“Public Secrets” and My Trip to Jail

I have never been to federal prison; I’m not a felon.  But I have been to jail, three times actually.  I am not divulging this because I am proud of having gone to jail, but I feel that by explaining one of my experiences within the system affords my discussion of Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer’s Public Secrets some (small) degree of merit.

I was arrested at a Tom Petty concert for being intoxicated in public, which led to my second trip to jail.  I spent a total of six nights in two separate institutions (the first in Prince William County and the second in Albemarle County).  I was arrested at what was Nissan Pavilion, spent four nights in the Prince William County Jail, and was then transported down to the Albemarle County Jail (on account of there being a warrant out for my arrest in Albemarle County for failing to appear in court) where I spent two nights.  The circumstances surrounding my arrest are inconsequential, and I’m sure if took the time to tell you all of the details you would laugh.  Nevertheless, during my extended sleepover at the Prince William County Jail I was put into ‘population’.  Like some of the testimonies in Public Secrets I hadn’t a clue as to what exactly was going on or how long I would be in there, so I attempted to settle in.  I made an order for the commissary (mainly snacks of the Twinkie and Cheetos variety, all of which I never had the opportunity to eat) and met a few of the other guys I would be sharing a kind of barracks with.  As I recall, nearly everyone I met was in jail (at least the minimum security sector of the jail) for failing to pay their child support.  Other than the individuals I met in my holding cell (a drug dealer, a working professional serving a 15 or 30 day sentence for a second dui, an idiotic teenager that seemed to make a hobby of driving on a suspended license, a homeless man with an affinity for defecating in public, and maybe a few others), not paying your child support seemed a likely way to land yourself up to a year in jail.  I never double-checked any of the information conveyed; fortunately I was only in ‘population’ (of the absolute lowest security) for two nights after spending an initial two nights in a holding a cell.  What happened after I left (being transported to Albemarle County Jail and spending a few nights in a kind of mass holding cell) are beside the point of this anecdote.  I have made known the above information so that you have an understanding of my experience and so that I may draw on it in my response to Public Secrets.

After exploring Public Secrets – an interactive database of first-hand accounts of the happenings (human rights abuses, drug use, etc.) at numerous women’s California State Prisons – I was left walking the line.  That is, I felt conflicted about how to respond to the various interwoven testimonials of the female inmates.  On one hand I found myself sympathizing with some of them (those that haven’t seen their children in 10 years, those that fell victim to various abuses behind the prison walls, those that fell victim to the injustices often brought on by ignorance of the law, and a few others), and on the other hand I found myself asking questions.  What did these women do to land themselves in state correctional facilities?  How are the inmates’ testimonials decontextualized in Public Secrets?  What is the authorial intent of Public Secrets and how does this intent speak to the content of the work?

I think the first question is intentionally obscured.  People don’t generally go to prison for nothing, which is evident in some of these inmates sentences (many in the range of 15-life).  Though I cannot speak to the notion of prisons as corporations and the corruption that many believe exists at the very foundation of these institutions, I can say that the individuals I met in jail are not people that I would likely invite to my home for tea (jail-mates or otherwise).  Many of my jail-mates were shifty, lying characters and the individuals running the facility seemed hardened by their day-to-day activities and interactions with criminals.  It is not adequate to not expound on this, but I can offer no other explanation than to tell you to get yourself arrested and spend the better part of a week with some of these people that ‘wind up’ in jail and others that seek to ‘control’ them.  I realize there may be discrepancies, that judges may be biased, and that the system may be imperfect, but Public Secrets offers no alternative to the current situation.  I do not intend this to be a rant on the inadequacies of adult correctional facilities or even Public Secrets, but I feel that my above response (and the rest to follow) are resultant to thinking Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer, to some extent, try to manipulate their readers emotions.  They intend to elicit an emotional and critical response (which they absolutely do) unfavorable to the institution of institutionalizing individuals, but I cannot help how I respond.

This aside, I think Daniel and Loyer’s undertaking is ground-breaking to some extent.  Through a hypertext database website Daniel and Loyer are able to call for social reform of adult correctional facilities; by making aware the sort of negative-feedback cycle perpetuated by adult correctional facilities they are able to spark forward thinking in relation to these institutions – thinking that distances itself from the institution altogether and focuses more on the needs of the individual.  Here Public Secrets bridges the gap between digital media and social revolution.  Moreover, the rhetoric in the piece is uncanny.  If you hold your mouse over a given excerpt the individual quoted begins talking and the quotation is thusly contextualized within a blurb of an interview between Daniel and the inmate speaking.  But if you nudge your mouse and the cursor goes outside of the space of the quotation, the individual is instantly muted and the quotation disappears.  One cannot help but think how this reflects how society deals with and comes to think of criminals and imprisoned persons.  I appreciate this, all of this (and realize that they are still people), but again it is hard for me to accept what is conveyed in this work of digital media whole-heartedly.  I have met some of the people that go to jail and possibly on to state or federal prison, and I believe they are in need of some sort of reformation that goes beyond the kind of group therapy hinted at in some of the inmates’ testimonials.  Our way of doing so is to imprison them, to show them what they forfeit by breaking the law and potentially offer them a way back to normalcy through improvement.  Again, I realize there are discrepancies – that individuals are wrongly accused or that extenuating circumstances may lead to harsh, unjust punishments (the latter I believe my story would fall subject to) – but such instances seem few and far between.  Going back to what I said about most of the jail-mates claiming to be incarcerated as a result of failing to pay their child support… I think most of them were lying.  Those that weren’t, perhaps they don’t deserve to be in jail.  Who knows? But maybe this is the kind of thinking that Daniel looks to completely dissolve, and if so I would encourage her to contextualize the testimonials within the crime committed and the (possible) social inequalities that led to the execution of the crime and by offering realistic alternatives to these ‘unjust’ institutions.  She does a bit of the latter, but in undertaking the former I feel people would have less resolve in siding with her on how to reform criminals.  And what exactly to do with criminals is a struggle fought across the entire world.  People often look to Europe as forward thinkers in social justice, but look at what came of Anders Behring Breivik.  Systems are flawed and justice is often ill-served.