11/22/07

colditz19301.jpgAt the end of the little video I made of Justin’s band Sufferbus I ask Justin when he first knew that he was a drummer. He thinks for a minute and then says “It was when I was locked up because I used to beat on shit.” Justin spent a sizable percentage of his time in juvenile detention in solitary confinement; he has described to me how he would pull a thread out of his sock, roll it into a tiny ball, and practice over and over again trying to hit a particular spot on the metal door of his cell. Thinking about that terrible time in Justin’s life reminded me of a section in Mark’s master’s thesis. Mark has let me copy it here.

During World War II, Colditz Castle, a one-thousand-year-old fortress nearcourtalt111.jpg Dresden, was chosen by the Nazis to serve as a high security prison of war. The Germans brought the most dogged Allied escapers to Colditz. The high concentration of escapees made Colditz a kind of elite school of escape.

After several failed attempts involving standard tactics like hiding places, disguises and ropes, the prisoners’ “escape committee” approved a plan to depart by air. In 1943 the prisoners began building a glider that was to be launched from the rooftop of the castle and piloted to a field across the nearby river. Over the next year,, the glider was assembled entirely out of parts of the prison: floorboards, bed sheets, improvised fasteners, adhesives and tools. Just before the craft was ready to fly, Colditz was liberated by Allied troops. The voyage was never attempted.

The big question—would it have flown?—misses the point. What was the point? First consider that, regardless of the flight-worthiness of the glider, it was an absolutely terrible concept for getting POWs back to the front lines. courtalt161.jpgIt took years to build. It required a huge amount of resources and the energy of dozens of prisoners. For all the effort, the glider was to carry just two prisoners. Worse still, assuming a flawless flight, the escapees would have landed in a field just 1,000 meters away. Such a position was far from escape. Earlier attempts had clearly established that the walls of the prison were a minor barrier when compared to navigating through hundreds of miles of enemy territory.

So in terms of standard escapes from standard prisons, the Colditz glider was fanciful at best. The plan looks different, however, I we adjust the notion of what constitutes prison. If prison is not a singular condition, but a spectrum of confinements ranging in tangibility from iron bars to peacetime suburbia, the notion of successful escape can diversify as well.

Whether the escape is from a high security POW camp or the high security of a living room sofa, the best plans succeed not because they cross the line from “not-free” to “free”, but because they play with and within the terms of confinement. After all, what changes one’s relationship with confinement more than a secret plan? The Colditz story is a perfect example of this. Because the glider plan was so far off the map, it was able t fly well below thecourtalt571.jpg radar and succeed, at least in its penultimate goal, but I argue that it claimed its ultimate goal: to recreate prison (both literally and figuratively) on the terms of the prisoners. With the glider the soldiers escaped the prison of awaiting rescue; also the soldiers escaped the prison of moving through Nazi Germany back to the front line of a war.

Compulsory escape is a law for the soldiers of most countries. It is expressed in Article 3 of the U.S. Military Code of Conduct. The law has encouraged many daring wartime escapes. Article 3 becomes far more provocative in the hands of “captured” civilians, objects and spaces.

“If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and to aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.”

—Article 3, U.S. Military Code of Conduct

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With the exception of the photo of Colditz Castle, all photos here are of the Guilford County Regional Juvenile Detention Center, described on its website as “serving the area’s juvenile justice needs by providing safe and secure custody to juveniles between the ages of eight and sixteen.” Think of an eight-year-old you know. Think of a sixteen-year-old you know. Now think of the fact that some 800 to 1200 children very much like that eight-year-old and that sixteen-year-old are held here every year.

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