General Sciences Library, Ho Chi Minh City, May 2018
The other day I paid a quick visit to the General Sciences Library in Ho Chi Minh City, a short walk from the City Museum. The library was inaugurated in 1971 on the site of the former Maison Centrale de Saigon, the notorious prison built under French colonial rule in 1865-66. Located on what was formerly known as rue Lagrandière, the road has been renamed Lý Tự Trọng Street after the famous Vietnamese revolutionary who was held in the prison before being executed by the French at the age of 17. The prison was demolished in 1968 but had been slated for closure since the opening of Chí Hòa prison in District 10 in 1953. For a detailed account of the library’s history and the wider story of Ho Chi Minh City’s library system, see https://saigoneer.com/saigon-buildings/2674-old-saigon-building-of-the-week-ho-chi-minh-city-general-sciences-library
Close a prison, open a library. The closure of a prison does not necessarily mean less prison and even less the end of prison. The maximum security Chí Hòa prison remains in use today and continues to draw criticism for its conditions. Yet to replace a prison with a public library makes an important statement. All cities should be famous for their libraries not their prisons or even their prison museums. The direct link often drawn between poor educational infrastructure and the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the U.S. has been problematized for its simplicity by Harkins and Meiners (2016). In a more recent article, Meiners cites as her epigraph Fred Moten’s proposal that:
‘The slogan on the Left, then, universities, not jails, marks a choice that may not be possible. In other words, perhaps more universities promote more jails. Perhaps it is necessary finally to see that the university produces incarceration as the product of its negligence. Perhaps there is another relation between the University and the Prison—beyond simple opposition or family resemblance.’ (Harney and Moten, 2013)
The suggestion being made by Moten is that within neoliberalism education and incarceration co-exist. The existence of one does not imply the absence of the other. The elitism and privilege that are the main selling points of the neoliberal university, rely upon and reproduce the same existing structures of social equality that have resulted in the incarceration of vast swathes of the population. This is most notable in the scholarship system which uses the exception of one student to prove the rule. But the context for what Harkins and Meiners term the ‘American penalscape’, a term first coined by Joy James (2007), is one in which education and incarceration alike continue to uphold the myth of individual endeavour and meritocracy versus moral weakness and failing. In such a context, education can only ever be about being better than those around you. At an academic conference I attended several years ago in upstate New York, I heard academics employed at liberal arts colleges as well as seminaries lament the obstacles imposed to degree programmes set up at local prisons. Where such programmes did exist, they had to be run in secrecy. Parents paying tens of thousands of dollars for their children to attend college were not comfortable with the idea that convicted felons would be given access to the same degree programmes free of charge. Moreover, it is possible to see how the promotion of education as a response to incarceration simply reproduces a form of warehousing not intended to improve socioeconomic equality but simply bracket out a certain percentage of the labour force for a given period of time.
But if the problem of prison and detention is a global phenomenon, its relationship to education is not the same everywhere. If educational attainment and criminal convictions are understood as entirely individual achievements or failings within a U.S. context (something also applicable to the UK, I think), might it also be possible to understand education differently as a collective endeavour. And what impact would this understanding have on the penal system as a response to the shortcomings of this endeavour? This is not to say that prison does not continue to constitute a default response globally to dealing with offenders but it also implies that decarceration can and should be a collective project or, at the very least, the direct outcome of an understanding of education as collective responsibility. So perhaps the formula should be reversed: open a library and close a prison.
On a side note: round the back of the General Sciences library and within its perimeter fence, there is a fairly extensive outdoor barbecue restaurant. Where the library grounds have a plaque dedicated to the revolutionary struggles that took place within the prison as well as a bust of Lý Tự Trọng, the restaurant bears no traces of the former carceral site.
Doling, T., ‘Old Saigon Building of the Week: Ho Chi Minh General Sciences Library’, Saigoneer, 10 September 2014. Available: https://saigoneer.com/saigon-buildings/2674-old-saigon-building-of-the-week-ho-chi-minh-city-general-sciences-library. Accessed 1 June 2018.
Harkins, G and Meiners, E., ‘Teaching Publics in the American Penalscape’, American Quarterly 68.2 (June 2016), 405-408.
Harney, S and Moten, F., The undercommons: Fugitive planning and Black study (London: Minor Compositions, 2013).
James, J., Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
Meiners, E.R., ‘Our Academic Penalscape: Slow Work in Always Urgent Times’, Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education 17.1 (May 2018), 15-23.