Reporting on the prison industrial complex requires many tactics of approach in order to sustain audiences’ attentions and emotions. For all the constant misery, shame and violence the prison systems of America mete out, that relentless mood of defeat cannot dominate the flow of reported stories. Prisons are scary enough without giving people added fatigue and an easy option to turn away from stories heated the same beat-down drum. I guess this applies to all serious issues and is why human interest stories exist in journalism.

Human interest stories are great, but they have their place. Within the prison system are human interest stories ones that journalist find or are they ones fed to them? We’re headed into the weekend here and the sun is up so I don’t want to be a debbie-downer but I want to flag this contested context before celebrating Grant Blankenship’s latest human interest story, Say a Prayer for the Barber.


Anthony Ponder spent many years in prison in Georgia. He was released on August 18th. Not knowing where to go he spent his first night out asleep in the truck outside his uncle’s house. While he was inside he was the prison barber.

“Population barber. So I’ve got plenty of practice. Unfortunately.”

Anthony wasn’t afforded much help when he got out form the state. But two churches in the town of Macon, GA did; Centenary Church and Vineville United Methodist Church gave him clippers, scissors and a chair and a space to cut hair. Every Sunday morning, Anthony cut the hair of men.

Every Sunday morning, Anthony cut the hair of men who are making the transition, as he did, from prison or jail back into society.

“I was attracted to the story because of its simple reciprocity. A man is given a hand up and he returns the favor,” says Blankenship. “I was not assigned the story, but when I heard about Anthony I jumped on it pretty quickly.”

The full piece, including audio is titled Say a Prayer for the Barber. Recommended.

Anthony’s “shop” is located in Centenary Church which works with a number of men, providing transitional housing and other services. Eric, an organizer at Centenary, asked Anthony if he would like to volunteer but Anthony couldn’t imagine how to without the gear he had had before his incarceration.

“So Mr. Eric, we had a conversation he said he had a way that he could buy all the tools for me if I worked so many times cutting hair he would donate them to me,” recounts Anthony in Blankenship’s story.




Blankenship a staff audio and visual reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting is at the forefront of highlighting, through images, the issues of incarceration to Georgians.

“Public policy regarding former prisoners is shifting,” says Blankenship, who stresses he no expert on prison issues. “For example, my community of Bibb County, GA recently adopted a ban questions on job applications about felon status in an attempt to make hiring practices more immediately meritocratic.”

At the state level, new programs are slowly being introduced to aid returning citizens’ reintegration into communities and the wider economy. I’ve heard anecdotally, from photographers who’ve worked in Georgia’s prisons, that they’re below par, threatening and without significant programs. Georgia’s prisons are overcrowded. Reentry efforts will have to be redoubled to scale back on the damage done by an out of control system.

“Time will tell how those efforts pan out,” says Blankenship of reentry projects.

The state is making moves toward accountability.

“Though it has yet to be tested, a bill passed this year is touted as making the parole process, and even the granting or denial of clemency for death row inmates, more transparent,” says Blankenship who reported on the vague language of a new death penalty pardons bill here and here. “We are in the midst of a subtle but perceptible cultural shift. That’s the eight mile high view.”




In the mean time, we can hope for the best for Anthony and other men and women rejoining society after long stints away. Thanks to some imaginative thinking on the part of some church leaders, Anthony can connect with others in one of their most difficult moments.

“I want to give him some hope. Like I have. That’s my aim. Give him hope. Let him know there is hope. There’s a better way. If he’s down and depressed and discouraged, let him know there’s a better way.”

It’s an uplifting story, but returning to me opening caution. We must remember that people make it out of prison and stay out in spite of the system not because of it. As heartwarming as Anthony’s story is and as easy it is to connect with his warmth and generosity, we must not be distracted from seeing the larger systemic inequalities at play that.

That said, Blankenship’s cracking images and Anthony Ponder’s words of wisdom are the hook by which we are all snagged. And here we are talking about Georgia’s prisons.

The story was only positive for Blankenship. A joy to work on.

“I am grateful to Anthony for sharing so much with me for no good reason,” says Blankenship. “I’m left wanting the absolute best for him. He’s a kind man.


Read and listen to Blankenship’s full report Say a Prayer for the Barber.



Screengrab of a Google image search for “terror”


One of the more amazing ledes to a story you’ll see:

Fourteen years of wars, interventions, assassinations, torture, kidnappings, black sites, the growth of the American national security state to monumental proportions, and the spread of Islamic extremism across much of the Greater Middle East and Africa. Fourteen years of astronomical expense, bombing campaigns galore, and a military-first foreign policy of repeated defeats, disappointments, and disasters. Fourteen years of a culture of fear in America, of endless alarms and warnings, as well as dire predictions of terrorist attacks. Fourteen years of the burial of American democracy (or rather its recreation as a billionaire’s playground and a source of spectacle and entertainment but not governance). Fourteen years of the spread of secrecy, the classification of every document in sight, the fierce prosecution of whistleblowers, and a faith-based urge to keep Americans “secure” by leaving them in the dark about what their government is doing. Fourteen years of the demobilization of the citizenry. Fourteen years of the rise of the warrior corporation, the transformation of war and intelligence gathering into profit-making activities, and the flocking of countless private contractors to the Pentagon, the NSA, the CIA, and too many other parts of the national security state to keep track of. Fourteen years of our wars coming home in the form of PTSD, the militarization of the police, and the spread of war-zone technology like drones and stingrays to the “homeland.” Fourteen years of that un-American word “homeland.” Fourteen years of the expansion of surveillance of every kind and of the development of a global surveillance system whose reach—from foreign leaders to tribal groups in the backlands of the planet—would have stunned those running the totalitarian states of the twentieth century. Fourteen years of the financial starvation of America’s infrastructure and still not a single mile of high-speed rail built anywhere in the country. Fourteen years in which to launch Afghan War 2.0, Iraq Wars 2.0 and 3.0, and Syria War 1.0. Fourteen years, that is, of the improbable made probable.

Fourteen years later, thanks a heap, Osama bin Laden. With a small number of supporters, $400,000-$500,000, and 19 suicidal hijackers, most of them Saudis, you pulled off a geopolitical magic trick of the first order.

Read Tom Engelhardt’s 14 Years After 9/11, the War on Terror Is Accomplishing Everything bin Laden Hoped It Would

Tonight between, 8-9pm ET (that’s 5-6pm PST), I’ll be part of a VICE News Skype Group Chat about prisons.

Me and a bunch of others will be discussing education, law, some policy and inequality — all the stuff that has shaped a broken prison system.

I’ve been told “a Skype Group Chat is a virtual, text-based discussion falling somewhere on the spectrum between chatroom and Reddit AMA.”

It’s part of VICE’s ongoing, month-long focus on prison in the U.S.

“On September 27th, VICE on HBO aired a special report entitled Fixing The System which investigated mass incarceration in America, and the mounting civil rights crisis surrounding our prison population. Set against the backdrop of President Obama’s historic visit to El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma, VICE co-founder Shane Smith spoke with inmates, as well as community reformers, and members of the judiciary about the structural failings of our criminal justice system and the challenges that lie ahead for those who aim to fix them.” says VICE.

That spirit of fixing things continues here. Although we’ll see if “fixing” is the right approach. How about disassembling?

The chat will be moderated by members of the VICE News and team, including the producers of Fixing the System BJ Levin, Alex Chitty, Jana Kozlowski, and Matt Horowitz.

Might you tune in?

See Fixing The System trailer  and VICE’s America Incarcerated


Be Their Megaphone

At 5 o’clock on Friday evening, advocates for juvenile justice system reform are marching on the General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia. You can join them.

The Justice Parade for Incarcerated Youth will present, to the powers that be, the work produced by incarcerated youth this summer, as part of the Performing Statistics project. In the parade, a broad coalition of artists, legal and policy experts, community activists, faith leaders and returning citizens will champion the work. It’ll bring art onto the streets and ask the public to imagine a society without prisons for children.

Take drums, banners, trumpets, instruments, foghorns and your loudest songs and chants.

Carry art and banners made by incarcerated youth. Be their presence on the streets.

Take your own signs that answer the question, “How can we create a world where no youth are locked up?”




Friday, October 2 at 5 p.m. Speakers at 5:30 p.m. Walking begins at 5:45 p.m.


General Assembly Building 915 E. Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219.

Parade goes from the General Assembly Building to the ATLAS gallery at the ART 180 art center for teens and youth. ATLAS is currently showing the Performing Statistics exhibition featuring creative work by incarcerated youth that talks about their experiences being incarcerated and alternatives to the system.

Be Their Megaphone





Mark Strandquist
 — 703-798-6379

Trey Hartt — 


Performing Statistics is a Richmond-based art and advocacy project that connects incarcerated teens, artists, and Virginia’s top legal experts. The project is part of Legal Aid Justice Center’s RISE For Youth campaign.

Be Their Megaphone


13- distribution

Photographer Tony Fouhse photographed his hometown of Ottawa. Then he made a newspaper of his images and gave all 2,000 of them away for free. The project is called Official Ottawa.

I dig Fouhse’s images of politics, power, pomp and circumstance in Canada’s capital. The concept was great, the execution fine and the distribution in cafes and at truck-stops brings a smile to my face.


I interviewed Tony about the project for Vantage in a piece titled Control and Containment in the Canadian Capital.

About Ottawa, Fouhse says:

“There is a kind of pervasive fear that percolates through the city. Not a fear of getting mugged or anything, rather, a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Workers here seem to know which side of their bread is buttered and who is buttering it; they certainly wouldn’t want to put their pensions at risk. An atmosphere like that dampers a lot of healthy thinking and questioning and certainly precludes action.”

Read Control and Containment in the Canadian Capital.

01- limo

02-west block

04-National Firefighters Memorial Service


06-special event

07-Govt signage

09-Parliament Hill with Leopard tank


11-P Hill security checkpoint


Vikki Law
Clockwise from top L: Sierra Watts in her only visit with her son, Oak Lee, before he was adopted; Minna Long’s son Noah; Michelle Barton with her daughter, Semaj, in February 2014, hours after birth; the mattress in the Wichita County Jail cell where Nicole Guerrero gave birth, June 12, 2012; Noah’s twin brother, Joseph. Excerpts from a 2015 letter from a pregnant prisoner in Oklahoma.

Yesterday, I flagged a couple of photo projects about women in prison and women visiting prison. Women bear the brunt of the brutal punitive prison system. While the nation prison population has increased almost five fold over the past 40 years, the number of women locked up has increased nearly eightfold. 800%

Particularly vulnerable in prisons are the same groups in free society — the elderly, those in need of mental health care, those with medical conditions that need constant monitoring, juveniles, those living under the poverty line and, of course, pregnant women.

That prisons could routinely damage the prospects and endanger the lives of pregnant women and babies is beyond belief. But that is what Vikki Law, who spent six-months reporting on incarcerated pregnant women, found.

For U.S. Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies, Law interviewed a dozen women who had been imprisoned while pregnant. She also drew on prison and jail records obtained via public information requests.

In These Times, which published the piece, calculates that approximately 9,430 pregnant women enter prisons and jails in the U.S. every year. They are still shackled  during labor, delivery and recovery. Pregnant women are withheld adequate food, they are denied medical care and, as we know in most states, their infants are taken away within 48-hours.

In one reported case, a prisoner was allegedly left to give birth in a holding cell without medical help. The baby was stillborn.

Law found that:

· many pregnant women received no medical care or experienced long waits
· most were constantly hungry
· others were restrained during labor, delivery or postpartum recovery, even in states that ban the practice
· the majority of those who gave birth in custody had their infants taken away within 48 hours

All of these shocking details indicate that the United States is in violation of the United Nation’s Bangkok Rules, which require the humane treatment of women prisoners.

Read U.S. Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies


There’s a couple of interviews with a couple of photographers I greatly admire currently up on Vice.


Photographing America’s Pregnant Prisoners is a conversation with Cheryl Hanna-Truscott, nurse, midwife and photographer who for 12 years has made double-portraits of incarcerated women and their babies at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW).

In the past, I have flagged Hanna-Truscott’s work, curated it into a pop-up show about Washington State prisons, and featured it in online exhibitions. Hanna-Truscott has recently released Purdy a documentary film about the WCCW mothers and babies unit. Hanna-Truscott volunteers at WCCW.

A note on the film’s title: Purdy is the local town in which WCCW sits. Purdy is also how the prison is known to locals. Additionally, “purdy” is a hokey variation of the word pretty. I think it’s a clever title for this project which simultaneously challenges stereotypes, pays homage to maternal cycles, finds care and within a punishing institution but neither ties the issue off with easy answers.

Hanna Truscott’s photographs are moments of solace amid what she describes as beyond difficult circumstances for the mothers.

“A lot of the women are traumatized. Sometimes they have learning disabilities or they’ve never had anyone who could vouch for them – so they have low education levels and no skills. Which means they also have employment issues when they get out. When they’re released, get $40, a change of clothes and a bus ticket. So they have to start a new life — and for the women I work with, that’s also with a baby.”

Visit Hanna-Truscott’s devoted site Protective Custody.


Photographing Trips to Visit Family Members in Prison is an interview with Jacobia Dahm. I’ve spoken with Dahm previously (cross posted to Vantage) and her work has proved very popular since its release earlier this year.


Families have suffered most from the politicised decisions on where to construct prisons. Granted many Upstate New York prisons predate mass incarceration (1980-) but many many more have been constructed in recent decades. Across the nation prisons have been built in remote locations.

Dahm says:

“Your crime has no bearing on the fact that you are still one of the most important people if not the most important person in a child’s life. In ways, it is costly not to support these family bonds, for the generation in prison and for their offspring. Children should have easy access to their parents, and vice versa, and it is something that other prison systems around the world manage to take into account and work with.”

If prisons had been used as jobs programs for depressed post-industrial American towns then we might have seen them built closer to the communities from which the prisoners have been extracted.


Remember when VICE used to be nothing but public humiliation, photos of homeless, Dos & Don’ts and pre-hipster snark? Well, it is changing. By my reckoning. It’s going to take a lot to get out from under those punk-ass early years but they’re equipped to do it. VICE Media is worth $2.5 billion and I think I read somewhere that VICE has 1,500 staff and freelancers operating out of its New York HQ alone.

So, now what we have at VICE is genuine concern beyond the snark. This is something that Stacy Kranitz reflects on in a She Does Podcast published this week. It’s a great conversation all-round reflecting upon the many sides of things.

As for VICE and prison coverage, it looks like we’ll get more investigative reporting and less stereotypes and cheap gags. An overdue sea change. The VICE series America’s Incarcerated runs throughout October.



On the 13th October, the Supreme Court of the United States will convene to rule on Montgomery v Louisiana. Essentially, the decision will be made as to whether the ban on Juvenile Life Without the Possibility of Parole (handed down by Miller v Alabama in 2012) should apply retroactively. That is, should men who were tried as adults and convicted to LWOP before 2012 have their cases and sentences re-adjudicated?

Of course, I hope that we’ll see some return to common sense and see the United Sates turn toward the practices of the rest of the industrialised world by not putting kids in boxes for the rest of their natural lives.

At this crucial political moment, a new, interactive  archive has launched online that brings the stories, images, characters and history of JLWOP to you.

The Natural Life Archive is a collection of extended interviews and portraits from the film Natural Life. Filmmaker Tirtza Even is harnessing the internet to bring us dozens of hours of testimony that she just wasn’t able to fit into her film. The archive is the third and final component of Natural Life — 1. the feature length single-channel video; 2. a gallery installation; and 3. this interactive online archive.



The project, produced and directed by Tirtza Even alongside the legal efforts of the Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle, challenges inequities in the U.S. juvenile justice system by depicting, through documentation and reenactment, the stories of five individuals who were sentenced to Life Without Parole (Natural Life) for crimes they committed as youth. The five will never be evaluated for change, difference or growth. They will remain in prison till they die.


There are over 2500 inmates in the U.S. who are serving a Life Without Parole sentence for a crime they committed as juveniles. The U.S. is the only country in the world that allows Life Without Parole sentencing for youth. The project’s goal is to portray the ripple-effect that the sentence has had not only on the incarcerated youth and their victims, but also on the community at large.

The video data accessible through the online archive is interfaced through a two-tiered navigable Quicktime movie. On the lower tier are phone interviews with the featured characters, coupled with staged scenes of life in prison reenacted by a group of high-school actors, and shot at an abandoned prison in Michigan. On the tier above is material drawn from over 50 hours of interviews with individuals who were involved with the crime, the arrest and the sentencing of the featured inmates. Among them judges, lawyers, police officers, reporters, wardens, teachers, child psychiatrists, legal experts and victims’ family members. The interviews are grouped in association with each of the featured inmates’ stories and are selected by moving the cursor to the right or left side of the image.



Tirtza Even is a practicing video artist and documentary maker, producing both linear and interactive documentary video work that represents the less overt manifestations of complex and sometimes extreme social/political dynamics in specific locations (e.g. Palestine, Turkey, Spain, the U.S. and Germany, among others). Even’s work has appeared at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, at the Whitney Biennial, the Johannesburg Biennial, as well as in many other festivals, galleries and museums in the United States, Israel and Europe, and has been purchased for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the Jewish Museum (NY), the Israel Museum (Jerusalem), among others.

Deborah LaBelle is an attorney, professor, writer and advocate who focuses on the application of human rights for marginalized communities. She has been lead counsel in over a dozen class actions that have successfully challenged policies affecting the treatment of incarcerated men, women and juveniles and their families. Ms. LaBelle is a Senior Soros Justice Fellow and, the first American recognized by Human Rights Watch as a Human Rights Monitor. In addition to her private practice, she is director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative. Ms. LaBelle is a recipient of Michigan’s State Bar Champion of Justice Award, recognized as one of Michigan’s top lawyers and received the National Trial Lawyer of the Year Award from the Public Interest Foundation (2008) and National Lawyer Guild’s Law for the People Award (2008). She received the Wade Hampton McCree Jr. Award for the advancement of social justice presented by the Federal Bar (2009) and the Susan B. Anthony Award from the University of Michigan (2010).



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