Visibility and Obscurity Within the Surveillance Regime of the U.S. Prison

David Schrag


Prisons are physical and imagined objects of fascination. Dramatic images of prison life are highly available in the public imaginary, yet the lives of typical prisoners remain obscure from public view. Through media portrayals—both fictional and ‘real’—the public is led to visualize the prison primarily in terms of dramatic physical violence. At a different level of public visibility, the external physical features of the prison facilities themselves project a message of violence (e.g. through razor-wire fences and gun towers) and thus an implicit message about the publicly-unseen population secluded within its walls. This essay examines issues of visibility and obscurity in regard to the present-day “control prison” (Rhodes 2004)—a regime that functions primarily as a means of punitive social exclusion. Kleinman’s (1997) anthropological concepts of social violence and social suffering will be used to discuss the diffuse, less-readily-visible, forms of violence which are the product of the social separation created by the prison regime, and help us to more critically engage with representations of the prison.

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