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  • Dehumanized Denizens, Displayed Animals: Prison Tourism and the Discourse of the Zoo
  • Kelly Struthers Montford

“‘The animal’ was made and not born.”

—Kim, Introduction: A Dialogue, 2013, 463.

“Like the prison, the zoo creates an artificial space of enforced occupancy and demonstration.”

—Acampora, Zoos and Eyes, 2005, 78.


Loïc Wacquant’s 2002 article, “The Curious Eclipse of Prison Ethnography in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” problematizes prison tours because prisoners are dehumanized as a result of such intrusive viewing. He nonetheless argues for their continuation, stating that this form of observation is “indispensible” (382). Responding to Wacquant, critical criminologists and prisoners argue that such tours fail to provide the epistemological conditions to learn about the prison(er) experience, the reason for which they are undertaken (Huckelbury 2009; Minogue 2003; Nagelsen and Huckelbury 2009; Piché and Walby 2009, 2010). The discourse of the zoo underscores both sides of this debate. Those for and against prison tourism claim that tours objectify prisoners as if they were animals in a zoo. [End Page 73]

In this article I show that the prison tour debate employs the “language of dehumanization” (Guenther 2012) to assert species difference. I then demonstrate that these arguments are shaped by dominant understandings of “the human” (Derrida 2008). For Derrida, human superiority is constructed through the disavowal of the animal. This results in the social and political subjection of nonhuman animals, and of humans who are marked as animal (Wolfe 2003). Using the work of prisoners and academics on prison tours, I argue that speciesism is overlooked as an organizing social force that underpins the dehumanization of prisoners. This inattention to species theory ultimately undermines the existing academic critique of prison tourism, and perpetuates rather than resists the logic of domination they seek to address. While Derrida’s and Wolfe’s work provide a conceptual basis for considering the functioning of speciesism, their analyses remain largely abstract. Instead, ecofeminism (see Adams and Gruen 2014, Fraiman 2012, Gaard 2002, Twine 2014) more concretely examines how the human/animal dualism is deployed to target humans and animals along axes of racism, sexism, and colonialism. For this reason, I argue that ecofeminism better provides a critical analysis of the ways that zoos and prison tours form an interlocking system of oppression.

Dehumanized “Denizensand Captive Animals

Critical criminologists, sociologists, and prisoners problematize prisons and prison tours on the grounds that they dehumanize/animalize those being viewed. Wacquant describes his prison tour of the Los Angeles County Jail as viewing prisoners held in “human coops,” where prisoners are “human sardines in tight metal boxes under the perpetual glare of fluorescent lights” (378). Guards treat prisoners as prey by “shoot[ing] them like rabbits” (381). As a result of conducting ethnography inside the prison, Wacquant states that he felt “[a] sentiment of embarrassment, of ‘dirtiness,’ to have infringed on the dignity of human beings by the mere fact of having been there and seen that place, and thus to have treated its denizens as one might the occupants of a zoo” (381). For Wacquant, humans are different than (and not) animals. We are not animal because we have undergone civilizing processes. He posits that “jail effects a sort of instantaneous decivilizing, a brute and brutal stripping of centuries of education of our bodily, moral, and aesthetic senses” (emphasis added, 379). His use of the term “brute” evinces that, for Wacquant, the decivilizing that the prison accomplishes dehumanizes and renders as animal those in its charge.

For Wacquant, it is problematic to imprison humans who have left their animalistic selves behind as a result of years of civilizing education, but apparently unproblematic to capture and contain nonhumans in a zoo. Despite his horror at the “intensity of promiscuity, the total subjection to the permanent and pervasive gaze of others” (378), he does not discourage prison ethnography. [End Page 74] Calling this area of study “an endangered species,” he advocates for its renewal based on its supposed pedagogical value. According to Wacquant, it is “indispensable to go see, touch, feel. What a difference it makes!” (382).1 For Wacquant, this form of witnessing and experience is a necessary and superior...


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