Video Visitation In Prisons Violates Not Just Peoples’ Rights But Natural Law (Greg Williams)

Theology of Natural Law

These days, as part of the Durham-based abolitionist group Inside-Outside Alliance, I spend my Saturday mornings standing just outside the visitation area of the Durham County Jail, making myself available to listen to the stories, the complaints, and the demands for change of friends and family members of those locked up who are going to visit them.

A few years ago, visitation at the Durham County Jail was relatively uncomplicated.  You showed up with your ID (whether it had to be a government ID – the sort you couldn’t get if you were undocumented – was and is an important debate) and waited in line to speak through a plexiglas window.  Today, the plexiglas is still there, but so, too, are a line of kiosks, each featuring a computer monitor.

Over the course of this summer, the jail has announced that it plans to start asking some visitors to speak to their loved ones through the monitors instead of the plexiglas, a system called “video visitation.”  The jail claims that it is taking a “hybrid” approach while it “evaluates” video visitation, but, according to a recent study by the Prison Policy Initiative, 72% of jails and prisons that adopt video visitation eventually eliminate in-person visitation entirely.

Video visitation has drawn an enormous amount of criticism, both from detainees in the jail and their families and the broader community.  Genapher, aka Sleepy writes, “Everybody looks forward to mail and visits.  When it’s all said and done I know I and have seen people cry after a visit.  It’s people in here that got kids out there in the world that need them.  It hurts me real bad.  I really do feel for them.I hate seeing people sad.  I hate that we all in here hoping and praying that we get a letter or visit or money on our books.  I wish/want better for my people.”

Shanice, whose boyfriend is currently in the jail, says she will just stop by to wave to him when she’s passing by the jail.  “We only get to visit with each other once a week, and the visit is SOOOO short,” she says.  “It’s important for me to just see him.  He holds up a sign for me that he made and it lets us be together, even for a couple minutes” (quote used by permission).

Video visitation is relatively new, but it is sweeping through jails and prisons across the country.  Wake County Jail and Central Prison in Raleigh already use it, and there is an ongoing battle over its use in California prisons.  Here in Durham, not only are detainees and their families objecting to the prospect of video visitation, but there is also organized resistance to it.

The Human Relations Commission of the City of Durham has explicitly recommended that the jail not move to video-only visitation, and Inside-Outside Alliance has started doing a series of direct actions to pressure the Durham County Board of Commissioners, who fund the jail and who approved the 2013 contract with GTL that provides for video visitation, to intervene to stop it from being implemented.

On Monday, March 13, five of us were arrested after reading letters from detainees and their families denouncing video visitation at the commissioners’ meeting where chair Wendy Jacobs was giving her “state of the county” address, under the banner “video visitation is no visitation at all,” and more actions are being planned for the near future.

Natural Law and the Moral Data of Human Feeling

The prospect of video visitation arouses a visceral sort of opposition in detainees and community members which jail administrators and county staff have a tendency to ignore or dismiss, often in the name of the efficiency of video visitation, or the reductions in staff hours that it will allow.  It should go without saying that you could also reduce staff hours by incarcerating fewer people in the jail – but that’s a matter for another essay.

One tradition of Christian moral reasoning that can help us to properly value this reaction is natural law.  As Vincent Lloyd points out in his recent text Black Natural Law, natural law theorists like Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, WEB Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. all understand reason and emotion to be closely linked as means by which human beings can discern natural law, because they are closely linked as features of the image of God in every human person.

Natural law, in this register, values the emotional, bodily dimensions of human experience – in the language of the Catholic natural law tradition, it treats them as key dimensions of “natural reason” by which exploited and oppressed people can know that their exploitation and oppression is unnatural, and can awaken themselves and others to the deep crisis that the sheer absurdity of their condition poses.  This use of natural law may seem jarring to those, especially Barthians or other advocates of a divine command ethics, who fear that natural law is a theological endorsement of “common sense,” a way of baptizing as revelation what has been made to appear “natural” or “obvious” by the ideological obfuscations of a particular social or political order.

However, as Gene Rogers points out in Thomas Aquinas and the Supreme Court, even though it is a claim about human beings as knowing animals, natural law is not an epistemological, but an ontological claim.  It is not a claim about the “innate capacity” of “human reason” to “read” moral data off the cosmos, but a claim about the fidelity with which God the first mover has set human beings in motion toward God’s own life, and all created things with them.

On the basis of Rogers’ work (and that of Fergus Kerr), it is possible to say that natural law can affirm, together with divine command ethics, that moral order inheres not in created things in themselves, but in the being and activity of the electing God who creates, reconciles, and redeems them.  The difference is one of emphasis.  The witness of divine command ethics is that it is the act of the electing God that determines the good of created actors and their actions.

It is the witness of natural law that it is created actors, and their actions, whose good the act of the electing God determines.  It is the insistence of divine command ethics that it is God who is gracious to us.  It is the insistence of natural law that it is us to whom God is gracious.

This means that natural law is not a form of “reason” that can be substituted for revelation, which might cordon off revelation into a kind of legal “free speech zone,” and declare certain areas off-limits to its protest against all existing social conditions.  Any sort of natural reasoning that isn’t genuinely moved by God, that isn’t on fire with love for God and therefore God’s creatures, just isn’t rational at all.  This is because God doesn’t move us at creation, affecting our intellect in a way called natural reason, and then move us again in redemption, affecting our intellect in a way called supernatural reason.

God moves us in just one way: to unity with Godself in God’s movement toward humanity and humanity’s movement toward God in Jesus Christ.  Thus, the goal of natural law is to attend christologically to the quotidian experiences of human beings – like the mothers and fathers and daughters and sons and girlfriends and boyfriends and sisters and brothers of people locked up in the Durham County Jail crying out – in many cases literally crying out – against the prospect of video visitation.  It says that these forms of “natural reason” are fragmentary but real pieces of God’s creating, reconciling, and redeeming activity in and for the whole world, and best understood in terms of the story of how God is working to unite God’s creatures to Godself.

Natural Law, God the First Mover, and the Movement of Human and Divine Love

If Lloyd is right, then, natural law is as much about emotion as “reason,” and, if Rogers is right, then it is specifically about how God moves us, how God affects us, how God causes us to fall in love with God and, therefore, with other creatures.  Natural law is the Christological grammar with which we name the human capacity to love as a form of natural reason, which says something true about the world.

So what can we say, in this light, about the ways that love is moving people to oppose video visitation at the Durham County Jail?  We can say two things, the first about the incomplete, truncated, overdetermined category of the human that the county and the jail are using, and the second about the bodily character of human love and intimacy which is crucial to face-to-face visitation.

Lloyd points out that the Black Natural Law tradition is characterized by what could be called an apophatic humanism, a conviction that because human beings are made in the image of God, and because God is incomprehensible, that the category of human can never be closed off or, to use Sylvia Wynter’s term, “overdetermined.”  Lloyd points, for example, to the way that W.E.B. Du Bois characterizes human nature as “infinite.”

We attempt to name…human nature, making it “finite,” in everyday life.  We label people, assuming that because they are of a type, they will act in certain ways.  By ignoring what human nature really entails, we treat people instrumentally, as if we were the only human on earth surrounded by objects to be used for our wishes.

The human soul, in Du Bois’s account, is a “marvelous universe” accessible only to ourselves.  It is a “reservoir of experience, knowledge, beauty, love, and deed.”  This is what makes us human: our capacity not only to perceive the world and act in it, but to appreciate the beauty of the world, to have emotions in the world, to acquire knowledge of the world beyond instinct.  The infinite, expansive universe that makes us who we are is irreducible; the attempt to reduce it does violence, turning a human into a nonhuman, and must, according to Du Bois, be condemned. (63)

The apophaticism which Lloyd credits to Du Bois runs deep in the Christian tradition, particularly in patristic sources like Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses.  Indeed, such an apophatic humanism arguably underlies Gregory’s own commitment to the abolition of slavery.  If natural law is a set of theological statements about the way that God has set nature in general and human nature in particular in motion, one key statement must be that, because God has elected human beings for Godself, for love and intimacy and communion with God to be enjoyed through embodied, creaturly experience, then it must condemn the reduction of intimacy to something that can be bureaucratically and technologically managed, as in the implementation of video visitation in jails and prisons.

Replacing face to face visitation with video chat implies that human intimacy can be reduced to verbal and visual communication, that the key elements of what it is for one human person to encounter another (specifically rational communication) can be extracted from the actual encounter and duplicated by technological means.

The experience of such limitations, of the overdetermination of human being by technology and bureaucracy in service to racial capitalism, provoke a sense of revulsion and absurdity that, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, indicate something true about what it means to be human.  According to Lloyd, for Du Bois, “experiencing oneself as a different sort of creature than how one is treated, experiencing oneself as human rather than as a thing, offers insight into what it means to be human.  It means that one does not feel at home in the world, for the world is always treating blacks like things” (70).

This is precisely the set of experiences and reactions that those who are opposing video visitation at the Durham County Jail are demonstrating in their testimony, their outrage, and their organizing and direct action.  “If natural law is ignored or if it is identified with the specific norms and laws of one particular world, the soul can never be at peace.  There are enormous pressures to accept the status quo as all that there is, but our souls continue to itch, reminding us that there is something more” (82).

That “more,” it must be remembered, is irreducibly bodily.  It has to do with the way that bodies do not just mediate, but instantiate human intimacy.  What the Durham County Sheriff’s department is trying to take away from detainees and their loved ones is, it must be remembered, bodily encounter, the ability (the natural right, on the logic I am developing here) to be in the same room with the people that one loves.

As the mother of one detainee put it, “I live for that fist bump at the end of the visit.  You can’t do that on video.”  Without providing a rubric for “reading” moral “data” off of the body, natural law directs the attention of Christian theology to the bodily character of human intimacy, and reminds us of the embodied, incarnational character of the love with which God has met human beings and all of creation in the first place.  Thomas Aquinas writes, for example, that at the Resurrection of the dead “the brightness of the body will show forth the quality of the soul, as to its amount of grace and glory.  In this way one will be able to see the mind of another” (Summa, I.57.4).

The body is not an obstacle that stands between one human being and another, or between human beings and God, which must be peeled away so that the “true self,” the soul, can be seen, as is the case in the modern anthropological imagination.  Rather, it is the mode of relationship proper to beings created in the image of God.

Nor are bodies simply data points that offer evidence of what is going on inside human souls.  We should not read “showing forth” in this way, especially since Thomas is talking about the resurrected life, life in which the saints shall walk by sight and not just by faith.  Rather, bodily intimacy has a sacramental character.  It is the way that human beings have been set in motion on course for God; it is the freedom by which they enjoy the creator through the creation, a freedom that worldly institutions threaten at their peril.

Christian theology has a very well-developed critique of the ways that worldly power can reduce human beings to things by downplaying or ignoring their capacity for reason, by treating them solely as bodies, as physical machines, which can be manipulated to serve extrinsic ends of political domination and economic accumulation.  Yet cases such as video visitation also make clear that we must develop new critiques (and revive existing ones, such as those found in the black natural law tradition) of the ways that institutions that serve the propertied and the powerful can also render human being instrumental and superfluous by eviscerating it of its bodily character as well.

Specifically we must denounce the way that the “overdetermination” of the human, the rendering of human being as finite, as captive to particular modes of description, can maliciously ignore the way that the body functions as excess, as a dimension of creaturly personhood that refuses to be pinned down by technological or bureaucratic means.

The thunderous revolt of detainees and those who love them, in Durham and elsewhere, against the prospect of video visitation, if attended to christologically, proclaims the grace and glory of the God who desires human beings for the communion of God’s own triune life, and thus sounds an echo in the souls those who carry a new world in our hearts and a commitment to fight for it.

Greg Williams is a ThD Student at Duke University Divinity School, who writes out of his experience doing grassroots community organizing and direct action work with an anti-colonial/anti-capitalist orientation in non-statist democratic left spaces.  He has been particularly active in the alter-globalization movement, and in anti-poverty, labor, migrant justice, prison abolition, environmental, and indigenous and Palestinian solidarity work.  He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the local Durham prisoner organizing group Inside-Outside Alliance.  He is a baptized Jew of Ashkenazi heritage and an Anarch@Communist.

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