When I was twenty-six, I sought out my professor and asked to be chosen to accompany him on the prison creative writing workshop for reasons I couldn’t even articulate. The first thing that happened was I got warned about walking the yard.
In this particular prison—a medium-security outfit in central Iowa—I entered from the parking lot and put everything on my person—pens, bobby pins, jackets, credit cards—into a locker in the lobby. I passed through a metal detector. I was escorted by a guard through one door into a small holding room while the tower guard assessed the situation before opening the door that allowed me out of the glass pen into the yard.
I had already been told what not to wear. None of my group was allowed open-toed shoes, or anything blue, as the inmates at this facility wore blue jeans and navy t-shirts. They had to make sure they could tell us apart: the free and the caged.
But there was more detail for me, the woman. No bare arms. No skirts. There were 1,200 men I had to walk past and my skin would simply be an invitation towards harassment. No heels: I wouldn’t be able to run in them.
When the second door opened, I stepped out into the yard. I had been sure it wouldn’t be as bad as everyone said, but I began walking carefully, eyes studying the dusty ground, making sure to stay close and engaged in conversation with one of the three male writers. I tried not to hear the whistling. I pretended not to notice the cheers and head-swivels and the way a guard hissed don’t even think about it when he noticed a pack of three men walking far too casually, trailing our group.
When I made it inside the far building, where the library was, I relaxed, but only slightly. I met the row of thirteen men with whom I’d spend the next six weeks writing, and I realized this was worse than the yard. Here, I could see their faces.
In the late eighteenth century, philosopher Jeremy Benthem designed the institutional building type known as the Panopticon. The design consisted of a circular structure, with an inspection center at the hub of the outer buildings, from which a manager of an institution could theoretically observe inmates, stationed around the perimeter—without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they were being watched.
Bethem described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind,” and while he spent most of his efforts designing a Panopticon prison, he also envisioned the plan as being applicable to poorhouses, madhouses, and schools.
No true Panopticon prisons have ever been built. The legacy of Bethem’s notion exists largely as a notion of power and control, as analyzed by Michael Foucault in Discipline and Punish. The real advantage of the Panopticon is psychological. By creating what Foucault calls “a consciousness of permanent visibility,” the Panopticon exercises power without the need for any concrete form of domination such as bars, chains, or heavy locks.
If you can never tell whether you are being watched, you are always being watched.
The division and distribution of power between us—the visiting outsiders—and them—the prisoners—was a constant source of push-pull during the creative writing workshop. In some cases, when walking across the yard, I was hyper-conscious of being watched, and its inherent danger.
At other times, sitting in a circle, facing the men who were there to learn from us, I felt myself watching them, as an outsider. I wanted to guess what they had done. I wanted to know whether they regretted their actions. I wanted to study them, to find the answers in their patterns of facial hair. I wanted them redeemed.
Beginning the first week, most of our workshop sessions involved a discussion of a certain craft element—character, dialogue, setting—and a short writing period, where we produced brief reflective pieces the inmates would expand during the rest of the week. We opened the next week by hearing some of the writing from the group.
During our third week, my professor told us to write about a song that reminded us of an important time in our lives. As we broke away from the group, I again found myself under the gaze, sitting at a table with four men—despite there being three empty tables in the library. I vacillated between feeling uncomfortable, knowing that my youth and femininity had the potential to make me a target for inappropriate connections, and feeling self-important, berating myself for imagining I was so lovely, for imagining them so unsavory as to be unable to tell where to draw the line.
Tense and self-conscious, I dove into the writing prompt. Our professor had instructed us to write about a memory in which music played a key role. I focused on my adolescence, perhaps as a time in which I often felt exposed. I wrote about being seventeen and lost and finding something cruel and beautiful in the harsh, gear-grinding soundscape of Nine Inch Nails. I wrote about painting my nails black and listening in the dark, feeling submerged and safe, feeling protected by the darkness of the sound.
After ten minutes of private writing time, we reconvened as a group to read some of our work out loud. My professor asked me to share my work, noting that, in three sessions, I hadn’t yet read anything to the group. When I read the piece out loud, several of the inmates—who were all hardened, addicted, tattooed—were very impressed to learn that this quiet little girl listened to Trent Reznor. For a few moments after class ended, as we slowly milled out of the library, before the men were escorted back to their cell blocks, a few stood around talking to me, asking how I got into the band, whether I’d ever seen them perform live.
I stupidly allowed myself to leave the prison that day feeling triumphant, feeling like I had begun to forge a connection to this group of foreign men. I thought maybe we have something in common after all. I was comfortable for a moment with seeing, and being seen.
Part of the success of the Panopticon as a prison system is the pervasive inescapability of the gaze of the manager—the inmates reside in cells flooded with light, constantly available and constantly aware of their availability to the viewer.
There is a world of difference between this and allowing yourself to be seen.
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