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the failure of a fantasy

Grace Zhou's picture

Before I truly read the “hopelessly hardened” about the Eastern State and step into this “groundbreaking” penitentiary, I was so convinced that the prisoners lead hard lives in the cells and behave so well in order to get out of the hopeless darkness and damp. Born in a family with father as judge and mother as lawyer, I was always told how desperate lives in the cells are- prisoners can’t fall asleep on rock-like beds, have limited time to see their family and once a prisoner told my mom that he only wanted a blanket in the winter and the chilblain he got in prison prohibited him from doing anything. At that time,I thought the penitentiary is so cruel that it is not a place for helping people to confess and change,but an inferno that destroys humanity. So I was so pleased and optimistic when I get to know that Eastern State is a pioneer in reforming incarceration.

 Just like those reformers years ago, I believe it works. Reformers thought the isolation can break prisoners’ spirit and force them to contemplate and read bible to interact with the world. I can imagine the horrifying loneness even before I visited Eastern State. I feel empty and eager to find something to do whenever I was alone. So being isolated in that box-like humid and rusty cell without any voices from outside world, prisoners should feel lost; as a result of which, they may seek for work in order to fulfill their emptiness. In other word, this prison can change prisoners by using isolation to force them work voluntarily to feel existence and value. Reformers and I strongly and optimistically believe this psychology punishment should work.  

However, we are all wrong. The isolation failed to encourage prisoners to contemplate with their time and space; quite opposite, it arouses the prisoners’ madness and stimulates them to make large effort to create ways to break this segregation. “In addition to dismissing work projects and compromising their own isolation prisoners frequently rejected the program of moral counseling established for their benefit (Janofsky, 112).” Ironically, when I visited Eastern Sate, my optimistic belief in this fantastic prison was shaken.

 Just like those prisoners years ago, I find it can’t work. When I stayed in the cell by myself, I felt uncomfortable at first five minutes. But after awhile, I felt bored and tried to have fun by myself. I wandered around in the cell and made noises by kicking the wall and knocking the pipe. By doing so, I can feel the surrounding world and even become curious about whether my neighbors can hear me or not. I recognized that I want to communicate and interact so eagerly that it seems like a resistant power to push me to break the isolation. It is understandable that those pipes, which supposed to provide the isolated environment for prisoners, now become the conduits for prisoners to communicate.

So why is my belief change dramatically? And why the reform is just a fantasy that can’t work? In addition to the reason given by Janofsky – the misunderstanding between mid-class administrator and laboring-class prisoners, the culture differences between officers and guards, and the “shared mutual resentments (Janofsky, 119) ” among inmates and overseers, one thing is vital to the failure of Eastern State- subjective presume of the reformers. This preoccupation is not stand on the fact but on the arbitrary idea rooted in us.

For me, it is easy to find that I “thought” the prisoners in the Eastern state “should” feel desperate in isolation even before I visited and researched the true feeling and lives of the prisoners. Because I believe subjectively at first, I am so occupied by the optimism for the success of Eastern state without solid evidence. When I truly visited the Eastern State and try to think as a prisoner, I find the other aspect in my heart- not the emptiness and surrender, but the rebellion and madness. I never try to think like a prisoner before. For a prisoner who has nothing but time, he will not just contemplate as people wish, but try so hard to get him out of discomfort brought by isolation. So, my ideal was changed by the fact. Same for those reformers, they are believers in a world they subjectively thought should work-they believed the only book bible may help prisoners to refresh their spirit, but they ignore the high illiteracy in prisoners. We are all the outsiders who try to imagine and feel from our own point of view and experience. Due to the subjectivity, we tend to magnify the benefits and advantages that support our idea- in this case, reformers and I are convinced that solidarity can break the prisoners’ spirit and help them reform, but unfortunately, we minish the attention on fact.  

During the experience in Eastern State, I change from a reformer to a prisoner. The belief of reformer truly convinces me and I subjectively assume the prisoners will become the well-behaved characters portrayed in my play. However, we often misunderstand the world as a fantasy imagined by ourselves. So the failure of Eastern State is not unanticipated. It is a representation of the large gap between people’s subjective imagination from own experience and objective world that really works.

work cited

Janofsky, Jennifer Lawrence. "Hopelessly Hardened." Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America. By Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell. Athens: University of Georgia, 2012. N. pag. Print.