Before Christmas, I mentioned that Zora Murff‘s first photobook Corrections–published by Ain’t Bad Editions–was out. I was invited to write the introduction essay. Murff and I agreed that it’d be nice to share the essay with some images here on the blog.
The title of the essay “Off Paper” comes from a common phrase used by many of the children with whom Murff worked. It refers to the time when they will no longer be supervised, monitored, checked, tested or on probation. I thought it interesting that they describe paper documents as the form that control takes. Especially as it is networked, electronic, digital devices that are increasingly used to maintain the day-to-day control over their activities.
Paradoxically, Murff has tried to describe the children’s experiences and individuality beyond the formless, GPS surveillance, the case number and the rules under which each lives. Murff has used photography–and specifically the photobook–to do that. He has put them on paper. Unlike legal paper, the paper of art is non-binding and possibly more sympathetic.
The kids hope they are only temporarily on paper, in the legal sense, but Murff’s book locks them permanently in. And on.
Scroll down for the essay.
“My therapist said that I’m a criminal because I think like a criminal. She’s wrong. I’ve just made some bad choices when I’m in the moment. It doesn’t mean I’m not capable of doing right.”
– A youth in the Linn County Juvenile Detention & Diversion Services system.
The extreme cruelties and systemic failures of the United States’ brutal prisons are, at this point, well known. Far from being a solution, mass incarceration in America has exacerbated profound social problems, widened the gap between the haves and have-nots and set generations back. We’re starting to accept these truths and admit our collective mistakes. We’re starting to think less-and-less of prisons as institutions that solve the behaviors and social dynamics that lead to the state’s need to control; we’re starting to identify them as the problem. Across the country, prisons and detention are now considered a last resort for the disciplining of children.
As criminal justice agencies employ community supervision more and more, monitoring systems are used more and more. James Kilgore — academic, activist and a man who was once electronically monitored — has described ankle bracelets as “going viral in the criminal justice system.”
In 2005, 120,000 people wore electronic monitoring ankle bracelets; in 2012, the figure was 200,000; and in 2015, we can assume the figure has grown further still. Proportionally, within the 7 million people under correctional supervision in the United States, a larger percentage of youth wear monitoring devices than adults.
Imprisonment is known to negatively impact young minds and bodies far more severely than those of adults and current policy — and carceral logic — deem ankle bracelets a palatable, convenient and more humane alternative. There are some blind-spots to this logic.
Corrections comes at a crucial moment. Electronic monitoring (EM) has come into its own in the age of GPS. Faster, more accurate and more reliable than previously-used radio-based devices, GPS technologies provide the state agencies responsible for managing sentenced and pre-trial citizens with the rhetoric of control, the vision of the future and assurances to the public of total security.
EM is presented as a more humane, productive and progressive means of social control. Companies such as iSecure Trac, Secure Alert, Pro Tech, GEO and Omnilink which manufacture ankle bracelets also talk up the cost savings to their state clients.
All this to say, that this moment, in which we as a society are turning ever more faithfully to electronic monitoring, is not based solely on enlightened policy based upon supposed enlightened morals and the prioritization of the humane. No, it is based in large part to salesmanship in growth industries and the rhetorical promise of redemption through technology.
Corrections is an opportunity to reflect upon what is means to rely on widespread, diffuse and near total surveillance to correct antisocial behaviors. Furthermore, it is an opportunity to interrogate the outcomes of such surveillance upon larger society and the problems GPS-powered panopticism purports to address. Do ankle bracelets prevent criminal acts? Does EM propel, distract or compliment our investment in educational, economic and healthcare systems–systems we know improve citizens and reduce anti-social behaviors?
While many of the recent headlines about juvenile justice reform have focused on New York State, California and the South, ankle bracelets are utilized nationwide. It is fitting that Corrections emerges from Iowa, the heartland of America. The young men and women in Murff’s photographs are ordinary children, just like all children are ordinary. And yet, we have a propensity to think of urgent debates about the social contract we share as being those centered around the big cities. GPS tracks kids the same in the Midwest as it does in urban cores; it “knows” geography but does not adhere to our regional stereotypes. Corrections, in its modest way, puts the debate about electronic monitoring of youth into all our communities.
Helping children to modify and understand their behavior is a vital task — a fact Murff acknowledges. Ask any of the teens he monitored and they’d say they were happier being out in the community than locked up. Murff grew close to many of the children through face-to-face contact with youths on a regular basis. He talks of “watching the youths grow throughout the probation process.” But that does not mean that all the teens evaluate their monitoring as fair or right. Having a clunky box strapped to ones leg can hamper ones feeling of freedom just as much as being locked within a box. This tension–this constant to-and-fro about the costs and benefits of EM–is what informs Murff’s photographs, and his images provide some avenues to explore the tension.
The kids in Corrections are anything but armed and dangerous. The portraits came out of collaboration, discussion and sometimes accident. The evasive gesture and posturing of anonymous subjects is, for me, less a metaphor for the youths’ prior furtive behavior, but more a metaphor for our collective unknowing of the mechanism of the monitoring systems that we fund in order that they might inhabit them.
If the portraiture in Corrections is artful and poetic, then the studies of objects are pure documentary. Images of standard-issue deodorant, case files, uniforms, bracelets and other accouterments remind us of the regime and remind us of the industries behind it.
A youth writes “I have what I need to be fine,” on a self-assessment form and reminds us of the gulf, often, between what a child in crisis needs and what a caring society might be able to provide. It puts us right there. In tension. By contrast, a beautiful sun-dappled portrait of a youth seems so very far removed from the contested system and its narratives. Until you notice the ankle bracelet.
(But) seeing the system and understanding the system are not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, the ability to see is a great privilege. GPS “sees” relentlessly. Can Corrections help us understand the psychology and control at play as well as EM purports to understand the needs of youth and community?
Some of Murff’s images fill our gaps in knowledge; others inhabit blind spots in our collective understanding of a legally protected arena. What we learn, mostly, from Corrections is that we’ve more to know about how we’re helping troubled kids. We know that we’re using electronic monitoring more readily. How far will we proceed with this brave, new technology? Some Texas school districts, which include a large number of black and latino students, have expanded the use of EM for kids with histories of excessive truancy.
What does Murff’s documentation of fracture and healing from Iowa tell us about this very 21st Century practice? What is this version of freedom and control? Do we accept it?
One afternoon, Murff was sat in the bedroom of a young man for whom he was responsible for monitoring. The teen was playing his guitar and Murff was making a photograph. Then, a friend of the teen came to the bedroom window. He was confused by Murff, his camera, and the scene before him. Without missing a beat, the teen told his friend that he had just been signed to a record label and that Murff was from Rolling Stone Magazine.
I end with this anecdote because the teen, in spite of his circumstances, was witty and present. And he had agency. Lighthearted moments are harder to come by when people are implicated in the criminal justice system. Corrections is a serious body of work about a serious project, but it has been built on years of very personal interactions. For the protection of the youths, all of Murff’s subjects remain anonymous but that doesn’t mean they are distant.
What we think today affects what we do tomorrow. As you leaf through these pages, think about how you would feel as a kid under monitoring, think about your current attitudes about “delinquent” kids, and think about if those can change. Think about these things today because, certainly, there’ll be more electronic monitoring devices tomorrow.
CORRECTIONS THE BOOK
Title: Corrections, 2015
Size: 9.75 x 7.75 in
Page Count: 80 pages, 40 images
Publisher: Aint-Bad Editions
Edition Size: 450, signed and numbered
Print: 8×10 signed and numbered edition of 50