Christoph Gielen, a photographer known for his aerial views of American suburbs has chosen as his next subject super-maximum security prisons — the most controlled spaces in American prison industrial complex. Supermaxes are of particular interest as they are designed specifically for solitary confinement.
As I wrote for Wired.com, today, America has an unusual thirst for putting people in total lockdown.
In consideration of “the severe mental pain or suffering” it can cause, Juan Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, said that solitary confinement amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Mendez recommended that prisoners never be confined in solitary for more than 15 days.
However, in US prisons, stints in the hole can be longer. Much longer. The California Department of Corrections self-reports the average stay on an inmate in the Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (SHU) is six-and-a-half-years. Many have been in the SHU for a decade or more. In Louisiana, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 have been in solitary for over 30 years.
I’ve also written previously about how images of solitary confinement – despite its widespread use – are difficult to come by.
“The opportunity to visually examine these restricted locations is significant, especially at a time when journalists access is increasingly curtailed,” says Gielen.
Gielen noticed concentric patterns of equivalent interest in the Supermax prisons of Arizona whiel working on his suburbs photo series Ciphers.
American Prison Perspectives is a simple and effective presentation of these design forms. Are gated communities and caged facilities are our preferred housing solutions for the late 20th and early 21st centuries?
With 1 in 100 adults behind bars, America incarcerates more people than any other modern society. Of the 2.3 million men, women and children locked up in the U.S., 80,000 prisoners are in solitary. That number includes hundreds of children.
The rapid adoption of solitary by prison authorities as a means to discipline and segregate has led Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to call it one of the “greatest social experiments of our time.” For some sociologists, the parallels that Gielen drew between housing and prisons go beyond visual similarity. Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab goes so far to ask, “Have prisons and jails become the mass housing of our time?”
The debate on solitary confinement is timely. To quote myself, again:
The Illinois campaign spurred Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to chair the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement last summer. Durbin showed up on Capitol Hill with an actual-size solitary-cell replica.
While for many, the discussion of prisons and segregation can revolve around human rights and legal justice, the issue is particularly relevant today for its economic implications. There was a successful grass-roots campaign to shutdown Illinois’ Tamms Correctional Facility, due largely to the fact that it costs more than $60,000 a year to house a prisoner in solitary confinement in Tamms, compared to an average of $22,000 for inmates in other Illinois prisons. The closure is currently stalled — held up in court following opposition from the AFSCME labor union with prison guards in its ranks.
“In America, particularly, the long view is hardly ever considered. Fiscal views are considered for on a yearly basis,” says Gielen. “Economically, the widespread use of solitary is unsustainable.”
American Prison Perspectives doesn’t end with the images. In 2014, Gielen plans launch a website devoted to the series and host a public online forums. Furthermore, Gielen foresees symposia across the U.S. with former prisoners, prison architects, legal experts, activists, correctional officer union-reps and prison administrators, along with firsthand accounts of solitary confinement and the perspectives of mental health experts on the effects of isolation.
American Prison Perspectives will illustrate how prison design and architecture reflect political discourse, economic priorities, cultural sentiments, and social insecurities, and how, in turn, these constructed environments also become statements about a society.
American Prison Perspectives is supported by Blue Earth Alliance, the Fund For Investigative Journalism and Creative Time Reports and others. You too can help spread the potential reach of the work with your own donation.
I wish Christoph the very best in this ambitious project.