Prison’s noose of absolute truth

By Treacy Ziegler

Anthony Washington, drawing for the project Dear Self, Dear Other

We seek truth in many things and demand absolute truth when someone has done wrong.

“Who did it?” is the first question asked after a crime, followed by “how” and “why;” the primary questions determining identity, causality, and motive of a crime

Identification is a strange thing. It is a paradox of revelation and limitation.  It seeks to enlighten only to cast the identified into a conceptual box — a thing with its individuality removed to fit into a universal.  For most, being fitted into an identity is not totally destructive since we live in multiple identities, changing them with the fluidity of daily existence.  I exist as artist, mother, wife, prison volunteer, friend, and so on.

However, in crime, once who, how, and why have been determined through the legal process, and who has been incarcerated, prison guarantees maintaining that determined truth through its insistence upon a single identity for the prisoner.  The prisoner is an inmate 24-7.  The status of inmate eclipses any other identity that may reveal a prisoner as a more complex individual – father, son, wife, daughter, friend – roles allowing the person to expand in who they are.

This determined and absolute truth is further controlled by prison through limiting information. As a volunteer prison art teacher, it is illegal for me to ask who, how, and why regarding my students’ crimes. Likewise, it is forbidden for me to know any personal details of students’ lives and to share any of my personal information with them.  This could essentially limit the exchange of personal information between a prisoner and myself to last names and the DIN number of the prisoner.

But legality is often a moot point in prison.  In prison, disclosure of information is based upon power and not upon rights.  So while I cannot ask anything of prisoners, guards often describe to me the details of a crime despite the prisoners’ rights of confidentiality: “Did you know that inmate X threw his wife off a cliff; inmate Y torched his victim and watched him burn to death; inmate Z murdered and raped three women?”

That the guards taunt me with crime details of my students is understandable. Beneath this antagonism, the guards are asking a valid question: Can I feel positive toward prisoners when I know the extent of their crimes?  Can I reconcile the paradox between a violent crime and the accused who may be a very good student?  For some reason, I am not concerned with these contradictory dynamics.  I usually know the crimes of my students.  It seems as though ignoring that part of the student’s life is a different kind of identity control.

Ironically, the first prisoner I met in any prison is an artist who received his MFA from the same art school I attended.  Joe was in art school at the same time that I was, but I didn’t know him until teaching in prison.  Years after first meeting Joe, I explained our connection to a staff person.  This staff shrugged it off but suggested I not tell anyone else.

Joe is serving a life sentence.  He accepts responsibility for his crime with a forthrightness that was probably a factor in getting that sentence.  He says, though, that one person asked him about his crime history in a way that gets at his own understanding of why he is in prison.  Instead of asking, “What did you do?” the person asked, “What happened to you?”  For Joe, this best describes his experience because, “I used to be just a real normal guy.”

He knows it’s crazy, but Joe feels as if his life became cursed — he can even pinpoint the moment of the curse. On a trip to Mexico with his wife, while climbing the Mayan pyramids, Joe mimicked the statue of the pyramid’s god.  He realized immediately that he had committed an act of great disrespect.  Joe says, “But it was too late. It seems everything after that went so wrong for me and my wife.” Rationally he does not believe in the Mayan curse, but emotionally he does; it gives him an alternative perspective, perhaps, one with hope.

Joe’s comments remind me of something the prisoner Richard said: “You know, how you get close to something and you know you shouldn’t get so close, but you do anyway, moving towards a cliff that is pulling you — and before you know it, it is too late?”  He motions with his eyes at the imaginary cliff hovering in front of us, ready to pull whomever over its edge.

Such accounts of crime do not fit the determined absolute truth insisted by prison and the criminal system.   Instead, the accounts represent personal interpretations.  To some people, these stories may appear as excuses; blaming invisible forces and creating havoc with causality; the “I didn’t really do it; I couldn’t help it.” Of course, the question becomes how are invisible forces reconciled with personal accountability necessary for agency?

In a super-maximum security prison, the men do what they are told at all times — shower, eat, take recreation; nothing is left up to them.  In art class, their emotional fragility is extreme.  When they drop their pencils, they’ll often yell, “You made me do that!”   The prisoners forget that in blaming me and not being accountable, they relinquish control of the pencil and give me their last shred of independence.

If we are victims of total causality and everything is determined through cause and effect, we cannot believe in the ability to make independent decisions.   I tell the class, “When you give up all responsibility, you eventually will not be able to move your head to look at something of your own volition…..and when that happens…. you will be bemoaning for the good old days when you lived in the free state of the super-max.”  They stop blaming me for the dropping of their pencils.

What is truth when all of us — not just prisoners — exist in these constant paradoxes?  Confronted by forces outside our control while being held accountable for those same forces is just one of many ontological contradictions to which our lives are bound.  How does one navigate living in such paradoxes?

Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer tells us that while science (in this case, forensics and prison) seeks to present the truth of a single story, the experience of art tells us there is no single story.  In art, there are only our stories, with no simple answers to whomhow, or why.  In art, none of us stand outside the circle of investigation – we are all involved.

Art, too, can be used as a platform for declaring a specific truth with prescriptions for public moral improvement.  But art’s strength is in declaring nothing, and by doing so, enables us a means to exist with creative non-prescriptive ambiguity in the multiplicity of stories that persists beyond every final answer that poses as absolute truth.

If prison could be developed as a creative response to compassionate accountability, what would it look like?


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