Prisoners of theory

“Jail” examines the conflict between freedom and imprisonment from the inside.

by Jenny Phan

The ideas written in journals are formed from the simplicities of life. The original intent of journals is to put into writing important occurrences, but they are not just a recording of events. Journals are a way to analyze life through recording history, as in Jesus Zarate’s “Jail.”

“Jail” is not as dramatic as Anne Frank’s diary, but it is a novel riddled with philosophy and ideology. The novel/play/diary is a collection of philosophical thought that embeds the idea of freedom within contexts of power relations. The entire journal is plotted while behind the bars of a prison, where theories on life are lived out behind the heavy metal doors. Prison becomes a self-governing society that questions the social ideology of the “outside.”

The characters are realistically portrayed through their crimes, with the narrator being the lone “innocent” next to criminals convicted of bigamy, fraud, murder and burglary. The tale is beautifully told through the eyes of Anton Castan, the quiet chronicler, and enhanced with intellectual debates on politics, freedom, religion and power through the Vargas Vila disciple Mister Alba and the three other inmates.

The notion of freedom resembles questions Michel Foucault unearthed in “Discipline and Punish.” There is freedom, because there are jails. Without jail there would be no distinction between free men and criminals. It is jail that separates what we consider normal from what is abnormal. There are criminals because there are laws, and it is the laws that directly separate the society into the categories that divide us into the “normal” and the “others.”

Zarate explains, “A free man looks with horror at the death penalty, even though he is his father. For the same reason, a prisoner looks with horror at the law because he’s his child. With an identical link but from a different position, the prisoner and the free man are accomplices in the fear of freedom.”

The humanization of the system is also taken into account in “Jail.” Foucault spoke about these ideas before. Whether by hanging or electrocution, the purpose of punishment is to assert power over the human body.

However, times have changed and power over the body is not as powerful as power over mind and soul. Containment is a torture of the soul. Zarate’s articulation of the torture of prison clearly explains how prison steals the life out of living by making life timeless. Life becomes cyclical and immobile.

This control over prisoners organizes the life of those outside containment by separating the lives within the prison from free lives. Zarate points out that prison uses numbers and uniforms to easily identify what animal crawls behind the metal bars, just as the U.S. government assigns Social Security numbers to easily distinguish between each individual.

The power in the penal system is much more obvious than that of the “outside” society, which makes being behind bars somewhat safer.

The tension between the ideas of “freedom and jail” and “criminals and the law” creates the normalcy that runs our society. Mister Alba, the philosopher of the four inmates and prompter of conversation, has made the idea of normalcy clear through the descriptions of his dialogues between the inmates.

“Where there aren’t decent people, there won’t be any jails. You can be sure that in the future there’ll be a world without jails,” said Mister Alba, which leads to questions from the other inmates on criminals. Mister Alba retorts by saying the definition of what is good will change. Basically, what is considered the norm will not be so exclusive in the future.

“Jail’s” characterization of individuals is creative and very immediate. With its explosive topics and descriptive, poetic dialogue, the book reveals an analysis that steps outside the norms society has built and critiques the society that stands around us and within us.