Public Secrets
By Sharon Daniel
Design by Erik Loyer

Author's Statement

"Truth is not a matter of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation that does justice to it."
Walter Benjamin - The Origin of German Tragic Drama

There are secrets that are kept from the public and then there are "public secrets" - secrets that the public chooses to keep safe from itself, like the troubling "don't ask, don't tell." The trick to the public secret is in knowing what not to know. This is the most powerful form of social knowledge. Such shared secrets sustain social and political institutions. The injustices of the war on drugs, the criminal justice system, and the Prison Industrial Complex are "public secrets."

The public perception of justice - the figure of its appearance - relies on the public not acknowledging that which is generally known. When faced with massive sociological phenomena such as racism, poverty, addiction, abuse, it is easy to slip into denial. This is the ideological work that the prison does. It allows us to avoid the ethical by relying on the juridical.

The expansion of the prison system is possible because it is a public secret - a secret kept in an unacknowledged but public agreement not to know what imprisonment really means to individuals and their communities. As the number of prisons increases, so does the level of secrecy about what goes on inside them. The secret of the abuses perpetrated by the Criminal Justice System and Prison Industrial Complex can be heard in many stories told by many narrators, but only when they are allowed to speak. After a series of news stories and lawsuits documenting egregious mistreatment of prisoners in 1993, the California Department of Corrections imposed a media ban on all of its facilities. This ongoing ban prohibits journalists from face-to-face interviews, eliminates prisoners' right to confidential correspondence with media representatives, and bars the use of cameras, recording devices, and writing instruments in interviews with media representatives. Women incarcerated in California are allowed visits only from family members and legal representatives. Inmates are not allowed access to computers, cameras, tape recorders or media equipment of any kind. Such restrictions preserve the public secret.

For the past three years, I have visited the Central California Women's Facility [CCWF] as a legal advocate. I work with a non-profit, human rights organization, Justice Now. Together we have been documenting conversations with women prisoners at CCWF, the largest female correctional facility in the United States in an effort to unmask the well known, yet still secret injustices that result from our society's reliance on prisons to solve social problems. Given the ban on conversations with the media, I would not have had access to the women who have contributed to Public Secrets without the support of Justice Now. As a "legal advocate" I am allowed to record my conversations with the women and solicit their stories, ideas, and opinions.

The visits require adherence to Kafkaesque regulations and acceptance of invasive search and surveillance procedures. I am registered for each visit in advance and searched on entry. I am allowed to bring in only a clear plastic baggie with a clear ink pen, my drivers license, a blank legal pad and my mini-disc recorder. The recorder has to be approved weeks in advance (the serial number is registered and checked) and the device is inspected on entry and exit. Only factory-sealed discs are permitted in.

After our interviews the women are subject to strip search and visual body cavity searches that may be performed by male guards.

Clearly, the women I work with are highly politicized and are seriously committed to this endeavor. For these women our conversations are acts of ethical and political testimony - testimony that challenges the underlying principles of distributive justice and the dehumanizing mechanisms of the prison system. They are quite literally historians and theorists who speak out in an effort of collective resistance. I collaborate with them first as a witness and then as a "context provider." After soliciting their opinions and collecting their stories, it is my responsibility to create a context in which their voices can be heard across social, cultural and economic boundaries. My conversations with these women form the basis of Public Secrets which in turn brings their voices into dialogue with other legal, political and social theorists such as Giorgio Agamben, Michael Taussig, Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, Catherine MacKinnon, and Angela Davis. While this is a dialogue that I have constructed between interlocutors whose perspectives originate from very diverse social locations, for me all of their voices emerge out of a shared ethos and converge in critical resistance.

The linking of these voices that occurs in Public Secrets originated in an essay "The Public Secret: Information and Social Knowledge" that I wrote for a special issue of the online journal Intelligent Agent. The essay also provided a point of departure for the design of the data structure that organizes the content of Public Secrets. In all of this work, I see the public secret as an aporia - an irresolvable internal contradiction, between power and knowledge, between information and denial, between the masks of politics and the goals of an open society (one in which the state is expected to act for the people as guarantor of human and civil rights). Building on this concept, we have created three main branches within Public Secrets, each structured as an aporia; inside/outside, bare-life/human-life, and public secret/utopia. Each aporia frames multiple themes and threads elaborated in clusters of narrative, theory and evidence. Together they explore the space of the prison - physical, economic, political and ideological - and how the space of the prison acts back on the space outside to disrupt and, in effect, undermine the very forms of legality, security and freedom that the prison system purportedly protects.

Three years ago, on visiting day, I walked through a metal detector and into the Central California Womens' Facility. It changed my life. The stories I heard inside challenged my most basic perceptions - of our system of justice, of freedom and of responsibility. Walk with me across this boundary between inside and outside, bare-life and human-life, and listen to Public Secrets.