The site that you are currently entering was constructed as a “digital reply to” or a “digital undoing of” another short work, called Property : None, that came out in the fall of 2010 as the first in a series of TapRoot Edition broadsides on the American prisons complex. These broadsides aim to engage mechanisms and language that sustain mass incarceration in the U.S. -- arguably the most thoroughly implemented social program of our time -- and participate in the building of alternate networks of community accountability and resistance.
The content of this original broadside, Property : None, was derived entirely from the typed reports of prison administrative staff on intake cards at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia between the years 1927-1932. It comes in the form of a limited edition, letter-pressed dossier with original artwork by Bill Harrison. As TapRoot and I worked on the design and layout of that broadside over 2009-2010, we repeatedly came up against our (and more particularly, often my own) desire to offer more content and context than the immediate format of our project was able to permit. As a result, this website was imagined as a space for extending the reader’s window into the conversations and context out of which P : N appears. Thanks for participating in that extension. Your thoughts and comments in that regard are more than simply welcome; they are what make this work something beyond a self-contained piece of writing and into part of a vital dialogue with and among others concerning these conditions.
As if against this vertical list, there might come instead resistive sifting
a lively and drifting struggle for vital exchange to sidle aside the vacant enumeration
of present charts – their official brutal arcs and starkly marked tables of sublimated agency
the meticulously purged adjacencies of relation and intimacy stationed so unrecognizably therein
that hurried and violent din which truncates every being to a mere trunk in profile, a pat battery
of bodily measurements whose pent-up, restless appendages clatter in vain against the orders
that claim to catalogue them - a battle over legibility and culpability fought upon the body itself
the commanding state logics shelved and folded in forceful amplification within the very folds
of one’s skin or trousers - thus arousing the mounting scrutiny of the police apparatus against us
onto the point that any empty pocket becomes locked upon as an indictment, a pathologized lack
of purse that curses its owner to verse themselves in every legal cogitation of seizure
from the fevered gavel of the magistrate to the sharp ribs of patrolled gravel and applied shackles
Was it “with abandon” or “abandoned?” Were we? Might we not variously invent or retrieve
another form of co-existence unfinanced by our collusion in the labors of censure or gatekeeper
Might we even leap to ask: who indeed is sentenced – menaced without witness – by this system
while holding next to nothing in hand and who systematically hands out sentences, holding cells
like nothing, like water, relegating others to a mere fodder for one’s own advancement
A quick glance at the world unfurling around us reveals that we are not only inseparable
from others, but consubstantial, co-formed, cross-enduring, and daily recalibrated
in our actions’ wakes, in each others’: how then to reconstitute that ground, to reawaken it
so as not to merely rest here - so as not to be arrested - so as not to only walk on one another
- Emily Abendroth
In breaking’s name.
In the name of breaking the so-called criminal habits of those it proposes to discipline and reform, the prison institution takes as both its end goal and continuous onerous project the relentless severing of all reciprocal relations an individual imprisoned person might hold access to upon entry. This methodical state-sponsored pursuit of ruptured comradery and community dislocation is sought concurrently at every conceivably achievable level – from the position of speech, of touch, and even of optical recognition. When Philadelphia’s own Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, its architects offered a panoptic hub-and-spoke model in patterned stone that promised to uniquely optimize and amplify the experience of “corrective authority” that prisoners would encounter inside its walls. Its every surface and passage was constructed so as to encourage one type of human interface only: the top-down inspection, correction, and punishment of its inhabitants along a rigid axis of vertical power. While the facility’s surveying staff and guards enjoyed a form of carefully fashioned and vigorous oversight that would be next to impossible in your average rectilinear building construction, Eastern State’s prisoners were privy to no such comprehensive visual access. Rather, the prisoner’s view was rigidly limited to the “private” dimensions and contents of the twelve by nine foot cell to which she or he was confined. In impact, such a design functioned to break what the panopticon’s inventor Jeremy Bentham referred to as the “seeing/being seen dyad” - the presumption that if someone is observing you, you should similarly be in a position to return that gaze. By tearing asunder this basic tenet of reciprocity and mutualism, through extreme measures of regulatory policy and masonry alike, all principles of affiliation and egalitarian positioning are effectively demolished, fixed instead into the insurmountable asymmetry of omni-present disciplinary monitoring. A society of isolates shall produce a society of obedience. The prison’s inflexible blueprint of control shall “teach” the prisoner (with added bodily violence when necessary) to tolerate their material and psychological conditions without “undue” resistance. Or rather, without the undoing of said conditions. In the words of sociologists Dario Melossi and Massimo Pavarini, one who is incarcerated “must learn to accept being propertyless without threatening property.” One must learn to accept being powerless without threatening power. To forgo self-determination without resisting or contradicting another’s determination of oneself.
One must learn.
But what, we must ask,
if one learns something else entirely.
And learns it tirelessly - with no small anchor of ferocity and improbable, tender care.
Because the panoptic model is, after all, only an ideal – noticeably unenforceable to the very limits it publicly announces that it maintains. Indeed, the attentive eye quickly perceives that such an institution needs to project so loudly, so forcibly, so publicly precisely because this maintenance is so very unattainable. Its systems are always concocted, doctored, and re-locked in upon in the wake of the indisputable fact that those subjected to its restrictive regimes will inevitably and ceaselessly struggle to bypass or overcome their strangleholds. In the case of Eastern State Penitentiary, below the perfectly synced stone corridors of order-keeping transparency was nestled a maze of intricate, idiosyncratic, wrestling, and often only partially constructed, subterranean tunnels aimed at escape. An erratic series of irregular, ingenious, overlapping, and labyrinthine carved-by-hand passages. A lassoing and strenuous counter-effort that extended itself in powerful but flailing, and often failed, ribbons of labor toward a hoped for dirt-recessed exit. In the 1930s alone, it is believed that Eastern State prisoners painstakingly clawed out some thirty separate passageways of obstinately sought transport. Against the bird’s eye architectural view of a rigid wagon wheel of measured confinement, was posed the mole’s eye view of a buried arterial infrastructure of pulsing, if papery, trowel-traced dissent. A capillary critique that those who were imprisoned quietly circulated in acute contradistinction to the warden-driven border zone above. Upon multiplying these unspoken acts of shoveling across the nearly 150 years of the penitentiary’s operations, one begins to chart a subcutaneous web of non-permissional burrowed channels numbering at least into the hundreds, if not into thousands - finning out in their fine, thin doubled-up spins, in spooned hollows, caught in the fraught but ballooning banter of attempted collusion and the pined after company of others. Mothering forth a precluded but unrepentant alternate anatomy of connectivity and contact.
So one learns.
So one must learn.
Both P : N and P : UN were compelled into existence by ongoing research that I have been doing around the history of U.S. incarceration practices, specifically as seen through the lens of Eastern State Penitentiary and the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center respectively. Discrete excerpts from this still very much in-progress research project can be read below.
The TapRoot broadside P : N can be ordered by writing either to e.e.abendroth at gmail.com or to TapRootEditions at gmail.com. If you order it directly from the author (myself), half of the proceeds will go to support the work of two Philadelphia-based organizations, Reconstruction and Books Through Bars, that each provide prisoner support and advocacy while working toward the long-term vision of prison abolition. An audio version of “Property : None” was also included in What is the Sound of the War on the Poor?, a 4-volume audio compilation project spearheaded by the L.A.-based sound collective Ultra Red. It can be heard at www.publicrec.org/archive/2-06/2-06-004/2-06-004.html. Thanks again for your time and interest.