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Prison Obscura continues to travel. If you’re in or around New Jersey then you should know a version (a tighter edit) of Prison Obscura is currently on show at Alfa Arts Gallery in downtown New Brunswick. The show runs until November 1st.

The official opening was last Friday (10th) and coincided with the Marking Time: Prison Arts & Activism Conference at Rutgers University and hosted by the Institute for Research on Women (IRW). To give you a taster of the presentation, below are some snaps taken by staff at Alfa Arts Gallery. But not before a few notes of thanks …

GRATITUDE

I’d like to thank Alfa Art Gallery-owners Chris Kourtev and the entire Kourtev family for generously giving over their space for three weeks to house the show. Thanks to Nicole Fleetwood, Sarah Tobias and all the staff at IRW involved in bringing Prison Obscura to NJ. Thanks for a wonderful conference too!

I’d also like to extend my thanks once more to Matthew Callinan, Associate Director of Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford. Matthew continues to make sure the logistics for each venue are taken care of and, in this case, gave up an entire Sunday to drive from Philadelphia and install the show. Thanks to the staff at John B. Hurford Center for Arts & Humanities at Haverford, who continue to support the exhibition.

For more information about the exhibition, visit the Prison Obscura website.

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Ever since I came across the work Temps Mort it has haunted me. Haunted me in a good way; it has stayed with me. It resonates because of the power delivered by Mohamed Bourouissa and his collaborator’s low-res images. It resonates, also, because this is the only project made by an artist and prisoner with contraband cell-phones that I know of. Surely, there are exchanges like this happening all the time, but this is the only published example. And it was made with the express intentioned to make art.

So I was pleased to discover, recently, that Temps Mort is now a book.

Methodologically, Bourouissa is way ahead of the game. As well as asking for images made according to description and sketches, he asked for videos. Bourouissa would send example videos and his collaborator (whom we know only as Al) would mimic. Throughout the project, Bourrouissa is clearly thinking about how the work will look to secondary and tertiary audiences. We are asked to make sense of seemingly random glimpses of an institution’s innards.

In exchange for composed views of the inside, Bourouissa sent short videos of the Paris streets. The simplest gestures become impressive. Even the txtspk language that is reproduced in the book is touching. In prisons, cellphones are illegal, valuable and a scarce resource, but the two use the tool with abandon and they repeatedly text to make sure they’re adequately fulfilling one another’s requests for footage.

This is not a photobook heavy on photos, yet everything inside depends on the discussions about images between Bourouissa and Al. There’s a lot of white space. The texts ensure we know the timeline and the white space ensures we know — and sense — the slow passing of time.

Temps Mort is over 5 years old now and the book feels a little like a memorial to that audacious moment when an artist dared and a prisoner dreamed. The book is a document that will last longer than the exhibitions and the interest in cellphone videos that declare a moment in Parisian jail operations. This blog post is many more steps removed from the original gifts between Bourouissa and Al. This blog post has no audio/visual jacks nor 9-foot white cube walls. This blog post lags behind the thrill of the original creation of the works and behind the recent exhibitions Bourouissa has mounted. My humble hope, here, is to impress how impressed I am. There’s nothing like this project.

There’s been many projects made in collaboration with prisoners from Virginia to Tennessee, and from Louisiana to Illinois, artists have communicated with prisoners to conjure something beyond the limits of the cell. And yet, none of those efforts have used the illegally smuggled mobile phone as their tool. There’s a subtle two fingers to the man in Temps Mort that we shouldn’t deny. I’m inclined to celebrate it.

Here’s some images and videos appropriated without permission from the web. Enjoy.

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I’ve wondered before where all the photographs of solitary are. This question presupposes that the American public’s exposure to the inside of these modern dungeons will spur a degree of enlightenment, consternation and protest.

Putting the veracity of that string of causality aside for a moment, it might be worth saying that photographs are perhaps not necessary to stir emotional and political response. Maybe sketches can do these things as well, or better?

An opportunity to discuss this will arise in the next few weeks at the UC Berkeley’s Wurster Hall Gallery, in the College of Environmental Design.

Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) present “Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights,” an exhibit about the architecture of incarceration featuring drawings of solitary confinement cells by people currently being held inside.

In addition, rarely seen designs for execution chambers built in the U.S. and photographs by Richard Ross will be on show.

“Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights,” highlights problematic and little-known spaces within United States prisons and detention centers that house activities deemed to violate human rights. What do these spaces have to teach us about the state of freedom in America?

The exhibit is free and open to the public M-F 10-5 until Nov. 21st, and the opening reception is this Tuesday, October 14th from 6-8pm, at which author Sarah Shourd, Professor Jill Stoner, and architect John MacAllister will be in attendance.

Here’s the announcement and here’s the Facebook event page.

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Aug 12 – dbtvcampaign: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown which pic would they use? Thank you @underserverillance for Helping @dbtv13 shine light on the tragic shooting of 18yr old UNARMED Mike Brown, shot and killed by a St. Louis County police officer, show support by posting your photos! | Join in this movement. #DBTV #JPA #JusticeforMikeBrown #IFTHEYGUNNEDMEDOWN (Instagram)

“America. How do you think we look when the world can see you can’t come up with a police report, but you can find a video?”

– Rev. Al Sharpton, speaking at Michael Brown’s funeral, Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis, August 25th, 2014.

POLICING, IMAGING AND REIMAGINING POLICING

In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by a police officer, the United States has been asked to look at itself in a grave and deep way, once more.

The Brown family, the Ferguson community and America generally must figure out how to turn a tragedy into a movement. The Brown family shouldn’t have to do this; they should be living normal lives, but once that police officer shot six bullets into Michael, their lives took an uncontrollable turn. Strength to them and to their ability to carry a movement born of circumstances no parent would want to endure.

Racial profiling is a national problem — the New York Police Department’s Stop & Frisk policy being the most overt example. Police abuse exists and minorities suffer the brunt of that abuse. The extent to which reports of mistreatment have declined among forces who adopted lapel-cameras for their officers is eye-opening. In Rialto, California — the city widely cited as the earliest pilot program of police officer body cams — had all 70 of it’s officer wear one. Between February 2012 and February 2013, public complaints against officers plunged 88% compared with the previous 12 months. Officers’ use of force fell by 60%.

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Aug 14 – djuantrent: #ForThoseWhoHaveBeenGunnedDown “…because our souls cannot rest at the hands of injustice.” More on Djuan Trent’s blog)

Following Ferguson, a renewed call to look at policing rings loud. The figures from Rialto and other pilots like it prove problems exist. We must remember that these figures are merely late confirmation of what poor communities have known and experienced for decades — that they receive a particular and disproportionate amount of scrutiny.

[Ferguson police have started to wear body cameras, albeit 50 cameras donated by two private companies.]

Thinking about these convergences of issues, it’s surprising how much of the conversation comes back to sight: What is the nature of watching a police search? How do we see our society? How do we see class and race? How do people see the police force? How does the state see, monitor and discipline the citizenry? How are images and imaging technologies used to put forth a case when accounts conflict and versions stand to convict or acquit?

How bad does it look when police roll in military armored vehicles in the face of peaceful protest?

These preoccupations over perceptions and narrative were never more in evidence than when the Ferguson police, who unable and/or unwilling to present an officer’s name or autopsy report to the enraged public, were able to publish a corner-store CCTV camera showing Michael Brown push the store owner. Quite how some unrelated grainy footage impacts the facts of a cold-blooded murder is beyond any of us. In the early scramble to win over the public during what quickly developed as a cops v. community narrative, the police turned to video. Desperate and insulting.

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Aug 13 – phoenixpsyd: If I were killed by police today, which picture would they use? #IfTheyGunnedMeDown #WhichPictureWouldTheyUse #IFTHEYGUNNEDMEDOWN (Instagram)

WHICH PICTURE WOULD THEY USE?

As awkward and insulting the police’s use of imagery was in the wake of Brown’s murder, the visual strategies employed by protestors was subtle, simple, subversive and hard hitting. On the streets, protestors walked with their arms in the air. Across the nation, the Tumblr Which Picture Would They Use gave young black Americans the opportunity to simultaneously show their support for the Ferguson protestors, skewer the media, and critique the duplicitous versions of character cast open them by wider society.

I am so impressed by Which Picture Would They Use. Its question is so simple and its rhetorical strategy so strong.

People of colour are subtly vilified daily, and young people of colour more so. Selfies are the snap of choice for many youngsters and Which Picture Would They Use is populated with dozens. This Tumblr shows that young millennials are savvy, canny, funny and more visually literate than us older folk. It shows that they’re totally hip to the media’s rating games. It’s a political engaged use of selfies and Tumblr’s “Like-culture.”

Which Picture Would They Use is a off-the-cuff (off-the-camera) stick in the eye to an ambivalent media. It doesn’t take much time, but the crowdsourced results are striking. Some might say youth might have been primed for this discussion (and controlled anger) following the politics surrounding the images of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman used in the media. But that would be glib. I would say each of the Which Picture Would They Use contributors are responding to years of experience and observations.

Which Picture Would They Use puts to bed the “conversations” about hoodies and the associated issues — race; presentation of the self; perceived dis/respect for adult America; generation gaps; and popular culture.

Hoodie or not, sports team colours or not, cross-dressing, swimwear or military fatigues, it doesn’t matter. Which Picture Would They Use demonstrates that we’re all combinations of many different traits and our personalities are not fixed. It is ludicrous to reduce a person to a single reading based upon the appearance of a dominant (most widely-circulated) image.

The young black Americans submitting to Which Picture Would They Use know Michael Brown had already been judged by a portion of America and know the remainder would judge (even if unconsciously) based upon the media’s choice of images.

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Aug 12 – dbtvcampaign: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown which pic would they use? Thank you @labeledmisfit_ for Helping @dbtv13 shine light on the tragic shooting of 18yr old UNARMED Mike Brown, shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer. (Instagram)

Two months ago, I published a conversation with Lorenzo Steele, a former NY City Correctional Officer who now gives community talks and makes pop-up street exhibitions of photographs from during his time on Rikers Island. Steele wants to impress upon communities and particularly youngsters how violent jail is.

Steele has produced a video to promote his ongoing work with Behind These Prison Walls. a group he founded to inform, educate, and empower individuals and steer at-risk youth away from the criminal justice system.

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Crowdfunding, eh? What to make of it. I feel like the jury is still out, but then again I have had my head somewhat in the sands of late. I have benefited in the past from a Kickstarter campaign and in the immediate aftermath tried to give my feedback on the dos and don’ts.

Where the successful intersections between cultural production and social justice lie is, for me, a constant internal debate, so I hope this post serves two purposes.

Firstly, to clarify my thinking and to highlight the type of crowd funding campaign that I think encapsulates best practice.

Secondly, to bring a half-dozen endeavors (5 prison-related and 1 purely photo-based) that I think deserve your attention and, perhaps, your dollars.

On the first purpose, I’ve identified common traits among these projects that are indicative of a good practice:

- Track record. These fund seekers appearing out of the blue; they’ve done work in the specific area and have chops and connections.
Direct action. These projects will directly engage with subject and, consequently audience on urgent politic issues
Community partners. These funders have existing relationships with organizations or programs that will provide support, direction, accountability and extended networks
Diversity. Of both product and outcomes. Projects that meld digital output/campaigns and boots-on-the-ground activism get my attention. Creators, in these instances, realize that they must leverage every feasible avenue to get out the political message.
Matching funds. In cases where matching funds exist, I am reassured. It shows that the creator is forging networks and infers that they are inventive and outward looking when it comes fundraising. It infers that we’re all in it together; it might just give us those necessary warm fuzzy feelings when handing over cash on the internet.

On the second purpose, I’ll let you decide.

1. OUTREACH

Let’s start with a campaign to help OUTREACH, a program offered by Toronto’s Gallery 44 that breaks down barriers to the arts by offering black & white photography workshops to 50 young people each year.

OUTREACH’s darkroom is the last publicly accessible wet darkroom in Toronto. Gallery 44 has offered accessible facilities to artists since 1979.

Donations go to workshops costs: photographic paper, film, processing, chemistry, snacks and transit tokens.

OUTREACH has several existing community partners including the Nia Centre for the Arts, Eva’s Phoenix, Toronto Council Fire Native Community Centre, PEACH and UrbanArts.

“I went from being a student to a mentor,” says one participant. “I recently had my work exhibited in the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.”

DONATE HERE

2. DYING FOR SUNLIGHT

In the summer of 2013, prisoners in California conducted the largest prison hunger strike in U.S. history. 30,000 men refused food in protest against the use of indefinite solitary confinement. Some prisoners refused food for 60 consecutive days. Dying For Sunlight will tell the story.

Across racial lines, from within the belly of the beast (Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit) California prisoners mounted a reasoned and politically robust defense of their basic human rights that garnered nationwide attention. Their families joined them in solidarity. This was a true grassroots movement built by those on the front lines of state violence

“We prisoners of all races have united to force these changes for future generations,” Arturo Castellanos wrote from the Pelican Bay SHU.

Filmmakers Lucas Guilkey and Nazly Siadate have spent the past year building relationships, and covering the California prisoner hunger strikes. They are joined by journalist Salima Hamirani and community organizations Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Critical Resistance, All of Us or None, and California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement in their effort to tell this story.

“In a world of sound bytes, Dying For Sunlight feature length documentary will allow us the time to more fully delve into the questions this movement has raised,” says Guilkey. “Why and how is solitary confinement used in California prisons? What does the movement against it look like? And how did we get to the point where we’ve normalized a system of torture in our own backyards?”

Dying For Sunlight takes the premise that, in order to understand our society with “increasing inequality, militarization, incarceration, surveillance, deportation, and the criminalization of dissent, we must listen to the voices of those who have endured the most repressive form of social control–the solitary confinement unit.”

The U.N. Special Rapporteur, Juan Mendez ruled that solitary for anything more than 15 days is psychological torture, yet California and other states throw people in the hole for decades.

The film is in pre-production and all the fancy-schmancy gear is bought. Donations will go directly to costs associated with travel, expenses and editing related to interviews made up and down the state with family members, formerly incarcerated people, solitary experts, prison officials. They’ll attend rallies and vigils too. They hope to have a rough cut by December.

DONATE HERE

3. CHANGE THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTS (AIA) CODE OF ETHICS TO OUTLAW DESIGN OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT UNITS

Raphael Sperry continues his battle to rewrite an AIA ethics code which predates the widespread use of solitary confinement in the U.S.

An architect himself, but on hiatus to concentrate on this political and ethical fight, Sperry points out, “even though only 3 to 4% of prisoners are in solitary confinement, half of all prison suicides occur among prisoners who are in solitary confinement.

The AIA is the voice of the architectural profession.

“The AIA has disciplinary authority over its members. In the current code of ethics, they have language that says that members should uphold human rights in all of their professional endeavors. So it’s pretty clear that members shouldn’t design a Supermax prison or an execution chamber,” explains Sperry. “[But] the language about upholding human rights is unenforceable in the AIA code of ethics. So all we’re asking them to do is draft an enforceable rule associated with it that says that members should not design [a project that commits] a specific human rights violation.”

Sperry’s tactics go to the heart of his profession and tackle this issue that stains our collective moral conscience. It’s strategic and laudable. He’s won institutional support before.

Donations go toward ongoing conversations, writing, speaking, research and pressure on the top brass.

DONATE HERE

4. A LIVING CHANCE

A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life Without Parole is made in collaboration with females serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California. The word “collaboration” is the important detail. It is made with incarcerated members of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), a grassroots social justice organization with members inside and outside of prison. CCWP rightly identifies incarcerated women as the experts on the issue of prisons.

Audio recordings, interviews, letters, and photographs will constitute a website and a publication about LWOP which is considered the “lesser” alternative sentence to the Death Penalty.

People sentenced to LWOP have no chance of release from prison and very slim opportunity for appeals or clemency. There are approximately 190 people sentenced to die in prison by LWOP in California’s women’s prisons. The majority of whom are survivors of childhood and/or intimate partner abuse. In most cases, evidence of their abuse was not presented at their trial.

California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex (PIC) and prioritizes the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement. CCWP began in 1995 when people inside the women’s prisons filed a lawsuit against then-governor Pete Wilson rightfully claiming that the healthcare inside prison was so terrible it violated their 8th amendment rights.

A Living Chance was chosen as a recipient of a matching funds award up to the value of $6,000. Already, $2,000 has been raised in individual donations, so the crowdfunding target is $4,000 of a $12,000 total

Donations go creation of the storytelling website and publication, stipends for participants, travel costs to the prisons, and building future effective campaigns.

DONATE HERE

5. THE PRISON PROBLEM, SHANE BAUER’S YEAR OF JOURNALISM

Shane Bauer, a journalist I have long admired, wants to focus for one year on the urgent politics of prisons, specifically those routinely using solitary confinement.

“We spend over $80 billion a year on our corrections system and the cost is growing. At the same time, the number of privately run prisons is on the rise, and the for-profit prison model is spreading globally. In the US, the percentage of prisoners held in private facilities increased 37 percent between 2002 and 2009. Many of these are immigrants, a large number of which remain in pretrial detention for years,” says Bauer. “I’ll show you how U.S. prison practices are being exported to the rest of the world and dissect the systems that lead so many to be locked up in this country.”

For The Prison Problem, Bauer is basically asking for everything he needs to live on in order to create deep investigative journalism: funds to travel, interview, conduct research, and sometimes sue government bodies refusing access to information.

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Bauer reporting in Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit, Crescent City, California, 2013.

Bauer promises at least three or four major feature stories, each is the equivalent of a magazine cover story. He’s got the reporting chops necessary —  No Way Out for Mother Jones about solitary in California (video, too) is widely acclaimed.

DONATE HERE.

6. HELPING KIDS OUT OF JAIL AND BACK INTO SCHOOL

Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth (PALY) provides educational rights counseling and assistance to young people in Montgomery County, PA who are reentering the community after being incarcerated. It’s asking for a little help. Montgomery County, PA has been identified as having a disproportionate amount of minority youth being involved in the juvenile system, and suffers from a lack of agencies focused on supporting youth reentering the community.

PALY recruits law student, as volunteers, to work one-on-one with reentering youth crafting individually-designed educational plans.

The average cost of incarcerating a juvenile for a year is about $88k per year; educating that same student is one eighth that cost.

The ask of only $10,000 is small by comparison, but the effect could be huge. Donations will cover PALY’s first year of programming costs: training mentors, youth educational programs, and a ‘Know Your Rights’ campaigns for the community.

DONATE HERE.

 

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If you happen upon a copy of the latest issue of Aperture The Sao Paolo Issue (215), you will find — on p.14 — 200 words by yours truly about evidentiary imagery. As part of Aperture’s ongoing What Matters Now? series, I wrote:

In May 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld an order to cut the prison population in California, on the grounds that overcrowding resulted in inadequate health care conditions and preventable deaths.

The majority ruling for the case, Brown v. Plata, was penned by Justice Kennedy who took the unorthodox step of including in the appendix three photographs of prison conditions. Perhaps, in this case, the facts really needed to be seen in order to be believed?

The three images represented a cache of hundreds of low-resolution, anonymous, poorly lit photographs used in the initial filings and ongoing compliance stages of Brown v. Plata. Their inclusion spurned widespread consternation among some law boffins who believed that photographs are too emotive and too imprecise, and have no place in high-profile legal cases. I wonder at what point did the legal community decide written and oral evidence was more legitimate than visual evidence?

For too long there has been an arrogance among photography traditionalists that a professionally-made documentary image can change the world. If we are to truly identify images that change society, then we’d be better looking to legal briefs and not newspaper front pages. The images made by prison officials and legal teams that were used in Brown v Plata changed the daily living conditions of 165,000 men and women.

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Hundreds of images from Brown vs Plata are part of the exhibition Prison Obscura.

The San Francisco based law firm Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld that represented the prisoners (plaintiffs) have made available materials from the trial online, including many photos.

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P-338 SVSP-13 Dry Cages or Holding Cells for People Waiting for MHCB

Lorenzo Steele

“I had buddies that couldn’t take the job and wound up quitting because of the mental abuse and, sometimes, physical abuse,” says Steele. “You could be responding to a fight, not knowing that they’re setting you up to stab you with a shank. It’s a very dangerous job. Corrections officers don’t have guns. At that time we weren’t even carrying mace. The only weapon you really have is your mind — how you used it dictated if you were going to have a good 8 hours or a bad 8 hours.”

COP TURNED ADVOCATE

Lorenzo Steele Jr. worked as correctional officer on Rikers Island between 1987 and 1999. Most of his time was spent in the juvenile units. When the officers had retirement parties and other events, he was the one with the camera. In 1996, Steele began talking his small compact film camera into the units and making photographs of the dirt, the filth and the despair. All without any official approval. As part of his work, he also made evidence photos of injuries following violence inside the Rikers Island.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE INCLUDES GRAPHIC IMAGES OF MUTILATION

When Steele decided to leave the job, his “leap of faith” took him back to community instruction. As founder of Behind These Prison Walls Steele gives public lectures and brings pop-up exhibitions to New York neighbourhoods. It’s a mobile show & tell to shock and educate youngsters on the destructiveness and terror of prison. Steele estimates he has made close to 1,000 presentations in schools, churches and community centres since 2001.

I came across Steele’s archive when some of his images accompanied For Teens at Rikers Island, Solitary Confinement Pushes Mental Limits, a Center for Investigative Reporting article that was also adapted and cross posted to Medium as Inside Rikers Island, part of the excellent ‘Solitary Lives’ series.

It is very unusual for photographs made by correctional staff to surface, let alone for there primary use to be as tools for street-side exhibition and engagement. I called Steele and asked him some questions about his self-propelled cop-to-advocate career change, his motives for making the images, the efficacy of his methods and what we need to start doing differently to decrease the numbers of kids we lock up.

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Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): When did you decide you wanted to be a correctional officer?

Lorenzo Steele (LS): At 21 years old I took a [New York] City test. At that same time I was a para-professional for the New York City Board of Education working with Middle School children. I was there for 8-months and loving the job. I got a letter from the city saying that if I could pass a physical, if I could pass the psychological, if I could pass the drug test, I could become a correction officer.

The only reason I became a correctional officer was because it was paying more money than the Board of Ed. I didn’t know I had to experience the system for 12 years, in order to know the system, and later to help people avoid the system.

I’m 22 years old, and it is just a job — no one in my family went to jail. In the neighborhood I grew up in, nobody went to jail.

Lorenzo Steele

The academy was 2 to 3 months at that time. They could never prepare you mentally and physically for what you were about to experience working in a prison. On the first day took the ‘on the job trainees’ OJT’s into an actual facility. Now, they would tell you things — don’t talk to the inmates; don’t stare at the inmates but that was about it. I was afraid, but later I realized that in a prison you can not show fear because you will be manipulated. OJT was about 2 weeks, and after that we were assigned to our facilities.

I worked the C-74 Unit, the Adolescent Recession Detention Center (ARDC) for 14 to 21 year olds. Within that age range, of course, half are adolescents and half are adult inmates. One day you’re working with the adolescents, the next you’re working with adults. I dealt with mental health issues, behavior issues, socio-economical issues. I found out what our people actually go through and why they come to jail.

PP: What were your early impressions of the job?

LS: I’m young, I’m making good money. I have my own apartment, but I have the mind of an officer now.

Can you imagine sitting in a day room with a capacity of 50 inmates and you’re one officer that’s in charge? Your main function is to make sure they don’t kill each other or rape each other and if you see a fight you push a personal body alarm. Depending on which housing area you are in, you can sit there sometimes for 8 hours. I remember the day when I thought, “I can’t do this for twenty years. There are bigger and better things out there for me.”

I’m a photographer. I wondered what I could do legally. I started formulating a mentoring program. I used to volunteer my time in schools as a correction officer and share my insight on what the prison system’s really like. The average person doesn’t really know until its too late. It’s my mission to let these young children know that jail is the last place on earth they want to be.

PP: Do you consider yourself fortunate in that you came to that decision? Because for a lot of people in a lot of jobs, sometimes the stress is so high and the options seem so few they can’t even step back for a minute to see a change in circumstances.

LS: It was very rare for anyone to just resign from the department, unless they were brought up on charges. It was almost unheard of. People asked, “What are you gonna do? This is the best job.”

The last day that I knew I was going to be there, I walked around the jail and I grabbed a little object where I could and wrote on the wall. I carved my name in some wood objects and on some metal doors.

It was around the time of Mother’s Day. My Grandmother was in town and I took her to church. Sometimes, the preacher is actually talking to you. He said, “If there’s anything on your mind just leave it behind you, step out on faith.” That next day, that Monday, I went downtown and turned in my shield, turned in my gun.

PP: What year did you resign? 

LS: 1999.

PP: In between which years did you make photographs in Rikers? 

LS: I began maybe around ’95 or ’96.

I was the photographer for COBA, the NYC Correctional Officers Benevolent Association. People retire or you have parties or special events. I always had a camera on me. After that, I used to take pictures of inside of the prison not knowing that I was to turn it into an enterprise to save people from going into the jail.

I had a camera with no flash. Can you imagine taking out a camera? You’ve got 200 prisoners coming down the corridor to the cafeteria — they’re going to see the camera going off so I had to disguise it somehow. You get an adrenaline rush knowing that you can’t get caught. Once that shutter button is released its almost the best feeling in the world. Its like a high once that shutter button goes off and you’ve captured that image. And you know.

Lorenzo Steele

PP: Where did you keep the camera? In an office or did you take it home with you every day?

LS: I had it in my pocket. Sometimes I would take pictures of the officers in their uniform because the average officer never really has a picture of himself in uniform. It was a good time back then because the camaraderie was great. We had one team; the officers, the captains, the deputies, the warden. We were all one team back then, but you couldn’t do it today because after twenty years things change in the department.

PP: What type of camera did you use?

LS: A 35mm. One of those CVC store cameras. Digital cameras weren’t even out then. I put some black tape around the flash and disguised it almost like a cell phone or a beeper.

PP: How many photographs do you think you took, in total, inside the prison?

LS: Over 200 photos. Shots of prisoners in cells, of the solitary confinement unit, pictures of prisoners who were physically cut. In colour. You can’t imagine the power of those images when I show the kids: “If you don’t change your ways, this could happen to you.”

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LS: Children cannot relate to prison, yet they see the negative violence on television and sometimes a rapper will glorify prison. Some rappers are promoting violence, promoting gang activity, and that’s some children’s reference to the criminal justice system.

But, once you step foot in that criminal justice system your life changes forever. Sometimes they might not even make it out. At 15-years-old we’ve had adolescents that end up taking 25 years with them upstate because they caught jail cases cutting and stabbing individuals while they was on Rikers Island.

Lorenzo Steele

PP: How do you exhibit those 200 photographs to the public? 

LS: It depends on the audience. I have a lot of graphic images so I don’t put those in the schools with the kindergarten kids and the third graders.

I have select images that I use when I exhibit on the sidewalk in at-risk communities. About 20 images at a time but it depends on where and what message I’m trying to get out.

PP: I’ve seen only a few images like the ones you’ve published. One example is the selection of images leaked by a Riker’ Island officer to the Village Voice two years ago.

We don’t see many images shot from the hip. If we do, they’re usually anonymous. Such images do exist but one must work hard to seek them out. How many people see your presentations? Are people shocked? Surprised? Do people respond to the images in the way that you hope they will?

LS: The first time they see the images, yes, they are shocked, especially students. Students that I deal whether in the church, in schools, in the community, are shocked. Images are powerful but the knock out blow is information, the experience, that actually goes behind what’s in that image.

PP: How dangerous was Rikers? In the 12 years you worked there how many incidents of serious assault and possibly even murder occurred or occurred on your shifts? 

LS: Let’s talk about the adolescents first. Rikers Island was considered the most violent prison in the nation. We used to average sometimes 50 to 60 razor slashings a month. Slashing with the single edge razor blade. Cut somebody over the face multiple times inside. There was a lot of blood.

When I went into corrections, I didn’t like the sight of blood [but] I saw so many people get cut that it became normal. I was so desensitized. And that’s scary because that normalcy meant somebody had a scar on their face for life and for every cutting there was a repercussion; if a prisoner got cut he had to get revenge on the other guy and catch another jail case.

PP: I have no idea how politics, street politics or gang culture — in or out of prison — work in New York today let alone in the late 80s and 90s. Over your twelve years, was there consistent gang activity or did it change? 

LS: In ’87, there weren’t gangs in the New York prison system. In the early ’90s, we realized we had a gang problem in the prisons. The gangs had their own language. 300 prisoners in the cafeteria and five officers. We had to learn the language real quick and that is what established the Gang Intelligence Unit. By conducting cell searches, we would get the paraphernalia and the by-laws of the gangs

Later on, they flipped gang members into telling the department what the language meant; that’s how the Department of Corrections infiltrated the gangs. We passed the information on to NYPD.

It was very dangerous. You had to be on your toes all the time. The gangs recruited younger people whom they would force sometimes to do harm on officers or do harm to prisoners. We did the best we could.

One of the blessings was that I always had good supervisors. When the captain said ‘go’, you went, and when he said ‘stop’, you stopped. You put your life in the hands of your captain; it’s almost like being in a war. I am old school. That’s what really kept us on top of the prisoners. The jail would never be overrun because you had a select group of officers that demanded respect and that knew how to take care of the business without anybody getting hurt. When prisoners saw that select group of officers, nothing was going down that day.

Lorenzo Steele

Part of being a Correction Officer is knowing your prisoners and you always wanted to know the gangster, you always wanted to know the person who was running the housing area because that’s the one that you would use, you know. “Listen man, while I’m here today, nothing’s gonna go down. Tell the boys man to shut it down while I’m here.”

PP: Clearly, I’m opposed to prisons as they exist. I think we lock too many people up and I think when we’re locking people up we’re not providing the right sort of conditions or services for them. Obviously, what goes on in the jails and prisons relates to outside society. The reason you do your work now, I presume, is because you see that link between poverty, what goes on in the neighborhoods and what happens in the jails.

What do we need to do better? How do we rely less on incarceration and when you must  imprison people, how do you make it safer for everyone in the place? How do you stop people from coming back? Do we need smaller prisons, do we need more money, do we need different sentences for different crimes? 

LS: It starts before prison. I worked in the neighborhoods classified by criminal justice books as “high-crime areas” and it starts with parenting.

Bill Cosby said on National TV that we have parents more focused on giving their kids cell phones, expensive gear and expensive pants. And they condemned Cosby. They found some black guy on CNN to come on and say ‘Cosby, you are wrong.’ But he was right. Unless you are inside the school system you wouldn’t necessarily know.

That’s why I hit the streets. I try to let the parents know that without that proper parenting their child has more chance of going through the criminal justice system.

Imagine being in a first grade class in an impoverished neighborhood (it depends on the school district) with 30 to 35 students in one class. 1st grade. Half the children can read, half the children cannot read, now you have one teacher. How is that teacher going to really teach? There’s two different dynamics going on in that classroom. We have children across America that are coming into the public school system unprepared to learn.

INMATE PHOTOS1_0032

LS: Poverty is a crime, because poverty comes with where you live. Those in impoverished neighborhoods are subjected to crime, shootings, and drugs, and then children have to go into a school system that doesn’t have the necessary resources. It’s a ticking time bomb.

Unless a parent or guardian is there to break down that math homework, for them, some children don’t know what’s going on. Unless there’s a parent there that could check the homework that the teacher gives every night. Its not going to get done. There’s a lot parents in poorer communities who are uneducated themselves. Look at the statistics coming out of poor neighborhoods — many young adults are not finishing high school and are not going to college. If a parent is not educated, then probably education is not talked about in the home.

The point of attack, strategically, needs to be that early childhood.

PP: Parenting and education. I can agree. But we can’t roll back the years’ generations to correct past mistakes. So what about the situation as it stands now? Say, you have a 15-year-old who’s acted out, he’s been pulled in by the police, he’s got a serious charge over his head. Is Rikers Island the best place to deal with that kid? Is Rikers Island the sort of institution in which — while they are kept away from the public for public safety — they themselves are kept safe?

LS: If you break the law there are consequences. There are necessary disciplines in place so we have a civil society. But is it Rikers Island or is it a juvenile detention center?

If you would have asked me this question as an officer, I’d have said, “Rikers, yeah.” But, now, when I go into the communities and hear what the parents have to say about a lot of these children just mimicking their parents, I wonder is that child at fault? Why did he steal that cell phone? Maybe his father was a thief, or maybe they don’t have structure in the home. Maybe there needs to be a place where a child’s whole history needs to be examined? What’s going on in that child’s home. Does he have a support system? He lives in a high crime area, how much do we expect him to succeed?

Lorenzo Steele

LS: Yes, I feel there needs to be places where children can go to receive those special considerations, not thrown into a place like Rikers Island in which you’re housed with murderers.

Let’s create places and bring in the necessary mentors. And I’m not just talking about doctors in psychology. Sometimes, it takes the correction officer. Sometimes, it takes that guy that did 25 years in jail.

Create a first offense type place. “Young man, we give you a year. If you do the right thing in this place we’ll seal your record, but if you don’t, you gotta go to the next level.”  Sometimes, some people have to go through that prison system if they’re going to turn their lives around.

Create a place where they could come in and get properly mentored to. You understand? Some people have degrees and others not, but there’s only a select few who can really get through to these children.

PP: So, the prison system is too rigid?

LS: It doesn’t always work. Prisons are putting way too many adolescents with mental health problems behind bars. They’re banging on the cells for 3 or 4 hours. These young children need advocates. They can’t speak. Not too many kids are writing a letter to mommy saying, “I’m thinking about suicide tonight; being locked in a 8×6 foot cell for 23 hours, I can’t take it no more.”

Lorenzo Steele

PP: Your photographs were used in an article by the Center for Investigative Reporting about solitary confinement. Over your time as a correctional officer did you see the use of solitary for youngsters increase, decrease, or stay the same? 

LS: We had one unit, about 66 cells. Prisoners that cut, stabbed, or assaulted officers, were locked in solitary confinement.

Warden Robinson implemented a program called Institute for Inner Development (IID). The warden put together a team. Hand-picked. A select few that you could trust and you knew they weren’t going to violate any prisoners rights. We did two weeks of training and took it to a select housing area. We transformed that housing area. Imagine going from 50 slashings a month, [among the] adolescents, to zero for four years.

Programs work if you can get the necessary personnel to properly run and maintain them. When we ran the IID program, we took another housing area — a hundred more prisoners — then another housing area. Eventually, we had 200 prisoners in the nation’s most violent prison in America and and next to no violence.

PP: What was different about that program? What was it that you provided the youngsters?

LS: I love children. I’m a disciplinarian, I love reading, so I had tons of knowledge about slavery and the connection between slavery and incarceration, so when you start talking about this new thing, they just love it. These 14, 15, 16 year-olds didn’t have any type of discipline at home, didn’t have the male role models at home. “This is what men do young man. Pull your pants up. Grown men do not walk around with their pants down.”

PP: So it was more about developing different interactions between the correctional officers and the prisoners, and changing the culture within the unit?

LS: Out of all of those officers, twelve officers, we had no psychologists, no therapists. We were the psychologists we were the therapists. Just because you have a degree that doesn’t mean that you can work in an area like that. There’s a lot of passion that’s involved in that.

Lorenzo Steele

PP: After you resigned, when did you begin exhibiting the photographs?

LS: I detoxed for about 8 months, just not doing anything. From being on the drill to taking it back to normal. Then I started going into the schools and just sharing my information.

PP: With the images?

LS: I laminated some 8×10” color prints and put them on the blackboard. Then I got a laptop and a projector, and went from holding the pictures in my hand to projecting them agains auditoriums and classrooms walls. My first printed use of  the images came in a 2005 Don Diva Magazine feature. They gave me 5 or 6 pages. I provided my phone number. Soon after, a police officer who worked with youth called me and asked, “Could you come in a talk to my youth?” That was the start of giving back.

PP: How do you evaluate your work? 

LS: Seeing that look on somebody’s face when they think they know what jail was like, but then I show them the reality. Talking to 500 students in an auditorium and asking them, “Is this new information?” and they all say yes. Many of them have to make a change right there. For others its going to take longer to make that change.

PP: Is what you do anything like Scared Straight!

LS: I’m not trying to scare you straight I’m trying to inform you straight.

When you’re looking at somebody and they got a thousand stitches on their face, the shock is there but along with the shock is the information behind it. Prison is a violent place and the criminal justice system is a for profit agency and so I break down a lot of information within the program.

PP: What images do we need to see? 

LS: We need to see the graphic images of the young guy that was in solitary confinement unit who just cut himself with a razor blade because that was the only way that he could get out.

Lorenzo Steele

LS: We need to see the images of a young girl in shackles walking down the corridor with a hospital gown on. We need to see images of somebody crying in their cell at night and the only reason he’s in the cell is because his parents didn’t have the money to bail him out. We need to see those images of the abuses, we need to see the dirt, we need to see the filth.

We need to see the pain the officers go through — the officers that get cut and the officers that get feces thrown in their face hoping that they don’t have Hepatitis. An image is what stays in the mind. Every time you think about doing bad you need to think about that image.

Hollywood uses images too to glorify the rich and powerful with the jewelry on their neck. But it is fake. I use images to bring awareness to what really takes place behind bars and what young adolescents are actually going through. Everyday. It has to be traumatic.

Is the prison system still in the business of rehabilitation? That’s a question that needs to be asked in the Department of Corrections nationwide. Are prisons and jails in the business of rehabilitation? Yes, he did commit a crime, but does he have to be put into a cell for 23 hours. Is that rehabilitation? Or is that torture? We have to define cruel and inhumane treatment. We have to bring up those: terms, rehabilitation or torture.

What we do with this young child while we have him here for a couple years could make or break him for the rest of his life. There’s volunteers that go into the prison and mentor. Recently, I had the week off so I went back to Rikers Island, and did some workshops, talking to the kids. I felt obligated because we’re in a place that could make or break them. Some are going to the street. Some are going upstate. If you’re going to the street, prepare their minds while they’re here. If we’re trying to rehabilitate.

PP: Over the 12 years that you’ve been doing this work, if you can estimate, how many times have you presented to groups speaking and how many times have you presented images? 

LS: I’ve done close a thousand presentations — in churches, schools, and sometimes putting them on the streets. Just taking the images right to the high crime areas and putting them right on the sidewalk. People in the poor neighborhoods are not going to go to the museum so I bring the museum to the streets.

PP: Thanks, Lorenzo.

LS: Thank you, Pete.

           Lorenzo Steele

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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