concept: Pet Prisoner, Containment and Isolation

Jana Leo  & Terry Williams
© Jana Leo and Terry Williams  New York and Madrid  2010-2013

The Pet Prisoner  is a portrait of present day society which takes the fictional notion that a prisoner can be sent to a house as a pet.  This notion presents us with a dystopia in which the “other” is adopted as a prisoner and serves to address both imprisonment and the culture of containment.

The Pet Prisoner program is designed for people that are unable to relate to others and the program give them opportunity to relate to another even though a prisoner and serving him or her as a pet. The human kind described in the Pet Prisoner has difficulties with equalitarian relationships. People unable to relate to others as equals, adopt relations that there are clearly regulated or in which one can take a position of power. Relationships are contained with in a frame. The frame serves to keep things in place, but prevents what is framed from spreading and growing. Replicating the relationship of man with animals contained within the frame or the word “pet” but with people can be exampled under the rubric of pet prisoner. The fiction of a pet prisoner is a way to talk about imprisonment in our culture directly and indirectly as one of isolation. To put a person in prison, to contain a body in a closed environment is a current form of punishment. The Pet Prisoner informs and defines what punishment and crime is all about and maps concepts related to containment. Things taken as normal, such as to be contained into a chair for work and for keeping social relations are forms of self-containment-isolation. Containment operates as a way to keep a civilization moving, set the limits of what things are and where and when things happen but also and paradoxically restrains spontaneity, desires and the main human drive: freedom.

The Pet Prisoner as fiction is the story of two people unable to have a close relationship except through a word-text, so they have a distant relationship via the text. The text is organized around an ebb and flow, give and take, a back and forth conversation where each text answers the other because of the previous association and content is added to the realities of these two people. Each text refers to individual feelings and concerns that arise in an automatic way. Sometimes the conversation is a direct response and others times, the answer is a new entry. The text is the vehicle for these two people who are separated by distance to continue to keep in touch and by so doing maintain a deep connection while remaining disconnected except textually away from each other.

The book is not only talking about containment on an abstract level, through essays but the containment is illustrated also in a concrete way through the correspondence between them. Each person is content in their place: family life, occupation and country; each person is putting out their own fears and desires through a kind of subconscious writing, a form of “improvisational fiction” that becomes an intimate while public dialogue. Through the writing they develop a way to be free and together, at the same time, however, “the exchange” is all based on containment in its pure form: desires are never satisfied and all physical contact is denied. They are addictive to each other as if a substance

The Pet Prisoner is a textual story, a tale of the writing of a text. The purpose of the change in voice, improvisation, both real and imagined is to create a daydreaming text in which the text is sometimes conscious and awake, suggesting definitions, arguments to the contrary, new ideas; and at other times the text is losing consciousness, gazing back over experiences and stories, changing or rearranging them, distorting them or adding to them. This feeling of a text going to sleep, changing and being finished in dreams, happens to everyone reading a book when falling asleep and giving life to the book in the dream. The only time prisoners are free is when they dream.

The form of the pet prisoner is a mirror in which to face the way we live. We are potentially free, and at the same time enclosed in a box of our own creation. That is true for all of us, even for these two people writing. Precisely they can write about containment on a personal level because they know in their private lives what that means. The form becomes content. These two people conversing and ruminating, back and forth through a text, able to speak and yet they are themselves imprisoned. And in fact this textual wandering is not about freedom but isolation. The book is then the story of a relationship between two people in the age of containment; a book within a book like a Russian doll where both pet and prisoner are contained and containers which are inside each other textually. What matters is how the private life between these two that can be easily scale out to serves as a frame in which the reader can be impersonating the writers and show the institutional imprisonment and containment as parts of the constant state of denial or a social “mild bad being” called democracy.


End Note
There are about 7 million people currently in the criminal justice system, either in jail, prison, parole, or probation and while the paradigm has changed over the past hundred years, in the form of the leasing program, vagrancy laws, the black codes, prison industrialization, one fact remains the same, the vast majority of those incarcerated are  non-whites. Today prisons are a factory type business in operation. The massive incarceration rates, and the increased time a person spends in prison do serve the industry well but does nothing for the original purpose which is to have a healthy society. Keeping those who did harm away from society to avoid further harm while encouraging them not to go back to crime, once released, is not related to producing revenue for those corporations owning prisons.

Imprisonment in the United States is a business because of corporations like (CCA) Correction Corporation of America which builds prisons and has investors who demand more prisons who in turn need more  crime. Crime becomes the main reason prisons exists, and more crime breeds more prisons.  The crime need not be violent crime, or drug related, or even socially harmful, it appears the acts only have to be so deemed by power brokers who then label those who are poor.   Walking in the street, spitting on the sidewalk, washing car windows, sleeping on the street, urinating in a public square or being homeless is enough to be labeled criminal.   These so-called ‘quality of life” crimes are really ways of criminalizing the poor.  The poor, those with out wealth when in prison are also deprived the immaterial— love, freedom…only the unconscious remains, in all other ways, they are dispossessed.

“Self-Criminality is a way of living within a confined space as lifestyle. One might, for example, eluding the natural beauty of a spectacular landscape and the wildness of people, chose to live in a glass zoo. When one does that one forgets primary instincts and is living outside of reality. Glass zoo living is a form of self-abuse and an aggressive act against one’s life. I am in a big city and still don’t allow much of the things inside me out; I walk around a lot; and I enjoy specially walking in the parts of the city that are new to me. But still I am in this city at a fair distance, as if I was looking at a big animal in a zoo, waiting for it to do something. I am “outside proof” nothing affects me significantly. I don’t allow myself to feel too deep emotions for extended periods of time. I am flat and persistent in my work and in my flatness. I am applying “people block lotion” (to keep people away) from my skin. I need a pet prisoner to help me overcome my fear. Self-Criminality: putting your body away Imagine that you are putting your body away as a piece of clothing too precious to resist wear and tear. Put aside and worn only on marked occasions. Think in the way one keeps a shirt designated for a ceremony, folded and inside a transparent bag. See if it is similar to the way one keeps the body.”


The ADX Maximum Security prison in Florence, Colorado
The ADX structure that house these prisoners. The entire complex has less than 500 beds and sits on 37 hectares of arid land in what is essentially a plant-less desert. The windows are designed to disorient the prisoner so they do not know where they are within the structure and only the sky is visible through a side window which causes a strain for the prisoner who has to distort their bodies by laying on the floor and looking upside down in order to see outside. The prisoner has absolutely no contact with the outside world and is himself constantly spied upon by 5,000 cameras and motion detectors. All prisoners are kept locked in their cells for 23 hours a day.  Food is delivered by a mechanical arm, which often fails in this operation.  The cell furniture is composed of high-grade concrete mixed with industrial plastic that is essentially “chip proof” and all furniture is made of this material including the bed, the chairs, the desk and stool. …This “dis-comfort” strategy is part of the design intention to prevent prisoners from sitting and writing correspondences. The rooms have polished steel mirrors cemented into the wall and since the chairs are specifically made to counter comfort- and unlike the Corbusier longue chair where comfort is maximized, the ADX chair is maximized for dis-comfort, as the body does not rest comfortably but uncomfortably and after years of use the political prisoner develops a “hunched back” which makes it impossible to stand up straight. All prisoners housed in this facility are lifers.

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Most people buy, renovate or build a house to live but others build it for other reasons and in this example I adapt the apartment  to have a prisoner.

A wall is what separated the inside of a prison from the outside, the bars are the reference for the thinner wall. But when is clear than the out is not such (even for the not prisoner there is not out) putting a prisoner when pet in the house in its interstitial space, for instance inhabiting the wall made more sense than being in an enclosed space such as small room or a cell. A pet prisoner inhabiting a wall also illustrates the nature of the pet prisoner: different form the host or even the guest that have a bedroom or sofa, the pet has no designated space; the lack of ownership over a room is reflected in inhabiting a wall. Walls are also the place for ghosts. Are you in your living room looking at the main wall? Perhaps, yours as mine, it is a thick wall already that contains pipes and electricity. If this wall get thicker and contains all the functions of a minimum inhabitation: the wall will have a bed, which will works as a bench during the day; in the top part a kitchenette and a book-case, hangers for a change of clothes and a tray that serves as a table for working and eating. This wall could unfold over to the living room with no visible fence and could be fold when the prisoner is gone. The prisoner, as a piece of art in a museum, will have to respect the perimeter marked on the floor as not trespassed, but his gaze will be open like a passenger of time looking at the landscape from the train window. Physically this wall is a storage unit, to storage a person: metaphorically this wall is the place to hold the very essential prisoner belongings. Still here we are dealing with a contradiction while we don’t want to designate a space for the prisoner, the foldable wall still marks the location of the prisoner.

This is not a real wall but a frame for an idea. Wait; are you bringing a real prisoner to life into your own house? (Terry said)
Yes, I am. (Jana said)