Issue 22: Radiant

César González

Reading time: 8 minutes



Passion after confinement

Writer and filmmaker César González writes a chronicle on the aftermath of confinement where he explores the relationship between merchandise and the prison system. Who benefits from the “crime industry”?

I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: it’s the absence of fear.

Nina Simone


The color that reigns in prison is gray. When you get out of there, you will again collide with a forgotten chromatic world. Throughout your stay in this cloister of daily humiliations, gray not only menaces you from the walls, but also settles in your bones. The eye that leaves these walls does not see again, but instead shakes things. The dimensions of spaces acquire more kilometers, colors are the same but modified. Freedom can only be understood and perfected through its absence. When you get out of prison, situations that went previously unnoticed begin to have a stimulating effect, what seemed not to be there before now stands out like a monument. There is joy in nothingness; guilt disappears in the face of idleness; noises grow stronger; smells magnify until they become majestic entities.

The first days after confinement are like a psychedelic experience. You enjoy being in the world under any circumstances.

If it’s cold, you love and embrace the cold, and the same goes for its opposite: the heat is suffocating, but never as much as it was inside. From the most spectacular to the most derisory, everything seems newborn, made to the rhythm of the moment in which it is observed or intuited. It is an agitation of the perceptive; not only the body is released, the mind now carries an abundance of lucidity, so much that it overflows and explodes with adrenaline. Prison reduces you spatially and sensorially, inside there are few and repeated situations, which force you to always find something new in the repetition. This strengthens each of the senses. But there, in “the tomb”, things also seem to be freshly born in spite of being in a constant state of putrefaction. Creativity is born out of the need to fill the emptiness of confinement. Games are invented, or games are played with whatever is at hand. A box of tea bags can be used to make a deck of cards, as long as the penitentiary service allows it—it depends on the ward and the type of prison you are in, for there are many where all kinds of games are forbidden. The prisoners must fulfill their function as souls in pain. Gambling is too much mercy to be allowed.

The return to the street engenders a huge and incoherent enthusiasm for reality.

They are days of walking under repeated enchantment; a second melts, time takes on a thicker duration, although it is still impossible to get rid of the latent memory of the close confinement. In the back of your mind, you still feel the weight of the bars, inside the fears, the anguish, that feeling of  a death both imminent and already passed persists. This place that is pseudonymous with the grave is just as its object. Upon entering prison, one feels they are entering death, a real death, a very concrete death. That is why, upon leaving, life becomes more substantial, one seeks to make up for lost time, each first encounter with friends or loved family members has the force of a fierce event. It would be beautiful to be able to keep those burning sensory blocks of astonishment active for a lifetime, but the world of the free quickly crushes the dazzle of the newcomers.

Economic pressures, debts, lack of employment, lack of housing, lack of emotional support are some of the hardships that remind the newly released prisoners of the world in which they find themselves: a prison with a bigger yard. This depends further on the legal condition under which prisoners recover their freedom; if someone is released on parole, then they will be obliged to appear once a month until the end of their sentence to sign and answer various questions before what is called here in Argentina the ‘Patronato de liberados’ (Board of Trustees for Released People), an institution that in theory is responsible for monitoring newly released prisoners and helping them to make a decent life in society. But all this is very much “in theory”. In fact, this board of trustees is an institution that has very few resources and the work is often left to social workers and psychologists who only officiate as reckless entities, telling the newly released in a paternal-military tone, “If you do not behave well, an increased sentence awaits you”, so that the newcomers do nothing more than respond in such a way to best satisfy the comfort and desire for power of these professionals.

Confinement causes trauma and invisible wounds that linger eternally inside a person. Dreams where one returns to prison recur, knowing how to relate to others remains a challenge, even speaking fluently is difficult when you have spent several seasons in silence.  Expressing emotions that have to do with tenderness is much harder; prison hardens you, brutalizes you, and suffocates you with resentment. But what cannot be avoided is gratitude. Prisoners who are released have an inventory of each person who has forgotten them, who didn’t send them any notes, and therefore they maintain unwavering devotion to those who visited them, sent them gifts, or simply showed them in some way that they were not forgotten. But the prisoners’ anger with those who forgot them is short-lived, they forgive quickly and soon recover bonds of the same intensity as those from the past. 

After the initial days of euphoria, after the moments when neighbors greet you and wish you well, everything returns to a cruel normality, which was already suffocating before prison and is now reinforced with a new dose of adversity. If it was already difficult to find a job due to being born in a poor neighborhood before, it will be directly impossible to get one with the fresh stigma of being an ex-convict. Most jobs require, in addition to a résumé, a criminal record report, so it is likely that the employers, upon reading that the applicants have been in prison, will dismiss the possibility of hiring them in less than a second. Prisoners wander because of unemployment and lack of money, the work they find will always be in the informal sector and it will always involve overcoming all kinds of legal barriers. In other words, they will work more hours and more days in the least qualified and most socially looked-down-upon jobs. Faced with such a bleak outlook in economic terms, the return to crime appears as a tool for subsistence and progress, but above all, as essentially the only possibility for generating income.

The crime industry is insatiable, completely intertwined with class division (prison holds only poor, “misguided” people), and it has in recidivism one of its main shareholders. This industry depends on criminals to remain active until they are killed or go to prison, and, if they get out, to repeat or double down on their criminal activities. Furthermore, being a good criminal is often one of the few opportunities for incarcerated people to achieve glory, since no one idolizes bricklayers—workers are not often the stuff of legends. Stealing a big motorcycle and riding around the neighborhood is like modeling on a haute-couture runway. From such heights you can feel an endless number of fascinated and envious looks. That is why working men hate young criminals, because they exhibit an opulence of merchandise that working men cannot achieve. Beyond this, it is also often difficult for recently released people to overcome or turn a deaf ear to the moral codes of criminal gangs.

There is a whole culture and tradition that forbids gang members to abandon the way of the gun.

According to its law, you must die in order to be released; someone who stops stealing after leaving prison is considered a coward, a person without the guts to withstand jail. These are mandates of the most primitive patriarchy, one that serves the interests of the crime industry, which ensures its longevity with these codes. Often, salvation comes in the form of relatives or friends who find jobs for the recently released people, but just as often the rest of their community turns its back on them, clinging to the dominant morality that sees crime among the poor as the motivation and justification for a renewed inquisition. 

Meanwhile, the relatives of recently released incarcerated people who resume criminal activity suffer and begin to prepare for the worst outcome. Implicitly, the death of the recently released incarcerated people is often wished for, because it would be a solution—sad and heartbreaking, but a solution nonetheless, when the other option is the extension of the same problems. To visit prison is to go back to stand in line for hours in the hot sun or the bad weather of the plains and the winter, to fight with other visitors for a place at the tables, to submit to routine humiliations in each search upon entering the prison.

Every second on the outside with released incarcerated people is like a slow farewell, they are witnessing the inevitable. Sooner or later they will return to one of the two deaths that await them—one, the classic tomb in any cemetery, the other, a death surrounded by immense walls and furious sentries. Many recently released incarcerated people cannot escape the most original fear of our species; they prefer to return to prison rather than die, since they know the prison in detail, they know every trick necessary for a survival, while of the other death there are only myths and hypotheses, but nothing empirical.

Those who get out of prison and are able to organize their lives around the minimum basis of dignity constitute extraordinary and anomalous cases. The norm is recidivism, everything in this morbid society conspires and works to push you back to crime and consequently to the possibility of returning to that human hell, all too human.


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