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A rally in Stonewall, Mississippi calling for the indictment of Officer Kevin Herrington on charges of murder of Jonathan Saunders

The last thing I consumed on the internet yesterday was a story Another Reason To Question Whether Black Lives Matter In Mississippi by Alan Chin about the fatal shooting of a black man by a cop in rural Mississippi. His name was Jonathan Saunders.

The first thing I consumed on the internet this morning was a cop body cam video of said cop shooting an black man in the head. His name was Samuel DuBose.

Is it now a daily, normalised experience for myself, and for others, to consume death, filmed and online?

In between last night and this morning, I put the finishing touches to an essay for a fall publication about some haunting and frantic sketches made by a prisoner in solitary confinement. What is happening in the darkest, invisible, coldest cells of our criminal justice has everything to do with what is happening on our streets (after all, solitary confinement is disproportionately used against men of color and black men are 250% more likely to be thrown in the hole.) In my essay last night I wrote:

The Black Lives Matter movement has successfully tied over-zealous community policing, to stop-and-frisk, to restraint techniques, to custody conditions, to a bail system that abuses the poor, to extended and unconstitutional pretrial detention, to solitary confinement in a devastating critique of a structurally racist nexus of law enforcement. #SayHerName. Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas; Jonathan Saunders in Mississippi; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Charly Leundeu Keunang in Los Angeles; Sgt. James Brown in an El Paso jail; James M. Boyd in the hills of Albuquerque; John Crawford III in a WalMart in Ohio; Walter Scott in North Charleston; Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and thousands of more people over the past 12 months alone killed by law enforcement.

The Guardian is trying to keep track, and Josh Begley at the Intercept is trying to visualize killings by cop, but the statistics are frightening and as the cases come more and more often, they seem to get more and more egregious. Ray Tensing straight up murdered Samuel DuBose. No question. July is set to be the deadliest month of the year for people killed by police.

The tragedy heaped upon tragedies that Chin’s article hit home for me was that the news cycle can only deal with a handful of cases at any given time. But there’s scores of officer involved deaths every month. If the rate of killings continues, we’ll have seen over 1,100 deaths at the hands of law enforcement by the close of 2015.

I can’t imagine the trauma, anger and sense of injustice in Saunders’ family and community. I cannot fathom that 1,100 times over. I’m almost lost for words except for this thought. Pre civil rights, photography was used to boast of lynchings and hate crimes. During the civil rights struggle photography was ammunition in the fight for justice and the abolishment of racist laws. Since civil rights photography has broken from its usual documentary constraints to power the biggest growth of any society in the history of man, but despite massive wealth, we are still so poor in terms of understanding inequality and the combined effort by a society to fend it off. Now, images–moving and still–are taking center stage in public outrage and prosecution attempts toward law enforcement personnel who kill citizens. I just wonder what we will do with the footage of death — the jail surveillance tapes and the police body camera videos — if, in 10 or 20 years, we’ve not been able to change anything.

If nothing changes, the footage will become evidence against our own inaction in the face of massive racism and social inequality.

Change we must.

As I am lost for words, I’ll leave you (as Alan Chin did in his article) with the words of Frances Sanders, the mother of Jonathan Sanders.

“He is my son and I loved him and he didn’t deserve to die. There ain’t but one policeman who came to offer his condolences and he was black. So don’t tell me it wasn’t racism. We got a long way to go.”

See more of Alan Chin’s photos from the assignment at Facing Change.

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Toe Tag Parole premiers Monday, August 3rd at 9pm on HBO.

A: When it is a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence.

While criminal justice reformers, D.C. politicos, President Obama and the like are pressing for change they all too often focus on arguments for the release of non-violent (usually drug) offenders. Releasing that “category” of prisoner though doesn’t deal adequately with mass incarceration or prison overcrowding. We need, as a society, to look at how we treat those who are imprisoned for the longest sentences, how they got their and what we can do as a community to scale back on the vengeance and violence inherent to the prison system.

A literal life sentence is commonly referred to as Life Without Parole or LWOP. Activists tend to use the term Death By Incarceration.

In all other circumstances, parole is a complex and varied thing, but when the possibility of parole is removed it’s far simpler … and more brutal.

On HBO on Monday, there’s a documentary Toe Tag Parole: To Live and Die on the Yard, by Oscar-winning filmmakers 
Alan and Susan Raymond about LWOP.

To tell the story of LWOP, the Raymonds found an unusual facility in Los Angeles County, a maximum-security facility in the Mojave Desert. Yard A at California State Prison is the The Progressive Programming Facility — a space that committed LWOP prisoners and the California Department of Corrections forged together. With laws and sentences unlikely to change for those who are deemed the most dangerous, the “most dangerous” went about finding their own solutions.

Yard A — which inmates call The Honor Yard — is a prison yard is free of violence, racial tensions, gang activity and illegal drug and alcohol use. It’s the only type of its kind in the nation. 600 men living in The Progressive Programming Facility and seek self-improvement and spiritual growth through education, art and music therapy, religious services and participation in peer-group sessions.

The press release reads:

Ken Hartman, who beat a man to death at age 19 while drunk, and has been in prison for 36 years, says, “There’s a progression that these things go through. People used to be stoned to death and then they were shot and then they were hung, they were electrocuted. Each step along the way always the argument is made that this is a better kind of death penalty. I’m sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole. It’s not better than the death sentence, because it is the death sentence.”

It promises to be a wonderful film. In an ideal world though, extraordinary efforts by men inside wouldn’t be needed because many of them would be offered the opportunity for improvement and release by the structures of the state.

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Social Justice and Environmental Justice Intersect

Any links between mass incarceration and environmental abuse might not be immediately obvious. But they exist and the Prison Legal News, the Human Rights Defense Center and Nation Inside are combining resources to talk to this unlikely but potent and dangerous intersection of issues.

The Prison Ecology Project is creating tools to dismantle toxic prisons.

Ask people in Appalachia who have watched prisons such as FCI McDowell built on exhausted mountain-top removal mining sites. Ask folks out west who’ve watched prisons plonked down upon fragile desert ecosystems. Ask those in the rust belt, who’ve seen prisons brought to town for the sake of jobs after heavy industry and mineral extraction have left town. When one would think regions couldn’t be stripped and abused anymore, the rape of communities follows that of the environment. In Pennsylvania, a prison built on a toxic coal ash dump is crippling those locked up inside.

Prisons, historically, have gone up where desperation for employment has meant little-to-no oversight, public discussion or even opposition. No one forecast problems because they didn’t want to imagine them; prisons provided an answer to your uncle Frank’s four years of unemployment.

“The prison industry has a long history of ecological violence. Rikers Island prison in New York City was literally built on a trash heap, and evidence suggests a high incidence of cancer among guards and prisoners,” writes the HRDC. “In California and Texas prisoners have little recourse but to drink arsenic-laced water. In Alabama, an overpopulated prison habitually dumps sewage into a river where people fish and swim. In Kentucky, construction of a new prison is poised to clear 700 acres of endangered species habitat. Stories like these are too common. The issues impact millions of people in and around prisons across the US but are largely ignored.”

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GIVE ‘EM YOUR MONEY

The Prison Ecology Project is raising $15,000 on IndieGogo to boost its capacity to research and analyse data. They are uncovering abuses and amassing a clearinghouse of information on over 5,000 prisons nationwide which we can all use to fight poisonous prisons!

HRDC’s work in this chronically understudied area will “keep pressure on an industry notorious for its lack of transparency.”

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They’ve got the chops. HRDC is the publisher of Prison Legal News which has exposed environmental problems and covered stories of whistleblower litigation in prisons for over 20 years.

The first target of HRDC is a federal prison planned for Letcher County, Kentucky. Its construction would demolish 700 acres of endangered species habitat in Appalachia while imprisoning people hundreds of miles from their families.

WHY THE WORK?

“Incarcerated people are some of the most vulnerable and uniquely over-burdened demographics in our nation,” explains HRDC. “Almost all of the prison population is low-income, and people of color are disproportionately represented by wide margins in every state. Most people whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system have not engaged with the environmental movement up to the present time.”

The Prison Ecology Project changes that dynamic.

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Operating prisons stresses the environment. Recognising that provides yet another reason to fight the toxic philosophical underpinnings and racism of a broken and out of control system. Decarceration is good for your lungs!

It’s not so much as convincing players in one political action to adopt another, as it is exercising closer bonds between movements of the left that operate in opposition counter to the abuse and social exclusion of lower income groups. It’s about recognising new allies and being collectively stronger. I love this type of imagination.

IN THE PRESS

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This weekend, the BBC ran a piece about a pinhole photography workshop in a women’s prison in Argentina. I greatly admire pinhole photography in prisons.

The images are atmospheric – retro, a little blurred and with almost fish-eye perspective in some. They look like stills from some 90s skate video or something (I don’t know why that matters). They are awash in color, not unlike every hipster’s favorite, the aura portrait (not sure why that matters either).

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Maybe it was precisely because these images didn’t look like a prison that I was attracted to them. If they weren’t the feature of an article about prison and rehabilitation, they’d have scuttled right by during my day of contestant image flow. naturally, I wanted to know more about their production.

[ SEE MORE OF THE IMAGES HERE ]

They were made during a workshop offered YoNoFui, a organization that provides teaching, community, skills, personal development to prisoners. The organization was founded by Maria Medrano who believes prisons can become productive places for women, cultivating their individuality, esteem and confidence. Currently, they offer nothing of the sort. Medrano has ben recognized as an esteemed Ashoka Fellow and upon the Ashoka website we can find out more about her and YoNoFui’s philosophy.

“Convinced that the prison is the last link in a chain of exclusion and disenfranchisement that ensnares poor women, Medrano pioneered a relationship-centered continuum of education and engagement for women prisoners and ex-convicts to create concrete opportunities for women out of prison and to change the mindsets of prisoners, their families and communities,” it reads.

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YoNoFui (translated as “It wasn’t me) also offers courses in poetry, journalism, textiles, bookmaking and carpentry. It’s providing a “holistic approach to transform the way the criminal justice system conceives of and treats women prisoners, making it a productive and more nurturing place. […] Maria’s program deals with the root problems affecting the women, including their lack of labor skills, emotional marginalization and poor self-confidence.”

Some of this language is familiar to us, but a lot of it has not been implemented in Medrano’s home country.

“Women prisoners are the most marginalized segment of Argentine society,” writes Ashoka. “The vast majority are mothers and housewives from very low economic segments of society. 90% of them also come from broken and dysfunctional families, with abusive or drug-addicted husbands and children—whom they often bore while in prison. Many come from two or three generations of women who have been unemployed, and who lack formal education and the social customs that familiarized them with a culture of work. Most never learned the values a healthy workplace inculcates, such as personal responsibility and self-respect. The children of these women are often either neglected or abandoned outright, sent to live with a relative or put into state institutions. About 41% of these women are immigrants with few connections to the local society, having migrated on their own without official papers to seek a better fortune in Argentina, or who were victims of transnational trafficking rings.”

Women end up committing low-level crimes and misdemeanors in Buenos Aires, more out of desperation or necessity rather than from a pathological sense of criminality. However, once sentenced the path is predictable. Argentine prisons reflect upon the most disenfranchised exactly what they had experienced in free society – social exclusion, and permanent second class status. The effects of this exclusion are ben more pronounced upon immigrant women. The majority of people in Argentina are unsympathetic to female prisoners unaware of the complex web of causes to their situation.

Rehabilitation has not been the way.

“Prisons in Argentina function in a militarized way, due to a law passed in 1973 under the military dictatorship. They bear very little emphasis on policies and practices that help support reinsertion of men and women into the labor and social mainstream, leading to high rates of recidivism—although the public ministries do not even care to record the exact figures,” says Ashoka.

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Until Medrano’s efforts, reform efforts were largely absent. Focuses first on building individual relationships, belonging and interdependence, Medrano hopes to break the cycle. It’s hard for us to believe but many women in prison have not been exposed to, shared in, or shown how to believe in themselves.

Medrano is going further than just offering classes; she is tying all education into self-improvement and cultivating buy-in from all constituents. Only with the support of the authorities is she implementing cultural change.

“Success for the effort requires a complex series of negotiations with multiple ministries whose support will be required,” says Ashoka. “Negotiations have already begun with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labor, where YoNoFui is holding workshops. By developing broad constituencies among multiple ministries, Medrano is beginning to overcome bureaucratic intransigence, while also shifting the program’s dependence on the penitentiary system, which is part of the Justice Ministry, to other ministries with less of a “law-and-order” stigma attached.”

YoNoFui is working in two of the five federal prisons in Argentina, both in Buenos Aires, with some 600 women prisoners each. Medrano plans to scale up and move into other facilities.

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Financial support comes a number of governmental departments astutely identified by Medrano — subsidies for micro-enterprises through the Social Development Ministry; job training grants through the Ministry of Labor; seed capital from the Ministry of Industry. YoNoFui connects women with housing and jobs subsidies.

What they begin in the prison they continue outside. YoNoFui also works with agencies for Social Issues, Prisons, Migrants and Gender Issues, with the Secretariat for Children, Youth and Families — both of which have responsibilities related to the young people whose mothers are incarcerated.

Former prisoners return to the jails to work as teachers, and they are new positive role models to the women inside. Relationships are key. Skills ALONGSIDE psychological and emotional health. Arts and trades continue outside of the penal institutions — carpentry, bookbinding, textile design, textile machinery, weaving, graphic design, silkscreen, photography, poetry and journalism.

The organization is young but Medrano wants a permanent, staffed, full-time “School for Work” inside the prison. In the way, YoNoFui considers young people too in helping them re-establishing their bonds of family, re-adapt to society, YoNoFui can be though of as akin to The Harlem Childrens Zone. Targeting both the practical and the attitudinal is key, that is to build key skills but also to shift the mindset of an entire downtrodden group.

[ SEE MORE OF THE IMAGES HERE ]

Inspiring stuff. Now, aren’t you glad you took a closer look? I am.

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Horrifying stuff happening in UK immigration detention centers:

“Five children have been found in the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre since the start of the year, the Bureau has established. Other figures released by the Refugee Council today show at least 127 minors have been found classified as adults in UK detention since 2010.”

Originally posted on Maeve McClenaghan:

Protest at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, June 2015 (Credit: Wasi Daniju)

Children fleeing the horrors of war in countries such as Syria and Afghanistan are being wrongly classified as over-18 and locked up by immigration officers in adult detention centres in breach of Government policies and legal guidelines.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found that UK border and asylum officers are sending teenagers as young as 14 straight to adult detention centres despite clear evidence they are children and without referring their cases to social services, as guidelines dictate in such circumstances.

Five children have been found in the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre since the start of the year, the Bureau has established. Other figures released by the Refugee Council today show at least 127 minors have been found classified as adults in UK detention since 2010.

In May that year then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced…

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Dale Hammock at the Amity Foundation in Los Angeles. Credit Damon Casarez for The New York Times. From the story ‘You Just Got Out Of Prison. Now What?

True to form in traditional media another impressive feature piece about the criminal justice system You Just Got Out of Prison. Now What? was released by the New York Times last week. The story is summed up perfectly in the sub-header: “Carlos and Roby are two ex-convicts with a simple mission: picking up inmates on the day they’re released from prison and guiding them through a changed world.”

Carlos and Robery help people like Dale Hammock (above) who was imprisoned for 21 years to readjust to the outside world.

It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that this looming ‘‘prisoner re-entry crisis’’ became a fixation of sociologists and policy makers, generating a torrent of research, government programs, task forces, nonprofit initiatives and conferences now known as the ‘‘re-entry movement.’’ The movement tends to focus on solving structural problems, like providing housing, job training or drug treatment, but easily loses sight of the profound disorientation of the actual people being released. Often, the psychological turbulence of those first days or weeks is so debilitating that recently incarcerated people can’t even navigate public transportation; they’re too frightened of crowds, too intimidated or mystified by the transit cards that have replaced cash and tokens.

The quality of the photography met the quality of the writing. The two pictures accompanying the piece were made by Damon Casarez.

An unfamiliar name. I looked him up. This was great assigning by NYT. Throughout Casarez’s other bodies of work is something of the uncanny. From an early project depicting the “Utopia” of the suburb he grew up in (Clearly effected, he mentions “suburb” in his bio) to a series of actors playing out cliche types who live in his neighbourhood, it seems Casarez is obsessed with the weird around him.

Or more precisely he teases the weird out.

From the unnatural order of Boomerang Kids (children that return to parents’ home after college graduation) to a series titled Dioramas of recreations of peculiar vignettes in everyday life around him, Casarez channels Jennifer Karady, Holly Andres, early Gregory Crewdson, the vulgar Jill Greenberg, and David Lynch, (and, yeah, I guess, even Hopper).

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Everyone has been talking about Google’s neural network DeepDream recently saying that it might be the closest thing to what Androids dream of when they sleep or what pure (LSD-inflected) visuals look like. The world is a freaking bizarre place and it only because of inbuilt systems to filter most of it that our brains don’t get overrun.

Casarez’s work is so appealing to me because it bucks that tendency. He searches out the ill-fitting and garish surface tensions we put on, prop up and rely on daily.

It makes sense why the worlds of (predominantly) Southern California would weird him out. One day he’s photographing victims’ families of street violence, and the next the aspiring and upper classes basking in the arts-industrial complex.

As odd places, prisons do nothing if not produce odd behaviours and characters. Carlos and Roby have been out years but still fantasize about prison food. They are the sanest folks engaging with the prison issue because they see reentry from a personal and informed perspective .. and yet they sit for hours in their car under the words “Now what?” waiting for a man who’ll probably arrive. He does and their work begins.

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Roby So (left) and Carlos Cervantes in Pomona, California. Damon Casarez for The New York Times. From the story ‘You Just Got Out Of Prison. Now What?

For all the quantitative research, NGO white papers, expert testimony, politicians’ best intentions, it is still the one-one-one, face-to-face, simple and small things that make the biggest difference in getting people out and keeping people out. That might sound crazy but it is not; it’s true. For example, the Prisoner Reentry Network does something as simple as send directions to prisoners pre-release so that they know how to get from the prison gate to the their hometown. Having not navigated the free world for years or decades that’s key information the rest of us take for granted.

No one has experimented so perversely with prisons as California. The unexpected details, the frank reporting and the NYT’s choice of photographer all worked well together here and described an unnatural situation and set of problems to which committed folks are trying to find solutions.

Follow Damon Casarez on Tumblr and Instagram.

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Heidi Levine hugs her driver Ashraf Al Masri after his home in Gaza was destroyed. Photo: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

It can be tricky to talk about photojournalists’ work without over-simplifying, romanticising or glorifying. Thankfully, this piece Bearing Witness does none. Writer Doug Bierend does a sterling job of describing the decade-long work of Heidi Levine and teasing out the bittersweet award of the inaugural Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award for her coverage of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014. Levine knew Niedringhaus and an award is a strange thing in the face of societies destroyed by war:

“This award has made me reflect, and spend a lot of time thinking back and understanding — I have been very lucky. We were talking about experience — sometimes it’s not even how experienced you are, it can boil down to just having bad luck. I guess I’ve always felt committed to bearing witness, and feel that is just so important to give people the opportunity to know what’s happening in the world, and I don’t believe that there’s any excuse anymore for people looking the other way and claiming, as they did in the past, in history, that they were just unaware and didn’t know.”

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Wounded Palestinian Rawya abu Jom’a, 17 years old, lays in a hospital bed at the Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, July 22, 2014. Rawya was seriously injured when two Israeli air strikes hit her family’s apartment. Her sister and three of her cousins were killed in the attack. She is suffering from shrapnel in her face, her legs have perforated holes in them and the bones of her right hand were crushed. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press

Keith Axline and I are editors of Vantage — a new gorgeous place for looking and photos and learning their context.

Some photos we feature are gorgeous and some are gory. In Levine’s case she manages to combine to the two. As Bierend puts it, Levine makes pictures in “a subtle or even artful way requiring a high degree of sensitivity [that] sees through the violence to the dignity of the subjects suffering at its heart. At its best, this skill can convey the true stories of conflict, the hidden personal and private lives shaken to their foundations by the nations, militaries, and leaders which tend to be the sole subjects in any discussions about war.”

It’s a sobering piece. Levine talks about risk, fixers and luck. I’ll leave you with another statement of hers:

“If you’re not trained, it’s really, really important to become trained, to take a hostile environment course, to take a combat medical training class … I have seen a lot of people out there in the field that are very inexperienced. It’s not like rockets or bullets discriminate between who is experienced and who’s not experienced. As you saw, Chris Hondros, who was one of the most experienced conflict photographers, was killed in Libya.”

Read in full at Bearing Witness.

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Women mourn during the funeral of the boys killed by an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza, Gaza City, July 16, 2014. Four boys died instantly during an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza, a fifth boy died shortly after the attack in hospital. Israel stepped up its attacks on July 16 by bombing the homes of Hamas leaders after the Islamist movement rejected a truce proposal and instead launched dozens more rockets into Israel. Photo: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press

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Palestinian men run with a white flag in the Shejaia neighborhood, which was heavily shelled by Israel during the fighting, in Gaza City, July 20, 2014. At least 50 Palestinians were killed on Sunday by Israeli shelling in the Gaza neighborhood, and thousands fled for shelter to a hospital packed with wounded, while bodies were unable to be recovered for hours until a brief cease-fire was implemented. Photo: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press

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Palestinians collect religious books in the rubble of the Al-Qassam mosque in Nuseitat camp, located in the middle of the Gaza Strip, July 9, 2014. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press

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Hidya Atash stands on the top floor of her home as she overlooks the destruction in Shujayea, at dawn Aug 8, 2014. Her family’s home was hit two weeks prior by a warning rocket and the family of 40 people fled. When they returned during the cease-fire, they discovered their home was heavily damaged during the fighting. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press

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We’ve seen Obama in a cell block before (no not those photoshop hack jobs by wingnut-conspiracy-theorists) but photos of Obama and the First Family, in 2013, touring Robben Island, the prison in which Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were held during South Africa’s regime of Apartheid. (BTW, Robben Island was, apparently, “a paradise by comparison” to modern U.S. prisons.)

One expects to see empty cells in photos of visitors–presidents included–to defunct prisons such as Robben Island. But one might not expect to see a quiet, vacant cellblock inside a functioning, policed, inhabited, tax-funded prison. I did not. Yet, that is what we have. The government at work is not in evidence here.

But then again, this is the first time a sitting president has visited a prison, so there is no precedent. POTUS’ handlers made their own rules at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. To get an idea how lonely and echoey an experience it was, consider these two images made by White House Chief photographer Pete Souza. Both [one & two] were posted to Twitter.

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© Pete Souza / White House

None of the other images from Obama’s visit that I’ve seen have the vantage point of the second story mezzanine. Was Souza was the only one with the privilege of this overview? That Souza patrolled the gantry, looking down upon bodies milling below, was not happenstance. It made for more riveting pictures.

Michael Shaw over at BagNewsNotes approves of Souza’s up-above-angle arguing that it puts Obama “both in the belly of the beast, and also squarely facing the larger institutional problem.”

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© Pete Souza / White House

Souza’s images are in contrast to the rest of the press pack who took shots, from a fixed position, at the end of the cellblock, with a long lens, during Obama’s brief walkabout.

During his 5-minute outline White House philosophy/policy to the press (transcript here), a couple of photographers (Saul Loeb and Doug Mills), got down on their haunches and shot images from knee-level looking upward toward POTUS (see below). These images elevate Obama, resizing him, and recasting him back into his more usual role as a leader in control; as a person in a position to rectify decades of failed policy and to reverse mass incarceration.
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© Getty Images

Shaw also notes that these images of a controlled Obama might reflect a significant enough change in policy that this is a teachable moment — that this is Obama instructing the nation he leads. This is Obama as educator and reasoned orator it is argued. I can’t quite get to that conclusion, for I’m still wrapped up on the fact that Obama and his prison-guard-tour-guide Ronald Warlick are dressed in virtually identical garb!

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President Barack Obama, alongside Ronald Warlick (L), a correctional officer, tours a cell block at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. © Getty

The matching uniforms might be an unfortunate visual turn for POTUS. But then again, if the shoe fits. Obama remains a law and order man. Sure, the White House is capitalising on widespread public and bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, but the president remains walking a fine line. He calls for the absolute necessary application of common sense but he does so in a way that doesn’t alarm opponents who are ready to pounce.

For example, Obama emphasised his support of correctional staff, “I want to give a special shout-out to our prison guards. They’ve got a really tough job, and most of them are doing it in exemplary fashion.” No president can alienate law enforcement so Obama’s words are no surprise. But given how vocal and momentum-winning the Black Lives Matter movement is, and given that many communities subject to over-zealous and murderous policing make no distinction between street cops and prison guards, it gets pretty uncomfortable.

On the other hand, much of America is still unversed in the racist and classist underpinnings of the prison industrial complex and will need time to take in Obama’s message. Why do you think he is hanging his every speech on the “5% of the world’s pop; 25% of the prison pop” stat? It’s a simple, shocking stat. It points the finger, but at all of us and none of us; it is a stat that calls out the problem without calling out those who created it. Sure, in front of a Philly NAACP crowd, Obama can get into more specifics and mention slavery but that won’t be the middle-ground message that the  White House will adopt between now and January 2017.

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President Obama speaks to reporters during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. © Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Obama may have just pardoned 46 people who were serving long sentences for drug related offences but that was a safe symbolic gesture that indicated the White House’s awareness of the issue without pissing too many people off. But really, what is 46 as a percentage of 2.3 million?

Furthermore, Obama’s persistent argument is that locking up drug users and low levels dealers for decades is foolish. A news report I saw today said there might be 2,500 people serving 20 years or more for non-violent drug offenses. Again, what percentage is 2,500 of 2.3 million?

We should recognise Obama for getting to the starting line but he still has a marathon to run.

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President Obama toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on Thursday and met with six inmates. © Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Images

Another thing that bothers me about the “safe” rhetoric about emancipating non-violent, low level drug offenders, is that it immediately divides America’s massive prison population — it assumes there are those who deserve some help in the face of an admittedly failed, brutalising system and it leaves the rest for no help within the failed, brutalising system.

Reformers are playing with definitions, shifting policitcal lines and seeing what lands. We’ll soon rest upon a point where those one side of the line receive some relief, but the great number of prisoners the other side of it get none. We are, arguably, doing nothing to disassemble the system and to redirect public funds toward more sweeping programs promoting social equality (yes, that’s schools, social entrepreneurship programs, prenatal healthcare, food programs).

Just because a person is convicted of a violent crime doesn’t mean they are a violent person. And just because someone has been violent once doesn’t mean they’ll be violent again. A wife who murders her husband after decades of abuse is an easy to understand example of this.

Making policy based upon legal definitions drawn up under a system that has violated citizens for decades is wrongheaded. Making arguments for violent offenders, too, is probably a step too far for most Americans to stomach but here again we find a measure by which “free” people and those subject to prisons and jails see the criminal justice issue so massively differently, still.

“I know Obama can’t fix everything, but I really hope his sole focus isn’t just on helping drug offenders,” said Nathan Mikulak, a former federal prisoner convicted of a gun offense and tagged in the federal system as an Armed Career Criminal (ACC) a system parts of which the SCOTUS just ruled unconstitutional.

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President Obama toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on Thursday. © Doug Mills/The New York Times

The more I look at these images the odder they become. They mimic the press photos we’ve seen of shareholders and politicians touring schools or hospitals or factories or prisons (!) before they go online. Look at that shiny floor! Look at that fresh paint! Look at how the locks work!

These images might become iconic for the wrong reasons. This historic visit was reduced to a rapid press photo op. It’s the ultimate sanitised facility tour in the well-known genre that is the “Politician Prison Tour.”

I’ve been in a prison a week after politicians tour and heard the prisoners describe how the place was cleaned up beforehand. Obama’s tour of one of the “outstanding institutions” in the system — albeit cleaned out — is an unusual case of the Politician Prison Tour genre because it was played out for the cameras and because the whole nation was watching.

In giving politicians the benefit of the doubt, I could argue that they simply have not known what has gone on in the nation’s prisons and can be forgiven for doing virtually nothing for so long. Tours have not helped to inform them. Let’s hope that’s not the case here with our president.

obama el reno prison
US President Barack Obama, Charles Samuels, right, Bureau of Prisons Director, and Ronald Warlick, left, a correctional officer, looks at a prison cell as he tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, July 16, 2015, in El Reno, Oklahoma. © AFP/Getty Images

I presume Obama’s handlers didn’t make a photograph of him looking inside an empty cell because it’d undermine the “bravery” of the gesture to visit a prison … conveniently vacated of its prisoners.

The secret service knew it would be impossible to secure a cellblock full of convicts. Ironically, a prison provides levels of control over citizens that the secret service can only dream of as compared to manning presidential appearances in public! In a prison every single person undergoes the scrutiny, searches and discipline of a space designed for monitoring! And yet, the danger for the leader of the free world to wander amid a functioning cellblock with prisoners was surely too great.

Imagine, the PR nightmare should, on the slimmest of slim possibilities, a prison riot break out around the president and his entourage? Now you understand why we have these images.

obama el reno prison
President Barack Obama looks inside a cell alongside correctional officerRonald Warlick (front) and Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels

Obama did meet with six prisoners and VICE + HBO made some video of the meeting for a forthcoming documentary. When it is published, that footage might assuage this continued, discomfiting knowledge. That’s the knowledge that neither Obama or we have seen prison yet. We saw a photo op in a building in a prison compound.

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