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SHOOTING DEATH

“I have seen 4 seconds of it. I heard my son begging for his life. I cannot watch. I know it is very disturbing,” said Janetta Brown to Democracy Now! about a 17-minute video which documents the death of her son Sergeant James Brown in a jail in El Paso.

Sgt. James Brown voluntarily checked himself in to the Texas jail on a Friday night in 2012 to serve a two night sentence for a 2011 DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) charge. The only reason Brown’s death has been in the news recently is because a video of the incident was recently acquired by an El Paso TV station. Brown’s family, including his mother did not know of a video of his death until it was mentioned, in passing, by a lawyer. That led to the request and release of the disturbing footage.

The video has been widespread across the news this past week. I have had the YouTube window open in my browser for days, knowing I should respond, but not quite knowing how to. This is my beat — imagery emerging from a state-administered locked facility, made by the state authority being used and interpreted against itself. My anger, sadness and outrage were immediate and obvious. I felt those negative emotions but they did not fully describe my experience. I was paralysed from writing because of guilt. I feel guilty that I am viewing a video of a man’s death that his mother has not. I feel guilty that I am so far removed from the subject I can move on from its devastating truth on a whim. The browser reamined open because I couldn not close it; to do so would be to, likely, never return.

“It’s devastating. It’s inhumane,” said mother, Janetta Brown. She was describing the events leading up to her son’s death, but she could as easily have been described the videoing of events. “It’s inexplicable what happened to him,” she added.

It is inexplicable that we are able to view a death online. Centuries ago, people witnessed death in war, workplace accidents, hate crimes, in person. Decades ago, people began to witness death (not the aftermath of death, but the actual drawing of final breath) in sequenced still news imagery and some TV footage. Years ago, we became accustomed to seeing deaths online. It’s almost inexplicable that once people mostly encountered death at the bedside of a loved one, and now children can watch snuff-movie-equivalents on the internet, at will.

DEATH IN PUBLIC

Authorities claimed Sgt. James Brown died due to a Sickle Cell Crisis which prevented oxygen getting to his brain and organs, but the family say he had no prior record of Sickle Cell Disease. Brown repeatedly says he can’t breathe and appears not to resist. By the end of the video, he is shown naked, not blinking or responding, his breathing shallow. Attorneys say an ambulance was never called. Brown was eventually brought to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Unfortunately, Brown’s filmed death is the latest in a series of high profile videos to hit the news channels. The deaths of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in New York, Charly Leundeu Keunang in Los Angeles, James M. Boyd in Albuquerque, John Crawford III in Ohio, and Walter Scott in North Charleston have all been consumed by the public. As challenging as these videos are, we would not want them to not exist. The judicial system, as it currently operates, serves to protect law enforcement officers with their fingers on the trigger more than it does those who are victim to cops’ bullets. We know that video evidence is one of the few things that can sway legal decisions in a direction favourable to the victims and their advocates.

I suspect that if videos of the murders of Akai Gurley, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown had existed prosecutions for the assailants may have stood a chance in court. (I fully acknowledge the murder of Eric Garner taped from start to finish resulted in no indictment of the officers.)

Given the calls for more police body cams — from the White House to Michael Brown’s family — it might be that our future will hold more videos of death. And so we have news and evidence to be analysed; the use of video as witness versus the circulation of video as internet fodder; and the empowerment of knowing versus the guilt of knowing at a distance. The multiple roles these types of video play created my long hesitation to write this post.

My paralysis was broken when I read Teju Cole’s well-pitched Death In The Browser. Cole also grapples with the discomfort of being a consumer but he manages to reconcile his emotions and untangle their confusion. He admits to writing about many things related to the issue of Walter Scott’s videoed death before arriving at his main point about Scott’s death. But Cole’s words are not wasted.

“If you set enough tangents around a circle, you begin to recreate the shape of the circle itself,” writes Cole.

Cole brings us gently to a point at which we all must stand if we’re to function in a culture now unhesitant to circulate images of fellow humans’ deaths. Rather elegantly, Cole draws a parallel between the person killing and the person watching the killing.

We need to adapt to the new type of life and death data to which we are exposed. Cole points out that watching a time bar creep across the bottom of our screen is a conscious action. Just as raising a gun and pulling a trigger is a conscious action. As individuals, we are not able to change decisions made by others, but we can consider deeply the decisions we make before the screens of our devices.

Have we comprehended that there are profound differences to the material we see on the internet? All things are not the same. And yet it’s pretty easy to open or close a browser window, regardless. Find something else to hold our attentions.

I’m not talking about being desensitized per se (arguments that photos of death and disaster numb us are largely discredited). I am not talking about a psychological or evolutionary shift; I’m talking about a structural fact of our internet browsers. It’s all too easy to click the next tab, the next news story, the next or previous image in a gallery. We remain appalled by (videoed) injustices but will we be moved to political action because of them? Do we see the urgency in a video, the same way we see the urgency in a burning building or baby on the tracks? A lot of my concern feeds into a larger worry that we’re living a step apart anyway, making the harder work of political organising more of a challenge. We need to ensure footage of violence emboldens us against violence.

Is the seriousness of death and murder, repeated, on our screens enough of a spur for us to enact equally serious discretion over our online consumption? I left my browser open all week, Cole closed his before the shots ended. There’s no right or wrong answer, but there is a right or wrong decorum.

My thoughts return to Janetta Brown. And they will every time I have the option to press play on an internet vid. She made a conscious choice not to watch the video of her son’s death; she did so to avoid further trauma. Yet, Janetta Brown understands the role the video will play for educating hundreds of thousands of people on the injustices behind bars in America. Killing videos are not for entertainment. Imagine meeting a victim’s mother or family or loved ones and imagine telling them that you watched the video in any other spirit than sympathy and solidarity.

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I was recently alerted about a disturbing change in policy within the California prison system. There are numerous reasons to be alarmed and thankfully Kenneth Hartman details them below and in the linked Los Angeles Times Op-Ed he wrote.

Californians United for Responsible Budget (CURB), for whom Hartman is an Advisory Board Member, forwarded me his open letter.

Dear Friends & Colleagues:

As you may already know, the CDCR has implemented a new screening system for visitors that includes the use of Ion Scanners and dogs. The upshot of this is visitors, and only visitors, if found positive by either of these highly inaccurate methods, are required to submit to a strip search in order to have a contact visit. For the details of what constitutes a strip search, please see my opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Strip-Searches Will Keep Helpful Visitors, Not Illegal Drugs, Out Of Prison.

Over the past few weeks, at this prison alone, a 77-year old woman with a recent knee replacement was ordered to squat naked, another woman who refused to submit to the humiliation of a strip search was denied contact visits, but when she reluctantly agreed the following weekend she was forced to strip search twice as punishment, and multiple other visitors were placed on non-contact visiting status for not surrendering their dignity.

The goal of all of this is clear.  The CDCR wants to do away with contact visiting. They are heaping their own failure to control the drug problem in the prisons onto the backs of the visitors.  It’s a terrible thing we all have to fight back against now before it’s too late, before we’re all on non-contact visiting status forever.

As a starting point to this campaign, there’s an online petition called “Stop Strip Searching My Mom.” I encourage all of you to sign the petition and get everyone you know to sign the petition.  Further, please forward this to all your contacts and ask them to do the same thing.  We need 100,000 signers before we send it to the governor.  Let’s get to work!

And there will be more to this campaign, so please get ready to participate again when we press for legislative help and seek legal help in the not too distant future.

Thank you in advance for your help in defeating these unreasonable policies.

Take the best of care and strive to be happy. Peace…

Sincerely, Kenneth E. Hartman

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WHERE IS THE REFUGE IN A PRISON?

Where is our greatest refuge? A hideaway? Our home? The bedroom? The bed? Artist Dani Gherca reasoned that for women imprisoned in her home country of Romania, the greatest refuge was the bed.

“The bed is no only an object used for the body’s physiological and physical rest, but it’s also an intimate space for the women during the detention. The two square meters around the bed, is the only perimeter she can keep for herself,” says Gherca. “After I talked with some prisoners, I found that, in the evening, when the lights go out in the detention room … that is the only moment when each one of them can afford a really intimate moment.”

As such, Gherca made portraits of women on their beds and asked each to provide context by asking them about their thoughts during those quiet, solitary minutes. The resulting series is called Intime (2012).

I asked Gherca a few questions to provide background to Intime. We publish the female prisoners’ responses in full.

Please continue scrolling.

Alina

Alina

The night-my thoughts. The night for me, as well for the people around, represents the most quiet period, in which the soul and the mind can meditate and can realize what they’ we done bad or good during the day. The night behind bars is both sweet and bitter. The loneliness oppresses me, the distance from my family struggles me. Every night I am thinking about my child that I love and respect with all my heart; at the beautiful moments that I lost because of my mistakes. I am thinking at the moment when I will step over the threshold to freedom; at my little’s girl innocent smile and sweet hug. Every night I pray to be strong to carry out the punishment and to can be next to my child and to make it up to the period in which she stayed without me.

Q&A WITH DANI GHERCA

Prison Photography (PP): I understand the method, the aim and the outcomes of Intime, but why did you want to photograph inside a prison in the first place?

Dani Gherca (DG): The idea of intimacy is very important for me. I think that us, as human beings, we need freedom of mobility, but have also the bigger need to be able to decide when we want to be alone. The prison is an institution that hides people’s need of intimacy, an institution that limits the woman’s need for mobility.

PP: Targsor has been photographed before – in a photo workshop format by Cosmin Bumbut and by photographer Ioana Carlig. Were you aware of these projects?

DG: Yes, I know Cosmin and Ioana’s projects. However, I am interested to document the prison only on the conflict between privacy and this space that compels people to live together 24 hours a day.

PP: Has Targsor been photographed so much because it is relatively relaxed?

DG: Targsor Prison has a more permissive status in this kind of approach. However, I was attracted by this prison because it is the only prison for woman from Romania.

PP: What do Romanians think about prisons?

DG: In the last 3 years, the prison has become an institution that is seen as a method of revenge, mainly due to politicians who were sentenced in large numbers in this period.

PP: What do audiences think about your portraits and the prisoners’ written thoughts?

DG: The audience was more interested in the letters written by the girls. It was a new situation: to have access at the thoughts of some prisoners. Given the fact that this wasn’t an interview, the girls were more relaxed, and acted like they had written letters.

PP: Did the women talk about photography and what it gave them? Did for them? How they used it?

DG: I took them some printed photos. They send pictures home so it’s a good opportunity for them to have some portraits to send to their families. Otherwise, they cannot take pictures. Generally, I think they like to pose. It makes them feel somehow important.

PP:  Thanks, Dani.

DG: Thank you, Pete.

WOMENS’ TESTIMONIES

Ana Maria

Ana-Maria 2

“Of all the moderates, the most detestable is the one of the heart.” (A. Camus)

Of how much love we gathered in my soul for you, I’d be able to build the whole world and would still remain. I could build seas and oceans, the sky with billiards of stars and would still remain because my love for you doesn’t knows limits or dimensions. That’s why, I will take a little piece from my soul and a little from your love and I will build a world JUST FOR US and a sky for OUR stars to shine and an infinite ocean of love in which we can swim after the OUR sun will burn our feet after longs wanderings though cities lost in antiquity, cities of a civilization where we have our roots and have never been known, only by angles because the holy land of our love has its foundation on the last rung of the ladder that climbs to God.

Ana-Maria

Ana-Maria

Before getting here I was very happy next to my children, next to my family. I regret I am sorry that I have to stay away from my family and she suffers too for me. Now I am sitting and thinking at a more beautiful and happy with my family. To find a place to work, to take walks with the children in the park, to build them a beautiful future, to teach them only nice things, to take them to school to stay away from various kinds of crimes. I have an advice for the ones outside, for all the scholars: stay away from the entourages. The entourages will make you steal, rob. They will make you commit various kinds of crimes and is it wrong to get here. Here is a big sufferance and it’s hard to abide, to stay away from your children, from your family, it is very hard. Please think well before getting in entourages and with who will hang out.

Claudia

Claudia

My thoughts. I am thinking every night at my little boy and at my family to arrive as soon as possible next to them at home. Millions of thoughts and ideas that I want to do appear in my mind, but all are in vain, because I am here. I like very much to listen to music and to sit in quiet because I am a calm person. I am waiting forward for the day when I will be at home. This is the only thing that I am thinking about.

Gica Claudia

Gica Claudia

My thoughts. I am thinking every night about how I will retake my life back into a new beginning, a new life. It’s hard and very hard to retake it from the ground, but with the help of the Good God, I will succeed with everything that I passed by sufferance. I have 3 children and I am thinking every night at them and at their future, do not go through what I went through in life. Another life for them, the very best.

Isaura

Izaura1

At night I am thinking about; my family, at the liberation, at what work place to find, night by night. I regret the day when I committed this crime, and I am thinking how to build my life so I won’t get here again, because it is very difficult to think that there is nothing more valuable than freedom.

Marcela

Marcela

What I’m thinking? Really, what I’m thinking? Only about the day that passed, and the day that will come…

Maybe nothing can be more beautiful and more good than to feel that what I’ve done today is better than what I did yesterday and tomorrow I will start something better. Any day is A BEGINNING for me!

Monica Luminita

Monica Luminita

My thoughts. I am thinking every night when I sit in my bed about my children and at how I will react after four years have passed day-by-day. I like listening oriental music. I like Turkish movies, the comedies.

At night, I have moments in which I can’t sleep because of the punishment and I am thinking from where I started and where I’ll finish at my day of freedom; when I will see my children after 4 years and a few months. I repent for getting in these places. Never in my life I will I commit crimes, to arrive here again. I won’t leave my children alone ever.

BIOGRAPHY

Dani Gherca (b.1988) lives in Bucharest and works in Romania. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Photo-Video Department, at the National University of Arts in Bucharest (2013) and a Masters of Arts from the Dynamic Image and Photography Department, at the National University of Arts in Bucharest (2015).

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Photo: Meghann Riepenhoff

I’m one of five jurors for this years annual juried show at SF Camerawork. Y’all should enter. Here’s the blurb …

CALL FOR ENTRIES: HEAT

This summer, SF Camerawork teams up with LensCulture to host our Annual Juried Exhibition. The theme this year is HEAT.

HEAT registers the volatility and restlessness that comes with long hot summers: violent crime rates increase, leases expire and people seek new homes, global weather changes signal an alarm, and warm summer days bring adults and children alike into the streets, parks, and beaches.

SF Camerawork invites artists to submit work that responds to HEAT: the social, political, and climatic conditions of rapidly changing environments. Following the lead of social and political advocates around the world, SF Camerawork asks artists working at all levels in photography to participate.

Art is politics. Particularly in the realistic forms of photography and filmmaking, what gets assigned, shown or sold reflects political considerations. […] Politics is in the air. All you need to do to get the message is breathe. – Danny Lyon.

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Photo: David Butow

DETAILS

Deadline: Monday, June 15, 2015, 5pm PST.
Notification: Finalists will be contacted on July 1st.
Exhibition Dates: July 23 – August 22, 2015.
Opening Reception: Thursday, July 23, 6-8pm.
Application Fee: $50 application fee for up to 15 images.

ENTER NOW ON LENSCULTURE AND CREATE AN ACCOUNT TO UPLOAD YOUR APPLICATION

AWARDS/BENEFITS

EXHIBITION AT SF CAMERAWORK: 2-5 finalists will have a 4-week exhibition at SF Camerawork.
LIVE ONLINE REVIEW SESSION: Finalists will receive a one-on-one review with a juror through this innovative platform hosted by LensCulture.
20 JUROR SELECTIONS FEATURED: 20 juror selections will be exhibited on interactive screens at SF Camerawork as part of the exhibition.
FEATURE ARTICLE ON LENSCULTURE: Finalists will be featured in an article on LensCulture.
ONE YEAR MEMBERSHIP: All entrants will receive a one-year membership to SF Camerawork.

HEAT 2015 JURY

Pete Brook, Writer and Curator, Founder: Prison Photography
Jim Casper, Editor and Publisher, LensCulture
Seth Curcio, Associate Director, Pier 24 Photography
Janet Delaney, Artist and Educator
Heather Snider, Executive Director, SF Camerawork

QUESTIONS?

Please email info@sfcamerawork with “Call for Entries” in the subject line.

SF CAMERAWORK

Founded in 1974, SF Camerawork‘s mission is to encourage and support emerging artists to explore new directions and ideas in the photographic arts. Through exhibitions, publications, and educational programs, we strive to create an engaging platform for artistic exploration as well as community involvement and inquiry.

SF Camerawork is a membership-based organization.

http://www.sfcamerawork.org

1011 Market St., 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103
Gallery hours: 12:00 – 6:00 pm
Tuesday – Saturday (also by appointment)
415.487.1011

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Photo: McNair Evans

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THE WHAT

If you’re in New York this Thursday and can spare the time, please think about joining four photo practitioners and I for Everyday Incarceration – Visualizing the Legacy of Mass Incarceration, a panel discussion about images of prisons and the associated social issues. We’ll be tackling the core question: Who gets to tell the story of a locked up nation?

THE LINE UP

Zara Katz and the Department of Visual Journalism at the CUNY J-School have done a great job of putting together a panel with diverse perspectives and practices – one documentary storyteller using video; one photographer who’s eye on the issues stretches back decades; one lawyer using software code and images to engage audiences and empower prisoners; and one former correctional officer turned campaigner armed with his photos from the job. Check the bios below!

THE PORTRAIT STUDIO

After the panel, we invite you to sit for a portrait and to tell us your experience with incarceration. The photos will appear on @EverydayIncarceration, a collaborative Instagram feed.

THE DETAILS

The panel takes place in Room 308 of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, at 219 W. 40th Street, NY 10018.

6:30-9:30pm on Thursday, May 14th.

The event is free but an RSVP is very appreciated. Do that at – cunyphotowire@journalism.cuny.edu or at the event page on the Facebook.

THE PANELISTS

Gabriela-Bulisova

Lashonia Etheridge-Bay, a 39 year-old woman who was granted parole in 2011 after spending 18 years in prison. Bulisova’s series Time Zone follows Etheridge-Bay’s return to society. Photo: Gabriela Bulisova.

Gabriela Bulisova is a documentary photographer and multimedia artist based in Washington, D.C. Over the past five years, she focused her attention on underreported and overlooked stories regarding incarceration and reentry, especially the impact on families. Bulisova has received numerous recognitions and awards, including The National Press Photographers Association’s Short Grant and Open Society Institute’s Moving Walls 18. In 2005, she was awarded the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Digital Imaging from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in photojournalism at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design in Washington D.C. and is a member of Women Photojournalists of Washington.

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Michael is 17 and has ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder. He is on Ritalin.  He is under house arrest and wears an electronic monitoring device. He was arrested for possession of a knife and violating probation.  He is living in a hotel room with the rest of his family, 7 people in total. San Jose, California 1999. Photo: Joseph Rodriguez.

Joseph Rodriguez was born and raised in Brooklyn. His four-decade photography career examines incarceration, gangs, police and reentry, as well as families, communities and cultures across the globe. After being incarcerated at Rikers Island as a minor in the late-60s, Rodriguez turned to photography as a guide in his life. In 1985 he graduated from the International Center of Photography in New York. He went on to work for Black Star photo agency, and has published work in multiple top-tier outlets including National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine. He has received numerous awards and grants including New York Foundation for the Arts, Open Society Institute, National Endowment for the Arts, to name a few. Rodriguez currently teaches at New York University and as a visiting artist at national and international universities.

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Photo: Lorenzo Steele.

Lorenzo Steele Jr. is a former New York City Correction officer (1987-1999) who mostly worked in the juvenile units at Rikers Island. He was regularly the photographer at events and celebrations with his fellow officers. In 1996, Steele began bringing his camera to the prison to document his experience there. That included daily violence and abuse of inmates and correctional officers. The deep emotional and physiological impact of his experience at Rikers compelled Steele to start a visual arts education program where he shares his photographs and prison experience with middle school and high school students.

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Image courtesy of Nikki Zeichner/Growing Up Through Pictures

Nikki Zeichner began exploring multimedia storytelling with the Museum of the American Prison, a project that she initiated in 2012 to offer mainstream audiences a way to understand personal and experiential details of incarceration in the U.S. Her interest in telling stories about incarceration grew out of her experiences working as a criminal defense attorney in New York City and regularly visiting with clients held in federal and state pretrial detention facilities in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Nikki recently completed a Master’s degree in Integrated Digital Media from NYU’s Engineering School and is spending 2015 in San Francisco designing civic tech tools for a small, post-bankrupt municipality in Northern California. She remains in regular contact with the incarcerated individuals she worked with creatively on museum projects.

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Advocacy group after a day of presenting their position as part of the Formerly Incarcerated Quest for Democracy: Voices and Faces event, Sacramento, 2015.

FAMILIES AND RETURNING CITIZENS DRIVING THE CHANGE

Every day, across the nation, activists and advocates are going to State capitol’s and presenting arguments against the  implementation (sometimes blind implementation) of laws that hamper the abilities of prisoners and formerly incarcerated to realistically turn their lives around. In California, many groups such as California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), The Ella Baker Center, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) and many more.

Commonly, these groups are made up of the family members of prisoners or people who were formerly incarcerated. They carry a knowledge about the draconian, obstructive and overly-punitive criminal justice system that most others in privileged and comfortable living circumstances do not. They are activists by necessity.

It goes without saying that knowing these activists’ experiences and knowing them will only help in bringing us all (California residents or otherwise) to an understanding of what is happening beyond our sight-lines, but in our name, in our prisons.

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) held its annual Formerly Incarcerated Quest for Democracy: Voices and Faces last week. It is a day on which advocates get to educate each other and elected politicians about legislation relevant to formerly incarcerated people and our communities.

Full group photo
Group photo of participants at the Formerly Incarcerated Quest for Democracy: Voices and Faces

LSPC co-ordinated more than 250 advocates, organised into 30 teams to intervene in the business as usual operations of Sacramento. Some legislators met with activists. Senator Holly Mitchell as well as Assembly-members Reginald Jones-Sawyer and Autumn Burke addressed participants.

I cannot know if politicians and their staffers are moved by the personal testimonies of those impacted by the prison system, but I was. And I deeply admire LSPC’s strategic focus on these stories as a way to drive the day of organising, but also to reach secondary audiences such as myself … and yourselves.

With permission of LSPC, I’m reposting its recap of the day, replete with the words of advocates.

Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of LSPC, reminds us why these faces and voices are the most important:

“It is the drive for greater recognition of a class of people for whom democracy looks a lot different. We don’t have a guaranteed right to vote [in California] – if we move to another state we could easily lose it. We’re still struggling for the fundamental rights of citizenship, such as the right to sit on juries,” says Dorsey. “We’re fighting for all who don’t have political power. We’re crying for justice for the youth – torturing them by locking them in solitary confinement is beyond reprehensible. We’re crying for justice for our elders – locked up so far beyond any pretense of public safety, it simply becomes irrational revenge.”

Hear, hear!

Crucially, LSPC included a list of the state bills it and its allies are backing. Please scroll to the bottom of this post to inform yourselves about those upcoming bills. Their adoption will mean incremental, positive change for communities who have suffered over policing and over-criminalisation for too long.

And now, the words of those for whom democracy look very different.

VOICES AND FACES

“I’m a formerly incarcerated person myself. I support a lot of the bills we’re talking about today, but especially the housing bill, AB 1056. I’ve been out for 15 months and could afford my own place but I’ve been turned down over and over again because of my record. If you come out and don’t have a safe place to live, what are your options? I’ve applied to be a security guard, and I have a team of seven people backing me up. They all gave recommendations as to my good character, and I was still turned down. The reason they cited was ‘insufficient rehabilitation.’ What does it take?” — Kevin, Oakland.

“It’s very ironic that we’re here on a quest for democracy in the land of so-called democracy. I’m a youth organizer with Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, and I’m here to support the voice of those who can’t be heard.” — Tariq Muhammad, Stockton.

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Multi-generational Quest for Democracy participants role play an advocacy meeting with a legislative aide.

“Who are we? We are PEOPLE. We want to go in and blow all their stereotypes about who we are.” — Vonya Quarles, All Of Us Or None (Riverside Chapter) and Starting Over, Inc.

“I’m here because I have friends and family still locked up. I want to be a voice for them.” – Ruben, Oakland.

“I’m formerly incarcerated, and feel it’s important to participate. I would like to be a facilitator at some point, so I’m here today to see how that works. I support SB 504. Even as an adult those ‘juvenile’ records can be held against you. It’s a double-edged sword – you get out and try to change, but they hold it against you and you can’t get a job.” — Leon, Riverside.

Dorsey and Reggie Jones-Sawyer
Dorsey Nunn (left) asking Assembly-member Reggie Jones-Sawyer (right) for his support on an executive order to Ban the Box. He gave his support, and further agreed to ask the Congressional Black Caucus for theirs.

“I’m an AB 109 resource specialist for Fathers and Families of San Joaquin. As a formerly incarcerated person myself I have a direct empathy for people coming out. Any way we can assist, I’m on the bus. I think AB 1351, allowing pre-plea diversions so crimes are never entered onto a person’s record, is an important bill. With that we can avoid Prop 47 altogether.” — Jagada Chambers, Stockton.

“I’m here because I have a commitment to formerly incarcerated people being treated like human beings. I’ve always felt that way, but a couple of things really solidified that for me. One is my nephew being incarcerated, and the other is witnessing the extreme trauma of my friend’s family over her son’s incarceration. My friend’s young daughter is still traumatized by the years of prison visits to her brother.” — Victoria M.

Alex and Project WHAT
Alex Berliner (far left) facilitated an advocacy group of Project WHAT members. Project WHAT is an organization for children of incarcerated parents.

“I’m here because I like the fact that we’re working to change laws that could affect our family members. I’m most interested in the bills for sealing ‘juvenile’ records and getting our elders out on parole.” — Jada Layne, Project WHAT, high school student.

“I’m an organizer and I’m here to be around beautiful people, and to let legislators know that people like myself, formerly incarcerated people, have a stake and a say in the direction of how things are going. I want to advance policies that advance the lives of formerly incarcerated people and also those who aren’t incarcerated but are impacted by it, the larger community that is dealing with poor schools, lack of infrastructure, etc. Too often they want to focus on individuals and not really look at the impact on communities.” — Darris Young, Oakland

Participants at briefing on bills

Briefing inside the capitol hearing about proposed bills (see more in table below) from representatives of co-sponsoring organizations.

“I marched with Martin Luther King, and since then, I have to say, I have not seen enough of a change. I was active in the Tyisha Miller case down in Riverside. The police shot and killed her. After two years of constant protesting the police finally got fired, but no charges were pressed, and one of them was rehired right away in another county. I’m also interested in prison reform, because I have three incarcerated family members – one in juvenile and two others who are in prison and are mentally ill. We have to get better treatment for incarcerated people, because prisons are an extension of our community.” — Gloria Willis, All Of Us Or None (Riverside Chapter).

“I run a house similar to a Catholic Worker’s house for formerly incarcerated men in Fruitvale. I’m another white person trying to be in solidarity as best I can. I do believe that mass incarceration is the defining obscenity of our time, just as slavery was in another era.” — Nicholas Routledge, Oakland.

“I work at Planting Justice in Oakland, and also have my own business. Planting Justice is a permaculture skills training program currently in San Quentin and Solano prisons, and we want to get our program into Mule Creek and Folsom prisons. I’m here to speak in support of the bills providing housing funds for formerly incarcerated people and preventing discrimination based on conviction history. This is important to expanding our program – we teach people permaculture so they can have a job when they get out, but how can they have a job if they don’t have housing?” — Anthony Forrest, Oakland.

“My first arrest was for theft, and I got ‘juvenile’ probation for a year. But what I didn’t get were any resources, for employment or education or housing. I wound up back in detention and had an epileptic seizure. The guards accused me of lying and put me into solitary confinement. I remember it being so cold, and it felt like I was going crazy.” — Devon Williams, Los Angeles.

Emily_Deirdre and Hafsah
Emily Harris, along with Deirdre Wilson and Hafsah Al-Amin from California Coalition for Women Prisoners Sharina Chavis, San Bernardino.

“I’m formerly incarcerated myself. I was doing a six year term and then my daughter came to the same prison. While I was inside my mom also passed. When I got out my biggest worry was where to live, and I was fortunate to get accepted into A Time for Change in San Bernardino. After being in prison, so many people have low self-esteem, and really need help. I’m a big advocate for Ban the Box. It’s really powerful to be here today!” — Sharina Chavis, San Bernadino.

“I’m a formerly incarcerated person. I work at Amity Foundation, and I’m here for the solitary confinement bill. I spent time in and out of solitary when I was inside, and I know what it does to you both mentally and physically.” — Ernest, Los Angeles

Bills Supported by Quest For Democracy Advocacy

Listed by number, proposal, sponsoring legislator.

AB 1056 – Gives housing funding for people exiting prison (Atkins)
AB 1351 – Prevents deportation by allowing pretrial diversion (Eggman)
AB 1352 – Withdraws plea after successful diversion program (Eggman)
AB 256  – Expands crime of falsifying evidence to include digital video and photo evidence (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 267 – Provides that judges must inform defendants of collateral consequences of convictions (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 324 – Allows people with felonies to serve on juries (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 396 – Ends housing discrimination based on convictions (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 512 – Expands Milestone Program credit incentives to shorten sentences from 6 weeks to 18 weeks (Stone)
AB 829 – Gives people the right to appeal their gang database status (Nazarian)
AB 891 – Decriminalizes fare evasion for school transit (Campos)
AB 926 – Shortens parole terms based on compliance (Jones-Sawyer)
SB 124  – Ends juvenile solitary confinement (Leno)
SB 224 – Gives elder parole program to people over 50 (Liu)
SB 405 – Stops suspending drivers licenses for owing court debt (Hertzberg)
SB 504 – Enacts free sealing of youth records (Lara)
SB 759 – Gives good time credits to prisoners in solitary confinement (Anderson)

Good news arrived today for Think Ten Media, producers of the innovative web series The wHole: funding has been secured to continue production. Producer Jennifer Fischer tweeted, “Big News! The wHOLE got the greenlight. Episode 2 is a go.”

$$$ ONWARD $$$

But the fundraising and the efforts are not over. If you’ve got any money to throw in the pot. I know Fischer and writer & director Ramon Hamilton would love to push toward the 100% funding. (At the time of writing, they are at 80%). You can view the pilot episode here, and if you like what you see, then donate.

If you need a little more convincing about why to support a web series about this issue then read this conversation about “The Truth Behind Solitary” — hosted by ACLU — between Amy Fettig, senior counsel at the National Prison Project at the ACLU; Jeff Deskovic, advocate and exoneree who was released after 16 years in prison; and Hamilton.

The wHole was filmed at the empty and never-used Wapato Jail in Portland, Oregon. When they were working on the pilot last year, I argued that it was the only good thing to come out of the vacant jail.

 SHAREHOLDERS? SLAVEHOLDERS!

Last week, shareholders in the private prison firm GEO group attended the evil corporation’s AGM. The swarm of conniving, money-grabbing devil sperms were shocked to be joined by some protestors. Shareholders thought they’d encounter only other children of satan at the annual horn-sharpening ceremony.

Across the Boca Resort in Florida, the venue for the GEO AGM, the hell-obsessed portfolio-owners struggled repeatedly to engage with the protestors who appeared to have colorful irises and not the green dollar signs to which they were accustomed. Instead of a glassy stare, the protestors could hold lasting eye-contact and emote.

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Some shareholders referred to the protestors as shape-shifters who employed behaviour that suggested confidence, faith, principle, civic duty, anger and nuanced reasoning — all emotions and motives that belonged to a long-lost group known as humanity, but alien to beelzebub’s GEO breed.

If the appearance of the protestors was confusing, it wasn’t a patch on the foreign language they used.

“Opportunities for Black and Brown communities have been intentionally thwarted through intergenerationally maintained oppression. What drives this? The same institution that has fueled this country since its birth—slavery,” says civil rights group Dream Defenders. “Through the proliferation of prisons for profit, the United States is a slaveholder, and private prisons are the cruel overseers who go through extreme means, including documented physical and sexual abuse, lobbying for increased mandatory minimums and fraudulent reporting, to maximize profit.”

Irene, a proud third generation GEO stock holder, mistook some of the protesters in red shirts as valets, at first.

“Then I realized they were trouble makers and just wanted to hurt others with signs. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Something about disadvantaged classes being heard and having a seat at a political forum not manipulated by big money. I dunno, I wasn’t paying attention,” said Irene as she rushed off to make a 4:15 tee-off time.

Okay, seriously now, it didn’t quite go down like that in Florida, last week. It was a 4:25 tee-off! No, no, really seriously. It wasn’t like that; above is just the story I wanted to write. Nothing like that. GEO shareholders are not the kin of lucifer. GEO shareholders are, each, lucifer incarnate. Let’s not dilute responsibility here.

Okay, okay, really, seriously, now.

We live in a society that allows the haves to make cash from the exploitation, hardships and warehousing of the haven-nots. What is wrong with us?

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THE NEED FOR PROTEST

The protest organized by Dream Defenders, Prison Legal News, Grassroots Leadership, SEIU Florida and other groups adopted the slogan to “Expose the Slaveholders” for the protest.

GEO Group is the country’s second-largest for-profit prison operator, reports Nadia Prupis. GEO owns Karnes County Detention Center in Texas, which holds immigrant families and is the site of an ongoing hunger strike by detained mothers, as well as Reeves County Detention Center, currently the subject of a Department of Justice investigation.

Concerning Karnes, a Prison Legal News press release said:

Human Rights Defense Center associate director Alex Friedmann, an activist shareholder who owns a small number of shares of GEO Group stock, attended the meeting. When he asked about recent reports of hunger strikes by immigrant women held at the GEO Group-operated Karnes County Family Detention Center in Texas, he was informed by a GEO executive that there was no hunger strike; rather, it was a “boycott of dining facilities” at the detention facility.

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As state budgets dried up, the private prison industry moved its attentions to Homeland Security $$$ and fought to win new build and operate ICE facilities. Which is weird because I don’t think it was a bevy of Latina mothers who flew those planes into the World Trade Center. GEO currently receives 42% of its revenue from contracts with federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Prisons. In 2013, 67% of all federal criminal convictions were for immigration-related crime.

What’s confusing to me is why the arguments for prison reform have been decoupled from those for fewer immigration prisons. Maybe it’s built into the DNA of the United States that the free folks can only fight for the rights of an oppressed group, if there’s another group in line to abused and brutalized? Why have we got bi-partisan support for criminal justice reform, but nothing close to such consensus about immigration reform? Why are politicians making efforts to reduce the number of people in the broken, expensive, abusive state and county prisons, but we don’t apply that same enlightenment to people who don’t carry a bit of U.S.A. paper?

Kudos to these protestors who are going after the private prison firms. Private prisons are where all the worst shit happens and the protestors know it. Private prisons are where the architecture and economic logic of cages is perfected. GEO and their equally sadist competitor CCA account for less than 10% of prisons in the U.S. but they are the growth sector.

“We know that GEO Group and other private prison companies thrive when they are able to obscure the truth about their business practices and what happens inside of their facilities,” said Kymberlie Quong Charles, Grassroots Leadership’s Director of Criminal Justice Programs.

Politicians have decoupled zealous policing and mass incarceration from ever more draconian treatment of migrants. The ICE archipelago of dentition facilities are the latest additions to the Prison Industrial Complex. Politicians hope we won’t notice. Politicians are congratulating themselves for having a civil discussion about criminal justice but they do so, now, because it is safe ground. Where were they for the past 35 years?

While state legislators tweak corrections budgets, the private prison industry will be throwing migrants into boxes at will.

Don’t think that politicians are going to lead on the private prison issue. They won’t. Look to the activists, with boots on the ground, who know what is happening. Hillary Clinton has hopped on the criminal justice reform bandwagon tapping the issue du jour for her presidential run. That other guy with designs on the White House, the Republican Senator Marco Rubio, loves GEO Group

“While Rubio was leading the House, GEO was awarded a state government contract for a $110 million prison soon after Rubio hired an economic consultant who had been a trustee for a GEO real estate trust,” writes Michael Cohen in The Washington Post. “Over his career, Rubio has received nearly $40,000 in campaign donations from GEO, making him the Senate’s top career recipient of contributions from the company.”

Short story: GEO and CCA are evil. Stakeholders have evil in their blood. Politicians are mostly clueless. Activists are without career or money ties to the issue and will speak truth to power.

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All images: Courtesy of Grassroots Leadership.

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