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Yesterday, I listened to Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, describe the “living nightmare” on Mississippi’s death row in 2002. Her words were visceral and painted an image, but of course no images exist.

On that death row, cells had no power. Men languished in “perpetual twilight without enough light to read.” Radios were silent. Summer temperatures soared to a life-threatening 120 degrees fahrenheit. Year-round, mosquitos from the surrounding swamps filled the cell-tiers at dawn and dusk. No toilets worked. The stench was unbearable. Every sense was under constant assault. Prisoners’ shrieks, sobs and babbling filled the air. Suicides and self-harm were routine and the prison officers maintained order with the deployment of pepper spray. The majority of the prisoners had severe mental illness, and of those that arrived in the unit sane, few were lucky to have the strength of mind to remain so.

If an individual treats an animal this way, they’re punished by law and yet in America our law sends people to wallow in such conditions and worse.

Attorney Winter explained that court-orders often provide legal professionals access into prisons that the media has been denied access for years, even decades. Class action litigation alongside advocacy and responsible reporting all contribute to a reliable view of prisons for the tax-paying public. That such deplorable conditions could exist in America in the 21st century surely makes the case for robust and independent monitoring of America’s prisons.

Winter and ACLU only became aware of the abuse after they received letters from dozens of men on death row. As I listened to Winter’s account, I thought back to a day earlier when I’d asked the same audience to consider not only what images they see of prisons, but also the images they do not see.

OKLAHOMA

Right now, Oklahoma is making a case-study of itself. Under the orders of new Dept. of Corrections Director Robert Patton, Oklahoma prisons now allow journalists to enter only with pen and paper. Apparently, the OK DOC has been “slammed” by over a dozen media requests. Slammed!?!? How low is the bar? No cameras or audio recording devices inside Oklahoma prisons.

Unsurprisingly, Patton cites security reasons. Who are we to argue? What do we, the uninformed public know about security? The tone is patronising. A healthy relationship between the press which serves the public and the administrations in control of our tax funded institutions would make me feel safer. This stinks.

The Tulsa World reports that Patton believes that the requirement to search the camera equipment diverts staff resources and time. He also fears images of sensitive security equipment wouldn’t end up in photos or videos.

“It is very staff intensive to process this type of equipment in and out of a facility. More importantly, we need to ensure that any security function not be recorded or filmed in a way that may jeopardize the safety of our facilities,” says DOC spokesman Jerry Massie.

All of this smacks of an institution stretched, stressed and flailing. And indeed it is. The Oklahoma prison system is overcrowded. To add to the pressure, OK has the lowest levels of staffing of any state. Moral is low and pay is lower. Oklahoma has created a tumorous prison machine that does not rehabilitate but just churns up prisoners and staff and spits them out the other side.

No one is doubting Patton’s job is tough, but making adversaries of the press is not any type of solution. If anything he should be using the press more to expose the fractured department and broken lives he’s having to manage.

Unfortunately, some panicked lawmakers in Oklahoma think more private prison contracts are the solution. Private prisons use under-qualified staff, warehouse prisoners for longer, cut corners, and treat humans as commodity. They are based on efficiency models. Trying to make prisons more efficient IS the problem. Patton and Oklahoma’s only solution is to rely on incarceration less. Patton must establish community supervision programs for those prosecuted by law — they are cheaper and more effective.

I urge Patton not to listen to calls for extended privatisation and to put human needs ahead of budget needs. If he doesn’t, he’ll exacerbate the problem and fail the people of Oklahoma to whom he is (theoretically, at least) in service. By banning cameras and story-telling equipment, Patton will only succeed in alienating Oklahomans further.

This Tulsa World editorial hits the nail on the head: “This is no way to treat taxpayers who pony up a half-billion dollars annually to keep their prisons operating.”

FIRST HAND ACCOUNT

If I cannot convince you, perhaps a concerned Oklahoman might? I recently received this email from the loved one of a man imprisoned in Oklahoma.

“I’m aware that a camera inside, in the hands of a loved one, a visitor, is never going to happen. But journalism? Journalism is a must. I recently sent my loved one an article in print. It was about a prizewinning author who is incarcerated for life. The prison mail-guard and the contraband review board withheld that piece. Destroyed it. When I pressed, the reason given was that it contained a photographic image of a prisoner!

Photography is powerful. I imagine what my partner would capture if I could give him a camera — the haunted and defeated look in the eyes, the conditions inside the giant quonset hut housing 66 men in 33 bunk-beds.

Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and one of the highest uses of for-profit prisons. And now no one can take a photo inside? Dangerous stuff.”

This source asked to remain anonymous in order to protect her partner from any punitive response by the DOC.

Image: Seniors Walking Across America.

 

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Kansas, MO and Brooklyn, NY based artist Jaimie Warren is the recipient of the 2014 Baum Award for an Emerging American Photographer. This is a curious selection for many reasons — all of them good.

Firstly, I wasn’t aware of Warren’s practice; even though she has a Wikipedia page and a long history with VICE, I had not come across Warren’s work before. I am glad I did.

Secondly, her work is wacky. The meanings of her images are elusive and you’ve got work hard with them. As many photographic artists do, Warren plays with ideas of fantasy, fun, performance and artifice, but she does so in much more aggressive, brazen way. These are not the cool, clinical images of studio assemblages we see from many young (MFA-bearing) image-makers.

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I really, really enjoy Warren’s disfigured portraits and tableaus. They’re pop, they’re a bit grotesque, they cinch perfectly into the shock-visuals of audiences habituated to the  Tumblr-driven flow of images. Warren’s work is Peewee Herman meets Carnivale meets that bonkers Halloween party you went to in 1997.

Thirdly, it is great to see an award go to a photographer who isn’t just a photographer. For all the intelligent image detournement in her work, Warren is not operating from a fine art ivory tower. Quite the opposite. Central to Warren’s work is constant collaboration with communities. Her main vehicle for making art is the non-profit community arts initiative Whoop Dee Doo.

Whoop Dee Doo works with communities “to create unique and memorable events that challenge the everyday art venue or community event.” Everything from concept to end product is intended to fit the needs of host communities, and all acts are “truly inclusive endeavors that celebrate differences and unabashed self-expression.”

Probably the best and quickest way to get a handle on the art and performances is to view the Whoop Dee Doo Vimeo Channel.

Whoop Dee Doo has worked with youth programs including Caldera Arts (Portland/Sisters, OR), Operation Breakthrough (Kansas City), the Boys & Girls Club (Kansas City), Big Brother/Big Sister (Kansas City), Girls, Inc. (Omaha, NE), Experimental Station’s Blackstone Bicycle youth Program (Chicago, IL), Urgent, Inc. and the Rites of Passage Program (Miami, FL), Muse 360 and 901 arts (Baltimore, MD), as well as college interns at the University of Central Missouri, Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Kansas City Art Institute, the University of Chicago, Maryland Institute College of Art, Rockhurst University, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Impressive.

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Jaimie Warren, Self-portrait as Bulls fan in La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau/Michael Jordan basketball painting by dosysod of the Independents, 2012.

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Jaimie Warren, Self-portrait as Nun with some of my Mother’s Favorite Famous People in the Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs of the Fiesole San Domenico Altarpiece by Fra Angelic, 2014.

From looking over the portfolios, I reckon the folky-rainbow-eclecticism of Warren and her collaborators’ work reflects something close to common feeling. What else could there by except fun, wild variance and complexity when the hands of dozens go into making something?

Breaking down stereotypes and barriers between age, gender, culture and sub-culture is one of Whoop Dee Doo‘s main objectives. The group is open to designing performances and workshops “between unlikely pairings of community members that ultimately blossom into exceptional and meaningful interactions.”

A lot of the time, the use and outcomes of awards can be hard to pin down, but I can’t imagine it’ll be too long before Warren is putting the $10,000 to use making more happenings with communities. Because she always has. Let the merriment continue.

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BAUM AWARD

The Baum Award for An Emerging American Photographer is a project established out of the conviction that photography is a powerfully influential medium with the capacity to emotionally connect with audiences in ways that words cannot. This ability to reach people on a visceral level can transform awareness to understanding and lead interest into action – fundamental aspects of a healthy and vital society.

Click here to see previous Baum Award winners.

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May 4th, 2009. 9:19pm: Guards pushed down on Messier’s back, pressing his chest toward his knees, “suitcasing” him, a dangerous tactic banned in prisons. Image courtesy of Boston Globe.

The title of this post makes it sound like I’ll be making a habit of recording these stories of abuse. I will not — there are too many.

The title of this post is also the slightest of variations on the title of a post I published yesterday. Again, I want to reiterate that episodes of abuse (particularly behind closed prison gates) are not irregular. I simply don’t have the time to catalogue them all.

This week, two particularly glaring cases of state violence inside prisons were reported. The first is a return to a 2009 murder by Massachusetts prison guards. The second, a prison doctor in California sterilising female prisoners without consent.

GUARDS RESTRAIN PRISONER, STAND NEXT TO HIM WHILE HE DIES

The murder of Joshua Messier is a murder that, in terms of legal language, is no longer. Guards killed Messier with rough restraint techniques. The medical examiner called it homicide, but later changed that verdict saying Messier’s initial violent outburst (due to his schizophrenic attack) meant he was to blame for his own death.

Prison guards put Messier into restraints and “suitcased” him meaning two officers put all their weight on Messier’s back while he was in a kneeling position. It is illegal control technique because of the risk of suffocation. Messier never moved when he came out of restraint. The guards stood idly around for 10 minutes. Messier stopped breathing, his face turned blue and he died in front of them. It took a nurse to notice something wrong before medical aid and CPR was delivered but by that time it was to late.

Multiple shocking aspects stack up in this case. Bridgewater State Hospital is the only facility in Massachusetts designated to hold mentally-ill patients, and yet no guards have specialised psychiatric training. Bridgewater imprisons mentally-ill men with behavioural issues alongside convicted violent criminals. Messier, like others mentally-ill in Bridgewater, had not been charged with a crime — he had assaulted staff in a hospital during a earlier schizophrenic episode and was placed in prison as a result.

Criminal charges should be brought against the officers involved. For the sake of justice and for the sake of trust in a system that seems, right now, to care more about covering its own ass than protecting the vulnerable.

Excellent reporting by the Boston Globe:

Yet, nearly five years after his death, no one at Bridgewater State Hospital has been prosecuted or even punished, and all but one of the guards still works for the Department of Correction. Officially, the department maintains that no excessive force was used and that everything the guards and nurses did that night was “done in accordance with standard procedure.”

See photos from the case.

My thoughts to Joshua Messier’s family.

FEMALE PRISONERS IN CALIFORNIA STERILISED WITHOUT CONSENT

For those who pay particular attention to the invisible abuse behind American prison walls, the story of Dr. Joseph Heinrich’s abuse of California female prisoners will not be entirely new. In July, Corey G. Johnson, reporting for the Center for Investigative Reporting broke the story that California Department of Corrections (CDC) doctor Heinrich and his staff had carried out at least 132 unauthorised tube ligation (tube-tying) procedures.

Between 2006 and 2010, doctors under contract with the CDC, sterilized women without the required state oversight and approval. These vulnerable women were basically misinformed or bullied into sterilisation. The women were signed up for the surgery while they were pregnant and housed at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, which is now a men’s prison. 

Based on information in state documents and interviews, Johnson suggested in July that perhaps there were 100 or more similar cases — and victims — dating back to the late 1990s.

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Female patients have accused Dr. James Heinrich, shown in 2007 at Valley State Prison, not just of trying to dictate their reproductive decisions, but also of unsanitary practices and botched surgeries that injured them and their infants. Credit: National Geographic. Source: Fresno Bee.

Johnson returned this week reporting on Heinrich’s history of unsanitary practice and a catalogue of complaints against him, including but not limited to, eating popcorn during examination of patients.

Heinrich arranged an unusually high number of other sterilization procedures including hysterectomies, removal of ovaries and endometrial ablations. In total, 378 procedures at Valley State Prison between  2006 and 2012. These figures alarmed federal authorities, which are now in oversight of the entire medical care system in California prisons.

In 2006 alone, Heinrich arranged for 23 inmates to have their tubes tied – the most ever for a California women’s prison in a single year since sterilization records began being kept in 1997.

Despite his history of accusations of unsanitary practices and botched surgeries that injured women and their infants, Heinrich was not only hired by the prison system, but also kept on after the federal receiver was appointed to bring to the prison’s medical system into compliance with constitutional rights. Johnson reports:

“Heinrich retired from Valley State Prison for Women in 2011 after six years, during which his total annual pay reached a high of nearly $237,000. Federal authorities rehired Heinrich as a contract physician, and he continued treating inmates at Valley State though December 2012. Since then, he has not worked at the prison.”

I repeatedly complain that events behind prison walls go unnoticed and that abuses go unreported. Corollary to that is the fact that abusive staff seem to be able to act with impunity, for years, as compared to practitioners on the outside. I do not know what the solutions would be. But I have a suggestion that would be a move in the right direction: Give tax-payers the right to visit prisons and “oversee” their tax dollars at work.

Ralph Nader (a long-time proponent for sensible discussion on U.S. prisons) wrote last month, that American tax-payers should be allowed access to the prisons. This is not a ridiculous suggestion. Prisons are safe places to visit. Public visitation would not only keep authorities accountable, but would tackle stereotypes among the public, educate the public and by virtue of more porous movement improve transparency and procedures. Some prisons, such as San Quentin in California, regularly gives public tours to media professionals, academics, students and law enforcement cadets. Nader’s proposal was based upon the practices of independent monitors in U.K. prisons.

Of course, it would be wholly inappropriate to sit in on a doctors visit inside or outside of prison. Prison hospitals are within walls within walls. Rogue doctors must not find protection inside already unsafe institutions. The California Department of Corrections must be held accountable for the extended hire of Heinrich, a man who one patient says treated her “like a cow.” The details provided by others formerly under his care are shocking. Heinrich is currently under official federal investigation, the details of which are unknown.

Okay, the title to this post makes it sound like I’ll be making a habit of recording these stories of abuse. I will not. That isn’t because these episodes aren’t regular (unfortunately, they are quite regular), it is because I don’t have the time most weeks to adequately collect the many stories of misconduct from across this America.

So, why this week? Well, I came across two particularly disgusting and glaring examples of abuse. In both cases, they are presented with great clarity. The first is courtroom video footage. The second is a diaristic, written account.

COURTROOM BEATING

Above, we see a video from September 2012, in which Denver Sheriff Deputy Brad Lovingier slams a handcuffed prisoner into wall. Face first. Totally unprovoked.

Following the judge’s ruling, the defendant Anthony Waller requested clarification. At which point he is grabbed, from behind, by the handcuffs secured by behind his back, spun around, and flung into the wall. Waller falls to his knees after the impact and is then dragged out of the courtroom and into a holding cell. In the video Lovingier can be heard saying, “You don’t turn on me,” as the only explanation for his actions.

Madness. Ordinarily, a citizen guilty of such an assault would face a 6-month jail term. Lovingier was suspended for 30 days. And he’s appealing that.

SOLITARY CELL FOR GOOD SAMARITAN

The story is as simple as its logic is baffling and its behaviours are brutal.

Man witnesses a bike accident. Calls 9-1-1. Is handcuffed by police for unknown reasons. Taken to jail. Asks legitimate questions. Faces retribution from deputies. Stripped. Thrown in a shit-stained solitary cell.

You just have to read it to believe it: Good Samaritan Backfire or How I Ended Up in Solitary After Calling 911 for Help

This kid —  Paretz Partensky — is a young, educated, white, computer programmer. His abuse is likely no different (it might be less egregious?) than abuse meted out to people in San Francisco far more vulnerable than he. But Partensky gets on hot-new-story-telling-platform Medium and tells the story of his 12 hours of detention.

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Officer Durkin, in the foreground, is telling Ben that he cannot take this photo. According to Attorney Krages, you are allowed to take photos in public places. http://www.krages.com/ThePhotographersRight.pdf Officer Durkin’s reprimand is in violation of Ben’s rights.

Partensky’s account is nuanced — he provides necessary details; he gives benefit of doubt to most of the characters involved; he tries to put himself in the position of others throughout the ordeal; he is aware of his white privilege; he ponders what different outcomes may have arisen had he and others interacted differently. In short, it is a compelling read.

Let’s not be churlish and say this is a young, comfy, SF-coder-class entrepreneur using an online platform to have a whinge. Let’s be civic and responsible and say no-one should be subject to arbitrary and vengeful treatment from law enforcement. Let us not allow our uncomfortable relationship to racial and income inequality, nor our relationship to white privilege be an excuse to dismiss Partensky’s story. Let us be shocked. Let us be angry. Let us thank Partensky for bringing his account to light.

AmyElkinsPartingWords

Amy Elkins‘ latest body of work Parting Words is a visual representation of every execution in the state of Texas since the ban on capital punishment was overturned in 1976.

Parting Words was just featured on the Huffington Post, for which I wrote a few hundred words. That didn’t seem enough, so I asked Amy some questions about the project to gain a fuller picture.

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Prison Photography (PP): You made Black is the Day, Black is the Night (BITDBITN). Now Parting Words. Both are about the harshest imprisonments and sentences in America. Do overlaps between the projects exist? Are the overlaps visible? If so, is the overlap in your personal politics, in the project, or in both?

Amy Elkins (AE): I started the two projects in 2009 and am still wrapping up final details with each. Black is the Day, Black is the Night came first. Through the execution of the first man I wrote with for that project, I stumbled into Parting Words.

Parting Words has taken me a few years to complete and, even now, it remains a work in progress — currently the project has 506 images but it is updated yearly, growing with each execution.

The research behind it all, especially while writing to men on death row (two of which were executed during our time of correspondence) made reading and pulling quotes from the roster of those who had been executed in the state of Texas a dark, taxing experience. Not only was I reading through all of their statements, but detouring into description after description of violent crimes that land one on death row. Honestly, it felt too heavy at times.

PP: What was the impulse then?

AE: I was intrigued that the state of Texas documented and kept such a tidy online archive for anyone to explore. As a photographer (like many, doubling as a voyeur) I already had my own connection to the subject matter through BITDBITN, and I suppose I allowed my obsessive side to surface in order to create a visual archive. It was an important story to tell.

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PP: What are your thoughts on American prisons and the criminal justice system?

AE: Over several years of correspondence with five men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who went in as juveniles, I have learned a great deal from the inside about what it is like to exist in the conditions of maximum security and death row units; what those units provide; and what they deny.

A system that uses long-term solitary confinement and capital punishment is broken. Housing someone in infinite isolation has been proven to be hugely damaging to one’s psychological and physical state. This type of isolation breeds behavioral and emotional imbalances that are bound to cause most to remain in a perpetual state of anxiety, depression and anger. Which means they are set up for failure. There is absolutely no way to rehabilitate in such conditions.  But clearly rehabilitation isn’t what they have in mind.

I have written with one man in particular who has served 20 years in solitary confinement as part of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence for a non-murder related crime he committed aged 16. He has written about going years talking through concrete walls without ever seeing the men he holds daily conversations with. He spends nearly 23 hours a day in a small cell by himself and when he is let out, he is shackled and permitted to exercise in a slightly larger room by himself for an hour. How he’s gone 20 years in these conditions and not gone completely mad is mind blowing.

That said, most men that I wrote with serving death row sentences were in fairly similar conditions, some having served onward of 16 years in solitary confinement while waiting for their execution. Two of the men I have written with have been executed and through the experience of writing letters to them and in some cases reaching out to family members leading up to such events, I have seen how capital punishment seems to create a continuous cycle of violence, pain and loss within our society. It leaves not one open wound, but several. If there’s closure for anyone, it’s temporary. And unfortunately the loss that the victims family originally endured remains. But now there is a new set of mourners in the mix. The system seems so incredibly flawed and barbaric.

PP: Do archives for last words exist for those killed in other states?

AE: I have yet to come across an archive as in-depth and publicly accessible as the one compiled by the state of Texas.

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PP: Are you afraid of death?

AE: I think I’m more afraid of the physical pain associated with dying.

PP: Where do we go when our time is up?

AE: Sounds cheesy, but I think we stick around and linger in some capacity with those who love us the most.

PP: Given the images “read” very differently if the viewer is close or far away, what’s the ideal size for these works?

AE: Ideally I would like to show these images on a smaller scale but include all of them.  This forces an intimacy that I want, where the viewer has to get close to each image in order to experience the depth of the project.

PPAnything else you’d like to add?

AE: In both projects, I always remained neutral. I refrained from projecting my own feelings into whether I felt those I worked with or made work about were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. Making BITDBITN, I was more interested in hearing stories from those within prison systems in America, about the psychological state they might be in while in such conditions, while potentially facing their own death. I was interested in discussing with them what it was like to be removed from the world most of us take for granted, to lose memory by being removed from the source of memory, to not always have a strong sense of self-identity. I felt I hadn’t enough information to warrant my own judgment, and so, if I had projected any, neither project would have manifested.

PP: Thanks, Amy.

AE: Thank you, Pete.

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ELKINS ELSEWHERE

In December 2013, Daylight Digital published a presentation of Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night with an accompanying essay by yours truly. The 1,500 words were built upon a conversation Elkins and I began in late 2011.

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Just a quick post to say …

It happened. Prison Obscura opened. With a fantastic turnout. Gallery was crammed for the curator’s talk and people said many nice things. I pulled my usual trick, clocking silly hours until the early hours most of last week during install. Matthew Seamus Callinan, the Associate Director of Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and Campus Exhibitions at Haverford College did the same. I cannot thank Matthew enough for his support throughout the creation of the show. Legend. More thanks to so many people.

I haven’t any pictures of the opening because my head was spinning. There’s some on Facebook. I’m sure others have some too (send ‘em over!) but I wanted to do a quick post with some installation shots. Taken at different points during the week during install and may not reflect exactly the final layout. (Buckets and hardware not part of the show).

Prison Obscura is up until March 7th at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, just outside Philadelphia, PA. All you need to know about the exhibit is here.

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It is with giddy, air-punching pride and mammoth-sized gratitude for those that helped me along the way that I announce the imminent opening of Prison Obscura.

This exhibition is my first solo-curating gig and reflects my thinking right now about images of and from American prisons. Prison Obscura includes works, approaches and genres that — after 5-years of looking at prison photographs — I consider most informative, responsible, challenging and useful.

Prison Obscura is on show at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery from January 24 through March 7. The CantorFitz built a remarkable Prison Obscura website to accompany the exhibition, at which you can find a lengthy 5,000-word essay as to why I have shied away from traditional documentary work and focused instead on surveillance, code, vernacular snaps, prisoner-made photographs and rarely-seen evidentiary images.

I posit that certain images can more accurately speak to political realities in America’s prison industrial complex. I also celebrate photographs that were made through processes of collaboration with prisoners and with intention to socially engage the subjects and educate audiences. I want you to wonder why you — a tax-paying, prison-funding citizen — rarely gets the chance to see inside prisons, and I want us to think about what roles existing pictures serve for those who live and work within the system.

Scroll down to learn more about the Prison Obscura artists.

Clinical contact holding cage, Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU), C-Yard, Building 12, Mule Creek State Prison, California. August 1st, 2008

Photographer Unknown. Clinical contact holding cage, Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU), C-Yard, Building 12, Mule Creek State Prison, California. August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1st, 2008
Photographer Unknown. Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
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Suicide watch cell, Building 6A, Facility D, Wasco State Prison, California (August 1st, 2008). This photograph document was submitted as evidence in the Brown vs. Plata class action lawsuit (Supreme Court of the United States, May 2011). Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP.
Reception Center Visiting : Clinician Office Space, North Kern State Prison, July, 2008
Photographer Unknown. Reception Center Visiting / Clinician Office Space, North Kern State Prison, July, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.

PRISON OBSCURA ARTISTS

Alyse Emdur’s collected letters and prison visiting room portraits as well as Robert Gumpert’s recorded audio stories from within the San Francisco jail system provide an opportunity to see, read, and listen to subjects in the contexts of their incarceration.

Juvenile and adult prisoners in different workshops led by Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, and Kristen S. Wilkins perform for the camera, reflect on their past, describe their memories, and self-represent through photographs.

Prison Obscura will also feature work made in partnership with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Men from Graterford Prison who are affiliated with both its own Restorative Justice Program and Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Group are collaborating to create a mural for the exhibition.

The exhibit moves between these intimate portrayals of life within the prison system to more expansive views of legal and spatial surveillance in works like Josh Begley’s manipulated Google Maps’ API code and Paul Rucker’s animated videos, which offer a “celestial” view of the growth of the prison system.

Prison Obscura builds the case that Americans must come face to face with these images to grasp the proliferation of the U.S. prison system and to connect with those it confines.

Scroll down for media, details and events.

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Mark Strandquist. Pocahontas State Park, Picture of the Dam. One Hundred and Thirty Days (top); text describing the scene written by a Virginia prisoner (bottom). From the series Some Other Places We’ve Missed.
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Josh Begley Facility 237. From the series Prison Map.
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50 of the 5,393 facilities imaged by Prison Map, a data art project which automatically “photographs” every locked facility in the U.S. by gleaning files from Google Maps with use of code modified from the Google API code by artist Josh Begley.
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Josh Begley Facility 492 From the series Prison Map.
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Photographer unknown. Incarcerated girls at Remann Hall, Tacoma, Washington, reenact restraint techniques in a pinhole camera workshop, 2002. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
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Photographer unknown: Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
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Photographer unknown: Steve Davis Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
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David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series ‘Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).’ Photo: Courtesy of Alyse Emdur.
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Alyse Emdur. Anonymous Backdrop Painted in Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York. From the series ‘Prison Landcapes’ (2005- 2011)
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Robert Gumpert. Tameika Smith, 9 July 2012, San Francisco, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’
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Robert Gumpert. Michael Johnson, 15 August, 2009, San Francisco County Jail 5, San Bruno, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’

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Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’

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Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’

EVENTS

I’ll be giving a curator’s talk in the gallery on Friday, January 24, 2014, 4:30-5:30pm, followed by the opening reception 5:30–7:30pm.

Additionally, poet C.D. Wright will be on campus for a Tri-College Mellon Creative Residency in conjunction with the exhibit, and on January 31, at 12 noon in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Wright and I will host a dialogue about Prison Obscura.

DETAILS

Prison Obscura is presented by Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities with support from the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

Part of the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and located in Whitehead Campus Center, the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery is open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesdays until 8 p.m.

Haverford College is located at 370 Lancaster Avenue, Haverford, PA, 19041.

SPREADING THE WORD

View and download press images here. For interviews or variant images contact me. Here’s a big postcard.

For more information, please contact myself or Matthew Callinan, associate director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and campus exhibitions, at (610) 896-1287 or mcallina@haverford.edu

Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery on Facebook (including installation) and Twitter.
Haverford College on Twitter.
Hurford Center for the Arts on Twitter.

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Poster showing the statistics and aesthetic of ‘Proliferation’ an animated video of prison construction in the United States (1776-2010). Image: Courtesy of Paul Rucker.
PrisonObscura intro vinyl_MA copy
Graphic design for Prison Obscura by Ellen Gould.

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“I want this thing off today … this fucking thing is an invasion of privacy, and goes against my well-being,” said the young boy about his ankle bracelet. He was speaking to Zora Murff, a BFA photography student at the University of Iowa and also a Juvenile Tracker for the Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services (JDDS) of Linn County, Iowa.

It was only when Murff heard this complaint that he began to wonder if he and his camera could interrogate the issue of control.

“He was angry,” recalls Murff. “The more I thought about his anger, the more I pondered the concepts of privacy and control in the juvenile corrections system and the role that I play inside of those concepts. I interact with these youths at a critical point in their lives where control is an integral part of the day-to-day. My job is to be a consequence, to insert myself into their lives [...] while the adolescents themselves are struggling to exert control over their development.”

Linn County JDDS provides monitoring and rehabilitation services to youths on probation. Murff has been in the job eighteen months. In mid-2013 he began to photograph his employment and construct a project for submission as part of his studies.

The resulting series Corrections is made up of: photographs of locations of interaction with accompanying narratives about the transgression that took place there (images below with captions); anonymous portraits of the youths; handwritten reflections of the youths; and official paperwork and service documents.

Murff published his notes during the series on the Corrections Tumblr. He has self-published a limited edition book (Murff welcomes interest from publishers to do a larger run). Murff is taking a temporary hiatus from the project. Last week, my Wired colleague Jakob Schiller wrote about Corrections in the piece Peering Into the Digitally Tracked Lives of Youths on ProbationI wanted to do a bit more digging and ask Murff about the logistics, motivations and relationships inherent to the work.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

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Three youths broke into an abandoned home on the northeast side of Cedar Rapids. When Cedar Rapids Police responded to the scene, two of the youths surrendered themselves, while the third attempted to hide in the basement. Officers sent in a K-9 to retrieve him. Each youth was charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct.

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Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): Can you start by describing your work?

Zora Murff (ZM): Tracking is one of the diversion programs that JDDS offers. Diversion refers to the youth being able to stay in the community, rather than being placed in detention or in a different type of placement like residential treatment. My primary responsibility is monitoring youths on probation. I have face-to-face contact with youths on a regular basis to ensure that they are complying with the expectations of their probation. This may entail electronic monitoring, urinalysis, school follow-up, transportation to therapies (substance abuse, sexual offense, anger-replacement), and other things like completing community service hours. My caseload fluctuates – I believe the lowest number I had was nine youths and I have had up to twenty-one.

PP: Would you have managed to gain access if it weren’t for your job?

ZM: When I pitched the idea to my supervisor, she was very intrigued, but being an insider definitely gave me a leg up, and I was very lucky to have that level of access. My supervisor had a few specific guidelines, but gave me free reign, so I had a wide creative space to work with. I think there was a level of trust there, which made Corrections possible.

PP: How did you come to be studying photography if you’re also a probation service employee?

ZM: I started my degree in psychology. My professional background in human services started when I replied to an ad on a campus bus. I needed a job. I started in disability services working with a wide population of people. Those experience helped me get a job with juvenile criminal justice. I didn’t necessarily have a desire to work in this specific area, but it has been a great experience to watch the youths grow throughout the probation process.

I love my work but I have always felt I was missing out on a need to create, a desire to teach, and a love of the photograph. That is where my education in photography comes into play.

PP: Juveniles under the control of the state are vulnerable young adults. What sort of assurances did you have to provide for your employer, the children and the parents/guardians?

ZM: I have noticed that when working with any population in human services, it all comes down to trust. The real question is how do you build that trust with the people that you serve. I think that this can vary with any worker, but I usually broach this by being available and consistent. Having trusting relationships with the youths that I photographed was key to working on this project.

The biggest assurance that I had to provide was anonymity. It was also important to explain my project to them, which isn’t always easy to do, especially when I was starting out because I wasn’t sure where the project was taking me.

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PP: Is Corrections about delinquency or about control; about youth or about state?

ZM: All of the above. The youths do delinquent things that warrant some type of intervention and I wanted to document their experiences once they become a part of the juvenile corrections system. Youths are attempting to control their lives while workers are trying to exert some sort of control over it for them. There’s a dynamic at play between the two.

The use of narratives and documents add context to the project. I felt that portraits of the youths, while the most important component of Corrections, would have told an entirely different story if they were to stand alone.

PP: Is Corrections a voice for you or for your subjects?

ZM: I wouldn’t say that Corrections is my voice personally. The youths are allowing me to show them through their portraits and through some of their writing. My intent was to approach it from an ‘anthropological’ standpoint if you will, almost as if I am a recording device. I felt that it was important to provide a window into this world without editorializing, even though I am embedded in the system.

I feel that when it comes to children on probation a lot of stereotypes are thrown around and it would have been easy to fall into tropes. I want viewers to see inside of the system and draw their own conclusions.

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While hanging out with friends, a youth started verbally harassing a peer walking home from school. The youth started to follow the peer and punched him from behind in the side of the face. The youth continued to assault his victim until a car pulled up in the alley. While fleeing the scene, the youth kicked his victim in the head. The youth decided to turn himself in when the story aired on the local evening news, and told Cedar Rapids Police that he had no justification for the assault, that he was just, “mad at the world.” The victim was hospitalized for two days with a broken jaw, two teeth knocked out, and a severed facial nerve. The youth was convicted of felony charges and placed at the Eldora State Training School.

PP: How has the project effected your relationships?

ZM: In human services, the work is about the person that you’re serving, not about you, and typically sharing personal information is discouraged. However, I feel that opening up about my passion for and education in photography bought me a little more trust with some of the clients. It was kind of odd, really. The kids were either totally interested and invested in the project, or completely indifferent. When I walk through the detention center, one or two kids will ask if I’m still working on the project or what was my grade in my photo class. I have also earned the moniker, “that guy with the camera.”

PP: Any particular stumbling blocks?

ZM: My biggest barrier was not being able to photograph faces – I didn’t want to blur out faces or put bars over them. It almost became a game figuring out how to make faces unidentifiable and have the photographs be meaningful.

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PP: Any pleasant surprises?

ZM: A number of the compositions happened by accident – a kid blocking the sun from his eyes, or deciding to sit in a certain spot. There is one photograph of a youth playing guitar in his bedroom. While we were taking the photograph, the youth’s friend came to the bedroom window and had a perplexed look on his face when he noticed me with the camera. The youth told his friend that he had just been signed to a record label and that I was from Rolling Stone Magazine. We all had a good laugh about that – and it was a welcome change from the more difficult interactions that I have.

PP: What has been the reaction so far to the work?

ZM: So far, reactions have all been pretty positive. I was part a group exhibition for the class Corrections was completed for, and a number of people drew some sort of sentiment from the photographs. I also had a portfolio review at Midwest SPE last year, and the project was received well. However, I understand that working with a vulnerable population, specifically youths, can be a contentious territory so I have been a pretty hard critic on myself about the work.

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PP: Do you plan to continue photography and/or work in criminal justice?

ZM: I would like to teach photography as a means of creative expression to youths at the detention center, but that is just a lofty idea at this point.

PP:  It would be wonderful if you could achieve those types of workshops.

ZM: There are definitely some barriers. The biggest obstacles would be finding the time to teach a course, funding for materials, developing a curriculum, and figuring out when it would work into the residents’ schedule as their day at the detention center is very structured.

PP: What makes you think photography is useful for the youths? What skills does it teach? What can be achieved with photographic education, particularly to at-risk youth?

ZM: Any creative outlet is useful to children. I remember having a drawing journal when I was a teenager, and the amount of things I was able to work through by drawing.

Photography could be a good outlet for youths in the detention center as I feel that visually investigating their surroundings would allow them to build a sense of self-awareness, getting them to really consider where they are in life and where they would like to go.

Also, with the concept of control again, a number of the interactions that I have are usually based upon the youth feeling that they don’t have a say with what is going on in their lives and they are being told all of the things that they cannot do, the places that they cannot go, the people that they cannot hang out with. My hope is that by introducing them to photography this will provide them with a chance of self-expression – they can decide what they want to photograph and how they want to photograph it, getting some semblance of control back.

PP: What else are you up to?

ZM: I’ll continue Corrections until I reach a place where I feel that it is as complete as possible, but I am taking a break from it for the time being. I have an idea for a more intimate project, a case study of sorts, following the story of one individual on probation. I’m gearing up to start shooting for this project in the next few months, and have a youth interested in being a part of it, so I’m ironing out details.

PP: Is the camera a security device or an artistic tool?

ZM: Part of my statement for Corrections is how I, as a Tracker, am required to impose on these youths. This was problematic for me at times because by pointing my camera at them I was imposing upon them in an additional way, but it is important to understand the difference. The cameras that we use to surveil youths are all there in a reactionary capacity in order to provide some sort of control. With my camera, I too am recording, but my camera is there in a collaborative capacity – I feel that the youths have taken back a level of control as they have allowed me to portray them and document their experiences.

PP: Thanks Zora.

ZM: Thank you.

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EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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