Keywords: Laudato Si’, Space, Confinement, Ontological Damage, Privilege
Earlier this spring I was selected to serve on a Federal District Court jury for a civil case that lasted three days. The jury was not sequestered; however, we were confined for several hours at a time to the courtroom and the comfortable jury suite, which was replete with baskets of snacks, endless coffee and tea, and a fridge filled with cold drinks. As we looked out the large windows at a beautiful Tallahassee spring day, my fellow jurors and I complained about feeling trapped (especially since we couldn’t have our cell phones, laptops, or pads with us). None of this will strike you as remarkable except for the fact that the plaintiff in our case, an inmate at a Florida Correctional Facility acting as his own attorney, was suing two officers for applying “excessive force”. This life-term inmate had been in the prison system for more than a decade—much of it in confinement. He carefully described the cell he shared with another inmate: confined to a cramped space, with a small window on the door, food was delivered to them through a small flap. On days when they were allowed to shower, they were cuffed first, while the guards shaved them, and then walked them to the shower area.
The inmate’s testimony haunted me for days after I was “released” from my jury duty. As I remembered our complaints about being cooped up, I thought about the inmate who left the trial to return to his cage-like cell. The jury room was palatial in contrast to the space he had to share with his cellmate; and my 2000 square foot house suddenly felt obscene.
How many square feet does a human being need to survive and to thrive? Clearly we need more than an 8x10 cell. In our affluent Western societies, we obsess about adequate space, with house sizes growing as we convince ourselves that we need extra bathrooms, huge walk-in closets, 3-car garages, and more. And yet we are also attracted to the coziness that the small house movement seems to offer.
This question of how much space we need is both political and ethical. A dominant minority controls how much space people are entitled to have. Only those with political power are able to draw lines … to demarcate desirable v. undesirable properties to mortgage, erect walls and fences to enforce “one’s place”, and build prisons to incarcerate those who trespass against the space of the privileged. President Trump declared recently: “Our country is full. Our area is full. The sector is full. We can't take you anymore.” The president of the most powerful nation in the world is authorized to decide how much space his citizens need. Of course, Trump’s comments weren’t really about space; they were about who inhabits the space he controls.
Space is thus more than an ethical and political issue; it is deeply existential. The irony is that although humans need space, we also need closeness and attachment, proximity to others. Enclosing and confining certain citizens as we do in prisons harms them and damages our society. Lisa Guenther, in Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (2012), writes about the ontological damage that solitary confinement does to the inmate. It is “a disturbance or even derangement of the complex relations between self, other, and world in a confined space where, for the most part, experience of spatial and intercorporeal depth are foreclosed” (181). Human connections are integral to our thriving, yet we resist connections that violate our personal space. For our brothers and sisters who are suffering in prison or from political oppression, contemplating the need for any personal space is a painful reminder of their circumstances.
In a different context, Pope Francis addresses the issue of space and how we humans choose to divide it in Laudato Si'. He writes,
§44. … Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.
§45. In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighborhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquility.
So, whether it is our abhorrent system of incarceration, the President’s refusal to welcome the oppressed and downtrodden into our national space, or the Pope’s concerns about how we have compartmentalized the natural world, the moral problem we face is about how to promote and protect human dignity. The District Court’s jury suite was palatial while the average cell size in Florida’s prisons is smaller than either of the two bathrooms to which we had unrestricted access. Families fleeing political and economic oppression want to enter our country while the President declares that we are out of room; yet many of us need only look around our homes and universities and other edifices to see the unutilized space that functions as a buffer –a buffer that we foolishly believe will keep us safe. In a similar way, the ecological neighborhoods that Francis describes help us to ignore the reality of environmental destruction and its borderless incursions. Until we can fully confront the political, ethical, and existential meanings of space, we will continue to be trapped by it.