Julian Gil is a political prisoner, member of Congreso de los Pueblos and Red de Hermandad. He has been detained since June 6, 2018, waiting for his trial, because of a judiciary frame-up. PASC supports the international campaign for his immediate release. He writes regularly about the reality he observes from his cell.
To wonder why successive governments in Colombia are only interested in building more prisons; why more and more people are deprived of their freedom each day; or why the presumption of innocence does not exist for prosecutors or for society in general, is necessarily to give thought to what we characterize as crimes, what we know as offending behaviour, what we think proper behaviour ought to look like, and whether there is such a thing as a model citizen.
We may thereby be led to think about the education that society offers, the places where it is dispensed, and, ineluctably, what its aims are. Family, television, school, church, the street, parks, shopping centres, public transportation, supermarkets: these are common sites where a type of model subject is inculcated, where people are trained to be, act, dream, and feel. In case this inculcation does not produce the desired results, prisons are always there to push the offending citizen back onto the straight and narrow path.
When a person goes to prison, one of several things may have happened: these attempts at “education” may have gone wrong, with the subject actually produced turning out quite different from the desired model; the wrong teaching mechanisms may have been put in place; the target subject may have resisted learning what he was supposed to learn, or society may have made a grave error as to the subject it wishes to create. One may well wonder whether all this educational apparatus is not, in the end, producing a subject unfit for the very society in which he lives; an individualistic, egotistical person who seeks only to satisfy his own desires and will use any means to achieve his ends; a person who bases all his relationships and actions on competition.
It can be said that the society that punishes offenders is the same society that educated them, and that both the shopping centre and the prison are reflections of a type of society acting as both director and corrector of the desired subject.
These thoughts might lead one to formulate the idea that individual and collective will and conscience have no place, since when they bend from orthodoxy, they are corrected, whether on the street or in church. One must then ask, once again: what is the purpose of having correct behaviour in society? Is it not to achieve a life in harmony with one’s fellow citizens? Or is it to conform to standards of behaviour conducive to consumerism and the accumulation of wealth?
Questions are windows opening onto new vistas, and to reflect on the nature of punishment as the supreme enactment of education by the state is key to an understanding of exclusion and of the naturalization of social, political, and economic asymmetries unquestionably defended by an educational agenda that enacts multiple arrangements of social control.
Questions do not necessarily lead to answers; they may lead to new concerns that open up new worlds of understanding, and in this sense it becomes necessary to inquire into the nature of this ideal subject that society is supposed to be creating, the society we want to build, the education that could be provided, the new methods needed in order to do so, and the corrections that could be applied to what are seen as society’s ills.
“The individual who asks questions awakens conscience and will,” mused a person who, through the only window that gives onto the street, watched hundreds of people hurry by on Transmilenio1 buses; small groups of young people in the middle distance, panting and sweating, dressed in battle fatigues; and innumerable shacks in the mountains behind, running in lines between backhoes breaking ground. Meanwhile, on the yard, dozens of people circled in formation, some played cards, and some stood on the margins, straining to catch a few rays of sunlight. A shrill voice yelled, “Last for lunch!”
Plastic platter in hand, the palanquero placed an item on each of its compartments: a piece of chicken showing a touch of blood, which, according to one wag among the men assembled, “might get up and run away if you gave it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation”; thinner slices of carrots, beets, and onions than you’d give a horse; white rice, and kitchen-sink soup. After he finished meticulously portioning out the rice, one of the oldest men on the yard collected the leftovers in a white bag and began calling in the pigeons to fight over the white grains.
Through a hole in the floor grating, the man signaled to the crowd of birds below, where many human voices could also be heard calling for a pin2 or a crumb left over from the meal.
The watcher observed this spectacle intently — the birds, the voice of the old man calling them, the voices crying out for a token — and felt a hunger that could not be sated by his meagre ration; and questions like scintillas of light came filtering through the bars, lighting the dark corners of incomprehension; but not before he heard one of the man’s helpers tell the lunch man he would pay him back the 30 pins he owed him for the pigeons’ rice.
Who could show such generosity to these insignificant creatures struggling not to die? “No doubt one of the many guys who drove peasants off their land, one of the ones who coldly ordered killings in the street,” said another old man in a low voice, smiling as I stared at him in astonishment. And added, as he moved off, “That one there? He won’t be forgotten in Trujillo3. Even the priest didn’t make it out alive.”
The normalization of prison is an evil greater than its existence. This place, conceived for the sole purpose of exacting punishment and revenge on those who dared to subvert the established order, should not be among of the mechanisms of conflict resolution that every society nonetheless needs. Normalization results from the sheer volume of conflicts to be resolved. Where there is no prison, it cannot be the solution to any conflict.
Perhaps the key to reversing the normalization of prison is to question everything; it is certainly to find ourselves in the company of hundreds who do not take for granted that this is the only way to live.
1 Bogota’s public transportation system.
2 Telephonic card, which is a kind of currency in this prison.
3 Trujillo, Colombia’s southern village, infamous for the series of massacres perpetuated by paramilitary forces in 1989 and 2000.