Time and Punishment

Anusha Kenny

In Singapore’s notorious Changi Prison, 24 hours prior to executing a prisoner, a photo shoot takes place. The inmate is dressed in business-style clothing and staged in various corporate-style settings, such as, sitting behind a desk; or wearing a suit and standing with a smile and a hand on their hip. Thirteen or so of these portraits are given to the family of the deceased after the execution. One can only assume that this is meant to provide a solace to the families, who have not been allowed to even touch their loved ones prior to their death. The photographs seem to say: this is what could have been. Or perhaps, remember me like this. They are haunting, but even more haunting is the fact that such a ritual has been institutionalised. The photos step into a parallel universe: a state-imposed game of dress-ups that causes a disruption of the temporal structures on which the penal regime rests.

Prison is a trap for time. Whatever the sentence handed down, by whichever Court, the result is essentially the same: waiting for a variable number of days, months or years under lock and clock. Even if condemned to death, waiting is always involved. Legal systems are ordered against a background of temporal structures that, by reason of practical necessity, are considered to be fixed. Time is linear, and units of time are generally weighted equally. Timelines are discussed in procedural terms, with a focus on process and order (30 days to file a notice of appeal, 14 days to file submissions, etc), and not on considerations of substantive justice.

From the perspective of the incarcerated, these deadlines can provide huge solace. They allow for measured progress through one’s sentence—watching and marking the passing of time provides hope. However, there are some penal and detention situations in which treating time as a linear phenomenon is contrary to the subjective experience of time of those incarcerated. In some situations, time doesn’t seem to progress at all, or otherwise not at a regular speed. When periods of detention are indefinite, the idea of ‘doing one’s time’ becomes redundant. In some situations, to combat the uncertain nature of indeterminate incarceration, detainees and their families create alternative images and alternative timelines of themselves. Uniquely in Singapore, this image-making process is controlled by the state. Below is a non-exhaustive traversal of various circumstances of incarceration that test the fixed nature of time.

Time as Violence

In e-flux’s editorial on the subject of structural violence, it was noted that without people, there would be no violence.1  Emptied of human beings, the machinery of the state could operate in a space beyond ethics and beyond cruelty. The world would assume the appearance of an iPhone interface2, and the institution could operate under a similar logic: clean, efficient, frictionless. Structural violence, a term used to explain how cruelty between groups and individuals can become institutionalised, can also take the form of a legal process itself. In the legal context, structural violence is perpetrated on detainees through the medium of time. Time, being invisible, is a handy and effective tool to use as, behind the language of procedure and bureaucracy, it is easy to forget its corrosive properties.

Indefinite Detention

Under Australia’s policy of mandatory detention, many asylum seekers face indefinite custody in detention facilities. Those who have established themselves to be legitimate refugees but have been denied a protection visa as a result of receiving an adverse security assessment by ASIO face an indefinite wait in detention unless and until a third country agrees to resettle them—they cannot be returned to their country of origin as they’ve a well-founded fear of persecution, Australia will not grant them asylum, and their chances of being accepted by a third country are limited.3) Indeed, former migration agent turned whistleblower Liz Thompson described her role on Manus Island as administering a ‘fake’ processing system, masking the reality that the only option inmates face is indefinite detention.

In this Kafka-esque scenario, before the door of the law people are made to wait— indefinitely—for a decision that may never come. Legally speaking, this is not intended to be punitive, as it is the result of an executive rather than a judicial decision. In reality however, it is extremely punitive, particularly because these detainees haven’t committed a crime deserving of this punishment—they’ve merely exercised their human right to seek asylum. This cruelty is extreme, but it’s the logical outcome of a processing system that has been designed without regard for those who are subjected to it.

Timeless Time

The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in ‘timeless time’.4 This is both a legal space and a psychological one. Legally, after sentencing and before execution, the official clock stops running—time is not the condition on which the institution holds the prisoner so it no longer matters. Often, there is no obligation for a sentence of death to be carried out with any kind of timeliness, and people can wait a lifetime for the day of their death.

There are various kinds of ‘death rows’ around the world. Generally, those inmates under the sentence of death are kept apart from those ‘doing time’, and so waiting for a death sentence to be carried out involves long periods of de facto solitary confinement and living under poor conditions5, usually worse that those experienced by other prisoners in the same facility.

In most incarceration settings, little happens—hence time moves slowly. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is one day and not one week because you only need one day to get the picture. In solitary confinement this sameness is further exaggerated. William Blake, a prisoner who has been held in solitary confinement for nearly 26 years at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility located in south central New York State, wrote in a recent essay titled “A Sentence Worse Than Death”.6

Life in the box is about an austere sameness that makes it difficult to tell one day from a thousand others. Nothing much and nothing new ever happen to tell you if it’s a Monday or a Friday, March or September, 1987 or 2012. The world turns, technology advances, and things in the streets change and keep changing all the time. Not so in a solitary confinement unit, however. I’ve never seen a cell phone except in pictures in magazines. I’ve never touched a computer in my life, never been on the Internet and wouldn’t know how to get there if you sat me in front of a computer, turned it on for me, and gave me directions. SHU is a timeless place, and I can honestly say that there is not a single thing I’d see looking around right now that is different from what I saw in Shawangunk Correctional Facility’s box when I first arrived there from Syracuse’s county jail in 1987. Indeed, there is probably nothing different in SHU now than in SHU a hundred years ago, save the headphones.

Time doesn’t move very fast, until you’re given a time of death (perhaps 24 hours notice), and then it speeds up considerably. In some American states, prisoners can come quite close to death (strapped down and having eaten one’s last meal) several times during their life on death row. Their execution stayed by a last minute appeal or other eleventh hour measure, the inmate is unstrapped and dropped back in their cell, surprised to find themselves alive. The inertia of that experience—the weight of every second,before death (the poet UA Fanthorpe described, in a poem called “Death Row Poets”, it as the “unrepeatable marvel of each second”)7 ) and the building of tension as death approaches, to the sudden, unexpected return to the endless, timeless waiting of death row—is as stark an example of how the treating of time as a linear phenomenon bears little relation to what time is experienced as on death row or in solitary confinement.

Waiting and Delay

In Ghassan Hage’s introduction to a collection of essays on waiting, he writes that waiting ‘emphasises a dimension of our life where the problematic of our agency is foregrounded.’8 Waiting in one sense is about anticipation: it implies an expectation of something, which in turn implies agency. A person makes a decision to wait for something because it is worth the wait. There is also a politics around waiting, and who waits for whom. Waiting creates a hierarchy of importance.

In the context of asylum seeker incarceration, the hierarchy of who waits for whom is clear enough. But the waiting is not so much about a ‘queue’ (as much as the idea of a queue is employed in the rhetoric of immigration policy), but more about waiting for decisions to be made by those in power about the individual circumstances of any given case. As the door keeper says to the man from the country at the end of Kafka’s Before the Law, ‘Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.9

Delay is another weapon used by in the administration of justice to impose violence on those incarcerated. Delay is often described as an inevitable product of overburdened systems, but in many contexts it becomes the norm as opposed to an aberration in an otherwise functioning penal system.

Photography and Time

To return to the photograph from Changi Prison with which this essay started, a parallel phenomenon has developed in the context of the USA’s incarceration regimes. In the States, families of prisoners take photos of their loved ones against murals in prison visiting rooms specifically created to appear non-institutional. These murals are often nature scenes painted by a talented inmate, and in some institutions there are revolving backdrops and professional lighting to facilitate the process. The photographs allow visitors and family members to reframe their loved one as a person, and not as a prisoner. Although this new genre of photography is largely inaccessible to those not immediately connected to the subject, temporally it is interesting for its subversive potential. The practice allows prisoners to create an alternate reality and image of themselves, and adds fuel to their fantasies of freedom. It is an ‘out of time’ photograph because it exists in an imagined temporal space.

L: Brandon Jones, Federal Correction Complex. Marion, Illinois. R: Antoine Ealy, Federal Correctional Complex. Coleman, Florida.
Background: Painted by Darrell Van Mastrigt, State Correctional Institution. Graterford, Pennsylvania. All photos from Prison Landscapes (2013), courtesy Four Corners Books

Here the camera is surprisingly mercifully free from institutional powers—the families and the prisoners’ have complete control. In contrast, the photographs from Singapore’s death row are framed by the institution. Prisoners are not free to imagine their own alternate self, but have a “default” (corporate) costume ascribed to them. Given that these prisoners on death row are kept entirely in isolation, only allowed a single 20-minute visit per week in a room separated from visitors by a pane of glass through which they have to communicate via a telephone, it is hardly surprising that they’re not allowed such creative liberty. What is surprising though is that the institution is complicit in a subversion of the narrative of punishment. For the photograph to be produced, the prisoner and the guards themselves have to enter into a fantasy, if only for a second, only hours before the execution. Susan Sontag’s proclamation that photography is an act of violence10 seems particularly resonant in the context of Changi Prison Services.

  1. Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle, Editorial—“Structural Violence”, e-flux journal #38, 10/2012, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/editorial-29/ []
  2. ibid. []
  3. Australian Human Rights Commission, Tell Me About: Refugees with Adverse Security Assessments,
    https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/tell-me-about-refugees-adverse-security-assessments (accessed 20 April 2014 []
  4. Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian, In this Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row, self published, April 2012 []
  5. Bikramjeet Batra, The ‘Death Row Phenomenon’ and India’s ‘Delay’ Jurisprudence, Confronting Capital Punishment in Asia, Oxford University Press, p 288. []
  6. William Blake, A Sentence Worse than Death, http://solitarywatch.com/2013/03/11/voices-from-solitary-a-sentence-worse-than-death/, March 11, 2013 (accessed 18 April 2014). []
  7. Quoted in Tamara Kohn, Crafting Selves on Death Row, in Emotion, Identity and Death, Ashgate Publishing, 2012, p 278 []
  8. Ghassan Hage, Introduction, Waiting, p2 []
  9. Franz Kafka, “Before the Law”, The Trial, http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/kafka/beforethelaw.htm (accessed 18 April 2014). []
  10. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Picador, 1977, p14. []
Anusha Kenny is a Melbourne-based arts writer, curator and judge's associate.