The Logic of the Penitentiary and the Logic of the Gun

One thing I recall is hoping that “the men” would be on lockdown so I could get out of the work for which I’d volunteered. This is to my shame: the group I am with, chiefly women, are—unlike me—mostly survivors of violence, in some cases lethal, degrading violence. But they go in, lead me in, as fellow facilitators of a restorative justice curriculum that a nonprofit implements across the state of Texas. As if we are equals in this project of sitting down with men very much like the people that terrorized them; as if we are equals in training these men in peacemaking strategies.

Even at night the heat radiates off the fat, corrugated metal huts lining the concrete central walkway of the jail. There is fluorescent light and generic chatter from the slits in the walls, the sound of big fans. Complex stripes of paint mark out acceptable single-file itineraries for prisoners. We by contrast can walk alongside one another, chatting idly and moving down the length of the yard to the chapel where the small groups meet. In the air-conditioned chapel we sit in circles and work on listening, calming down, empathy. These are hard things for everyone, we affirm, willing the moral distance that their white jumpsuits impose on every interaction to fade. I am sure half these men are here primarily because the chapel is cool. The difficulty of the work is largely in my head, though; mostly they make the nights funny and honest.

One night a man I’ll call Eduardo is trying to explain the difference between the peacemaking mindset he is here to cultivate and how he was socialized to deal with conflict. If somebody insults or attacks your brother, or your cousin, or your cousin’s girlfriend, it’s just a given that you pay back pain in kind. “I mean, you could let it go, but by the logic of the penitentiary…” he says, shrugging half apologetically. “Well, that’s the logic of the penitentiary.”

Not the logic of the street, or of the neighborhood: the logic of the penitentiary. Years ago he said this to me, and it stays with me, this phrase. The street didn’t come in here and make jail unruly. It was the institution itself that trained them in how to think, that stamped his brain with an ineluctable script for striking back.

It is comforting, in a sense, to think that prison is a sort of rogue American institution, that it is especially or even uniquely mired in racism, inequity, and cruelty. But excesses were not what Eduardo was pointing to. He was pointing to an assumption about the natural justness of armed violence in defense of oneself and one’s community. This has the very confusing virtue of being both profoundly undemocratic and a direct entailment of the Second Amendment.

The Second Amendment protects the right to possess a certain kind of deadly weapon as if it belongs among other guarantees critical to democracy–freedom of religion, freedom of speech, due process. In this, as with the protections for slaveholder interests, the Constitution enshrines an anti-democratic principle. In the former case, the Constitution preserves the inhumanity of chattel slavery and its attendant exclusions from political community; in the latter case, it subtracts from the provision for a common defense by sneaking in a provision for armed rebellion. That, anyway, is how we wield it: as a warning that the monopoly of force is dependent on the consent of a well-armed populace, and as such, is provisional. What else could the equation of guns with freedom possibly mean but such mistrust? In practice armed rebellions against the government have not played out so well, even before we had a military with apocalyptically, cartoonishly huge destructive power. But our country has excelled historically at producing vigilantes, lynch mobs, and well-armed fanatics of many kinds, all convinced of their own righteousness and armed to the teeth. Almost all killing with guns has this quality of murderous vigilantism, of enforcing a law unto oneself. The democratic rights really open up different vistas which cause me to think of contrasting stories – a friend with shootings in his Chicago front yard twice in a summer, we at our college in welcoming students from the same city to our quiet, secure campus at the edge of an urban forest. We try to help them get used to stability in a place where Geoffery Canada’s stick, knife, and gun are no longer a constant presence, where we sit and argue in classes, where we discipline with words instead of fists. The word the blood says, by contrast, is that in our cities, homes, many pockets of our common life, we have made a space for own lethality by encoding it in our political DNA.

The law here is working, I am suggesting, in a slightly different way than we in the United States tend to think of it. We presume the law is chiefly proscriptive, listing immunities or protections; rights enumerated in law especially are comprehensible to us as rights against the state’s interference in certain matters. But law is always also a principle of operation, a prescriptive indication that we are going to form or defend certain sorts of habits. This is clear from what we have made out of the Bill of Rights: an unruly cacophony of religious weirdness, a welter of great and terrible opinions and literatures, and an obsession with our ability to kill as a confirmation of our freedom. This last obsession, the killing: that is the logic that animates both the prison and the lone wolf; the logic of the penitentiary is the logic of the gun.

The President called our responses to mass shootings routine, and they are, whether our sudden attention to killings at soft-target locations, or our constant inattention to slain women and men in Chicago, Oakland, D.C. One of the familiar things we will hear will be about the need to disbelieve the myth of redemptive violence. Walter Wink makes this case forcefully, arguing that we must tell ourselves a better, different story about who we are and what makes us free or safe. This is a true and good idea, and I hope we do convert to disbelief in that myth. Judith Kay’s astonishing Murdering Myths exemplifies the ways complex narratives can undo the putatively natural longing for bloodshed that haunts victims of violent crime.

And yet. The sense of inevitability about violence comes from as much from our licensed habit of violence itself, as from our conscious embrace of evidence, persuasive stories, or other cognitively rich justifications. Our actual operational assumption is that the struggle for freedom is a struggle to preserve our license to kill. For this reason, the hedge of protection around weapons is a betrayal of democracy’s greatest, non-utopian aspirations: that we can be angry in one another’s company, that we can listen, that we can learn compassion, that we can solve problems with persuasion, bargains, consensus, trade-offs, words.

This is not to say that repealing a law, or passing a law, would solve our problems; we can only assume that a regime of confiscation would disproportionately punish African-American communities, for example. I am not for single or easy answers. But it is true that our cultural problem is encoded in the law, and I am skeptical that until money, organization, and victory go to those who already agree, the possibility of a different culture will not disclose itself. My worry is that in our source code a contradiction rests whose syllogisms for force are nearly impossible to disrupt—that the logic of democracy and the logic of the penitentiary cannot coexist, and that the latter also has the logic of the gun on its side.

Christopher J. Dowdy

About Christopher J. Dowdy

Dr. Christopher J. Dowdy earned his PhD in Christian Ethics from the Southern Methodist University.

Christopher J. Dowdy

Christopher J. Dowdy

Dr. Christopher J. Dowdy earned his PhD in Christian Ethics from the Southern Methodist University.