The dining room. © Mariam Amurvelashvili 

Mariam Amurvelashvili, a Georgian photographer has been documenting lives inside Georgia’s prisons since 2004.

She has not, however, the author of images of beatings and rape that surfaced in the past month, sparked protests among horrified citizens, forced the resignation of Georgia’s senior prison official, and rocked Mikheil Saakashvili’s government.

DOCUMENTARY vs. EXPOSE

I’ve argued in the past that the photo and video footage that changes a system is rarely that made by a documentarian. It is the expose, the surveillance tape, the illicit and leaked images that reveal to wider society the worst acts of closed institutions. Amurvelashvili’s work is interesting, concerned, but it doesn’t have a pointed edge.

This is by no way a criticism; it’s just worth considering how we think about images. I made a similar plea a couple of weeks ago when I asked how we should compare Michal Chelbin’s portraiture with mobile phone camera shots taken by Russian juvenile prisoners.

ABUSE REPLACES ABUSE

Amurvelashvili’s basic position is a simple one – that the deprivation of liberty by imprisonment is the greatest measure by which one man can punish another. I agree with her. Furthermore, the prison should not degrade the prisoner nor violate human rights with poor conditions, inadequate food or abuse of any kind. In 2004, Amurvelashvili reports, a Tbilisi prison held over ten times the prisoners than its design capacity allowed.

When Amurvelashvili began photographing Georgian prisons I expect she thought she was photographing the end of an era. The new prisons of a newly democratic Georgia could cleanse itself of it’s communist past and notorious prison archipelago. Unfortunately, the new super jails have engendered a more-exacted breed of violence.

Journalist Gavin Slade argues the roots to the abuse scandal are the associated policies of zero tolerance and mass incarceration pursued recently in Georgia which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world – 531 prisoners per every 100,000 people.

Problems, summarised here, have long been rife throughout Georgia’s prison system. Beginning in late 2010, reports emerged of physical abuse. Ksani prison was under scrutiny by the Georgian Public Defender’s Office in 2011 for poor treatment of inmates.

Newer facilities such as Ksani prison, says Amurvelashvili, were designed to be sanitary, have adequate healthcare, libraries and family visitation. And yet, last month’s torture scandal within Ksani proves that care for prisoners extends far past concerns about conditions and to the philosophy of leadership and the break-down of discipline among the staff. Ksani was a hell hole.

Listen to this interview with a prisoner who was beaten and electrocuted in Ksani Prison.

Ksani prison. © Mariam Amurvelashvili

If an authority cannot control nor redirect its prison population into productive activities, the prison is likely too large. It is probably overcrowded, too. State authorities need to understand that better conditions in prisons reduces crime. Reduce populations and pursue alternatives to incarceration. And find leaders with moral fibre.

AMURVELASHVILI ELSEWHERE

Bigger images here, and featured portfolios on Georgian Photographers website here.

Conscientious likes Amurvelashvili’s Dukhobors a portrayal of a Christian sect in Georgia/Russia. Fotovisura has a gallery of her photos of animal sacrifice and behind bars.

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