In the prologue of The Obelisk Gate, we are introduced to the world of Syl Anagist from the perspective of Houwha (Hoa, pre-stone eater days) trapped in a “sterile space” that is his prison. In this world, there is simply “no need for guards when you can convince people to collaborate in their own internment. Here is a cell within a pretty prison” (5). Reading this passage, I was immediately struck with the connection to our own modern prison system. At this point in time, according to the Pew Research Center, the United States of America is the country with the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. The United States only represents a fraction of the world’s population at 4.4%, but has an astounding 22% of the world’s prisoners. If these statistics don’t speak volumes of our prison system, I frankly don’t know what does.
In my WGST class, we covered the systematic corruption within the prison system that is dominated by a few large privatized corporations that profit off of prisoners. From the moment a person is convicted and is officially sentenced to prison, they are indefinitely trapped in the system. Depending on their circumstances, once incarcerated, they are lead down a path of contributing towards their continual imprisonment. In prison, prisoners are supposed to be rehabilitated and returned to society reformed. However, the toxic environment of prison hardly facilitates such activities at all, and most often regresses the prisoners to an even worse state than they were in prior. If the prisoner does not comply with the standards held in prison, they are put into solitary confinement where one is in a cell with limited contact for 23 hours a day. These conditions have been revealed to be devastating to many prisoners’ mental states with many facing hallucinations following it. But, if and once released, a prisoner is discharged with a low amount of money in order to get to their destination, which many lack and are automatically deemed homeless. Even if they do get to their destination, it is most likely in an area that reinforces the behavior that got them in prison, originally. Moreover, a prisoner cannot easily find a job, vote, and work towards other basic necessities, because of their previous record. Basically, all in all, they are set to fail. Mirroring this with The Fifth Season, orogenes are prisoners. Shaking with anger, Nassun expresses her frustration with the prejudiced world orogenes are born into. “Nassun bares her teeth and clenches her fists. It isn’t right, Schaffa. It isn’t right that people want me to be bad or strange or evil, that they make me bad” (87). Orogenes are held captive by the expectations that are drawn for them, and more often than not, are led to fulfill their evil careers they are “destined” for.
With this mind, coming across the concept of not needing guards and “self-internment,” America’s very own flawed prison system jumped out at me. The surroundings of Houwha’s prison are clearly better with its futuristic nature, but the underlying theme is still the same. This theme is highlighted across throughout the trilogy with orogenes as well. Although the Fulcrum and The Stillness’ society are not explicitly prisons, it does not make them places of freedom whatsoever. The orogenes have hidden themselves throughout comms and creating a sort of “mental prison” where they hide their abilities and their identities. They are forbidden to express themselves freely in the fear of being killed, because they are roggas. If not, they are used as Guardians in the Fulcrum as modern day slaves like America does with our prisoners. In the trilogy, by joining the Fulcrum, orogenes are “paid” with being able to be orogenes in public and given a level of respect. In juxtaposition, American prisoners are legitimately given slave labor wages fighting against the California at an amazing hourly rate of two whole dollars. Unfortunately, it’s nothing new that prisoners face inhumane conditions. Our prison system has leaps to go before it can be considered a place where people can go to learn how to be reintegrated into society. I think Houwha’s words ring true when he said of self imprisonment has long been and is the “eternal truth of humankind” (5).
A side note: I always thought the way Houwha’s name was spelled was intriguing, because it is similar to the style Korean names are romanized. I don’t know if Jemisin was purposeful with this, but nevertheless caught my eye!