In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 23, Hilary Downey offers us a poetic inquiry into African-American women’s experiences of incarceration.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! Away.
This poetic inquiry incorporates visual and textual data from YouTube documentaries (produced by National Geographic and Journeyman) to capture African American women’s incarceration experiences, where the label prisoner generally remains the preserve of the man felon. The themes of distancing, silencing and masculinisation recount prisoners, citizens and poet researcher’s reflections. Gender, race and vulnerability explored here to capture critical moments. Building on critical poetic experiences, the poetic expressions delivered here marry key voices of poet (researcher) with discreet prose of seer (citizens) and seen (prisoners) which seeks to capture the emotionality evoked by African American woman prisoners’ documented lived experiences, in order to elicit richer understandings of vulnerability.
African American Women Visual Chains of Incarceration
Distancing of self
Your institution regimentalized my body
Unable to find fit, struggling against
Structures historically put in place. If I don’t
Conform, I am labelled deviant; when all I seek
Is a quiet corner to reflect, to mourn, the passing
Of a former life. Deemed risky, my non-conformist
Stance, withdrawing not an option when understood
As agency and empowerment. Powerless words,
Negatives not positives, in masculinized incarceration space
Distancing of self from confinement norms
Called out in cornered spaces, ‘I don’t decorate
my cell, it is not my home,’ cuts crisply the inmate code,
Moral fibre, which checks and grates each fearful breath.
Choosing to dwell the eight by five foot cell, remembering
Living as mother, addict, locked up for murder; preferring
The isolated self. Emptiness, fear, fragility, a means to
Cope. Ongoing therapy aggravates anger, anxiety, angst
When, ‘talking to me like I was a piece of shit,’ hanging
Humourlessly in the bedlam that passes for being. Wellness
Programmes on offer for the conformist; throwing lifelines
Down, a carrot worth grasping. The chance to change, stakes
High, even the sanctuary of birth, ‘officers rather than family,’
Tend your side. The need to, ’stay positive…be clean, do the
Right thing,’ aloft the moral cry, ‘a good mum doesn’t get high’
For lifers, daily struggles overwhelm, relationships bounded,
Barriered from outside gaze, inability to cope gains further
Time in the Lock. Leading to distancing, ‘unstable, on edge’
Close friendships frowned on, emotional support slipping
Problems resolved in isolation, the mythical community
Conform for rewards unknown, willingness to engage
Achieve parole, gain employment, life delights now
Silenced, brutalized, drowned in medical discourse
Not of one’s making, yet life changing. Tubal ligation
Languages sterility, reproductive rights off the menu,
When housed in surgical whites, delivered exclusively
To cells, where, ‘you do what you are told in prison to
get out,’ the barter system of the penalized, ‘society’s
trash’ tied-in to obligations couched in opportunity.
The sunny state, California, where all freedom exists
and citizens cry, ‘it’s wrong to Sterilize criminals why
??? They should be machine gunned.’ ‘So many dark
Secrets in the Land of the Free’. Stereotypical responses,
Run rampant on the World Wide Web, inmate narratives
Not a normalized discourse, where male narrators
As curators, serve up desserts for citizen consumption
HIV, the constant companion for those who, ‘ran in the
streets, did drugs in the street, lived the streets, loved
the streets,’ now silenced, sanctioned in jails bursting
With ‘out of control’ narratives, pedalled by the triptych voices
That serve another helping of harsh incarceration practice
The Masculinization of Women
What does the seer see? Safe behind the screen
When lives laid bare crowd thoughts and demand
From its citizens, the right to declare, to voice the plight
Of the prisoner without name. The visual, lifts the lid on
Life, colouring and staining as it rolls; leaving seeds to grow
Tangled, twisted, tongued in tight-traits, ‘those are females
they look like men in drag. What man would have relations
with these beasts?’ Cast in the main role, the dominate
Discourse plays out, clothing the African-American woman
Prisoner in suits, not of their making, ‘They want to act
like men. The way they talk and walk and have such a violent
attitude.’ Stereotypical voices relentlessly spew and spill
Poison on the online page, drizzling, dripping old clichés long
Forgotten, yet evoked for the moment, quelling embedded
Traits longing to escape. ‘There is a much more straight forward
Solution and its called ELECTRIC CHAIR.’ Cast in metal music,
Tattooed, gang-affiliated; mimic-made male counterparts,
The hero who can return home, when penal time is spent.
Not so, the unexpected prisoner, welcome nowhere when
Gates are pushed aside. Destined to return to an eight by
Five-foot concrete cell, awash with songs of societal distain.
 Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins, 4th edition (London 1967: Oxford University Press), 101.
 Hilary Downey, “Poetic Inquiry, Consumer Vulnerability: Realities of Quadriplegia,” Journal of Marketing Management, 32, no. 3-4 (2016): 357–364, DOI: 10.1080/0267257X.2015.1103301; Hilary Downey, “Elucidating Ethnographic Expressions: Progressing Ethnographic Poetics of Vulnerability,” European Journal of Marketing 54, no. 11 (2019): 2651–2674. DOI: 10.1108/EJM-02-2019-0141.
Hilary Downey is an Associate Professor in Queen’s University Belfast. Hilary’s research interests lie in Consumer Culture, Transformative Consumer Research and arts based research methods (i.e. poetry). Hilary is co-editor of a Consumer Culture Theory yearly poetry publication. Hilary holds a professional qualification from the Chartered Institute of Marketing and The Levitt Group (FCIM).