17 January 2016
High fences and many towers
The collection of prisons to the west of Ionia, Michigan are partly viewable at 55 mph on State highway M-21. Other people have researched the rise in the incarceration rates and the disproportionate population profile centered on African-American men. Given the life chances in a person's home, neighborhood streets, classrooms and workplaces on the one hand, and given the culture of consumerism and available ways to earn and to give respect, the result has been more young men going before a judge for sentencing in places like these along the Blue Water Highway, as the road is known.
All around the clock and through the changing seasons of one year to the next, the predominantly male populations live out their days of sentence behind cement and wire, recorded by cameras and watched by various paid professionals. And in the same way that schools teach habits and mindset, apart from class subjects covered, so too of prison life there are a number of assumptions, priorities, contextual frames for judging situations. Guards learn to behave like guards, prisoners learn to act like prisoners. When each side goes home - guards each night or morning, ex-offenders after a set number of months and years - then something of the prison culture sticks with them. Habits and routines are learned by repetition; learned by the body as well as the mind and one's heart.
Passers by glimpse only the shiny razor wire and glassed in guard towers, or the brick signs with the name, Bellamy Creek or Richard Hanlon Correctional Facility. Those outward signs are only temporary. The mindset is more durable, even though it is not visible or material. How different the social contract before cities, laws and precedent: depending on the status of the offender and the offended the remedy might have differed. But it would not result in the vast and expensive institutional life that we see from the road at 55 mph.