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Prison Industrial Complex Essay

9124 words - 37 pages

Journal for Critical Animal Studies, Volume 10, Issue 2, 2012 (ISSN1948-352X)

Beyond Dehumanization: A Post-Humanist Critique of Solitary Confinement Lisa Guenther

Abstract What does it mean to be treated like a nonhuman animal? In this paper, I analyze the discourse of “dehumanization” in Madrid v Gomez, a 1995 Eighth Amendment case concerning the treatment of prisoners at California’s Pelican Bay Supermax Penitentiary. I argue that the language of dehumanization fails to describe the harm of solitary confinement because it remains complicit with a hierarchical opposition between human and nonhuman animal that rebounds against prisoners, especially those who have been racialized ...view middle of the document...

Other inmates were confined to outdoor cages the size of a telephone booth, and left naked or partially dressed, exposed to inclement weather and to the view of other inmates (58). One inmate who was caged recalled feeling like "just an animal or something" (59). The presiding judge in this case, Chief Judge Thelton Henderson, concluded that “[l]eaving inmates in outdoor cages for any significant period – as if animals in a zoo – offends even the most elementary notions of common decency and dignity” (62). And yet, Henderson stopped short of condemning prolonged solitary confinement in a tiny indoor cell as cruel and unusual 46

Journal for Critical Animal Studies, Volume 10, Issue 2, 2012 (ISSN1948-352X)

punishment, in all but the most extreme cases. What is this “common decency and dignity” so often invoked to protect prisoners from abuse, and why does it tend to produce such negligible effects? In what follows, I analyze the tension between the concept of “human dignity” and the ongoing abuse of both human and nonhuman animals. In the first part of the paper, I present a critical reading of Judge Henderson’s decision in Madrid v Gomez. In the second part, I situate this decision within the history of the US penitentiary and Cold War research on the sensory deprivation of human and nonhuman animals in order to demonstrate the complicity of animal abuse and prisoner abuse, especially in the case of racialized prisoners. In

conclusion, I suggest a different way of describing the harm of solitary confinement without opposing the needs of human prisoners to the needs of the billions of nonhuman animals confined to zoos, laboratories and factory farms across the world today.


In Madrid v Gomez, Judge Henderson states very clearly that prisoners have a right to “human dignity” (328), even though they have forfeited many other rights by violating the law. All citizens, incarcerated or otherwise, deserve “not to be treated as less than human beings” (329).ii What is the content of this doubly-negative right? Presumably, it means that prisoners deserve not to be treated like nonhuman animals. But what does it mean to be treated like an animal – and why would being caged or forcibly restrained seem appropriate for nonhuman animals, but inappropriate for human beings? The content of the right to “human dignity” in the context of Madrid v Gomez is based on the satisfaction of “basic human needs,” which are listed as “food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and reasonable safety (330).iii Note the degree to which these basic human needs overlap with the needs of any nonhuman animal; there is nothing on this list, except for clothing and perhaps medical care, that a horse or a bear would not also need in order to thrive. But precisely because “humans are composed of more than flesh and blood” – presumably, because they are not merely animals, but human animals, that is, social and rational animals – Judge Henderson argues that...

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