In Solidarity: To and For My Friends at Riverbend

Guest Post by Tatiana McInnis

When our group of sleep-deprived, but eager and attentive graduate students first posed the question to insiders in Unit 2 at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution of what could be done to fight against or reform the US prison system there was the briefest of silences—perhaps it was a tall order; what does it mean to pose questions to men on death row about the very system that has complete and utter control over their lives? And deaths? Perhaps the insiders were chuckling internally at these bright-eyed students with curious eyes, big ideas and even bigger hopes (I have had to be frequently reminded that I have not invented the proverbial wheel of working inside prisons or advocating for their reform). Perhaps they just needed a moment.

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Self-Torsion as a Liberating Force in Death Row Art

Many people are surprised to learn that prisons today are overflowing with beautiful new art created by the prisoners themselves. But how do they manage this, under such difficult conditions? In an anthology coming out this August, Philosophy Imprisoned: The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration, I describe what I think is true of all prison art, a phenomenon which I call it “self-torsion.” By this, I mean the process of attempting to torsion (or twist) yourself into a better version of yourself within institutions such as prisons (but also schools, mental institutions, and military bases) that channel those attempts into greater conformity and exploitation. What led me to search for this concept was being part of a reading group at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, Tennessee. While discussing all sorts of things in our group, from philosophy and religion to politics and the arts, I was surprised to learn that almost every imprisoned member of our group had years of experience creating art. And the more I experienced of their artworks, the more a kind of pattern began to emerge—but a pattern for which I could not seem to find the right name.

I eventually found that name in the writings of the greatest African-American theorist of the twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois, and probably the greatest French theorist of the same century, Michel Foucault. Du Bois had the idea of defining African-American art in order to promote social justice, by fighting the (often unconscious) propaganda of mainstream art (in favor of the status quo) with a new, self-conscious, liberating “propaganda.” In essence, by depicting social injustice directly, the creative resilience of the people who survive that injustice indirectly shines through, and beautifully. And Foucault had the (surprisingly complementary) ideas of ancient self-actualization and the soul-creating powers of modern imprisonment. For my part, then, I combined all three of these ideas to understand how today’s prisons encourage (mostly African-American and Latino) prisoners to recreate their own psyches in the interests of—not the prisoners themselves—but the prisons.

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Soulful Resistance on Tennessee’s Death Row

This week, Vanderbilt Divinity School student Andrew Krinks published an article in The Other Journal based on his interviews with prisoners currently on Tennessee’s death row.  Krinks writes:

To be embodied on death row is to be thoroughly delimited—materially, spatially, and relationally—under another’s control, destined for death strapped to a gurney. As a result, men here have few options but to center their subjectivity beyond the purely material: to be human inside a death machine demands being more than just a body; it demands soulfulness. To understand what it means to be human on Tennessee’s death row, we must look at the material and relational nature of life on death row, the theological frameworks that guide life there, and, finally, the soulful resistance that rehumanizes life in this dehumanizing environment.

Krinks asked the prisoners: “What does this institution want you to know in your body? How does it tell you? How do you hear it?” 

Dan responded first: “They want me to know that they have this body.” After prodding him further to get at how the institution communicates this message, Dan said, “I have to walk through eight locked doors to get from here [open gathering room] to my cell.” Kurt echoed Dan’s response: “They tell you when you can do everything.” And Paul added a similar perspective: “What they tell [my body] is ‘control.’ They tell me how long I can visit with my family and how often.”

And yet, the prisoners also find ways to sustain meaningful relations to others within an institution based on isolation and control:

In terms of their relations with others, it quickly became clear from our interactions that human touch is very important for many of the men on Unit 2. When I entered the room where our first set of interviews would take place, the three men I knew previously and the two who I met for the first time all extended their hands for a handshake that turned into an embrace with the other arm. When I asked them about the extent and nature of physical contact for prisoners on death row, Dan responded, “Not everybody embraces around here, but most of us do. You can’t force it on anyone, but for those who do embrace, it creates communal harmony.” Likewise, Paul said, “Hugs bring about fellowship. It’s more than just coexistence—it’s brotherhood. Our love is unconditional.”

Krinks also asked the prisoners “about the theological concepts that guide their own understandings of the body, the soul, and the relationship between the two.”

On the question of the body, Paul spoke up first, and his answer was met with instantaneous and conclusive agreement: “The body is the temple of God.” On the subject of the soul (or the mind or the spirit),1 my interviewees had significantly more to say. Paul responded, “The spirit is a traveling vehicle—not bound by the laws of man.” Dan said that “The spirit is God breathing the breath of life into you. It’s the living, breathing part of you.”

Krinks’ interviews, and his reflections on these interviews, offer a rare and valuable glimpse into the lives of prisoners on Tennessee’s death row, and a nuanced counter-balance to the mugshots and captions circulated in media reports on the death penalty.

To read Part One of the article, click here.

To read Part Two, click here.

Unit 2 (Part 3): Gifts from Death Row, Feb. 1 at Nostos Gallery, Nashville

Gifts: Unit 2 (part 3)

February 1-22, 2014

Opening reception on February 1st, 6-9pm

Nostos Gallery, 58 Arcade

Nashville, TN 37207

Nostos Gallery is pleased to present Gifts: Unit 2 (part 3), an exhibition of works made by or in collaboration with prisoners living in Unit 2 (the death row unit) of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Northwest Nashville.

This exhibition will be made up entirely of gifts for visitors to the gallery during opening night.  These objects—many knitted, many tooled in leather, many rendered in watercolor, pastel, or colored pencil—represent an effort by these prisoners to reach out from a social and political void using the modest tools they have at their disposal.  Their gesture raises the possibility that community—a community that is conjured and sustained through the gift—might extend beyond the walls of prison.  Their exhibition suggests that it might be possible, in spite of everything, to bring such a community into existence.

For more information, click here.