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Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Portraits of Purpose series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
ARE WE HITTING PEAK-PRISON-ART-SHOW?
Of course, I’m being provocative, but the rise and rise of prison criticism and reflection (and commodification) in the cultural sphere bears consideration.
Here is not an exhaustive list but a few examples — Life After Death and Elsewhere, curated by Robin Paris and Tom Williams at apexart; To Shoot A Kite curated by Yaelle Amir at the CUE Foundation; Voices Of Incarceration at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles; Try Youth As Youth curated by Meg Noe at David Weinberg in Chicago; Site Unseen: Incarceration curated by Sheila Pinkel; The Cell and the Sanctuary put on by the William James Association in Santa Cruz, CA; and my own Prison Obscura.
This weekend, Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives will end its 10-week run at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art at Chaffey College in Southern California. Inside/Outside is a relatively large survey of prisoner art, prison photography and visual activism that brings together the work of Sandow Birk, Camilo Cruz, Amy Elkins, Alyse Emdur, Ashley Hunt, Spencer Lowell, Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), Jason Metcalf, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Kristen S. Wilkins, Steve Shoffner, the Counter Narrative Society and students at the California Institute for Women.
It’s a great exhibition.
As many of the names in Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives are familiar, I felt a review by me would be redundant; it’d be dominated by applause to the committed artists I see as asking the right questions … because they’re the questions I’ve ask too.
Instead, I wanted to focus on the recent uptick in fine art exhibitions orbiting the issues of prisons.
Rebecca Trawick, Director of the Wignall Museum and co-curator of Inside/Outside and I were in touch a while before I realised that this should be what we should discuss. And how the cultural production of art around, and about, the prison industrial complex propels, inspires, derails (and much else besides) dialogue about mass incarceration in America.
Kindly, Trawick and her co-curator, Misty Burruel, Associate Professor of Art at Chaffey College accepted my invite to answer some questions. The Q&A is peppered with artworks from Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives.
Scroll down for our discussion.
Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Theater of Souls series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Why did you make this exhibition?
Rebecca Trawick (RT): Incarceration was an issue that I kept returning to in my research.
As a curator, I’m specifically interested in shedding light on important but difficult social issues through the lens of contemporary art. I love how artists can take an unwieldly topic and consider it thoughtfully, often personally, and in really compelling ways that allow the viewer a chance at transformation, or expansion of, thought and perspective.
Because we work at an institution of higher education, these exhibitions become a safe space to start difficult discussions about issues such as incarceration, and they become a tool to educate and inform. This kind of exhibition (if done well) can demonstrate the value of art to transform ideas, minds, and communities.
Misty Burruel (MB): Because it was a challenge. On the heels of a number of incarceration exhibitions in southern California that focused on works by incarcerated artists and artists confronting the criminal justice system, it was appropriate to look at it through the lens of education.
We are confronted daily with students that have either been incarcerated or have family who are incarcerated. It was time to have difficult discussions about the role of education in the penal system, our responsibility as citizens to each other, and how parolees reintegrate into yet another system.
Spencer Lowell, La Palma prison, Arizona
PP: Is incarceration a “hot topic” right now? Why?
RT: As Misty and I mention in our remarks in the printed takeaway, we seem to be experiencing a unique convergence of policy discussions in the US as well as popular culture interests, so we feel like the conversation is already happening in certain circles.
We hope our exhibition helps to expand the discussion and dig a little deeper into some of the topics looked at in contemporary documentary (think the recent Vice episode, Fixing the System, in which President Obama – the first sitting US President to do so – visited a federal prison) to the popularity of Orange is the New Black.
MB: Jenji Kohan’s, Orange is the New Black, portrayal of incarcerated women created a splash on Netflix and revealed through mass media the complexities of a system within a system. The women were all too real and relatable. We live in the Inland Empire and have two prisons at our footstep.
PP: California Institute for Men and California Institute for Women.
Jason Metcalf, Cheeseburger, French Fries, Iced Tea (Dwight Adanandus), 2013, archival pigment print, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
PP: Is Inside/Outside about incarceration or is it about the representation of incarceration?
RT: The exhibition is about the many issues surrounding incarceration that we hope our viewers will consider more deeply after viewing the work on view. Issues include the value of rehabilitation behind bars; juveniles in justice; death penalty, segregation, prison labor, and isolation as systems of control, among others.
PP: How did you select the artists?
RT: The Wignall Museum mainly draws from Southern California for practical reasons–funding limits us to local pickups mainly. In some cases (Kristin S. Wilkins, for example) agreed to ship the work to us so we were able to include her. We’re often limited regionally, which explains the SoCal bias. We would have loved to include works outside our region, if possible. (see next question for a list of some we would have included if possible.) The one thing I remind myself is that we’re not trying to be essentialist in what we portray or explore, but rather offer some really amazing work to assist us in digging a little deeper into the state of incarceration today.
MB: We are in a human warehousing gridlock. The works collectively focus on how the system of control does not discriminate (women, men, and youth detention).
Kristen S. Wilkins, Untitled #10. From the series ‘Supplication’ (2009-2014) “Grand Ave. by Shiloh (Cemetery). Left side of water fountain. Has colorful wreath with flowers. It is where my son is @. He is the best thing that happened to me in my life. He was my world.”
PP: Were there any artists or works out there that you’d wanted in the show but couldn’t for whatever reason?
RT: Yes! Many. The list includes Deborah Luster, Dread Scott, Jackie Sumell’s The House That Herman Built, and Julie Green’s Last Supper installation all immediately come to mind. There were many others, but those three stand out for me.
MB: We wanted to have more guest speakers, but funding always seems to be a hurdle. We can certainly look at the issue, but we really wanted to talk about it.
PP: Really? From the outside that you had a phenomenal amount of programming. I applaud you. How important was programing around the exhibition?
RT: Programming is critical. Because we’re limited in many ways in terms of what we can show – due to spatial and fiscal restrictions – programming allows us to bring in experts in the field to further contextualize and expand the themes of the exhibition. It also allows community engagement and for other voices to join in the conversation, often in a public forum. That ability can’t be underestimated, I think.
MB: When the discussing an exhibition about incarceration we were most focused on programming. Rebecca and I are collaborative by nature and we were able to find others who were very interested in asking difficult questions within their own disciplines (Sociology, Philosophy, Correctional Science, Administration of Justice).
© Sheila Pinkel
PP: I’ve been asked a number of times “Who are you (a white, cis-gender, male, college graduate) to speak to these issues?” Every time by a highschooler — God, I love them. Were you ever challenged over your role and/or position while putting Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives together?
RT: As a curator at an institution situated on the campus of a Community College I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to explore a wide array of topics in our exhibitions and to look from a place of diversity – diversity of media, content, viewpoint, race, ethnicity, etc. – and through the lens of contemporary art, but it is critical that we do so in a way that is thoughtful and multifaceted.
Philosophically we try to schedule our exhibitions and programs in a way that expand outside of our own limited perspectives. We also try to use multiple guest voices – guest curators, guest speakers, etc. to expand the discourse around an exhibition. But the long and the short of it is, I try to always be conscious of my privilege and to present diverse voices. That said, my own experience/perspective was never called into question during the exhibition planning or implementation phase.
MB: The college has wholeheartedly embraced the exhibition and its programming.
Amy Elkins. 26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was), 2011. Portrait of a man twenty-six years into his death row sentence where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.
You’ve said the response so far has been positive. More than other Wignall shows? More among the student body, or beyond? How do you measure response/success?
RT: This exhibition definitely has seemed to link to something that is personal and relatable for many of our students, faculty and community visitors, evident by the verbal responses and reactions we’ve seen in the galleries. We’ve held a number of panel discussions, engagement activities, a film screening, and dozens of tours. Unequivocally, discussions always seem to lead to the personal and comments suggest that the ability to discuss a somewhat taboo topic has been relevant.
MB: This work is incredibly personal and relevant to the Inland Empire.
PP: Can you see the successes and failures of the show already? Or is it too soon for that type of assessment?
RT: Success can be measured in qualitative and quantitative ways … (as of course, can failure). Due to the high level of programming, and the sheer number of student tours we’ve conducted, we can see an increased level of engagement. Our visitor numbers are up, the number of students speaking up during tours has increased a great deal, and the unsolicited feedback from students/faculty/staff we’re getting has been remarkable.
We also ask all students who visit us as part of a tour to fill out a short survey. Results won’t be tabulated until the close of the exhibition, but I feel the results will mirror the anecdotal evidence we’re seeing. As a curator, however, I’m always thinking about what we can improve upon – from the curatorial practice, to layout and installation, to printed collateral and programming…reflection is key.
MB: I think the museum does an amazing job of allowing artists to ask difficult questions and explore relevant social and political issues.
The Wignall Museum hosted workshops and discussion led by Mabel Negrete and the Counter Narratives Society.
PP: Anything you’d like to add?
RT: We hope that Inside/Outside and the many other excellent exhibitions and artists looking at incarceration with a critical perspective will encourage the questioning of the system as it is, and that it might even encourage engagement in our communities in ways that can make real change in the world.
Sean O’Hagan writes:
Lyon was a pioneer of what might be called immersive photojournalism, steeping himself in his subject matter in the manner of pioneering 60s writers of the New Journalism school such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson. He builds the visual narrative around extended personal accounts by selected inmates, the often intimate descriptions of life inside illuminating his already powerful images. “The text of the book, compiled from prison records and convict writings, presents the lives of a few of these men,” he writes in his introduction. “They are the heroes of this book. I knew each of them as well as a free man can.”
[…] On every level, then, Danny Lyon’s approach flies in the face of detached documentary reporting, but it is this that also makes his work so viscerally forceful.
Read the full piece: Conversations With the Dead: Book review – 60s prison life in the US
YEARS SAVED THROUGH PARTICIPATORY DEFENSE ACTIONS
I’ve praised Participatory Defense before. It’s a community-based approach to criminal-defense that wraps a wider story and longer narrative arcs around a defendant. Friends and family work with public defenders to bring more to the case and to the court.
Participatory Defense was pioneered by Silicon Valley DeBug. It is carried out by the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP). Listen to Raj Jayadev speak here for 5-minutes about Participatory Defense‘s positive effects.
Jayadev recounts the story of Carnell who was facing a 5-year term for a low level drug offense. He said he was afraid of missing his daughters lives, of not being their for them. The gave Carnell a camera and he documented his life, taking his girls to school, to volleyball practice, making them meals at home.
The photographs were presented in court and instead of a custodial sentence, Carnell received a 6-month out patient drug treatment program, the help he’d sought all along!
So far, ACJP has helped divert clients from a cumulative 1,862 years of incarceration.
I just wrote, for Vantage a review titled The Portraits In This Book Are Only Visible When You Hold It In Your Hands of Carina Hesper’s yet-to-be-made book, Like a Pearl In My Hand.
The book is printed with thermochromatic ink (yes, the same stuff used to make 90s Generra Hypercolour Tshirts) and so it changes from pitch black in a resting state to emerging portraits of blind Chinese orphans the next.
I’ve never seen anything like it. Of course, the book hasn’t made full production yet, so I’ve not held on in my hands, but the dummy and the vids look impressive.
The degrees to which Like a Pearl In My Hand plays with metaphor and reconfigures our use of sight and touch further distinguishes Hesper’s book.
Disability is a hidden problem. Blindness prevents sight. By literal description or by strategic manipulation, everyone is in the dark. But when sight is denied, other senses compensate. Hesper plays with this truth.
Hesper is currently raising Kickstarter funds to get the project into book form (it’s already shown at numerous festivals as single prints on the wall.)
Read my review in full and see more pictures: The Portraits In This Book Are Only Visible When You Hold It In Your Hands.
Uganda, May 2010, from the series “Law and Order.” Chief Justice Benjamin J. Odoki is his office in Kampala. Like other judges, he has a huge backlog. Judges are appointed by the President on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, with the approval of Parliament.
When our Skype call connected, Jan Banning was rubbing his brow. He was trying desperately to chase down statistics with which to give his three years of photographs, across four continents, context.
Banning has, since 2012, worked on a project called Law and Order looking at the institutions–prisons included–that result from different philosophies and systems of justice. Banning recently successfully crowdfunded a book which includes photographs from four nations: France, Uganda, Colombia and the United States.
Banning spends a lot of time traveling, but more time in his studio synthesizing all his images and their meaning. While he labors, he listens to everything from Frank Zappa to The Kinks to African beats.
Jan lit a cigarette, apologized for the disregard for his health, but said the stress of hunting stats required some nicotine to take the edge off. I wanted to know how he viewed different prisons from around the world, how they compared, and what it was like to make photographs within closed facilities.
And so we began …
Kirinya Main Prison, Uganda, 2013. Uganda’s second maximum security prison, in Jinja, was built for 336 prisoners. It now holds 922 prisoners. Here, a primary level biology class is taught by a prisoner sentenced to death, known because of his uniform is white in color.
Q & A
What’s up Jan? How’s the work? The book?
I try to make work that contributes to the public debate. The book will include statistics about the long term development, trends and crime rates for the four countries I photographed, but also for other relevant countries. ‘Relevant’ in two senses: for one, Holland should be involved. Secondly, Germany, UK, Canada are relevant because they are industrialized too.
We can make fair comparisons?
To a degree. And make contrasts. Also, possibly Norway because of its extremely liberal prison policies. And possibly Japan because of its really low murder rates.
An American audience will find this book interesting — to really see, in line graphs, how much higher the levels of incarceration are in the U.S. compared to a lot of Western European countries and how that relates to recidivism rates. Finding reliable sources on murder rates, incarceration rates, recidivism rates and remand rates is the big problem. But they’re essential.
I have. I’ve been looking mostly in Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United Nations and the World Health Organization. These websites are incredibly confusing. You can find one year but not another. For example, U.S. murder rates starting in 1900, but the sources are so ridiculously confusing I cannot judge whether they are reliable or not and I do not want to include sources that are not verified.
Premier president Mme Dominique Lottin heads the business of the court at the Palais de Justice, Douai, Nord/Pas de Calais.
Holding Cell #1, Dekalb County Jail, Atlanta. Built in 1995, with around 3,000 prisoners it is the biggest jail in Georgia.
Two court writers of the court, Cartagena. Colombia, Sept. 2011, from the series “Law and Order”. Gina Marcola Perez and Mahira Julio Amigo finish the paperwork and processes that still go forward under law #600 even though the law has been abolished. Courts in Colombia have a huge backlog.
How did you decide on the four countries–Colombia, France, Uganda and the U.S.?
I started with Uganda as because I had good connections. A friend of mine was working in the Dutch Embassy in Kampala. It was kind of an experiment to see if I could visualize this whole thing—a visual comparative analysis of law and order—in a let’s say, different or interesting way. After Uganda, I concluded that it would be tough but interesting.
Uganda, May 2010, from the series “Law and Order”. Kakira Police Station, Jinja Town. Police Constable #11431, Ndalira John, 54. He earns 205,000 shillings (54 Euro/US$72) a month.
The chapel at Putnam County Jail in Eatonton, Georgia, doubling as sick bay.
I had some private courses in criminal justice from a professor here in my home town Utrecht. He said I should contact the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg which is the top European institution on criminal justice. The director there advised me. I wanted to a geographical distribution so it’s four different continents. I wanted to include the two major lines of justice so the civil system in which France played a big role. And secondly, the common law system, a more Anglo-Saxon system. Of course I could have gone to the UK where it originated but it made more sense to pick the U.S.
A more extreme application of that type of law?
In a way. Certainly I wanted a State that still employed the death penalty. I ended up in Georgia basically because I had the best contacts there.
Ah, I thought it would be more targeted than that because Georgia leads the way in many of the wrong statistics—disproportionate numbers of minorities, high levels of female incarceration, poor folks locked up too.
Those things played a role, but so did the practical side.
First, I actually tried Texas because it kills the largest number of people but I just couldn’t get access. Then I saw that Georgia holds a larger percentage of people under control of the whole judicial system than anywhere else on earth. Approximately 1 in 13 adults is either in prison or in jail or in parole or on bail in Georgia.
Colombia is in Latin America. It’s a big country and it had high murder rates for a long period. Uganda seemed interesting because of its colonial heritage of common law whereas Colombia is from the Spanish sphere of influence.
Then, there are the religious-based justice systems such as Sharia. But after talking to several specialists, I learnt that real Sharia in the criminal justice system is only practiced in Saudi Arabia and Iran and they are not exactly easy to access.
The communist system is not easily accessible either and I didn’t want to fall into a kind of PR trap by trying China, so unfortunately that had to be left out.
Canning greens at a canning factory at which the workers are prisoners of the State of Georgia. Of the 1500 prisoners at the medium security Rogers State Prison near Reidsville, 350 work. Some unpaid. The products of the Georgia Correctional Industries manufacture plants, food production and processing factories are sold to government agencies. This plant producing one million cans of vegetables per year.
Disciplinary cell in the Grand Quartier of the Maison d’arrêt de Bois-d’Arcy, in France, was opened in 1980. Designed with a capacity of 500 prisoners, it now houses 770.
Luzira Women’s Prison in Kampala, Uganda, 2013. 370 women and 30 children (of convicted mothers) are locked up here.
Can you go name all the different prisons you visited?
Oh my goodness, that’s a long list! In Uganda I went to ten prisons including the big ones of Luzira, Jinja and Luzira Women’s Prison. Four in France after struggling to get access for two years. Five in the U.S. of which three will be included in the book. I’ve still to make a return visit to Colombia to photograph more but it’s as many, if not more, than in other countries.
Part of reception area of Luzira Upper Prison, Kampala, Uganda, 2013. Here, uniforms are adjusted for new prisoners. Luzira Upper Prison is Uganda’s biggest maximum security prison. Built to accommodate 600, the prison held in March 2013) 3114 prisoners.
Clearly you have a broad interest in systems and institutions of justice. How did you arrive at prisons, specifically?
My project Bureaucratics looked at one of the three pillars of the state: the executive. Law and Order looks at the judicial, the second pillar of the trias politica.
And the third pillar?
How do different societies handle crime? Police are involved. Courts involved. But I am fascinated by prisons. I studied of history so I’ve always gravitated toward a more structural analysis. As a photographer, I’ve been really interested in the news or in short term of events and developments.
San Diego Women’s Prison (Carcel de Mujeres de San Diego), the city of Cartagena, Colombia, Sept. 2011. From the series “Law and Order”. Rosa Martinez Meza (left, age 20) is serving ten years on aggravated criminal conspiracy charges. She studied Marketing and sales. Eliana Sofia Gonzalez (right, age 23), is still under investigation, accused of attempted extortion. She studied business administration and is self-employed. They share their room with ten other women.
Uganda Chief Magistrate’s Court, Buganda Rd, 2013.
You’re taking the longer view. An overview. So what are prisons supposed to do?
They can function an instruments of revenge for society, to punish. But as instruments of correction and as instruments to bring down crime rates, I don’t think they work.
French prisons are no hotels but they had the most humane atmosphere. U.S. prisons, in Georgia, were horrible. Of course prisons in Uganda are primitive and there’s a lot of bad things that can be said about them—corruption and bad personnel. But prisons in Uganda still gave me a much more humane impression than those in the U.S. Even in the maximum security prisons in Uganda, I was allowed to roam around freely. I had some nice relaxed chats with prisoners, even the most heavily sentenced prisoners would be patting somebody on the shoulders.
The maximum security prison in Jackson, GA had a horrible atmosphere and I think that is noticeable in the photographs. For example, if you look at the photographs from Uganda, it’s earth colors, it just looks nicer, now of course that can be deceitful, but in this case I don’t think it is. In the U.S., it is all steel and concrete, like an ice cold industry. You walk around with a couple of old marines who are heavily armed and wear bullet proof vests. Prisoners had to turn around and face the walls as I passed them in the corridor and that brings me to the conclusion that the U.S. was really extreme.
Court, Quartier Maison Central, Centre Penitentiaire de Lille-Annoeullin, France, 2013.
Colombia, Sept. 2011, from the series “Law and Order”. “Establecimiento Carcelario de Reclusion Especial” in Sabana Larga is a special facility with only 100 prisoners, 18 guards and 5 administrators. Over half of the prisoners at the small medium-security prison are officials who have been convicted or are under investigation i.e. governors, mayors, police officers, judges. Leonel Silvera Padilla (20) is under investigation for theft.
Latin American prisons have a reputation for being overcrowded and in squalor.
At first they allowed me into relatively mild prisons in 2011. Recently, however, I went to some disgusting facilities in Colombia. At times it felt like I was making propaganda for the prison authority. It’s a long story I cover here.
Do you think as an Dutch photographer, an outsider, you are able to tell reveal something new about U.S. prisons to the American public?
I made a photograph of a guy who is bathing in a jail. Obviously I would never use that photograph in a news context for which one photograph is being used to illustrate the Georgia prisons or jails. However, as part of a series it finds it’s place.
Meeting of committee of the “lifers” — men with a life sentence, at Georgia State Prison which is a medium security prison near Reidsville with 1500 prisoners.
I think my photographs give two different messages at the same time. There’s a photograph of a group of lifers that are being trained to advise other prisoners. Management matters are playing a big role there (the prison is probably trying to keep the lifers occupied there so they are not coming up with ways to make life hard for the guards).
And use them to bring other prisoners around to a more compliant set of behaviors.
True. So, something is being done for people, but it is in the surroundings which look like an old factory. I’m trying to come up with a nuanced picture and to paint a confusing picture and I hope that that will somehow contribute or stimulate people to ask questions Confusion is my main purpose.
In some ways, it’s more important to me that this plays a role in the public in the U.S. than in Europe because we have less tendency to be tough on crime and to lock everybody up than the U.S.
Putnam County Jail in Eatonton, Georgia.
The U.S. needs more introspection, relatively?!
Absolutely. Homeless people are absolutely unable to get housing because of their criminal past. From a European perspective it was astounding to hear that this information on them would be out on the internet so they couldn’t get a house because it was registered, they often couldn’t get a job because the employee would go on the internet. Now this is a weird situation. Let me put myself in the position of an employer and one of these women comes out and has a job interview with me and I am going to go on the internet and I am going to see what I find about them. I have found very few people who are somehow shocked by it. When I tell people in Europe or in Holland or in Germany, people are absolutely flabbergasted.
And this informed your side project of portraits of women at Pulaski Women’s Prison?
Law and Order has a distant approach, but soon I wanted another aspect. This is confusion for me as well as the viewer. Anywhere in the world, people are trying to make clear distinctions between criminals and us—to define them as different and as bad people but I don’t think they are, actually. I could have been in prison myself many years ago. I wasn’t so I am “a decent citizen”!
I wanted to bring these two groups closer together so that’s why I photographed the female prisoners the way I would photograph my family members or the Dutch Prime Minister.
But yet more confusion. I had to get permission to photograph them and yet all their portraits are on the Department of Corrections website!
But this work is not in your forthcoming book?
No, it was a parallel project. It’s formally different. The Law and Order book is not about portraits; it stresses on the consequences and environments of different systems.
I was only allowed to ask very few questions. I was not allowed to ask, why they were in prison or for what they were sentenced. But all that information was on the website of the Georgia Department of Corrections. So all the text that you find in my portfolio was found on the internet.
There’s a couple of other artists I know who’ve taken umbrage at the public exchange of mugshots for entertainment, Jane Lindsay and Kristen S. Wilkins. But you’re the first male to adopt such empathy. You’re also non-American.
Apparently for U.S. citizens it’s quite normal to trade in the personal details of felons.
What the people in Holland think of America and Americans?
The U.S. seems to have an image problem. I happen to I often find myself in the strange situation, to some extent, defending the U.S. or bringing up nuances in conversations with friends. For Dutch people who have not spent much or any time in the U.S., it is hard to see these nuances or to have a sympathetic view of Americans.
Etablissement Pénitentiaire — Maison d’Arrêt / Douai, Cell 10, Batiment B. Jean Michel, France, 2013.
What’s the situation like in Holland in terms of criminal justice and crime statistics and prisons?
Our prisons are underpopulated. We’ve started renting them out to Belgium and Norway because they are getting empty. A nice development. I think Holland would, in American terms, be called “soft on crime” and I think we’re doing pretty good.
The murder rates have been going down here since the 90s here and in a lot of other countries. As far as I know, crime rates are going down as well. The reasons still allude researchers. But we can definitely say that the bigger the social difference between the richest and poorest, the higher the crime rate. That is an interesting point to put to an American audience, don’t you think?
I do. Thanks, Jan.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
I’ve had a lot to say about the mothballed Wapato Jail in North Portland. Last year, I said it’s use as a film set for an activist web series against solitary was the only good thing to come out of the facility, so I was very happy this year when artist collective ERNEST was brought to Portland by c3:Initiative to work on an artist residency about the vacant lock-up.
ERNEST produced a film, photographs, hosted community engagements, a roundtable, artists’ event and a book-club about mass incarceration. They also put out a publication to which I contributed. That essay, I’ll post here with illustrations shortly. But I just wanted to let you know that the book is now for sale.
The design of the book is by Container Corps, it’s a bit mad with tip-ins everywhere. And it’s brilliant.
The book features contributions from Ace Lehner, Sarah Fontaine, Ernest Jerome DeFrance, Dan Gilsdorf and the ERNEST team (George Pfau, Amanda Curreri, Llewelyn Fletcher and Hannah Ireland).
Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, which is on view at c3:Initiative until Nov 22, probes the many concerns that the vacant jail suggests: breakdowns in democracy, prevailing power structures.
Here’s some “episodes” of themed footage that were woven together for ERNEST’s final centerpiece video installation.
WHAT’S IN A NUMBER?
Four years ago, after decades of legal battle, the Supreme Court of the United States ordered California to reduce its state prison population by approximately 30,000 people. Instead of looking seriously toward cheaper and safer alternatives to custody, the state redirected a lot of those convicted of crimes into the county jail systems and stopped receiving citizens with sentences of less than 3-years into the state prison system. California, essentially, swapped one set of cells for another set of cells. This was a process called Realignment.
County administrators balked at the notion and the jails creaked. So, the state dove into its budget and redirected money toward the counties. In most cases, the counties opted to build new jails.
On top of realignment was, one year ago, Prop 47 which downgraded several non-violent felonies to misdemeanors and reducing sentences for thousands in the process. So, at a state level, the statistics read as though the Golden State is putting fewer people in boxes. But the picture isn’t so rosy, as the latest “Decarceration Report Card” from Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) shows.
This is the third time CURB has graded California counties on whether they’re reducing the number of people incarcerated and investing in community solutions, or whether they’re building new jails.
“This year, for the first time, every county received a failing score,” says CURB. “Since 2007, $2.2 billion of jail construction funding has been approved by the state for local jail construction. Twenty-three counties are already building new jails. Five are building two or more jails. And thirty-two counties are applying for the current round of jail construction funding.”
THE APPROPRIATION OF LANGUAGE … AND MONEY
The correctional system employs hundreds of thousands of people; it has a labor capital to nurture and a workforce perversely both exploit and “protect”. This means, the system must move with the times and move where the money is. With a nation now enlightened to how racist, classist and abusive prisons and jails are, the new common consensus is that we must treat, educate and rehabilitate prisoners, not merely lock them away. As such, treatment and rehab is a new-found “boom sector.” The state has adopted the reform language of anti-prison activists, twisted it to their own rhetoric, and are chasing the increasing number of dollars being earmarked for rehab.
“These jail projects are being promoted as ways to help incarcerated people and their families–improving mental health treatment, adding classroom space, and providing so-called gender-responsive care,” says CURB.
Do not be fooled. #AllJailsAreFails. We don’t need better jails, we need fewer jails.
The highest judges in the country ruled California’s prisons as unconstitutional and medically negligent. What makes us think that the state agencies can provide a functional version of rehab or treatment? Or even that citizens would willingly trust the agencies that incarcerate to treat?
Californians United for a Responsible Budget are the best. So far, the report has received the following coverage:
Report Blasts Jails Building (Sonoma Union Democrat)
Pacifica Evening News. Starts at 25:33 (KPFA)
HOW TO STOP A JAIL
Do you live in California? Is your county trying to build a new jail? Check out CURB’s tool-kit, How to Stop a Jail in Your Town!