Does Memory Survive Prison?

Prison institutions ought to impose the loss of liberty on the sentenced individual (Council of Europe, 2006). But, losing one’s liberty equates to losing all of what exists in the outside world, whether it be social groups (friends, family) or social roles (being a worker, a father, a son). By focusing on this ‘losing’ of what lies beyond the walls of prisons, a question emerges: If the individual loses the life he had in a free society, does he also lose the memory of it?


Figure 1: Prisoners Exercising, by van Gogh

To answer this question, the discipline of anthropology of memory can be used as it tries to gain an understanding of the manners in which individuals perceive by remembering and forgetting their pasts (Berliner, 2005). Memory studies question if we can think in other ways than we already think and if we can perceive in other ways than we already see. What this means for this article inquiry, is knowing whether an environment shapes the way each person perceives his surroundings. This happens because the historical experiences of a subject will produce a game of truths that influence his thoughts (Foucault, 1975). If there is no truth, there is certainly a perception of truth which is given through our being in a world and experiencing this world. Memory, in the same way, will establish representations of phenomena of the past that are usually claimed as true (Wertsch, 2009). Therefore, what is important to understand are the conditions that permit an individual to remember and not the truthfulness of a memory. A phenomenological approach can be used to respond to the inquiry of memory. The discipline of anthropology of memory has been more accepting of this approach and less suspicion around the method has been raised (Angé et al., 2014). Phenomenology tries to understand how phenomena appear to us, and phenomena always appear to an individual who pertains to a culture, this is why, to understand them we must understand the environment of a person (Binswanger, 1970/1936). Thus, a memory as being a form of representation has to be reinserted into the ensemble of man’s existence as being an anthropological being. And, the comprehension has to be phenomenological because it is a connection of phenomena that have created the existence of man as it is. Following this route, this article proposes a theorization of how memory works considering the anthropological reality of being a prisoner.


Figure 2: Imaginary Prisons, by Piranesi.

Prisons pertain to what Goffman (1961) calls total institutions. And, even if today prisons have way more openings into free society than fifty years ago, they still represent a rupture with free society and a sort of parallel world. The first basic aspect of incarceration is alienation; prisons isolate the inmate from all of what were his groups in outer society (Price, 2015). If it is true that there can be contact between individuals on the outside and the inmate (e.g. contacts with family members), these contacts are drastically reduced from what was possible outside, and most prisoners still lose most of the contacts they had. Furthermore, there are some prisoners which have no contact with individuals outside and there are others who would want to contact and be contacted by their families but who do not have the economical means to call their relatives (Price, 2015). All aspects of life are limited by prison and the inmate is not only physically thrown out of society, he is also mentally thrown out as society changes its representations of him. The inmate has to be separated from all of what was his life outside by physically not being there and by being thrown out of the social contract. Society itself dismisses the incarcerated as one of its members culturally and institutionally; he becomes an outcast (Price, 2015). Once an individual is incarcerated he becomes a prisoner. Being named a ‘prisoner’ results in becoming stigmatized by the outer world of free society and even when the inmate returns to free society he will not be free of this stigma because the broader population will still consider him as someone who went to prison (Price, 2015). Prison changes your persona and “[A] prisoner’s perspective begins with the realization that the situation that you find yourself in is not merely one concerning a prison sentence. That you are not just serving time, but more importantly that you are living your life and your sentence is merely an aspect of that life” (Price, 2015, p. 129).


The life you were living in society is turned upside down, and as a prisoner, you will live another type of life, one which will bring new representations and not only a separation from the previous life through the sentence received. The representations created by the prisoner’s persona and around his persona will have an impact also on the way he remembers the past. Furthermore, even the way the prisoner will create memories in prison will be different from how he created them in a free society. In fact, in prisons, few interactions are allowed and those are under rules of behavior and status; the inmate loses his right to participate in collective rhythms and has to modify what were his landmarks and customs (Chantraine, 2003). A prison sentence is more than just a loss of freedom, it encompasses the loss of all of what pertained to the social life of the incarcerated individual. The institution subjects a prisoner and attributes to him a new status from which representations will be created. Prison is a whole framework that needs to be taken into account as a total institution to comprehend how its environment can modify the memories of the people who are condemned to live within its walls.


Figure 3: Prisoner of The Mind, by Ruslan Kadiev.

It was understood that incarceration alienates the inmate in regards to all of what was his reality in a free society, but does it impact the memory of the prisoner? Following the argument of Halbwachs (1992/1941), a memory studies scholar, if an individual is separated or separates himself from one or more groups, the ensemble of memories he has created with these groups will tend to disappear. Forgetting aspects of one’s life is similar to losing contact with those who surround us. Prison obliges the prisoner to be separated from society and from those to whom he pertained; it systematically individualizes and imposes loneliness on the inmate (Price, 2015). Therefore, following Halbwachs argument, a prisoner tends to forget his past life as a free man as he loses contact with the outside environment and his previous relationships. An individual who no longer belongs to a social group, in part because his present state of affairs separates him from that group and in part because he has lost interest in the group will retain only a vague memory of that said group (Halbwachs, 1992/1941). However, the upper argument must be brought into question simply because a prisoner is under the obligation of the law, unwillfully separated from affiliation within a group. It is therefore unlikely that their willingness to participate or their overall interest in the group has been lost. Nevertheless, we must ask ourselves: Is the desire to remember enough for remembering?


To reconstruct a memory, there needs to be not only an individual act of remembrance but also a common social foundation to remember. It is not enough to reconstruct a memory of the past by assembling pieces; reconstruction must be operated through interpersonal commonality, remembrance is found in the mind of those who want to remember and in the minds of the others who share the memories (Halbwachs, 1992/1941). The mere fact of being able to think of a certain object - as our behavior is constituted through the group - means that the condition of thought is assisted by a system of our relations. And, even though something takes place when an individual is alone, this event will still be a part of a collective memory because the action and thoughts at a specific moment in time can be explained by the individual's social and enclosed groups (Halbwachs, 1992/1941).


Figure 4: Failed Memories, by David Ariel Szauder

The man of a free society and the man in prison will not behave in the same way and will not have the same daily lives. A fundamental alterity exists between the modalities of social relations in prison and the ones of a free society (Goffman, 1961): there is not only a problem with remembering (since the prisoner is alone) but also the inability to act as part of a free society’s social group. Furthermore, the circumstances need to arise so that man can remember. This is why a person does not always locate the memory they are looking for, and consequently why they must wait for the right circumstances, like passing by a place they once knew, which reawakens the hidden memories (Halbwachs, 1992/1941). The prisoner does not have those instances. As a result, the will of a man does not suffice to bring back a memory; even if the prisoner wants to remember, he will struggle and will most probably not succeed in having a reliable and candid memory.


However, because circumstances are primary to memory, objects can also be the site from which memories reveal themselves. Through objects, one could gain the ability to remember a past that is lost. Mementos can enable and cause a materialization of memory; the lost way of life can be mediated by those mementos which link an individual to his past (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1989). Nonetheless, even having such mementos is difficult for prisoners; the objects permitted from the outside to the inside of prisons are few - photographs are the main object that is allowed, but for the rest, heavy restrictions are in place (Price, 2015). Thus, a prisoner does not have a lot of means to be able to remember and solely has as a tool his own memory. Although it might seem that humans are masters of their memories, in reality, each individual's influence on their memories is minimal. The opposite appears in each individual's conscience, as there are images and thoughts which uniquely follow each other and are proper to the history of a given person (Halbwachs, 1992/1941). Because of that, people attribute to themselves ideas and reflections, or emotions and passions, which have, on the contrary, been inspired by the group to whom they pertain (Halbwachs, 1992/1941). All of those thoughts and emotions are connected to their belonging group, and by losing the group, one will most likely lose the memories.


Figure 5: Owen Gent, for The Marshall Project

Being part of a group has undeniable influences on an individual. When in a group, there is a formation of an imaginary world created from the mirroring of each individual; there is the creation of a space in which discourse can take place (Bourgois, 1996). Prisoners do not exist within the groups that they belonged to in a free society, and they certainly take part in a new social group inside their place of confinement. Some will adjust to the new life by accepting their culpability, negotiating their responsibility, and forgetting the external world, while others will accept to live with remorse (Goffman, 1961). The created group of prisoners will enable an individual to cope with the fact of being alienated from the outside world. They could help each other to remember with mementos and common places they have experienced in the outside world, or they could help each other to forget. If a group can transmit memories, they can also transmit oblivion, and there is also continuity between oblivion and silence (Berliner, 2010). The imprisoned individual now pertains to a different group, on the outskirts of society, a marginal one: the one of prisoners.


In conclusion, the loss of freedom by incarcerating an individual represents multiple losses that can be subjective and objective. From the perspective of memory studies, it was seen that the environment in which someone is confronted deeply modifies the dispositions by which one remembers. Prisons are environments in which individuals will be secluded for a certain amount of time. They completely alienate the individual from free society and displace him in a new environment in which behavior is constricted, creating an abyss between a free society and prison life. By all means, an environment like a prison influences the memory of an individual. In fact, by being thrown out of society and of all the groups to whom the prisoner pertained in a free society, the memories of the past life of the prisoner will fade - even if the prisoner has the will to remember he will not have the conditions to do it and his memories will lose details and reality. One cannot remember memories that are bound to a group without belonging to it, or at least he cannot remember them vividly enough. Therefore, by being thrown in prison the individual not only loses the life he had but with it he loses the memories that pertained to the reality of a free society.


Reference List

Angé, O. & Berliner, D. (2014). Anthropology of Nostalgia – Anthropology as Nostalgia. In Anthropology and Nostalgia. (pp. 61-95). New York, NY: Berghahn Books.


Berliner, D. (2005). The Abuses of Memory. Reflections on the Memory Boom in Anthropology. Anthropological Quarterly, 78(1), 183-197


Berliner, David. (2010). L’anthropologie et la transmission. Terrain, 55, 3-15


Binswanger, L. (1970). La conception freudienne de l’homme à la lumière de l’anthropologie. In Analyse existentielle et psychanalyse freudienne. Discours, parcours, et Freud (pp. 201-237). Paris, FR : Gallimard. (Original work published 1936)


Bourgois, P. (1996). In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press


Chantraine, G. (2003). Par delà les murs : Expériences et trajectoires carcérales en maison d’arrêt. Paris, FR : Presses Universitaires de France


Council of Europe (2006). European Prison Rules. Strasburg, FR: Council of Europe Publishing


Foucault, M. (1975). Surveiller et punir : Naissance de la prison. Paris, FR : Éditions Gallimard


Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York, NY: Anchor Books edition


Halbwachs, M. (1992). Mémoire individuelle et mémoire collective. In: La mémoire collective. (pp. 51-96). Paris, FR: Albin Michel. (Original work published 1941)


Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. (1989). Objects of Memory: Material Culture as Life Review. In Elliott Oring (ed). Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader. (pp. 329-338). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.


Price, J. M. (2015). Prison and Social Death. New Brunswick, USA: Rutgers University Press


Wertsch, J. (2009). Collective Memory. In Boyer, Pascal et James Wertsch (eds). Memory in Mind and Culture. (pp. 117-137). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Images references


Figure 1: van Gogh, V. (1890). Prisoners Exercising. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_037.jpg


Figure 2: Piranesi, G. B. Imaginary Prisons. Princeton Art Museum. https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/object-package/giovanni-battista-piranesi-imaginary-prisons/3640


Figure 3: Kadiev, R. (2016). Prisoner of The Mind. ArtStation. https://www.artstation.com/artwork/4kBa1


Figure 4: Szauder, D. A. Failed Memories. David Ariel Szauder. http://www.davidarielszauder.com/failed/w9ogvtfcx7gxfyeyfzzzy0jz1ct85h


Figure 5: Gent, M. (2018). Treatment Denied: The Mental Health Crisis in Federal Prisons. The Marshall Project. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/11/21/treatment-denied-the-mental-health-crisis-in-federal-prisons





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Altea Vaccaro

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