CI: “Felon Fitness” ~ Thoughts on Cultural Commodification of Prisoners

The Criminal InJustice Series is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.

“Felon Fitness": Thoughts on Cultural Commodification of Prisoners

by Kay Whitlock

A Word of Caution: I include a link to the book mentioned below so that readers will know I’m not making this up. But I urge you to think twice before following the link to the book website. These profiteers do not deserve your page clicks.

I wish it had been a joke, the existence and recent promotion of a new book called Felon Fitness: How to Get a Hard Body without Doing Hard Time, by Trey Teufel and William S. Kroger.

“Includes 50 ass-kicking exercises and workout routines from REAL INMATES” screams promotional copy. By purchasing this book, you could learn to “get in shanking shape.”

But even if it had been a joke, it wouldn’t have been even slightly amusing. I learned about this book via a promotional email forwarded on to CI editor Nancy Heitzeg and me by CI reader and frequent commenter conlakappa.

Just the idea infuriated me, but I began to literally choke on my anger as I read more:

“Everyone wants a killer body, but nobody's willing to actually kill someone to get it. Wait, what? Oh right, that's, like, every jacked prisoner ever. But much like you, the incarcerated - refuse to get raped...by expensive gym fees!- have a surprisingly short window during which to work out, so get the hard body of hard time by picking up Felon Fitness, a workout tome written in consultation with real-life prisoners. “ (excerpt from promotional email)

Regrettably, this despicable offering isn’t the only book of its kind – a tome that promotes for profit the purported “astonishing” results achieved through prison-inspired exercise that utilizes no free weights or other strength-building/exercise equipment but relies only on body weight. (I won’t link to others because I can’t bear to give them either the attention or the business.)

And even these books are by no means the only or even primary ways in which the lives of prisoners are culturally commodified and exploited for commercial purposes. Countless pop culture narratives exist which manipulate and distort the realities of prisoners, their lives in prison, conditions of confinement, and the nature, scope, and purposes of mass incarceration in the United States. One by one, they seem small and insignificant. But considering them as a whole, and considering the various kinds of reach to different audiences of each, they are neither small nor insignificant.

There are, for example, an apparently limitless number of jokes about prison rape – on talk shows, websites, and in the movies. There’s an entire genre of “woman in prison” movies that largely rely on storylines emphasizing hypersexuality and sexual predation. It’s T & A & sexual violence offered up as amusing, camp erotica. There are so-called “reality” television shows offering highly selective views of prison life that turn prisoners into nightly entertainment.

Criminalizing narratives and images – that is, dehumanizing storylines and visual representations that tell us who is presumptively “criminal,” what “criminals are like,” and why our society needs to “get tough on crime” in order to contain “criminals” – have always been a part of this nation’s history. Not surprisingly, these narratives are essentially racist, misogynist (not merely sexist), heterosexist, and class bound. The Criminal Injustice series here at Critical Mass Progress documents this reality week after week.

Today, these criminalizing narratives serve to normalize and justify the mass incarceration of 2.3 million people, the vast majority of whom are people of color.

That means normalizing and justifying structural racism, along with other forms of structural violence. It means justifying and normalizing the continued shifting of government resources away from initiatives that help people and communities to those that maintain a contemporary version of Jim Crow – a myriad of systemic practices and policies reinforcing racism and white supremacy most white people today believe no longer exist.

It promotes fear-based ideas of control and containment over social and economic justice as the means by which we create safety and well being.

“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination –employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service¬– are suddenly legal…We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

–Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Normalizing the Structural Violence of Mass Incarceration

All it really takes to keep the structural violence of this updated Jim Crow intact is the cultivation of indifference to the enormous harm and pain experienced by the individuals, families, and entire communities who bear its heaviest brunt.

We don’t need to be virulent, intentional, and conscious racists in order to be complicit in the maintenance of a prison industrial complex that profits economically, politically, and culturally from mass incarceration. All we have to do is convince ourselves that prisons are inevitable and that the people inside of them are not human in the same way that those of us are who have never experienced the racism, misogyny, or heterosexism of incarceration and the legal processes that funnel people into jails and prisons.

All we have to do is convince ourselves that mass incarceration is a price we will willingly pay for the (false) promise of safety.

Beyond indifference, the cultivation of contempt for those who are incarcerated, or who are considered presumptively criminal, or who were once incarcerated helps maintain violent structures of injustice.

Cultural criminalizing narratives help cultivate both indifference and contempt. And they reinforce and bolster the idea the more policing, more prisons are essential features of a society that cares about the well being of its people. If you’ve ever seen a master con artist run a shell game, you have a pretty good idea of how cultural criminalizing narratives work. You end up focused on this when the larger truth of the matter is elsewhere.

Here are some of the messages given to us over and over again via cultural criminalizing narratives promoted as entertainment. Think about their repetitive, insular, and mutually reinforcing nature.

~ Prisoners aren’t human, like you and me. They’re vicious and deserve whatever brutality happens to them. That’s part of a just punishment. ~ Jokes about prison rape and about prisoners themselves – as perpetual killers, predators, liars, and thugs – are actually funny and do no harm. Why? Because prisoners aren’t human, like you and me. Most of them, in fact, are hypersexual, violent, and predatory – which is why they’re in there in the first place. ~ At the same time we deplore the purportedly hypersexual, violent, and predatory nature of “criminals” (read: mostly people of color), it is OK to fetishize these same folks – particularly their bodies, particularly in both sexualized and violent ways. ~ Prison conditions aren’t so bad! Certainly, they’re nothing we need to worry about. Anyway, where they are bad, that’s OK because prisoners aren’t human, like you and me. ~ In fact, some prisoners have it better than you and me. They eat regularly and have regular medical care, get to work out, and don’t pay rent or a mortgage. ~ It’s terrible when prisoners are beaten, killed, or sexually assaulted while incarcerated. But these are things prisoners do to one another. Why? Because prisoners aren’t human, like you, me, and the never-abusive guards and other staff who have control over them 24 hours a day. ~ If there is a rare instance of mistreatment of prisoners that comes to public light and gains media attention, that’s all due to a few bad apples. The system itself is essentially moral and sound. Identify and remove the bad apples: problem solved. ~ If people of color are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States, that is because they are more likely to be inclined toward criminality. It’s sad, but a fact of life. Their struggles have nothing to do with structural violence and oppression because that’s been largely eliminated from public life. We are a colorblind society now. ~ It’s fine, and even instructive, to interpret prisons and prisoner lives as a form of mass entertainment – and to financially profit from those interpretations while leaving prisoners to fend for themselves.

Thus, a co-author (Kroger) of Felon Fitness who is a criminal attorney, cheerfully notes that “[w]hen visiting his client in prison, he always noticed they were in great shape” without examining the notoriously brutal conditions that exist within California prisons.

Thus, promotions admire male prisoner bodies to the point of fetishizing them – particularly the bodies of prisoners of color – even as the book casts these prisoners as intrinsically violent “…either they are fit enough to fend off an attack or they can end up in the morgue.” Promotional materials joke about knife attacks and rape, even as the prisoners are help up as models for teaching “stress reduction” to those outside the cages.

Thus, the book website notes – without deeper examination or critical comment -how the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (sic) joined a nationwide movement in the mid-to-late 1990s to deny prisoners access to free weights and other exercise equipment as part of a larger “get tough” effort to “stop coddling” prisoners. That larger effort also helped gut educational opportunities for many prisoners and ignited a trend that continues today of making prison conditions ever more cruel and dehumanizing.

In brief, the prisoners are cultural commodities to be appropriated, exploited, and used/consumed as entertainment by others who seldom, if ever, inquire into the humanity and real experiences of those same prisoners. Once used, they can be neglected, ignored, discarded without another thought. Their fleeting significance is only found in how we can profit from them.

Self-Delusion & Mass Incarceration

By itself, a single rip-off “fitness” book means nothing. But it represents a larger phenomenon. Lately, I’ve been asking myself why it is that so many liberals and progressives, who do care about social and economic justice, are so silent about mass incarceration – and about the tidal waves of criminalizing narratives that fuel and justify that structural evil.

Many of these same people – good people who do care about others, and who are part of various social justice movements – simply shut down when they are asked to also care about the 2.3 million people who are currently incarcerated and the 5 million additional people on parole or probation.

Many of these good people are white folks who swear they were always on the side of the Civil Rights Movement and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They are folks who swear they would never be silent in the face of structural racism.

And yet so many of us are silent. We say we know how to recognize racism. But here it is in our midst, a central structural feature of 21st century U.S. society, and the silence in white liberal/progressive/left circles is profound.

Today, we hear from many white liberals/progressives/leftists about police misconduct and Occupy Wall Street (still an overwhelmingly white-dominated phenomenon), but almost nothing about the systemic and racist nature of mass incarceration.

In fact, the terrible truth is that for whatever reasons, even many of us on the liberal/progressive/left tilt of the political spectrum aren’t (at least yet) willing to challenge the criminalizing narratives that normalize racism, mass incarceration, and the prison industrial complex.

Yet we seem willing to consume many of these cultural criminalizing narratives without comment – or deplore them personally but without making a public fuss about it.

Perhaps that is because we are unwilling to admit that – at least to some degree – we believe these criminalizing narratives and want to distance ourselves from anyone tagged with a “criminal” label. Perhaps we are unwilling to see our own complicity in this structural violence. Perhaps we are unwilling to interrogate our own silence in the face of such massive racism. After all, to do so would challenge the images we hold of ourselves as justice-loving people who can be counted on to speak out and take action when the going gets tough and the forces of oppression hold the upper hand.

In “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” a short story, James Baldwin writes, “It is astonishing the lengths to which a person, or a people, will go in order to avoid a truthful mirror.”

Yes, it is. Thank you for saying it so plain, Mr. Baldwin.

Kay Whitlock writes and speaks frequently on the structural racism, misogyny, heterosexism, and other forms of violence foundational to the U.S. criminal legal system. She is the co-author (with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie) of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Beacon Press, 2011).
† © Copyright 2010-2011, Nancy A. Heitzeg, Kay Whitlock, and Seeta Persaud of CMP. All rights reserved. All articles and posts published by Criminal Injustice may not be distributed, re-published or cross-posted in any format, including print or electronic format, without express and explicit written permission from the copyright holders, including CI editors (Nancy Heitzeg and Kay Whitlock) and criticalmassprogress.com.