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  • Recording Carceral Landscapes
  • Trevor Paglen (bio)

After a sharp hiss of compressed air, the vault door slams shut with the sharp bang of metal on metal. Concrete corridors reverberate like the walls of an ancient and long-forgotten tomb. A distorted voice on a small speaker momentarily fills the hallway, followed by the click of a walkie-talkie shutting off. A guard's keys jangle on a ring against his leg. However, the most distinctive thing about Pelican Bay State Prison, the nation's premier Supermax prison, is how quiet it is. There are no shouts, no rambling televisions, no blaring radios. There is a delicate calm in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), an underground chamber where more than 2,000 prisoners are kept in solitary confinement 23½ hours a day for years at a time. The tape is rolling.

The Recording Carceral Landscapes project began with a simple idea: to make field recordings at a handful of California prisons, compare them to one another and situate the resultant soundscapes within a history of prison architecture and penal policy. The point was to ask whether an investigation into prison soundscapes would complicate, undermine or somehow augment the unquestioned "ocular-centrisms" and "panopticisms" that animate so many discourses around the history of prisons [1].

When I began to make phone calls to arrange the recordings, I quickly realized that the project was not going to be so straightforward. The Department of Corrections informed me that there was no chance that they would allow me to make the recordings I was interested in. Now I was very interested: The project was moving out of a textual regime and into a legal one. Over the next several years, I made contacts within the prison system and in legal and activist communities—all the while designing and refining a high-quality yet stealthy recording apparatus that anyone with enough gumption could use to make covert field recordings. These experiments with micro-mics, wireless transmitters, customized pre-amps and other gadgets evolved into the Prison Infiltration and Surveillance Suit (Fig. 1), a cheap suit complete with clip-on tie (standard attire in California prisons), an American flag pin and hidden hardware for audio and video recording.

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Fig. 1.

Trevor Paglen, Prison Infiltration and Surveillance Suit, business suit, pinhole camera, micro-microphones, recording devices, 2001-2005.

© Trevor Paglen© Trevor Paglen

After reviewing tapes from the SHU at Pelican Bay, it was the silence that struck me most: the banal uneventfulness at the core of one of the most brutal prisons in the California system—a system that is the paradigm of the "Prison Industrial Complex" [2]. The recordings revealed no sinister secrets, no hidden truths, no smoking guns. The silence of the SHU is the silence of both "business as usual" and total domination. The tapes seemed to document the silence of 165,000 prisoners quarantined in the poorest and remotest corners of the Golden State, and the shameful silence of a society that spends more money on incarceration than higher education and has some of the worst public schools in the nation. It is silence about the fact that the state has constructed over 20 new prisons since 1984 and has filled them by inventing new crimes, by putting people in prison for things that recently entailed no jail time, and by creating longer and even longer sentences [3]. The silence of the SHU is the silence of a society organized around the myth that public safety comes not from a "chicken in every pot" but from "three strikes and you're out."

Yet for all the ways in which the silence of this underground prison articulates the unspoken and unacknowledged structures of the state, there is little else to learn by listening to Pelican Bay. In seeking the core of the prison-industrial complex, I had assumed that I would find it in the darkest recesses of the state's most notorious prison. I was wrong. To "record" California's carceral landscapes, I would have to look far beyond the state's prisons and seek out their social, economic and cultural architects. [End Page 56]

I spent...


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pp. 56-57
Launched on MUSE
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