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Invitation from Sheila Pinkel

Anne Dalke's picture

During English classtime on Thursday, we will be skyping with our Creative Consultant, Sheila Pinkel, who will tell us about her work, and begin to offer some guidance towards the artistic collaboration we will be working on this semester. Sheila will help us figure out how to begin collecting quotes, information and images which we can use to generate art work focused on issues of incarceration.

In preparation for our discussion, plan to get together with one or two of your classmates to view the websites Sheila's provided, and to review the questions she's written. Before 5 p.m on Wednesday, please reply WITH A COMMENT TO THIS POST (you can write this collaboratively or independently, whichever works), describing what emerged from your conversation. Sheila is not expecting full-blown answers to each of these queries, just using them to lay out some essential questions, trying to get a sense of "where you are," what-and-how you are thinking about such ideas @ this point, where your interests lie.

Sheila's own work on incarceration is featured @

Other sites she'd like you to look @ include
(not about incarceration, but a local exhibit and example of how artists can comment on a social situation).

There is lots to look at on these sites, so you'll want to go revisit them later, as time allows.

Also, Sheila would appreciate your posting other sites that you think the class might benefit from seeing.

What is your technical expertise? Are you good at photography? Do you know how to use Photoshop or InDesign? Have you done a digital book, digital printing, or made a website?

Which of these questions below are of interest to you--enough to do research on, and to prepare a presentation about?

What is the difference between silence and silenced? Reflect on your experiences of silence and being silenced.

Who is incarcerated in the United States? Pennsylvania? Socio-economic and cultural information about incarcerated people, including adults, youth, sexual orientation of incarcerated?

Who benefits financially from the growth of public and private prisons? What is the financial magnitude of this industry?

How is prison labor being used today, by whom, for whose benefit?

How does incarceration affect families of the incarcerated?

What does society need to provide so that people released from prison can have productive lives?

How can individuals and groups be proactive in accomplishing a more just society?

What are your own questions?


ttong's picture

        I find it interesting when I get to look at most questions from a foreigner's perspective as for the most part my immediate answer would be "I don't know". But after the discussion, with the little help of Google and taking from my own one-semester-long experience working with incarcerated women, I generated some thoughts.

        As I write this post, I am reminded of the discussion I had with Han this afternoon about how I feel silenced when I speak English and how silence involves both voluntarily silent people and people being silenced. I am one of those people who enjoys silence to the extreme but being silenced is a very difference experience. I feel like some of my words are being silenced when I transform them from Chinese to English, and then part of my meanings are silenced when my words are heard by other people. Through this double-silencing transportation of my words, I am consistently silenced. But when I am alone, when I have my free silence time, I talk to myself in English as if it is the only language I know in the universe. I don't feel silenced anymore.

        Then I start to think about the second question, and about people who share the similar Asian identity as me. I have been thinking how Asians are ignored in American society as if we do not exist. We are usually collectively included into "people of color" while the conversations over races rarely bring us up. As I went through my memory about working with incarcerated women, I could not think of any Asian woman I had encountered in the facility. I found it extremely interesting but sad that Asians are the victims of instituionalized racism as we could not reach our goals as easily as most white people do; however, we seem to be less discriminated against than black people do in issues related to incarceration, and then we sort of lose our voices in the conversations over incarceration, privilege, races or even social justice. I could find where myself or my race could fill into the conversation as we are not the privileged ones nor the "not" privileged ones.

        As I start to find the reasons for why Asians are neglected, I think about the conversation I had with Han. We talked a lot about the differences between American and Chinese incarceration system, or even political structures. And somehow an incarcerated individual seems more approachable(?) or common in America than in China because of the massive incarceration. Then because of the massive incarceration, American families (I assume, because I really know nothing) seem to have less shame in incarcerated members than Chinese families do. Instead, through my conversation with incarcerated women, I have heard how their families were being supportive and how they still kept close relationship with their family members. However, I also thought about the immobility of American social class that most people will become the same socio-economic class as their parents. And I wonder if massive incarceration has anything to do with it.

      And speaking of my questions, I actually have the exactly questions like what can we do to provide released people with a more productive life and how do we accomplish a more just society (clearly that's why I am not able to answer it). Being a foreigner, I really could not find to stand point to speak to these questions because this is not the society I identify with that I don't even know where to start to "solve" this questions. And often, when I think about these questions, I found myself in a dilemma between having a safer world vs. having a more just world, and I honestly do not know where to put myself.

Sheila Pinkel's picture

Thanks so much for your wonderfully thoughtful response to my questions.

What did you learn from your one semester experience working with incarcerated women?

Your observations about the different treatment of Asians from blacks or whites in the United States are so important. It might be interesting to compare statistics about university enrollment of Asians as compared to other ethnicities in the United States. Also, can all Asians be lumped into one undifferentiated category or should there be further clarification of the differences and/or similarities between people from various Asian countries in terms of their treatment in the U.S.?

In 1980, I did an exhibition entitled “Multicultural Focus”, which was the first cross cultural exhibition of photography in Los Angeles. I found that all of the people who had work in the show from the Asian Community were Japanese and without exception, they all were making work about the disconnect they felt in being Asian and America. It did not matter at all if their families had lived in the U.S. for many generations. They still felt that they were not treated equally as Americans. So, your observations conform to my experience as far back as the 1980s.

Can you give examples from your life of institutionalized racism?

Why do you think that Asians have a lower incarceration rate than black or brown people? Can you describe in more detail how shame affects the family of a Chinese incarcerated person?

You bring up a very interesting question about whether incarceration inhibits the ability of people to change their socio-economic class. That would be an important subject to research.

In terms of your questions about changing society in the last paragraph, you might want to go to the website . Students and youth have generated a list of ways that conditions in society can be improved so that youth do not have to be incarcerated.

I look forward to getting to know you better this semester.

Sheila Pinkel

Butterfly Wings's picture

Written with Shirah Kraus

We just sat down and went through very directly and tried to think about each question individually. This is what ended up emerging in our notes.

  1. What is your technical expertise? Are you good at photography? Do you know how to use Photoshop or InDesign? Have you done a digital book, digital printing, or made a website?

    Shirah: CAN PRESS CAMERA BUTTONS! Can pose like a tacky tourist or a professional photographer with a camera- very convincing. Willing to figure other things out!
    Julia: I know how to use Photoshop! I know a fair amount about perspective and composition as far as photography goes, but that’s about it.

  2. What is the difference between silence and silenced? Reflect on your experiences of silence and being silenced.

    I think this goes back to our in-class discussion, at the first English meeting, about whether silence can be enjoyable when it has been chosen for us. Choosing it inherently makes it something you’re doing for yourself. Part of being silenced is the level of consent and the power dynamics involved; it is something you feel out for each individual situation.

  3. Who is incarcerated in the United States? Pennsylvania? Socio-economic and cultural information about incarcerated people, including adults, youth, sexual orientation of incarcerated.

    A disproportionate number of people of color are incarcerated; the recidivism rate is disgustingly high (over 60%). We also aren’t totally sure of all the answers, to be totally honest. The incarceration rate, we think, is definitely incredibly high. The war on drugs, and the american policy of incarcerating for minimal crimes, are both directly tied to this. We jail more people per hundred thousand than any other developed in the world. We know that these same people are all being taken out of the voting populace and losing rights as citizens in the US. 

  4. Who benefits financially from the growth of public and private prisons? What is the financial magnitude of this industry? 

    The government, as well as many privately owned businesses, directly benefit financially from prisons (PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX). Part of the reason that the recidivism rate is so high is that very little is done to rehabilitate within prisons; they are free labor and more money while incarcerated. Prisoners can be indentured servants; they are treated like slaves with very little consequences for those in charge of the prison. There is a different set of standards used in conceptualizing prisoners than there is of those not incarcerated. They are seen as inferior or less human, or less deserving of respect and humane treatment. 

  5. How is prison labor being used today, by whom, for whose benefit? 

    Prison labor is treated basically as free labor- though they do get paid a very minuscule amount, so they are not technically slaves.  We aren’t sure of exactly who is benefitting or putting them to work, or what the work is. We talk about the Prison Industrial Complex, but we don’t know specifically what groups are involved.

  6. How does incarceration affect families of the incarcerated? 

    Incarceration is a really deep divide between prisoners and their families. It makes it impossible to keep up with the daily lives of their loved ones and maintain healthy relationships. It’s also really difficult for the children of incarcerated parents; there’s a lot of stigma around being the child of a criminal. 

  7. What does society need to provide so that people released from prison can have productive lives? How can individuals and groups be proactive in accomplishing a more just society?

    We definitely need better integration for people leaving prisons- more one on one attention and care for their move into society. It would also be helpful for there to be fewer legal barriers upon reintegration, especially around stigmas. We need to make people more willing to believe that others can change and become better. We need to recognize that ex-prisoners and prisoners are just as much human as we are.  Society definitely bears some responsibility for those who commit crimes- we need to own up to that and help them more upon their release. People in prison are part of the societal system that failed them- do we really want to keep repeating that?
Sheila Pinkel's picture

Shirah Kraus/Julia (Butterfly Wings) 9.8.15:

Thanks so much for your very thoughtful answers to the questions I posed.

1. So glad you have some experience with photograph and Julia, that you know how to use Photoshop. We will need your expertise, especially during the second half of the class.

2. Do you feel silenced sometimes? When? Describe?

3. Can you get real stats on incarceration and recidivism rates? Why and when did the ‘war on drugs’ begin and what has been its effect on incarceration in the U.S.? Are all people who have created felonies in the U.S. unable to vote after leaving prison/jail? Learn more about voting rights of ex-felons in the U.S. and in Pennsylvania. Are people released from prison or jail told about their voting rights? How has loss of voting rights for ex-offenders impacted elections in some states in recent years?

4. What should be done in prison and outside of prison to rehabilitate incarcerated and/or formerly incarcerated people? Read about the stopping of national Pell grants in the 1990s which interrupted incarcerated people from getting advanced education.

What are the economics of the for profit private prison industry? You might look at the GEO Group and CCA (Corrections Corporation of America).

You bring up the issue of criminalizing incarcerated and/or formerly incarcerated people. How could this be changed?

5. What are the issues related to labor in prison? Should prisoners be paid at the same rate as non-prisoners for doing the same work? What is the rate of pay of prisoners around the country? What were chain gangs? Are they returning? Should prisoners harvest the food that is grown for general consumption? Should prisoners work for private corporations producing their products? Which U.S. corporations use prison labor today?

What are prisoners paid in Pennsylvania. What do they produce in prison? Who profits? See if the State publishes this information. Find out what the Prison Industrial Complex refers to. There is a document which lists the thousands of companies and corporations in the U.S. who are a part of this complex.

6. You also sensitively include, in #6, the effect of this criminalizing process on children of incarcerated. Family members need to be included when we talk about the criminalizing effect.

7. How does society bear responsibility for those who commit crimes? What role does unequal distribution of wealth play in the lives of people who are ultimately incarcerated? Can you imagine a more just world?

Again, thanks so much for taking the time to answer the questions so thoughtfully. I look forward to working with you this semester.

Sheila Pinkel

han yu's picture

I had a very long conversation with Tong this afternoon about the incarceration system in both the United States and China, about Tong's experience in RCF last semester, and about where we should stand as a group of "people of color" in these issues. As Tong summarized, people with the experience of incarceration seem to be more common in the United States than in China as the result of mass incarceration and the people incarcerated in America could maintain a close relationship and get support from their families. Most of the families would even feel unjust for them (under incarceration) and eager to question the social injustices. However, usually in China, once a family member is incarcerated, the whole family would start to live under an inextricable shadow of being the family members of a criminal.  Also, as Tong mentioned, Asian people feel seldomly cared for in the discussions of social justice in America that we are not that privileged as white people and our well-being seem less important than black people. Therefore, we could find ourselves nowhere in between. Currently I am still enthusiatically listening to other people's opinions and learning about the data and the structures of the social system in America. I would not hesistate for one second to voice my opinions once I feel confident about my knowledge and objectiveness over the issues. 
The following is my own perspective over the difference between silence and silenced.
Human beings are social animals. Almost no one could deny the innate fear of being marginalized by the majority. When I first saw the question of the difference between silence and silenced, I could not stop thinking about the social norms and social expectations that are imposed on people. If people are born with or tagged as some characteristics different from what is usually considered "normal" or "positive", they are inevitibly marginalized in someway, either directly or latenly. Then those people have to choose whether to keep silence (being silenced in an oppressed way), pretend to meet the "norms" and feel safe but still struggling subconsciously; or to courageously speak up and to bear whatever the outcome is. Some other people, with the nature of repelling the dissidents, may also choose to keep silence (a voluntary silence) as a way of showing their open-mindedness and meeting the social expectation. This is currently my way of understanding the silence and the silenced. 
Sheila Pinkel's picture

Tong/Han Yu: 9.8.15

Thanks so much for your very thoughtful responses to the questions I posed. I really look forward to working with you this semester.

What percentage of the population are incarcerated in China? Can family members in China visit incarcerated relatives/friends? What are conditions like in Chinese prisons? Could families in China question social injustices? Are prisoners paid for their labor? Are they able to take courses and learn skills that will help them when they are released? How does the shame of having a family member incarcerated in China change the lives of his/her family?

How do U.S. and Chinese prisons compare to those in Europe, including Finland, Sweden, Germany?

Can you give some examples of your experience or the experiences of others in terms of racism against Asians in the United States. Can you give some examples of being treated as ‘less important than black people.’

Is the pressure to be ‘normal’ in China as great as it is in the United States? Is it exerted in similar or different ways? Do you feel silenced because of the pressure to fit into American society and not be marginalized? Would be helpful if you would share your experiences.

Other questions might be, is the rate of Asian people in U.S. prisons lower than their percentage in the general population and if so, how can we understand this? Why is the incarceration rate of black people so much higher?

Thanks so much for your very thoughtful responses to the questions I posed.

Sheila Pinkel

smalina's picture

This morning, Abby and I got together on the back porch of Batten House to talk about these questions. 


It ended up turning into something of a listening conversation, and we touched on more personal things than we'd like to share in this comment. But, for the sake of the assignment, here are the main points of what we touched on in terms of focus areas that we'd like to research for our respective presentations:


I’m thinking about the time at the beginning of the summer when my friend called me from a holding cell at the police station, asking me to come and bail her out. I spent four hours waiting for the bail commissioner to call so they could process and release her, not knowing what she had done or what had happened. I remember laughing when she told me the story—none of it was her fault, it was a simple matter of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. With $40 in bail money, wealthy parents to provide a good lawyer, and the paying off of a parole officer for the six months to come, she was set. The justice system had taken care of her, an upper class, white girl. 

I’m thinking about how, when I told my parents about my trip to the police station to post bail, my mother told me about picking my brother up from a station in Boston—he had been arrested for smoking marijuana at a Red Sox game. She laughed telling the story: “It was just annoying to get up in the middle of the night, and you were just a baby.” I didn’t know what legal actions were taken afterward—it seemed unnecessary to ask. He was a middle-class white man; why should there have been a problem?

What about the families who don’t have this privilege, even if they know their loved ones did nothing truly wrong? What is that experience of fear, of just not knowing, of sitting in the waiting room in the police station for hours knowing that whatever happens, this isn’t going to turn into a “funny story” to share with friends? 


Reading the website on solitary confinement as torture and also the Performing Statistics project where trauma care specialists were involved in the process, I think about how the experience of incarceration is traumatic to the individuals and families who endure it. The whole Purpose of prison systems is a kind of reformatory, right? meant to take “Criminals” to churn them into “Productive Members of Society” who have repented for all the harm that they’ve caused others. (Whatever those terms even mean…) But I wonder — does it do more harm than good to a person who experiences this intense kind of trauma? What are the emotional, mental, physical, and psychological effects of being incarcerated? And why do we never talk about what life is really like after prison? The label “criminal” strips people of their humanity and I think that contributes to why the general public doesn’t know or care about what life is like during and after being in prison. That dehumanization disallows individuals to feel/express sadness, vulnerability, pain, anger… And that is just one aspect of the violence that people go through being imprisoned. 


Also, in terms of our technical savviness: we don't have any (at least beyond MacBook operating capabilities). 

Sheila Pinkel's picture

Abby/Sula 9.9.15:

Sula, thanks so much for your thoughtful description of bailing out a person of privilege. You might want to research whether in Pennsylvania people who cannot afford bail must remain in jail or prison until their court date? What percentage of people in jail constitute this population? You might also want to research whether people without means can access legal help when they need it. And you could research what happens to non-white people who are caught smoking marijuana or other things in Pennsylvania. What percentage of people in Pennsylvania prisons are there on drug related charges? Are people on college campuses apprehended for ‘doing’ drugs?

Abby, thanks so much for trying to decipher the effect of incarceration and solitary confinement of people who are incarcerated. The questions you posed are excellent and I think that you could spend some productive time trying to answer them. How does the trauma of confinement manifest itself in the lives of the incarcerated and their families? How could life after prison be documented and made visible? How can the label of ‘criminal’ be changed so that we perceive incarcerated and formerly incarcerated as human beings? You might ask these questions to formerly incarcerated people and their families, tape and compile their responses.

Thanks so much for engaging so fully with the questions I posed. I look forward to working with you this semester.

Sheila Pinkel

kregensburg's picture

Looking at the links to Pete Brook’s work I found his VICE interview really interesting. When asked what he considers to be the biggest issue today in America’s prison industrial complex he said, “Above all else, let us admit together that prisons have not done and do not do what they claim to do. Prisons do not make us any safer. Prisons, for the most part do not rehabilitate or educate or train prisoners to a degree that we should expect.” This got me thinking about the philosophy behind prisons. I’m sure we will touch more on this in Joel’s class, but it seems to be that all over America there are separate ideas of what a prison should do. Are they there to protect civilians from those who have committed crimes? Are they designed to punish those we deem criminals? Are they there to help an inmate reflect and grow so as to refrain from crime? Are they there to make money off of the disenfranchised? We saw a bit of this when reading out the different systems of prisons; the Auburn System which was severe and the Pennsylvania System that was influenced by Quaker ideas. So from the start of prisons in America no one has been on the same page.  

On a technical note I am not familiar with any digital ways of making art, though, not unwilling to experiment. I did bring lots of crafting supplies like paints, markers, crayons and the like for some old fashioned art making.

The idea of who benefits financially from prisons is an idea I’ve encountered before in a previous class about bureaucracy. Prisons are massive bureaucracies whether federally, state, or privately owned. In the class we focused on the privatization of prisons as part of the larger question of if privatization works for the American government. One of the most astounding things I read about what that in private prison contracts they specify that there is a bed minimum, meaning that every night if they want to keep the prison running there needs to be at least a specific amount of inmates. That seems to go against any just philosophies of prisons.  

On another note I was prompted to do some research on philosophical works about prisons. I found this link to be a good jumping off point for further research.

Sheila Pinkel's picture

Kregensburg 9.9.15:

Thanks so much for your thoughtful engagement with the questions I posed.

I like your exploration of the philosophical works about prisons.
Your questions about the function of incarceration in this culture are excellent and well worth exploring. You might want to compare how prisons are set up on other countries, like Finland, Sweden, Germany and what the goals of incarceration are in alternative systems.

You also might want to research restorative justice principles who provide an alternative to the criminal justice system as it is set up in this country. There is an organization in Alabama called EJI, Equal Justice Initiative, headed by a remarkable man, Bryan Stevenson. You might want to read some of his writings. He has recently published a book on the subject of incarceration.

The history and economics of privatizing prisons is a pregnant subject. You touched on one of the problems which is that there is a great economic incentive for private prisons to keep them full. How else does the profit motive affect the administration of private prisons? What is the effect of stock holders in corporations which build and administrate private prisons on those prisons? How much profit does the private prison industry make? What is the effect of the growth of incarceration of undocumented people on the private prison industry?

Sheila Pinkel

mnt's picture

The demographic make up of the US prison system is not at all representative of the United States as a whole. Firstly, people of color are a huge portion of the incarcerated population. Currently, one in fifteen black males is in prison whereas one in 106 white males is in prison.  This racial incarceration difference is not an effect of differing crime rates among races, but an effect of the blatant racial biases that many of those within the justice system hold. The War on Drugs and Stop and Frisk are both examples of programs and policies targeted specifically towards the punishment and incarceration of people of color.  Any tall black man wearing a sweatshirt may “fit the profile” of someone who has committed a crime and likely end up in jail. Although white and black teenagers have comparable levels of marijuana usage, the number of black teenagers selected for “random drug testing” in high schools is substantially higher.

In addition to the racial disparity in jails and prisons, another large part of the population is affected by psychotic disorders and mental illness. After the deinstitutionalization of asylums in the second half of the past century, people who may have benefitted from such places are now often ending up in the system of incarceration.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, 15% of  state inmates are diagnosed with a psychotic disorder, and 50% of all inmates have a mental illness or substance abuse problem.  These numbers are very high, especially when taking the lack of proper diagnoses for many inmates into account.

Women in the criminal justice system is the fastest growing population.  Many are mothers and the primary care givers for their children. All inmates are dehumanized to an extent, but women experience this dehumanization much more than men do.  They are often not provided with adequate health and hygiene care. Additionally, the majority of incarcerated women were victims of violence prior to their incarceration, and in 2004, allegations of staff sexual misconduct were made in all but one state prison in the United States. 

People of color, women and those with mental illnesses represent only a few sections of the growing population in jails and prisons. However, they make up a significant portion of the demographics within the system. I hope to learn more about other marginalized populations in prisons such as queer people and youth in adult institutions throughout the coming semester. 

Collaborated with Farida Ilboudo and Sylvia Merantus

Sheila Pinkel's picture

Starbelliedsneetch 9.9.15

Good introductory knowledge of the inequality of who is incarcerated in the U.S. You might want to read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” for more information on this subject.

Would be good for you to learn about the main laws that have resulted in the growth of incarceration, mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes, and others enacted during the Regan and Clinton administrations which have resulted in our bulging prisons. The history of the war on drugs is important to understand, especially as a backlash against the gains which the civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party made in the late 1960s.

You might want to try to answer the question, “To what extent does unequal income distribution result in the growth of incarceration?”

You might also want to research what happened to public mental institutions during the Regan presidency in the 1980s.

Your interest in women and incarceration is a very important subject, especially because they are the group that is growing exponentially in jails and prisons. All of the problems you mention that they endure in terms of family and health issues are important to research. And, it might be productive to find out if their sentences are getting longer in Pennsylvania. They are getting longer in Los Angeles County jails.

You are interested in a great many things, including the incarceration of youth and marginalized populations. I’m delighted that you are so engaged with these issues. In order to focus, you might want to take one or two of these populations, (women, people of color, other marginalized people, youth) and learn as much as you can about issues associated with their incarceration.

I am delighted that you are already so engaged with incarceration issues.

Sheila Pinkel

meerajay's picture

Joie and I met up at the campus center to talk about these prompts. The conversation pretty much just started flowing when we looked at the links and questions.

Joie: About the technical questions - I've done none of those things. (No photography, InDesign, etc) but I'd definitely be willing to learn!

Meera: I've got some experience with InDesign, but rudimentary. I enjoy photography but don't know much about the technicalities of it. Finally, I know how to make a website through WordPress. But I'd also be willing to learn!

Both of us were interested in the same two questions: 1) Who benefits financially from the growth of public and private prisons? What is the financial magnitude of this industry? and 2) How does incarceration affect families of the incarcerated? Because one looks at the way the prison industrial complex affects society on a larger scale while the other focuses in on repercussions for individuals. 


We looked at some of the photos accompanying the New York Times article on Pete Brook, and it was painful. We were especially interested in the photograph of the correctional officer comforting the inmate during a psychotic episode. There was so much intriguing about that - you see the anguished face of the incarcerated man and the disembodied, gloved, ghost-like hand of the correctional officer reaching out in an act of so-called "comfort". When we think about the way that families are affected, we mainly imagine them losing a loved one as well as a care provider to the prison system, but what if the family was the caretaker? I cannot fathom the concept of having a mentally ill family member who was used to being taken care of by a loving family be transplanted into solitary confinement. The gloved hand looked like it gave no comfort at all; it was medical and robotic, not even allowing the incarcerated man the privilege of skin-to-skin contact. It magnifies the dehumanization of prison life, the vulnerability and pain of it. This connects so much to what Abby was saying in an earlier comment in this thread: that no one seems to care about the emotional, mental, physical, and psychological toll that prison can take. It is a closed community, where only those with the proper tools, like gloves and a sense of dissociation and numbness, can truly venure. 

Another photograph, meanwhile, was almost comforting to look at. Focusing on a different facet of prison life, it features several women crowded around bunk beds, looking deep in conversation with one another. They are communicating, socializing, though they are not exactly laughing. The women had sparsely decorated their surroundings, trying to brighten it up as much as they can. The scene, of women looking in deep intellectual thought, actually brought social conversations at Bryn Mawr, and a general women's college community to mind. That made me think about the connections between colleges and prison. One of our readings for Inst'l Spaces discussed the building of college dorms, and one of the dorms was to be build with a dean or cartaker in the center, surrounded by dorms that would have glass windows so the dean would be able to see them at all time. It was modeled very similarly to Eastern State Penitentiary, where there was a warden in the center. There is a shame in being seen all of the time, both a physical and mental shame in not having a space for alone time and thought. This shame is what prison culture grows like a festering wound. Living in a community like a dorm room still contains its own closed spaces, but the feeling of being seen, of being opened up in a small community like this, connects it to prison life in certain (small) contexts. To clarify, I am not trying to equate my experiences to that of a women's prison at all, but I just want to draw connections where I can see them. 


Who is incarcerated in the United States? Those at the bottom of the power structure. Those who have no defenses because the system they have been thrust into has been working against them since day one. People of color, particularly black people, women and men who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, children and adolescents who often have prison behind one door and death, starvation, poverty, homelessness, behind the other.  It is the unwanted. The great unwanted and if your skin is too dark, your accent too thick, your face too un-child like, stuck in a system designed to crush, the only place for you is where no one can see you. Where no one needs to think about you or your life, or your experiences or your humanity. It’s the humanity that gets erased, because it is easy. Because what is undesirable, what is ugly, what is too hard to look at is far more easily swept aside than regarded. Than acknowledged. Than humanized.

The women I speak to on the abortion access hotline often disclose that their husband, their brother, their boyfriend, the father of their child, their friend, their father, their son, their uncle, their cousin and on and on and on, is incarcerated. That is the word that is most often used. “He is incarcerated.” As if it somehow, it is a humanizing, even dignifying phrase. Others say, “locked up. He is locked up.” I have never once spoken to someone who has said, “He is in prison, or he is in jail.” It is just not said. Because then truly, what humanity does that leave them? Being incarcerated, being locked up, these are things that happen to people. But when he is in prison, or he is in jail, he is just one of the many masses who are transplanted into that place, for some thing they did against the great American Society, for being who they are, in the circumstances they are in. And they are no longer an individual. They are a number. One of millions. And the most common repercussion their incarceration has on their families, the women that I speak to, is the destruction of an economically viable family. The people who call are often single mothers, who no longer receive child support because he is locked up, or who cannot pay the $300 it costs for an abortion because he is incarcerated but they also cannot possibly go through with their pregnancy, or support another child, because he is locked up, and they lost their job because they had to stay home to take care of their other children because he is incarcerated and no they have lost two viable incomes because he is locked up. So who in this equation is imprisoned? The men so disproportionately put behind bars for crimes of existing where and when and how they do, or the women and children who are left behind, in an economic prison of their own? The incarceration of one is so often, the incarceration of many. 

Sheila Pinkel's picture

Joie/Meera 9.9.15

Meera, it is so important for you recognize how a simple photo can affect you so powerfully. The gloved hand juxtaposed to a human being in pain. It is your response to this image that suggests that you might start assembling images that clarify what is problematic and inhumane about the incarceration system.

In terms of the second image you mentioned, be careful of ‘reading’ images of women ‘looking deep in conversation with one another.’ We don’t have any idea of what they are talking about and the issue of intimacy in prison is a big one. You might want to investigate when you go to the women’s prison the extent to which women feel free to tell each other about their lives. You could even bring that photo with you and ask the women in the prison to interpret what is going on and the extent to which women in prison confide in one another.

You bring up the irony of a panopticon like structure for a college dorm. Alan Sekula wrote a famous article with the title something like “School as Prison”. You might want to write more about the importance of private personal space that cannot be violated. This is especially important at a time when all of our telephone conversations and key strokes are monitored.

Joie: You write from a position of personal knowledge about the effect of poverty on the lives of people in this country. You might want to research more about the effect of income inequality and unequal distribution of wealth in this society. While racism is often pointed to as the cause of disproportionate incarceration of non-white people, economic inequality needs to be factored into the equation. Your experience on the abortion access hotline has made you sensitive to the economic realities confronting many people today. You could expand your understanding of incarceration from this perspective.

Thanks so much for engaging so deeply with the questions.

Sheila Pinkel

saturday's picture

Technologically speaking my skills are basic, I don't have any particular skills with graphic design or photography.


On the subject of silence vs being silenced, I notice "being silenced" is in passive voice, not an action one takes on themselves. Being silenced is something that happens to you, as such there's an intrinsic lack of control or consent. To force silence onto someone else is an act of violence. (Though in our classroom silences we've had, there have been mixed reviews; some have felt that the forced silence took something away from them, while others saw it as an opportunity given to them that they would not otherwise take for themselves).


Taking silence for one's self has different implications. It implies thoughtfulness and composure, if silence is taken as a way to prepare for your next moments of speech. It can be a way free yourself of thoughts and find a sort of peace. It can be filled, empty, transitional, stagnant, any number of things. There is a point where the line between choice and force becomes blurred. Self-silencing in response to coercion or external pressures can be deemed a choice, but it is impossible to ignore the external factors that go into one's decision to be silent. If one chooses to be silent out of fear for retribution, is that person not being silenced?


I find myself interested with the economic consequences of the prison system, and would be interested in learning more about who benefits from the industry and the impacts that it has, both on the economy at large and on the individuals caught in the system. It seemed like such an alien concept when I first heard the notion of prisons as economic beings; I suppose I had never given prisons much thought apart from being places of punishment/containment/rehabilitation. 

Sheila Pinkel's picture

Saturday 9.9.15:

Very thoughtful response to the idea of silence or ‘being silenced.’

Would be great if you could research the economics of the prison system, both the public system and the private prison system. Both are growing exponentially in this country. Some other students are also interested in the economics of prisons and you might want to work together to better understand this subject.

Sheila Pinkel

resistance5's picture

I believe the major difference between the words “silence” and “silenced” lies in consent. To be silenced is to have silence imposed on you by an external pressure, while silence is something an individual chooses themselves. These two words point to two fundamentally different power dynamics. Because someone being silenced is being stripped of their voice (whether this is done through violent means or not), to be silent in this case, is to be restricted and to be without power, and to have a voice is to have power. On the other hand, “silence” puts the power in the hand of the individual. The individual has the autonomy to choose whether they want to speak or not.


Farida and I have had similar experiences when it comes to being silenced in a classroom setting in our respective institutions. We both thought Zora Neal Hurston’s quote- “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”- aptly described how we felt attending predominantly white institutions. Before I came to Haverford I never identified myself as black or African American. In my mind I was Haitian. But when I came to Haverford, suddenly I was black. At first I pushed back against this imposition, but slowly I began to identify with being black, because that’s how people treated me. I felt constantly reminded of the fact that I was black, and it didn’t help that people treated me as if that’s all I was. I didn’t realize then what I realize now, I was being silenced. When you look at me, and all you see is a black girl, you have silenced me- me the individual, me the human being with feelings and thoughts that don’t end and begin with my color.

Which is similar to me, Farida, before I came to Bryn Mawr I was just West African; however now that I am at Bryn Mawr, thrown against the predominantly white background, I am  now Black or African American. I never accepted the identity I was forced into. I continue to try to identify myself as African, but every second I spend in a classroom, where I am singled out, the identity becomes me. I am silenced when I am seen as the black or African American girl because the identity that I have created for myself has been erase by the white background.

We both experienced being silenced when we underwent experiences where students would point out the racial difference in the classroom, thus singling us out, thus silencing us. Now we wonder whether or not if we had highlighted the racial difference in the classroom, would the other student be silenced? If we choose to stay quiet and not respond, are we then giving ourselves consent to be silent?


Sheila Pinkel's picture

Resistance 5 9.9.15

You both are raising very good points which could be the source of productive conversations in class. You might want to check out whether your assumptions that in order to get along you need to be silent. It would be productive if both of you talk about your sense that you are being objectified and marginalized because of your race. In this class I think that everyone will benefit from hearing everyone’s point of view.

Sheila Pinkel

The Unknown's picture

What is the difference between silence and silenced? Reflect on your experiences of silence and being silenced.

I think the main difference between silence and being silenced is choice and privilege. Those who are silenced are often disadvantaged, people whose power has been robbed or who have not been fully accepted into society. Silence can connect to words, but also physical expression, people’s opportunity to share all aspects of themselves freely, and platforms for people to articulate themselves. Many thoughts, ideas, and perspectives are disregarded and discouraged in classroom settings or workspaces because of who says them, how they are articulated, and how the messages are interpreted.  Thoughtful, purposeful silence can be a form of reflection, an essential part of listening to others, and an opportunity for growth. I think I fill too many silences and also do not confront nearly enough silencings. There have been many times when I have felt that I should have spoken out against injustice, a racist/sexist/classicist comment, yet I do not listen enough to understand. I think I have also silenced others with my loud, forceful opinions.

Who is incarcerated in the United States? Pennsylvania? Socio-economic and cultural information about incarcerated people, including adults, youth, sexual orientation of incarcerated?

I think the people who are incarcerated are those who have been deprived of access to social services and opportunities to rise on the socioeconomic ladder. Many incarcerated people have grown up in families or in neighborhoods where they have attended schools that have not focused on the needs of each student, where access to more complex and intriguing books are not available, where it is more difficult to find accommodations for people with learning differences. I think people have grown up in neighborhoods where violence is much more prevalent. I think many incarcerated people do and did not have the same access to tutors or afterschool activities as children. People of color are the vast majority of incarcerated individuals. I think many people who are incarcerated have been abused. I think there are many people in prison on drug charges. There are also many people in prison because they violated immigration laws or/and policies

Who benefits financially from the growth of public and private prisons? What is the financial magnitude of this industry?

Private prison industries benefit from the growth of public and private prisons. People own shares of prisons by purchasing stocks and as the incarceration rates continue to increase, these private investors make millions. The government also spends a substantial amount of money on prisons, about $70 billion dollars each year.

How is prison labor being used today, by whom, for whose benefit?

From the little I know from watching television shows and what I have read, prison labor is being used to make office furniture, manufacture clothes, and other menial, boring tasks. Not only do prisoners get paid so little, normally less than a dollar or sometimes not at all, but also they are not always working in occupations that teach them useful skills. Many people leave prison with a record and few occupational skills. Various large companies take advantage of free or basically free labor to make merchandise. 

How does incarceration affect families of the incarcerated?

Children sometimes grow up without their parents or a parent, which can mean less guidance and support for that child. Children do not have as many role models and this affects their outlook on life and how motivated they are. Kids probably worry they could end up in prison. Families worry about the safety of the people they know who are incarcerated. Families are probably more likely to be exposed to the violence, insecurity, and corruption that occur in prison. Having a family member incarcerated can negatively effect how people view that family and their chances of acquiring a job or an apartment. 

Sheila Pinkel's picture

Strangling Locks 9.10.15

1. Very thoughtful discussion of silence/silenced. I appreciate so much your willingness to look out and then to look in. In my experience, I speak out when I am sure I know what I am talking about and so being educated about a subject gives me authority to speak with impunity. So far as who is silenced, in this culture all people must work hard to have our voices heard, regardless of class. The internet has become the public commons because actual public space has almost disappeared. You say that you should have spoken out against injustice but that you should listen to others more. It’s an art to learn when to do each of those. You might practice speaking out against injustice, just to see how it feels. Speaking truth to power requires practice.

2. Your sketch of who is incarcerated is fairly accurate. Today, women and undocumented people are being incarcerated at an accelerated rate. You do talk about socioeconomic deprivation as a key reason for people being incarcerated, you might consider whether high rates of incarceration would exist if there were a more equitable distribution of wealth. You might also consider who benefits from this high incarceration rate of people from depravation.

3. You might want to do research on how much public money is spent in Pennsylvania on prisons and jails and whether this amount and system is growing or declining. What is the cost of private prisons in Pennsylvania and who is building them? How much does incarcerating one person cost each year? Which companies benefit from building prisons or providing services to them? Is there a prison guards union in Pennsylvania? What is its impact on maintaining and expanding the incarceration system? What is its impact on decisions made by politicians about the incarceration system?

4. It is difficult to get information on the subject of prison labor but well worth the try. You might try to find out how prison labor is being used in Pennsylvania. You can google the state agency that runs prisons in Pennsylvania as a start.

5. You might research whether in Pennsylvania social services are withheld, such as food stamps, access to public housing, etc. from formerly incarcerated people and their families. You might also research whether an ex-offender in Pennsylvania can vote. And you can see if there are stats about the rate of incarceration of children of incarcerated people. Might be good to collect testimony, especially from mothers and children about the affect of incarceration on them. Personal testimony can often be very effective in communicating the human impact of a social situation.

You did a terrific job in answering these questions. I am delighted that you are in the class and look forward to working with you.

Sheila Pinkel