I wonder about this fixation.
I am surprised at the bizarre pleasure they derive from enumerating the names of fugitives recaptured (Fred Hunter, Huron "Ted" Walters, John Giles, Dale Stamphill, John Bayless) or drowned (Ralph Roe, the Anglin brothers, Theodore Cole) or killed by a bullet while in the process of escaping (Joseph Bowers, Thomas R. Limerick, Arthur "Doc" Barker, James Boarman).
And I wonder if there isn't something at stake here, something that touches on the very way America had, and perhaps still has, of conceiving its prisons.
In Europe—or, at any rate, in France—people debate whether prisons should be used for surveillance or punishment, rehabilitation or rectification. People reflect on the severity of the crime and of the punishment, and on the duration of the punishment and the hope for rehabilitation. Once those questions have been answered, and once it has been decided who should require and obtain justice, the person wronged or the sovereign power, one still has to think about the place of the prison in society and the chances that prisoners will have when they leave the former to reinsert themselves into the latter. In America the main concern seems to be the imperviousness of both worlds and the radicality of exclusion. The concern, the obsession, and thus probably everything at issue here involves reassurance that at every instant the separation has been successfully carried out and the two worlds have indeed been isolated.
The freezing water. The wind. The violence of the currents and the beating of the waves against the indented shore. The thick, cold fog that in the winter must isolate "the Rock" even more. The bay itself, so cheerful, so beautiful, which, when you consider it after Alcatraz, seems like a kind of Styx separating the world of the living from the house of the dead this prison was. Alcatraz is the completed form of what I saw sketched out on Rikers Island. It's the confirmation of that conception of the prison as pure machine to exclude, enclose, and, in a way, purify. Not that Alcatraz is the only island prison in the world. Not that I'm forgetting Solovki, in Russia; Lipari, in Italy; Devil's Island, in French Guiana—or even the Château d'If, in France. But Edmond Dantès escaped from the Château d'If. The Italian confino, harsh as it might have been, still shared an island with an ordinary community. But what happens here is that space itself is split in two, and this changes everything: it makes the prison the heart of another world. If it is true, as Foucault believed, that the Western penitentiary mentality oscillated for a long time between two rival models—of leprosy and plague, of power that excludes and banishes and the more modern power that knows, calculates, and in the end includes—it seems that Alcatraz represents the former. Prison as leper colony. To lock people up the same way you would draw a sacred circle. No escapees from Alcatraz, just the damned of Alcatraz and perhaps, beyond Alcatraz, of the American penal system as a whole.
On the Road to L.A.
Highway 101. Then Highway 1, the legendary highway that follows the seacoast; I've seen it so many times in books that I feel I know it before I even take it. Warmth and speed. Desert. Sea sky. That Pacific Wall that Jean-François Lyotard spoke of, about which I no longer know if the mountain is the wall, or the cliffs over the sand, or even the immense, towering white waves that crash onto the beach. In Monterey the landscape suddenly shifts to rounder hills, a coast of deep red, then green, then yet again red because of the kelp—a kind of deep-rooted seaweed, spread out over hundreds of feet, of which we see only the tips. But mostly one notices steep hillsides; sharp bends winding through the hillsides; well-defined cliff ridges, dotted with dwarf cacti in some places and giant redwoods in others; grandiose, jagged contours; huge masses and overwhelming skies; a scenery not of the end but of the morning of the world, where man may still be absent; and down below, in the other direction, more waves, the sun glittering in the waves, seals, the new, limitless luminosity of this inhuman desert that has thrown itself into the ocean. Lunch stop in Carmel Valley, at a bikers' restaurant, where we eat bad tacos and boiled corn on the cob that remain leaden in the stomach. Another stop, at a campground for RVs, where, in the torrid heat, a colony of white youths are playing. Everything about them—their trousers with the crotch falling down to their knees, the backwards baseball caps, the shape of their T-shirts, their slang, their tone of voice, their disaffected look—is trying hard to imitate black kids in American movies. A gas station in the middle of nowhere. A McDonald's, at a turn in the road, where an American flag is flying listlessly and a billboard urges, Support our troops. A farm where a roaming pack of coyotes was reported yesterday. A providential phone booth: after Monterey, cell phones can't get any signal. Needless to say, the least sign or detail of this sort, the least billboard (like the one in front of the phone booth, Jesus saves, come to us), the least Greyhound bus (all of which bring Ginsberg and Kerouac to mind), seems in this desert landscape miraculous, almost like a mirage. In Big Sur I discover, set back a little from the highway, in the woods, the humble memorial set up to the glory of Henry Miller by a literature buff: library; little museum; bookstore where anything that has to do, however remotely, with the author or his work can be found; in a clearing a movie screen on which a documentary will be projected in a few days; a platform, also out in the open, where the best "Miller scholars" in the country sometimes give lectures before a tiny audience of literature-loving locals; an old guitar-playing hippie; beneath a canopy of greenery and low-lying trees, on a pedestal of television screens artistically crushed and piled, a big crucified Jesus, made of wire intertwined with branches, and meant, I imagine, to incarnate the suffering of the author of Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus.