“He is seen, but does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”
When I recently read Adnan’s post “Sharing ‘Free’ly,” an essay exploring the ways that even telling one’s story can be a dehumanizing experience, it reminded me of the panoptic gaze, a philosophy that Jeremy Bentham introduced in the nineteenth century that is still particularly relevant to most incarcerated individuals.
The panoptic gaze, to quickly oversimplify, is to create a paradigm in which the object of the gaze feels they are constantly under surveillance in a way that as Foucault says, “is visible but unverifiable.” Think of those mirrored half balls on the ceilings of many retail stores that seemingly house cameras. Have you ever at some point wondered if someone wasn’t sitting in another room watching you look through the clothing rack for your size? Perhaps, even if you weren’t planning to steal, you felt just a twinge of apprehension and did a super quick check-in with yourself, just to make sure your behavior was above board. This understanding, that one is being watched serves to influence us to police our own behavior, thus reducing the need of the watcher to do so.
Here in prison, we are constantly watched, or given the impression of being watched, and if we break this down in grammatical terms, the watcher is the subject, the ones being watched are the object. We are the object, therefore we are objectified, much as Adnan identifies feeling objectified when he is requested to relate his story to satisfy a visitor’s curiosity, or persuade a donor to support a program.
Many will question the harm that being objectified causes, or even go further and say that if there is harm, it is merely the consequences of actions that we initiated when we committed our crimes.
I would reply that we, the incarcerated, are not the only ones our criminal justice system objectifies. Think of the “victim,” a term I personally detest, though “survivor” is probably not much better. By calling a person a victim or survivor of a criminal act, we are by definition making them the object of that act. Therefore, we are also objectifying them. In our modern society, we’ve created a criminal justice system that makes itself the subject, as the initiator of justice, and at the same time objectifies both the one who commits the criminal act and the person who experiences the harm of the act.
In restorative justice circles, I’ve heard people who have experienced a criminalized level of harm grapple with the ways they felt dehumanized by our current method of dealing with crime. I’ve often heard these same individuals
speak of feeling invisible and of having their needs go unmet.
To be clear, the objectification happens in very different ways; one is seen, the other unseen. One is watched, the other ignored. In the end, both have their humanity diminished. This is problematic for the initiator of the harm because they often come from extremely traumatizing circumstances, and dehumanizing them further makes their potential rehabilitation that much more challenging. Meanwhile, the person who experienced the harm is forced to accept a proxy, (the state, which presents itself in court as the one who was actually harmed) and often feels erased or worse, further traumatized, by the criminal justice process.
As a society, let’s work towards a justice system that centers the actors in a harmful event. Let’s prioritize the person who experienced harm by giving them tools to process the emotional and psychological trauma they experienced. This means granting them access to trained professionals and advocating for direct amends by the person who harmed them when the person harmed expresses this as important for their healing. When feasible, the person who caused the harm should pay for all expenses. Meanwhile, the one who caused the harm should also be working to understand the causative factors that led them to commit harmful acts. This, of course, is done by telling their stories, for the purpose of healing, as Adnan so powerfully wrote about.
James King is a writer. Some of his influences are James Baldwin, Angela Davis, his hometown of Ferguson, Mo, and that all oppression must be eradicated. He writes to introduce marginalized perspectives, and he writes to feel whole. Read more about James.