The geography of disaster, storms, and prison.

Illustration by Christopher Parker.


A time to refrain from embracing.

"If two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken."

— Ecclesiastes, 4:11-12

Right after I surrendered, the tornadoes cut through Arkansas, Tennessee, and the Midwest. Just two days before, Libby, Sam, and me had driven through the disasters' paths in the other direction to meet my parents. Afterward, I would begin my sentence. 

This part of the country is new to me. It's flat like nothing I've ever seen before. The highway bores on through cotton fields in early bloom, punctuated by burn heaps in the yards of houses that stand in front of miles of rice fields. I am being sent off by the people closest to me these past years, people to whom I've owed my life throughout the process to get here. There is no way to know how to let go, even though we all know that, for now, we must.

The transition proceeds through close, white halls. Concrete blocks and linoleum floors guide me through an outdoor path. I follow it into the enclosure that I will now make home. "Your home is in your breath," she reminds me. Every time I step back out in that space, the vast delta sky threatens to swallow me. My neck cranes its whole range of motion to take it in. Flat floodplains appear to shift and disappear beneath my feet, just when I am fixed to them. The coming storms mean that my first days here, as I get acquainted with new neighbors and rows of cubicles, will be entirely inside.

The tornadoes are not strangers to this region like I am, but their new intensity is renegotiating the terms of this old relationship between threat/safety, and the borders that it yields.

We see the clouds darken from the confines of the dorms, but those of us inside aren't made aware of the extent of the storm's damage until well into the next day. As the storm clouds break, so do the national headlines, hours of helicopter footage, and news coverage from reporters outside of a strip mall—all of which now stand reverent in the aura of  disaster. We also learned that many of the correctional officers have lost their homes. To us on the inside, however, these meditations of the crisis are mere abstractions. While those on the outside grapple with their downtown now laid to waste, our time within the insular world of the prison continues in its perpetual suspension. Inside, I have no means of detecting the cyclones as a reality, as I am too preoccupied with creating a routine amid the many routines already in motion.

The geography of disaster, storms, and prison.

To be given a sentence means that there is a set amount of time in my story—a beginning and an end—but this transient state is still very unfamiliar to me. The length of my sentence is nothing compared to those of others here that I have encountered. To them, I am just passing through. My shorter sentence is as comforting for me as it is a point of momentary despair for others. I still do not understand how those with longer sentences have and continue to endure, as  I am still in the process of reconstructing my narrative and cannot reconcile the storms as the latest disruption amid all the other disruptions this sentence has caused. Two years with no certain future and months spent preparing for and executing a contentious sentencing hearing have left me raw, exhausted. 

My sentence carries with it a certain expectation of time that has been exchanged for an uncertain terrain of space. Making sense of this is a process of reconstruction—the activity by which narrative takes shape and comes to know itself.  What is first experienced as a temporary constraint becomes a persistent condition. Under normal circumstances, a life comes to know itself through a psychological production of space, wherein what we construct in the mind corresponds to and relies upon meaning from the world that we build beyond ourselves. The terrors associated with the unknown nature of that which lies "beyond" the space of knowing are often expressed in terms of safety and security.

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A similar logic structures the way breaching the integrity of a border is identified as a condition of danger, a crisis that warrants constructing the border wall in defense. The tornadoes are not strangers to this region like I am, but their new intensity is renegotiating the terms of this old relationship between threat/safety, and the borders that it yields. Just as nature's turbulence has cast aside the long-held understanding that a territorial claim to a space must be unflappable, the prison limits our space for self-making by keeping the movement of anything except time fixed—even as "danger" approaches. 

In an era marked by extreme ecological changes, it is ironic that the very institutions with the capacity to anticipate and mitigate climate disasters batten down the hatches on free movement. It is a dynamic taking shape over decades. There is nothing new about it.

State-officiated placements in space are locations that produce a simultaneous dislocation in the subject, and we, as a result, come to experience ourselves as the objects of an alien design, despite the fact that we do not always recognize ourselves as such. This objectivity becomes naturalized in routine, and is evident in the way that we, despite being as tired as we are, claim that legitimate movement belongs to the realm of officially sanctioned activity. "Objectivity" then mirrors, through its antagonisms, the non-objectivity of a "partisan" political world. The State serves as a constant that guarantees its existence through division and the presupposition of further dividing.

If there is an emergency brake to pull, we have already tied ourselves to the tracks. This is our idea of safety: a submission to a danger that which we can only hope will not come to pass.

In the age of imminent climate catastrophe, the once stable divisions between the "free" and the "unfree" worlds find themselves equally subject to the fluctuations of instability, which only heighten the vulnerabilities wrought by crises. Dichotomies such as this free/unfree binary is often a matter of the extent of our knowledge on our conditions and the stakes of the repressive situation at hand—which together define and redefine the distinction between the free and unfree worlds. This intense opposition is one marked by differing relations to the concept of "freedom" on both sides of the dichotomy, in which the free is distinguished by simply being the not unfree, or not "behind bars."

Given the coerced acceptance of these terms, one must consider more critically how that world we call "the outside," or the realm of the free, posits itself as the expansion of our capacity to keep others inside. This is because to those on "the outside," to be safe is to be locked away and to be secure is to be immobilized. However, movement is not a property exclusive to an unbounded space, nor unbound people. In society, we are only safe insofar as we traverse the spaces of assigned social roles—a geography that, while it may predate the individual's life, is not a fixed state.

The limit of these borders within which we define ourselves as  "secure" must be adhered to, but cannot truly be recognized as such, for to recognize a limit is to also know the limit implies that there is something beyond the secure zone: that space of the unknown from which we are made to believe danger comes. Thus, this mode of existence is one of constant frustration.

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Poisoned Inside

Toxic prisons expose the incarcerated to a range of environmental hazards, with impact far behind the prison walls. Solving them requires abolitionist alternatives that center the justice and the well-being of all—in, around, and outside of prisons.

We come to know which capacities are still available to us within the limited confines of this spatial situation. A situation in which the definition and further refinement of the terms of safety, security, freedom, and unfreedom are brought into the temporal dimension in the form of a life's narrative, recognized through our social roles and the transformations they undergo as we traverse their limits. To reproduce ourselves within the confines of a defined space, like the prison, is to always bring ourselves closer to its limits and chart our course of time, or history, as we navigate this relationship between time and space in a perpetual negotiation with others who also dwell here.

Our frustrated recognition produces a commonality with the potential to be one of universal contestation. No one makes it in here on their own. Whether by way of their people on the outside, or the relations formed with others on the inside, the clearly delimited terrain that we call "the individual" dissolves in the face of the prison as its space of actualization. The prison as a space and time of unfreedom forces a reconceptualization of one's personal geography. As the body becomes familiar with unfree spatiality, it disrupts the flow of memory from the time before, and the lived experience of the prison begins to guide the practice of personal narrative reconstruction.

Therefore, is it really the transgression of the institutional limits of the prison and entering into the space of unfreedom that posits a "not free" status as a danger to subjective self-determination, or, rather, is it the suspension of the freedom of movement that poses the concept of "freedom" as a safety shield against a substantive, existential threat to life itself?

The geography of disaster, storms, and prison.

The tornadoes and the destruction left in their wake reminded me of a trip I took to Blakely, Georgia, to see the Kolomoki mounds. A year after Hurricane Michael extended the reaches of gulf storm fronts into South Georgia, the town's main street was largely vacant. Piles of rubble, which were once shattered windows and corner stores, marked the boundaries of intersections. Surrounding this main corridor was an archipelago of mobile home lots on the edge of a county corrections facility.

To me, this facility marks the ongoing passage into a sociality that only understands itself as a permanent state of emergency. The people of this community who live in the storm's path are suspended between the unfree space of the prison and the state of unfreedom beyond the prison walls that they occupy as an ill-prepared community immobile in the face of disaster.

The alienation of the prison and our own alienation from nature converge as shared devastation prevents those on the inside and the outside from free movement and access to safe spaces necessary to determine a coherent "safe zone." If there is an emergency brake to pull, we have already tied ourselves to the tracks. This is our idea of safety: a submission to a danger that which we can only hope will not come to pass.

Where is home in a place that no one wants to be in, where none of us, molded by such constraints and disruptions, can rarely permit ourselves an open way of relating to each other?

In lieu of truly safe space, we rely on the space and time of discipline, where "purposeful activities" stand in as the markers of stability, which structure a sense of security that never actually arrives. This movement is its own catastrophe, and yet, the terror left in its wake can appear to itself only as an outside threat never emanating from within. The disciplinary regime continues as does its means to expand, taking with it more life under an ever-fading semblance of reason until we are just one centrifuge of routine violence. It is, as Leo Tolstoy notes, "All the horrors of terrorism were based only on anxiety for public tranquility."

Such is the fate of a society that demands peace, but will not examine who it is and what it allows itself to be, whether or not it is a social life that is realized through its exclusions, or one that comes to understand the inescapability of acting in unity.

To make sense of myself while in prison, I must learn to accept the present condition of myself as an individual, while also resisting the isolation's persistent state of danger. To do this is to ask oneself at every moment, "What space am I in to determine my life, and where?" while knowing the extent of these carceral limits. Where is home in a place that no one wants to be in, where none of us, molded by such constraints and disruptions, can rarely permit ourselves an open way of relating to each other? It begins in our breath, and continues in our restructured narratives as we learn who follows us through, and who we in turn follow outside.

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I find it in the lives of all those to whom I owe my life, in the realization that my life is not merely my own. Just as a claim is made upon it by the State, so too can I recognize that a claim is made on my life by all who aid me in my survival, through their manifold acts across great distances. Their deeds are still with me. I will not make it without them or the ties they extend to me within this new home. Contested conditions of sociality mean that our lives are battlegrounds, their terms fought out in ever-widening zones of organized abandonment. It is over the where, when, and how that we make a life good.

On our drive here, the day before my date of surrender, we took a route through Memphis to stop at the Lorraine Motel, the site of a severing in historical possibility from which we are still reconstructing meaning. A museum complex and a row of new shops and hotels could not divert the gravity of that balcony. As we walked up, an adolescent group was being instructed on their obligations by an older man—a moment of intergenerational transmission. Our lives and what we call our fates and our destinies live on and are discovered and rediscovered through those that join them and come after.

Several hours later, we are with my parents, entering the lobby where we will embrace for the last time, for now.

If there is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing, from which we can not simply return, then there remains a time to refrain from this refrain. To find our way back to the embrace, through which we may be where they cannot. 

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Richard Hunsinger is an Atlanta based community organizer and political insurgent who is currently serving a sentence of 32 months incarceration at FCI Forrest City for his actions while protesting during the George Floyd Uprising of 2020. His writings can be found on substack.