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Life Sentences

Opening remarks from the Conference on Incarceration and the Humanities

My ninety-year old grandfather, Naldy Connolly, likes to tell this story.

When young Naldy was just a boy, he lived with his mom and four siblings in the poorest section of Kingston, Jamaica. In the mid 1930s, that meant down by the waterfront, somewhere off Tower Street, and among the fishmongers of Kingston Harbor. Tower Street was home to Jamaica’s General Penitentiary. “It was three stories,” granddad recalls, “and all red brick.” “At night,” he remembers, “sometimes, you would hear the cries and moanings, y’know, ‘Man’s-inhumanity-to-Man’ type of thing.”

Now, you could imagine the horrors of a colonial prison in a black, economically depressed country like 1930s Jamaica, just as you can imagine the nightmare that the sound of wailing men might conjure in the mind of a nine-year old child like my grandfather. Even the most benign administrative records explain how the men in lock-up off Tower Street were never issued bedding or shoes. Only so-called “special cases” got shoes and other perks of what colonial officials referred to as “European treatment.” The 5000+ men and fifty-or-so women of the prison were routinely denied food as a form of punishment. They were also prevented from reading and access to education as a general rule. Prison administrators cited costs and the thorny logistics of outdoor gang labor as reasons for keeping Jamaicans behind bars illiterate. Perhaps only a British prison official could report in such a genial and clinical manner that “executions are always carried out with the utmost decorum and solemnity.” The predatory reach of British colonialism extended deep inside the prison through its grinding abuses.

The year my grandfather turned 10 years old, more than a third of the people behind bars in Jamaica had been convicted for the mere nonpayment of taxes and fees. Everything from the right to sell lamp oil or garment services to the regulations of scales for shopkeepers and butchers, came with fees paid to the administrative state. The labor and coin of the colonized sustained British colonialism, much as black dollars under racial segregation drove broad economic prosperity in the United States.

The costs of imprisoning indigent people in Jamaica reached such intolerable levels that colonial officials recommended, whenever possible, “non-residential imprisonment,” or what we today know as probation. The point, then as now, was to off-load the expense of incarceration on the citizen. Britain’s Colonial Office, it seemed, was forever trying to cut the costs of imperialism, and, according to my grandfather at least, someone (or several someones) inside Jamaica’s General Penitentiary seem to know this.

You see, everyday at dusk, my grandfather appeared outside the walls of Jamaica’s principal prison. There, as the red brick deepened under the colors of the setting sun, he would stand among the village’s other poor kids. He’d gather alongside women and disabled folks, all quarantined in the slums off Kingston Harbor. With eyes up to the top of those high walls, they would wait and wait. Then…

“Sometimes, they would throw cornbread,” he said. “I mean I’m not exaggerating; the cornbread was at least this size,” and he places his forearms together to indicate its size. His voice lifting, Naldy continues, “and they would come right over the wall!” The people would scurry to scoop up this raining food. Cheers would rise if a person caught a loaf before it hit the ground. Not merely a house of horrors, Jamaica’s prison nourished a population used to living off the leavings and castoffs from the rich diet of white Britons. “Obviously [people tossing the loaves] knew it was a fishing village, so to speak,” Naldy explains, “and we would just get these cornbreads. They were absolutely delicious.”[2]

Perhaps administrators or prisoners were getting rid of the surplus bread, maybe to help cover-up what was being spent on food. Or perhaps, this act came from a single intrepid or even crazed worker in the prison bakery. Neither my grandfather nor I (after considerable research) know. What I do know is that, to this day, the memory of those flying, hulking loaves of cornbread brings a smile to Grandpa’s face. For him, they served as proof that, in spite of the nighttime wailing cascading outward from the prison, folks locked away off Tower Street knew the deprivation on the outside was just as bad. As he tells it, the denizens of the General Penitentiary redistributed resources from the miserly British colonial state – by tossing their cornbread. This was love from the inside, still fresh and warm today in the mind of a man nearly a century old.

Prisons, past and present, do dual work. They are places of horror, torture, racism, and extortion. Largely thanks to the labors of those inside, prisons also function as sources of nourishment, intellectual growth, for some, even places of healing. We can consider, if not conjure, the nightmarish conditions of solitary confinement, sweatshop labor conditions, toxic foods, and twenty-three hour lockdowns. And yet, we also appear figuratively — as granddad and company always did literally – to look for, and quite often sup upon a fugitive form of sustenance.

We have all, here, been nourished by those willing to defy the absoluteness of the cage. “Life Sentences,” our Conference on Incarceration and the Humanities, strives, in part, to acknowledge that debt. Much of what we know about the nature and workings of state violence, the interplay of culture and capitalism, or, say, the redemptive capacity of Christianity, we learned from a person behind bars. It’s no stretch at all to say that perhaps our greatest living historian, playwright, or literary critic is currently behind bars. So much of the task before us involves supporting the efforts of those teaching and working with incarcerated intellectuals.

There can be no question, too, that the best of history, philosophy, and literature owes much of its greatness to the thought work of people behind bars. The list is too long to even begin to enumerate in full here, but we know it includes Antonio Gramsci, St. Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Claudia Jones. We know it includes Chester Himes, George Jackson, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Angela Davis. In 1952, the historian, journalist, and activist, C. L. R. James, effectively launched the field of American Studies by comparing the crew of the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to himself and the other working people awaiting Red Scare deportations at Ellis Island. Roughly a decade later, Martin Luther King, Jr., issued one of the most sterling and durable critiques of white liberalism in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” White moderates’ “tragic misconception of time” – a time an incarcerated, Jim Crowed people could not afford – meant that while liberals waited patiently, often silently, for racial and economic justice to arrive, that same silence ensured justice would never come. These and other debts we may never know demand that we acknowledge how perspectives, intellectual approaches, and entire academic fields owe their existence to someone whose vantage point on American society came through the bars of a cage.

For this reason, “Life Sentences” recognizes the work of those people who have fought — and continue to fight — to keep the contradictory or dual meaning of prisons alive, at least. Many of the folks sitting in this very room know far better than I, or most us here, just how hard it is to carve an even remotely positive possibility from the experience of being incarcerated.

“Life Sentences” brings together present-day activists, art workers, teachers, and program builders. Our aim is to share research methods, findings, and strategies for navigating byzantine educational and carceral institutions. We meet to build the capacity of existing prison education, to broaden the way toward careful theorizations of state power and human subjectivity, and to consider the place of the Humanities in discussions ranging from prison reform to prison abolition.

Such considerations are not inconsistent with scholarly pursuit. Rather, the effort to “get free” has made our scholarship, writing, and art better. Just look at the what’s happened in the Humanities in the last decade. Few fields have generated as much new work in arts and letters as the study of incarceration and its discontents. Historians, literary critics, artists, novelists, and a host of observers in policy circles and popular culture have taken to considering the dynamics of freedom and unfreedom – historically and comparatively, interpersonally and existentially. These explorations have all but eviscerated the already porous divides between the Humanities and Social Sciences. The widest disparities between worker productivity and pay can be found in prisons, while incarceration represents one of the fastest (if not the fastest) areas of broadly acceptable government spending in the United States. At a moment when carceral facilities serve as the largest health providers in America, inquiries into the physical and psychological experience of state violence and confinement have bridged the divide between the Humanities and the so-called ‘hard sciences as well.

We live today, as my Caribbean grandfather did some 80 years ago, in a carceral society.  “Life Sentences,” in sum, explores imprisonment and state violence as a site of social contestation, personal meaning-making, and innovation in research and teaching. It looks at the institutionalization of people and the fencing-in of places as narrative structures and historical processes. It explores, too, the ways in which people flouted the absoluteness of bondage and imprisonment, either through representations of freedom, or through the active cultivation of insurgent scholarly and political practices.

You should know that the British government decided to rein in drastically the cornbread bounty my grandfather remembers so wistfully.  “We have succeeded in reducing the supply of cornbread to prisoners in the Penitentiary, thus at once saving revenue and deterring most of the island’s population from seeking residence in His Majesty’s Prisons.” So reported Jamaica’s Daily Gleaner in January 1935. White officials believed that “because of the excellent treatment hitherto meted out to them” behind bars, Jamaicans wished to be locked away on Tower Street. The three-million pound “surplus” realized by reducing the outlay for cornbread went back to “the elected,” or white, “side of the House.” (Black citizens would not be allowed to vote until 1944, or for nearly another decade). Upon the news of this windfall, “a wild cheer arose from the elected side of the House and waxed and waxed…”[3]

Life Sentences: Day 1

Prison Education and the Humanities

Cultural & Policy Responses to Re-entry

“Rehabilitation” and its Discontents

A Discussion About Problems and Possibilities in a Carceral Society

Life Sentences: Day 2

Innocence Projects and the Revision of American Values

Life Sentences: LUNCH AND A MOVIE “The Prison Factory (24min)” Discussion

Life Sentences: Incarceration as Health Care

Life Sentences: Prisoner as Agent, Prison as Archive

N. D. B. Connolly is Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University and co-host of the weekly American history podcast, BackStory. Life Sentences – A conference on Incarceration and the Humanities” was principally sponsored by the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute and hosted at Johns Hopkins University.

Footnotes:

[1] Penal and Prison Matters: Prison Annual Reports, Jamaica (1939), CO/359/17/7 National Archives, Kew,

[2] Interview with Naldy Connolly, December 31, 2015, West Palm Beach, FL.

[3] B. G. D., “Random Jottings: As I See the World…The Great Surplus?” The Daily Gleaner, January 8, 1935, p. 12

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N. D. B. Connolly

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