To preface, we accept that the language of this article may present us as hypocritical in our active intellectualization of the subject matter. We also accept that this article may come across as “holier than thou;” however, we recognize that we too are implicated in these behaviors. We think that it is imperative to explore these issues in relation to ourselves as individuals and as components of the larger Vassar community. The way in which Vassar students opt to value voices and opinions reinforces pre-existing hierarchies of forms of self-expression and articulation necessitates our admittedly academic tone.
At Vassar, vocabulary like “mass incarceration,” “prison industrial complex,” “privatization,” and “intersectionality” are valuable resources for facilitating conversations within the realm of academia and for gaining understanding of structural systems that control prisons in America. We see this as a form of social capital within the competitively driven atmosphere that Vassar constructs; one’s capability to convincingly contribute to discussions of societal inequality reflects one’s commitment to radically “liberal” ideals. As Dr. Kathy Boudin, current director of the Criminal Justice Initiative at Columbia School of Social Work stated in her lecture on Women in New York State Prison, “mass incarceration is a hot topic right now.” This is true, and is apparent on Vassar’s campus. With this in mind, opportunities to showcase one’s theoretically acquired understanding of the deeply pervasive inequalities of the United States’ prison system are becoming more commonplace, but ultimately serve as exchanges and measurements of aforementioned social capital.
This vocabulary, should it fall into the wrong hands, facilitates the intellectualization of damaging and oppressive lived experiences of those whose lives will forever be tangibly impacted by our criminal justice system. This process is demeaning and silencing of already forcibly speechless individuals. Our increasing comfort in discussions of the “prison industrial complex” often neglects the narratives of humans that this system disadvantages and forcibly removes from our visible society. In an effort to combat this very natural inclination toward desensitization, Vassar’s Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics and the Vassar Prison Initiative hosted two vastly different speakers to discuss their personal experiences with incarceration.
Ira McKinley is an Air Force veteran, activist, and filmmaker. His film, The Throwaways, documents McKinley’s past experience with incarceration and police brutality, as he seeks to address these issues in Albany, NY. McKinley’s narrative is not an anomaly—his father was shot and killed by police when McKinley was fourteen, he was arrested for robbing bodegas to fund his narcotic addiction, and, once released, found himself homeless in his own community. We’ve heard this before. Every day, Black Americans are forcibly uprooted from their homes, leaving behind a wake of devastation with no means for their families to contend this inequality. McKinley’s story is unique in that we are able to hear it; it is notable in its very existence. We were excited by the opportunity to personify our generally highly conceptualized understanding of the prison industrial complex. We were surprised by the minimal attendance given the “hot topic” nature of the subject, which leaves us to wonder: was his experience “too real”? Was his identity too foreign for Vassar student solidarity? Or simply was his lack of prestige not enough to legitimize his story?
These questions seemed to be answered by the incredible turnout to hear Dr. Boudin lecture about women in New York state prisons from her lived experience. The dichotomy we present is not meant to devalue her experience, or to deem it “less real” than McKinley’s. We only seek to illuminate the way in which Vassar students pursue the acquisition of knowledge. Boudin’s lecture was laudable and effectively addressed the misrepresentations and the largely disregarded conditions of women in prison. Boudin, a historically visible far-left political activist, served twenty years in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York for felony murder in an act of civil disobedience that went awry and resulted in the death of two police officers and a security guard. What seems imperative to note is the level of autonomy and choice Boudin had in breaking the law. Her decisions were a reflection of a political statement, and her tale is thrilling and admirable for the commonly “liberal-minded” Vassar population. Her history of activism is dreamy to the average Sociology major, and her academic successes both within and outside of prison made her presentation accessible to the intellectualistic minds of the audience.
We urge you to question what this variation in attendance says about whose voices are privileged enough to receive the full attention of the average Vassar student—why was Boudin’s story more palatable? How do we perceive Vassar students’ hesitancy in discomfort? Our personal perception of this discomfort is as a very natural manifestation of elitism, white supremacy, intellectual superiority, and privilege. Vassar does not provide adequate spaces to combat these so deeply ingrained inclinations and institutionally affirmed sentiments.
There is a serious perversion of our intellectual pursuits as they pertain to addressing them in real time, with palpable lived experiences available to us. Both McKinley and Boudin made themselves vulnerable and accessible to Vassar students who claim to desperately seek opportunities to perhaps selfishly expand their knowledge. Why are our politics so disconnected from our actions? How can we say we are “attending” these events on Facebook, and within the week post photos of insensitive parody of the same societal epidemic in the form of a Halloween costume? How can we request transparency from Vassar when we are fervently unwilling to practice it within our own lives? The prison industrial complex is not just an area of study or a correlate; it is a profoundly unjust and damaging reality of an already dramatically underserved facet of our population—a population that the majority of us have the privilege to ignore outside the confines of a classroom. We’ve easily accepted that Iggy Azalea is wrong in her appropriation of Black Culture for capital consumption, but can we see the appropriation of issues of social justice in development of our intellectual and social capital on campus?
The acquisition of this social capital does not appear to foster a sentiment of responsibility to embody our politics—or to be thoughtful as to how we actually intend to use what we acquire for personal enactment of consciousness. What we see as the natural progression of this thought process is the consideration of our drug use on campus. It is astounding that Vassar students are able to recreationally abuse narcotics, with little to no acknowledgement of our incomprehensible privilege to do so. There is minimal policing of privileged, white drug use. And even more alarmingly, there is an absence of understanding that substance abuse literally costs the lives of human beings. How can we make such a concerted effort to be cognizant of how food makes it to our plates when we give little to no thought as to how a line of coke made it to our desks? How can we claim to be thoughtful, progressive Liberal Arts students, but selective in what troubles us? Beyond our walls, Black and Brown bodies are brutalized and surveilled; smoking a spliff on the street is absolutely not an option for People of Color outside of the protective perimeters of Vassar College. Every weekend, we as Vassar students risk our physical and psychological security at the chance of experimentation and entertainment. This is not an attack on the Vassar population; it is an effort to articulate our discomfort with harmful discrepancies between a climate of activism and thoughtless privileged practices. With this in mind, we do not aim to protect ourselves from implication, but rather to illuminate a series of conflicts that we see permeating our social and intellectual activity.