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A small, unbreakable tin wall mirror in a solitary cell. Reflection is of a slatted window. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.
The suicide of Kalief Browder was the latest, most tragic reminder of how much of a hell hole Rikers Island is. It was the combined effects of broken bail and juvenile prison systems that killed Kalief.
Take your pick of the coverage from The Guardian and the New York Times, to New York Magazine. What has been consistent in the coverage of Rikers as information about conditions and treatment is that visuals have been limited and it has relied on the progression of lawsuits and news FOIA requests. Whistleblowers have been few and far between and prisoners’ testimonies are notoriously difficult to verify.
An August 2013 fight in the George R. Vierno Center, caught on surveillance tape.
That makes the recent feature Rikers Island, Population 9,790, a joint effort between The Marshall Project and New York Magazine noteworthy. In the expansive effort involving more than half a dozen journalists, we hear from a couple who both went to Rikers in the same year (she was pregnant); a teacher on Rikers; a couple of recent prisoners; an officer, the commissioner of the department of corrections; a girlfriend of a slain prisoner; a former volunteer-librarian; various visitors; a mental health professional; and others.
The selection of imagery (as well as an overview map) is one of the most diverse visual presentations of Rikers that I have seen online. It includes Ashley Gilbertson‘s straight shots from common areas, wings and solitary cells, Ruth Fremson‘s work from the kitchen, surveillance video stills, photos of prisoners by Clara Vannucci and Julie Jacobson, Instagram images found under the hashtag #Rikers, environmental studies by Librado Romero, and archival photos by my friend and former correctional officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.
Bravo to the photo editors of The Marshall Project and New York Magazine.
The recreation center at the bing. Photo: Officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.
Contraband, including jail-made weapons and drugs. Photo: New York City Department of Correction via AP.
The view from Instagram, #Rikers: Clockwise from left: The bridge to Rikers; bathroom graffiti inside the vistors center; the new maximum-security wing; the entrace to a chapel; a correction officer at an adolescent unit; an exercise and recreation area. Photo: Kelsey Jorgenson/Edgar Sandoval/JB Nicholas/Bryan R. Smith/JR/Gee Force.
Prisoners at “Rosie’s” the women’s unit. Photo: Clara Vannucci.
Inside a solitary-confinement cell. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.
A toilet in an occupied cell on G wing.
Blood stained, scum-stained, litter-strewn, dirty as all hell, hell-hole of a prison. That’s an accurate description HMP Pentonville based upon 8 images included in a recent report on the infamous Victorian prison in North London.
I’m intrigued by evidentiary photos; I reckon they can often tell us more than an exposé-chasing photographer can. All we know is that employees of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate Of Prisons made these images. They exist for the record and I can only show them here because HMIP puts out its reports online in PDF format and I took a few grabs. Even then, I only came across them because Charlotte Bilby flagged them for me.
Bilby, Reader in Criminology and Faculty Director of Research Ethics Department at Northumbria University, says that she knows not of previous inclusions of photographs in HMIP reports. I don’t either, but UK prisons are not something I’m particularly knowledgeable about.
Let’s say for now that these photos are a new discover, if not a new departure.
The C wing showers.
Area outside J wing.
An empty G wing cell.
I wonder what other government-employee-made and , technically, publicly-available images exist? I wonder if a broader selection of pics would give the British public a deeper understanding of Her Majesty’s prisons and jails?
Also, I hope other prisons aren’t as bad as Pentonville.
Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons said his team found during an unannounced inspection that consditions at HMP Pentonville had deteriorated since its last inspection (2013) when things were bad already. With 1,200 men and young offenders, HMP Pentonville is overcrowded.
“It continues to hold some of the most demanding and needy prisoners and this, combined with a rapid turnover and over 100 new prisoners a week, presents some enormous challenges,” says a report summary. “Continuing high levels of staff sickness and ongoing recruitment problems meant the prison was running below its agreed staffing level and this was having an impact on many areas.”
The changing area in the C wing shower.
A food trolley.
Blood on a bunk bed.
In response, staffing levels have increased and the authorities remain confident in the warden and the leadership of the institution. While, they believe things can improve quickly, they identified many areas for vast improvement.
- most prisoners felt unsafe as levels of violence were much higher than in similar prisons and had almost doubled since the last inspection;
- prisoners struggled to gain daily access to showers and to obtain enough clean clothing, cleaning materials and eating utensils;
- prisoners said drugs were easily available and the positive drug testing rate was high even though too few prisoners were tested;
- the prison remained very overcrowded and the poor physical environment was intensified by some extremely dirty conditions;
- some prisoners spoke about very helpful staff, but most described distant relationships with staff and were frustrated by their inability to get things done;
- too little was being done to meet the needs of the large black and minority ethnic population, disabled prisoners and older prisoners;
- prisoners had little time unlocked with the majority experiencing under six hours out of their cells each day and some as little as one hour;
- the delivery of learning and skills was inadequate and there were not enough education, training or work places for the population;
- acute staff shortages had undermined the delivery of offender management, which was very poor; and
- the quality of resettlement services was very mixed.
The UK’s use of an independent inspectorate for prisons is a very effective check-and-balance for a hard-edged system that can easily corrupt itself behind closed doors. The fact that prisoners feel unsafe in the transportation vans and cell tiers is the biggest red flag for me here.
It’s worth noting, then, that these photos only reflect the visible messy disfunctions of HMP Pentonville. The uptick in violence and drug use was learnt through prisoner questionnaires.
Read the full report here.
Piles of clothing on ridges outside D wing.
“I spent so much time counting down the days to my court date when I would sit in this very holding cell for about 7 hours. If court is at 9, they bring you down to the holding cell at 5AM and don’t bring you back up until after 2PM count. On one hand it was nice to have all that time to think, on the other the anxiety was a full-time job,” says ihatechoosingausername.
Yesterday ihatechoosingausername posted some snaps from jail alongside stock pics and some funnies too. It is niftily titled So I Just Came Home From Jail.
In 13 images (make sure to click to see the full gallery after the 10th image) and a few words she describes her entry and exit from Henrico County Jail in Virginia. her past addiction and wish to stay clean, her new felony record, the struggles to find work, her imminent homelessness and her frank cluelessness on what is next.
It went viral. Over 340,000 views at the time of writing.
In an update, ihatechoosingausername said:
Wow, Imgur, the support I’ve received after making this post has been absolutely amazing! Thank you so much for the kind words. Also, through this post I got to talk to one of the people who fed me while I was homeless in the park last winter and let him know just how much good he’s doing in the world by giving sammiches to the homeless.
This is not an obvious feel good story but there’s a realness about ihatechoosingausername’s words that leave us hoping it will become one. Time will tell. I wish ihatechoosingausername the best of luck.
No trolls in sight. To you Internets, well done for not being a dick.
“If a book can have a trailer, I guess this is sort of that,” wrote Steve Davis in his email this morning.
Me Steve have a long history* but that in no way discredits what I am about to say. Whether I am biased or not (I am) this video absolute nails it. Why? The process of image-making is often messy. It get messier the more people are involved. Making photographs inside a prison — for Steve and his students — involves local authorities, management and staff. Everyone thinks they have a say or a role. If everyone is a photographer, then everyone is a photo-critic, or worse, everyone is the Photo Police.
Steve saw nice things and he saw absolutely devastating things. He met kids raised to be racists and they were very personable. He encountered kids stuck in the system and devolving to the oppressed and hardened personalities required for survival. He met staff who were moving heaven and hell to give these troubled kids the best shot at the rest of their lives, and he met adults who had already written them off and goaded the kids.
As Steve says, layers of contradictions and complex challenges exist in juvenile detention facilities. These images will not give you any easy answers; they will probably throw up more questions.
This is the best, quickest and truest introduction to Steve’s series Captured Youth that currently exists. If you like what he says an dyou like the images then pre-order the book of this work Unfinished at Minor Matters Books.
*Steve Davis was my first ever interview on Prison Photography. That happened because he was geographically the closest when I started the site. He didn’t have to say yes to the interview but he did. I must have done something right because a year later he invited me to his class to give a lecture. Steve Davis’ student were the first college students I ever presented material to. Years ago, when I was going through a really hard break-up and needed to get out of town, I headed down I5 and crashed on Steve’s couch for a couple of nights. Photographs made by incarcerated boys and girls who were students in his workshops feature in Prison Obscura. Next year, Prison Obscura will be shown at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Steve is the coordinator of the photography program at Evergreen and introduced the show to the gallery’s curator. Steve is a friend.
In the conventional definition of the word, there are not many funny things about prison. In spite of that, those oppressed by the system are still leveraging humour in order to process and overcome America’s dehumanising and oppressive prison industrial complex.
The Poetic Justice Project (PJP) is a case in point.
“Poetic Justice Project is California’s only theatre company comprised of formerly incarcerated actors appearing in plays that examine crime, punishment and redemption,” explains PJP whose latest production is INSIDE/OUT: A Comedic Look At Prison and Re-Entry
Bay Area audiences will witness a unique marriage in June: the happy union of a 500-year-old art form with cutting edge social justice theatre. Poetic Justice Project will present its Commedia Dell’Arte play, INSIDE/OUT, at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland and on Alcatraz Island.
Commedia Dell’Arte is a style of masked, improvisational slapstick comedy that dates back to 16th Century Italy. INSIDE/OUT follows character Damian from prosecution to prison to parole as he wears whatever mask he needs to survive. Damian is saved by the love of a good woman, and by his determination to never return to prison.
The play is directed by Gale McNeeley, a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre and Scuola Internazionale Dell’Attore Comico in Italy. INSIDE/OUT was co-created by McNeeley and actors Leonard Flippen, Jorge Manly Gil, Janet Guess, Nick Homick and Caroline Taylor-Hitch. The actors have all been incarcerated—in prison, jail or juvenile facilities. Most have no previous theatre experience when they come to Poetic Justice Project.
INSIDE/OUT shows Friday, June 19 at 6 p.m. at St. Mary’s Center, 925 Brockhurst St., Oakland. Tickets are $15 and available from Brown Paper Tickets, 800-838-3006, and at the door. On Saturday, June 20 at 2 p.m., there is a free performance on Alcatraz Island.
Based in Santa Maria, the project was founded by Artistic Director Deborah Tobola in 2009. Tobola and Poetic Justice Project recently received the the Santa Barbara County Action Network’s “Looking Forward” Award for Leadership and Vision.
Poetic Justice Project It is a program of the award-winning William James Association, which provides arts instruction to prisoners, people on parole and probation, and youth at risk of incarceration.
QUESTIONS? MEDIA CONTACT
Deborah Tobola, Artistic Director
tel: (805) 264-5463
P.O. Box 7196
In a necessarily generic statement about the project, San Francisco’s teen photography program First Exposures says its online exhibition Communication “explores how the photograph communicates meaning and the different ways in which that meaning can be interpreted based on context.” That’s a broad way of saying that their activities are rooted in developing visual literacy AND photography skills. The teenage image-makers have use antique processes, and made exquisite corpses, biographical images and studies of work and family.
In a city that is currently quite-very hard to love, I think it is absolutely essential to find things in San Francisco that are pure and you can admire. As a writer, I think it is important — everywhere and always — to recognise voices that emerge not out of market needs but out of community needs. These are the two reasons at the top of a long list as to why I am applauding both the First Exposures program and the products of its young participants.
Everything that the pros are doing these kids are doing.
– If you like A Piece Of Cake, First Exposures has its Exquisite Corpse.
– If you like Anna Atkins and Lochman & Ciurej, First Exposures has it’s own Cyanotypes.
– If you like the self exposition and exchange in work by Jeremy Deller or, say, Bayete Ross Smith and Hank Willis Thomas in Question Bridge, First Exposures has Letters To A Stranger.
– If you like Arnold Newman, you’ll dig First Exposures’ response to his work Zoomed In.
– If you like LaToya Ruby Frazier‘s depictions of family and Paul Graham‘s depictions of labour, then First Exposures has Work/Family for you.
– If you are into the collaborative portraiture of Anthony Luvera, Wendy Ewald or Eric Gottesman, you’ll love First Exposures’ Portrait/Self-Portrait.
The kids stay in the picture!
Recognition, too, to the unnamed staff and volunteers who facilitate these youth photography program. In San Francisco and elsewhere.
Literacy and personal development through photography is a familiar notion. Programs for youth include The In-Sight Photography Project, Vermont; Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE), Nova Scotia; Street Level Media, Chicago; Picture Me at the MoCP, Chicago; Youth in Focus, Seattle: Focus on Youth, Portland; Critical Exposure, Washington DC; Eye on the Third Ward, Houston; and AS220 Youth in Providence, Rhode Island.
Incredibly, Young New Yorkers (YNY) actually uses photography (as well as video, illustration and design) as intervention in the cogs of the youth justice system.
“The criminal court gives eligible defendants the option to participate in Young New Yorkers rather than do jail time, community service and have a lifelong criminal record. The curriculum is uniquely tailored to develop the emotional and behavioral skills of the young participants while facilitating responsible and creative self-expression,” says YNY.
Also in New York, is JustArts Photography Program (formerly the Red Hook Photo Project). The exhibition Perspectives featured the photographs of teens from Red Hook, Brooklyn. The JustArts Photography Program (more here and here) is run through the Red Hook Community Justice Center (RHCJC).
I encourage you to find programs in your local area and contribute.
Please feel free to name other programs in the comments that I’ve not included here.
I was interviewed by ACLU recently: Prisons Are Man-Made … They Can Be Unmade.
The Q&A focuses around the exhibition Prison Obscura and you’ll notice a return to many of my favourite talking points. Still, the work never ends, and I know that ACLU will push out — to an expanded audience — my argument that we should all be more active and conscientious consumers of prison imagery. My thanks to Matthew Harwood for the questions.
There are very few organizations like AS220 Youth.
Sure, there’s lots of teen-focused arts organizations across the country but few have achieved the long-lasting and diverse roster of programming and results that AS220 boasts. AS220, similarly to many orgs use arts to connect and empower youth. Very few organizations, however, go into juvenile prisons to deliver photography education. AS220 does.
Very few organisations go into juvenile lock-ups to begin programming in order that they may continue it upon release of the teen with whom they work . AS220 does.
Such continuum is practical AND hopeful. It says ‘We are with you, wherever you are. We share your goal to live free once more.’
AS220 Youth, based in Providence, Rhode Island, gave me the warmest welcome a few years ago. They opened the door so that I could do a workshop with their incarcerated students. I gave a public lecture on my developing ideas about prison imagery. I interviewed the staff and helped students with portfolio reviews. My eyes were open to what a community can be.
Not only did the people stay in my thoughts, the work did too. In late 2013, I included light-paintings made by youth incarcerated at the Rhode Island Training School in Seen But Not Heard (Belgrade, Serbia) a photography exhibition about U.S. juvenile detention. If AS220 Youth did not exist we wouldn’t see these views of the world created by kids who are locked up.
I’ve written about AS220’s youth programs before. I have noted how rare it is that photo programs are inside juvenile detention facilities. AS220 is doing things no-one else can do, or have the imagination to do. You’ve no reason not to help them out.
For the first time in AS220 Youth’s 15-year history, it is conducting a individual giving campaign. They’ve turned to IndieGoGo to push alternative revenue streams having seen public money dry up. AS220 Youth has about half the staff this time last year, and yet it is serving more students than this time last year.
“Since I have been working at AS220 Youth,” says Youth Photography Coordinator, Scott Lapham, “five of my students have been accepted and have gone to or are going to RISD, one to Hampshire, one to the School of Visual Arts, one to Savannah College of Art and Design and one to Mass Art. All of these students are from poor/poverty backgrounds and all but one are students of color. While I couldn’t be prouder of those stats an equally ambitious and important accomplishment is working with students from what we have termed Post Risk backgrounds to achieve emotional and economic stability as adults.”
Bravo to Lapham, his colleagues and the AS220 students.
MONEY, MOVIES, PHOTOS
Help them continue their valuable work: visit the AS220 Youth Futureworlds IndieGoGo page.
Above is a video about a public art project AS220 Youth made. Throughout this post are images made by youth incarcerated at the Rhode Island Training School.