Mass Incarceration and World Construction by Intensification

This is Part I of a three part series on carceral colonial logic and the prison industrial complex. Part II can be found here and Part III can be found here.

A central interest of mine is connecting the seemingly disconnected institutions of state violence in racialized capitalism: the border, the prison, housing discrimination, et al. An effective approach to understanding the connective tissue between these phenomena is thinking through the worlds that are created by way of colonial dispossession and state violence. These worlds are as artificial as they are real. Artificial in the same way that a border is a political myth maintained by force, a prison is merely a set of walls protected by armed enforcers. Yet, these worlds created by artificial perimeters are as real as life and death.  Our borders in the United States were won in blood and built on the basis of multiple genocides, and our prisons preserve and elongate that process. Deadly worlds.

In the Prison world, the ins, there is a logic almost completely distinct from the free world or the outs. First and foremost, the ins is primarily a world of oppressed nations: African and Caribbean American, Latinx, and Indigenous Peoples. If there are European descendent people imprisoned, they are working class and poor almost exclusively. Secondly, this world is tinged by intensifications of the outs: in Texas the heat is hotter because of a decision to not air condition, hastening the premature death of the elderly and the ill. The sense of space as a container is exaggerated since the walls are close, the cellular architecture of the prison pressurizes the experience of being in a room. The sense of being with others is brought to its near logical conclusion of a mass grave—heaped existence. Hunger is more threatening since one waits without recourse for the daily slop. The limitation placed on the senses is surreal since one no longer controls the light: no natural light, nor carpet, nor wood. It’s a concrete world dominated by fluorescent light. No prisoner touches grass, sand, or foliage for the duration of their incarceration. The lack of human touch, save the all too common fight for your life, makes its violence felt at every turn of the rotting tomb of sweat and suffering.

Eddie Paredes is a newly free man. He served a four-year sentence in maximum security prison in the most incarcerated state of the American Colony, Texas. Eddie is a very close friend of mine from childhood, and one among many of mine to find the prison wall closing him in. I kept in close communication with him throughout the duration of his stay. We read books together, shared song lyrics, kept each other up on our  deepest meditations as well as our superficial comings and goings. Most often we remembered together the past we shared, and imagined together the future we would both hopefully co-inhabit.

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Eddie Paredes is a newly free man. He served a four-year sentence in maximum security prison in the most incarcerated state of the American Colony, Texas. Eddie is a very close friend of mine from childhood, and one among many of mine to find the prison wall closing him in. I kept in close communication with him throughout the duration of his stay. We read books together, shared song lyrics, kept each other up on our  deepest meditations as well as our superficial comings and goings. Most often we remembered together the past we shared, and imagined together the future we would both hopefully co-inhabit.

I flew Eddie out to NYC within the week of his release so that we could be in communion and grace together. In this interview I asked him about his time, about race in prison, about embodiment, strategies of survival, and above all about border crossing. I urge you to hear Eddie’s side of the story, as he is an example of a soul survivor (tattooed on his head) whose voice is desperately needed for leadership in this fight against deportation and incarceration, for the entire struggle against white supremacist neocolonial rule. Eddie is currently working in a bar in North Texas and trying to build a pathway for his four-time deported mother and his two youngest siblings to come home to Texas where they were born.

You talk a lot about the ins and the outs. For people who don’t readily understand this distinction, would you mind telling me about it?

E: The ins of course is being incarcerated. Prison. It could be jail, city jail, anywhere. That’s the ins. Being confined in those walls.

And how firm is that border? Once you’re on the ins how hard is it to get out?

E: It’s hard. Mentally hard [to get out].

And how hard is it to get in?

E: *laughs* So easy! One wrong turn, even. Just walking. Getting caught holding something. Witnessing! Not calling the laws. Anything really. Just right place, wrong time.

Do you understand this border as functioning similarly to the U.S.-Mexico border in that way?

E: Exactly, easy to get taken across the border, hard to get back.

And each of these borders teem with exaggerated violence and poverty. How many rich people are in prison?

E: Definitely. How many rich people percentage wise? Maybe 4. Like people with a thousand dollars on their books? Definitely, below 10%.

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What are some of your first impressions of entering this new space for the first time, that of the ins?

E: Claustrophobic. It’s tight. There are cells where you can touch all four walls standing in one place, cells in which it’s hard to climb on your bunk because it’s so close to the wall. Most of the prisons were built so long ago, late 1800s, early 1900s, so there are no outlets for our appliances, or bad plumbing.

And most of these prisons are in remote locations?

E: Yeah, it could be the middle of the desert, country towns, dry heat, crop farms, hog barns, horses.

How does the violence change with regard to the closeness of everything?

E: It intensifies everything. You’re living right on top of another person in a room where you can touch all four walls at once time, in close quarters with someone 24 hours a day. Especially with the heat… The littlest thing can become the biggest thing. Fights start out of nowhere. You can be cool with this person and want to fight over anything. The way he brushed his teeth, cleaned the toilet, he didn’t sweep today, he grabbed his tray before I grabbed my tray—and he knows I always grab mine first. Anything like that will result in violence. We all have different ideas of respect.

So according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the demographics of their prisons are pretty clear cut: Equal parts black (40%) and Latinx (40%), and a much smaller minority of white people (20%). So would you say that this would qualify to you as a Latinx space? How much of your Latinx identity is being reflected to you on the ins? Can you tell me about race relations in our Prisons?

E: It’s extremely important. Extremely important. You walk in there and you have your mat, and you will see immediately that there is a black side and another side. The benches are segregated: The white people and Mexicans, and then the black people over there. Any prison. The white people and the Mexicans are going to stick together and the blacks on their own. And it’s sharply segregated. It’s not racism. It’s prison politics. Being Latinx you feel love immediately. The other Latinos take care of you off the rip, and you can feel the vibe. People offer you store, money on the books, hygiene, and that’s what sways you to join the gang because you feel the love off the rip.

So you make it sound like it’s largely the prisoners maintaining these segregations, but it’s not as if the institution is trying to break up this segregation whatsoever. So would you say that the establishment is complicit in these sectionings, and that maybe there is a complicity between structural and interpersonal segregating? Do you think it’s valuable to the prison that the prisoners are segregated like that?

E: Oh Absolutely. It helps in every way. So much so that if guards start to see too many blacks and Mexicans standing up together they immediately intervene. They know something is up, and act fast to dispel it. They know we don’t sit together like that. So they immediately go talk to “the speakers.” Known gang members. It happens like that all the time. Things get deescalated by the rank talking to these speakers.

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Sometimes when I wrote you, you said you get to do a year in no time, that a year would fly by. Then, towards the end of your sentence it seems like time parachuted a bit. How was time variable like that?

E: My experience. When I first got locked up I knew I had to do time. So I got a job, was in population, and it would just fly by. But once I knew I was getting closer to this release date, I wasn’t in here anymore. My mind’s in the free. So every single day I would sit there and ignore the talking, thinking about what I was gonna eat when I get out, what girl I was gonna call, which of my homeboys I could chill with, I heard some of my homeboys don’t chill no more, this person is pregnant, and that person died. So my mind was in the free so much that it just slowed my time down. Exactly like you said: it parachuted. 24 hour day would feel like a 30 hour day. I’d try to work out. I feel it’s been an hour, and it’s been 20 minutes. Just… everything slowed down.

So a lot of what I’m thinking about is how borders create worlds. So the border between the U.S. and Mexico is fake (man-made), and the border between the ins and the outs is fake (merely a wall), but traversing these borders will show you that these worlds have their own logic. We’ve talked about how the language is different, different code and slang, non-expression of vulnerability, the space on the inside is regimented, tight and close, and the heat on the inside is more intense, more dramatic, and the time on the inside is more variable. You’ve just changed worlds this week, what are your perceptual experiences upon crossing that border?

E: It’s surreal. Like, this almost doesn’t feel like New York City to me. I was sitting in a cell last week. I’m going through the motions. My body is going through the motions but mind is stuck. It’s almost like I didn’t just do those four years. Like I went from the world (free) to the world (free), almost as if that was a bad dream or something… That’s why I said surreal. Like this doesn’t feel like life to me, honestly. I’ve written 5 people since I’ve been out.

The Carribean philosopher Glissant wrote once that, “This is the only sort or universality there is: when, from a specific enclosure, the deepest voice cries out.” You, in your own life, have moved into a tighter and tighter space. The move to the inside of the U.S., the move into the prison, from the prison into solitary confinement. Is there a truth that you can bring to us from that space?

E: Man…I feel like, you’re trapped with your thoughts all day, in segregation. You’re alone, and sometimes it’s so quiet and others it’s so loud, but you can’t see or touch anybody. You’re trapped within your thoughts. You can’t run. You got nowhere to go. Sometimes they even take your property, and all you have is a sheet and you. You got nothing but your mind, and it can either make you or break you. You’re trying to find anything to distract you… You know, you could say I did a lot of wrong in my life: some will say I did more wrong, others will say less, but I know I did wrong. And I’ve found the need for balance, to make up for what I’ve done in life. Reading is really what made me want the straight and narrow.

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[Eddie walks in the grass for the first time in 5 years.]

You’re coming out into a dramatic time racially in the U.S.: with our increased aggression abroad, rising mass incarceration at home, our borders getting more violent, immigrant detention centers becoming more violent, etc. For the abolitionists, we understand prison to be a racialized way of making money for people who already have a great deal of money, and also as a format for maintaining the status quo of white supremacy, a set of institutions strangling out Latinx people, Black people, Asian people, etc. And the racial segregation you point to on the ins does exist out here somewhat; there are neighborhoods which are mostly Black or Latinx, and those borders reify, become stricter, more firm. Do you think that it would deal a serious blow to the white supremacist system, the making money off of people’s pain, to abolish these prisons, to let Latinx people return home to their families, to be more involved in this struggle against the white supremacist capitalist system?

E: For sure! Abolition of prison, man… I feel like some extreme stuff would happen, but I know it’s a millions of dollars empire, maybe not an empire, but they make so much money off of prisoners—to hold you in there it’s like 18,000 dollars a day for each person, but Texas alone we have 178 prisons. Texas is the most imprisoned state per capita in the country. And they make so much money off this. They charge for everything, they price everything, and to shut that down completely would be a… a serious blow. A massive blow.

It would be a revolution.

E: A revolution exactly.

[This is an excerpt of the interview. Watch the full unedited discussion at the video above.]

Steven Powers is a recent graduate of Stony Brook University M.A. progam in Philosphy where he focused on genocide studies, violence and trauma, and habit formation. He is currently organizing around the prison industrial complex , structural white supremacy, and settler colonialism in New York City.