Bordering on: citizens, prisoners, exceptions, women

I used to think that all prisoners are political prisoners because they’re `guests of the State’, housed and held in total institutions in which the very least the State was obliged to do was acknowledge the prisoners’ existence and maybe keep them alive. Given the convergent news of this past week, I have had to rethink that a bit.

Four names: Edwina Nowlin, Alberto Fujimori, Jacob Zuma, Gladys Monterroso. Four countries: the United States, Peru, South Africa, Guatemala. If your country isn’t on this list, that’s accidental good fortune. Trust me, it should be. In fact, it is.

A girl is flogged in Pakistan, a video captures the moment and circulates and suddenly everyone is concerned about gender and punishment in Pakistan. Even the Pakistani courts perform concern: “Pakistan’s newly reinstated chief justice has ordered a police committee to investigate the controversial flogging of a teenage girl. Ayesha Siddiqa wonders about the innocence of the sudden gaze, “As the entire Pakistani nation watches video footage of a 17-years-old girl screaming on their television screens during the process of her torture at the hands of the brutal Taliban in Swat, one wonders if the mothers, sisters, daughters and the male members of this nation will ever take time out to think about this system of justice advocated by these men who are not even qualified to interpret the Quran and Sunnah.” She lays the system of Hudood laws squarely on the shoulders of the Zia regime: “In Pakistan in particular where the Hudood laws were formulated under the Zia regime, the objective was not to bring justice in the society but to throttle all forms of justice. In this respect, the Taliban in Swat and those who ruled Afghanistan for some time are Zia’children. They use force arbitrarily and apply laws without the real context to enhance their own power.” Flogging is never `spontaneous’ , never `organic’, and never `gender neutral.’

In the United States, there’s the tale of Edwina Nowlin: “Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son. When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which helped get her out last week after she spent 28 days behind bars, says it is seeing more people being sent to jail because they cannot make various court-ordered payments. That is both barbaric and unconstitutional.”

This practice is going on all over the country: poor women, and men, who cannot pay the fines, and cannot be the additional fees to the companies that collect the fines, are thrown into jail: mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, strangers. Debt, the not so secret origin of primitive accumulation, built on the backs of the poors, largely people of color, largely women, haunts our world, from Pakistan to the United States and beyond.

Meanwhile, death stalks and storms the corridors and cells of Zimbabwe’s prisons, as demonstrated in a documentary shown this past week. Emaciated prisoners can’t bring the morsel of food to their lips, can’t stand and can’t fall. Hell hole. Death camp. These phrases are too elegant by far for what’s going on. George Nyathi, recently released from the torture of Hami maximum security prison outside of Bulawayo, looks into the mirror now, now that he is `free’, and sees Edwina Nowlin. The young woman in Pakistan looks into the mirror and sees …

I’ll tell you what they don’t see. They don’t see Jacob Zuma, who was exonerated of all corruption charges on Tuesday. They might see Alberto Fujimori, already in jail and sentenced, at almost the same instant that Zuma was released, to twenty-five years for having ordered kidnappings and killings when he was president. Fujimori may be in prison, but he’s powerful. His daughter says she may run for president of Peru, and would pardon her father. There’s no such daughter for that girl in Pakistan, for the prisoners in Zimbabwe, for Edwina Nowlin. There’s no powerful daughter coming to rescue those `suspected of terrorist activities’ being tortured in the prisons of Uganda, of the United States, of everywhere. No powerful kin or kith comes to the rescue of those mysteriously jumping from police vans or prison windows, such as Sidwel Mkwambi, beaten to death by police.

And when Gladys Monterroso, a prominent Guatemalan attorney and activist, was abducted last month, held for thirteen hours, burned, beaten, sexually and psychologically abused, there was no Great Man nor any of his family or cronies, to swoop down and save her. When Fujimori and Zuma and their gang look in the mirror, they see the State, they see State Power. When the rest look in, we see ourselves and those like us, call us citizens, of a nation, of the world, of whatever.

I used to think that prisons demonstrated the limit case of citizenship, that we had to ask why some people were in prison and why others were not. This week has me wondering. Perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps we have to wonder how it is that any of us, that anyone you or I meet on the street, is not in prison. Perhaps prison is the crucible of normative citizenship in the world we inhabit, and being-outside, what’s that called again, oh yeah, freedom, that’s the exceptional state. And that would go some distance in explaining why women are the fastest growing prison population and still don’t get counted, still are not recognized. Citizenship. Gladys Monteroso, Edwina Nowlin. Citizens, not exceptions.