I was pretty skeptical about President Obama’s photo-op last month at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t a prison visit per se as Obama didn’t stroll a functioning cellblock, but instead bizarrely peered into an empty cell before his 5-minute address to the press. Obama and his handlers secured the requisite visuals to help hammer home their commitment to national debate, and to leading that debate. Well-orchestrated business as usual for the White House, then.

The most interesting thing that happened that day was the forum Obama held with some hand-picked prisoners about their lot, our lot and (I presume) the need to fix so, so many things in our prisons.

The meet was filmed by HBO and VICE. The trailer is out.

There’s been a ban on film crews in federal facilities since 1995. I know of only one exception to the ban when a production company was granted access to a federal facility in Florida earlier this year. If anyone was going to buck the trend, the President of the United States was a likely candidate. I look forward to seeing the final product.

Solidarity with CA prisoners poster 2

Prisoners in California will no longer be kept in windowless boxes indefinitely. That improves the lives of 3,000 people. It also brings California into line with the practices of virtually all other states. This is landmark.

Many groups were involved in the support of the plaintiffs in the class action suit. Legal Services for Prisoners with Children put out a press release. Below I copy the press release of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group.

PRESS RELEASE

OAKLAND — Today, California prisoners locked in isolation achieved a groundbreaking legal victory in their ongoing struggle against the use of solitary confinement. A settlement was reached in the federal class action suit Ashker v. Brown, originally filed in 2012, effectively ending indefinite long-term solitary confinement, and greatly limiting the prison administration’s ability to use the practice, widely seen as a form of torture. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of prisoners held in Pelican Bay State Prison’s infamous Security Housing Units (SHU) for more than 10 years, where they spend 23 hours a day or more in their cells with little to no access to family visits, outdoor time, or any kind of programming.

“From the historic prisoner-led hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, to the work of families, loved ones, and advocate, this settlement is a direct result of our grassroots organizing, both inside and outside prison walls,” said Dolores Canales of California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC), and mother of a prisoner in Pelican Bay. “This legal victory is huge, but is not the end of our fight – it will only make the struggle against solitary and imprisonment everywhere stronger.” The 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes gained widespread international attention that for the first time in recent years put solitary confinement under mainstream scrutiny.

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Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) coalition members commemorating the first anniversary of the 2013 hunger strike suspension.

Currently, many prisoners are in solitary because of their “status” – having been associated with political ideologies or gang affiliation. However, this settlement does away with the status-based system, leaving solitary as an option only in cases of serious behavioral rule violations. Furthermore, the settlement limits the amount of time a prisoner may be held in solitary, and sets a two year Step-Down Program for the release of current solitary prisoners into the prison general population.

It is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners will be released from SHU within one year of this settlement. A higher security general population unit will be created for a small number of cases where people have been in SHU for more than 10 years and have a recent serious rule violation.

“Despite the repeated attempts by the prison regime to break the prisoners’ strength, they have remained unified in this fight,” said Marie Levin of CFASC and sister of a prisoner representative named in the lawsuit. “The Agreement to End Hostilities and the unity of the prisoners are crucial to this victory, and will continue to play a significant role in their ongoing struggle.” The Agreement to End Hostilities is an historic document put out by prisoner representatives in Pelican Bay in 2012 calling on all prisoners to build unity and cease hostilities between racial groups.

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Drawn by Michael D. Russell, Pelican Bay SHU

Prisoner representatives and their legal counsel will regularly meet with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials as well as with Federal Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas, who is tasked with overseeing the reforms, to insure that the settlement terms are being implemented.

“Without the hunger strikes and without the Agreement to End Hostilities to bring California’s prisoners together and commit to risking their lives— by being willing to die for their cause by starving for 60 days, we would not have this settlement today,” said Anne Weills of Siegel and Yee, co-counsel in the case. “It will improve the living conditions for thousands of men and women and no longer have them languishing for decades in the hole at Pelican Bay.”

“This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters,” said the prisoners represented in the settlement in a joint statement. “We celebrate this victory while at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle.”

Dare to Struggle_Carlos Ramirez_Pelican Bay

Drawn by Carlos Ramirez while in Pelican Bay SHU

Legal co-counsel in the case includes California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, Chistensen O’Connor Johnson Kindness PLLC, and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone. The lead counsel is the Center for Constitutional Rights. The judge in the case is Judge Claudia Wilken in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

A rally and press conference are set for 12pm in front of the Elihu M Harris State Building in Oakland, which will be livestreamed at http://livestre.am/5bsWO.

The settlement can be read on CCR’s website, along with a summary. CCR has also put up downloadable clips of the plaintiffs’ depositions here.

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By Chris Garcia, drawn while in Pelican Bay SHU.

macindoe

Susan Stellin and Graham MacIndoe are raising money to fund the exhibition of their project American Exile at Photoville this autumn.

DONATE TO AMERICAN EXILE HERE

American Exile is a series of photographs and interviews documenting the stories of immigrants who have been ordered deported from the United States, as well as their family members – often, American citizens – who suffer the consequences of the harsh punishment and are sometimes forever separated from a parent or partner transported to foreign lands.

These are people who, ostensibly, have — just as you or I — lived, worked and paid taxes in the U.S. for extended periods. Bar fights that occurred 20 years ago, Visa paperwork deadlines missed, and other minor matters have sometimes led to deportation.

The tumorous growth America’s prison industrial complex goes back four decades whereas the focus of Graham and Susan’s work — the establishment of an extended archipelago of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities — is a much more recent, post 9/11 phenomenon. It is utterly contemporary and it meets the desperate need for journalism that probes ICE procedures.

DONATE TO AMERICAN EXILE HERE

MacIndoe spent five months in immigration detention in 2010, facing deportation because of a misdemeanor conviction – despite living in the U.S. as a legal permanent resident since 1999. After winning his case, he and Susan began gathering stories of families caught up in deportation proceedings, including asylum seekers, green card holders, and immigrants trapped in the bureaucracy of adjusting a visa.

I love Graham and Susan. They have a very comfortable couch. We’ve been friends for several years. Susan has a keen sense of justice and nous for a story and the will to bend an industry to our needs, not its. Graham is an addict who got clean, a street shooter, an artist, a great teacher (by all accounts) and a bit of a curmudgeon for all the right reasons.

DONATE TO AMERICAN EXILE HERE

Iris-&-Philippe copy

BIOGRAPHIES

Graham MacIndoe is a photographer and an adjunct professor of photography at Parsons The New School in New York City. Born in Scotland, he received a master’s degree in photography from the Royal College of Art in London and has shot editorial and advertising campaigns worldwide. He is represented by Little Big Man Gallery in Los Angeles, and his work is in many public and private collections. Follow Graham on Instagram and Twitter.

Susan Stellin has been a freelance reporter since 2000, contributing articles to The New York Times, New York, The Guardian, TheAtlantic.com and many other newspapers and magazines. She has worked as an editor at The New York Times and is a graduate of Stanford University.

In 2014, Susan and Graham were awarded a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation for their project, American Exile, and are collaborating on a joint memoir that will be published by Random House (Ballantine) in 2016.

DONATE TO AMERICAN EXILE HERE

Martin-Kollar3

You gotta love Martin Kollar. He just won the 2015 Prix Elysée. I was cheering for Mari Bastashevski, but I can’t complain with the ultimate choice of Kollar. His work is dark and hilarious. Kollar freezes awkward. In his world, military men are less heroic, stunt men are suicide cases, and practice makes imperfect. Is this shit even real?

Kollar travels through research labs, checkpoints, sports events, training scenarios, parliaments, dentists, barrios and wheat fields. He isolates people from context and time to create solitary and uncanny moments. The list of photographers interested in documenting simulation and facade is long — Lisa Barnard, Paul Shambroom, Yann Mingard, Richard Barnes, Max Pinckers, An-My Lê to name a few — so it is a little surprising Kollar’s work stands out for me and truly strikes a chord. I reckon this is because his work is consistently good. And by good, I mean convincing. I am convinced he has looked really hard to find these scenes. I am convinced he is a good editor, or has good editors around him. I am convinced of his skill because it’s hard to make this look so easy. Check out his notebooks.

Photography is “an intermediary stage, a kind of transitional memory between two times” says Kollar who, according to the Prix Elysée, “belongs to the temporary generation, moving from job to job, from apartment to apartment, relationship to relationship.”

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Martin-Kollar_1

martin_kollar

Originally from Slovakia, Kollar’s projects build upon ideas from the previous. He constructs huge stepping stones and jumps from one to the next when he feels he’s considered the ideas central to each project from all angles. “Then the next idea comes, which usually corrects the previous one,” he says. “My projects are generally linked to limited territories and spaces, whether it be Eastern Europe, the European Parliament or Israel.”

Kollar’s photographs evoke a certain amount of wandering and wondering. For Prix Elysée, Kollar took a geographically unspecific overview.

Provisional Arrangement, conceived in the spirit of a road movie, aims to capture those moments when the permanent becomes provisional,” says Prix Elysée.

Again, not an easy task. To locate and understand the gaps you’ve got to have a good grasp on what the formed and formal landscape of knowledge is for a places … or in Kollar’s cases many (unidentified) places.

Martin-Kollar5

In the Museum of Military History in Dresden, he photographed an installation showing pigeons wearing tiny cameras during the Second World War.

“They evoke today’s drones. In this case, photography is an intermediary stage, a kind of transitional memory between two times. That’s what I want to work on, filling the void, building something in the interstices,” says Kollar. “I wanted to do work that isn’t linked to any place, which revolves around temporality and provisionality.”

In winning the Prix Elysée, Martin Kollar won 80,000 Swiss Francs. He has one year to make an exhibition and a book which extends Provisional Arrangement. It’ll go on show at at Museum Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland in September 2016. We already know he has a wit when it comes to installation.

Good luck Martin.

Martin-Kollar2

IN TORONTO?

Boreal Bash 2015 kicks off on Friday is to include “photographers working around the world who will discuss some of their most personal projects and the process they have gone through to conceive of and produce their work.” The event is focusing on photography collectives, members’ “perspectives on working collectively toward a more cooperative future in our community.”

On Saturday, I’ll be moderating a discussion with members of Boreal Collective, guest collectives MJR and Prime, and Dustin Drankowski fromMashable.com. Below is the full roster of speakers.

All talks will be at Tranzac Club, at 292 Brunswick Avenue, Toronto.

SATURDAY (6-9pm)

Mauricio Palos (6pm): Boreal Collective’s Palos will open our Bash speakers series with a memorial for Ruben Espinosa, featuring his photographs, and then will share some of his own work from Mexico.

Émilie Régnier (6:55pm): Emilie Regenier, a Montreal-born photographer, will discuss the evolution of her work on identity in African communities.

Panel (7:55pm): Writer and curator Pete Brook will moderate a discussion about collectivism, cooperation and community in the photo industry with Mashable.com’s Photo Director Dustin Drankowski, members of Boreal Collective, Medium.com’s Photo Editor Noah Rabinowitz from MJR and Lance Rosenfield from Prime Collective.

SUNDAY (5-8pm)

Dominic Nahr (5pm): Nahr will present his work from Fukushima, Japan and discuss why he is continuing to follow the story even when he is not on assignment.

Brendan Hoffman (5:45pm): Prime Collective’s Brendan Hoffman, an American photographer based in Kiev, will present his work from Ukraine, where he has been covering the unfolding events for more than a year.

Brandon Thibodeaux (Sunday, 6:35pm): Brandon Thibodeaux from MJR will discuss his long term projects from his home in the American South.

Matt Lutton (Sunday, 7:25pm): Lutton, a Boreal Collective photographer who was based in Belgrade, Serbia for more than six years, will present his projects from The Balkans and his experiences as a foreign correspondent.

For speaker bios and more information on the Boreal Bash, click here.

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Image: Uros Popovic lights his cigarette from the embers of a Christmas Eve bonfire near Velika Hoca, Kosovo. January 2011. © Matt Lutton.

The American Psychological Association (APA) Council of Representatives, on Friday, voted today in Toronto to adopt a new policy barring psychologists from participating in national security interrogations. That means psychologists won’t be approving torture techniques or overseeing “enhanced interrogations.” That means psychologists can, and must, refuse to work in such capacities for the U.S. military and they will have full backing of their professional body in so doing.

Democracy Now! covered the decision, here and here.

My favourite comment came not from any of the APA members but from Peter Kinderman, the president-elect of the British Psychological Society who was representing the BPS at the APA meeting.

“I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s great. I think it’s well overdue. I was joking earlier that this represents American psychologists rejoining the 17th century and repudiating torture as a means of state power. […] The agreement is that American psychologists would respect agreed international definitions of the abuse of detainees and agreed international standards for judicial process. We shouldn’t be involved in abusing detainees, and we should remain within domestic and international law. That strikes me as commonsense, obvious. It’s what the public would expect. And about bloody time, too.”

whitaker

Joseph Harmon spent eight years in solitary at Pelican Bay State Prison in California. He is now a preacher, but still feels the need to withdraw. Credit Max Whittaker for The New York Times

I’ve spent a good amount of time over the past few weeks putting final touches to an essay for a forthcoming exhibition/project/programming by ERNEST Collective at c:3Initiative in Portland Oregon, in September.

The essay is about the sketches of a man who was held in solitary confinement for extended periods in the California prison system. Within it, I quote Dr. Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, a couple of times. His latest research was featured in the New York Times this week:

Most studies have focused on laboratory volunteers or prison inmates who have been isolated for relatively short periods. Dr. Haney’s interviews offer the first systematic look at inmates isolated from normal human contact for much of their adult lives and the profound losses that such confinement appears to produce.

The interviews, conducted over the last two years as part of a lawsuit over prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, have not yet been written up as a formal study or reviewed by other researchers. But Dr. Haney’s work provides a vivid portrait of men so severely isolated that, to use Dr. Haney’s term, they have undergone a “social death.”

[…]

Dr. Haney interviewed 56 prisoners who had spent 10 to 28 years in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit, or S.H.U., including seven men he had interviewed in 1993, eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit and 41 randomly selected inmates. For comparison, he also interviewed 25 maximum-security inmates who were not in solitary.

It’s a very important read and a good primer for those who are not up to speed on the torture in our supermax prisons. Make no bones about it solitary IS torture.

The best part of the article, for me, was not the words, the well researched links, the historical context or even the portraits by Max Whitaker, it was the embedded 4min, 41sec video of prisoners speaking about their decades in solitary.

solitary

The final interviewee breaks down in tears and barely gets the words, “No human should live like this.” “Just give me a death sentence.”

Another prisoner, the article notes, said that the hour he had spent in Haney’s interview was “the most I’ve talked in years.”

Read: Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life

If you are in Portland, Ore. this autumn may I recommend you pay a visit to ERNEST’s show Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, and particularly the opening on Friday September 18th.

1

A 1916 American Mug Shot

For anyone who thinks photography has only recently been abducted by state and corporate power for the purposes of control, think again. For anyone who thinks that high-tech-surveillance was the birth of photography being used to discipline and order humans, think again. Cyborgology recently had a great piece by Liam French lecturer in the Journalism and Media Department at the University of St. Mark & St. John, about the historical connects between image-making and criminal justice. French writes:

The relationship between visual technologies and the criminal justice system can be traced back to the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool for documenting ‘reality’ in the nineteenth century. The camera was widely believed, even more so than today, to be able to objectively and truthfully record social reality. A photograph was perceived to be like a window on the world – a mechanically produced, impartial and literal representation of the real world.

One such photographic taxonomy was produced by the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso who drew ink portraits depicting ‘criminal types’. Lombroso’s work is an exemplary case of the rise of positivist criminology in the nineteenth century. He argued that criminals possessed more ‘atavistic’ features and shared more characteristics with our evolutionary ancestors than more law-abiding citizens.

Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision argues that the breadth of surveilling techniques and technologies has extended to the Internet.

Still and moving ‘visual evidence’ is stored in state archives, used in courtrooms as evidence, and disseminated across almost every major media platform: from the printed press to the World Wide Web.

French references both a 2006 article about Mark Michaelson’s book and collection of mugshots and last years viral pic of Jeremy Meeks‘ mugshot to raise the idea that law enforcement photography (mugshots included) have transcended their forensic roots.

Take, for example, the posting of the police mug-shot of criminal Jeremy Meeks on Stockton Police Force Facebook page resulted in his image going viral and concluding with the offer of a quite lucrative modelling contract. What is interesting about the Jeremy Meeks mug-shot story is that once his photograph was displayed outside of the authoritative domain of the police archive and publicly circulated across different social media platforms and networks it accrued different sets of meanings (sexy, hot, good-looking) along the way despite the attempt to officially encode (or fix) the meaning (criminal, dangerous, wanted by the police) of the photograph.

Furthermore, French argues, that John Fiske’s theory that dominant power uses system to segregate and dominate apply here. Fiske says that authority will rely upon systems and “improve” them all the while facing resistance from the lesser power. Crucially, the lesser power uses the same systems to subvert and counter dominate. Sometimes the lesser power is successful and sometimes the larger power replaces old systems with new ones of greater efficiency or new tactics. In any case there is always a push and pull.

Jeremy Meeks

Booking photo of Jeremy Meeks, 30. (June 18, 2014). Credit: Stockton Police Department

 

So in the case of mugshots, there has always been inherent control attached to state-dominate manufacture and exchange of mugshots. Until social media found a way to interrupt that exchange.

Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s mugshot of the day website and the countless mugshot magazines like Busted were examples of larger authorities using the mugshot to their own ends. Arpaio’s use served not the general fraternity of law enforcement but his own ego. Busted wanted to bend the use of mugshots to its own profitable ends but interestingly did so without inconveniencing the state’s power; to the contrary dollar-mugshot magazines enhance the states criminalisation of individuals.

Fiske’s theory was formulated in the late 1980s and so pre-dates the emergence of web 2.0 and social media but his model of culture (and popular culture) does have a resonance with the ways in which social media tools and platforms further open up the terrain of culture for struggles over meaning, semiotic productivity and popular resistance. Imposing official (or dominant) meanings is now much more difficult because there are so many opportunities for contestation.

It would be naïve to cite the Jeremy Meeks example as some kind of paradigm changing moment or as the empowerment of the masses but it does offer an insight into the ways in which the potential for popular resistance is always possible and can surface in the most unlikely of places.

From dusty archives, to venerable vernacular objects, to art-world comedy-fetish, to online consumable, we need to consider deeply our relationship to mugshots. And to the criminal justice systems from which they emerge. Especially as one week we’re approaching them as shallow entertainment and the next we’re demanding a right to them in order to confirm or dispel controversy and conspiracy surrounding in-custody death.

Read French’s full piece Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision here

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