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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.
New piece over on Vantage about photographer H. Lee‘s embed on a Humboldt County weed farm.
In 2010, Lee spent a year running up to the fiercely contested Proposition 19 documenting the activities on a pot farm.
Prop. 19 was a ballot initiative that proposed regulation and taxing of the California marijuana industry. Small-holding growers feared its passage would mean the destruction of their livelihoods. Lee had been visiting the pot farm for 8 years prior but never made an image. Then, in 2010, when massive and crushing change loomed, she took up her camera.
H. Lee is a psuedonym. Promising subjects their anonymity by proxy of her own just made things easier.
“I gave my word to the people I photographed — whether I shot their faces, body parts, plants or farms — that I would use a pseudonym when presenting the work,” says Lee. “I only photographed those who were willing to be photographed.”
Prop 19 was voted down in November 2010.
Read the full story and see photos very large at Vantage: Inside the California Weed Industry
I spoke recently with photographer Kike Arnal about his experience documenting a crafts work program in the low security Quencoro Prison in Cuzco, Peru.
The World Bank/United Nations wanted to loan resources to the Peruvian government in order to replicate the programs in other prisons in the country. The World Bank also wanted to extend the educational programs being afforded the prisoners at Quencoro. Arnal had virtually no track record of photographing in prisons but the assignment opened his eyes and heart.
“I wanted to document the hardships and (if there was any to see) the positive aspects of prison life. To tell the story of the daily lives in a prison on the Altiplano of Peru. I did not anticipate what I was going to find at all, but once I was inside I was inspired by what I saw,” says Arnal.
Read our Q&A and see Arnal’s photographs large at Vantage: That Souvenir Andean Rug of Yours? Woven by a Prisoner in Peru, Probably
Darlene Escalante with her grandmother, Veronica, she is on a home visit that she earned at Walden House. Darlene talks about how both parents were in prison and affiliated with gangs. As young girl, she remembers going to Chino State Prison to visit her father. When her mother went to prison too, Darlene’s grandmother took her to make visits. “Both my grandmother and my mother were drug addicts. In 1989, my dad died after he changed his life, he was a nurse. He was gunned down and shot nine times. I want so much to change my life now, that’s why I came to Walden House. I don’t want to continue this horrible legacy that has existed in my family.” Los Angeles, 2008. From the series Re-entry.
IN CONVERSATION WITH JOSEPH RODRIGUEZ
If you know Joe, you know he’s not short of words. We covered a lot, but given Mark Ellen Mark‘s recent passing, I wanted to highlight this anecdote with which Joe closed the interview.
I was shy. I gotta tell you. I did it at ICP. Going to school there was amazing. I remember Salgado looking at my pictures, and all I could do was photograph my life as a taxi driver. I was really very shy, and I just I wound up shooting through the windows a lot—stuff on the street. It was pretty cinematic, but he saw the pictures, and he didn’t say anything. I fucking blew it. That killed me!
Then I took a workshop with Mary Ellen Mark, and she was the one who really kicked my ass. She said, “You don’t believe in who you are.” I got defensive and said “What do you mean?”
“Well, you don’t believe in yourself as a photographer,” she said. So, she gave me this exercise. “When you get up in the morning in your underwear stand in front of the mirror and tell yourself you’re a photographer for 15 minutes.”
Doesn’t that sound a little hokey to you? Believe it or not, your boy did it, and I began to slowly believe more in myself as a photographer.
Now, I tell my students the same. If you don’t go out with reverence when you say you want to photograph somebody, they’re not going to take you seriously. You’re going to get a snapshot, nothing more.
I found photography in a very amateur way; it gave me happiness, gladness, and made me want to produce something that I was interested and excited about. To this day, though, I’m still nervous when I’ve got to go out and photograph.
Read the full conversation at the ICP website.
Homicide Detectives Dobine and Cedric Pacific Division. From the series LAPD.
The Quiles family at home. Ramiro and Danny from Marianna Maravilla, with their mother Aida, and sister Maria. East Los Angeles, CA, 1993. From the series East Side Stories.
Rampart Officers search the house of a family of a man who was shot by a gang member in his living room. They check the building for the suspect. From the series LAPD.
Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, CA, 1993. From the series East Side Stories.
A Clarence Gang member is hit with five bullets from an automatic weapon on the night of a gang truce in East Los Angeles. His fellow gang members rush him to the hospital. From the series East Side Stories.
From the series Juvenile.
Rampart Division Officers detaining an arrested woman. From the series LAPD.
A family gathers the round of the coffin of Thomas Regalado III, who was killed by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting. East Los Angeles, CA 1992. From the series East Side Stories.
Officers responding to a domestic violence call. From the series LAPD.
The minors are leaving the facility and are chained down for transporting. San Jose Juvenile hall. San Jose, California 1999. From the series Juvenile.
From the series Juvenile.
Solutions. Prison reform debate rages around solutions. Even when everyone at a given table agrees on the problem, the propose solutions can differ widely. There are many, they overlap and they are often interdependent.
(For the record, here’s a sampler of my long list of forward steps we could take: Release old and infirm prisoners; sentence children as children, do away with the death penalty, scale back on LWOP (life Without Parole), implement radical and retroactive sentencing reductions for all drugs offenses and non-violent offenses, eradicate solitary confinement, treat addiction with hospitals not prisons, fund services for youth and families to avoid the use of custody later in life, drawdown the bail system, issue an amnesty for outstanding warrants for non-violent misdemeanors, ban the box, make criminal record expungement available as a right, scale back sentencing guidelines to that of the European average, make prisons smaller, provide prisoners nutritious food, subject all staff to yearly self-care and mental health checks, reinstitute Pell Grants for access to college for prisoners, continue all voluntary work programs but provide more than cents on the dollar wages, increase the number of family days and trailer visits, and PROVIDE EDUCATION)
What last solution, what education looks like differs hugely. Some prisoners need parenting classes, some only want practical training (welding, HVAC, electrical, plumbing etc). Other prisoners want business training. Then there are some that want liberal arts college classes.
A staggering number of prisoners need a GED.
In the film, we’ll meet students, teachers and staff. Referred to as the “crown jewel” of the SF Sheriff Department, enrollment in Five Keys Charter School is all but mandatory for incarcerated people who never received a high school diploma.
The problems for mandated GED programs are well known among prison and jail educators — it can be very difficult to engage a class of students with a high school curriculum when they did not respond to high school on the first round. This in-built tension makes any GED project in a prison or jail that more difficult as compared to other programs (with voluntary sign-up). Therefore, Five Keys represents a genuine innovation approaches to criminal justice.
Custodial staff maintain safety in a jail that houses members from a reported 22 active gangs. Meanwhile teachers follow a strict policy of not knowing their students’ criminal charges (in my experience, both common sense and common policy).
The Corridor follows lessons, learning, challenges and graduation in a school that won the 2014 award for best charter school in Northern California.
Filmmakers Annelise Wunderlich and Richard O’Connell began shooting in May 2013 and made over 100 hours of material. It took them over two years to negotiate access. Former Sheriff Michael Hennessey was the man who gave the green-light.
“Hennessey built his reputation on creating programs that go beyond what is mandated by law,” says Wunderlich and O’Connell. “He has said that what he enjoyed most about being the sheriff was to make and experiment with policy. His legacy lives on with the current staff.”
Wunderlich and O’Connell want to create “an immersive portrait that focuses on the inner workings of the school and the programs, capturing along the way conflicts, dilemmas and breakthroughs that arise in the course of carrying out its mission.”
They aren’t trying to make an argument for one type of custodial approach or another. They are interested in observing how education (in this particular case) is shoehorned into a criminal justice system to satisfy some of the system’s objectives — lowered recidivism, empowerment, self-realisation, reductions in violence.
I wish them luck.
Unbelievably, Five Keys has barely been replicated elsewhere. This is despite its measured achievements and despite growing research that education-based jail programs are the most effective way to reduce recidivism.
If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, Annelise Wunderlich will be speaking next Tuesday, 16th June at Bay Area Video Arts Coalition (BVAC).
“This edition of Storytelling Across Media,” reads the BVAC blurb, “brings together three innovative Bay Area media makers who will speak to the power storytelling holds for those “behind bars”. Although each panelist comes from a different artistic background (performance, documentary film, and fine art photography) they all share a commitment to helping incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals tell their stories and put their voices out in the world, whether through dance, film, or radio.”
Tuesday, June 16
2727 Mariposa Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94110
Tickets are $10 for BAVC Members, $15 general. Seating is limited. Buy tickets here.
My pal Nigel Poor will also be speaking.
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.
I had a quick chat with Sébastien van Malleghem about why he is crowdfunding a photobook following his three years photographing prisons in Belgium.
It’s over at Vantage: Making Photos Inside To Bring The Stories Out
In short, this:
“The book is, for me, the closure of the story. Photographs must end on paper. That’s how the medium exists — in print. On paper, with full context, you can touch the pictures, understand the whole story. Things fade away on the Internet. Clicked, Like, then something else. Good photos in a book stick to your head. The largest part of my photo story will be exclusive to the book.”