors.

Our failure to acknowledge this is as the state would have it. The merchants of captivity stand to lose a great bounty in the move toward a world without prisons, and so a war of propaganda is waged to peddle the myth that the freedom of some will always come at the expense of others. The best we are supposed to hope for is small-scale change, because a society without prisons is one racing off the precipice.

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Meanwhile, the most radical and freedom-loving voices, often the incarcerated themselves, are left offering that perhaps we don’t have to choose between a higher and lower cliff―that a new and different world remains possible.

We can choose to tuck ourselves into cozy myths about where change comes from, and on what scale we should demand it. But what we can’t do is fake surprise when those on the brink not only push back, but begin using what little power they have to drag us to new land, or start finding ways to obliterate the power of their captors. Prison uprisings from Attica to Vaughn, where the incarcerated have organized against impossible odds to win a small measure of power over their lives, have made this plain for anyone who bothers to look.

There are some who believe, as I do, that those closest to the machine’s maw will tend to see most clearly what’s needed to vanquish the thing. Our task is to work like hell to uplift those voices. This is just as true when one announces that “prison was good for me.” Because even there, just below the surface, we can see the outlines of a map from this world to another―one free from some of this world’s fires.

And then there are those who know what we believe about those in prison to be true, and believe it their duty to keep them unheard. A world without prisons would, after all, mean a world without things that have allowed some to build great fortunes out of the misery of others.

A world without prisons is a world where galloping racial wealth inequality and the vampire capitalism that steers it are driven from the Earth. It is a world where poverty is an artifact of a crueler era, when men used policy to make poor whomever was the easiest target for plunder. A world where our friends and the families we’ve chosen are still here when the storm passes, because no one is left unprepared for the storm.

One where blackness means something more than a long and desperate struggle against the clock. And where no one’s loved one is forced to choose between a near-certain death in the streets and an only sometimes slower but still-certain demise behind bars.


“Eli Day is a writer and relentless Detroiter, where he writes about politics and policy. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, In These Times, People’s Policy Project, Huffington Post, The Root, and Truthout, among others.”

 

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