This is the latest interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, a conversation between Leonie Smith and Lisa Guenther. Lisa Guenther teaches at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. Her position is cross-appointed in Philosophy and Cultural Studies and her official title is ‘Queen’s National Scholar in Political Philosophy and Critical Prison Studies’, reflecting her current areas of scholarship, teaching, and activism. From 2012-17, she volunteered at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, Tennessee, where she facilitated a discussion group with men on death row called REACH Coalition. She currently teaches a Walls to Bridges class at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ontario, which brings together undergraduate students from Queen’s with incarcerated students from Collins Bay for credit-bearing courses in Philosophy and Sociology. She is also a member of the Advisory Board for the P4W Memorial Collective, a group of former prisoners who are creating a memorial garden for women who died at the Kingston Prison for Women (P4W).
Content note: this interview includes general reference to certain acts, including murder, as well as to the injustice and harms experienced by incarcerated persons and to marginalised groups. There is one reference to a mass murder in which 7 people died. Other references to these topics are more general – the discussion is never gratuitous, and does not discuss any case in detail. Some readers may, however, find reference to these topics triggering, and wish to avoid reading this article, or to prepare themselves for their mention.
LS: Hi Lisa, can I start by asking you, how did you get into political philosophy generally?
LG: I wouldn’t necessarily define myself as a political philosopher, at least not in the classical liberal tradition, but my research has long had a political orientation. I came to political philosophy through phenomenology and feminism – my PhD thesis was on the ethical temporality of birth in the work of Levinas and feminist philosophers – and my first academic position was in continental philosophy at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, followed by a move to phenomenology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. I didn’t start learning about prisons or working with people in prison until I moved to Nashville in 2007. This is when my work took a more explicitly political turn from critical reflection towards activist engagement.
LS: Thank you for bringing this up – it sounds like your involvement in prison activism has been a defining aspect of your career. Could you share what initially sparked your interest in this area, and perhaps how your perspective on incarceration has evolved over the years through doing this work?
LG: It’s a bit of a circuitous path, but it all started when I moved to Nashville and was trying to make sense of where I had landed. As a Canadian who had never lived in the US, I was trying to make sense of the racial topography in Nashville, which divided the city so brutally. My partner and I rented a place in an historically Black but rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood, and we could sense that we were part of the problem. In Spring 2008, Angela Davis came to campus and taught an intensive six-week graduate seminar on slavery in our department, which I audited. This is where I learnt about the prison industrial complex, the incomplete abolition of slavery through the 13th Amendment, and the systemic opposition to Reconstruction. This seminar gave me a framework for making sense of the way logics of slavery continued to structure everyday life and death in Nashville: prisons were the link between slavery and neoliberal capitalism. I started to read a lot of prison memoirs by people like George Jackson, Assata Shakur, Jack Henry Abbott, and Susan Rosenberg. Many of these memoirs described the experience of solitary confinement, but it wasn’t until 2009 that I started writing about solitary confinement myself.
When I first started learning about prisons, it was all very abstract and distanced. I was reading prison memoirs, but I had never been to prison, and I wasn’t close to anyone who had done time in prison. It seemed very clear to me that the experience that many people described as a ‘living death’ confirmed phenomenological insights that people exist as relational beings in the world, not as separable units of mind and body. Forced isolation seemed to me a kind of violence against the ontological structure of relational being, and a destruction of the world as an open-ended horizon of plurality. Even sympathetic psychological critiques of solitary did not seem to grasp that ontological dimension of the problem, which I thought phenomenology could clarify.
When I first started writing about prisons, I felt so much anger and resentment against the US as a state that premised itself on freedom and yet destroyed so many lives in the name of this (very dubious interpretation of) freedom. I set about furiously compiling evidence of how terrible the United States was, which was more about myself working through the moral horror of having chosen to moved to the US than it was about anything else. I initially thought that my project was to map the relationship between torture and shame at Abu Ghraib and in US prisons. But others had already done that work, and I was just remixing their insights. I was devouring my own energy in pursuing that work, with little or no benefit to others.
LS: How did you move on from this real anger at the system, to becoming involved in prison activism itself?
LG: Basically, I stepped away from academic work on prisons for a while. But these narratives of solitary confinement stayed with me. I started exchanging letters with people in solitary confinement, such as Russell Maroon Shoatz, who taught me about the radical politics of survival and resistance in and beyond prison. I began to understand that it was not helpful for me, as a random white person with no connection to the prison system, to show that the system is evil. It is, of course it is, but if you focus solely on the violence of the system you’ll miss the power and brilliance of people who battle that system every day. I realised that I couldn’t just write about prison without being accountable to people who had learned how to navigate life in prison first-hand.
But I didn’t quite know where to begin, beyond writing letters. I began looking for volunteer opportunities in local prisons and at the time, the only groups I could find in Tennessee were faith-based, and that was not an option for me. Certain expressions of intense evangelical Christianity in Tennessee were part of what I was enraged by.
Still looking for a more reciprocal relationship with people in prison, I went to a philosophy conference in Oregon and I met Steve Shankman, who taught Levinas in prisons through the Inside Out program. Steve had us all rearrange our chairs in a circle, and he organised the conference session as he would teach a class in the prison. It was an amazing experience, and I wanted to learn more. Steve put me in touch with Janet Wolf, the regional coordinator for the Inside Out Prison Exchange, an organisation that runs courses inside prison that bring together incarcerated students and students from campus. Janet in turn put me in touch with someone at Belmont University who taught restorative justice at a local prison, and I was lucky enough to sit in as an outside student in that class. That was my first time participating in circle-based pedagogy. It felt to me like a way of doing philosophy, not necessarily by studying the canon but by trying to make sense of one’s experience of the world together with other people, by critically interrogating our intuitions about justice, punishment, and other issues.
By the end of the semester, I had gotten to know some people in the prison who were interested in philosophy, and I proposed an informal philosophy discussion group to begin in the new year. Janet Wolf set that up with the warden, but then there was a setback: they closed the prison down from one day to the next. The State of Tennessee had signed a contract to build a private prison just north of Nashville, in the shadow of a nuclear reactor (something I later did a project with some of my students on).
I met with Janet and she said, okay, we can wait for the prison to re-open (it never did) or you could try to organise this discussion group in another prison. Janet knew the chaplain in Riverbend maximum security prison, Rev. Jeannie Alexander, who was committed to expanding programs for people on Death Row. I was far from confident, having had no experience of doing this work in any prison setting previously, but I thought, how could I say no? So that’s how I started facilitating a discussion group with men on Death Row in Riverbend. Together, we created REACH Coalition for Reciprocal Education And Community Healing, a discussion and advocacy group based on Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which ultimately included educators, graduate students, artists, creative writers, and of course people on death row.
LS: Can I ask you a bit more about the educational experience of your work? I co-run philosophy workshops in UK prisons for the charity, Philosophy in Prison and I know that before our first course my co-facilitator and I spent a lot of time thinking things through: talking not only about content, but also about our own expectations and worries, and about how we could facilitate genuinely collaborative collective philosophical inquiry as a group which included both us and the students. We were very aware of possible power dynamics, along multiple dimensions, for example. What preparation work did you do before your first course? How useful was it (or not)?
LG: To be honest, I had no time to think about it! By the end of the meeting when Janet asked me if I was interested, I had said, ‘yes, I’m in’. The group began a few weeks later. I remember having a few intense dreams before visiting the prison for the first time, but I don’t think I really had time to process what I had said yes to, and how that ‘yes’ would change my life.
Our first meeting was in December 2011. We met in a visitation room with plastic moulded chairs fixed in place. I thought it would be hard to get a sense of community in that kind of setting, it’s like being in a bus waiting room. But, immediately, the guys inside were so warm and welcoming, and I was struck by the immense social capacities of these men who had been on Death Row for 20-25 years, and had not left that building except to go to court hearings or medical appointments. They had gone through this process of meeting new volunteers many times, of course, and often with people who were nervous and weren’t sure how to act. But their kindness and generosity created a space of invitation that I found surprisingly easy to step into, thanks to their interest and curiosity about what we might be able to do together.
In January 2012, the group began meeting weekly. Based on what I had learnt about the Inside Out model, I knew there was something powerful about a collective gathering between people from both sides of the prison walls. I didn’t want to go in alone as the ‘teacher,’ I wanted to co-create a space where everyone had something to teach and something to learn. So I (naively) went to Vanderbilt, where I worked, and asked for their support. I said, ‘hey, I would love to start this Inside Out programme, where students inside and outside can get credit for a course that they do together!’. The New Jim Crow had been published in 2010, but it had not yet changed the discourse about incarceration in Tennessee and the university wasn’t interested – I think they worried about such a course’s impact on their reputation and recruitment. In addition, they already had a faith-based Inside Out programme in the Divinity School in the regular part of the same prison (i.e., not on Death Row). So they told me, absolutely no undergraduate students. But, they also said that if there were other adults over 21 who want to go in with me, I could go ahead. So I met with grad students in our programme instead, and there were about 5 or 6 who wanted to come in, and this became the outside group.
We (the outsiders) first met on campus and talked about our fears and expectations. We were all very concerned with the power and privilege we were bringing into this space. We were so nervous about ‘overpowering’ the guys inside. Later, all kinds of complex power dynamics emerged, not always along the lines one might expect. But on day 1, none of the guys in the prison seemed intimidated, they were just curious about who these people they had never met were. Death Row is a very small world. At that time there were about 80 people spread out into four housing units all in the same building. So you run out of conversation topics living in that environment. Some of these people were explicitly interested in philosophy, and others were more drawn to the opportunity to be around new people, and to have something to do on a Tuesday night.
In terms of approach, we decided to have a short reading for each week and start with an ice breaker question, then break into small groups to discuss the reading, then come back into the big group to share insights from our break-out groups. We ended each class with a closing question to reflect on the discussion as a whole. This usually took 2 or 3 hours.
We had some early challenges. Some of the guys wanted more structure. One guy wanted me to be the teacher. I resisted that and explained why we were gathering in a decentralised way. I think he wondered ‘are you in some way withholding the real challenges from us?’, wondered if we were pandering to them in some way. In addition, some insiders struggled with reading, and others took the time to read the text aloud to them in the week between classes. Eventually we chose shorter texts that could be read out loud at the start of each session.
For the outside students, who were used to doing textual analysis, it was a bit disorienting to be unhinged from our reference points in the canon of philosophy and thrown back into thinking about philosophical issues and questions as such. But this was also liberating, and I felt like it connected me back to some of the reasons why I was drawn to philosophy in the first place. In the beginning, some of the outsiders, including myself, were reluctant to disagree with an insider or to ask follow-up questions. That didn’t last for long! People in prison have highly developed bullshit detectors and prefer honest engagement to superficial agreement.
So there were different challenges for different people.
LS: It really is a different kind of ‘teaching’. How did you all grow to accommodate one another?.
LG: Over time, the group morphed and changed. Eventually we ended up shortening the text to a page, or using a poem. A lot of the guys turned out to be poets and artists. Each semester, we would focus on a different topic, such as friendship, feminism, and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The group really changed over time, but at the heart of it was this collective practice of trying to make sense of things together, and a shared commitment to listening to one another in a spirit of critical engagement and curiosity. So we all developed different skills for trying to address the multiple different power imbalances in that space – differences in race, gender, class, sexual orientation, disability, age, carceral status, and more.
From a teaching perspective, the challenge of letting go of a text-based approach to philosophy was a real gift from that group, and one that I have tried to bring into my teaching on campus. When I first started teaching philosophy, I would write my lectures all out and read them (and pretend not to). I had a real nervousness about trusting myself to speak without already knowing what I was going to say. This experience was the opposite. There was no way to anticipate it, and there was a kind of invitation to vulnerability and to keep talking even if something came up that I didn’t have the capacity to immediately respond to.
So teaching in prison has been a real education for me – but one of these lessons is that prisons should not exist. The Canadian prison where I now teach a Walls to Bridges course is a minimum-security prison with no hard security perimeter, where some residents work in the city by day and return to the prison at night. People are generally released within a year or two (even if they’ve been given a life sentence). But even though the conditions of confinement here are very different from Tenessee’s death row, there is still an intense contradiction between the space of freedom we are trying to co-create in the classroom and the prison in which that classroom exists. You can’t take for granted that the class will be able to gather each week for twelve weeks; there may be lockdowns, or the prison administration may withdraw support for the program for any reason whatsoever. This tends to create an atmosphere where people really appreciate the limited time they can spend together, and it motivates us to bring our whole selves to the discussion, rather than checking our emotions at the door.
The closest experience I’ve had to this outside of a prison is in activist organising spaces, where there is an issue that really matters to people, and we all have different relationships to it, but we’re committed to figuring out a way through these issues together. The point is not just to have the right analysis but to be able to live according to your ideals and commitments. There is a desire to connect theory to practice, and not just get lost in ideas. I love ideas, and sometimes it’s important to follow a train of thought without yielding the imperative to have some practical application. This is how some of the most radical ideas are born. But in a world structured by multiple forms of oppression, ideas are not enough. It matters that we act in ways that are informed by our theoretical commitments, and vice versa.
It’s no accident that this kind of creative, critical thinking tends to happen in spaces of struggle — spaces where you are confronting something that is not just of speculative interest for you, that matters for how you live your life.
LS: How does that sense of necessary struggle play out in terms of doing philosophy together?
LG: Over time, the discussion group at Riverbend morphed into different forms. Quite early on, some inside students were impatient and wanted to talk about practical applications: ‘enough talk, let’s take action’. Many were keenly aware of the school to prison pipeline, whereby marginalized kids are labelled as unruly, given detention, even arrested by embedded police officers in schools. So to strike a balance between theory and practice, we restructured our reading group to alternate every week between readings, and working in sub-committees on specific issues: school to prison pipeline, medical healthcare in prison, death penalty law, and domestic violence. This structure was designed to blend theory and practice, giving as much time to advocacy projects as to philosophical discussion.
Another change in the structure of our meetings was initiated by Abu Ali (one of the insiders). Abu is a deeply spiritual person, and he really felt that we were missing a spiritual dimension to our meetings, and that some of our conflicts could be solved or foreclosed by meditating together each week. So he started leading us in breathing meditation at the beginning of every meeting, reading a Thich Nhat Hanh poem about breathing in and breathing out. This really helped us get attuned in an embodied way to being together in that space. This was not something that I had ever connected to my own philosophical practice before I got involved in REACH, but it really deepened our capacity to listen and respond to one other.
LS: That’s so interesting, the way that that the structure of people’s experiences within the coalition as a collective became something that the group paid attention to in itself. In your work, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, you draw on phenomenology to interpretate and lay bare the experience and harms of solitary confinement. You’ve also talked about what Lisa Cacho has described as ‘social death’ for prisoners disconnected from collective practices. How has your work in the prison system influenced your thinking on these issues?
LG: This is a challenging question for me to answer, because my policy in REACH Coalition was actually to keep my academic philosophy and our weekly meetings totally separate. I knew that I did not want to turn the discussion group into fieldwork or an empirical study, or something I am going to extract ‘research’ from. I did end up writing one blog post about ‘Teaching Plato on Death Row’, but that was to draw attention to an art exhibition we had organised together. I wanted to prioritize the ‘reciprocal education’ aspect of REACH, and I didn’t know how to reconcile that with empirical research (nor did I know how to conduct empirical research).
After working with the REACH subcommittee on death penalty law for about a year, I wrote a paper about the contradictions built into lethal injection as a method of execution. Lethal injection was introduced in the late 1970s in response to constitutional objections to the death penalty as ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. Supporters claimed that it administered a painless death by anaesthetizing and paralyzing prisoners before inducing massive cardiac arrest. During the time when I was involved in REACH Coalition (from 2012-17), there were no executions in Tennessee, thanks in part to the organising work of the UK group, Reprieve, who had raised problems with the production of lethal injection drugs in Europe (given that participation in state execution is banned in Europe). Multinational pharmaceutical companies took an opportunistic moral stance, banning the use of their drugs from use in lethal injection protocols. This helped to slow down executions in the United States, although some states, including Tennessee, took steps to re-introduce other methods of execution such as the electric chair, firing squads, and even the gas chamber. As all of this was unfolding, I wrote an academic article about the politics of lethal injection and shared this with inside members of the group for critical feedback. BuIt became clear that the method of execution was not a top priority for most of the insiders; they were more concerned about issues like prosecutorial misconduct, which could make a significant difference for their individual cases. Rather than writing about these issues myself, I created a website for insiders to publish their own essays, poetry, and art.
Right now, I’m working with a group of formerly incarcerated women called the P4W Memorial Collective (P4W stands for the Kingston Prison for Women). The prison closed in 2000 and is now being turned into luxury condos. Women who did time in P4W are fighting to create a memorial garden for those women who died there. The purpose of this group is very pragmatic, and we don’t do anything that would typically fall under the name ‘philosophy’. But the meaning of collective memory raises all sorts of philosophical questions for me personally, and some of these questions have pragmatic implications. For example, a few years ago we were really struggling to make the importance of the memorial garden clear to the city’s Heritage Board act, which was so focused on architectural features of the building, they lost sight of the site’s social history. In the midst of these meetings between the city, the developer, and the P4W Memorial Collective, I ended up writing a paper on memory and imagination at P4W, arguing that the prison is a ‘site of conscience’ and needs to be treated as such. This phrase, which was gifted to me by Australian scholars Linda Steele and Justine Lloyd, seemed to strike a chord with the city. It was as if it helped them to hear what the women had been telling them all along: that a prison is more than a building, it’s a place of suffering and survival that calls for ethical engagement by the community. So sometimes philosophy has a practical impact on a political struggle. But, even here, I need to be careful not to overstep my place as an ally and collaborator. I see my role as using whatever platform I can access to amplify the voices of women with lived experience of prison, and not to speak for them.
LS: I’ve had a similar experience in my own workshops with incarcerated persons in the UK-context – this strong sense of not wanting to ‘mine’ the experience for my own instrumental benefit, in some way (while also recognising that there might be a place for philosophical work in supporting change in the whole industry itself, or in more localised contexts, and that lived experience plays an important role in that). Instead, it has been really valuable to me to just notice the, often unexpected, epistemic and cognitive experiences I’m having in themselves, and to recognise how it has affected my own thinking in certain ways. Have your own, very extensive, engagements affected or transformed your own engagement with phenomenology in any way?
LG: Yes, absolutely! When I wrote the book on solitary confinement, I was really engaged with first-person testimonies. But I wasn’t writing about my own first-person experience of being a benefactor of the same carceral systems that were weaponized against my neighbours. And the question I grappled with but couldn’t answer was, ‘what does it mean to do phenomenology by reflecting on the written testimonies of other people’s experiences rather than my own?’. There is an ethically and politically fraught power relationship between those who have been harmed by state violence and those who have not. However sincere and committed the latter is, a division of labour can emerge between those who have ‘lived experience’ and those who interpret the experience of others. So what does it mean to do phenomenology in the second person (listening to you, being addressed as a you) or through a highly mediated access to the first-person narratives of other people through writing or audio/video recordings? How do we navigate the triangular relationships between I, you, and he/she/them? There is a whole set of unresolved questions here, in terms of my own practice.
And, overlapping with that, there is what we have been talking about in this interview as philosophy as a collective process of sense-making: as the activity of a first-person plural, or ‘we’, that does not always agree with itself. Is that collective practice still phenomenology? I think it can be. But I’ve never figured out how to translate that process of ‘collective sense-making’ in the prison classroom or other contexts into writing. And maybe that’s not the point! Not every philosophical insight needs to be written down. Part of that may be being at a point in my career where I don’t have to produce output on every thought that I have purely for the sake of that career – it’s one of the benefits of coming to social engagement later in life! But it’s something that I consider a lot when I am working with PhD students who are trying to manage activism and scholarship without working more than two full-time jobs (both of which are largely unpaid).
Since writing my book on solitary confinement, I have tried much more to write about carceral power from my own perspective as a white woman, and not to repeat in great detail the descriptions of violence as experienced by people of colour, to avoid recapitulating what Saidiya Hartman calls ‘scenes of subjection’ – scenes of another person’s suffering, which may be intended to denounce the conditions that produced such suffering, but still reinscribe the passivity of those made to suffer and the nobility of those who seek to allay their suffering. This is something that makes me uncomfortable about my own book on solitary confinement. So the work I have done since then has been (in part) on whiteness as both a product and a beneficiary of racist, colonial state violence. Some of this research is on the interconnections between settler colonialism and incarceration, given that Indigenous women are the most over-incarcerated group in Canada. Not all of this work engages with phenomenology in a sustained way, but I try to be a lot more mindful about situating myself as a white settler colonial woman grappling with state violence from that perspective – and to do this without navel-gazing. It’s a fine line, to say the least!
LS: How do you manage to navigate that worry?
LG: This is not an ideal answer, but the way I am juggling things now is not unlike the distinction I made between my academic writing and my engagement with people in prison in Tennessee. For example, August 10 is Prisoners’ Justice Day in Canada. It’s important that on this day we both remember those who experienced carceral injustice in the past, and recognise those who are still in prison today, still struggling against intolerable conditions of confinement, arbitrary punishment, separation from loved ones, and inadequate medical care, dental care, psychological support, and educational programming. Each year on Prisoners’ Justice Day, the P4W Memorial Collective organises a healing circle on P4W grounds, which is not to be recorded in any way. This year we also invited women with lived experience of prison from across the country to participate in a sharing circle at an art exhibition called ‘The Art of Survival’, featuring work by women in Canadian prisons. The exhibition was organised by Sheena Hoszko in collaboration with the P4W Memorial Collective. Together with Prof. Brenda Longfellow at York University and Prof. Linda Mussell, now at Canterbury University in New Zealand, we were able to access academic funding to support community-based research and creative collaboration among women with lived experience. But we professors are not the authors of this research; we are facilitators of a process that does not begin or end with us. Only time will tell where this process leads, and how it might support both the healing of survivors and the transformation of the system they survived.
At the same time, there are philosophical issues that are interesting to me, which may or may not be a priority for women with lived experience. I’m currently working on a paper about the complexity of collective memory for those of us who did not experience incarceration at P4W, but are called to remember those who died there. In this context, it seems to me that memory is not a cognitive act recollecting past experience, but rather an ethical and political commitment to build a future in which no one will ever again die in the name of justice. While it’s by no means sufficient to abolish the prison industrial complex, I think philosophical writing can deepen our understanding of the prison, not as a discrete institution that some people experience and others do not, but rather as an intense concentration of logics and processes at work across a social field. Whatever we can do to understand and dismantle networks of carceral power is worthwhile.
LS: That really helps me understand, thank you. Can I ask you about something that has come up in conversation with me, when talking to people about working with people in prisons? Many of us within philosophy have strong views on the ethics of incarceration, and the prison complex more generally, and support reform up to and including prison abolition. But these views are tested for many people when considering the fact that some of the people we are talking to in prisons really have committed what many consider to be some of the worst crimes that a person can commit. There’s a tension in how we think about the abstract idea of prison justice generally, and the reality of what the acts are that some people in prisons have committed. We all live in communities where these things might have happened, and no small number of us have been the victim or know the victims of these types of crimes. What reactions have you had from others, to your work? Have you had conversations that talk about the nature of the crimes for which people are convicted?
LG: Yes, absolutely. When I was working with REACH Coalition, I often had conversations with people on the outside who imagined ‘The Death Row Prisoner’ as either a demonic sociopath or a tragic victim of wrongful conviction. But people on death row are complicated, just as they are anywhere else. Most people on death row have taken a life – at least one – and this loss has affected countless others. Most will have their own life taken by the state. But how they live their lives in the meantime is irreducible to these facts. Some of the guys I knew on death row loved Ani Di Franco and impressionist paintings; some played Magic: The Gathering and drew incredibly detailed pencil sketches of their friends and family; others made devilled eggs or burritos with extremely limited supplies from commissary; still others studied Latin, Hebrew, and ancient Greek to deepen their understanding of the Bible. Everyone had their own way of reckoning with what they had done and fighting for a future they could live with.
Murder and execution framed the space where we gathered each week – they were unavoidable realities that could not be denied. But they didn’t determine who people were or how we related to each other. In practice, it was easier than I thought to feel at ease in this space, thanks to the capacities and generosities of people in the group. There’s a basic principle – don’t ask people why they were on Death Row, or about the particulars of their sentencing. But over five years of doing this work I became painfully aware that not everyone does, or perhaps can, feel that way. I recall one instance, for example, when we were setting up an art exhibition at Vanderbilt featuring work by people on death row. Someone came by and asked what we were doing. He was very interested in one piece in particular. The guys had done some ‘in-reach’ with others in the prison who did not have the security clearance to participate in group programs. They passed their work on, including a simple paper valentine. This man at the gallery shook his head at that valentine and said, ‘do you know who this guy is, do you know what he did? He murdered 7 people in fast-food restaurants. Why are you giving this guy a platform? This is what you do, how you spend your time? How dare you?’. And it made me realise that part of what made it possible for me to go into that space and do what I did was that I didn’t know these names. But there were other people in the community who did know their names, and might even know the victims personally. If I was expecting people to care about death row prisoners as fellow human beings, I also had to take more care in acknowledging and respecting the feelings of people in the community.
It’s important not to be naïve about the harm that people on death row have done, or to assume that this harm can be mitigated through an art exhibition or a teach-in. And yet, I think it’s also important for people who have done great harm to access a certain anonymity, a space where they don’t have to be ‘notorious,’ where they can express some other aspect of who they are or who they might become. In the prison system, there is a highly political dimension to who gets arrested, sentenced, and harshly punished. And across the board, poor people of colour get punished a lot more and will be perceived as already criminal before they have even acted. This can be true at the same time that those who are wrongfully targeted for state violence do irreversible harm to others on an interpersonal level. We need to be able to hold that complexity.
Not very many of the people I’ve worked with in prison are abolitionists, and I can kind of understand why. There may be moments when a person is so out of control and so harmful to themselves and others that they need to be interrupted and taken out of that situation, at least temporarily. I think that idea is compatible with a commitment to building a world where we don’t rely on prisons for accountability or safety, and where we use the powers of arrest or containment very sparingly, knowing that they can only incapacitate and cannot do that important transformative work of acknowledging harm, taking accountability, and making amends.
That is not about ‘compassion’ in a sentimental sense. When I reflect on my own capacity to acknowledge the harm I have done and to commit to meaningful change, that is not something I do because I was backed into a corner. It is because I have confidence that there is a way of coming back from that point and emerging as a person that I can bear to be. That there is still a place for me in the world. I find Indigenous and Black feminist practices of restorative and transformative justice much more impactful than white Christian discourses of grace and forgiveness in addressing the question of harm at an interpersonal level, while also fighting against structural oppression.
LS: What practical steps do you believe society should take to create a more compassionate, ethically responsible and just approach to criminal justice? What do you hope to see in terms of advancements in prison reform and the wider conversation around incarceration, both in academia and society at large? Have you seen any progress towards this?
LG: When I lived in the States, I had a much more ready response to these questions. There were so many clear and pressing demands for change – end the death penalty, end solitary confinement, end ‘three strikes’ sentencing, mandatory minimum sentences, life without parole, disproportionate drug sentencing, enhanced penalties for gang members – the list goes on. Now that I am back in Canada, the problems are a bit more subtle, but no less devastating in their impact. We abolished the death penalty in 1976 and claimed to abolish solitary confinement in 2019. In the early 2000s, a conservative government brought in some US-style sentencing structures, but since then, the courts have been striking them down one by one. The most pressing problem in the Canadian criminal legal system is the hyper-incarceration of Indigenous peoples, who make up about 5% of the population but 32% of the prison population – and a full 50% of the federal women’s prison population. These incarceration rates continue to rise each year, in spite of mitigation strategies such as Gladue reports, which can reduce sentences for Indigenous people if their life has been impacted by colonialism – and whose hasn’t? Part of the problem is that Gladue reports are underfunded and inconsistently applied – and yet there doesn’t seem to be a single reform that would reduce the hyperincarceration of Indigenous people, short of decolonisation and the abolition of prisons and police.
LS: Finally then, you’ve talked about how your activism has influenced your thinking in a number of ways, in this interview. Could you offer any advice to aspiring scholars and advocates who seek to connect their intellectual pursuits with efforts to bring about meaningful change in the criminal justice system or elsewhere?
LG: My advice would be to resist making the assumption that scholarship and advocacy need to be merged. Be prepared for working a double shift, but also for the possibility or likelihood that what you thought was important is fairly marginal, and vice versa. And be open to having your understanding of what philosophy is or how it is done unpredictably transformed.
It’s been really nice talking to you, as someone else who is doing this kind of work in a situation that is almost impossible to wrap your mind around in the abstract, but when you are in the midst of it, can unfold quite naturally as long as people encounter one another with mutual respect and openness. What makes this encounter possible is a willingness to hold complexity and to let that complexity not be incapacitating.
LS: And on that note, thank you so much Lisa Guenther for your time, and for this wonderful encounter.
Leonie Smith is Lecturer in Metaphysics and Epistemology at Lancaster University. Prior to this, she held a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of Manchester, and was Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. Her academic work centres on the epistemic, ontological and material harms faced by people living in poverty and on the margins of society (within the UK and globally), and she runs the ‘Class in the Classroom’ workshops for academics and university staff – research-led sessions on how we can all work to help working-class students thrive at university. Alongside this, she works with the Philosophy in Prison charity, co-designing and delivering programmes and materials for UK-based prison residents. Find out more about her work here: http://stirlingbus.com/leoniesmith/”.