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GRAVE ISSUE AND A GRAVE VIDEO APPEAL
Prisons are hostile, and potentially lethal, environments for transgender individuals. The acute need for understanding, medical care, and protection from predatory abuse is made visible for us through the remarkable efforts of Ashley diamond, a woman incarcerated in the mens’ Georgia State Prison.
Hearing her case and the evidence put forth by her advocates, The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it is a wonder Ms. Diamond is still alive. She has suffered no fewer than seven serious sexual assaults in the three years of her term.
Georgia’s prison system is notoriously dysfunctional and brutal. The prison in which Ms. Diamond is incarcerated is Georgia State. It had more sexual assaults between 2009 and 2014 than all but one other state prison. Ms. Diamond’s access to safety is merely one of her request in the recent lawsuit. Mainly, Ms. Diamond asks that her medically diagnosed condition of Gender identity disorder (GID) or gender dysphoria is recognised by the Georgia Department of Corrections and that they provide her the hormones that she was taking for 17 years prior to imprisonment.
Ms. Diamond describes her incarceration to this pint as nothing short of torture. Her gender identity is held in contempt by the authorities and her vulnerable situation is in no way accommodated. Bravo to her for forcing a lawsuit against the state in order to secure recognition, medical hormones treatments. This is a fight that will not only elevate the visibility of the severe issues facing LGBQT in prison but may secure human rights hitherto ignored or trampled.
Ms. Diamond and transgender prisoners like her are in a perilous position.
In reporting on the case and the subsequent Federal level support for it, The New York Times says, “Many face rejection by their families, harassment at school and discrimination in the workplace. Black transgender people have inordinately high rates of extreme poverty, homelessness, suicide attempts and imprisonment; nearly half those surveyed for the National Transgender Discrimination Survey had been imprisoned, compared with 16 percent of the study’s 6,450 participants. Transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than is the general population, with 59 percent reporting sexual assaults, according to a frequently cited California study.”
When budgets for non-profit advocacy groups are so scarce and the resources and intractability of the state opposition is so large, media outreach and messaging has to be perfect. Bravo to SPLC for delivering a message in which Ms. Diamond is front and center. From a contraband cellphone, Diamond makes a direct plea to the public. The illicit nature of the act adds a sense of urgency to the appeal. It is as if all other avenues have been cut off and desperate times require desperate measures.
It’s a bold move and possibly not without its consequences. I would not be surprised if the GDOC was to retroactively punish Ms. Diamond for possession and use of a cellphone. Given the daily threat to which Ms. Diamond is subject, it hardly seems sanction for possessing a cellphone would be high on her list concerns. Whatever the extent of “risk” is involved in publishing this cellphone video it is another significant lens through which we can see this case, this story and this political action.
Video still from Ashley Diamond’s prison cell video.
It is also crucial that other prisoners are present in the video. It is empowering to see anonymous prisoners feature as allies and supporters. It balances the narrative of prisoners only being predators. Prisoner-led self-organisation is the most quickly silenced but the most effective of resistance against the state and prison industrial complex. I wonder if videos such as this could potentially add further to future struggles?
A FEW QUICK THOUGHTS ON PRISON VIDS
I’ve been promising myself for years to in some way put together an analysis of contraband cellphone photo and video footage. The only definitive thing I can say is that I’ve not seen the vast majority of it and never will.
99.99% of prisoner made recordings are shared between devices, between loved ones and never uploaded to the internet for public viewing. If they do make it to social media they are on the internet behind passworded social media accounts.
Often when prisoner made cellphone videos emerge it is to villianise the prisoner further. News stories peddle in public consternation — we abhor prisoners who might be seen to be thumbing their noses at authority. We also like to frame the stupid or “foolish criminal” and mock them when their video gets them caught. But the truth is, prisoners are very, very sensible with their videos and digital distributions. Why do you think we see so few prison videos?
Prisoners have an interest in protecting their assets — this applies to cellphones that are expensive to acquire and very, very useful. Prisoners have zero incentive for making it publicly known they have or had have had a cellphone. Most prisoners use cellphones to contact families as a cheaper alternative to a price-gouged market. And, let’s remember that phones — like any contraband — get into prisons through the hands of staff as much as they do because of family visitors or civilians.
If the cellphone becomes an issue for the prison administration then their complete lack of understanding of the complaint is exposed — it’d prove the point being made by Diamond and SPLC that the Georgia DOC has demoted human rights to the point of endangering lives.
SPLC’s strategic use of Diamond’s video testimony is deliberate, timely and well-advised. It accelerated and humanised the issue. I, for one, hope it might be a method repeated in the future to benefit the crucial legal battles of prisoners. If so, it could also change our appreciation of prisoner-led political actions.
TEACHING PHOTOGRAPHY INSIDE
I’ve known about Vance Jacobs work in a Medellin Prison for as long as it has been in published form, but this recent post by StoryBench reminded me of the excellent and brief video reflection Jacobs gives about his time teaching prisoners to use cameras to document their own lives. Originally, Jacobs was going to be the only person photographing, but at the eleventh hour the sponsoring NGO for thre project changed the concept and he was asked to educate a dozen men in prison.
“You could tell it had been a long time since the prisoners in my class had received this much attention. But I also had high expectations and those expectations led to it being a very important experience. They started taking a tremendous amount of pride in their work and they started to understand that criticism could be a really important part of their work and theta they could grow from it,” says Jacobs.
This type of introspection and self-documentation is vital, in my opinion.
At the final exhibit inside the prison of 35 images, 5 went missing. “To have a photo stolen was a badge of honor,” says Jacobs. “It meant someone thought they were worth stealing.”
Vance Jacobs, a San Francisco-based photojournalist and filmmaker whose work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Books and Esquire magazine. He talks about his creative process and behind the scenes details of his different shoots at his ‘Behind the Lens’ YouTube channel. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
UPDATE: WEDS., 25TH FEB, 2:50PM. I JUST HEARD FROM PARSONS THAT THE WORKSHOP IS FULL. THAT IS GOOD NEWS FOR MARK AND THE PARTICIPANTS. LESS GOOD FOR THOSE WHO MAY HAVE GOT THEIR HOPES UP BECAUSE OF THIS POST.
SPACES ARE STILL AVAILABLE FOR MARK STRANDQUIST’S TALK These Images Won’t Tell You What You Want: Collaborative Photography and Social Justice AT THE SJDC ON FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 27TH AT 6PM.
￼￼￼￼Description from prisoner at Richmond County Jail, Virginia, from a workshop by Mark Strandquist.
WINDOWS FROM PRISON
Mark Strandquist will be coordinating a participatory workshop this Saturday, February 28, in New York City. Over the course of the day, artists, activists, lawyers, students, journalists, photographers, corrections officers, formerly incarcerated individuals and others will work together through dialogue to create photographs requested by prisoners in New York state.
Mark and his collaborators who include the Correctional Association of New York, the Young New Yorkers, Exalt Youth and the New York Writers Coalition have already sourced written responses from prisoners to the question:
“If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?”
The workshop is at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, at the Parsons School of Design. Those who gather at SJDC on Saturday will travel in groups to the various locations to make images, which will be sent back to the prisoners.
The workshop is part of the programming for Prison Obscura, a show of prison photography I have curated. Prison Obscura includes Strandquist’s series Some Other Places We Have Missed which was the earliest iteration of his workshops conducted in Richmond Jail, Virginia. Since then, Strandquist has partnered with local reform groups and stakeholders in the prison issue to custom-designed workshops in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia.
The ongoing program of workshops Windows from Prison is designed to open up conversation about the impacts of mass incarceration by using the medium of photography.
Images made during the workshop will be exhibited in the atrium space of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center adjacent to the Prison Obscura exhibit.
Prison Obscura is made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.
Image source: Growing Up Through Pictures (an unrelated program to Anathema Arts)
Prison arts organisation Anathema Arts is petitioning for a photo day program in the state of Illinois. Anathema Arts will provide the supplies necessary — the printer, photo paper, and digital camera. Anathema is at pains to state the program will not cost the taxpayers of Illinois.
“A photo can heal, promote positive thinking, maintain bonds, and enhance memories,” say Anathema Arts. “Photos of loved ones have long been used in psychology to reduce grief and pain, but just as they can provide comfort, the lack of current photos can cause negative consequences for both the incarcerated and their loved ones.”
As the majority of prisoners will be released back in to society it is in all of our interests to enact simple steps that maintain self-esteem among the incarcerated class. More importantly, the one factor that determines most a prisoner’s successful reentry into society is close family relationships during imprisonment. Photographs play their part in aiding those bonds.
“Friends and families of incarcerated people often do not have current pictures, and do not get to see how their son, daughter, friend, brother, or sister looks as their sentence passes over the years,” says Anathema Arts. “For those family members that can visit … portraits provide a positive focus during visits, and remind loved ones and prisoners of happier times.”
As I see it, the biggest potential problem with Anathema Arts’ proposition is how it is perceived. Might prison administrations be reluctant to accommodate the (sensible) suggestions of an arts organisation with stated sympathies for incarcerated peoples? Maybe, I’m problematising? Or maybe, I am not? After all, many members of the citizenry consider anything beyond punishment as being unwarranted or not needed in our prisons. Short version: prisons don’t want to appear soft and a photo portraiture program may be seen as fluffy and coddling.
But, surely, there can be no harm in allowing prisoners and families ready access to a recent photo portrait?!
A knee-jerk reaction would be to reject the FAMILY PHOTO -> BOND STRENGTHENED -> REDUCED ALIENATION -> SAFER SOCIETY theory of causation. I understand why some might think it a stretch but, let’s be honest, photography is often wrapped up in unexamined theory. So, why would we dismiss this well-meaning program specifically? Instead, let us consider the fact that prisoners are probably the demographic in America with least access to self-representation — they do not have the standing, nor the tools to create, share and replace images at will.
I’ve signed the petition because I think it’s not only a useful pilot program (that could be repeated in other prisons and other states) it is also a test to see what the Illinois Department of Corrections can accommodate. Is it flexible enough to host a volunteer-run photo program? It absolutely must be, for if it is not then what else can it not — will not — provide for those in its custody?
Go on. Sign up if you dare to imagine the possibilities.
After stints at Haverford College, PA; Scripps, CA; and Rutgers, NJ, my first solo-curated effort Prison Obscura is all grown up and headed to New York.
It’ll be showing at Parsons The New School of Design February 5th – April 17th:
On Thursday, February 5th at 5:45 p.m, I’ll be doing a curator’s talk. The opening reception follows 6:30–8:30 p.m. It’d be great to see you there.
Here’s the Parsons blurb:
The works in Prison Obscura vary from aerial views of prison complexes to intimate portraits of incarcerated individuals. Artist Josh Begley and musician Paul Rucker use imaging technology to depict the sheer size of the prison industrial complex, which houses 2.3 million Americans in more than 6000 prisons, jails and detention facilities at a cost of $70 billion per year; Steve Davis led workshops for incarcerated juvenile in Washington State to reveal their daily lives; Kristen S. Wilkins collaborates with female prisoners on portraits with the aim to compete against the mugshots used for both news and entertainment in mainstream media; Robert Gumpert presents a nine-year project pairing portraits and audio recordings of prisoners from San Francisco jails; Mark Strandquist uses imagery to provide a window into the histories, realities and desires of some incarcerated Americans; and Alyse Emdur illuminates moments of self-representations with collected portraits of prisoners and their families taken in prison visiting rooms as well as her own photographs of murals in situ on visiting room walls, and a mural by members of the Restorative Justice and Mural Arts Programs at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, PA. Also, included are images presented as evidence during the landmark Brown v. Plata case, a class action lawsuit that which went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where it was ruled that every prisoner in the California State prison system was suffering cruel and unusual punishment due to overcrowded facilities and the failure by the state to provide adequate physical and mental healthcare.
Parsons has scheduled a grip of programming while the show is on the walls:
Mid-day discussion with curator Pete Brook and Tim Raphael, Director, The Center for Migration and the Global City, Rutgers University-Newark.
Wednesday, February 4, 12:00–1:30 p.m.
Co-hosted with the Humanities Action Lab.
These Images Won’t Tell You What You Want: Collaborative Photography and Social Justice.
Friday, February 27, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Mark Strandquist.
Windows from Prison
Saturday, February 28
A workshop led by Mark Strandquist. More information about participation will be available on the website.
Visualizing Carceral Space
Thursday, March 12, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Josh Begley.
Please spread the word. Here’s a bunch of images for your use.
At The New School, Prison Obscura connects to Humanities Action Lab (HAL) Global Dialogues on Incarceration, an interdisciplinary hub that brings together a range of university-wide, national, and global partnerships to foster public engagement on America’s prison system.
Prison Obscura is a traveling exhibition made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.
For the Winter Issue of Actually People Quarterly (APQ), I interviewed college professor Nigel Boyle who played the beautiful game in circumstances that most would consider unlikely. Nigel explains, however, that football is a way of life among the Ugandan prison population who welcomed he and other educators with untold warmth.
The theme for the Winter APQ Issue was ‘Triumph.’ Nigel had a good game.
It’s great to publish the APQ article, in full, here on the blog. Thanks to my friends over at San Francisco’s Carville Annex for ongoing collaborations.
Nigel Boyle is a bit like me. He’s English, he’s quite white, he can’t control his bigger smiles, and he’s a mad football fan. Earlier this year, before I visited Nigel’s hometown of Claremont, California, I contacted him because he had been teaching in his local prison. I wanted to know more about that.
I did not know he had taught in a prison in Uganda this summer, too. Nigel invited me to a soiree at his house. It was a reunion of the faculty, students and administrators involved in the Uganda prison teaching program as well as directors of partner organizations. I was made to feel very welcome.
Nigel supports Aston Villa, who play in claret and blue. They’re based in Birmingham, have existed since 1874, and were one of the 12 founding teams of the English Football League. I support Liverpool who play in red and, down the years, have won more trophies than Villa. Neither team haven’t won many titles in recent decades.
Nigel is one of those lucky people that has managed to merge his passion for a particular sport with his professional pursuits. He has taught seminars on the history and political economy of football and once delivered a conference paper titled “What World Cup and Champions League Soccer Teaches Us about Contemporary Europe.” Before he moved to California to teach at Pitzer College, Nigel taught at Duke and Oxford universities.
During his party, Nigel entered the kitchen clasping a photograph. In it, he was pictured with teeth and fists clenched, in mid-sprint in front of a crowd of onlookers. It looked like he had just kicked a ball. He explained that the onlookers were prisoners in the Luzira Upper Prison, in Uganda. Naturally, I had questions.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Why were you in a Ugandan prison?
Nigel Boyle (NB): I was there as a volunteer with the Prison Education Project (PEP), a California program founded by my colleague Professor Renford Reese. PEP had been invited by a Ugandan academic, Arthur Sserwanga, who has been doing third-level education in Ugandan prisons.
PP: So football in prison?
NB: There are 10 “clubs” at the prison and they are all named after renowned European teams — Man United, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Leeds, Chelsea, Arsenal, Newcastle, Everton, Barcelona and Juventus.
NB: Really. A league structure is an organizing principle inside. They all have long histories and fan clubs. They adhere to league codes of ethics and conduct. They have transfer windows!
PP: Why were you playing?
NB: I watched several games at the prison – tournaments between a game between the Luzira Upper Prison Team and another prison team (Murcheson Bay Prison) and one between the Luzira Upper Prison Team and the prison staff team. I got antsy as a spectator and put together a team of U.S. students and students from Makerere University. Games are the primary entertainment at the prison, 3,000 spectators. I was not sure when the game was going to happen which is why I was wearing my “teaching kit” not my Villa kit. We were playing the Arsenal club team.
PP: How did the game go?
NB: Arsenal started off by scoring early and then went easy on us as we had some inexperienced players on the team. But then we started to play a bit, got an equalizer and the crowd really got into it. They were supporting us mostly (apart from the Arsenal fans, of course). The crowd was most delighted with the “the girl” on our team, a U.S. student called Ashley. That she could actually play well led to roars of approval. As the old Muzungu* on the field I also drew some cheers when I showed I knew how to kick a ball.
PP: Was it tense?
NB: It was the friendliest “friendly” game I have ever played in. In fact all games at Luzira are played in a very gentlemanly fashion – the prison soccer association constitution demands it and sets explicit standards for player and fan behavior, above anything FIFA* can manage.
PP: What are your strengths and weaknesses as a player?
NB: I’m your basic Brummie* parks player. Good in the air, poor control, good passer, slow. I played at the back most of the game, with 10 minutes to go it was 3-3 and I moved up front.
PP: That’s when your moment of glory came?
NB: I scored with a sidefooted shot from 15 yards out, with only 8 minutes of the game to go. The crowd which was about 3,000 roared.
PP: A crowd of 3,000!?!?
NB: My childhood fantasy came true. Then I scored again. I was through on keeper, chasing down a clearance. We won the game. Being “interviewed” about my performance in this game only adds to the sense of my childhood dream coming true at the age of 53! After the game there were speeches (there always are after Luzira UP games). I thanked the Upper Prison Football Association, and it’s president-prisoner Opio Moses, whom I’m proud to call a friend.
PP: Will you ever play in front of a crowd that big again?
NB: Only if I get back to Luzira again, and I would love to do that.
PP: Are you at all tempted to retire on a high?
NB: I know guys in their 60s still playing pick-up soccer and I intend continuing as long as my knees hold out. But this is the story I will be telling my grandchildren.
PP: What’s football got to do with education?
NB: I’ve taught a course on comparative political economy through football (or soccer/futbol/fussball) eight times, at three institutions: Pitzer College, the University of Landau in Germany, and at California Rehabilitation Center, which is a prison in Norco. Is there a better lens for understanding contemporary globalization out there? Certainly not one that engages students the way the beautiful game does.
PP: How do Uganda prisons differ from those in the U.S.?
NB: U.S. prisons use vast human and financial resources to dehumanize prisoners and deny them the ability to function as social beings. I’m only familiar with Level 2, medium-security prisons in the U.S., but these are militarized holding pens.
Luzira Upper Prison is the top maximum security prison in Uganda, but staff carry no weapons, look prisoners in the eye, and treat prisoners as potential co-managers of the prison, not as human refuse. Resource starved Ugandan prisons allow prisoners to organize themselves into a civil society behind walls, and it’s through the football clubs and the Prison Football Association that prisoners have organized and bargained with prison staff.
Upper Prison Luzira was a colonial prison designed to incarcerate and punish men who threatened British law and order. In the last 20 years, this colonial shell has been allowed to sprout prisoner-led education (literacy through degree levels), and sports and cultural organization that provide a training in how to be a productive citizen. U.S. prisons talk about “rehabilitation” but appear to be designed to induce PTSD.
PP: Thanks Nigel.
NB: Thank you, Pete.
A GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Brummie = a person born in Birmingham, England.
Muzungu = Swahili word for white man.
FIFA = The International Federation of Football Associations, known most recently for its bloated coffers, back room deals, golden handshakes and rampant corruption.
I wrote about the Greenpoint Glass Selfie Window for Vantage, on Medium — All Of Us, Looking at You, Looking at You.
“Molly’s living room window — Greenpoint’s own ‘Selfie Window’—is a local landmark. Over the past year, a small patch of Brooklyn pavement has become a haven for impromptu portraits, in-jokes among friends and street performances.”
Follow @greenpointglass on Instagram — they’re one of my favourites.