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Earlier this year, Zora Murff contacted me and asked if would write some words for his debut book Corrections. Of course, I jumped at the chance. I’m a huge fan of the work. I interviewed Murff at length in January 2014 and I wrote about Corrections for the Marshall Project in December 2014.
Corrections is a collection of images made by Murff made between 2012 and 2015, while he worked as a Tracker for Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Interspersed with his portraits of teens and still life studies of monitoring equipment are anonymised mugshots.
Today, the book was made available for pre-order. Books ship December 7th.
Throughout Corrections, Murff is investigating the psychology, the coercion and the effects/costs/benefits of control. We’re dealt a teasing glimpse of how electronic monitoring works for the state and niggles against presumed natural freedoms. These frictions play out against the hormonal whirl of teenagers trying to find their place in the world.
“By reconsidering the role that I played in the lives of the kids I worked with, I began to acknowledge the burden that comes with tasking young men and women with continued complicity,” writes Murff. “My stance as a consequence kept our relationships in a state of flux ranging from stable to tenuous – a constant motion mirroring the discord that develops between the system’s intentions and outcomes. Through employing ideas of anonymity, voyeurism, and introspection, Corrections is an examination of youth experience in the system, the role images play in defining someone who is deemed a criminal, and how the concepts of privacy and control may affect their future.”
Murff provided services to youths who were convicted of crimes and were monitored while on probation.
“Juveniles in my charge were asked to comply with services which may include: electronic monitoring, therapies, drug screening, and community service; it is my responsibility to have continual contact with them to ensure these expectations are met,” he says.
Electronic Monitoring (EM) is becoming more and more common. EM is characterised–by its supporters–as a more humane, less forceful and cheaper alternative to incarceration. However, it’s use and long-term effects (especially for children) have been the subject of relatively little study or public attention.
“These services, which allow juveniles to stay in their homes, show a higher rate of success than strict incarceration. Although community-based services are built to foster a collaborative relationship between juveniles and service providers, attaining the actualization of teamwork becomes problematic when juveniles feel that they have done nothing wrong, are victims of circumstance, or do not fully understand why they have committed a crime,” says Murff.
My essay/introduction focuses on the business practices, markets and language behind the electronic monitoring industry and how this boom sector of criminal justice may or may not be the panacea law enforcement hopes for.
“The system has been put in place to provide rehabilitation, but it is far from being a straightforward process,” writes Murff. “Many influences outside of the youths’ control such as education, socioeconomic status, and race all play a role in whether or not a youth reoffends — all of these factors possessing the propensity to lead them to extended periods of incarceration in the juvenile system or to involvement with the criminal justice system as an adult.”
I’ll share my full essay (with Murff’s photos) in the new year, but at this moment I urge you to order a copy.
Murff and his publisher Ain’t Bad have manufactured a beautiful object about a crucially current and unexamined topic of criminal justice.
Zora J Murff is an MFA student in Studio Art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Zora attended the University of Iowa where he studied Photography and holds a BS in Psychology from Iowa State University. His work has appeared in The British Journal of Photography, WIRED, VICE Magazine and PDN’s Emerging Photographer Magazine. Zora was named a LensCulture 2015 Top 50 Emerging Talent, a 2014 Photolucida Critical Mass finalist, and is part of the Midwest Photographers Project through the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Zora is a member of Strange Fire Collective with Jess T. Dugan, Hamidah Glasgow, and Rafael Soldi.
Title: Corrections, 2015
Introduction: Pete Brook, Prison Photography
Size: 9.75 x 7.75 in
Page Count: 80 pages, 40 images
Publisher: Aint-Bad Editions
Edition Size: 450, signed and numbered
Print: 8×10 signed and numbered edition of 50
Start shipping on December 7th. Pre-order now.
Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Portraits of Purpose series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
ARE WE HITTING PEAK-PRISON-ART-SHOW?
Of course, I’m being provocative, but the rise and rise of prison criticism and reflection (and commodification) in the cultural sphere bears consideration.
Here is not an exhaustive list but a few examples — Life After Death and Elsewhere, curated by Robin Paris and Tom Williams at apexart; To Shoot A Kite curated by Yaelle Amir at the CUE Foundation; Voices Of Incarceration at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles; Try Youth As Youth curated by Meg Noe at David Weinberg in Chicago; Site Unseen: Incarceration curated by Sheila Pinkel; The Cell and the Sanctuary put on by the William James Association in Santa Cruz, CA; and my own Prison Obscura.
This weekend, Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives will end its 10-week run at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art at Chaffey College in Southern California. Inside/Outside is a relatively large survey of prisoner art, prison photography and visual activism that brings together the work of Sandow Birk, Camilo Cruz, Amy Elkins, Alyse Emdur, Ashley Hunt, Spencer Lowell, Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), Jason Metcalf, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Kristen S. Wilkins, Steve Shoffner, the Counter Narrative Society and students at the California Institute for Women.
It’s a great exhibition.
As many of the names in Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives are familiar, I felt a review by me would be redundant; it’d be dominated by applause to the committed artists I see as asking the right questions … because they’re the questions I’ve ask too.
Instead, I wanted to focus on the recent uptick in fine art exhibitions orbiting the issues of prisons.
Rebecca Trawick, Director of the Wignall Museum and co-curator of Inside/Outside and I were in touch a while before I realised that this should be what we should discuss. And how the cultural production of art around, and about, the prison industrial complex propels, inspires, derails (and much else besides) dialogue about mass incarceration in America.
Kindly, Trawick and her co-curator, Misty Burruel, Associate Professor of Art at Chaffey College accepted my invite to answer some questions. The Q&A is peppered with artworks from Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives.
Scroll down for our discussion.
Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Theater of Souls series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Why did you make this exhibition?
Rebecca Trawick (RT): Incarceration was an issue that I kept returning to in my research.
As a curator, I’m specifically interested in shedding light on important but difficult social issues through the lens of contemporary art. I love how artists can take an unwieldly topic and consider it thoughtfully, often personally, and in really compelling ways that allow the viewer a chance at transformation, or expansion of, thought and perspective.
Because we work at an institution of higher education, these exhibitions become a safe space to start difficult discussions about issues such as incarceration, and they become a tool to educate and inform. This kind of exhibition (if done well) can demonstrate the value of art to transform ideas, minds, and communities.
Misty Burruel (MB): Because it was a challenge. On the heels of a number of incarceration exhibitions in southern California that focused on works by incarcerated artists and artists confronting the criminal justice system, it was appropriate to look at it through the lens of education.
We are confronted daily with students that have either been incarcerated or have family who are incarcerated. It was time to have difficult discussions about the role of education in the penal system, our responsibility as citizens to each other, and how parolees reintegrate into yet another system.
Spencer Lowell, La Palma prison, Arizona
PP: Is incarceration a “hot topic” right now? Why?
RT: As Misty and I mention in our remarks in the printed takeaway, we seem to be experiencing a unique convergence of policy discussions in the US as well as popular culture interests, so we feel like the conversation is already happening in certain circles.
We hope our exhibition helps to expand the discussion and dig a little deeper into some of the topics looked at in contemporary documentary (think the recent Vice episode, Fixing the System, in which President Obama – the first sitting US President to do so – visited a federal prison) to the popularity of Orange is the New Black.
MB: Jenji Kohan’s, Orange is the New Black, portrayal of incarcerated women created a splash on Netflix and revealed through mass media the complexities of a system within a system. The women were all too real and relatable. We live in the Inland Empire and have two prisons at our footstep.
PP: California Institute for Men and California Institute for Women.
Jason Metcalf, Cheeseburger, French Fries, Iced Tea (Dwight Adanandus), 2013, archival pigment print, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
PP: Is Inside/Outside about incarceration or is it about the representation of incarceration?
RT: The exhibition is about the many issues surrounding incarceration that we hope our viewers will consider more deeply after viewing the work on view. Issues include the value of rehabilitation behind bars; juveniles in justice; death penalty, segregation, prison labor, and isolation as systems of control, among others.
PP: How did you select the artists?
RT: The Wignall Museum mainly draws from Southern California for practical reasons–funding limits us to local pickups mainly. In some cases (Kristin S. Wilkins, for example) agreed to ship the work to us so we were able to include her. We’re often limited regionally, which explains the SoCal bias. We would have loved to include works outside our region, if possible. (see next question for a list of some we would have included if possible.) The one thing I remind myself is that we’re not trying to be essentialist in what we portray or explore, but rather offer some really amazing work to assist us in digging a little deeper into the state of incarceration today.
MB: We are in a human warehousing gridlock. The works collectively focus on how the system of control does not discriminate (women, men, and youth detention).
Kristen S. Wilkins, Untitled #10. From the series ‘Supplication’ (2009-2014) “Grand Ave. by Shiloh (Cemetery). Left side of water fountain. Has colorful wreath with flowers. It is where my son is @. He is the best thing that happened to me in my life. He was my world.”
PP: Were there any artists or works out there that you’d wanted in the show but couldn’t for whatever reason?
RT: Yes! Many. The list includes Deborah Luster, Dread Scott, Jackie Sumell’s The House That Herman Built, and Julie Green’s Last Supper installation all immediately come to mind. There were many others, but those three stand out for me.
MB: We wanted to have more guest speakers, but funding always seems to be a hurdle. We can certainly look at the issue, but we really wanted to talk about it.
PP: Really? From the outside that you had a phenomenal amount of programming. I applaud you. How important was programing around the exhibition?
RT: Programming is critical. Because we’re limited in many ways in terms of what we can show – due to spatial and fiscal restrictions – programming allows us to bring in experts in the field to further contextualize and expand the themes of the exhibition. It also allows community engagement and for other voices to join in the conversation, often in a public forum. That ability can’t be underestimated, I think.
MB: When the discussing an exhibition about incarceration we were most focused on programming. Rebecca and I are collaborative by nature and we were able to find others who were very interested in asking difficult questions within their own disciplines (Sociology, Philosophy, Correctional Science, Administration of Justice).
© Sheila Pinkel
PP: I’ve been asked a number of times “Who are you (a white, cis-gender, male, college graduate) to speak to these issues?” Every time by a highschooler — God, I love them. Were you ever challenged over your role and/or position while putting Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives together?
RT: As a curator at an institution situated on the campus of a Community College I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to explore a wide array of topics in our exhibitions and to look from a place of diversity – diversity of media, content, viewpoint, race, ethnicity, etc. – and through the lens of contemporary art, but it is critical that we do so in a way that is thoughtful and multifaceted.
Philosophically we try to schedule our exhibitions and programs in a way that expand outside of our own limited perspectives. We also try to use multiple guest voices – guest curators, guest speakers, etc. to expand the discourse around an exhibition. But the long and the short of it is, I try to always be conscious of my privilege and to present diverse voices. That said, my own experience/perspective was never called into question during the exhibition planning or implementation phase.
MB: The college has wholeheartedly embraced the exhibition and its programming.
Amy Elkins. 26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was), 2011. Portrait of a man twenty-six years into his death row sentence where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.
You’ve said the response so far has been positive. More than other Wignall shows? More among the student body, or beyond? How do you measure response/success?
RT: This exhibition definitely has seemed to link to something that is personal and relatable for many of our students, faculty and community visitors, evident by the verbal responses and reactions we’ve seen in the galleries. We’ve held a number of panel discussions, engagement activities, a film screening, and dozens of tours. Unequivocally, discussions always seem to lead to the personal and comments suggest that the ability to discuss a somewhat taboo topic has been relevant.
MB: This work is incredibly personal and relevant to the Inland Empire.
PP: Can you see the successes and failures of the show already? Or is it too soon for that type of assessment?
RT: Success can be measured in qualitative and quantitative ways … (as of course, can failure). Due to the high level of programming, and the sheer number of student tours we’ve conducted, we can see an increased level of engagement. Our visitor numbers are up, the number of students speaking up during tours has increased a great deal, and the unsolicited feedback from students/faculty/staff we’re getting has been remarkable.
We also ask all students who visit us as part of a tour to fill out a short survey. Results won’t be tabulated until the close of the exhibition, but I feel the results will mirror the anecdotal evidence we’re seeing. As a curator, however, I’m always thinking about what we can improve upon – from the curatorial practice, to layout and installation, to printed collateral and programming…reflection is key.
MB: I think the museum does an amazing job of allowing artists to ask difficult questions and explore relevant social and political issues.
The Wignall Museum hosted workshops and discussion led by Mabel Negrete and the Counter Narratives Society.
PP: Anything you’d like to add?
RT: We hope that Inside/Outside and the many other excellent exhibitions and artists looking at incarceration with a critical perspective will encourage the questioning of the system as it is, and that it might even encourage engagement in our communities in ways that can make real change in the world.
Up against the wall, tied to a post, kneeling at a ditch, hundreds of WWI allied soldiers were killed for desertion. Photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews visited 23 sites of execution and made photos at the same time of day and the same time of year.
Shot At Dawn is halting and haunting.
I just wrote about the series for Vantage: WW1 Allied Soldiers Remembered In Photos Made At Sites Of Execution:
Particularly on this day, Armistice Day, Memorial Day, it is worth meditating on Shot At Dawn. The history of photography is indelibly tied to that of war. Too often we’ve seen graphic images from which we turn away and too often photography has been used as a tool by murderous regimes. Yet, we must seek out photographic projects that bring context, calm assessment, forgiveness of ourselves and empathy for our enemies. It’s take great skill to make relevant and poetic images about death that resonate; it takes greater skill to illuminate the suppressed personal histories of the past’s forgotten victims. Shot At Dawn is an artwork for the ages.
The book Shot at Dawn is published by Ivorypress.
Read the full piece: WW1 Allied Soldiers Remembered In Photos Made At Sites Of Execution.
I wanted to share with you an essay I wrote for the publication that accompanied Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility a project by artist collective ERNEST at c3:initiative, in Portland, Oregon (September 2015).
The essay, titled Never Neutral, considers the drawings of one-time-California-prisoner Ernest Jerome DeFrance. I wander and wonder one way and then the other. For all their looseness, DeFrance’s drawing might be the tightest and most urgent description of solitary confinement, we have. They come from down in the hole.
Pen marks rattle around on the page like people do when they are put in boxes.
I ventured away from photography here. Got a bit speculative. Have a read. See what you think. See what you see.
Power breeds more power. The unerringly-certain power belonging to, say, nation states, financial posses, military strategists and total institutions, rides roughshod over opposition. The assault upon bodies, ideas and ecology inherent to the process of accumulating power is not always a conscious assault. As a power grows, opponents shrink, relatively. Harder to acknowledge, and even see, opponents that recede from power’s view are easier to crush.
Prisons have crushed their fair share. For the past four decades, the United States’ prison systems have grown exponentially. They have, at times, and in some places, grown unchecked. Since 1975, the number of prisoners has increased five-fold (and the number of women prisoners increased eight-fold). The U.S. spends $80 billion annually to warehouse 2.3 million citizens. In any given year 13 million individuals are cycled through one jail or prison or another. The prison industrial complex has come to dwarf education budgets. It has, in California, battered teachers unions. It removed non-custodial sentencing policy from the table for many a long year. It disavows notions of treatment, restoration or forgiveness. The prisons industrial complex laid to waste many of the key social, moral, political, environmental and psychological underpinnings of community.
In the face of such tumorous growth, common-sense opposition has been edged out and swallowed up. Sporadically, however, narratives that counter the fear, bullying and rhetoric of the prison industrial complex and its beneficiaries capture attention — narratives from advocacy, journalism, personal correspondence, legal briefs, FOI requests, jailhouse law, contraband and whistleblower testimonies. Art, too, has consistently spoken—or sketched—truth to power. Art is part of the resistance.
Prisoner-made art is, mostly, made for loved ones beyond the walls; prison art rarely gets seen by anyone beyond its intended recipient.
Given the sheer volume of jailhouse artworks made every day, it may seem strange to isolate, for this essay, a single prisoner’s sketches for critique. There is, however, something profound in the works of Ernest Jerome DeFrance that set them apart. Prison-art (pencil portraiture, greeting cards, DIY-calligraphy, envelope doodles) tends to reveal the circumstances of its production; that is, it reveals the facts and parameters of the prison system (limited resources, distant recipients, censor-safe subject matter).
A lot of prison part is personal and figurative, but DeFrance’s work is abstract, loose and reveals not only the circumstances of production but the brutalizing effects of those circumstances. For example, a run-of-the-mill prisoner-drawn portrait of a child — and the hope it may embody — is made in spite of the system, and a child’s innocence is something outside and beyond any corrupted system. Removing sentiment from the equation, a prisoners’ card for her child is an established, safe, non-controversial, and relatively unpoliced gesture. By contrast, DeFrance’s drawings operate outside of the routine prison art economy; they are untethered, non-figurative and non-occasional statements that are difficult to anchor and understand.
DeFrance’s loops and swirls are the feedback of a maddening prison system.
DeFrance made these images while incarcerated in the California prison system. During that time he spent extended periods of time in solitary confinement. He submitted these works to Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights (UC Berkeley, Fall 2014) an exhibition produced by Architects, Designer and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) an anti-death penalty group that also argues against prolonged solitary confinement.
Architect Raphael Sperry, founder of ADSPR, led a highly visible media campaign for the adoption of language in the American Institute of Architects code of ethics prohibiting the design of spaces that physically and psychologically torture — namely, execution chambers and solitary confinement cells. Why? Because extreme isolation can lead to permanent psychological impairment comparable to that of traumatic brain injury. 
In an attempt to reconnect the most isolated American citizens with the outside world and in order to get some reliable information about solitary confinement, the call for entries for Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights requested drawings of solitary cells by prisoners in solitary cells. Of the 14 men who submitted work, most stuck to the brief and drew plans or annotated elevations. DeFrance sent dozens of frantic nest-like lattices.
I defy anyone to say that DeFrance’s works don’t encapsulate the same terror as the to-scale, measured, line-drawn renderings by fellow exhibitors. It is not even clear if DeFrance had completed these works. What is complete? What is a start and what is an end … to a line, to a thought, to a stint in a box when the lights are always on, the colors are always the same, and sensory deprivation perverts time, taking you outside of yourself?
Solitary confinement “undermines your ability to register and regulate emotion,” says Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The appropriateness of what you’re thinking and feeling is difficult to index, because we’re so dependent on contact with others for that feedback. And for some people, it becomes a struggle to maintain sanity.”  Chronic apathy, depression, depression, irrational anger, total withdrawal and despair are common symptoms resulting from long-term isolation. 
All we know is that DeFrance considered these works finished enough to mail out.
Like a Rorschach Test for the horror-inclined, DeFrance’s works trigger all sorts of associations — Munch’s The Scream, Mondrian’s trees, Maurice Sendak’s darker side, Pierre Soulages‘ everyday side and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away character No Face. I can go on. There are knuckles, clenched fists, scarecrows and magic carpets. I see bulging eyes. I see that optical illusion of the old witch’s nose. Or is the neckline of a young woman in necklace and furs?
Reading into DeFrance’s art with ones own visual memory is, admittedly, an exercise fraught with complications. Scanning work for something familiar is to lurch toward inner-biases. How does one land, or explain, connection with this work?
DeFrance’s art defies easy definition. These are not the crying clowns, the soaring eagles, the scantily-clad women or the Harley Davidson cliches common of prison art. These are … well … you decide. Faces, collars, cliffs, ropes, cliff faces, tourniquets, capes and caps? Is that a helmet? Of a riot cop? Of a cell-extraction specialist? Of the law and that which metes out judgement, retribution, pain and accountability? Or is it a divine shroud? Or is it a torture hood? 
On any given day in the United States, 80,000 people are in solitary. In California, solitary is a 22½-hour lockdown in a 6-by-9-foot cell with a steel door and no windows. Juan E. Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, told the UN General Assembly in June 2011 that solitary confinement is torture and assaults the mental health of prisoners. “It is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.” Mendez recommends stays of no more than 15-days in isolation. Preceding this, in 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a bipartisan national task force, recommended abolishing long-term isolation reporting that stints longer than 10-days offered no benefits and instead caused substantial harm to prisoners, staff and the general public.  Some Americans have been in solitary for 15, 20, 25 years or more.
If a drawing “is simply a line going for a walk” like Paul Klee said then DeFrance’s drawings pace and circle the paper as he would his 54 square feet. One’s eyesight deteriorates rapidly in solitary. Denied any variation in depth-of-field, sharpness and acuity are lost. In a state of looseness and unknowing, gray walls throb and the mind conjures its own forms. Amorphous beings pulse within DeFrance’s work. Solid shape abandons us. Are we looking at shadows of ghosts? Scale suffers too. These forms are as large as you are brave enough to imagine.
Inasmuch as these images are indicative of solitary confinement experience, they are indicative of all prisons in the United States. “Every terrorist regime in the world uses isolation to break people’s spirits.” said bell hooks in 2002. hooks was talking about social exclusion but the phrase applies as easily to physical confinement. Indeed, with the exception of total-surveillance enclaves (where control needn’t be material) social exclusion and extreme incarceration tend go go hand-in-hand anyway. DeFrance’s works are a commentary, from within, of the philosophy and architectures we’ve perfected as an ever-more-punitive society. No other nation in the world uses solitary to the degree the United Sates does, and no other civilization in the history of man has locked up as greater proportion of its citizens. 
“Solitary confinement is a logical result of mass incarceration,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, psychologist and esteemed solitary specialist.  The demand for cells to house those handed harsher, longer sentences resulted in a huge prison boom since 1975. Still, these facilities could not adequately accommodate the vast number of people being locked up. Overcrowding gripped all states and any mandates to rehabilitate and provide activities for prisoners were all but abandoned. Haney reasons that extreme isolation resulted directly from prisons attempting to maintain power. He says, “Faced with this influx of prisoners, and lacking the rewards they once had to manage and control prisoner behavior, turned to the use of punishment. One big punishment is the threat of long-term solitary confinement.” 
Kalief Browder’s suicide in June 2015 brought national attention back to the issue of solitary confinement. He was kept in Rikers Island for 3 years without charge for an alleged theft of a backpack. Kalief didn’t kill himself, a broken New York courts and jail system did.  Ever since the California Prison Hunger Strikes, beginning in 2011, solitary had been the main topic on which to hang debate about mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. The unforgiving logic of solitary confinement policies is the same as that which has led to thousands of in-custody deaths, so-called “voluntary suicide” and officer-involved killings.
The Black Lives Matter movement has successfully tied over-zealous community policing, to stop-and-frisk, to restraint techniques, to custody conditions, to a bail system that abuses the poor, to extended and unconstitutional pretrial detention, and to solitary confinement in its devastating critique of a structurally racist nexus of law enforcement.
#SayHerName. Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas; Jonathan Saunders in Mississippi; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Charly Leundeu Keunang in Los Angeles; Sgt. James Brown in an El Paso jail; James M. Boyd in the hills of Albuquerque; John Crawford III in a WalMart in Ohio; Walter Scott in North Charleston; Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and thousands of more people over the past 12 months alone killed by law enforcement.
So corrupted and violent is the prison system that one wonders if it can be fixed at all or whether it should be completely disassembled. Neil Barksy, chairman and founder of The Marshall Project, recently argued for the total closure of Rikers Island . I am often asked if I think there exists people who deserve to be locked up and should be locked up. There’s a presumption in the question that the prison is a neutral factor. And there is a presumption, too, that people don’t change. But a prison is never neutral. In fact, most of the time prisons are very negative factors int he equation. Prisons damage people severely. Mass incarceration has made us less safe, not more safe. At what point and in what places can we confidently state that a prisoner’s violence (or the threat of violence that is attached upon them) is his own?
Conversely, at what point must we accept that the prison itself has caused anti-sociability and incorrigible behavior? Why are we surprised at the notion that a system built on threat and violence creates prisoners who incorporate threat and violence into their survival? Prisons create, often, people who fit better in prison than in free society — most end up institutionalized and docile and a few violent and unpredictable. Ultimately, no one can pass judgement on a prisoner because when hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are serving extremely long sentences or Life Without Possibility Of Parole, they exist in a system that molds them to our worst assumptions.
How far are we willing to go to protect ourselves against our worst fears and demons of our own creation? The first of many things I saw when viewing DeFrance’s was an echo of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. According to Roman myth, Saturn was told he his son would overthrow him. To prevent this, Saturn ate his children moments after each was born. His sixth son, Jupiter, was shuttled to safety on the island of Crete by Saturn’s wife Ops. Unwilling to surrender his absolute power, Saturn lost his mind. Goya is one of many artists to depict the scene, but none did it with such gross frenzy.
Goya had watched the Spanish monarchy destroy the country through arrogance. In his despondent old age, Goya reflected upon the darker aspects of society and human condition, and he played with notions surrounding power and the way a power treats it’s own charges. The prison industrial complex devours humans. It relies on bodies. Private prison companies forecast profits based upon toughening legislation to fill their facilities. Our laws have looked to warehousing instead of healing, and our society has travelled too far, for too long, into territories of massive social inequality. Art is part of the resistance and sometimes exposes a system that is programmed to deny witness; sometimes art can give those outside prisons a glimpse of the torture inside.
To see Ernest Jerome DeFrance’s art is to look into the belly of the beast.
 Atul Gawande, ‘Hellhole‘, New Yorker, March 30, 2009.
 Craig Haney, ‘Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement‘, Crime & Delinquency 49 (2003). ps. 124–156.
 Stuart Grassian, ‘The Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement‘, Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 22 (2006). p.325.
 The four men in charge of reconstructing Abu Ghraib for US military use were hired shills who had overseen disfunctional and scandal-ridden departments of correction the U.S. in the decades prior to 2003. Abu Ghraib was not an abnormal situation; it was a reliable facsimile of the abusive systems routinely in operation in the homeland. They four men were Lane McCotter, former warden of the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, former cabinet secretary for the New Mexico DOC, John Armstrong, former director of the Connecticut DOC. Terrry Stewart, former director of the Arizona DOC and his top deputy Chuck Ryan. View more at Democracy Now!
 Confronting Confinement [PDF] Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons:
 For many reasons, the widespread use of isolation in American prisons is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past 20 years. Some prisoners have been kept down in the hole for decades. The controversial use of long-term solitary confinement is one of the most pressing issues of the American prison system currently in public debate. Much of the debate results from the attention drawn to California—and to the SHU at Pelican Bay in particular—by the California Prisoner Hunger Strike.
 Terry Kupers, in the keynote address at the Strategic Convening on Solitary Confinement and Human Rights, sponsored by the Midwest Coalition on Human Rights, November 9, 2012, Chicago.
 Brandon Keim, ‘Solitary Confinement: The Invisible Torture‘, Wired.com
 Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley Debug and pioneer of Participatory Defense makes this argument very well.
 Neil Barksy, ‘Shut Down Rikers Island‘, New York Times, July 15, 2015.
I just wrote, for Vantage a review titled The Portraits In This Book Are Only Visible When You Hold It In Your Hands of Carina Hesper’s yet-to-be-made book, Like a Pearl In My Hand.
The book is printed with thermochromatic ink (yes, the same stuff used to make 90s Generra Hypercolour Tshirts) and so it changes from pitch black in a resting state to emerging portraits of blind Chinese orphans the next.
I’ve never seen anything like it. Of course, the book hasn’t made full production yet, so I’ve not held on in my hands, but the dummy and the vids look impressive.
The degrees to which Like a Pearl In My Hand plays with metaphor and reconfigures our use of sight and touch further distinguishes Hesper’s book.
Disability is a hidden problem. Blindness prevents sight. By literal description or by strategic manipulation, everyone is in the dark. But when sight is denied, other senses compensate. Hesper plays with this truth.
Hesper is currently raising Kickstarter funds to get the project into book form (it’s already shown at numerous festivals as single prints on the wall.)
Read my review in full and see more pictures: The Portraits In This Book Are Only Visible When You Hold It In Your Hands.
Uganda, May 2010, from the series “Law and Order.” Chief Justice Benjamin J. Odoki is his office in Kampala. Like other judges, he has a huge backlog. Judges are appointed by the President on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, with the approval of Parliament.
When our Skype call connected, Jan Banning was rubbing his brow. He was trying desperately to chase down statistics with which to give his three years of photographs, across four continents, context.
Banning has, since 2012, worked on a project called Law and Order looking at the institutions–prisons included–that result from different philosophies and systems of justice. Banning recently successfully crowdfunded a book which includes photographs from four nations: France, Uganda, Colombia and the United States.
Banning spends a lot of time traveling, but more time in his studio synthesizing all his images and their meaning. While he labors, he listens to everything from Frank Zappa to The Kinks to African beats.
Jan lit a cigarette, apologized for the disregard for his health, but said the stress of hunting stats required some nicotine to take the edge off. I wanted to know how he viewed different prisons from around the world, how they compared, and what it was like to make photographs within closed facilities.
And so we began …
Kirinya Main Prison, Uganda, 2013. Uganda’s second maximum security prison, in Jinja, was built for 336 prisoners. It now holds 922 prisoners. Here, a primary level biology class is taught by a prisoner sentenced to death, known because of his uniform is white in color.
Q & A
What’s up Jan? How’s the work? The book?
I try to make work that contributes to the public debate. The book will include statistics about the long term development, trends and crime rates for the four countries I photographed, but also for other relevant countries. ‘Relevant’ in two senses: for one, Holland should be involved. Secondly, Germany, UK, Canada are relevant because they are industrialized too.
We can make fair comparisons?
To a degree. And make contrasts. Also, possibly Norway because of its extremely liberal prison policies. And possibly Japan because of its really low murder rates.
An American audience will find this book interesting — to really see, in line graphs, how much higher the levels of incarceration are in the U.S. compared to a lot of Western European countries and how that relates to recidivism rates. Finding reliable sources on murder rates, incarceration rates, recidivism rates and remand rates is the big problem. But they’re essential.
I have. I’ve been looking mostly in Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United Nations and the World Health Organization. These websites are incredibly confusing. You can find one year but not another. For example, U.S. murder rates starting in 1900, but the sources are so ridiculously confusing I cannot judge whether they are reliable or not and I do not want to include sources that are not verified.
Premier president Mme Dominique Lottin heads the business of the court at the Palais de Justice, Douai, Nord/Pas de Calais.
Holding Cell #1, Dekalb County Jail, Atlanta. Built in 1995, with around 3,000 prisoners it is the biggest jail in Georgia.
Two court writers of the court, Cartagena. Colombia, Sept. 2011, from the series “Law and Order”. Gina Marcola Perez and Mahira Julio Amigo finish the paperwork and processes that still go forward under law #600 even though the law has been abolished. Courts in Colombia have a huge backlog.
How did you decide on the four countries–Colombia, France, Uganda and the U.S.?
I started with Uganda as because I had good connections. A friend of mine was working in the Dutch Embassy in Kampala. It was kind of an experiment to see if I could visualize this whole thing—a visual comparative analysis of law and order—in a let’s say, different or interesting way. After Uganda, I concluded that it would be tough but interesting.
Uganda, May 2010, from the series “Law and Order”. Kakira Police Station, Jinja Town. Police Constable #11431, Ndalira John, 54. He earns 205,000 shillings (54 Euro/US$72) a month.
The chapel at Putnam County Jail in Eatonton, Georgia, doubling as sick bay.
I had some private courses in criminal justice from a professor here in my home town Utrecht. He said I should contact the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg which is the top European institution on criminal justice. The director there advised me. I wanted to a geographical distribution so it’s four different continents. I wanted to include the two major lines of justice so the civil system in which France played a big role. And secondly, the common law system, a more Anglo-Saxon system. Of course I could have gone to the UK where it originated but it made more sense to pick the U.S.
A more extreme application of that type of law?
In a way. Certainly I wanted a State that still employed the death penalty. I ended up in Georgia basically because I had the best contacts there.
Ah, I thought it would be more targeted than that because Georgia leads the way in many of the wrong statistics—disproportionate numbers of minorities, high levels of female incarceration, poor folks locked up too.
Those things played a role, but so did the practical side.
First, I actually tried Texas because it kills the largest number of people but I just couldn’t get access. Then I saw that Georgia holds a larger percentage of people under control of the whole judicial system than anywhere else on earth. Approximately 1 in 13 adults is either in prison or in jail or in parole or on bail in Georgia.
Colombia is in Latin America. It’s a big country and it had high murder rates for a long period. Uganda seemed interesting because of its colonial heritage of common law whereas Colombia is from the Spanish sphere of influence.
Then, there are the religious-based justice systems such as Sharia. But after talking to several specialists, I learnt that real Sharia in the criminal justice system is only practiced in Saudi Arabia and Iran and they are not exactly easy to access.
The communist system is not easily accessible either and I didn’t want to fall into a kind of PR trap by trying China, so unfortunately that had to be left out.
Canning greens at a canning factory at which the workers are prisoners of the State of Georgia. Of the 1500 prisoners at the medium security Rogers State Prison near Reidsville, 350 work. Some unpaid. The products of the Georgia Correctional Industries manufacture plants, food production and processing factories are sold to government agencies. This plant producing one million cans of vegetables per year.
Disciplinary cell in the Grand Quartier of the Maison d’arrêt de Bois-d’Arcy, in France, was opened in 1980. Designed with a capacity of 500 prisoners, it now houses 770.
Luzira Women’s Prison in Kampala, Uganda, 2013. 370 women and 30 children (of convicted mothers) are locked up here.
Can you go name all the different prisons you visited?
Oh my goodness, that’s a long list! In Uganda I went to ten prisons including the big ones of Luzira, Jinja and Luzira Women’s Prison. Four in France after struggling to get access for two years. Five in the U.S. of which three will be included in the book. I’ve still to make a return visit to Colombia to photograph more but it’s as many, if not more, than in other countries.
Part of reception area of Luzira Upper Prison, Kampala, Uganda, 2013. Here, uniforms are adjusted for new prisoners. Luzira Upper Prison is Uganda’s biggest maximum security prison. Built to accommodate 600, the prison held in March 2013) 3114 prisoners.
Clearly you have a broad interest in systems and institutions of justice. How did you arrive at prisons, specifically?
My project Bureaucratics looked at one of the three pillars of the state: the executive. Law and Order looks at the judicial, the second pillar of the trias politica.
And the third pillar?
How do different societies handle crime? Police are involved. Courts involved. But I am fascinated by prisons. I studied of history so I’ve always gravitated toward a more structural analysis. As a photographer, I’ve been really interested in the news or in short term of events and developments.
San Diego Women’s Prison (Carcel de Mujeres de San Diego), the city of Cartagena, Colombia, Sept. 2011. From the series “Law and Order”. Rosa Martinez Meza (left, age 20) is serving ten years on aggravated criminal conspiracy charges. She studied Marketing and sales. Eliana Sofia Gonzalez (right, age 23), is still under investigation, accused of attempted extortion. She studied business administration and is self-employed. They share their room with ten other women.
Uganda Chief Magistrate’s Court, Buganda Rd, 2013.
You’re taking the longer view. An overview. So what are prisons supposed to do?
They can function an instruments of revenge for society, to punish. But as instruments of correction and as instruments to bring down crime rates, I don’t think they work.
French prisons are no hotels but they had the most humane atmosphere. U.S. prisons, in Georgia, were horrible. Of course prisons in Uganda are primitive and there’s a lot of bad things that can be said about them—corruption and bad personnel. But prisons in Uganda still gave me a much more humane impression than those in the U.S. Even in the maximum security prisons in Uganda, I was allowed to roam around freely. I had some nice relaxed chats with prisoners, even the most heavily sentenced prisoners would be patting somebody on the shoulders.
The maximum security prison in Jackson, GA had a horrible atmosphere and I think that is noticeable in the photographs. For example, if you look at the photographs from Uganda, it’s earth colors, it just looks nicer, now of course that can be deceitful, but in this case I don’t think it is. In the U.S., it is all steel and concrete, like an ice cold industry. You walk around with a couple of old marines who are heavily armed and wear bullet proof vests. Prisoners had to turn around and face the walls as I passed them in the corridor and that brings me to the conclusion that the U.S. was really extreme.
Court, Quartier Maison Central, Centre Penitentiaire de Lille-Annoeullin, France, 2013.
Colombia, Sept. 2011, from the series “Law and Order”. “Establecimiento Carcelario de Reclusion Especial” in Sabana Larga is a special facility with only 100 prisoners, 18 guards and 5 administrators. Over half of the prisoners at the small medium-security prison are officials who have been convicted or are under investigation i.e. governors, mayors, police officers, judges. Leonel Silvera Padilla (20) is under investigation for theft.
Latin American prisons have a reputation for being overcrowded and in squalor.
At first they allowed me into relatively mild prisons in 2011. Recently, however, I went to some disgusting facilities in Colombia. At times it felt like I was making propaganda for the prison authority. It’s a long story I cover here.
Do you think as an Dutch photographer, an outsider, you are able to tell reveal something new about U.S. prisons to the American public?
I made a photograph of a guy who is bathing in a jail. Obviously I would never use that photograph in a news context for which one photograph is being used to illustrate the Georgia prisons or jails. However, as part of a series it finds it’s place.
Meeting of committee of the “lifers” — men with a life sentence, at Georgia State Prison which is a medium security prison near Reidsville with 1500 prisoners.
I think my photographs give two different messages at the same time. There’s a photograph of a group of lifers that are being trained to advise other prisoners. Management matters are playing a big role there (the prison is probably trying to keep the lifers occupied there so they are not coming up with ways to make life hard for the guards).
And use them to bring other prisoners around to a more compliant set of behaviors.
True. So, something is being done for people, but it is in the surroundings which look like an old factory. I’m trying to come up with a nuanced picture and to paint a confusing picture and I hope that that will somehow contribute or stimulate people to ask questions Confusion is my main purpose.
In some ways, it’s more important to me that this plays a role in the public in the U.S. than in Europe because we have less tendency to be tough on crime and to lock everybody up than the U.S.
Putnam County Jail in Eatonton, Georgia.
The U.S. needs more introspection, relatively?!
Absolutely. Homeless people are absolutely unable to get housing because of their criminal past. From a European perspective it was astounding to hear that this information on them would be out on the internet so they couldn’t get a house because it was registered, they often couldn’t get a job because the employee would go on the internet. Now this is a weird situation. Let me put myself in the position of an employer and one of these women comes out and has a job interview with me and I am going to go on the internet and I am going to see what I find about them. I have found very few people who are somehow shocked by it. When I tell people in Europe or in Holland or in Germany, people are absolutely flabbergasted.
And this informed your side project of portraits of women at Pulaski Women’s Prison?
Law and Order has a distant approach, but soon I wanted another aspect. This is confusion for me as well as the viewer. Anywhere in the world, people are trying to make clear distinctions between criminals and us—to define them as different and as bad people but I don’t think they are, actually. I could have been in prison myself many years ago. I wasn’t so I am “a decent citizen”!
I wanted to bring these two groups closer together so that’s why I photographed the female prisoners the way I would photograph my family members or the Dutch Prime Minister.
But yet more confusion. I had to get permission to photograph them and yet all their portraits are on the Department of Corrections website!
But this work is not in your forthcoming book?
No, it was a parallel project. It’s formally different. The Law and Order book is not about portraits; it stresses on the consequences and environments of different systems.
I was only allowed to ask very few questions. I was not allowed to ask, why they were in prison or for what they were sentenced. But all that information was on the website of the Georgia Department of Corrections. So all the text that you find in my portfolio was found on the internet.
There’s a couple of other artists I know who’ve taken umbrage at the public exchange of mugshots for entertainment, Jane Lindsay and Kristen S. Wilkins. But you’re the first male to adopt such empathy. You’re also non-American.
Apparently for U.S. citizens it’s quite normal to trade in the personal details of felons.
What the people in Holland think of America and Americans?
The U.S. seems to have an image problem. I happen to I often find myself in the strange situation, to some extent, defending the U.S. or bringing up nuances in conversations with friends. For Dutch people who have not spent much or any time in the U.S., it is hard to see these nuances or to have a sympathetic view of Americans.
Etablissement Pénitentiaire — Maison d’Arrêt / Douai, Cell 10, Batiment B. Jean Michel, France, 2013.
What’s the situation like in Holland in terms of criminal justice and crime statistics and prisons?
Our prisons are underpopulated. We’ve started renting them out to Belgium and Norway because they are getting empty. A nice development. I think Holland would, in American terms, be called “soft on crime” and I think we’re doing pretty good.
The murder rates have been going down here since the 90s here and in a lot of other countries. As far as I know, crime rates are going down as well. The reasons still allude researchers. But we can definitely say that the bigger the social difference between the richest and poorest, the higher the crime rate. That is an interesting point to put to an American audience, don’t you think?
I do. Thanks, Jan.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
I’ve had a lot to say about the mothballed Wapato Jail in North Portland. Last year, I said it’s use as a film set for an activist web series against solitary was the only good thing to come out of the facility, so I was very happy this year when artist collective ERNEST was brought to Portland by c3:Initiative to work on an artist residency about the vacant lock-up.
ERNEST produced a film, photographs, hosted community engagements, a roundtable, artists’ event and a book-club about mass incarceration. They also put out a publication to which I contributed. That essay, I’ll post here with illustrations shortly. But I just wanted to let you know that the book is now for sale.
The design of the book is by Container Corps, it’s a bit mad with tip-ins everywhere. And it’s brilliant.
The book features contributions from Ace Lehner, Sarah Fontaine, Ernest Jerome DeFrance, Dan Gilsdorf and the ERNEST team (George Pfau, Amanda Curreri, Llewelyn Fletcher and Hannah Ireland).
Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, which is on view at c3:Initiative until Nov 22, probes the many concerns that the vacant jail suggests: breakdowns in democracy, prevailing power structures.
Here’s some “episodes” of themed footage that were woven together for ERNEST’s final centerpiece video installation.
Rutgers Prins Discord
The curatorial concepts are pioneering, the viewing experience nerve-wracking, and the conclusions occasionally terrifying, but the exhibition DATA RUSH — unlike the powers and digital infrastructures upon which it sheds light — will leave you empowered.
I just wrote, for Vantage, an in-depth review of Wim Melis and Hester Keijser‘s show DATA RUSH, which was the centerpiece to this years Noorderlicht Photofestival in the Netherlands.
The piece is titled This Exhibition Sees Our Ties to Data, Reveals the Future Is Now but it might as well be titled Finally, a Photography Show That Actually Deals with Our Relationship to Screens and Networks!
Arnold Koroshegyi. Electroscapes, 2011-2012
It was a slow process getting my head around the sheer volume of artists’ projects (45) in the show, but it was worth it. Virtually every project is worth a symposium in itself.
For photography, a comparatively conservative medium, DATA RUSH is light years ahead of most presentations. It’s precisely where our discussions about photography need to be if it we’re to comprehend the ways in which we are subject to images and image indexing.
Read the full piece which also boasts bigger images and some photos not included here below.
Hannes Hepp. Not So Alone – Lost In Chatroom, 2012-2015
Simon Høgsberg Grocery Store Project
Andrew Hammerand. The New Town, 2013
Fernando Moleres. Internet Gaming Addicts, 2014
Sterling Crispin, Data Masks
Julian Röder. Mission and Task, 2012/2013. Situation room of the FRONTEX headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, June, 2014
Catherine Balet. Strangers in the Light, 2009
Nate Larson & Marni Shindelman. Geolocation, 2009 – present
Dina Litovsky. Untag This Photo, 2010-2012
Daniel Mayrit’s You Haven’t Seen Their Faces (detail)
Mintio. ~T.H.O.H.Y~ (aka The Hall of Hyperdelic Youths), 2010