“Reading Plato on Death Row”

“Reading Plato on Death Row” is a look at a Nashville prison reading program where philosophy grad students and prisoners on death row get together and read and discuss Plato, Socrates, and Bentham. The article features original visual art, poetry, and writing by the inmates addressing the difficulty and necessity of transformation in prison, especially on death row.

…in order to perform the anaesthetic function of soothing public anxieties around both violent crime and the violence of the criminal justice system, the prisoner’s own aesthetic practices must remain invisible. The job of the death row inmate is not to transform himself, but to remain the same throughout an appeals process that can last years or even decades. As Samuel Gross observes:

“The man you wanted to kill was the abusive robber, high on crack, who pistol-whipped and shot two customers at a Seven-Eleven store in 1984. Instead, in 1990, the state electrocutes a balding, religious, model prisoner in a neat blue-denim uniform.” (qtd in Garland 2010, 47-8)

It is by not changing – by not converting to Islam, not (re)discovering Christianity, not reading Plato with a bunch of grad students, not writing poetry, and not making doll chairs out of toilet paper rolls – that the death row prisoner serves his political-theological function. What are the possibilities for self-transformation in a situation like this? When your life is structured by the imperative to stand up/sit down/stand up, how do you find a way to sit and to stand with dignity?

At the bottom of the post, the author, Lisa N. Guenther, links to articles by two inmates, Alu Ali Abdur’Rahman and Derrick Quintero, about their experiences in the program [pdf]. This article was originally published in the Riverbend prison newspaper, The Maximum Times.

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