A Critical Phenomenology of the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility

Part Two of Carceral Dreams, Nuclear Afterthoughts

 Guest Post by Lisa Guenther

The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the history of the world. We both know, and don’t know, that this is a disaster.

Artists like Chris Jordan have created digital images to help us imagine this disaster, to witness the mathematical sublime of 2.3 million people behind bars. Others, like Richard Ross and Taryn Simon, have used photography to give these numbers a human face.

In this second post of my three-part series on Carceral Dreams, Nuclear Afterthoughts, I will take a somewhat different approach to the visual culture of mass incarceration. Beginning with an image of the building site for the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility, lifted from a developer’s website, I want to sift through the layers of meaning and absurdity that structure this image.

I call my method critical phenomenology, understood as a practice of critically suspending “common sense” accounts of reality in order to map and describe the structures that make these accounts possible, to analyze the way they function, and to open up new possibilities for re-imagining and re-claiming the commons. Critical phenomenology is a method for pulling up traces of what is not quite or no longer there – that which has been rubbed out or consigned to invisibility – but which still shapes the emergence of meaning, and of absurdity.[ii]

Absurdity is not a lack or absence of meaning, but rather a powerful sign of that which exceeds the framework of common sense and flouts it, mocks it, takes a shit right in the middle of it. Absurdity makes it possible to laugh again, even in the face of a disaster. Its refusal to disappear, like a piece of shit that keeps popping up in the toilet, may become a powerful gesture of political resistance. Then again, it may not – but it still feels good to laugh.

So what do you see when you look at this photograph?

trousdale - architect plans - rees 4

Image source: Rees Associates

News Channel 5 sees “a place of unfilled potential.” Corrections Corporation of America sees a brand new member of its “family.” Trousdale County Mayor Jake West sees more than 300 new full-time jobs and $1.8 million in utility payments (Hartsville Vidette). Tennessee House Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver sees “spawning” profits for her own adjacent district (Hartsville Vidette). Trousdale County Superintendent of Schools Cliff Satterfield sees a surprise check from CCA for $15,000 (Macon County Times).

I see a shit show. I see a nuclear Ozymandias at the edge of a future graveyard. I see the set design for a carceral-eugenic theatre of the absurd. I see a missed opportunity for a surrealist theme park. I see the concrete, material sedimentation of social practices structured by white supremacy and patriarchal domination. I see vectors of global capitalism intersecting in a clear cut. I see a palimpsest of disaster.

A palimpsest is a manuscript page where the original writing has been rubbed or scraped off to make room for later writing, but where the traces of previous inscriptions still remain, barely visible, but still affecting the texture of the page. The word derives from the Greek palimpsēstos, meaning to be scraped again or rubbed smooth again.

Trousdale Google maps

Image source: Google maps

Trousdale Google maps 2

Image source: Google maps

What would it take to read this scraped surface as both a building site and a text? As the warp and woof of collective memory and forgetting, but also as a factory of social death and a node in global capitalist networks of investment, security, and risk management. As a palimpsest of nuclear, carceral, and industrial disaster.

I take my cue for thinking about disaster from Blanchot, who writes:

We are on the edge of disaster without being able to situate it in the future; it is rather always already past, and yet we are on the edge or under the threat, all formulations which would imply the future – that which is yet to come – if the disaster were not that which does not come, that which has put a stop to every arrival… [T]here is no future for the disaster, just as there is no time or space for its accomplishment. (The Writing of the Disaster, 2)

A palimpsest of disaster. A litany for the future of no future. A basic infrastructure of social death. By “social death” I do not mean a state of non-social or de-socialized existence, but rather the social production of a structure that includes some people within a circle of personhood, citizenship, and equal protection under the law, by excluding others from this circle.[i] Social death is the (social) production of both a “society [that] must be defended” and the delinquents, gang members, terrorists, “illegal aliens,” and other threats against which it must be defended. It is a system for locking in as well as locking out; it produces gated communities as well as prisons, jails, and detention centers. The logistics of this interlocking system are so tightly-meshed in the US carceral state that they appear inescapable, and yet its logic is so obscenely wasteful and absurd that it could not possibly be sustainable, even if it is highly profitable.

So let’s bracket the common sense image of profit and potential – without letting it disappear – and map out the structures that make this image possible. What would we have to see and remember, and what would we have to ignore, forget, or make disappear, in order to produce this image? And what would it take to stop (re)producing this image, to dismantle the carceral-eugenic structures of social death, and to write a different story on the palimpsest of disaster?

In my next post in this series, I will take a close look at the global supply chains that are currently assembling the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility.

 Trousdale Rees Total Security

[i] This account of social death is indebted to the work of Lisa Cacho, Andrew Dilts, Colin Dayan, and others.

[ii] See here for my preliminary sketch of a critical phenomenology of “SoBro,” a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in downtown Nashville. Ultimately, I would argue that SoBro and the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility are counterparts in an interlocking structure of social death. See this essay and this book for a critical phenomenology of solitary confinement.

Lisa Guenther is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives.  Together with Geoff Adelsberg and Scott Zeman, she co-edited a forthcoming collection of essays called, Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration.  She is a member of R.E.A.C.H. Coalition: Reciprocal Education and Community Healing on Tennessee’s Death Row.

Why We’re Not Celebrating Chief Anderson

 Guest post by Andrew Krinks

Nashville’s chief of police has garnered praise from a wide spectrum of people for his response to local protests against racist police violence. But celebrating a police chief for refraining from harming protesters and defending our right to “express” our “thoughts” only decenters the real cause for celebration: the growing coalition building power in the movement against white supremacy and economic injustice in Nashville and beyond—a coalition and a movement whose message Chief Anderson has thus far successfully refrained from acknowledging or engaging in any meaningful way. Thus, we see no reason to spend energy celebrating Chief Anderson until he concretely joins us in the struggle to dismantle white supremacy and economic injustice—which would mean significant changes in what policing looks like in our city.

In response to protests nationwide against the murder of black men, women, and children at the hands of white police officers, and against the subsequent non-indictments of those officers, chiefs of police across the U.S. have dealt with demonstrators swiftly and aggressively, in many cases with billy clubs, rubber bullets, tear gas, and jail cells. In responding in such a way to protests against racist police violence, police departments have only reinforced the point the demonstrations have sought to make: policing in the U.S. is inherently violent and inherently racist.

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The Darkest Hour: Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons

Documentary Film and Book Discussion with Dr. Betty Gilmore

Thursday, January 22, 2015
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Vanderbilt University, Furman Hall 114

Complimentary Pizza!

RSVP: info@goodmediapress.com
Facebook Event Page

Join us for a screening of the documentary film, “The Darkest Hour,” and a discussion with Dr. Betty Gilmore, co-author (with Nanon Williams) of the companion book.

The Darkest Hour Vanderbilt Event-1

We live in the age of racialized mass incarceration. An age in which tens of thousands of human beings are caged in solitary confinement every day. Some for decades at a time. The documentary film, “The Darkest Hour” exposes the inhumane impact of extreme isolation experienced by those incarcerated nationwide.

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Schedule of Events for Wear Orange Day, October 30

In solidarity with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice is calling on students and educators across the state to wear orange on October 30. Together with activists across the country, we endorse the following Pledge of Resistance:

What kind of society do you want to live in?

– Police brutality and police murder are daily occurrences, yet brutal murdering cops are almost never punished for their crimes;
– Black and Latino people, especially the youth, are treated like criminals, guilty until proven innocent, if they can survive to prove their innocence;
– This criminalization has led to 2.2 million people being warehoused in prison, a 500% increase over the past 30 years;
– Tens of thousands of people in prison are subjected to the torture of long term solitary confinement;
– Alongside this has risen a program of criminalizing and incarcerating undocumented immigrants;
– The color of a person’s skin determines whether they live and how they live.

Today we pledge:

Black lives matter.
Latino lives matter.
All lives matter.

* Mass incarceration: WE SAY NO MORE!

* Police murder: WE SAY NO MORE!

* Torture in the prisons: WE SAY NO MORE!

* Criminalization of generations: WE SAY NO MORE!

* Attacks on immigrants: WE SAY NO MORE!

We will NOT be silent.

We WILL resist!

Until these shameful horrors really are… NO MORE!


Schedule of Events in Nashville

Wear orange all day long!

11am-1pm – Imagine a World Without Prisons (Collaborative Art Project)

Outside Rand Dining Hall, Vanderbilt University

1pm – Rally and Discussion of Mass Incarceration

Outside Rand Dining Hall, Vanderbilt University

4 – 6:30pm – Nightmare on Our Street: Teach-In on Racialized Violence

Vanderbilt Divinity School, Reading Room

The Vanderbilt Divinity School in conjunction with the Graduate Department of Religion and Vanderbilt Black Seminarians will host “Nightmare on Our Street!: A Teach-in On Racialized Violence in America” on Thursday, October 30th from 4-6:30PM in the Reading Room located in the Divinity School. This teach-in seeks, through a religious lens, to analyze, critique, and respond to the racialized violence inflicted on communities of color and the systems and structures that reinforce institutionalized racism. Panelists will include Mr. Keron Blair, Campaign Strategist and Field Director at Raise IL, Ms. Darria Janéy Hudson, Multicultural Youth Organizer at Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, Rev. Dr. Christophe D. Ringer, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Christian Brothers University, Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, Associate Professor of Ethics and Society, Rev. Mark Forrester, University Chaplain and Director of Religious Life at Vanderbilt University, and August Washington, Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief of Vanderbilt Police Department. Dr. Herbert Marbury, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible, will serve as moderator.

7:30 pm – “Void of Grace: Mass Incarceration in the State of TN”

Lipscomb University, Swang Business Building, Stowe Hall (Room 108 – there will be signs)


Photo Gallery: Rally to Stop Executions, September 15

Photography by Luke Myers.

Photo Gallery: Nashville Teach-In, September 13

Photos from the Teach-In on Mass Incarceration and the Death Penalty at the Nashville Public Library, September 13, 2014.  Photography by Luke Myers.

Coverage of Nashville Teach-In and Rally

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Nashville Teach-In on Mass Incarceration and the Death Penalty, and the Rally to Stop Executions!  Here’s some media coverage of the two events:

Coverage of the Teach-In:

“’Teach-in’ takes on death penalty, judicial system,” The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/local/2014/09/14/teach-takes-death-penalty-judicial-system/15606227/

“Group calling for change to prisons and death penalty,” Fox 17 News, http://www.fox17.com/news/features/top-stories/stories/group-calling-change-prisons-death-penaltymikayla-lewis-23494.shtml

Coverage of the Rally:

“Activists hold rally in downtown Nashville to protest death penalty (Live Coverage),”  WSMV Channel 4 News, http://www.wsmv.com/Clip/10585551/activists-hold-rally-in-downtown-nashville-to-protest-death-penalty?fb_action_ids=10203242480876035&fb_action_types=og.recommends&fb_ref=.VBg12x8AReI.like

“Rally protesting executions in TN held in downtown Nashville,”  WSMV Channel 4 News,  http://www.wsmv.com/story/26538868/rally-protesting-executions-in-tn-held-in-downtown-nashville

“Anti-death penalty protesters voice concerns on Capitol Hill,” WKRN-TV Channel 2 News, http://www.wkrn.com/story/26536945/anti-death-protesters-voice-concerns-on-tennessees-capitol-hill

Stay tuned for the follow-up to our Open Letter to Stop Executions!


Rally to Stop Executions – TODAY in Nashville!

Monday, Sept 15, 12 noon – 1pm

Legislative Plaza (corner of 6th and Charlotte)

Nashville, TN

As students and educators, we seek to understand the world and to share our understanding with others through a practice of critical thinking and responsible action.  Therefore, we cannot remain silent as Tennessee plans to execute people in the name of justice.

We call upon Governor Bill Haslam to suspend all scheduled executions immediately, and to commission a full and transparent review of capital punishment in Tennessee.

Today at noon, Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice will send a delegation to deliver our Open Letter to Governor Haslam, asking him to stop currently-scheduled executions and to conduct a full and transparent review of Tennessee’s death penalty system.

Come out and support our delegation!  Bring signs to express your views and banners to represent your school, college, community group, or congregation.

Sept 13 Teach-in Poster


Nashville Teach-In on Mass Incarceration and the Death Penalty: Event Schedule

Saturday, Sept. 13, 10 am – 4:30 pm

Nashville Public Library, Conference Center

615 Church St, Nashville, TN 37219

Directions and Parking Information

Facebook event page

10 – 10:15 am     Welcome


Activist Art Project: Imagine a World Beyond Prisons

- Carmela Hill-Burke, R.E.A.C.H. Coalition and Vanderbilt Philosophy

Participate in this project all day in the library’s art gallery, across from Room 1a/b!

10:15 – 11:15 am    Workshops

51 Years a Slave: The Lie of Truth and Sentencing Laws

- Reverend Jeannie Alexander

- Preston Shipp

- With contributions from men serving 51-year life sentences at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison

                Room 1a

SB 1391 and the Criminalization of Pregnancy Outcomes

- Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN Executive Director

- Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN Legal Director

                Room 1b

School to Prison Pipeline

- Eric Brown, Lead Organizer, Children’s Defense Fund

                Room 2

Private Prisons for Fun and Profit, Mostly Profit

- Alex Friedmann, Managing Editor, Prison Legal News

    Room 3 Continue reading


1. There are no rich people on death row

  • 85-90% of people on death row were financially unable to hire attorneys to represent them at trial. They are assigned public defenders with much higher caseloads and fewer resources than private law firms.
  • Public Defender’s offices in both Nashville and Memphis have reported chronic underfunding and understaffing, to the point of not being able to take on a new case (Memphis Commercial Appeal and TBA).

2. There are racial biases in the system

  • A study of capital sentencing in Tennessee from 1981 to 2000 found that defendants with white victims were 3.15 to 75 times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants with black victims (ABA report, p 284).
  • More than 1 in 4 black inmates condemned to death in Tennessee from 1977 to 2001 were sentenced by all-white juries (Amnesty, p 40).

3. There is too little oversight and accountability for judges and lawyers in capital cases

  • A 2007 study by the American Bar Association found that the TN death penalty system falls short on 10 key points, including Inadequate Procedures to Address Innocence Claims, Lack of Meaningful Proportionality Review, and Failure to Preserve DNA Evidence in Capital Trials. These issues remain unresolved today (ABA report).
  • A prosecutor in Shelby County has been publicly reprimanded by the TN Supreme Court for withholding evidence in a capital trial, and yet faces no disciplinary consequences from the DA’s office (Memphis Flyer).

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