gumpert2

8 June 2012: Crescent City, CA. California State Prison: Pelican Bay Prison. Examples of kites (messages) written by prisoners. These were discovered before they were smuggled out.

Too often since writing this post, I have lamented the dearth of images of solitary confinement. We have suffered as a society from not seeing. A few years back a change began. Solitary confinement became an anchor issue to the prison reform and abolition movements. Thanks largely to activist and journalist inquiry we’ve seen more and more images of solitary confinement emerge. However, news outlets still relying on video animation to tell stories, which would indicate images remain scarce and at a premium.

Robert Gumpert has just updated his website with photographs of Pelican Bay State Prison. Some are from the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) that has been the center of years of controversy and the locus of 3 hunger strikes since the summer of 2011. Other photographs are from the general population areas of the supermaximum security facility.

Click the “i” icon at the top right of Gumpert’s gallery to see caption info, so that you can be sure which wing of this brutal facility is in each photograph.

1gumpert

Despite seeing Gumpert regularly, I am still not aware of exactly how these images came about. I think Gumpert was on assignment but the publication didn’t, in the end, pull the trigger. Their loss is our gain. Gumpert provides 33 images. It’s a strange mix. I’d go as far to say stifled. Everything is eerily still under dank light. We encounter, at distance, a cuffed prisoner brought out for the camera. Gumpert’s captions indicate interviews took place, but there are no prisoners’ quotes. In a deprived environment it makes sense that Gumpert focuses on signs — they point toward the operations and attitudes more than a portrait of officer or prisoner does, I think.

The gallery opens with images from the SHU and then moves into the ‘Transition Housing Unit’ which is where prisoners who have signed up for the Step-Down Program are making their transition from assigned gang-status to return to the general population. Critics of the Step-Down Program say it is coercive and serves the prisons’ need more than the prisoners.

Note: It doesn’t matter how the prisoner identifies — if the prison authority has classed a prisoner as a gang member it is very difficult to shake the label. The Kafkaesque irreversibility of many CDCR assertions was what led to a growth in use of solitary in the California prisons.

gumpert3

8 June 2012: Crescent City, CA. California State Prison: Pelican Bay Prison. A SHU cell occupied by two prisoners. Cell is about 8×10 with no windows. Bunks are concrete with mattress roles. When rolled up the bunk serves at a seat and table.. Cones on the wall are home made speakers using ear-phones for the TV or radio. Speakers are not allowed.

I’ve picked out three images from Gumpert’s 33 that I think are instructive in different ways. While we may be amazed by the teeny writing of a prisoner in his kites (top) we should also be aware that these were shown to Gumpert to re-enforce the point that prisoners in solitary are incorrigible. The suggestion is that these words are a threat and we should be fearful. But we cannot know if we cannot read them fully. How good is your eyesight? Click the image to see it larger.

As for the “speakers” made of earphones and cardboards cylinders! Can those really amplify sound in any meaning full way?

And finally, to the image below. I thought the quotation marks in the church banner (below) were yet another case of poor prison signage grammar, but reading the caption and learning that the chapel caters for 47 faiths, makes “LORD’S” entirely applicable. Not a single lord but the widest, most ill-defined, catch-all version of a lord (higher presence/Yahweh/Gaia/Sheba/fog-spirit/Allah/fill-in-the-blank) in a prison that is all but god-forsaken.

See the full gallery.

4gumpert4

8 June 2012: Crescent City, CA. California State Prison: Pelican Bay Prison. The religion room serving 47 different faiths and beliefs.

SFJailEnvironmentalImpactFlyer-3

Say NO to a New Jail in SF

The discussion about the long proposed San Francisco County Jail has taken many turns. It’d have been built by now without the opposition of many California groups fighting for social justice under the umbrella organisation CURB (Californian’s United for Responsible Budget).

On Monday, March 2nd from 6-8pm, Sheriff Mirkarimi and staff from the Department of Public Works will be hosting a public meeting on the environmental impact of the $278 million dollar jail plan at the Community Assessment and Service Center (CASC).

The CASC at 564 6th Street in San Francisco — it is just around the corner from San Francisco County Jail #3, at 850 Bryant.

All info and RSVP here.

RALLY

The protest rally begins in front of the jail at 850 Bryant on Monday, March 2nd at 5:30pm and moves to the Community Assessment and Service Center (CASC).

“Come prepared to dance! We will be joined by the BLO (Brass Liberation Orchestra)” says organiser Lisa Marie Alatorre, of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. “San Francisco needs real solutions to public safety, housing, jobs, education, mental health care, not more of the same failed policies that harm our community. Justice is won when we build a future of opportunity for everyone, not more jails.”

Make banners and signs that reflect the environmental impacts that jail and incarceration has on your life and your community.

All info and RSVP here.

CITY HALL MEETING

Separately to the Sheriff’s meeting, the Capitol Planning Committee is voting on the jail plan also on Monday!

Anyone who can speak out against the jail should go to San Francisco City Hall from noon to 2pm Monday, March 2nd and voice their concerns.

GET THE WORD OUT

On Facebook

Share the flyer.

#NoMoreJails

All info and RSVP here.

 

UPDATE: WEDS., 25TH FEB, 2:50PM. I JUST HEARD FROM PARSONS THAT THE WORKSHOP IS FULL. THAT IS GOOD NEWS FOR MARK AND THE PARTICIPANTS. LESS GOOD FOR THOSE WHO MAY HAVE GOT THEIR HOPES UP BECAUSE OF THIS POST.

__________

SPACES ARE STILL AVAILABLE FOR MARK STRANDQUIST’S TALK These Images Won’t Tell You What You Want: Collaborative Photography and Social Justice AT THE SJDC ON FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 27TH AT 6PM.

__________

10_back copy

Description from prisoner at Richmond County Jail, Virginia, from a workshop by Mark Strandquist.

WINDOWS FROM PRISON

Mark Strandquist will be coordinating a participatory workshop this Saturday, February 28, in New York City. Over the course of the day, artists, activists, lawyers, students, journalists, photographers, corrections officers, formerly incarcerated individuals and others will work together through dialogue to create photographs requested by prisoners in New York state.

Mark and his collaborators who include the Correctional Association of New York, the Young New Yorkers, Exalt Youth and the New York Writers Coalition have already sourced written responses from prisoners to the question:

“If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?”

The workshop is at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, at the Parsons School of Design. Those who gather at SJDC on Saturday will travel in groups to the various locations to make images, which will be sent back to the prisoners.

The workshop is part of the programming for Prison Obscura, a show of prison photography I have curated. Prison Obscura includes Strandquist’s series Some Other Places We Have Missed which was the earliest iteration of his workshops conduscted in Richmond Jail, Virginia. Since then, Strandquist has partnered with local reforms groups and stakeholders in the prison issue and custom-designed workshops in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia.

The ongoing program of workshops is called Windows from Prison designed to open up conversation about the experience and impact of mass incarceration through the medium of photography.

The images made during the workshop will be exhibited in the atrium space of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center adjacent to the Prison Obscura exhibit.

__________

Prison Obscura is made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.

 

_MG_5553

Edmund Clark is cheeky, thoughtful and a bit subversive in his critique of institutional power. During his 10 days embedded at Bagram Airbase in October 2013, he realised most people there don’t ever get outside its confines.

But Bagram has nice paintings of murals to provide an idealised Afghanistan.

My latest for WIRED, The 40,000 People on Bagram Air Base Haven’t Actually Seen Afghanistan I consider his latest body of work and book Mountains Of Majeed:

Clark documented the infrastructure needed to support a military base that covers 6 square miles and employs 40,000 people. He photographed everything from the mess halls and laundry to the sewage treatment system, but the colorful murals and paintings dotting the base most intrigued him. They depict an idyllic, romanticized vision of the local landscape and Hindu Kush, one free of war. The reality, of course, was much bleaker, with the distant peaks of the mountains beyond Bagram riddled with conflict and danger.

Read the piece in full.

Bagram Day 4_0120 book

Bagram Day 4_0165 book

Bagram Day 4_0117 book file

Bagram Day 1_0059 book

_MG_5555

Bagram Day 4_0124 book

Bagram Day 4_0148 bookBagram Day 4_0125 book

_MG_5560

Bagram Day 5_0098 book

Bagram Day 5_0089 book

_MG_5570

enhanced-buzz-wide-26826-1424366265-16

 

IS THE INTERNET BECOMING LESS SNARKY?

 

Portraits of incarcerated youth made by Steve Davis were published on BuzzFeed yesterday. That they are featured does not surprise me; no, it is the reasonable comments that follow that surprise me.

They internet, a space known to often bring out the worst in people has had a special place for trolls as far as images of American prison and prisoners are concerned. Often photographs themselves are bypassed in discussion in order for commenters to shortcut straight to their long held positions — by they left or right, sympathetic or not, nuanced or short-sighted, familiar or prejudiced. Prisons are a divisive issue and often people miss the point of prison photographers who, in the first instance at least, are merely trying to hold a mirror to a system. In this case, Davis holds a mirror to a nation that locks up 65,000 youth on any given night at a cost of $5billion per year.

In my own prejudice, I would’ve expected THE INTERNET + BUZZFEED + KIDS IDENTIFIED AS CRIMINALS would be an equation for vitriol. Not so.

Why would I be so pessimistic? Well, despite BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti’s insistence that serious, longform news can exist beside listicles — and despite recent pieces — on last meals of the executed, a trans-activist transforming a prison from within, reflections on wrongful conviction, and the shacking of women prisoners in labor — BuzzFeed content still leasn heavily on shock, innumerable pet vids, “27 things you only know if…” nonsense, and flashes of celeb flesh. The lowest denominators remain our and BuzzFeed’s bread and butter.

All that said, let’s just be thankful for this comment thread:

Some of these faces are so hard. Some are bewildered. And some are just heartbreaking. So beautiful and tragic.

Each one of these faces should never have ended up there. Their incarceration marks the failure of society to raise contributing citizens.

That would imply that society failed every person who has made bad choices. That’s simply not a generalization that pans out entirely. I don’t disagree that we have failed many of these faces as a society, just the generalization.

Look to the parents. Well, perhaps they are/were also incarcerated. Sad all around.

There needs to be a better solution to helping these kids achieve more in life. Yes punish them for their crimes but surely there is better way! Locking them up like this gives them no hope of something better! Nobody but them know the full story so why jump to saying they “deserve” it? some of these kids have been failed by family, peers, society which has resulted in this! Tragic!

I think we should look to the systems used in Scandinavian countries — humane prisons, lots of community service, a focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. …Or we could just stop monetizing the prison system, that would help.

The system makes money off of these children, and I guarantee you there is not one child in there whose parents have a little bit of money! Our prisons are filled with poor people! Justice is definitely not blind!

I can see where you’re coming from, but in my personal experience (two relatives that have been incarcerated both as youth and as adults), there are individuals who will, regardless of the number of chances given, continue to make the wrong choices. You can not force, coerce, or convince someone to act and live as you see fit. They will make choices of their own. These are individuals that do, in fact, deserve the punishments they receive. Like you said only they know the whole story, but regardless of that fact, there are some choices that incarcerated individuals have made that have impacted the lives of innocent people. Do those choices, then, not merit the fullest punishment?

I DO, however, believe there are also individuals who can be guided into a better life because they’ve only known one way. These are the individuals that CHOOSE to make themselves better, both in their own eyes and in societies eyes. They make the choice, and seek out those that can help guide them.

One summer in college, I had an internship in WA for an office of juvenile probation. I went to one of these places with one of the counselors because one of the kids was going to be getting out soon and heading home. This kid was probably 14 or 15 and I remember him sitting there crying because he didn’t want to leave. He had been in out of the system for years and I remember him telling us that no matter how bad it was there, he knew he was going to get fed and have a place to sleep. He told us that he was going to do something as soon as he got out that would send him back. It was tragic on so many levels. Everyone had just given up on this kid and he had pretty much given up on himself.

Locking up a young person in prison is always a shocking and sad thing, but what concerns me is people’s knee jerk reaction that all youth incarceration reflects society’s ultimate failure. Remember, most of you are also the same people who regularly rage against the violent and intolerable stories we read about rape and murder that we regularly see on this site. There are thousands of teenagers (perhaps some of the faces you are seeing here) who are guilty of these crimes. Are you saying that we needn’t incarcerate minors who commit violent crime? Should these individuals only be counseled then allowed to return into society? Despite the fact that several here have unilaterally declared that each of these incarnations are the wholesale fault of society’s failure?

But our prisons out not filled to the brim with people who have committed the kinda of crimes you speak of, and THAT is the failure.

I work in the teen department of my library system, and every librarian takes turns to go visit our JDC to talk to the kids there and find books for them in the collection we maintain at the facilities for them. It’s hard seeing them…especially when they’re super young (I swear a couple I’ve seen couldn’t be older than 11), or especially when you’ve helped them in your branch before. It sucks, and I just always hope that they can come around and learn from the experience and never become a repeat offender.

I have a serious problem with photographers leaving their [captioning on] photos blank when it comes to picturing at risk groups. Each has their own valuable story to tell and name. They are not just “black kids: or troubled youths or street punks etc…the categories that pop up due to the viewers own prejudices. We live in a fucked up world. Such photography should be there to give names to the victims and not participate in their being reduced to a number in the “incarceration game.”

Perhaps the Facebook-linked comment board has sophistication to remove idiot comments and promote those exhibiting most human thought?

Internet, you have my faith again.

Even the commenter that wonders about an anonymous portrait showing a youth with painted nails and foolishly labels the child as possibly “a fabulous homosexual” goes on to demonstrate a knowledge of the system that is unable to adequately care for LGBQIT youth; “In adult prisons obviously gay or transgendered individuals are usually put in solitary confinement for their own protection.” We know that is an unacceptable situation. LGBQIT prisoners are denied access to programming because prisons cannot guarantee their safety in general population.

Unfinished: Incarcerated Youth

Steve Davis is currently taking pre-orders for a book of his photographs from Washington State juvenile prisons, titled, Unfinished: Incarcerated Youth.

You can preorder with Minor Matters Books.

 

G-LAW

Fight Hate With Love, a documentary film about Philadelphia-based artists and activist Michael Tabon (a.k.a. G-Law a.k.a. OG-Law) has been shortlisted for the Tim Hetherington Trust‘s inaugural Visionary Award.

The film made by Andrew Michael Ellis, director of photography at Mediastorm is about “one man’s journey to change the world and still be the guide his family needs him to be.”

The film looks inspiring, but as with any narrative arc, the protagonist faces challenges. It seems the stresses of Tabon’s art and activism upon his family is the emotive hook, Ellis is molding.

I met Tabon and his wife Gwen this time last year as he was embarking on his third self-imposed lock up in a self-built cell on the cold February streets of Philly. They did not display the tension as they do in Ellis’ trailer. Tabon was putting his un-prison cell together and Gwen was helping with supplies, PR, food & drink, and vocal support. It was clear they rely on one another to make work and to meet the silent, unending need for Tabon’s love-filled message.

Tabon’s manipulation of visual tropes is cunning and effective. He has reclaimed the cell, the orange jumpsuit and the shackles. He has jogged 10 miles a day for seven days around Philadelphia with a 40-foot banner reading FIGHT HATE WITH LOVE. He has walked with a ball-and-chain from Selma to Montgomery.

“Tabon has been caught in the revolving door of the prison system since he was sixteen years old. Incarceration became a way of life, seen as an inherited destiny for America’s young Black poor, until he had a revelation – that he could break the cycle of the womb-to-prison pipeline gripping marginalized communities across the country,” says Mediastorm.

It’s wonderful to see Tabon on the Mediastorm platform and Hetherington Trust’s radar. His unorthodox but unmissable approach to social change needs to go national.

Youtube trailer here. Follow Tabon on Twitter and on the web.

glaw

http://cargocollective.com/growingupthroughpictures/About

Image source: Growing Up Through Pictures (an unrelated program to Anathema Arts)

Prison arts organisation Anathema Arts is petitioning for a photo day program in the state of Illinois. Anathema Arts will provide the supplies necessary — the printer, photo paper, and digital camera. Anathema is at pains to state the program will not cost the taxpayers of Illinois.

“A photo can heal, promote positive thinking, maintain bonds, and enhance memories,” say Anathema Arts. “Photos of loved ones have long been used in psychology to reduce grief and pain, but just as they can provide comfort, the lack of current photos can cause negative consequences for both the incarcerated and their loved ones.”

As the majority of prisoners will be released back in to society it is in all of our interests to enact simple steps that maintain self-esteem among the incarcerated class. More importantly, the one factor that determines most a prisoner’s successful reentry into society is close family relationships during imprisonment. Photographs play their part in aiding those bonds.

“Friends and families of incarcerated people often do not have current pictures, and do not get to see how their son, daughter, friend, brother, or sister looks as their sentence passes over the years,” says Anathema Arts. “For those family members that can visit … portraits provide a positive focus during visits, and remind loved ones and prisoners of happier times.”

As I see it, the biggest potential problem with Anathema Arts’ proposition is how it is perceived. Might prison administrations be reluctant to accommodate the (sensible) suggestions of an arts organisation with stated sympathies for incarcerated peoples? Maybe, I’m problematising? Or maybe, I am not? After all, many members of the citizenry consider anything beyond punishment as being unwarranted or not needed in our prisons. Short version: prisons don’t want to appear soft and a photo portraiture program may be seen as fluffy and coddling.

But, surely, there can be no harm in allowing prisoners and families ready access to a recent photo portrait?!

A knee-jerk reaction would be to reject the FAMILY PHOTO -> BOND STRENGTHENED -> REDUCED ALIENATION -> SAFER SOCIETY theory of causation. I understand why some might think it a stretch but, let’s be honest, photography is often wrapped up in unexamined theory. So, why would we dismiss this well-meaning program specifically? Instead, let us consider the fact that prisoners are probably the demographic in America with least access to self-representation — they do not have the standing, nor the tools to create, share and replace images at will.

I’ve signed the petition because I think it’s not only a useful pilot program (that could be repeated in other prisons and other states) it is also a test to see what the Illinois Department of Corrections can accommodate. Is it flexible enough to host a volunteer-run photo program? It absolutely must be, for if it is not then what else can it not — will not — provide for those in its custody?

Go on. Sign up if you dare to imagine the possibilities.

2KikeArnal

We hear often, from the extreme political right and left, that Washington D.C. is broken. People across the nation grumble about how the power-heeled mingle with elected representatives on Capitol Hill and achieve little for the everyman. Putting the efficacy of the political system aside, what about Washington D.C. as a city? What about D.C.’s governance and its ability to provide for its residents?

A look at Kike Arnal‘s series In The Shadows Of Power would tell us that D.C. is failing and it is the poor and disenfranchised it fails most. The series features photographs of youth locked in the city’s jail (above).

“Washington, D.C. is truly a world symbol in ways most people do not understand. It is my hope that the work in this book might expand that understanding,” says Arnal.

Cross Section: a different tour of Washington D.C.

I visited D.C. last week and it felt good and weird. The video exhibit at the Hirschorn was amazing, the Reflecting Pool was drained and scummy, a new $400M Museum Of The Bible had just been announced, and the Ethiopian food was tremendous. But I got the feeling I was treading the visitors’ routes rather than the locals’ usual routes. I stayed in NoMa, which is a new acronymic fancy recently applied to the area North of Massachussetts Avenue.

[ Note: Acronyms are surefire evidence of realtor-orchestrated change — think SOMA, NoPa and TriBeCa. ]

NoMa is where the new headquarters of NPR are located. It’s undergoing massive change as Washington D.C. spiffs itself up in the blocks north of The Mall, Union Station and Congress. Historically though, it has been a poor area. No more. The poorest residents of D.C. are pushed around, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. All the while, the D.C. metro area is the “centre of the free world.”

The economic downturn of 2008 barely touched D.C. With such a high proportion of government jobs, the capitol didn’t suffer in the same way cities reliant on industry and services did. As a result, migration into D.C. among the young and hungry picked up, and the renters market boomed. Areas that had, for the longest period, been home to lower economic classes changed wholesale. For example, vacant lots in the 14th Street area — which was devastated by 1968 riots in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination — were only developed in the last decade. And even then it was with Target, Starbucks and other chain name stores.

The area was left to waste until such a time it was useful for corporate/consumer interests.

Exhibit Washington: Life in the world's most powerful capital

Arnal talks about the body of work on C-Span here and Ralph Nader sings the praises of In The Shadow Of Power on Democracy Now! In that same program, Arnal talks about the photo of the coffeeshop (above).

In the Shadow of Power was sponsored by the Washington, DC, based Center for Study of Responsive Law which was founded by Ralph Nader in 1968. The Center has sponsored a wide variety of books, organizing projects, litigation and has hosted hundreds of conferences focusing on government and corporate accountability.

BIOGRAPHY

Kike Arnal is a Venezuelan photographer and documentary filmmaker based in New York City. His photographs have been featured in the New York Times, Life, and Newsweek, among others. His video, Yanomami Malaria, produced for the Discovery Channel, covered the spread of disease among populations of indigenous people in the northern Amazon. Follow Kike on Tumblr.

 

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 733 other followers