“Eli rejoined the weekly dancing circle inside the prison gym, but this time he was wearing a red jumpsuit. What can a dancing man in a red jumpsuit tell us inside a prison where everyone is wearing blue and gray? Choreographer, dance artist and abolition activist, Suchi Branfman, reflects on the state of control and surveillance witnessed during a day in the life of her five-year choreographic residency (Dancing Through Prison Walls) at the Norco prison, a medium-security state men's prison, in Norco, California.
Location: Norco prison, Norco, California
What can a dancing man in a red jumpsuit tell us inside a prison where everyone is wearing blue and gray?
On the color wheel orange-red stands directly across from the color blue. And there is a sea of blue that exists behind prison walls. Blue pants tagged with black CDCR across thighs. Blue jackets with CDCR across the back. Why on earth would he be wearing that red jumpsuit?
Eli was a gentle giant of a twenty-one year-old young Black man. A long drink of water, standing at what felt like 6'4". His white high-top sneakers were always clean as a whistle. His hair had a perfect cut.
When we met him, Eli came into the gym, stepping into the circle to dance with us. Although some of the guys wear their sneakers, many have gotten used to simply dancing in socks. (Hard-soled shoes are not allowed in the gym... the coach doesn't want to mess up her floor. The sanctuary that is the gym has been created, maintained, and imagined by Coach H. As she says, "My training is as a PE teacher. But here everyone calls me coach. I am not really a coach... but that's okay with me. This is a place for working it all out, playing it all out.") But Eli always wears his well-kempt sneakers. "Don't step on them," he told everyone. And everyone respected that, like uncles, brothers, fathers, and grandfathers would (with a wink in the eye and willingness to be there for this "young brother", as they called him). It was only when by accident someone was dancing alongside Eli and took a misstep, and landed on the shoe, that Eli was upset and, with pride, made his way to the bathrooms to clean his shoe. When he returned to the circle the guys respectfully commented that the shoes were back to beautiful. Eli admitted it was a little over the top but said it was all he had left of his own ways, his own life. Everyone understood. Eli had arrived at the prison just a few weeks before I met him, and he said he was still figuring the place out. This young man of only twenty-one years. Gangly, awkward, shy. That first day, as he was leaving the gym, he told me he missed his mother.
So, I was surprised to see him a few weeks later, after having been absent for a couple of weeks, walk into the gym wearing a red jumpsuit. It was way too small for him, super snug worn on top of his blues and way too short (cutting off mid-calf.) We tried to stay neutral about him as we welcomed each other into the space with high fives, handshakes, and big smiles. Every week, it felt as if we hand't seen each other in forever. The boom box blasted music as we gathered. Shoes off, sweatshirts folded on the benches along the wall. Conversations, updates about the week. There was always something to share, whether a birth of a child or grandchild, passing of a friend or family member, a challenging reading or project that individuals were working on, updates about the prison. But, as a group, we were pretty hush hush about the red jumpsuit.
As we were forming our dancing circle, I quietly turned to Chris, who somehow always seemed to position himself beside me and often explained things to me as they were happening. A couple of weeks previously Chris had been dancing next to me when the CO (corrections officer) whose job it was to "keep an eye on us" began repeatedly flashing a bright light at us while we were dancing. It had been confusing to me, as well as upsetting, because having experienced the blinding impact that a flashing camera can have on dancers while performing, I was concerned for the safety of the guys dancing in the circle with me. I had turned to Chris who clarified that the prison had been experimenting with techniques for controlling people with flashing lights. "They are figuring out more efficient ways to train us, like animals. Now they are trying using coded signals." It had worked in that situation because two of the men (both wearing baseball caps) somehow knew he was targeting them. And they stepped out of the circle, walked across the gym, and over to the guard who ordered the caps to be removed. To use that form of invasive and potentially dangerous control was something I had felt I couldn't put up with. As I started to leave the circle and head over to the guard, Chris had whispered to please let it rest... that the men inside would hear about it later if I went directly to the guard. I responded, "What am I supposed to do? I can't let that dangerous practice happen in this space!" He smiled kindly and quietly encouraged me to go over the officer's head and speak with my prison host. The order of power, of control. Proximity is dangerous. (What did I know of surveillance and control... white privilege had blinded me once again).
And here I was again standing in the circle, wondering what was going on. And once Chris explained that the red jumpsuit was a kind of Scarlet Letter inside the prison. I don't know if this macabre use of red inside the California prison was a deliberate reference to the original scarlet "A" forced on a woman considered to be an adulteress in Puritan New England during the 17th Century. I somehow doubt it. For the Puritans it was a symbol of shame, targeting these women. And, in the 21st Century, this red jumpsuit also served as an identifier, as a target, but of a different sort.
In 2017, the California prisons had made the decision to "integrate" the yards. And they didn't mean racial integration. The Prison Advocacy Network explains it this way:
In 2017, CDCR launched its "Non-Designated Programming Facilities" (NDPFs) policy and in 2018 began "merging yards" or "integrating yards"… forcing people to house together regardless of if they were designated for a Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY) or the General Population (GP). CDCR historically separated people designated as SNY from those it designated as GP for a reason: to protect people who would face retaliation or potential harm (police, priests, rapists, murderers.) When the yards "merge" or are "integrated" people have a high likelihood of being stabbed, raped, killed, or otherwise victimized. CDCR has “integrated” some entire prisons and certain yards, including yards for people on the mental health caseload… In the years since NDPF began, countless riots have shaken up prisons up and down the state, with dozens of people hospitalized — and some left dead.
It turned out that a couple of weeks earlier, Eli had been chosen by the prison to be transferred into a Sensitive Needs or Protective Custody yard. Eli had only arrived at the prison a couple of months earlier and was settling in to a dorm in which he felt safe – this being a medium security 3 prison, the men are housed in bunkbed-filled dormitories of 60-200 men rather than cells. He finally explained to us that when they told him he was going to be transferred and that he had better pack his stuff, Eli had refused. He told me he was terrified for his life, and also terrified that they would transfer him to a prison far away from his family:
When people refuse these unsafe and potentially deadly housing assignments, they are disciplined and often transferred to higher security prisons where they lose access to time outside of the cell, and programs and work that entitle them to time credits…In short, NDPF is violating people’s right to safety and other rights.
And the prison did just that. They had thrown him to the ground, cuffed him and put him in lock up for a week. When they let him out, he was told he had to wear the red jumpsuit for at least a month. What did it mean for his life on the inside? Well, not unlike the Scarlet Letter of the 17th century, this jumpsuit served as a target. (Maybe a little embarrassing to be wearing a too tight red jumpsuit, but Eli said he was not ashamed.) It was a target in the sense of target practice and, although he was not literally shot at by the guards, the jumpsuit allowed the guards free range on his body. He was ordered to the end of chow line, often leading to a shortage of food and nourishment. He was denied access to yard time, and was ordered to stay in the dorm rather than the hour out in the fresh air. He was also often ordered to the back of the telephone line, denying him desperately-needed conversations with family and loved ones. And then there was the general heckling and harassment that the other dancing men in our circle explained was ongoing. It turned out that this was the last time we would see Eli. Wearing the red jumpsuit. We were told by some of the men that he had been transferred to a different prison on very short notice. No one knew where he was transferred to. We took a deep breath together in the circle, in his honor… hoping that he was not shipped too far from his mother. Hoping he was okay.