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Vanishment: Girls, Punishment, and the Education State


by Sabina E. Vaught - 2019

Background/Context: This article emerges from several scholarly traditions, chief among them feminist and critical ethnography; school–prison nexus; and critical feminist and race theories.

Focus of Study: The larger study that informs this article was an 18-month ethnographic inquiry into youth prison schooling in one state. This study explored both the specifics of schooling inside the system and attended to the ways in which it mimicked, mirrored, or resonated with schooling on the outside—offering a qualitative map of power and discipline in schooling writ large. The story that undergirds this article is drawn from that larger study. Here, I attend carefully to one ethnographic moment to conceptualize broad questions of punishment, gender, race, and sexual identity.

Setting: The research took place inside multiple institutions across one state’s juvenile detention and prison system. The article organizes its inquiries around an ethnographic vignette from Inside one state’s largest juvenile detention facility.

Research Design: The research that informs this article is both a long-term critical ethnographic study and rigorous theoretical research across several areas.

Conclusions: I both begin and conclude this article by offering an initial conceptualization of one form of punishment: vanishment. Vanishment is a punishment that works in concert with imprisonment, banishment, and treatment to organize the disciplinary practices of U.S. school and society. In considering vanishment, the article offers an initial development of the construct and reflects on inquiries that might begin to excavate its seemingly hidden mechanisms. I invite consideration of this punishment across multiple sites and through a variety of approaches.



Sincerely explained, generously justified, protective conduct is a hallmark of a misogynist abuser. It is a strategy meant not only to thwart access to the captive, abused person in question, but also to paternalistically realign the logic of roles: abuser as protector; abused as weak, in need of the abuser; inquirer as potential assailant from whom the abused needs the protection of isolation. This logic is a core feature of heteropatriarchal violence (D.-A. Davis, 2006; Deer, 2015; Lorde, 1984; Rich, 1980; Richie, 1996, 2012; Roberts, 1999): violence that is practiced, cultivated, or condoned across gender in service of patriarchal systems of power (hooks, 2015). Of all the logics and attendant conducts I might have encountered when I approached the state for permission to conduct ethnographic research in its juvenile prison schools, I was not anticipating this would be the first. But it was the ideological pivot to heteropatriarchal protection that marked my initial conversation with research gatekeepers at the state Division of Juvenile Affairs (DJA).


When I directly requested research access to all-girl locked facilities, I was told “no.” “Girls” in state facilities (what the state called treatment centers and I called prisons), I was immediately told, suffered too much “trauma” in their pre-locked-up lives to participate in research. They were “emotionally fragile” and had “volatile” behavior. They were wounded. Hysterical. Brittle. They needed state protective containment. Research would be too much for them. I would be too much for them. The state, I quickly learned, bore the hallmark logic of heteropatriarchal abuser, relegating girls to an impossibly distant vanishing point on the margins of its carceral map.


And so instead I was given broad-but-regulated access to the highest security all-male juvenile prison facility—where I had ample time alone with young men incarcerated there—and to the state’s largest juvenile detention facility, which was “coed” and where I was kept in the careful and unwavering custody of adults. My primary interactions there were with those adults. And so, I could not talk meaningfully with girls. This article starts from that early encounter between me and the state. It moves from there to offer a reflective exploration of one small interlude in the large-scale institutional ethnography that ensued—when ugly serendipity brought me to an all-girls space for a brief and voluminous moment. In that fragment of time, I interacted with a small number of girls, their teacher, and the teaching aide in a locked detention center basement. In reflecting on that interlude, I ask how scholars might conceptually map the margins of the interaction of state disciplinary apparatuses, particularly of education and incarceration (Crenshaw, 1991). How do those work to variously hide, contain, and ultimately vanish girls?


In this article, I begin to extend that question first by describing the larger ethnographic project from which it emerged, along with some of the attendant literature on discipline, schools, and prison. Following that brief elaboration, I lay out the framework for the concept development of vanishment: I describe four forms of school-based punishment, of which vanishment is the primary focus here. I argue that the disciplinary, regulatory functions (Foucault, 1995) of the Education state are mechanized primarily through three recognized and one unrecognized punishment practices: imprisonment, banishment, treatment, and vanishment, respectively. The state school as a compulsory, captive site regulates non-dominant pre-citizen youth through these counterinsurgent forms of punishment, paradigmatically establishing commonsense ideological and material practice in the larger U.S. context.


These punishment practices, which are overlapping but maintain distinctive features and purposes, are rigorously, intersectionally gendered. Although for some, gender is a nonbinary, often-fluid feature of individual and group identity, state institutions still operate formally and informally through largely binary functions. I am interested here in those ideological and material enactments of gender. In the third portion of the article, I explore vanishment in the meta-stories of my research. While I weave stories of vanishment throughout, I tell the focal “ghost” stories after the introductory concept development. These stories emerge from that ethnographic interlude and unfold across a cluster of cultural, media, pedagogical, and institutional observations. These stories and observations begin to variously constellate potential approaches to examining the relationships between taken-for-granted disappearances of women and girls across region, race, and class and the institutions that shape, mimic, and reproduce commonsense societal practice. After storytelling this theoretical construct, I imagine aloud charting paths forward that invite what I hope will be creative, promising deepenings of the construct.


COMPULSORY: THE LARGER PROJECT AND CONTEXT


The stories, ideas, and questions that form this article are moored to a seemingly small splinter I acquired—suddenly and unexpectedly—during a brief interlude in my 18 months of ethnographic research Inside one state’s juvenile prison and detention school system. Those 18 months of people and stories and institutions became Compulsory: Education and the Dispossession of Youth in a Prison School (2017), in which I qualitatively examine a network of educational apparatuses mechanized around longstanding supremacist U.S. practices of child removal. The book anchors its inquiry in stories from the interchange of the nation’s two largest compulsory institutions: school and prison. Education—as the state’s most massive apparatus, with a labor force larger than the combined military branches—functions as the state’s chief ideological mechanism, producing and reproducing (rather than simply mirroring or imitating) a vast array of legal, institutional, political, and cultural practices with captive, enclosed precitizens (Meiners, 2007; Sojoyner, 2016; Wun, 2016a; Vaught, 2017). In spite of the deceptive misnomer “public schooling,” schools and their practices are not the domain of an imagined democratic “public,” but rather of the state and elite privates, making the United States an Education state (Berlant, 1997; Fraser, 1990; Habermas, 1991; Hill Collins, 2009; Squires, 2002; Vaught & Hernández, 2016).


The book’s main site is Lincoln, the state’s highest security prison holding young men. Through stories from incarcerated young men, prison teachers, mothers, principals, security staff, and others ensnared by or working within the DJA prison education system, I narrate the anti-Black counterinsurgent function of schooling in normalizing captivity and producing an Education state. The ethnography attends to the worlds of the Outside and Inside, working vigorously to recognize their distinctions and simultaneously underscore their ferociously mimetic and coproducing properties. Compulsory pays particular attention to the heteropatriarchal structures of racialized removal, considering the ways in which schooling, prison schooling, and prison function as counterinsurgent state weapons against Black women—in part by attacking the will, kinship, and intellectual desires and abundances of young Black men who are their kin and members of their communities. Compulsory is rooted in their stories.


Yet, over several years of writing and more than 300 pages that finally found themselves to print, I felt the churning agitation of something unaccounted for: the splinter. This splinter—like all splinters, mean and pestering, exasperatingly hard to find—bothered my fingers as I typed the pages of the book manuscript. It throbbed distractingly as I taught classes and advised students. It exiled my companion, sleep.


So, I retrace my steps, starting at a beginning, to understand what it was about meeting a group of girls for a sudden, hurried moment that kept pressing me to think more.


ME AND/me IN THE EDUCATION STATE1

PROTECTION CODES AND “THE POLITICS OF FEUDALISM”


I ironed my wool camel-color pants and light blue pinstripe oxford especially carefully that morning, following Grandma Deva’s precise instructions in my mind. Such gendered instructions of propriety were passed down generationally in my multiracial family, just as in countless families across race, class, and region. My clothing was a uniform I pulled out only when I needed to present a self that would blend in, make no unnecessary statements, and produce ease in formal others in spite of my uneasy intentions. That morning, I would go downtown and meet members of the central administration of the DJA. I would ask in person for permission to do research in all-girl locked facilities. So, I pinned my very long blackbrown hair into a bun and smoothed the top and sides with rosemary oil, taming the inherited remnants of another foremother’s melancholic race-passing, following convoluted generational, gendered instructions of race and race-passing. I looked carefully in the bathroom mirror—something I almost never did—and felt sure I was as unremarkable as I could ever be. If circumstances required, no one would be able to describe me with any certainty to a sketch artist.


After struggling with the mismatch between the GPS and the city streets, I found the parking lot, parked, and walked across the street to the front doors of the tall, brick building that housed the state Division of Juvenile Affairs central administration. The façade of the building had been carved out to make space for a first-floor wall of enormous glass panels. In the middle of those spotless panels, two glass entrance doors presented themselves. I hesitated outside, in front of those glass doors, pulling my thoughts together. Standing there, I looked through the doors to the building lobby. Across the tiled lobby floor, a uniformed security officer stood behind a large desk edifice, apparently reading something. Perfectly in front of him was my reflection in the glass. A translucent ghost vanishing into his opaque figure. Neither inside nor out, I was a glass apparition. Melted sand. My uniform in the shape of his uniform (Gordon, 1997; Williams, 1991).


“FINDING THE SHAPE DESCRIBED BY HER ABSENCE”: CONCEPTUAL QUESTS


The contemporary call for research on state interactions with women and girls of Color is a pressing and attentive one. Among those currently leading the charge for this research, the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia University Law School has identified areas in need of attention. In the “Black Girls Matter” report, the Center calls for specific engagement around the research “silence about . . . the risks that Black and other girls of color confront,” particularly in punitive educational practices tethered to undereducation, school push-out, and incarceration (Crenshaw, Ocen, & Nanda, 2015, p. 8, emphasis added). Necessarily, this report highlights the alarming increase of rates and escalating terms of zero-tolerance discipline, policing, and incarceration, particularly as they impact and are described by Black girls.


To initiate questions into the silences, here I return to a moment over a quarter century ago, when Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) marshaled what became an uninterrupted, direly urgent call to radically pivot research and discourses toward a frame that would account for the erasure of the experiential, material conditions of women of Color: intersectionality (see also Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013; Choo & Marx Ferree, 2010; Hill Collins, 2000, 2015; Spade, 2013). She argued presciently that contemporary practices and discourses served to “relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling” (Crenshaw, 1991, p. 1242). Today, as then, concerns with the discipline and incarceration of girls of Color are often subsumed under frameworks that make relatively good sense of the heteropatriarchal, supremacist state’s relationship to boys. Although useful, these are frameworks that can also blight our view of the experiences of some girls, making their location within the nation’s most massive system one that resists telling. So, for instance, as scholars such as Connie Wun have argued, when we track only girls’ documented punishment as it mirrors the documented punishment of boys, we shine a spotlight on a very partial mechanism. I suggest the halo of that light casts an absolute and eclipsing shadow where certain girls’ intersectional experiences of school and state punishment occur. What happens when some girls’ so-called infractions, misbehaviors, and transgressions go unreported, unrecorded, and undocumented? Does a monocular conceptual tendency turn girls into a shape described by their absence, mimicking the mechanism by which the state vanishes girls from view and from the record? Or, conversely, does this tendency produce elevated concern about girls only when their experiences match the documented punishments we already recognize?


State schools—the institutional legacy of a prototypical model for contemporary prison (Foucault, 1995)—are brilliant if inconsistent and inefficient models of surveillance, documentations, records, and registers. Indeed, when we conjure illustrations of surveillance and panopticism in contemporary U.S. society, school figures early in the list. Yet critically observed modes of school discipline and punishment have not only centered boys, but have, more importantly, privileged masculinist state disciplinary relations. As Brown (1992) explained, “The state can be masculinist without intentionally or overtly pursuing the ‘interests’ of men precisely because the multiple dimensions of socially constructed masculinity have historically shaped the multiple modes of power circulating through the domain called the state” (p. 14). For instance, the legacies of maternalism (Jacobs, 2011; Meiners, 2002) are not simply evidenced in predominantly White, middle-class, female teaching forces. Simple demographic understandings, combined with scholarly, activist, societal, and state preoccupations, or “interests”, with boys have colluded to restrict our view through myopic lenses. We have to listen to those among us who are deepening the gendered critique of state context to more fully perceive the conditions and practices contextualizing girls’ intersectional experiences of punishment in state schooling.


My suggestion here is not that specific groups of girls—groups that vary based on the interacting local and national power hierarchies—do not in fact experience state punishment that overtly mimics that practiced on boys. Rather, my suggestion is twofold: first, that if we understand these seemingly mimetic practices as explainable through the same frameworks we use to understand the discipline and punishment of boys, we fail to understand their distinct and specific functions, and second, that if we see them as the only or most salient or most dangerous form of state punishment, we obscure from our own view one of the state’s specific, pernicious strategies toward girls: vanishment.


Research defamiliarizing (Kaomea, 2003) dominant race and gender notions of punishment certainly predates my suggestions. Moreover, observations of recognizable state discipline of girls are neither futile nor false. Indeed, they are important features in mapping state punishment of girls, and scholars have attended to the specifics of gender in those mappings (Ferguson, 2001; E. W. Morris, 2007; Winn, 2011). In Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, M. Morris (2016) highlighted the ways in which standard punishments often function to hide the sources of struggle and repression for Black girls. Luttrell (2003) observes in Pregnant Bodies, Fertile Minds that many young women go unrecorded in a file or are never logged on state registers.


Recently, Connie Wun (2014, 2016a, 2016b) has challenged readers to upend mimetic analyses of discipline in her use and expansion of Hartman’s (1997) framework of the “afterlife of slavery” to consider anti-Black school discipline as it is mobilized against Black girls. She dexterously considered the complex ways in which overt surveillance and discipline of Black girls in school


operates as an instrument in the “afterlife of slavery” that positions the Black girl as perpetually and involuntarily open to surveillance and control. She is denied access to self-autonomy, which includes feelings and forms of self-defense. Empathy does not apply to her life and narratives. Her stories disappear and are disavowed. Through school discipline, she is constituted as a “captive object,” one that is ever-observed yet without recognition. (Wun, 2016a, p. 179, emphasis added)


While Wun exquisitely details the ways in which school discipline in slavery’s afterlife is crushingly controlling in its practices of captivity and tactically assaultive in its use of surveillance, I am especially interested here in her identification of its features of disappearance, disavowal, and nonrecognition. Wun’s analysis is attentive to the specificities of anti-Black discipline and the experiences of targeted Black girls, but her rigorous turn to a reframing of discipline and her inclusion of disappearance, disavowal, and nonrecognition also calls our attention to the possibilities for considering research on the ways in which the state acts on a range of girls and women. Moreover, it offers a window onto a missing view of gendered state practices of punishment.


And if, as Audra Simpson noted (for her, in the case of Canada, which she also noted yearns to crookedly distinguish itself from the U.S. through its public and apoplectic apologetics in its ongoing settler relation to Indigenous nations), statecraft “requires the death and so called ‘disappearance’ of Indigenous women in order to secure its sovereignty” (2016, p. 1)—“a death drive to eliminate, contain, hide and in other ways ‘disappear’ what fundamentally challenges is legitimacy: Indigenous political orders” (p. 2)—and if that state “has a character, it has a male character, it is more than likely white, or aspiring to an unmarked center of whiteness, and definitely heteropatriarchal” (p. 2), then the heteropatriarchal man-state is not only coordinated with private individuals who do the state’s dirty work, as she suggests, but the state itself must be modeling this murdering and missing practice in its own institutions—normalizing and making sense of the disappearance. In addition to being subjects of the historical effect of boarding schools, MMIW (murdered and missing Indigenous women) were likely subjected to state school-based practices that established the conditions for the ongoing “so called ‘disappearance.’” In the U.S. context where schooling is the largest project of statecraft, we might hear in Simpson’s lesson a call to examine school-based practices of disappearance as repressive political sovereignty projects, an examination that promises to expand contemporary notions of punishment.


Pointedly, the calls of Simpson, Wun, and others dovetail with core charges of feminist research to scour the known for the overlooked. Pillow and Mayo (2012) remind us that “part of feminist research . . . is looking at what is missing, what is passed over, and what is avoided” (p. 196). Part of the approach to considering the punishment of girls has to be to look at the way in which the Education state refuses to document, fails to record, and does not register some girls. What happens outside of surveillance, even within the confines of absolute captivity? The call, then, is to chart a specific set of conceptual conversations that will help to frame this research. What questions have we not asked? What questions have I not asked? Much research has not only been topically about boys and the Education state, but therefore, because, and also methodologically at least partially masculinist—mine certainly. So, how do we not only give volume to the silence but also organize research practice to attend to the silence in the system? What are the approaches by which researchers attend to the disciplining of girls in the paradigmatic institution of the school when it does not neatly map onto the recorded, visible, overly regulated mechanisms by which boys are both punished and registered? How can we attend to what is missing, avoided, and passed over by a state we understand to track, record, and surveil everything? How do we see what mechanisms lie outside of, and so define the boundaries of, surveillance or panopticism? How do we engage “the paradox of tracking through time and across all those forces that which makes its mark by being there and not there at the same time” (Gordon, 1997, p. 6)?


THE AMERICAN ADAM2: SONS OF BETTER MEN


Nearly 40 minutes after my specter left its glass threshold, after I entered the massive state building, signed in with state-issued ID, and met with the first DJA administrator, Deborah—40 minutes later when I finally sat down with Frank, the second DJA administrator, whose title and purview were unclear to me, I said, “Deborah said I should speak with you about working in a girls facility.” My ironed pleat neatly outlined the top of my crossed leg. I rested one hand on this careful tracing of my form.


“Mm. Mhm,” nodded Frank, as if actually considering, as if hearing this request for the first time. Deborah, and Frank, and everyone else slated to talk with me that day already knew what I hoped to do, as they had read my e-mail to my initial contact, Porter, and were copied on Porter’s reply. Porter shared casually with me that they had all talked with one another. So, they knew.


“Well,” Frank said, “that’s an interesting idea.” He leaned his large frame back in his Herman Miller office chair—assuming a posture of pondering in his bureaucrat’s throne.


“You know, my father was a teacher,” said Frank. I had been a public school teacher. It was a thing that I learned made sense of me to DJA officials. But I was also researching education, and that introduced uneasiness into the mix. I nodded to Frank, offering interest.


“For 36 years. Same school. I remember him, you know, shirt, tie, up early every morning—he wanted to be professional for the kids. You know, went to all the basketball games. I don’t think he missed a day. Kids loved him. Mhm, you know, I met a guy once said to me, ‘Your dad was the reason I stayed in school.’” Some men are sons of better men. They narrate themselves into a genealogy of patriarchal generations of principles. And these principles become sacred. They are about devotion, hard work, sacrifice, and courage. They make a man good. They made Frank good, so that what he was about to do would be okay.


Yet, I did not anticipate what Frank was about to do.


“The girls, well, the girls,” he began, “have had it pretty rough, you know. They’ve been through a lot. Lots of abusive boyfriends.” Frank shook his head, from back there in his tilted, pondering position. He brought his hands together for a moment, and then put them back down on the chair arms. “You know, lots of violence. Mm.” Violence, I was to hear again and again from state narrators, at the hands of bad men. Men without better fathers.


Perhaps my whole life should have prepared me for that response. Men with better fathers are abundant in American institutional life. They form the Education state. And I had spent my life a subject, agent, object, and observer of that state. Yet I sat there unable to penetrate the logic, blindsided by the diversion, and docile to the immediate offer to work in a high-security, all-boys facility. My appeal to the DJA was an appeal to the paradigmatic misogynist apparatus, the protective abuser writ large; it was a supplication to the heteropatriarchal gatekeepers of a protective state. I was asking for access to the captives from the captors. “Such an appeal involves seeking protection against men from masculinist institutions, a move more in keeping with the politics of feudalism than freedom” (Brown, 1992, p. 9).


My preparation for my appeal to the state—my conditioning myself into commonness, unobtrusiveness, plainness, as best I could, was in part a consent (Gramsci, 1971), an unwitting preparation for the possibility of vanishment. My hegemonic preparation perhaps aided in constellating the discipline of other women who could not or would not, for myriad reasons, become plain, be plain, or perform unobtrusiveness. It was one by which I foolishly sought to use that capacity in myself to infiltrate the state, to be an infiltrator. But it was an exercise in futility because it failed to fully find the man in the state (Brown, 1992). IRB mandates aside, by seeking permission from the state through the performance of indistinction, I animated the masculinist state protection codes “legitimating women's exclusion from some spheres of human endeavor and confinement within others” (Brown, 1992, pp. 8–9). Why did I think my uniformed performance—my “agreement to abide by the protector’s rules” (p. 8)—would grant me access to the very girls this type of performance was always used to exclude and define (Bettie, 2002; Mohanty, 2003; Moraga, 1981)? “Protection codes are . . . key technologies in regulating privileged women as well as in intensifying the vulnerability and degradation of those on the unprotected side of the constructed divide between light and dark, wives and prostitutes, good girls and bad ones” (Brown, 1992, p. 9). More, they are indoctrinating codes, by which we trade on our real or imagined privilege to make an appeal, gain access, to accrue something that is always contingent, and ever retrenching of misogynist oppression (Crenshaw, 1991).


I looked at Frank’s hands while he talked. They were so still resting there on the arms of his Herman Miller chair. A high school class ring adorned his right ring finger; a wedding ring mirrored it on his left. A confident son’s hands. Hands that could type decisions into a computer. Sign authorizations. Secure girls from me. Without comprehending it, I was seeing “her shape and his hand.” Her vanishment, and his power to vanish.


WHAT IS VANISHMENT?


Watching Frank’s hands, as he casually further confined girls into the prisons of DJA, I began that “paradox of tracking through time and across all those forces that which makes its mark by being there and not there at the same time” (Gordon, 1997, p. 6).


Frank’s consolation prize to me was access to the state’s highest security prison for boys: Lincoln Treatment Center. The inmates had minimum sentences of six months, which were regularly extended extra-judiciously by young White female clinicians. The young men imprisoned at Lincoln—78 of the 80 inmates at the start of my 18 months were Black—were consistently described by DJA officials as the state’s “worst offenders.” I was granted relatively unfettered research access to Lincoln prison school, though relative to what I cannot say. I was also allowed into County, the state’s largest “coed” juvenile detention center, among various other sites. Just not girls. They were vanished from me, and so seemingly from the stories I could hear or narrate or observe or construct.


STATE SCHOOL AS DISCIPLINARY APPARATUS: FOUR PUNISHMENTS


In the United States, school is a paradigmatic institution. Though often depicted as responsive, reactive, mimetic, or passive, school is in fact as agentive an institutional network as the military. Insistences on presenting it differently are a clear window onto long-standing dominant attachments to the Education state as democratic and inherently good—a symbol of a beneficent social contract (Harris, 1993; Mills, 1999; Rousseau, 1978; Williams, 1991). Through such presentations of the school as organized around this kernel of good, corrections to its bad practices will return it to its mythical origin and noble potential. School is an American institutional redemption myth—a master story of the desire for return to a fantasied time and state before race and gender pollution, loss, and capitulation (Cho, 2009). It is an American fool’s paradise. School has always and variously been designed to create vilely stark power differentials, brutally assimilate and deculturalize, and ideologically weaponize a citizenry (Bell, 2004; Guinier, 2004; Lomawaima, 1993, 1995; Spring, 2016; Watkins, 2001). So, in spite of desires to the contrary, the U.S. school does not imitate carceral models and praxes. Rather, school and prison equally co-construct in law, policy, practice, and ideology.


While state schools have developed and perfected multiple forms of state punishment in service of their disciplinary endeavors, I am most interested in four: imprisonment, banishment, treatment, and vanishment. All manifest, organize, and answer to vigorous formulations of race, class, and gender, and other categories of power, creativity, control, and identity. And it is important to note here, as Joy James (1996) so powerfully lays plain in Resisting State Violence, that U.S. punishments have never operated, nor do they now, in postspectacle, disembodied ways; rather, they act through axial threats and enactments of brute, savage state torture that terrorize those marked as “aberrational, offensive, or threatening” (p. 26).


Imprisonment works both within schools and their networks with other state apparatuses. It works to reify and normalize authoritarian state power and signal captivity as a natural consequence for violation of codes, some logical and some capricious (Casella, 2003). Within schools, this might take on the form of relegation to an internal room for a set period of time—a sentence and a cell—with others being punished (Ferguson, 2001). It also forges blueprints for the standardization of solitary confinement, through individual student isolation within school buildings, and “enclosure” as the certain rendering of schooling for many Black students (Sojoyner, 2013, 2014, 2016). The collaborative function of school and other apparatuses might appear as what has been variously called the school-to-prison pipeline, or the school–prison nexus, among other framings (Meiners, 2007, 2011; Simmons, 2009; Wald & Losen, 2003; Winn, 2011; Winn & Behizadeh, 2011). (The school-to-prison pipeline framework has been smartly critiqued, but it is important to include here because its theorization opened a rich conversation and produced tangible action both within universities and across communities and organizations.) The school works to produce the conditions for criminalization, including codes, surveillance, and documentation (Skiba, 2001). Law enforcement, the judicial system, and DJA follow up to ensure captivity. Imprisonment is one of the more thoroughly examined forms of school-produced and practiced punishment.


Banishment connects the civil and the legal, operating through sanctions of exclusion for misconduct or behavior (Beckett & Herbert, 2009) Quite simply, banishment as a bundle of city policies and policing practices is “the exclusion of persons from relatively small geographic areas” that functions as “spatial segregation” (Beckett & Herbert, 2009, p. 10) and is justified through the regulation of “behaviors and situations that do not otherwise constitute crimes” (p. 15). Banishment is a form of social control in which civility codes of the past are territorially entrenched and legally expanded to displace and dispossess people whose conduct is a “nuisance,” but not yet criminal, in order to protect the broadly conceived and ill-defined security demands and desires of dominant citizens. It is a moral regulation tool, which produces the conditions and conduct for crime—the refusal of exclusion or banishment, for instance, is then a criminal offense. Significantly, banishment “is an attractive tool for police officers and correctional officers—it significantly increases their power to monitor, arrest, and search those who spend considerable time in public space” (pp. 18–19).


State schools are capacious institutions for the production and prediction of the commonsense practice of banishment in cities. For instance, teachers have authority to remove students from compulsory classrooms because they are too loud, or sleep, or refuse to do work. Although not criminal offenses, these infractions constitute violations of school conduct codes—refusal to abide by state behavioral and moral mandates. The consequence is official exclusion from a space moored to other resources, not the least of which is school completion. Teacher and administrator banishment (temporary or permanent) of students often relies on discourses of classroom community (the counterpart to neighborhood) security or expectations. Students can be banished from classrooms, cafeterias, or other school spaces, or they can be banished from the entire school in the form of suspension or expulsion. Refusal of banishment brings steeper consequences and ultimately criminal sanction. For example, a student who is caught riding her bike on school grounds during a period of suspension might receive a second penalty that generates graver implications. Moreover, extensive data linking suspension and the absorption into the juvenile legal system illustrate one way in which banishment as a result of noncriminal behavior proliferates the possibilities for state criminal sanction (Ayers, Dohrn, & Ayers, 2001; Fenning & Rose, 2007; Skiba, 2001; Skiba & Knesting, 2002). In schools, we witness daily the easy merger of civil and legal authorities in the consolidation of “power . . . to address behaviors and situations that do not otherwise constitute crimes” (Beckett & Herbert, 2009, p. 15). School banishment practices set the stage for the normalization of banishment in cities or other jurisdictions, and the assumption that moral conduct can and should be not only regulated but also tethered to law, crime, and punishment.


State school normalizes less visible, not overtly punitive, or even nominally supportive forms of banishment. Pregnancy or parenting programs often remove students from standard classrooms (Kelly, 2000; Luttrell, 2003; Pillow, 2004), under the auspices of support but anchored in moral regulation, and are harnessed to a third form of state school punishment: treatment. Treatment takes on various forms and practices—from adjustment counselor support to tracking into behavior disorder classrooms to construction of and compliance with “least restrictive environment”-driven 504 plans. Like other forms of punishment, treatment has become so popularized and so widespread that it is taking on preventive or prophylactic forms, such as the “mindfulness” practices that often serve to manage nondocile, nondominant bodies in classrooms. Treatment is an underconsidered system of school punishment in part because it is imagined as a loosely organized or legally mandated support system. Although treatment could be, and in some cases is, a supportive school-based practice to address individual students’ immediate needs related to a range of traumas or struggles, treatment most often (even in the process of positively supporting students) serves to hyperindividualize student distress, ability, and need, and to medicalize and/or pathologize its sources. Moreover, it is quite often linked to tracking into severely racially segregated special education courses and sites aimed at supposed behavioral disorders (Blanchett, 2006).


Situated in received convention of psychological sense-making as truth, and operating through reliance on developmental sciences, treatment produces the deviant, deficient, or broken youth—the child who ostensibly cannot tolerate, manage, or function within school—thereby reifying the normalcy and even benevolence of the state’s most massive institutional system. Yet various causes of the conducts that supposedly require treatment are not individual. For instance, trauma, as scholars and practitioners are increasingly showing us, is structurally sourced in race, gender, sexuality, and other systemically repressive societal power structures (Brave Heart, 1999, 2003; Brave Heart & DeBruyn, 1998; Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005; Carter, 2007; Helms, Nicolas, & Green, 2012; Utsey & Ponterotto, 1996). Suicide or self-injury are mistakenly understood as products of mental instability, ill health, and so on rather than responses to overwhelming and systematic oppression. As with other punishments—which serve a disciplinary society’s primary practice of regulation—treatment is aimed at an individual solution, containment, and subduction and not at a societal, institutional source.


Treatment policy and practice construct and support the deviant and deficient subject (Hill Collins, 2009; Smith, Miller-Kahn, Heinecke, & Jarvis, 2004; Stein, 2004), who is punished by being unable to fit into a supportive system. This supportive punishment often includes relegation to rooms in guidance offices or libraries, or other unused, undesignated, marginal school spaces outside the formal functioning of school where treated youth who cannot return to the unchanged classroom must complete schoolwork or engage in substitute activities. This marks the specialization of punishments anchored at the juncture of vanishment and banishment. Reincorporation is confounded by the near impossibility of returning to an institutional context in which one has been constructed as deviant, and explanations for time away are left to rumor and speculation. Moreover, treatment punishes the nondominant subject for expressing the distress of minoritization, liminalization, and repression. It punishes the refusal (chosen or not) to submit to emotional and social docility in the face of rampant, brutal socio-institutional inequity. It punishes rage. It punishes fear. It punishes grief.


And finally, while imprisonment and banishment are marked by self-evident attributes of state political projects, treatment smuggles in copious state projects by disguising itself in plain sight as the practice of individual care, support, and health. In fact, treatment is the public remark of a state retelling the reviling story of its annihilative wardship over all others—individuals (as imagined in dominant law), groups (as targeted by policy), and nations (as subjected to trustee status through treaties). Treatment pivots toward the individual, strategically masking its political jurisdiction and ambushing communities through a staggering accumulation of individual assaults, or “interventions.” In Therapeutic Nations, Dian Million (2013) wrote that prevailing nation-state rubrics declare human rights as intractably attentive to historical, colonial trauma and “healing.” In colonial state relations to Indigenous nations, this means “stronger states intervene in weaker states as moral humanitarian intervention without equal regard for their ‘sovereignty’” (p. 11), establishing an intransigent colonization—punishment through the adjudication of healing. Whether overtly proclaimed as benevolent settler state justice, or secreted away as part of an anti-Black project, for instance, treatment is equally state enterprise.


Imprisonment, banishment, and treatment are practices of individual and collective punishment that maintain hyper-documented features. Their language is state lexicons and genre its registers and reports. These first three forms of punishment produce, are inflected by, and are bounded by vanishment. Vanishment is the practice of punishment that is mechanized through the state refusal to record, register, and recognize. Instead of tracking, organizing, conditioning, and containing or exiling students, it works to erode their institutional and societal presence. And, although state-identified boys may certainly experience school-based vanishment, it is organized explicitly toward the social and state construction of future women. If girls leave school or the compulsory classroom for any extended period because of imprisonment, banishment, or treatment, they become ghosts—extrainstitutional beings whose return confounds the unpunished students who remain behind: the future citizens who are being prepared for disappearance of girls and women to be commonsense. Vanishment is the state production of naturalized haunting through ghostly punishments.


In school, it sometimes takes the form of girls being “talked to” after engaging in a verbal fight. Such a talking-to can involve a temporary imprisonment, banishment, or treatment, but often through informal praxes that have no paper or electronic trail, and often in spaces not institutionally designated for those punishments, such as the nurse’s office. Moreover, such a talking-to might involve state agents—teachers, counselors, administrators—talking off record and deciding the fight was “over a boy” perhaps and therefore secondarily vanished. The fight is remade as a heteronormative act, and girls’ agency, anger, and passion are vanished, along with other possible and plausible causes of the fight. The fight—the explicit, public, agentive act—is punished through the disappearance of its ever having taken place except in the personal memories and imaginations of institutional authorities and students. What this looks like across race, class, geography, and gender expression ranges in its specifics. However, I suggest it maintains a cohesive ideological and material core.


In a carceral society organized largely through active, structural surveillance—and for many, the terrorizing threat of state and state-sanctioned and state-permitted brutality—punishment is an umbrella tool for regulation, which is both consequential and prophylactic. Prophylaxis is enormously relevant to exploring vanishment because it presumes a deviation, a wrong shape that must be shaped in advance of its fulfillment of a subordinate role. Girls must be shaped in particularly vanishable ways as a means of regulating their various, intersectional forms of subordination. So vanishment might take the form of a pregnant teen leaving school but never formally dropping out. She might never pursue the state’s paper channels for confirmation of her severing of ties, and no one calls, writes, or contacts her. No truancy officer shows up. No threatening letters arrive (Colón, 2018). This is a story that as students and teachers, we experience and witness over and over. And, yet, some girls do get threatened by the state, do experience material sanctions tied to welfare, for instance (Augustin, 1997; D.-A. Davis, 2006). This is the special trick of vanishment. It works in tandem with the overt, documented disciplining of girls. And, not different girls, but the same girls. So that among low-income lesbian girls in one southwestern city, for instance, some might be sanctioned for leaving school, while others are simply left to vanish from the record. Or the same girl might be subjected to divergent punishments for the same, but repeated infraction. And the racial vectors of this selective punishing might not at first be obvious. The recording of some further hides the larger practice with others. Though consequential of its own, overt punishment is a diversion from vanishment, a game of smoke and mirrors by which state power is protected. So, we must begin to see vanishment in part through how it is shaped as both the boundaries and the heart of recorded punishment. School and prison-school and prison, as paradigmatic institutions working to reproduce and produce and practice carceral society with precitizens, cannot recognize or formalize vanishment without abdicating their tremendous power. So, we have to begin to ask how vanishment coincides with other state punishments in order to map an articulation among them and begin to see the fullness of state power in relation to girls.


Vanishment may begin to address a cluster of questions surrounding school and discipline. One of those questions begins: How is the punishment of girls differently mechanized from that of boys? When the mapping of girls’ punishment has relied on the compass of theories cultivated to describe men and boys in relation to paternalist state coordinates of power, how do we make sense of undersurveillance, nonrecording, and informal punishments that may highlight a relationship between school and the ongoing relegation of all things female to a private, unseen sphere? How do we ask these questions within the heart of the state’s most regulated, documented, massive compulsory apparatus? For instance, how might we understand Spillers’s (1987) suggestion that while “‘gendering’ takes place within the confines of the domestic” (p. 72), the domestic in the context of violent White private and state slavery relations extended beyond the imagined household? How, then, is state schooling a site of state domesticity in which girls’ naming and subjectivity is state controlled? And, urgently: What is eclipsed by our current conceptual navigations, and how do we step into territory immediately surrounding us, but also illegible to our sextants of inquiry? How do we conceptualize state disciplinary practices that are characteristically elusive and evasive?


I cannot pretend here to fully conceptualize vanishment as a mechanism, an ideology, or a practice. What I offer is a constellation of stories that ask what I understand as imperative construct-building questions: Where do we see vanishment? How does it work? How do we imagine new or reformulate current methodologies to uncover and examine vanishment? As education researchers, many (but not all) of us are working circuitously though and unevenly among the three registered forms of state school punishment because that is where the document and human trail leads. It is, however, a closed loop of state registers, outside of which exists state and societal practice of vanishment that evades view, becomes normal and expected, and is eclipsed as a means of punishing all girls preventively and actively. Yet its form is there. So I go back Inside to consider a story.


COUNTY: A SITE AND A STORY OF VANISHMENT


Given that punishment is a basis of state schooling on the Outside, that schooling on the Outside serves as the state’s primary democratic trope, and that school and prison are imitative institutions, it was no surprise to me that education in the form of school was DJA’s central, organizing practice of incarceration. The overt and purposeful relationship between departments and practices of “education” and “justice” permeates every level of the state, from local to federal. Prison schools are an especially vivid context of the merger of systems—revealing their interdependent praxes and shared visions. Axial to that merger in DJA was treatment. Compulsory, captive schooling was promoted and practiced as DJA’s primary mode of treatment. As part of this organization, DJA designed a second tier of central administrators who worked as liaisons between the central administration and the state-contracted private not-for-profit that ran schooling at all the state facilities. Jamie Ray was one of these second-tier administrators. She was the senior education coordinator for the largest, most populous region of the state, and her home office was Inside the state’s biggest juvenile detention facility, County.


Mirroring its counterparts in other cities nationwide, County was erected in the heart of an economically underresourced Black residential neighborhood and was architecturally featured by its multi-million-dollar, multi-story upgrade. County jutted off the topography of the central city neighborhood in towering, strident red brick framed by sky-high chain-link fence, adorned by impressive coils of glinting, euphemistic concertina wire. Surrounding the County building was a choking asphalt collar of a parking lot fit for a military base, or a mega-mall. County dwarfed evidence of the neighborhood life around it, geographically marking the 3-D map as state territory with border walls of chain link. Though official estimates varied, it was safe to say County “processed” over 5,000 “admissions” annually. How many of those were duplicates or triplicates or more was entirely unclear. The average length of locked “stay” at County for youth (ages 8–21) was just shy of three weeks. Many kids locked in County were “awaiting” formal charges, but yet many others were there absent any present or future charges—products of state regulation through police sweeps, school truancy, and monitoring of noncriminal conduct. Inside, County maintained an extensive education program. While the cell units or group areas (makeshift and designated) were single sex, fervently divided through state designations of male or female, the classrooms included all detainees—excepting those banished for a range of security reasons. Or, so I originally thought.


It is Inside County, and with Jamie Ray as my dedicated guide, that the story of this article finds its form in the shape of a found absence. It was Inside County that I came to understand the insistence of “the spellbinding material relations of exchange between the defined and the inarticulate, the seen and the invisible, the known and the unknown” (Gordon, 1997, p. 200). At County, my research became haunted.


VANISHING POINTS: GHOST STORIES


GHOST STORY 1: “AN ACT OF CHANCE”


 “An act of chance or disaster produced a divergence or an aberration from the expected and usual course of invisibility and catapulted her from the underground to the surface of discourse.” (Hartman, 2008, p. 2)


It was a slip. Had I been tired or distracted or even interested in anything else Jamie Ray was saying, I might have missed it. That’s how slight it was.


“…the girls in the basement,” she said, casually ending a sentence to which I could not at first pay attention. The sun glinted off the concertina wire outside her dirty window. Wicked splinters of diamonds.


“The basement?” I perked up, sitting to proverbial attention in my chair.


Jamie Ray was noticeably, instantly vexed. She had been sloppy in talking with me, and I had caught it and was running with it. Immediately regretful, she refused to look at me, and instead locked eyes with her archaic computer screen and tapped a desultory pattern on her keyboard. I watched her hands move falsely. She was a White woman, likely in her mid-40s, her usual uniform faded black yoga pants and a shirt. I always struggled to remember the shirt.


“Who are the girls in the basement?” I persisted, congenial and low-key as ever.


 Over time, Jamie Ray had shared all manner of information with me, including the against-policy use of the gym and cafeteria spaces for overflow detainee sleeping during neighborhood police sweeps on school breaks, and the detention of an 8-year-old boy who had simply been experimenting with fire-starting on the sidewalk in front of a family house, among many other things. She had pointed me in directions that were perhaps not part of the road map DJA senior administrators imagined for me. But she had also decided early on that I was naïve or at least to be treated as such. In spite of central-office administrator Porter introducing me to Jamie as a professor at a local university, and in spite of introducing my then 38-year-old-self as a university teacher, Jamie introduced me to others Inside as a “graduate student from a university doing some research to learn about our kids.” After a while, she dropped the “graduate student” portion and just introduced me as someone doing research. But she remained committed to the idea that I was unsophisticated in the ways of her world. She shared information by educating me into the stories of DJA, its narration of the ways of the world that were ostensibly unknown to me: the protective, familial function of the state; the peril of the urban world from which the detainees hailed. “There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” wrote Achebe. “Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like” (2000, p. 24; see also Bell, 1992; Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 2000; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). Jamie Ray acted as self-appointed storyteller: sage, guide, and mentor. She was a maternalist teller of tales. And, fittingly, she withheld frequently, in service of her better judgment about my inability to understand.


But in that act of chance, in her moment of lesser judgment, Jamie Ray offered me glimpse of her partializing stories. Accidentally, she offered me the chance to imagine “the full truth of partializing social constructions to be felt for their overwhelming reality” (Williams, 1988, p. 11). Jamie Ray offered me a haunting of understanding in the captivity of girls in the County basement.


GHOST STORY 2: A LONG AND ANGULAR WALK

 

Jamie Ray guided me on a long and angular walk to the ghosted girls locked in the basement of County. She took me on a route so convoluted and repetitive that I suspected it was meant to be impossible for me to remember. And, it was. For this one walk—in and around hallways, along corridors, up and down stairs, between the old building and the new—and only on this walk, Jamie Ray (who usually walked side-by-side with me) walked ahead of me, silently organizing me into my place behind her. I followed.


Following, I contemplated what to ask. How to ask it. I felt like the naïve student she wanted me to be.

 

“Why are these girls separated from the rest of the population?” I took a stab.


“Oh, they need extra support,” Jamie Ray replied without turning, without missing a step.


“What does that mean?” I asked, agitated to be talking to the back of her head.


“They struggle more than some of the others,” she said matter-of-factly. Her expert deflections bounced off the sallow tile floors, echoed against the anemic walls, and buzzed with the relentless fluorescent lights above. Her voice was the narration of the total institution, and I wondered if it was coming from her mouth or a speaker in the ceiling (Goffman, 1961).


“Is there a similar all-boys unit?” I asked, having long ago worn out my welcome to inquire.


We were paused at a slate-blue metal door to which Jamie Ray had a key. Jiggling her key ring in front of the door, she looked up at me with a disdainful smile, and said, “These girls really need extra support. Fortunate—they’re—we’re fortunate to be able to provide it.”


Later, I would learn, as I suspected, there was no similar space for “struggling” young male detainees. When I asked DJA central administrators how girls were identified for the County basement, I encountered the absence of information. Some were simply surprised to hear of the basement. Others ventured into speculation: they must be girls who suffered from “sexual abuse or relationship violence.” Maybe, some offered, they were involved in “inappropriate sexual behavior.” To a person, no one knew about the basement, and no one seemed concerned to know. They had no record and felt compelled to make none.


When finally Jamie Ray stopped very near the end of a long, untrafficked first-floor hallway in the new building and turned to open that inconspicuous slate-blue side door, I knew we had arrived at the unremarkable entrance to the basement. She opened the door, and I fell in step behind her as we moved down a new hallway with no windows, no signs, no bearings. I followed Jamie Ray off the map, and out of the world of directions and compasses, the world of alarms and surveillance cameras, into absence.


In a building 700 miles away, in Cleveland, Ohio, the unassuming entrance to the basement was padlocked. Behind that door, and down the stairs, three girls were held captive for years. They were locked in chains. Doors were placed sideways over windows and held forever in place by sheared bolts. The building was a house, owned by a man, who lived and worked and vanished girls in plain sight. One of those girls he vanished as she walked home from school. That vanishment and imprisonment was revealed only because one of the girls, now a woman, miraculously broke free. But its systemic existence is not lonely, as there are countless other such basements across North America, run by men whose extralegal vanishment of girls and women mirrors the vanishments conducted by the state and normalized by school. The man and the state mirror and make one another, reinforcing the seamlessness by which girls vanish. The challenge is to conceptualize that mirroring and making, and to advance a construct that explores it.


One possibility is haunting. “Haunting,” explained Gordon, “is the sociality of living with ghosts, a sociality both tangible and tactile as well as ephemeral and imaginary” (Gordon, 1997, p. 201; see also Cacho, 2012; Hartman, 2007; Holland, 2000). In school and in prison is the certain sociality of living with living ghosts, ghosted people, who as minors—precitizens, pre-noncitizens, and other unrighted, unpropertied categories of societal being (Harris, 1993; Williams, 1991)—can be made or unmade by the state, registered or unrecorded. The process of unmaking and unrecording girls paradigmatically conditions everyone for the way in which the societal vanishment of many women is commonsense. Through punishments of vanishment, disciplined women are produced as by nature tangible in their ephemerality, tactile through imagination. And all women can be imagined as naturally predisposed to vanish, though differently so. In other words, school makes girls seem as if there is something inherent in them that vanishes. However, in prison and detention schooling, the documenting powers of state operate in full force. The escalated state surveillance at County made the basement a site of extreme ephemerality, and its illumination all the more stark.


GHOST STORY 3: ALLOCHRONIC AUNTIE


The County basement unfolded in front of us into a hallway of locked doors. I suspected those doors led to boiler rooms and storage closets and other organs of a mammoth institution building. Jamie Ray and I moved along toward a corner of the building into a final hallway lined with kelly green indoor/outdoor carpeting. That hallway led to a bathroom, classroom, and sleeping and common areas designated for the captivity of about a dozen girls. Excepting the bathroom, each room had garden-level security windows along the upper reaches of just one wall. The windows were nearly opaque so that only light but no form or image came in, or went out.


Jamie Ray walked straight into the classroom, where all the “struggling” and “fortunate” girls were sitting in haphazardly situated desks and chairs. Black, White, and Latina girls of many racial identities. She introduced me to the teacher, who was sitting behind a large metal desk, on top of which she was rummaging through her generously sized purse. And then she introduced me to the “assistant,” Marie, who was sitting with the girls talking about or working on something. Marie perked up when she heard I was doing research and said, “Oh! We’ll talk when you leave.” I nodded. I noted quickly the absence of any security staff, who were in every other classroom in every other locked facility I had entered. It was, in fact, policy to have at least one security staff person in any space in which the detainees or inmates were being held.


Then, before I could introduce myself to the girls, one of them yelled out to me in terrific excitement, “Auntie!” I smiled, delighted by the game, and the prospect of being gamed. The girl and I had a spirited conversation about our imagined shared family members, neighbors, and friends—who went to college, who kicked out whom, who finally got a job, who missed her and sent their well wishes. It was play, but we were both so good at it, for a moment it felt a little bit real. Of course, I never approached her, as an auntie would, nor she I, as a niece would—not only because I was not her auntie, but also because the state had a strict no-touch policy that meant it never even crossed my mind or hers, I suspect. We were odd auntie and niece, trapped in allochronic planes from one another, and so utterly unconvincing (Duncan, 2005; Fabian, 2002).


All the while, Jamie Ray, the teacher, and Marie watched our conversation silently. When the conversation was over, and I had talked to the teacher and a couple other girls, Marie came up to walk me out. Jamie Ray stayed behind.


“How did you know Johnette?” asked Marie, as we walked away from that corner of the County basement on the bright-green carpet.


“Oh,” I responded, surprised. We had been so unconvincing: two ghosts playing a game. “I don’t know her. We were just joking around.”


Behind us, in the receding classroom, the teacher asked Johnette, “How did you know her?”


“I don’t know that lady from a hole in the wall!” Johnette laughed. There was laughter from the other girls, and the teacher was silent.


Johnette, that girl-niece, and I, that lady-auntie, were ghosts to each other but temporarily real to others. We played out a charade of specters who cannot share kinship knowledge or cross invisible planes of separation. Johnette was vanished from my world in the basement of County and I vanished from hers in the world of the Outside and the university. We were more than Inside and Outside, prisoner and citizen. But what exactly were we, and how does one study the relations of vanishment?


I never saw Johnette again. I cannot ask her questions, and I cannot speculate her stories. How does one write the absence produced—the abundant, dense, deserted space? What is the phenomenology of the corporality of ghosts? My ghost, in research-relation to Johnette? Borrowing from Hartman’s (2008) consideration of the archive of slavery and the narrative of the silenced Venus, I repeat her precept: “Narrative restraint, the refusal to fill in the gaps and provide closure, is a requirement of this method” (p. 12). Johnette was a vanished subject, and a ghost characterized by complex personhood that I could not neatly narrate. As I wrote, she lived both at the heart of my stories and utterly outside their plot. A gap. A gaping space. A full and haunting presence.


GHOST STORY 4: WITNESSLESS: “TO ILLUMINATE PROFANELY”

 

Marie walked close to me in that secretive way that some women sometimes do with other women they do not know, saying with their leaned-in bodies, “I have something I need to share with you, but you have to know it is sacred.” It was an eager walk. A hushed walk. A sheltered walk: out of the cavern of the state’s tower; up and out, through the security exit; and into the shocking daylight of the vast parking lot. There, with our hands raised, shielding our eyes like bills to caps we were not wearing, we talked about the basement.


Marie was lovely and young. Irish, she said, unsolicited. Her illuminated cheek was smooth like the carefully rough arc of a very light brown egg. She told me she was getting her B.A. so she could be a counselor. Her eyes, squinted against the surprising sun, glimmered hazel green.


“If I grew up like these kids, I’d be just like them. Like nobody cared about them in school or like other things that made life so hard.” She was almost pleading.


“I spend all my time that they let me on that girls’ unit.” She waited for me to ask or understand something. But, I was uncertain, so I nodded and felt my brow furrow in deep attention to her.

“I’m not supposed to be tellin’ you this stuff, but it’s okay. Okay?” She said, reassuring me in ways I still don’t understand. “The system is unfair to kids, but specially those girls. It’s not just CORI check and stuff for them so they can’t get a job with a record check. It’s more.”


“Okay?” She said-asked. “Off the record. You can write it and all, just not my exact words after this.” She was nodding in a gesture that asked: Do you understand exactly what I mean?


“Of course,” I said. What reassurance or gratitude or confidence could I offer someone who decided before I arrived she was going to tell me something?


“You need to make changes, okay. You need to show this. Record that.” She said. And then she told me that the basement was for girls who were different. That basement unit had no security staff during the day, no cameras. The girls only got to go outside or do exercise in the gym if no other kids were there at the time. It was a sort of group solitary confinement. They were there much longer than the rest of the kids detained at County.


As she talked I felt her ache in my own chest, her rage in my own stomach. Her yearning, fury, love.


Her tale was of compassion and insistence, but without plot. It was a story about the unstoried.


The girls, Marie said, were always Black, White, and “Spanish”—and sometimes a Native girl. Always about 12 of them. And, always outwardly or seemingly gay. The basement was a site of state carceral vanishment for lesbian, queer, gay, nonconforming girls. Butch, femme, out, or just possible. Suspicious. And buried. Marie grabbed my arm as she talked. The girls were not only separated from the general population of County, but they were also separated during schooling, with a room, a teacher, and an aide—Marie. They would never do this to boys. No one knows about them. No one cares about them. No one tells their stories.


“The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them,” writes Hartman. “So it is tempting to fill in the gaps and to provide closure where there is none. To create a space for mourning where it is prohibited. To fabricate a witness to a death not much noticed” (2008, p. 8). What happens when the death is a civil, social one (Cacho, 2012)? How do we witness the absence without fabricating a presence? What is the vanishment of queer or queered girls Inside prison? How and why does prison and its schooling lose girls on purpose? And how do we annotate that mechanism without fabricating a witness?


Vanishment is not only without witnesses. If discipline is in part the coercive regulation and division of bodily and social body movements through the regimented organization of time and space, vanishment is the exclusion from that regulation. Isolation from it. Vanishment is removal from the architecture, time, and conduct of surveillance. It is a form of punishment that refuses incorporation into disciplinary society. The absence of surveillance or even witness is axial to this exile. While state hyper-surveillance or excessive documentation is almost never desirable—is almost always a form of punishment tethered to severe repression—to be unworthy of documentation and surveillance by such a state, to be of not enough concern to document or so much concern to not document, is a terrifyingly unrecognizable condition of controlled dispossession.


In the basement of County, give or take a dozen girls at any given time were unrecorded. There were no surveillance cameras to monitor or be concerned with their every move. Their movements mattered only in their invisibility. While the other hundreds of detainees participated in regimented schooling together, regardless of their cell or group sleeping sites, the girls in the basement had a separate room, unregulated by changing class periods. The timetables of disciplinary society were inaccessible to the girls in the basement, as their temporal movements were irrelevant and the coercive tempo of disciplinary society and carceral institutions was utterly counter to their particular punishment of being vanished. Counted, charted, buzzered time overlaid and shaped by institutional content (the disciplines of state schooling: math; science; history; language) was a territorialized domain of civil and carceral life from which they were removed. They inhabited the uncharted, unknown spaces outside that known world, but Inside the very state that produced and mandated those territories of time and content. At the bottom of an ocean of state dispossession, but alive.


In the basement of County was “the tangled exchange of noisy silences and seething absences” (Gordon, 1997, p. 200) that constitute haunting. “Haunting,” wrote Gordon, “describes just those ‘experiences to which the fixed forms do not speak at all, which . . . they do not recognize’” (p. 200). Vanishment unmoors the punished from form and fixture. The questions then orbit around the conundrum of stories. How do we tell stories? And how does the partial impossibility or the admonishment to leave silences and gaps in our stories direct us toward possibility, not nihilism? “The necessity of trying to represent what we cannot,” urged Hartman, “rather than leading to pessimism or despair must be embraced as the impossibility that conditions our knowledge of the past and animates our desire for a liberated future” (Hartman, 2008, p. 13). In the telling of vanishment, what are our knowledges and desires, and how do we converge them respectful of the vanished subjects and the exigencies of mapping vanishment? In part, we must find ways to do what Gordon described Morrison and Valenzuela doing: finding ways of seeing through stories and their telling that refuse to comply with vanishment and that seek out structural confluences of vanishing power: “their way of seeing does not just disclose the evidence of things not seen, neglected and banished: it illuminates profanely” (Gordon, 1997, p. 203). This is our charge: to illuminate profanely the vanishment of women and girls by saying more than where they are missing.


CONCLUSION: A HOUSE OF RESISTANCE


 “What are the stories one tells in dark times? How can a narrative of defeat enable a place for the living or envision an alternative future?” (Hartman, 2008, p. 14)


Women and girls do not vanish, as if vanishing, to vanish, is a feature of the universe. They are, rather, vanished. This is a feature of our universe. One perpetrated and practiced by schools until it is so commonsense as to go unnoticed. Over a quarter-century ago, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen grabbed Americans’ attention with a New York Times Review of Books article entitled, “More than 100 million women are missing” (1990). In it he argued, “These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women.” That terrible story is an origin story, a story of epic duration, an organizing narrative of contemporary society. How do we tell that story? Sen’s final sentence of his lengthy, rigorous treatment of the conundrum reads,


If this situation is to be corrected by political action and public policy, the reasons why there are so many “missing” women must first be better understood. We confront here what is clearly one of the more momentous, and neglected, problems facing the world today. (Sen, 1990, emphasis added)


One of those reasons why is school. School is a site, a practice, and a story of vanishment. So, ahead lie the tasks of conceptualizing vanishment, of mapping it, and of telling the stories of the vanished. To those tasks I have questions, a story, and some imperfect offerings.


About 12 of the missing girls in the world are in a basement in a large detention center in the middle of a city, targeted by and removed from compulsory state school and exiled from the “treatment” of carceral schooling. As I stood in that vast, hot parking lot and listened to Marie tell me, those girls are gay, I imagined a narrative of defeat that could enable a place for the living. Were those girls vulnerable, as the state imagined to me in denying me access to all-girl facilities? Did they suffer or report familial or relationship violence? Did they break the law, skip school, get in fights? Did they suffer trauma, engage in self-injury, or attempt suicide? Of course, some of them probably did. They live in a misogynist, violently racist, heteropatriarchal society. “Despite the image that has been constructed of them,” wrote Richie (2004), “girls in jails, prisons, and detention centers and under state supervision are less dangerous to the world around them than the world is to them” (p. 76).


These violences are things that many girls experience and some report, some others have reported about them, and yet others report and find themselves assaulted, revictimized by those authorities to whom they report (Richie, 2012). They are subjected to “isolation and subsequently treated as social deviants” (p. 112). Among other things, isolation produces a specific witnessless, cobbled roughly to a removal from civic, social, or legal time and space (McKittrick, 2006; Thomas, 2016). Without question, this is an experience shared by many girls in prison. But it is not singularly why they were in the basement, or why girls were in prison in this particular state, or why I could not do research with them.


In listening to Marie, I heard this story: The dozen or so girls in the basement of County were insurgent to the state’s narrative of gender (Winddance Twine, 2008). Their perceived disinterest in straightness was a danger to the state’s practice of heteropatriarchy and its social contract with dominant men (Canaday, 2009). It was a signal threat to the state’s abusive rationale for benevolent, captive protection of wounded girls. Johnette I heard as a protagonist in one particular insurgent story of many: a story of Black female resistance. As A. Davis (1972) argued, enslaved Black women were imagined and treated by the White state and powered privates as “custodians of the house of resistance” within Black communities. Johnette’s vanishment was one of state counterinsurgency, but her story was one of a legacy of resistance. These are the stories that we must illuminate profanely.


ILLUMINATING A PATH OF STORIES FORWARD


At the end of Compulsory I ask readers to wonder with me about the relationship between schooling and the disappearance of girls and women. I ask them to consider the elusive, dissembled shapes of vanishment. For instance, Black women and girls make up 40% of missing women and girls in the United States So, I ask:


How is their absence made to actualize and actualized by the ideological and material purposes and functions of prison and school? By what . . . institutionalizations of power do people, organizations, and agents so easily abscond with Black women and girls? How might this ease of abduction specify the shape of school discipline? Why is that ease so important to understanding prison and education and vice versa? (Vaught, 2017, p. 325)


These are germinal questions—chrysalid in a world of questions that deserves intricacy and abundance.


Returning to the charge laid out in the “Black Girls Matter” report to conduct research into the “silence about . . . the risks that Black and other girls of color confront” in harshly punitive educational contexts (Crenshaw et al., 2015, p. 8, emphasis added), scholars might marshal a range of feminist methodologies (D.-A. Davis & Craven, 2016) to identify school-based vanishment of Black girls and then examine how it is structurally, ideologically coupled with societal vanishment.


To further pursue vanishment, we might explore how it is built in to an elementary school’s culture of in-class discipline, or how it is narrated at a high school’s monthly discipline team meeting, where assistant district attorneys, truancy officers, vice principals, adjustment counselors, and others come together to share notes on students. How does our increasing understanding of policing outside schools sharpen our understanding of the targeting of girls of Color in schools (Ritchie, 2017)? And scholars might look for resistance—they might spend time with girls in school nurses’ offices, guidance centers, and libraries, among many other sites, learning their stories of vanishment. We might imagine Richie’s (2012) “prison nation” matrices in conversation with Katherine McKittrick’s (2006) literary-geographic contemplations of “unvisibility” with Deborah Thomas’ (2016) exploration of violence and the otherwise—how “exceptional violence” in the context of “structural and symbolic violence” leads to “an experience of time neither as linear nor cyclical” (p. 183) but as “temporal simultaneities” (p. 188)—with Simone Browne’s (2015) “dark sousveillance”: “a way to situate the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight, and strategies used in the flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of undersight” (p. 21). How might these together help describe both the repressive force of state vanishment and young people’s purposeful self-positioning of unwatchedness as insurgent to repressive state unwatchings and unrecordings in schools? What is the insurrectionist rejoinder to vanishment? And can we map the correlatives of vanishment’s practice in some measure by observing the spatial conditions of its resistance? “Dark sousveillance charts possibilities and coordinates of modes of responding to, challenging, and confronting a surveillance that was almost all-encompassing” (Browne, 2015, p. 21).


We might also look at the shifting state categories of punishment and grouping to complicate how punishment is coordinated and resisted. The girls in the basement shared formally state-identified gender—female—but not state-identified race. They did share an informally state-identified feature: sexuality. Yet that is not a category traceable in any state punishment document. Sarah Deer (2015) invited us to consider how Native American women are vanished in plain sight by the U.S. legal system’s translations of women into objects—translations that ontologically refute sovereign epistemologies and practices. Are there other vanishments, then? Conceptually, does colonial law make Indigenous women sitting captive in a courtroom also MMIW? While vanishment asks us to look for practices that are unrecorded, it also asks us to look for groupings of people who are unregistered as a calculation of punishment: wrongly recognized, formally unrecognized but acted upon, and more.


Such a look might also draw connections between the brute, total disappearance of missing persons and the seemingly mundane exertions of vanishment. How do various students, in the specific powered terrain of their local contexts, get vanished and why? What does it mean when pregnant teens stop attending schools and no one ever calls or knocks on their door? These are questions Melissa Colón explored in her testimonio study with Puerto Rican women who became pregnant or mothers while in high school in New England (Colón, 2018). While the women—who attended a range of public schools and who did not necessarily know one another—shared a racial-ethnic-national identity as Puerto Rican, their state and institutional races were varied. The women shared that as pregnant or parenting students, many of them simply stopped attending school and were never formally disenrolled. They never dropped out. And no one came looking for them. They just vanished from school. We know this is not an accident when truancy officers work diligently to track down other children, or when truant girls whose mothers are eligible for certain government subsidies are tracked down and monitored to the minute to determine if their attendance will be used to allow or deny family subsidies. But what we need to know with clarity is how these covert punishments are mechanized, how they coordinate with overt forms, how they articulate within and across institutions, and how they are normalized and made invisible across society. And we need to understand how they do not always align neatly with state-imposed or school-agent-assessed categories of race.


This article offers an imperfect cluster of conceptualizing questions, a constellation of ghost stories, and a vast terrain of possible examination—one that needs nuance, focus, distinction, and specificity. In essence, this article is a question: How are the disciplinary punishments of school moored to societal practices through vanishment, and can we defamiliarize the familiar of heteropatriarchal, supremacist state and private violence to map its unregistered axes, to recognize and exalt insurgencies against it and marronage within it, and to wreak havoc on its vast unrecorded jurisdiction?


Notes


1. These initial stories are intended to invoke Patricia Williams’s stories and storytelling.


2. Lewis, R. W. B. (1959). The American Adam: Innocence, tragedy, and tradition in the nineteenth century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 7, 2019, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22545, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 8:44:55 PM

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About the Author
  • Sabina Vaught
    University of Oklahoma
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    SABINA E. VAUGHT is professor of educational studies and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma. Her most recent book, Compulsory: Education and the Dispossession of Youth in a Prison School (2017, University of Minnesota Press), is an ethnographic examination of school Inside one state's juvenile prison schooling system and its relation to a nexus of state and private power structures Outside.
 
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