Assistant professor of geography
- By Megan Morley Thomas
Surveillance cameras. Confined — and defined — spaces. Human interactions through Plexiglas barriers. Hard lives, hardened men. This is prison. But not necessarily one you enter by order of a court, argues Rashad Shabazz, assistant professor of geography. Some prisons you inhabit simply by being poor or working class and black.
Based on Shabazz's study of the 1962 Robert Taylor housing project in Chicago, as well as research on South African mining compounds and observations of current communities from New York ghettos to South Central Los Angeles, there is an architecture and landscape designed to exert control.
"Robert Taylor's open spaces," writes Shabazz in a 2009 issue of the journal Souls, "were 'dead spaces' with no trees, pathways, or playgrounds; tons of concrete isolated residents from the surrounding Black community. Robert Taylor's landscape gave the appearance of openness, while concealing its carceral logic."
There was, he explains, constant policing and surveillance. Units were cage-like. With no supermarkets nearby, small corner stores stocked with processed foods and fatty meats contributed to obesity along with the humiliation of dealing with cashiers enclosed behind bulletproof walls, merchandise received through turnstiles.
Robert Taylor was a training ground and one stop on a relentless circuit. As Shabazz quotes a former resident on growing up there, "Prison was just a change of address."
"My scholarship must have stakes in the greater good." — Shabazz
This geography of prison culture and how poor black men define themselves, is central to Shabazz's work. "The way in which black communities are structured — the containment, the bars, the closed space — what impact does that have on the body?" he asks, "What impact does it have on gender performance?"
The implications of creating communities that serve as prep school for prison is deeply troubling to Shabazz. He is a member of Critical Resistance, an organization seeking to abolish the prison industrial complex.
He looks for answers in education, ending poverty, in decent shelter and basic freedoms. "Why," Shabazz asks, "do we keep people in cages? Does it work? It punishes, but does it keep people safe?"