The Prison In-Between
Caretaking and Crisis on the Visitors’ Bus
Prisons isolate, but they also aggregate. They aggregate people on the inside, and they also aggregate people on the outside. People are amassed in courtrooms and in mess halls, in visiting centers and at public defenders’ offices. And they are aggregated on the bus. Circulating most often between the poles of the urban neighborhood and the rural penitentiary, a vast network of buses traverse long distances and monotonous highways across the United States, carrying loved ones to and from the prison visiting centers that dot the carceral landscape. The bus riders are caretakers in motion, their route is a holding pattern, and their vehicle is a carceral space suturing the social fragmentations of prison life.
Even for a city that never sleeps, the busy Manhattan intersection where I lean against a window display of brightly colored sneakers feels especially chaotic tonight. There are tourists and businessmen, well-heeled women clutching tiny handbags, and exhausted looking food venders. Illuminated billboards glare brightly over the crush of taxicabs, and I watch more than one elderly man digging through the city’s garbage bins. I have arrived early to Columbus Circle in Manhattan, a long-standing pick-up spot for Operation Prison Gap and a small handful of other prison-bus operators. I am waiting to embark on one of the longest bus routes in the state, an eight-hour overnight journey to Attica State Prison, located 350 miles from NYC in the northeast corner of New York. I am among the first to arrive, but within an hour of standing here, I am surrounded by more than two dozen other women.
Beginning at about 9 p.m. every Friday and Saturday night at the corner of 58th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan, a crowd slowly begins gathering into a loose and shifting line. This group is made up almost entirely of women of color, young and old, some of them accompanied by children. Their presence can be easy to miss amid the bustle of tourists and residents of New York City’s hectic midtown area, but their invisibility belies the conspicuousness of shared traits, including the carrying of a small backpack or overnight bag containing a change of clothes and some food. They stand in front of the Chase Bank on this street corner of Manhattan every weekend in all seasons, waiting for the buses and vans that will eventually roll up and take them on the overnight journey to one of the dozens of prison facilities currently affixed to the landscape of upstate New York.
The prison bus is a unique feature of the era of mass incarceration, even while the long-distance bus as a space of working-class life more generally is not. In New York, the buses and vans that carry passengers to visit their loved ones in far away institutions are all run privately, many by individuals or families with their own personal experiences of incarceration. As the state’s incarceration rates have ballooned, so too has the bus traffic. There are now more than a dozen different bus and van operations that service the population of visitors travelling from the city to facilities upstate. A handful of them have been taking passengers to New York’s penitentiaries for almost forty years. These passengers bring notes and care packages, offer news, comfort, and companionship and, by their very presence, remind guards that prisoners are not, in fact, unloved and alone in the world.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s seminal 2007 book Golden Gulag opens and closes from the space of a prison bus carrying visitors to California’s outer echelons. In bookending her analysis of California’s prison system in this way, Gilmore underscores the importance of the bus and the people on it as connectors, traversing and circumventing a regime that works by systematizing isolation and segregation. Indeed, the prison bus is both a carceral space and a scene of gendered and racialized caretaking. As such, it is a space that testifies to the crisis of everyday life that neoliberal racial capitalism produces for those at the lowest echelons of the social order, especially those tasked with the work of reproducing life and maintaining its emotional adhesions. This group tends to be overwhelmingly constituted by women of color, and these women tend overwhelmingly to take the bus: the bus to work, the bus out of town, and the bus to prison.
The bus to prison can itself be understood as a carceral space, insofar as its very existence is contingent on the coerced geographic removal of prisoners from their families, social networks, and communities. It exists because the prison system exists. The conditions it imposes on its riders echo the conditions of incarceration. In circulating, over long periods of time and across vast physical distances, the mothers, sisters, wives, and girlfriends primarily tasked with the work of caregiving across the deep fissures produced by the prison regime, the bus functions as a holding space in which these women serve time in uncomfortable conditions, enduring the erosion of their bodies, psyches, and resources. In this way, the bus amounts to a kind of gendered secondary imprisonment for the predominantly working-class women of color who ride it regularly.
The bus is also a scene of ordinary neoliberal crisis, social reproduction, and fragile solidarity for its riders. To be in crisis, as theorist Lauren Berlant defines it, is “to bear an extended burden of vulnerability for an undetermined duration” (2011, 62). This is a crisis, I argue, certainly intensified by the violence, stress, and social disruption of mass incarceration. But it is also a crisis that both underwrites the carceral state and extends beyond imprisonment, a crisis that the current regime of racial capitalism, intensified under neoliberalism and the most recent financial recession, produces systematically as ordinary, everyday life. A carceral space in character as well as function, then, the bus (much like the prison itself) offers an important vantage from which to investigate the negotiation of life-building and radical sociality within neoliberal capitalism and the social relations it both harbors and fragments.
“Riding the Dog”: Organizing on the Public Bus
If there is one machine that symbolizes working class mobility and political possibility in America, it is the bus, and particularly the long-distance bus (Gilmore 2014). “Riding the dog” has long been a familiar expression among working-class Americans, a colloquialism for journeys taken on that most monopolistic of corporate coaches, the Greyhound. Since the postwar explosion of car ownership and the remaking of the American landscape to accommodate automotive travel, intercity bus travel, like intracity public transit, has increasingly become the dominion of low-income people of color. Since the 1970s, coach companies like Greyhound have accepted the flight of most middle-class Americans from their routes and even reoriented their advertising and services accordingly (Walsh 2010). Consequentially, the long-distance bus is now almost entirely considered a plebian mode of travel associated with poverty and the limited options of working-class life.
If the long-distance bus has historically been organized by race and class, so too has been the infrastructure built to carry its weight. The nation’s highways have a long and wretched history of violent incursions, constructed to slice like raw concrete wounds through the yards of the poorest and most racialized of U.S. urban neighborhoods. Eric Avila argues that, “race—racial identity and racial ideology—shaped the geography of highway construction in urban America, fuelling new patterns of racial inequality that exacerbated an unfolding ‘urban crisis’ in postwar America” (2014, 2). The neighborhoods occupied by people of color have been historically coded as blight in planning discourse, paving the way for their targeting by a federal highway program often working hand-in-glove with private redevelopment and public practices like slum clearance and redlining. In this way, the highway is also a classed and racialized space, one that organizes myriad forms of segregation into the built environment.
As a key social infrastructure of black working-class life in particular, the long-distance bus and its attendant architectures, including the highway and the bus depot, share defining properties with the prison edifice as another public infrastructure organizing the lives of vast numbers of black, poor, and dispossessed U.S. residents. Sometimes their overlap is more literal than proximate. For example, Gilmore recounts a story about a New Orleans Greyhound bus station transformed into a makeshift jail in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina (2009, 80). Spatial repurposing, in this instance, was the objective of the state. But repurposing has also always been a tactic of the dispossessed, whose commoning of the spaces to which they are relegated by force has historically produced movement spaces out of holding spaces. Just as prisons and jails have been transformed into spaces of rebellion for as long as they have existed (Berger 2014), bus infrastructures also generate possibilities for insurgent socialities. Moira Rachel Kenney, for example, describes the emergence of a vibrant gay and lesbian scene in 1940s Los Angeles centered in the bars clustered around the city’s downtown Greyhound bus station (2001). These bus-station bars provided spaces where gays and lesbians could both recognize each other and interact without suspicion, a liminal space wherein the shared experiences of abandonment and forced transience also engendered a radical scene of togetherness.
The bus, precisely because of its historical formation as a gendered, classed, and racialized space, has figured importantly in the long history of freedom struggles in the postwar United States. Indeed, there is a long and rich political tradition in which those marginalized populations consigned to the cramped quarters of the long-distance bus have made it into a site for innovative class and race-based organizing. The relationship between buses, race politics, and social struggle is most often underscored by the bus’s symbolic distillation of the civil rights era. In 1955, Rosa Parks, a forty-three-year-old working-class black woman in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in an act of political defiance against local Jim Crow laws, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Two years previous, in 1953, African Americans organized under the auspices of the United Defense League in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, staged the first successful bus boycott in the nation’s history. Less than a decade later, in the late summer of 1961, more than four hundred Freedom Riders were arrested for their participation in the struggle against ongoing racial segregation on interstate buses. Defying Jim Crow laws, the Freedom Riders recognized the interstate bus as an infrastructure of racial oppression, but also as a site for collective action.
More recently, the early 1990s saw the unprecedented formation of a labor-organizing project called the Bus Riders Union (BRU), whose membership, drawn from the predominantly low-income, black, Latinx, and Asian mass-transit ridership of Los Angeles, continues to challenge transportation and environmental racism in that city and beyond (Mann 2004). Using mass transit as an organization space and bus riders as an organizing base, the BRU successfully sued the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority for racial discrimination in its fee and service structure. While primarily organizing bus riders as such, the BRU draws its social power from the dual recognition that bus ridership itself is a condition of being poor and racially marginalized and that the shared space of the bus is an opportune social site for organizing in an era of radically atomized working-class life.
From the Freedom Riders to the BRU, bus riders have capitalized on the contradictions of public transit and the role it plays in the work and community life of poor, Latinx and African American communities to transform the dense space and long commutes into an organizing opportunity. They have done this both in spite of and because of the very structural processes through which the bus has become such a paradigmatic racialized and working-class space in the first place, including residential displacement, labor exploitation, and resource scarcity. That so many important historic freedom struggles have coalesced in one way or another around the spaces of the bus thus comes to make sense. As a “‘between’ of segregated lives” (Gilmore 2007, 236), buses have historically revealed a great deal about the structured inequities of state resource distribution and vulnerability to risk and even offered a (quite literal) platform for the recognition of collective oppression and oppositional politics. The bus thus constitutes a significant political space in that it both expresses the structural organization of racial capitalism within the social landscape and offers, potentially at least, a spatial condition for recognition, reciprocity, and organizing among low-income people of color.
In her own attention to buses carrying the loved ones of prisoners, Gilmore examines how such buses have historically offered a unique site for the organization of poor and working-class people otherwise disorganized in the modern economy by segregation and fragmentation. She probes the relationship between organizing and recognition in such spaces by asking: “How do people come actively to identify in and act through a group such that its trajectory surpasses reinforcing characteristics (e.g., identity politics), or protecting a fixed set of interests (e.g., corporatist politics), and instead extends toward an evolving, purposeful social movement (e.g., real class politics)?” (2007, 191). I ask a different but related set of questions, the most central of which is how the socially reproductive labor of prison visiting is experienced and negotiated, within the space of the bus, as a condition of everyday life within neoliberal capitalism. The answer is necessarily contradictory. Indeed, as a zone of ordinary life, the prison bus absorbs lots of incoherence, not least of which is that it can serve not only to aggravate self-isolation but also to facilitate togetherness and common cause. In this way, it resembles the public-transit buses documented by Marisela Norte, a writer who depicts racialized and gendered life on public transit in LA and whom George Lipsitz calls the “bus poet of Los Angeles”: “Norte recognizes the bus as simultaneously a site of containment and connection, of incarceration and affiliation, of solitude and sociality” (2004, 512). The prison buses of New York share with LA’s public transit an urban, working-class ridership constituted primarily by women of color, but also the social contradictions and fragilities Norte notes. And like most long-distances buses in the United States that carry primarily the poor and working-class, it is experienced first and foremost as the imposition of physical distress.
The Journey and Its Discomforts
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) is the state’s largest government agency, with an annual budget of $2.5 billion and 31,000 staff spread out across the state. According to DOCCS data, there were approximately 54,142 individuals incarcerated throughout its fifty-four state facilities as of January 1, 2014. Of those prisoners, 49 percent are identified as African American and less than a quarter as white (New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision 2014, ii). These prisoners come overwhelmingly from New York City, which is also where their families and loved ones are located. Approximately 62 percent of the state’s prisoners hail from the city, with many of those concentrated in just a handful of neighborhoods (Wagner 2003). The vast majority of New York’s carceral facilities, however, are located in rural counties upstate. While there are a small number of facilities within relatively short distance from NYC, 87 percent of New York prisoners are incarcerated more than two hours away (Wagner 2003). Many facilities, such Attica and Albion to the west of the state, or Upstate Penitentiary near the Quebec border, are hundreds of miles away from Manhattan, establishing a formidable barrier to those hoping to visit.
The longest running of the private bus and van companies that service visitors to New York’s penal facilities is the family-owned Operation Prison Gap (OPG). Founded by a former prisoner named Ray Simmons, OPG was formed after Simmons was released from Attica Prison in 1973. Before Simmons started the company, visitors had no way to get to the facilities other than to take a Greyhound bus, which even then stopped only in town centers, requiring riders to pay additionally for taxis to bring them directly to the facility gates. “In four years [inside] I had four visits,” Simmons told me. While many more small-scale operators started running buses and vans beginning in the late 1980s and, in his own words, “business isn’t what it used to be,” Simmons claims he can still run about twenty buses each weekend.
OPG runs bus services along the two main long distance routes, one travelling due north, toward Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone and nearby facilities, and the other travelling northwest, toward Albion and Orleans correctional facilities. The bus that I took, which travelled the northwest route to Attica, made stops at six different facilities: Groveland and Livingston at about 6 a.m., Wyoming and Attica at about 7 a.m., and then onward to Wende and Albion by the Canadian border. The prison facilities themselves often offer information about the bus companies in their visitors’ centers and when people call to ask for information about how they might get there.
Different operators have different pick-up spots and leave throughout the night, depending on where they are going. The most populous depots are at 34th Street and 7th Avenue, on the west side of Manhattan, and at Columbus Circle, where OPG has been picking up riders each Friday and Saturday night for forty years. Both are a formidable distance from the east Brooklyn, Bronx, and Long Island neighborhoods from which the vast majority of the bus riders seem to come. Many riders have already spent between one and three hours just getting to the pick-up spot, travelling by bus, subway, light rail, and in some cases taxi cab in order to get there. Some of the smaller van services will depart from neighborhoods in the outer boroughs of New York, including Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, but their routes are often much more limited.
Prison visits begin at 9 a.m.. Because there is a fair amount of processing involved before the visitors can get inside the institutions, the buses going the furthest will leave between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. at night and can take as long as eight or ten hours each way, barring any delays. The bus to Attica is supposed to leave at 10 p.m. but often departs closer to 11 p.m. The cost of a bus ticket to Attica is $65. While the price differs depending on the distance to the facility, tickets tend to cost at least $40 each. Children travel for half price. Expenses can greatly exceed the price of the ticket, as visitors are typically required to spend money travelling to the bus pick-up spot, sometimes relying on car services because public transit, when available, may be less frequent and dependable at the times of night that the visitors are travelling. Additional costs include food and drinks during the twenty-four-hour period of the trip and from the vending machines inside of the prison. Many visitors have also gone shopping for favorite food items, clothing, and cash to bring inside for loved ones.
The prison bus is clearly gendered, with the vast majority of passengers being women travelling alone. This observation was corroborated by the women I interviewed as well as two separate bus operators I spoke to, both of whom estimated that about 95 percent of the ridership was female. Some of these women travel with children. When I would ride the bus, I counted six to eight children, ranging from infants to preteens. Most of the riders, moreover, are women of color, with African American women constituting the bulk of the ridership. During one journey, from appearances at least, I was the only white person on the bus. When I asked my interviewees about racial composition on the bus, many suggested that all races were represented, including Hispanics, Puerto Ricans, Arab Americans, South Asians, and African Americans, while also acknowledging that white riders were in the minority.
The journey, in my own experience and in the words of my interviewees, is arduous and physically uncomfortable. The chartered buses are low on amenities. Each of them holds between forty-nine and fifty-seven passengers and is equipped with reclining seats, and occasionally a handful of TVs on which movies play throughout part of the ride. During my first ride, one black-and-white movie, difficult to discern and barely audible, played on repeat until we arrived. The buses are often full, and the sheer density of bodies and noises makes it difficult to sleep. Yet, the buses are much preferred to the vans that sometimes come to pick up riders instead, which do not have reclining seats and are without a bathroom, rendering the overnight trip, according to many of those I spoke to, extremely uncomfortable.
This discomfort is experienced for many as more than just incidental inconvenience. For those already worn out by the day-to-day challenges of their lives, which often include inadequate healthcare, responsibility for multiple dependents, and precarious employment, the discomforts of riding the bus further erode already attenuated reserves of energy and goodwill. This bears meaningfully on the risk calculus entailed by investing in others. In other words, riders are already so stressed out, exhausted, and overextended by the time they ride the bus that every additional distress experienced during the journey is exacerbated. Making the journey to visit incarcerated loved ones is a resource-intensive endeavor, costing immense amounts of time, energy, and money. For those riding the bus, most of whom are on the losing side of neoliberalism’s widening of the inequality gap, those resources are already scarce. Under such conditions, the activity of engaging with or trusting in others can be felt more as an additional burden than as a source of relief.
Indeed, the material consequences of neoliberalism, as a bundle of policies and organizing rationalities that have transformed the contemporary political and economic landscape of state entitlements, have been unevenly distributed, with women of color bearing the brunt of the shrinkage of social securities (Burnham 2001). The recent period of recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis has intensified the hardships faced by the lowest strata of the U.S. class and race structures generally, but it has proven particularly devastating for women of color. Black and Latina women today face worse wages and job prospects, higher poverty rates, and greater difficulties in gaining access to health care. As a population, they are significantly worse off than before the economic crisis (Johnson 2013). In 2011, for example, 36 percent of African Americans, including 38.1 percent of black women, were employed in low-wage jobs (earning poverty-level wages or less), compared to 23.4 percent of the white labor force (Mishel et al. 2012). From 2007 to 2011, the percentage of African American female-headed households in poverty grew from 43.9 to 47.3 percent, and for Latina-headed households, from 46.6 to 49.1 percent (Johnson 2013). Jumps in poverty and unemployment rates among these populations, meanwhile, have had direct consequences for healthcare access. Private health-insurance coverage for black women, for example, has dropped from 54.1 to 50 percent, while Latina women have experienced a similar decrease (Johnson 2013).
Berlant writes: “The current recession congeals decades of class bifurcation, downward mobility, and environmental, political and social brittleness that have increased progressively since the Reagan era. The intensification of these processes, which reshapes conventions of racial, gendered, sexual, economic, and nation-based subordination, has also increased the probability that structured contingency will create manifest crisis situations in ordinary existence for more kinds of people” (2011, 11). Life, in other words, has been made harder in the past decade for those who already faced difficulties under neoliberal racial capitalism. The result is what Berlant calls “ordinary crisis”: the everyday struggle to maintain and manage existence within a context of deteriorating social, economic, and environmental conditions. In other words, the ordinary crisis is the work of social reproduction (maintaining and managing existence) as structured by the provisions of chronic precarity.
The concept of ordinary crisis helps to make sense of the ways the calamities of neoliberal austerity are subjectively registered, socially and affectively, by the already overextended women who regularly ride the prison bus. In the space of the bus, such “manifest crisis situations in ordinary existence” look and feel a lot like the distress of physical discomfort, interpersonal distrust and tension, and deep fatigue. The cumulative impact is a protracted “wearing out” of these bus riders who, in rationing their reserves of time, energy, money, and care into the long overnight bus journeys, often compensate by retreating inward, siphoning their atrophies into privatized experiences of grievance and interpersonal expressions of antagonism and distrust.
The framework of ordinary crisis recasts “crisis” as belonging first in the outside world, as a situation of unevenly disbursed structural precarity, but then also attends to the ways crisis is experienced subjectively and affectively. The experience of crisis as quotidian, whatever else is variegated about the lives of those experiencing it, is that of an extended burden of vulnerability with significant consequences for how and in what shape people imagine reprieve and redress. The prison-bus ridership fits squarely into the demographics tracked by the statistics recounted earlier. Not a single one of the women I interviewed during my research earns more than a few dollars above minimum wage, which in New York State in 2014 was $8 per hour. One rider worked as a janitor, two of them as home-health-care workers (for $12 an hour), another one was out of work due to disability, and another one juggled two jobs, one of them as a call operator for the city’s 311 information service. The one white woman I interviewed worked as a corporate travel agent, which she did from home due to a severe swelling in her legs that she attributes to so many years of taking the bus. All spoke in depth about the complicated negotiations of making ends meet, including living periodically or longer-term with other family members, such as sisters and parents, using food stamps as their primary means of feeding themselves and their children, and contending with enormous levels of financial debt. One interviewee spent a long time recounting a story in which her four public-transit metro cards were confiscated by correctional guards, passionately criticizing the rule against bringing metro cards into the visitor’s room. In a context like hers, in which she supports herself through disability benefits and has taken her daughter and her daughter’s six children into her two-bedroom apartment after they were recently evicted, the handful of dollars distributed among those metro cards is the difference between leaving the house or not on any given day.
Such is the context within which women’s preoccupations, frustrations, and anxieties about riding the prison buses must be understood. Invited to reflect on their experiences of riding the buses, the women I interviewed spoke at length about the physical and psychic agonies experienced there: cramped quarters and impediments to leaning back; snorers and/or crying children; needing to urinate while on vans that refuse to stop; being too hot or too cold; and the various holdups that prolong waiting times both outside and on the bus, including bus breakdowns, drivers getting lost, and companies waiting for more riders to fill their seats. For example, as one woman described to me:
Everybody gets along until somebody snores too loud in their ear, or hits their feet. Most people complain about the stretching, they can’t do anything, stretch or nothing. You can fall asleep but it’s very uncomfortable. By the time I get in there, riding 6, 7 hours, by 1 o’clock I’m asleep on the table because I’m so tired. I was so uncomfortable I didn’t get proper rest. (Val, interview with author, 2014)
Accounts of physical discomfort were often interspersed, in my interviewee’s descriptions, with references to the interpersonal antagonisms they give rise to. This is also a common theme on the online chat rooms frequented by prison riders, such as a popular web forum called “Prison Talk,” a platform for loved ones and those in the prisoner support community to communicate about issues and concerns and help support others in similar circumstances. On that site, a well-trafficked thread is devoted entirely to the experiences riders have had on the prison bus and van services in New York State. One commenter named “Ladysmith” writes:
My first bus ride to Orleans was with Prison Gap. They sent us in a van, which of course had no bathroom and we only stopped once for a bathroom break coming and going. An older woman had to go so bad that she eventually went on herself so then we had to smell that the rest of the way. (Prison Talk n.d.)
Julia, a single mother of three who has been riding the bus for over fifteen years, described some of the tensions that she encounters on her journeys, many of them tethered to competition for the scarce comforts available during long rides:
People fight about seats a lot. They push them all the way back—and I’m very tall, I’m 5'8", so for the person to push their seat all the way back, I mean, they’re not on a British Airway flight to London, first class. You have to be kind to the person behind you, you know. I hear girls fighting in the back about the seats, about who’s in that seat when they get back on the bus. It’s horrible, it really is. (interview with author, 2013)
The concept of ordinary crisis helps underscore how a set of quotidian discomforts can radically upend the careful management of scarce resources, including one’s own physical capacities, time, and money. In the context of the bus riders’ multiple stressors, such discomforts are revealed to be not minor at all; indeed, within the context of all-pervading social and economic insecurity, they bear significantly on the rest of one’s weekend, week, or month, adding further pressures to the exigencies of everyday life at the bottom of the social class structure. They also significantly delimit the horizons of possibility for those tasked with imagining how their situations might be improved or how conditions might be changed. While I deliberately structured my questions to allow my interview subjects to weigh in more broadly on the sense of justice or injustice of having loved ones incarcerated for such long periods of time, few women raised overtly critical or political questions about the penal system as a whole. They tended to focus instead on the experience, in all of its irritating routines and miniature debasements, of riding the bus and arriving at the prison visitors’ centers. For example:
That ride, to Attica, is particularly hard. What’s hard about it? Just in general, people just . . . I don’t want to say everybody’s rude on the bus, but you come across a lot of different characters on the bus, and not everybody gets along, so people fight, they get into arguments, and then if they have kids on the bus or something it’s hard, you can’t always keep them quiet. It’s hard to sleep when you have a kid screaming behind you. (Donna, interview with author, 2014)
Gilmore writes that “prisons wear out places by wearing out people, irrespective of whether they have done time” (2007, 17). The prison buses, in all their banality, constitute a critical site in and through which nonprisoners are worn out by the carceral regime. The wearing out is, on the one hand, deeply material, registered by bodies subject to the chronic discomfort, pains, and sleep disruption, ritualized often over many years, that is endemic to the long overnight journeys. Christine, who estimates that she’s taken over 500 rides over the twenty years she has spent visiting her husband in various institutions upstate, describes the physical effects of the rides: “I never sleep. I got edema because of this, I have a lump on my left leg because of this, because I’m always sitting down on this sitting position. I went to the doctor and I’ve got stress and anxiety and high blood pressure; I’m on pills.” She told me that her husband has encouraged her to begin visiting once every three weeks, instead of weekly: “Because he doesn’t want my health being affected by this. And I did my time, going every week.”
“Doing one’s time” is a common description of the visitations among bus riders. As a rhetorical construction, it borrows from the familiar euphemism for serving a prison sentence. The analogy is not lost on the women who ride the bus, many of whom see themselves as serving a kind of sentence alongside their loved ones. Ethnographer Megan Comfort, whose work examines the ways female partners of prisoners in California relate to the carceral system through their attachments to the men inside, details the parallels between incarceration and the caretaking of those locked up (2008). Her characterization of the time spent in the liminal spaces of visitation as forms of “secondary prisonization” for the women she studies resonates with my own findings about the prison bus. The exhausting and denigrating experience of contending with arbitrary regulations and restricted rights, the enforced idleness of waiting and lining up for visits, and the physically taxing corporeal confinement of the hallways and waiting rooms in which visitors spend hundreds of hours of their lives parallel, in many ways, the experiences of prisoners doing time in spaces of captivity.
The concept of doing time also points to the temporality of riding the bus, conjuring the notion of “getting by,” but also that of “slow death.” In the context of everyday crisis, slow death means, for Berlant, “the physical wearing out of a population in a way that points to its deterioration as a defining condition of its experience and historical existence” (2011, 95). Slow death is the condition of being worn out by the sheer effort and endeavor of reproducing life. While, in a sense, the very activity of living makes for a kind of “slow death,” it is also true that chronic poverty has long been linked to the probability of shortened life expectancy (Lowrey 2014). When a rider describes, therefore, how she has never once been able to fall asleep during the overnight prison-bus journey to visit her husband, a journey she’s been taking bimonthly for fifteen years, there is good evidence to suggest that such cumulative and chronic sleeplessness has adversely effected her quantity of life as well its quality. Statistically, we know this of, for example, laborers who work night shifts, whose disrupted sleep over many years has proven to bear out as diminished life expectancy (Blue 2012). As a vessel of austere physical taxation that carries people already at higher risk of chronic illness and inadequate health care by virtue of being poor, the prison bus occupies a role homologous with the penitentiary, long proven to have life-shortening consequences for those in its hold (Patterson 2013).
There is slow death, but there is also quick death, and its specter. Just as the testimonies of prisoners are replete with harrowing accounts of the immediate bodily dangers present in spaces of detention, so too are the testimonies given by those who ride the prison bus, dangers that, whether real or perceived, exact additional stress and psychic toll from riders on an otherwise already arduous journey. The stories bus riders share with one another about the perils encountered while riding the prison buses serve as both supportive warning and an archive of harrowing experiences. One place these stories circulate is the Prison Talk internet forum, where one section devoted specifically to experiences encountered with the two dominant bus companies, OPG and Flamboyant, runs some twenty-five pages (Prison Talk n.d.). The following is a compendium of some of the descriptions posted on the forum of situations in which riders felt acute fear for their safety.
babyboy421: The ride home was straight out of a horror flick. I got home Sunday morning at 4:00am. If I never prayed before I was sending up some timbers on Saturday. . . . The driver was so tired he started driving off the road. The passengers were screaming for him to stop the bus and rest but he didn’t.
LilBabyL: I rode up to Clinton with Flamboyant from the Bronx about one month ago. . . . The ride was HORRENDOUS!!! I will never ever take them again. The driver was swerving all over the road and speeding. I really feared for my life. NEVER AGAIN!
Maggiebklyn24: I rode on prison gap back in Nov 19 for that sat visit to Altona. The driver hit a deer then got lost going to Altona.
STB75: It was the worst ride ever. The bus driver was falling asleep. I kept waking up the coordinator she just brushed me off by saying he’s alright. He hit the dividers 3 times, the bus was grinding. . . . I kept screaming; a girl was yelling she’s a single mom bringing up her kids and wants to get there alive. . . . Sure enough on the return the same thing starting falling asleep the coordinators were long sleeping didn’t have a care in the world!! He kept switching lanes I was so afraid for my life I got so many panic attacks a girl nearby me was reassuring me all will be ok. We were all panicking we were so close to falling off the cliff it was terrible. . . . I hope that you guys post this on your website and to please never ride FLAMBOYANT, if you want to stay alive.
Processes by which people are physically and psychically worn out include the stress of feeling acute physical insecurity and impending danger. Indeed, such insecurity is heightened by the social and economic crises that render the bus riders without health insurance in case of accidents and/or without the financial or social resources to bear medical injuries or missed work shifts. Heightened threat can take a variety of forms, from the terror of automobile breakdown to the sleep disturbance of a snoring seatmate. In such a context, one response can be to self-isolate.
Research into the effects of increased policing and state intervention in people’s lives suggests they bear destructively on informal networks and relationships of care and mutual support. As Gilmore notes, “people stop looking out for each other and stop talking about anything that matters in terms of neighborly well-being” (2007, 17). Speaking specifically about the disentitlement former prisoners experience from such public institutions as schools, housing, and workplace, she writes: “In such inhospitable places, everybody isolates” (17).
There is much about the scene of the prison bus, from its aggregation of collective experience to its ritualization of shared time and space and its mediating role between the prison and the “outside,” that suggests it might provide an ideal space for a collectivization of struggles and solutions among the prison’s secondary subjects, the caregivers. Indeed, the examples of bus-based social-justice organizing recounted earlier in this chapter demonstrate how the spatial aggregation of people living with shared conditions of oppression has historically constituted an important property of the bus as a site of mutual recognition and solidarity. Yet interviews with riders and observation during journeys suggest that there is a confluence of forces bearing on the structures of feeling (Williams 1977b) at play that keeps people postured defensively, or just likely to keep to themselves during their time circulating between home and prison.
In some cases, that self-isolation takes the form of distrust or antagonism triggered by the competing needs felt during a physically and psychically arduous journey. Christine, for example, when asked to elaborate in our interview on the fights she said would sometimes break out during long distance trips in particular, described this incident:
I’m friends with Kathy and two black ladies behind me were starting in with us. And it came to a point where I had my fist in her face, because who’s going to tell me that I can’t talk on the bus. You know. And I’ve been taking the bus for years and years and years. And I know the bus driver. And it’s just horrible sometimes for women who just want to get up to where they’re going, to be safe and to see their husband.
Christine, like other women I interviewed, expressed a preemptive distrust of other riders, seemingly based on previous experiences of betrayal and disappointment:
There are people I can’t get close with, because I have gotten close to other people and have gotten burned. There was one girl I was good friends with. And then all of a sudden she just disappeared. I mean, what happened to her? She and I would sleep in the same bed, go upstate together, and then I just don’t hear from her, and she knows my personal business. You know, we were friends! So I just can’t have that in my life. (interview with author, 2014)
Val conveyed a similar distrust, telling me: “I get along with people but I mind my own business. You don’t know who knows who. You never know who’s waiting for you when you get back to Manhattan, so you have to be very careful who you’re talking to.” Such heightened sense of social risk makes particular sense in the broader context of social abandonment. For many of these women, it is not only their incarcerated loved ones who have been abandoned by others, including their own families, in the process of being stigmatized by criminalization and removed to far away places. Julie, for example, tells me that many of her old friendships have dissipated since she got together with her imprisoned husband: “They don’t like the whole prison thing. They think I’m crazy. I have some friends that are just supportive, but they keep their distance. They stay friends but they don’t really support.” Christine tells me about being kicked out of her house when she decided to marry her incarcerated partner: “My mother said, ‘you’re not going to live here, if you’re going to be with him.’”
Allen Feldman characterizes the practice of arrest as “the political art of individualizing disorder” (1991, 109). He suggests that this isolation extends in concentric rings, beginning with the arrested individual but expanding out to include the family, who must shoulder the privatized burden of undoing or augmenting that detention, as well as the community (97). As Gilmore elaborates, “the larger disorder is then distorted to reflect only a portion of social fragilities, and measured, like unemployment, as though its changing rate in a society were a force of nature” (2007, 235). The fragmentation already produced by the tools of capture and incarceration are easily reproduced under conditions of felt scarcity, competing needs, and the emotionally high stakes of nurturing and performing carework across conditions of carceral control.
While the chronic tribulations of managing scarcity may alone be enough to undermine trust and reciprocity among the beleaguered bus riders, a tendency to self-isolate and view oneself as a solitary agent can also be understood as a manifestation of neoliberal rationality. Indeed, neoliberalism as a political project over the past handful of decades has involved not only the restructuring of space and the state, but a transformation in subjectivity as well (Hall 1988; Katz 2005; Brown 2006). Perhaps most central to the idea of a neoliberal subject is the experience of oneself (and everyone around oneself) as an entrepreneurial agent, a competitive individual who bears both the risks and the responsibilities for her own wellbeing in the world (Rose 1999). Such risks and responsibilities are often calculated within the business rubrics of cost and benefit. As Wendy Brown writes, “while this entails submitting every action and policy to considerations of profitability, equally important is the production of all human and institutional action as rational entrepreneurial action, conducted according to a calculus of utility, benefit, or satisfaction against a microeconomic grid of scarcity, supply and demand, and moral-value-neutrality” (2005, 40). People feel constant pressure to evaluate the value of their actions and expenditures of resources in terms of individualized costs and benefits, and this pressure is only intensified by the retrenchment of social welfare provisions and the imposition of austerity measures.
Such neoliberal logic, once internalized, exacts a particularly acute set of burdens on those at the lowest echelons of the wage-power structure. As Valerie Walkerdine puts it, “the practices of subjectification produce a constantly failing subject who has to understand their position in essentially personal and psychological terms” (2003, 241). Responsibility for self-realization under the caprice of capitalism generally, but the contemporary period of austerity in particular, renders certain low-wage and dispossessed subjects especially vulnerable to experiencing their problems as consequent to personal failure rather than having external, structural causes. A bus rider I interviewed who had reservations about visiting her ex-boyfriend and who had recently taken the bus to visit him with their seven-year-old daughter only at the request of a lawyer who was trying to keep him from being deported, explained her misgivings to me in these terms: “He hasn’t gotten any other visits besides mine. I feel bad, but then I don’t. When he wasn’t incarcerated, he didn’t make good choices. He didn’t step up and become the man that he needed to be for his child. So it’s kind of like, his fault. So I’m not making it my business to accommodate him. Not when I’m being a single mother taking care of his kid.” (Gina, interview with author, 2014)
The assumption of a self-interested servicing of ambitions in others can profoundly limit the horizons of political possibility, demarcating the strict contours of trust and distrust, as individuals presume they too are being judged as self-calculating and responsible for their own failures. Indeed, normative attachments to the politics of personal responsibility and judgments to that end do pervade the discourse among bus riders and drivers. Simmons, the African-American founder/operator of OPG (also the company subject to the most complaints within my interviews as well as online), offered a narrative of incarceration and visitation rife with seeming contradiction. On the one hand, for example, Simmons couched his analysis of mass incarceration in terms of structural racism, telling me: “Black and Puerto Rican have always been the majority. That’s all by design, because trust me, white people commit just as much crime as black people, they just don’t get caught like blacks. Whenever there’s too many blacks and Puerto Ricans, they come up with either a war, or they put them in jail.” On the other hand, Simmons returned time and again to his theory about bad parents and the resultant abandonment of prisoners by the mothers that used to go visit them. “The parents are just getting high and hanging out. They just don’t care. That’s why it’s more wives and girlfriends now. Parents don’t even come, because they don’t care like they used to.”
With an entrepreneurial outlook, Simmons complained about the increased competition and loss of profitability suffered as other bus companies have entered the prison-visitation market, describing his latest plan to obtain a government subsidy as a means of getting ahead: “So if a fare now is $60, then the government pays $30 and the customer pays $30. With those kind of fares, we knock all of our competition out of the box, because no one’s going to be able to take people to Attica for $30.” Sometime later in our interview, however, Simmons situated his market ambitions in more systematic and political terms: “I’m going to show you how the system is so against minorities. And by minorities I mean majorities in the prisons. There’s a law now, if I go and fill out an application and it comes to the part that asks have you ever been arrested, and I say no, and my parole officer finds out, then I automatically go back to jail for violating parole.” As he later describes, with an overt sense of pride:
I didn’t think it was going to turn out to be such a prosperous business. I was able to get my mom out of the projects, buy her a co-op in Yonkers. I was able to get my whole family out of the ghetto. In my wildest dreams I didn’t think that would happen. But it did. My mom is in Yonkers and she has a co-op that’s paid off, she doesn’t owe a dime on that. And I got my father into a drug program, because he was a drug addict. So I made a difference. If someone had told me I could get my mother out of the projects?! That I could get my father drug free?! Me, the son? So, I made a difference, and that’s what I encourage guys now to try and do. I say you can be the one to get your family out of poverty, because I did.
As Simmons’s testimony reveals, one can both see oneself as part of a structurally disenfranchised and disentitled population and also hold others in that population individually responsible for their own misfortunes. One can also understand the causes of that disentitlement as endemic to a system while conceiving the solutions to that disentitlement in individualist and wholly entrepreneurial terms.
Care and Community in the “In-Betweens” of Carceral Life
Sharing social space doesn’t always make for political consciousness, but sometimes it does. Indeed, the prison’s politicizing tendencies have long been linked to the space it creates for people of shared social class and experiences of oppression to discover a common cause. Even the very reformers of the eighteenth century who championed the penitentiary as a system of punishment anticipated the threat of insurgency, registering their anxieties that a revolutionary conspiracy might at any moment break out among the condemned by dividing the nation’s first prisons into a series of isolation chambers. As texts from the period show, they were obsessed by fears of a kind of political and epidemiological contagion within spaces of penal captivity; the same condition of bodily proximity that facilitated the spread of jail fever would also, it was believed, spread the ideology and tactics of riot and rebellion. “The grave problem for reformers of the late eighteenth century,” writes literary historian Caleb Smith, “was the ‘loathsome communion’ of prisoners’ bodies and souls, the conspiratorial mingling that threatened to spread from the jail to the public at large, and there to inspire open rebellion” (2011b, 88). French prison reformers Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, observed “the contagion of mutual communications,” while Jeremy Bentham lamented the “thronging,” “jostling,” “confederatings,” and “plottings” that plagued British jails (quoted Smith 2011b, 87–88.).
Gilmore has written powerfully about the prison-related organizing of Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (Mothers ROC) in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. She describes how this group of mostly working-class and racialized women transformed their reproductive labor and their caregiving into a project of political solidarity and grassroots activism, suggesting that such transformation began with their recognition of one another in the spaces of the criminal-justice system as “women who work to support their families and to free their loved ones” (2007, 337). She writes that such recognition took on the contours of gender, class and race as the ROCers “identified one another in the tight public spaces between their socially segregated residential living places and the unitized carceral quarters in which their loved ones are caged” (236).
The prison bus constitutes a paradigmatic “in-between” space of segregated lives. Its circulation between the homologous poles of criminalized and disinvested urban neighborhoods and the prison edifice offers a unique window into the carceral lives of nonimprisoned women of color, many of them doing double and triple duty: primary caregivers at home also tasked with maintaining social ties across the isolation and violence of the penal system. The neoliberal economic and social conditions that produce the mass incarceration of millions of Americans are the same conditions under which the ridership of the prison buses struggle to work, raise families, pay rent, and also maintain contact and visits with their loved ones inside. The long bus rides and their attendant discomforts are themselves a labor, one that wears people out at the same time as it brings people together. The scene of the bus demonstrates, in many ways, how structurally inhospitable such conditions can be to the forms of recognition that acts of solidarity and collective organizing seem to require, and which the Mothers ROC so radically exemplified. Yet, just as contradictions abound in capitalism, so too do they in the affective life experienced within its bounds. Inasmuch as my research findings showcased interpersonal distrust, precarity-induced isolationism, and self-serving calculations, they also offered modest but nonetheless significant demonstrations of affiliation, mutual aid, and desire for commonality and support.
Recognition and reciprocity are, of course, complex experiences and can take many forms, including those rife with ambiguity and instability. We are not taught, in the era of neoliberal governance, to trust in interdependency. Yet interdependency is also what people discover in times and spaces of struggle. While women visiting their loved ones argue with each other and the bus drivers, viewing others as competitors and antagonists in the struggle to secure a modicum of comfort and rest, they also acknowledge elements of common cause. As one rider put it to me: “We all share a common bond, really. It’s like ‘oh, you’re visiting your brother, or your sister, or your boyfriend?’ and you start talking.” While it is not an identification always expressed explicitly in political terms, the prison bus riders do recognize each other as people, for example, who have sacrificed too much only to be turned away for inadvertently violating a prison dress code, or who are kept awake by stories of bus drivers falling asleep at the wheel, or who are struggling to figure out how to get their loved ones released from solitary confinement.
Indeed, much of that recognition is expressed implicitly, through incredible acts of solidarity that would sometimes contradict what riders would verbalize about their relations with others. One fifty-three-year-old woman I interviewed named Val, who was the wife of a prisoner serving a life sentence, was adamant in her distrust of others, and the bus operators in particular. She told me a story about paying for herself and her three grandchildren to take the bus, only to be told at the pick-up spot that she would only be allowed to bring one child into the visiting room at Attica. As she put it: “I was lied to. They work like that!” She returned to Brooklyn to drop the children off with her daughter and then scrambled to make it back to Columbus Circle so as to not miss her visit. Once there, Val got into an argument with the bus operator, who told her the bus was now full and that she would have to come back next week. “I said I’m not going to come back next week,” Val told me. “So then when this woman got out of her seat to go to the bathroom, I jumped right into her seat and I would not move. I told them to get the cops.”
Yet Val’s expressions of seemingly self-interested ruthlessness and distrust are also mixed with forms of care and sacrifice. Answering my question about the reasons people might get denied visits after they’ve made the long trip, she told me that she carries around not only an extra set of clothes for herself, but also an extra shirt and set of pants for anyone else who might be found in violation of the numerous rules regarding attire: “When I see people and it’s their first time, I try and tell them that they can’t wear this or that. I bring extra shirts, extra pants, and I also always carry something for someone else, because they’ll be crying if they’re turned away.”
Another woman, Donna, told me a story meant to illustrate the duplicity of the van operators, recounting being abandoned by the driver she normally relies on in retaliation for making a booking with someone else: “So I was left stuck in Astoria, Queens, at 1:30 in the morning with no van no nothing. . . . Thank God this guy Jeff saw me. His brother ran a bus company, and he drove me to the other side of Bronx to meet this bus at 3am in the morning to take me to Auburn.” Her story ended up being about the good will and sacrifice of a stranger who recognized her situation. Still another woman described making one of her closest friendships while taking the bus: “My good friend Enza. I watch her daughter, since I met her at Sullivan [Correctional Facility], and I have almost every weekend when I don’t go upstate. And she gives me her daughter when she goes to work.”
In my own field notes from my first journey on the bus to Attica in October 2013, I wrote this:
Behind me two younger women sat and began speaking to each other. They were strangers but immediately began chatting. One woman had travelled from Poughkeepsie on the train and then cab to the bus—so her journey had already begun three or so hours ago. It seemed to be her first time on the bus. She had lots of questions about it that she asked of the other woman, who had travelled from Long Island and hadn’t been for a visit since before Christmas of last year, but knew the drill a bit. They spoke a lot about what you can and cannot wear, with the more experienced woman offering all sorts of advice for getting through the visit without encountering trouble.
Such observations are corroborated by a conversation I had with one interview subject at length. Jeanne Ann had just taken the bus for the first time with her seven-year-old daughter: “It was long, and tiring, but it was actually kind of fun because the people on the bus have been doing it a long time, so they give you pointers on what to expect and what not to expect. How to dress, what you can bring when you go to visit him” (interview with author, 2014).
While relationships of trust are often seen as unreliable, they are entered into anyway, and constantly. Indeed, the broader field of the bus journeys reveals a complex mesh of interdependencies. Christine spoke of moving in with her husband’s parents just after marrying him while he was incarcerated upstate in the mid-1990s. In those days, she would make the two-hour drive to visit her husband every weekend: “His dad was always nice enough to put gas in my car, always nice enough to help change the transmission, because there was a lot of wear and tear on my car driving from Brooklyn to there.”
While one sees fragile demonstrations of reciprocity play out along the harrowing route to and from the upstate prisons, such solidarities are perhaps even more fully visible in the virtual realms where the bus riders make connections and swap survival strategies. Online forums are a particularly popular means of forging social-support networks, perhaps because they operate at a remove from the immediate vicissitudes of the bus and its multiple taxations. On the Prison Talk forum, participants share knowledge and commiserate with each other’s harrowing stories, and the site is replete with such exhortations of support and encouragement as “I was holding my breath just reading your post! Thank goodness you are okay” and “glad that you are safe!” and “sorry to hear you experienced that . . . glad you made it home!”
Other online support groups have proliferated. One of the riders I interviewed in 2013, Ana, had actually set up her own online support group on Facebook called “State Greens and Wedding Rings.” Her reasons for doing so were expressed in mixed terms of antagonism and solidarity: “I had been on a couple of other ones, and sometimes the women are like evil. Some of them are nice, but they’re supposed to be support groups and they end up going after each other and getting into everybody’s business.” About her own Facebook group, which Ana told me now has about 150 members, she said: “It’s online but we also talk offline. A lot of us have exchanged numbers, and we talk on the phone. But the online support is really important too. We just post what we’re going through, and everybody rallies around. If somebody needs a phone call, then we call her.”
The internet presents a set of social possibilities different from those of the prison bus. Perhaps this is because, as a specific and contingent space in time delicately bridging prisoners to their lifelines outside, the bus is a space in which the stakes of social vulnerability and resource sharing are just too high. Almost all of the riders I spoke to told me that they were their loved one’s only visitor, despite, in many cases, the existence of other family members and friends. While prison visits are consistently described in terms that express their emotional value to the women visiting, it is also clear that they feel deeply responsible for the well-being of their loved one inside. More than one person, including Simmons, told me that visits are crucial in safeguarding prisoners from the brutality of guards, who are more likely to engage in violence against those who are seen to have been abandoned by the outside world. As Val put it to me, when I asked her how her husband is holding up five years into his sixteen-to-twenty-five-year sentence:
As long as he can keep in touch with me and talk with me he feels good. He don’t have any family—he had a brother that died of a seizure, he’s got another brother that’s in doing federal time for guns. And he’s in for shooting. His sister she lives in Pennsylvania, she’s married to an Italian, owns a restaurant, has two beautiful trucks. And he has a stepbrother that owns his own condo—so they think they’re better than us and too good to visit a jail. So he doesn’t get no visits except from me.
While much ink has been given to the importance of visiting to “successful prisoner reentry” (Christian 2005, 47), the stakes are often much higher for those making the visits. Indeed, for many, it comes down to whether a loved one will survive incarceration or not, or whether he or she will be victimized by the guards. In this sense, the act of riding the bus constitutes the work of social reproduction in a very literal sense: it is the work of keeping people alive.
The act of care is itself a relation of general social dependency, and the very taking of these buses constitutes an act of solidarity, albeit one often privatized in the family or the couple form. A feminist interpretation of love, however, recognizes that such forms of intimacy also harbor the potential for socialities and solidarities beyond the boundaries of family or coupledom. The state of being in love can offer a glimpse of oneself and one’s relations as noninstrumental, magnanimous, and even selfless. Almost all the bus riders I spoke to were unequivocal in their willingness to sacrifice their own immediate well-being for the love and security offered by—and being offered through—the maintenance of visitations with their incarcerated loved ones. Their own happiness was conceived in and through their ability to maintain such relationships.
At the same time, more aspirational desires or conceptions of the good life were rarely articulated, even in specific regard to the traumas of incarceration. When I asked Julie what three things she would change about the prison system if she could, she told me she would: first, make the buses bigger and more spacious, second, add three bathroom stops instead of two, and third, locate the prisons closer to downstate. The modesty of these demands reveals the important political distinction between experience and consciousness, as well as the diminished horizon neoliberal crisis as everyday life lays over the political imagination.
But Julie also said this:
I just want him to be safe. And you know what I really be scared of? I just wonder if he’ll make it out alive. Will I be alive, will his children and grandchildren be alive, will we make it safe and sound? I have a friend, Christopher, he did 35 years in prison, and his wife did that time with him. He’s been out five years and then he passed away. They lose a lot of loved ones when they’re in prison.
The work of riding the buses constitutes not only care work, but what Marxist feminists in particular have long demonstrated to be the necessary labor of social reproduction (Bannerji 1995; Hochschild 2003; Katz 2001). What this scholarship illuminates is the ways that the daily and generational renewal of human life is itself a labor, one both integral to the reproduction of racial capitalism and rendered invisible by the gendered hierarchies of patriarchy. Indeed, riding the bus can be seen as a means to reproduce life in a context proven to diminish it. Women riding the bus form bonds of support in order to help each other stave off the immediate defeat of missing visits, demonstrating, at the very least, recognition of the high stakes of caring for someone inside prison.
What’s at stake in the space of the prison bus is also what’s at stake in political life more broadly: the possibility of resisting the isolation and death-dealing of the carceral regime, which is also simultaneously the possibility of resisting the individuation and slow death demanded by the racial capitalist order. Yet Brown, writing about the de-democratizing consequences of neoliberal policies and imaginaries, also warns: “Citizenship, reduced to self-care, is divested of any orientation toward the common, thereby undermining an already weak investment in an active citizenry and an already thin concept of a public good from a liberal democratic table of values” (2006, 695). It is unclear to what degree community or solidarity are seen, on the bus or elsewhere, as resources for building a more secure bridge out of the crisis of ordinary life. It may be that lending a shirt or offering a warning against a dangerous bus driver may indeed be an entry into forging more collective forms of support and action. Writes Gilmore, optimistically: “It should not be surprising to realize that people who drive long distances to see loved ones will make small talk in parking lots and discover an identity in their immediate purpose. . . . What is surprising, perhaps, is that the temporary camaraderie of those emotional encounters became the basis for trust enabling the newly formed collectives of people with modest resources, mostly women, to do things on a less-than-modest scale” (2007, 234).
My own fieldwork on the prison bus suggests that such transformation, while possible, is not a foregone conclusion, especially not under the prolonged physical and affective attritions that constitute existence in the contemporary neoliberal economy, particularly for women of color. At the same time, that these women are even riding the bus is socially significant and should not be underestimated as a form of political action in itself. Cindi Katz, reflecting on the myriad ways in which capitalist production and neoliberal restructuring have pushed people to the limits of their own resilience, reminds us that “social reproduction is precisely not ‘revolutionary,’ and yet so much rests on its accomplishment, including—perhaps paradoxically—oppositional politics” (2001, 718). In other words, riding the bus might not pose an organized threat to the existing social order in any immediate sense, but it does constitute at least a partial basis of opposition to the fragmentation and isolation of the prison regime.
The prison bus is a space of circulation as well as confinement, of fragmentation and of being together. It is unique in its provision of shared space over a long duration for those loved ones bearing the collateral consequences of mass incarceration. For many, riding the bus represents a spatial and temporal experience analogous to “doing one’s time” alongside incarcerated loved ones, as its mostly female ridership also bears the violence of the carceral state. The prison bus thus offers a powerful vantage from which to gauge the ways the crisis of reproducing life is registered by those at the bottom of the class, race, and gender hierarchies and exacerbated by the austerities of neoliberal capitalism.
As a space, the prison bus aggregates its riders’ burdens of vulnerability but does not much relieve or redistribute them. It is a site of mass but not necessarily collective endurance. The prison bus often functions simply to aggravate the systematic stresses faced by its riders, wearing them out further and depleting whatever reserves of time, money, energy, and good will to others they have allocated for the ongoing care work of visiting their incarcerated loved ones. While glad and grateful for their visits, bus riders overwhelmingly describe their experiences of getting there in terms of physical exhaustion, attenuation of meager incomes, the stress of wasted time, and the unreliability of others. Tensions hewed to the perceived scarcities of comfort, rest, safety, and reprieve within the austere confines of the densely packed buses manifest themselves as sporadic interpersonal antagonisms, producing further fragmentation as each person or household figures out how to endure and survive each journey.
Solidarity on the bus, when it does exist, is fragile, and often contingent. Yet just being together on the bus also opens up possibilities for moments of reciprocity and mutual aid. The conglomeration of riders therefore foreshadows the potential for a common alliance built on the recognition of the shared stakes of carceral care work, if not also the shared vicissitudes of class, race, and gender. In the tradition of the long-distance bus more generally, the prison buses aggregate mostly poor women of color, constituting an increasingly rare place for the collectivization of shared time-space in an economy otherwise characterized by the spatial fragmentation of the poor and working class.
Attachments on the prison bus and in the in-betweens of life segregated by the prison system are brittle. The infrastructure of sociality is as contingent as the demonstrated unreliability of transit. Yet the work of keeping life afloat while buffering the abrasions of the prison system on incarcerated loved ones also includes forging small friendships, sharing stories of survival, volunteering advice, and even sharing modest resources. These demonstrations of sociality and solidarity constitute a necessary ballast against what each rider recognizes as the unfathomable risk of their journeys: the possibility of being turned away at the prison gates, making the trip and enduring its sacrifices all for naught. The prison buses and vans are an integral part of the social infrastructure of surviving the prison regime, and a repeated refrain among riders is that they wouldn’t know what they would do without them.
Riding the prison bus is also a mode of life building for its passengers. As many riders emphasize, they want to visit their loved ones and they take the bus voluntarily to do so. As Berlant reminds us, however, zones of ordinariness are “where life building and the attrition of human life are indistinguishable” (2011, 95). The neoliberal economic and social conditions of reproducing life, including the labor of care, render meaningful reciprocity difficult to recognize. It does not always resemble revolutionary movement building or even consciousness, but it may still harbor those things. The prison bus is not just any carceral space; it is a distinct and gendered space of circulation, connection, and care work, one that demonstrates how even just the act of riding the bus can constitute at least a partial counterforce to the isolation upon which the prison regime depends.