For the first installment of Not Your Binary: A QTPOC Reading Column, a reading column centralizing on the contemporary voices of queer and/or trans people of color in the literary world, I will be discussing Christopher Soto’s “Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center, Unit Y2.” Because this is the first installment of my reading column, I want to emphasize the importance on centralizing marginalized voices, stepping aside from the dominant, mainstream culture, to exercise the very existence of surviving and living as a QTPOC, in and out of the literary world. This column is an exploration of political identities and of systemic realities; specifically, in the ways literature can either work to deliver, express, or alleviate the stress that comes with embodying the very existence of being a QTPOC in the time and setting each writer transports us to.
Christopher Soto’s “Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center, Unit Y2” takes the reader to a juvenile center, where the speaker volunteers and helps young men sublimate their emotions from acting negligent to poetry: “to be here / where the concrete ends / & page begins.”
Moreover, Soto takes on poetic devices, as well as theoretical devices, alluding to dates and research, revealing both intended and unintended consequences of the prison industrial complex that the speaker suits the reader in. The intentions behind keeping prisons open and alive are many, but what is often ignored is the unintended consequences of the prison industrial complex, which are violent: “each body is disciplined for its difference,” “[physical assault],” and “[one] can’t even scream in pain / [without being pathologized].” The attraction to keeping the prison industrial complex alive is the idea that the system eradicates crime and alleviates society of its “social issues,” yet the false comfort that comes with this “solution” is knowing that keeping this system alive only feeds to another individual’s nightmare: “Dee Dee / A trans woman / sentenced sixty years of life / [in a men’s prison].”
Soto dissects the dehumanizing institution, attempting to give some humanity to the people suffering inside these cages in which an individual living behind bars knows that prison offers little to no restitution or possibility for rehabilitation. In giving the benefit of the doubt, for some hint of rehabilitation, Soto alludes to the creation of the “ankle monitor,” and its creators: “R. Kirkland Schwitzgbel / & His twin brother,” adding not only a bitter tone to the layers of this limiting industrial complex but relating the situation personally, “No // Julian. You are not free. / They just rearranged / The boundaries of your cage.” The system as a whole destabilizes individuals, leaving the tiniest of cracks in the concrete to squeeze through for improvement.
Soto’s personal relationship with the topic comes from them being a queer person of color, who are often the ones subjected most to the harsh treatments of being incarcerated, from racist police practices, to abuse and assault behind bars, and even the limiting resources one has access to after being released, if that is even a possibility for some. Furthermore, the United States’ history with displaying people of color behind bars disseminates across this country’s past: “In 1896 / One hundred Sioux people / were put on exhibit.” Amplifying their claim, Soto states:
Of African & Native
Bodies being displayed
In human zoos.
Soto is pointing to the intended consequences that were inscribed to the iron beams of the prison industrial complex, revealing that the unintended consequences come as no concern to the United Statesian people because the intended consequences themselves are so violent and dehumanizing. Soto closes their poem with a scenic image of one of the incarcerated man’s sister, sleeping, with the “sun tilting through cotton / curtains,” giving in to the idea of a fruitful ending: “She yawns & stretches. She does / [whatever she wants to do]. / & Nobody wakes her / forcefully / Not Julian, not the police.” The closing of this ending proposes a humanizing life before imprisonment, a life worth giving back to those who a grotesque system took away.
Click here to read Christopher Soto’s “Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center, Unit Y2.”
— Miguel Soto, Asst. Managing Editor; Book Review Editor