The Poet Goes to Prison: Nebraska's Carceral System Renders Me (In)visible
"As of Tuesday, Nebraska’s prisons held 5,217 inmates, which is about 160 percent of their design capacity of 3,275" — Omaha World-Herald, August 2017 .
I circle the Nebraska State Penitentiary on an icy Friday night. From 13th Street, construction makes entrance impossible. My car, older than I, rumbles and huffs, nearly drowns out the voice of my phone’s navigation system, your destination is on the left, take the next left, you have arrived, you have arrived. Irony reaches her thin wrist down my throat, removes a strange sound, not unlike a laugh. The prison system works so hard to keep people inside, it barely looks twice at those of us outside, orbiting orbiting, searching for ways in.
Since the late 18th century, much has been theorized regarding the physical structure of prisons (Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon”)  and the relational nature of power in the hierarchical, carceral system itself (Michel Foucault’s “Panopticism”) . These theories are exacting in their discussions of prisoner visibility, their ultimate goal for inmates to be constantly surveilled — or living under the impression of such surveillance — by correctional officers and other inmates. The logic goes like this: high-intensity policing will yield rule-following populations, both inside prisons and upon release.
Panopticism: I abide by the speed limit whether or not a cop car is present. Just the thought of getting pulled over, being ticketed, keeps me in line.
Now, “...correctional facilities are completely out of sight for many Americans. Prisons close to cities...are...the exception. From 1992 to 1994, 83 prisons out of 138 were built in non-metro areas .”
The criminal justice system does not simply put people away -- it makes them disappear.
In the 19th century, British prisoners were kept on moored ships called “prison hulks” where they were chained each evening after a day of hard labor -- the healthy with the sick with the dying with the dead . Believe it or not, the hulks were not the problem, but the solution — a design to relieve overpopulated, land-based prisons. Though it has changed in condition (and name) over time, the concept of floating prisons is not novel, not relegated to distant history, not foreign. As recently as 1989, “prison barges” arrived at New York City’s shoreline after a multi-million dollar deal spearheaded by then Correction Commissioner Richard J. Koehler .
Today, in Nebraska, grossly overpopulated prisons sleep inmates “...on temporary plastic cots — called ‘boats' ."
How could they be named anything else?
Do not tell me we have learned from this (in)visible history, the one in which we hide men, women, youth away -- in ships, on land -- marvel at their inability to reenter society upon release, marvel at our empty wallets with which we fund inhumane living conditions.
Theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri acknowledge that “You can’t beat the prison…” (I’d add, almost certainly not from the inside), before continuing:
...all you can do is flee. Break your chains and run. Most often, flight involves not coming out into the open, but becoming invisible. Since security functions so often by making you visible, you have to escape by refusing to be seen. Becoming invisible, too, is a kind of flight (40).
I want to transpose this notion of (in)visibility from the inside, where it has dutifully served several life terms, to the outside. I compose this essay as a young, white, Midwestern woman. When I enter convenience stores, get pulled over, and visit correctional facilities, my race and gender make me nonthreatening. For penal officers, wardens, or government officials reading this essay, I’d like to clarify — I am not a threat. But the invisibilization of my body makes it arguably easier for me to get inside. In the spirit of Peggy McIntosh, I write, When I enter correctional facilities, I can be certain that most of the people in power will look like me .
I write poetry with incarcerated writers. I sit at tables with people — who are also inmates — and swap stories. Our lives run parallel, veer away from one another, and, in more bright moments than you might imagine, intersect. I believe humanizing people is a more effective form of rehabilitation than watching them could ever be. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it .
Poetry is one transformation of pain. Violence, uprisings, and riots are transmissions.
For the sake of this essay, I am not interested in the abolition of prisons. The question I pose is not, how do I get prisoners outside, but rather, how do I get inside? My (in)visibility makes me a powerful asset to the people with whom I choose to work.
The concept of crawl spaces, a term coined by Bob Moses , involves “...working with the system, without becoming of the system (36). Moses suggests that within schools (which Foucault reminds us resemble prisons) , “...this process enables people ‘to operate and get some presence, some visibility there, some legitimacy’” (36). My invisibility gets me inside where I can make space for myself to become visible to incarcerated writers — prove myself as a poet, keep the promises I make, become legitimized. My position increases the likelihood that I will be trusted on the inside — I am not a warden or CO, am not of the system.
Moses will later emphasize that young people must be the ones to crawl. My age makes my anger sustainable, my youth makes it easier to bend, to carve my own space in a system that chooses not to see me.
This is not a critique of the prison system. That ship has long sailed. This is a call — to get inside.
On my most recent visit to the Nebraska State Penitentiary, I wasn't there to teach -- I was there to learn. A guest of the Harambee Afrikan Cultural Organization, I heard inmates recite a creed and pledge in which they promise -- among other things -- to respect themselves as Afrikan men, each other, women, and children. They performed poems about how impactful their membership in the Harambee club has been. They planned upcoming community events. They talked politics. At this meeting, I listened, laughed, applauded. Their poetry, their stories moved me. They thanked me -- almost endlessly -- for coming inside. Imagine that -- a room full of inmates who are humble, warm, funny, generous, kind.
I only wish you had been there to see it.
You, the musician, the poet, the athlete, the entrepreneur, the preacher, the former inmate, the motivational speaker, the scholar, the educator, the comedian. I need your help. Consider your gifts. What can you bring inside? What can you do to transform, rather than transmit, someone’s pain?
What can you do to ensure these men and women have a chance to succeed upon release? By succeed, I mean be good neighbors to you. By succeed, I mean be strong employees in your business. By succeed, I mean pay taxes. By succeed, I mean be kind, get educated, learn from mistakes (theirs and yours), ask for forgiveness (and forgive). By succeed, I mean never go back inside.
I am asking for your time, your energy, your talents. I am asking you — yes, you — to make this work a priority. I know you have children, a partner, homework, classes to teach, at least one demanding job, a hobby, a sick parent. And I know you are afraid. Of the unknown. Of that which you cannot see. Of those — the villains, the headlines, the statistics — on the inside. I am not here to deny you that emotion. But I am here to ask that you do not allow its energy to paralyze you, but use it, instead, to propel you forward, through the mire of red tape and instruction, through the security check, across the yard.
It will not be easy. There is paperwork — always paperwork — to fill out. Your file will get lost in the shuffle, almost certainly more than once. When an overpopulated facility is understaffed, how could you expect otherwise? You will need safety training, of course. There are rules to follow, dress codes to adhere to, x-ray machines to walk through, pat downs to be had.
But I believe in the payoff — the people — on the other side of this labor.
If “becoming invisible, too, is a kind of flight,” look for me on back roads, in rural towns, circling jails, juvenile detention centers, prisons — wheeling wheeling, searching for (and finding) ways in.
I hope you’ll join me.
In August 2017, the ACLU of Nebraska filed a lengthy lawsuit on behalf of the state’s inmates, arguing that “extreme” overpopulation was causing needless suffering and deaths among the incarcerated population, as well as creating a volatile work environment for corrections officers and other employees. Gov. Pete Ricketts called the lawsuit “a threat to public safety.” http://www.omaha.com/news/nebraska/ricketts-says-aclu-lawsuit-over-nebraska-prison-overcrowding-could-have/article_9aee4414-82a3-11e7-a9af-5f5d100ff81c.html for full interview with Pete Ricketts and ACLU representatives.
See The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 4 (Panopticon, Constitution, Colonies, Codification) for more on this theoretical prison structure, including sketches.
See Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish, Ch. 3, “Panopticism” for more on how surveillance theory operates in our daily lives.
This article attempts to articulate the economic truths of rural prisons, weighting expectations of economic revival/prosperity against the realities of this broken system. http://harvardpolitics.com/united-states/48325/
For further reading on the horrors of life in 19th c. prison hulks and convict ships, visit: http://www.oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk/page/life_aboard_the_prison_hulks
In 1989, New York City’s Correction Commissioner, Richard J. Koehler, proposed the controversial acquisition of a pair of prison barges as a means of reducing the radical overcrowding of land-based prisons, mostly due to drug-related arrests. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/03/03/nyregion/jail-influx-brings-plan-for-2-barges.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
I encourage you to explore, and do some deep thinking about, the sea-related rhetoric that still permeates our prison culture — even in land-locked Nebraska. These complications of language are illuminated in this article: http://www.omaha.com/news/nebraska/ricketts-says-aclu-lawsuit-over-nebraska-prison-overcrowding-could-have/article_9aee4414-82a3-11e7-a9af-5f5d100ff81c.html
As a white writer and reader, I cannot recommend Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” for white writers and readers enough. The essay highlights daily interactions in which my whiteness provides me with power, agency, and “passes” that people of color do not have the same access to.
For fuller context of quotation, see: https://cac.org/transforming-our-pain-2016-02-26/. I do not believe religion is the only answer to the transformation of “unjust suffering.” I do believe that for some, it (much like poetry has been for me), is one transformation of pain.
See Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights by Robert P. Moses & Charles E. Cobb, Jr. for a more interdisciplinary look at crawl spaces in action.
See Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish, Ch. 3, “Panopticism.” In the final line of this chapter, Foucault asks, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”
Bentham, Jeremy, and John Bowring. The Works of Jeremy Bentham. Vol. 4, W. Tait, 1843.
Bohlen, Celestine. "Jail Influx Brings Plan For 2 Barges." Nytimes.Com, 1989,
Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Pantheon Books,
Gutierrez, David. “Mass Incarceration In Rural Communities: Out of Sight, Out of Mind.”Harvard
Political Review , 27 May 2016, harvardpolitics.com/united-states/48325/.
Hammel, Paul. “Ricketts Says ACLU Lawsuit over Nebraska Prison Overcrowding Could Have
Dangerous Consequences.” Omaha World-Herald, 17 Aug. 2017.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Declaration. Argo-Navis Author Services, 2012.
McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom
Magazine, 1989, pp. 10–12.
Moses, Robert Parris, and Charles E Cobb. Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights.
Boston, Beacon Press, 1999.
Restaino, Jessica, and Laurie Cella. Unsustainable: Re-Imagining Community Literacy, Public
Writing, Service-Learning and the University. Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.
Rohr, Richard. “Transforming Our Pain.” Center for Action and Contemplation, 26 Feb. 2016,
Rowland, David. "Life Aboard The Prison Hulks." Old Police Cells Museum, 2014,