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If the image above is useless, get used to it. The Minnesota Department of Corrections has banned news cameras.

Under a sub-head of ‘Special Access’, the policy, which was introduced in February, reads:

A visit facilitated by the communications unit and lasting one hour in length. The representative of the public news media may bring a recording device (if approved), paper, and a writing utensil. Video and photography cameras are not allowed.

Interviews with prisoners should not be considered special access; they should be considered key to maintaining open access to information and to accountability. Society uses prison to deny prisoners their liberty, not their voice.

Incredibly, this ban is not a response to any embarrassing or damaging event or story. It is, by the DOC’s reasoning, a shift of policy in line with other rules about contraband!

Because cellphones (with cameras) are contraband in prisons, the twisted logic of the prison administration goes that news cameras are also contraband! What?

This is reckless bureaucracy in full swing. The public will lose out by not having a free and unencumbered press on which to rely for impartial information. The biggest losers will be the prisoners who are silenced. In a reasoned OpEd for the Star Tribune, journalist James Eli Schiffer writes:

“My concern about the camera ban goes beyond the implications for my own industry. It means that the nearly 10,000 inmates of Minnesota prisons will recede even further from public view, their faces all but invisible.”

Schiffer points out that a long term project Young & Armed that he and colleagues made in 2012 about youth gun violence, which included dozens of interviews from inside prisons, just would not be possible today.

The Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is outraged.

“The Minnesota DOC is now equating both still and video news cameras with contraband items such as pornography and lighters, which is patently absurd,” says the SPJ Minnesota Pro Chapter. “Other DOC concerns could be dealt with through policies other than a full ban on cameras. We urge the Minnesota DOC to immediately reverse its camera ban.”

Unfortunately, Minnesota Gov. Dayton sees no political advantage in calling out this nonsense policy and has backed his DOC Secretary’s decision. Ugh.

Thanks to Aaron Lavinsky for the tip.

The Big Graph (2014). Photo: Courtesy Eastern State Penitentiary.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Guidelines for Art Proposals, 2016

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia has announced some big grants for artists working to illuminate issues surrounding American mass incarceration.

READ! FULL INFO HERE

ESP is offering grants of $7,500 for a “Standard Project” and a grant of $15,000 for specialized “Prisons in the Age of Mass Incarceration Project.” In each case the chosen installations shall be in situ for one full tour season — typically May 1 – November 30 (2016).

DEADLINE: JUNE 17TH

THE NEED

ESP has, in my opinion, the best programming of any historic prison site when it comes to addressing current prison issues. Last year, they installed The Big Graph (above) so that the monumental incarceration rates could tower over visitors. Now, ESP wants to explore the emotional aspects of those same huge figures.

Prisons in the Age of Mass Incarceration will serve as a counterpoint to The Big Graph,” says ESP. “Where The Big Graph addresses statistics and changing priorities over time, Prison in the Age will encourage reflection on the impact of recent changes to the American criminal justice system, and create a place for visitors to reflect on their personal experiences and share their thoughts with others.”

ESP says that art has “brought perspectives and approaches that would not have been possible in traditional historic site programming.” Hence, these big grant announcements And hence these big questions.

“Who goes to prison? Who gets away with it? Why? Have you gotten away with something illegal? How might your appearance, background, family connections or social status have affected your interaction with the criminal justice system? What are prisons for? Do prisons “work?” What would a successful criminal justice system look like? What are the biggest challenges facing the U.S criminal justice system today? How can visitors affect change in their communities? How can they influence evolving criminal justice policies?” asks ESP.

While no proposal must address any one or all of these questions specifically they delineate the political territory in which ESP is interested.

“If our definition of this program seems broad, it’s because we’re open to approaches that we haven’t yet imagined,” says ESP. “We want our visitors to be challenged with provocative questions, and we’re prepared to face some provocative questions ourselves. In short, we seek memorable, thought-provoking additions to our public programming, combined with true excellence in artistic practice.”

“We seek installations that will make connections between the complex history of this building and today’s criminal justice system and corrections policies,” continues ESP. “We want to humanize these difficult subjects with personal stories and distinct points of view. We want to hear new voices—voices that might emphasize the political, or humorous, or bluntly personal.”

GO TO AN ORIENTATION

ESP won’t automatically exclude you, but you seriously hamper your chances if you don’t attend one of the artist orientation tours.

They occur on March 15, April 8, April 10, April 12, May 1, May 9, May 15, June 6.

Also, be keen to read very carefully the huge document detailing the grants. It explains very well what ESP is looking for including eligibility, installation specifics, conditions on site, maintenance, breakdown of funding (ESP instructs you to take a livable artist fee!), and the language and tone of your proposal.

For example, how much more clear could ESP be?!

• Avoid interpretation of your work, and simply tell us what you plan to install.
• Avoid proposing materials that will not hold up in Eastern State’s environment. Work on paper or canvas, for example, generally cannot survive the harsh environment of Eastern State.
• Be careful not to romanticize the prison’s history, make unsupported assumptions about the lives of inmates or guards, or suggest sweeping generalizations. The prison’s history is complicated and broad. Simple statements often reduce its meaning.
• A proposal to work with prisoners or victims of violent crime by an artist who has never done so before, on the other hand, will raise likely concern.
• Do not suggest Eastern State solely as an architectural backdrop. Artist installations must deepen the experience of visitors who are touring this National Historic Landmark, addressing some aspect of the building’s significance.
• Many successful proposals, including Nick Cassway’s Portraits of Inmates in the Death Row Population Sentenced as Juveniles and Ilan Sandler’s Arrest, did not focus on Eastern State’s history at all. They did, however, address subjects central to the topic we hope our visitors will be contemplating during their visit.
• If you are going to include information about Eastern State’s history, please make sure you are accurate. Artists should be sensitive to the history of the space and only include historical information in the proposal if it is relevant to the work. Our staff is available to consult on historical accuracy.
• Overt political content can be good.
• The historic site staff has been focusing explicitly on the modern American phenomenon of mass incarceration, on questions of justice and effectiveness within the American prison system today, and on the effects of race and poverty on prison population demographics. We welcome proposals that can help engage our visitors with these complex subjects.
• When possible, the committee likes to see multiple viewpoints expressed among the artists who exhibit their work at Eastern State. Every year the committee reviews dozens of proposals for work that will express empathy for the men and women who served time at Eastern State. The committee has accepted many of these proposals, generally resulting in successful installations. These include Michael Grothusen’s midway of another day, Dayton Castleman’s The End of the Tunnel, and Judith Taylor’s My Glass House. The committee rarely sees proposals, however, that explore the impact of violence on families and society in general, or the perspective of victims of crime. Exceptions have been Ilan Sandler’s Arrest (2000 to 2003) and Sharyn O’Mara’s Victim Impact Statement (2010). We hope to see more installations on those themes in the future.

PAST GRANTEES

Check out the previous successful proposals and call ESP! Its staff are available to discuss the logistics of the proposal process and the history and significance of Eastern State Penitentiary.

DEADLINE: JUNE 17TH, 2015

ALL INFORMATIONS

Additional Resources

Sample Proposals
Past Installations

For more information contact Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President and Director of Public Programming, at sk@easternstate.org or telephone on (215) 236-5111, with extension #13.

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Prison Obscura is currently at the mid-point of its New York showing at Parsons The New School of Design. At this moment, I wanted to share with you a few installation shots made by Marc Tatti for Parsons.

I also took the opportunity to re-issue the Prison Obscura catalogue essay (originally published by Haverford College) on Medium. Read Can Photographs of Prisons Improve the Lives of Prisoners?

I have hi-res images of all artworks and installation shots. Should you need any, drop me a line.

Enjoy the weekend!

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All images: Marc Tatti.

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THE VISUAL CULTURE OF PRISON RESISTANCE

Liz Pelly‘s conversation with Josh MacPhee in The Media is a wonderful read. It coincided with MacPhee and his cohort’s incredible exhibition of prisoner made protest materials going all the way back to the early seventies.

MacPhee urges us to dismantle the idea that prisons are separate from outside society. Crucially, he’s not making, in the first instance, a moral point about how we’re all the same, prisoners and all. MacPhee makes an observation of the structural characteristics of the prison system.

“It’s getting harder and harder to hold up the pretense that prison is somehow distinct from the rest of society,” says MacPhee. “When there’s this many people going in and out all of the time, there’s no way that our lives out here don’t leak into there, and that their lives in there don’t leak out into the rest of society. The idea that these are completely separate realms needs to be dismantled.”

Of course, once the structural facts of the system are revealed, the moral point that we are all one-and-the-same, prisoners and all, is indisputable.

I contacted Pelly and asked if I could republish the conversation. It originally appeared as Inside/Out: On Prison Justice, Art of the Incarcerated, and Interference Archive’s New Show in Issue #44 of The Media (October 10, 2014). It is a privilege to feature Pelly and MacPhee’s interview in full here on the blog.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

Between September 11th and November 16, 2014, Interference Archive exhibited, Self-Determination Inside/Out: Prison Movements Reshaping Society a look back at the visual and material culture of prisoner-led political movements.

Organized by Molly Fair, Josh MacPhee, Anika Paris, Laura Whitehorn, and Ryan Wong, Self-Determination Inside/Out includes sections on the work of incarcerated AIDS educators, the experiences of women and queer prisoners, prison and control unit prisons. The exhibition features prison newsletters, pamphlets, video and audio interviews, prints, photography (!!!) and magazine covers — starting with materials created during the 1971 Attica Rebellion, a massive prisoner uprising in upstate New York, and concluding with work made by current political prisoners, the show highlights moments of self-organization within the prison industrial complex.

You can buy a booklet and a poster for the exhibition.

Interference Archive is a volunteer-run archive in Gowanus, Brooklyn, dedicated to preserving cultural ephemera related to social movements.

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Inside/Out: On Prison Justice, Art of the Incarcerated, and Interference Archive’s New Show

Liz Pelly (LP): What initially inspired the creation of Interference Archive, which mostly houses ephemeral material like posters, t-shirts, and newsletters?

Josh MacPhee (JM): For the different people involved, there are different answers of course. For me, I grew up making this stuff through DIY music, cultural stuff, politics. Through the act of doing, I started collecting it. Flyers, t-shirts, buttons, the ephemera that gets produced by people who are organizing. It was a combination of wanting to understand the history of what I was doing and then at the same time, I was getting really interested in this idea of how people make art and culture in the context of trying to their lives. It’s distinct from art that’s produced purely in the realm of self expression, and the art that tends circulate within the contemporary art world.

This kind of material gets lost. It’s often not clearly authored. Institutions that deal with art don’t quite know what to do with it. Since it’s so political, places like history museums don’t know what to do with it either. It sort of falls through the cracks. But we can see during times like Occupy, or Tahrir Square in Egypt, or with the Maidan in the Ukraine, that this is the stuff of life, [created] when transformation starts to happen. When people have their arms shoulder deep into the constructions of representations of a new world, and the way they want things to be articulated.

For me, doing an archive was a way to say, “just because these moments come and go, and movements have ebbs and flows, doesn’t mean that once the peak has been reached that this material isn’t still valuable to us, to where we’ve come from and therefore where we are going.”

LP: That said, how do you think this sort of exhibit in particular shines light on the experiences of prisoners?

JM: There were five of us who organized this exhibition, and most of us have been engaged with issues around prisons in different ways, whether having been formerly incarcerated, or working with prison activism programs. As far as I know, nothing like this has ever been done before.

We live in a moment where over two million people are in prison. It’s getting harder and harder to hold up the pretense that prison is somehow distinct from the rest of society. When there’s this many people going in and out all of the time, there’s no way that our lives out here don’t leak into there, and that their lives in there don’t leak out into the rest of society. The idea that these are completely separate realms needs to be dismantled.

We thought it was important to marshal primary source material to show that people aren’t just objects of repression or study or someone else’s activism. But they have done immense amounts of organizing inside themselves. Often times that organizing takes place at the same time, or sometimes even ahead of, what people were doing on the outside. Some of the focus we have on organizing around AIDS and AIDS education in prison was really fascinating and important because it shows how people that had the least access to medical care were doing in some cases the most organizing in order to try to deal with a problem that at the time the government was not even acknowledging existed.

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LP: Can you tell me more about your own experiences with prison reform activism?

JM: I first learned about how the prison system functions in the early 1990s. It just sort of blew my mind that there was a whole world of people who largely because of race and class were basically being warehoused. And that, at the time, it was completely absent from the radar of public In the 90s, the only thing discussed in relationship to prisons and criminal justice was this sort of “tough on crime” thing. There was no acknowledgment that a massive increase of the prison population going on, and that it wasn’t actually working. And that the system that decided who went in and out was so manifestly unjust, random often.

That sent me on a path of doing organizing around prison issues. I started in Ohio, and then did some work in Colorado, and then in Chicago. A lot of the organizing I did was around Control Unit Prisons, basically trying to stop solitary confinement. [Organizing around] these men and women who were spending twenty-three-and-a-half or twenty-four hours a day alone in their cells, and the psychological damage that causes and how it basically goes against international conventions of torture, yet it’s completely commonplace in this country.

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LP: Over the past year, there has been lot of in the news about the racist criminal justice system. It’s an apt time for Self-Determination Inside/Out: Prison Movements Reshaping Society. But obviously there is a lot of history of racism in the criminal justice system that this brings to light. Were you inspired to put this together because of recent events, or has this exhibit been in the works longer?

JM: We worked on the exhibition for 6 months. As a space, as an institution, one of our goals is to take this material that’s perceived as marginal and present it in ways that will allow it to be in its own context, but also to actually show that it’s not marginal. Our primary audience is not people who already necessarily agree with everything that would be in this exhibition. We are conscious of, and trying to take advantage of, a moment.

The question becomes, how do we push [the discussion] farther? If we say mass incarceration is not okay, at what point is incarceration okay? If 2 million people in cages is not acceptable, is 1.9 million people in acceptable? Or 1.8? Once you start asking those questions it opens up the space to say, “this whole system is just absolutely corrupt.”

Mass incarceration accomplishes a number of things, none of which are its stated goals. It accomplishes deeply suppressing working class communities of color. That’s never been articulated as what the prison system is supposed to do. It’s just clear that that’s what it does. It clearly is completely ineffectual at actually dealing with crime.

LP: What are some underreported sides to the prison industrial complex that you hope this exhibit brings to light?

JM: The fastest growing portion of the prison population for years now has been women.

Increasingly there is a real gendered aspect of being able to look at how the criminal justice system works. Increasingly it’s used to enforce gender binaries. It’s a brutal system for queer and trans people that get sucked up into it. People are doing a lot of organizing around it now, but until recently, it was assumed if you were gender non-conforming, they have to choose where to put you, and then once they chose a men or a women’s prison, then almost immediately you’d get sent to solitary confinement. You’d do your sentence out in solitary confinement, in complete isolation, because the system is not prepared to deal with gender non-conformity. You are being punished because your very existence challenges the bureaucratic way the system works.

It’s really clear that women who refuse to be abused, who fight back against abusers, almost always get pulled into the criminal justice system. So we have things like Trayvon Martin being shot, and Zimmerman getting off. But any woman that stops an attack from an abuser is inevitably going to do time because that’s just absolutely taboo.

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LP: What were the biggest challenges to getting this exhibit together?

JM: Each exhibition has unique challenges and obstacles, and then there are ones that are sort of similar across the board. For this exhibition, was just that cultural material produced by incarcerated people is hard to access. A lot of it is made in prison and then just never leaves prison.

In general, one of the challenges for all of the exhibitions, is that unless we do something that’s very focused, inevitably there’s so much stuff it’s hard to know when to say “okay we’ve got enough” or to know when to draw the lines. It’s hard to know when to accept that you’re never going to have all of the stuff that you wish you could, that you’re never going to be able to tell the whole story, that maybe even the idea that you’re going to tell some sort of master narrative is questionable in its own right.

When you’re representing things that are so deeply underrepresented, people get attached to wanting their part of the story told, because it’s been marginal or silenced for so long. It makes it really hard to make those choices, because you don’t want anyone else to continue to feel [that way].

We are collecting material from movements that are marginal. Even though they often have extremely deep impacts, rarely is that impact known or visible when they’re most active. It’s kind of like an extra kick in the face when your ideas become commonplace 10 or 20 years later and you’re still written out of the history even though you’re the ones who came up with the ideas.

LP: What do you hope, in general, visitors learn from Self-Determination: Inside/Out?

JM: On the one hand, I hope this contributes to a shift [towards] the idea that prisons are maybe not the answer to the problems that they claim to be. And that locking people in cages is not actually accomplishing what we’re being told it is.

On another level, that incarcerated people are not just objects. They’re loved ones and family members and neighbors and community members. The thing that primarily defines someone as a human being is not whether or not they’re in prison. That people that happen to find themselves in prison, many for reasons that are and then also at the same time many for doing reprehensible things, doesn’t make them not human. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the same desires, life goals, and relationships that everyone else has. And as such, the way that they conceive themselves and their world is part of, needs to be part of, any movement for social transformation.

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THE PEOPLE

The Interference Archive is a collection of posters, flyers, publications, photographs, books, t-shirts, buttons, moving images, audio recordings, and other materials, made by participants of social movements throughout past decades. It is an archive “from below” — collectively run space, powered by people, and with open stacks accessible to all. The Interference Archive explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements. It provides public exhibitions, a study and social center, talks, screenings, publications, workshops, and an online presence, with an aim to preserve and honor histories and material culture that are often marginalized in mainstream institutions. It is at 131 8th Street, #4
, Brooklyn, NY 11215
 (2 blocks from F/G/R trains at 4th Ave/9th Street).

Josh MacPhee is an artist, curator and activist living in Brooklyn, NY. MacPhee is one of the founder of the Just Seeds Artists’ Cooperative, which organizes, creates and distributes radical art. MacPhee is the author of Stencil Pirates: A Global Study of the Street Stencil, which is dedicated to stencil street art. He co-edited Realizing the Impossible: Art Against AuthorityReproduce and Revolt and the upcoming Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today. In 2001 he co-organized the Department of Space and Land Reclamation in Chicago with Emily Forman and Nato Thompson. In 2008 he co-curated the exhibition Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960’s to Now with Dara Greenwald.

Liz Pelly is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. I lives and works at the all-ages collectively-run art space The Silent Barn, where she books (and sometimes plays) shows. She and her friends run the ad-free bi-weekly online newspaper The Media.

The Media is a webpaper covering alternative arts, culture, music, news, and grassroots activism. With contributors often embedded in the communities they cover, The Media aims to bridge the gap between underground presses and mainstream media. Crucially, it is AD-FREE and simply designed. “At a moment marked by short attention spans, decentralized click-bait articles, and newspapers in flux, rethinking the aesthetics of our news websites feels just as crucial as re-imagining their content,” says The Media. “We want our content to resonate on its own merit, free of frivolity and flash, and grounded by a homepage that’s striking in its radical simplicity.”

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After stints at Haverford College, PA; Scripps, CA; and Rutgers, NJ, my first solo-curated effort Prison Obscura is all grown up and headed to New York.

It’ll be showing at Parsons The New School of Design February 5th – April 17th:

Specifically, it’s at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, located at 2 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10011.

On Thursday, February 5th at 5:45 p.m, I’ll be doing a curator’s talk. The opening reception follows 6:30–8:30 p.m. It’d be great to see you there.

Here’s the Parsons blurb:

The works in Prison Obscura vary from aerial views of prison complexes to intimate portraits of incarcerated individuals. Artist Josh Begley and musician Paul Rucker use imaging technology to depict the sheer size of the prison industrial complex, which houses 2.3 million Americans in more than 6000 prisons, jails and detention facilities at a cost of $70 billion per year; Steve Davis led workshops for incarcerated juvenile in Washington State to reveal their daily lives; Kristen S. Wilkins collaborates with female prisoners on portraits with the aim to compete against the mugshots used for both news and entertainment in mainstream media; Robert Gumpert presents a nine-year project pairing portraits and audio recordings of prisoners from San Francisco jails; Mark Strandquist uses imagery to provide a window into the histories, realities and desires of some incarcerated Americans; and Alyse Emdur illuminates moments of self-representations with collected portraits of prisoners and their families taken in prison visiting rooms as well as her own photographs of murals in situ on visiting room walls, and a mural by members of the Restorative Justice and Mural Arts Programs at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, PA. Also, included are images presented as evidence during the landmark Brown v. Plata case, a class action lawsuit that which went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where it was ruled that every prisoner in the California State prison system was suffering cruel and unusual punishment due to overcrowded facilities and the failure by the state to provide adequate physical and mental healthcare.

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Parsons has scheduled a grip of programming while the show is on the walls:

Mid-day discussion with curator Pete Brook and Tim Raphael, Director, The Center for Migration and the Global City, Rutgers University-Newark.
Wednesday, February 4, 12:00–1:30 p.m.
Co-hosted with the Humanities Action Lab.

These Images Won’t Tell You What You Want: Collaborative Photography and Social Justice.
Friday, February 27, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Mark Strandquist.

Windows from Prison
Saturday, February 28
A workshop led by Mark Strandquist. More information about participation will be available on the website.

Visualizing Carceral Space
Thursday, March 12, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Josh Begley.

Please spread the word. Here’s a bunch of images for your use.

PARTNERS

At The New School, Prison Obscura connects to Humanities Action Lab (HAL) Global Dialogues on Incarceration, an interdisciplinary hub that brings together a range of university-wide, national, and global partnerships to foster public engagement on America’s prison system.

Prison Obscura is a traveling exhibition made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.

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TORTURE REVELATIONS

It was a double whammy this week. Everyone noticed the 6,000 page report into CIA torture. Many won’t know that today was the day that Justice Department attorneys presented the Obama administrations rationale for suppressing over 2,100 photos and videos of torture by American military personnel in Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has argued that releasing them would inflame anti-American sentiment abroad and place Americans at risk. Federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York is not so easily convinced and wants the government to explain, photograph by photograph, how each might pose a threat to national security. The fight to release these photos dates to 2004, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

David Levi Strauss has tracked these developments from the very beginning. Several chapters in his new book is Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014) deal directly with the war over control of torture photos.

CONVERSATION

Strauss and I, for WIRED talked about state secrets, how the brain is wired, the political power of images and whether or not photos of Osama Bin Laden’s corpse actually exist.

WIRED: Why has the release of 2,000-plus remaining images and videos made by US military personnel in Abu Ghraib not been resolved?

Strauss: Because of the effectiveness of the images. They became the symbol of the change in US policy to include torture. Images are very powerful. That’s why the US government has become very afraid of the effects of these images worldwide.

The other amazing thing about the Abu Ghraib images was that they crossed the boundary between private and public. That is unusual. It changed things for photojournalism, for the military, certainly, and for the public at large. Prior to the release of the Abu Ghraib images, the military was handing out cameras to soldiers so that they could use photos to stay in touch with their families, and to be used operationally.

Read the full conversation: The War Over the US Government’s Unreleased Torture Pictures.

[All images for this Prison Photography post via Salon]

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The banality of the design is on full display. The windowed room is where lethal chemicals are stored and used. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

In 2006, the State of California approved a plan to construct a new execution chamber at San Quentin Prison. This week, The Avery Review published an article by Raphael Sperry titled Death by Design: An Execution Chamber at San Quentin State Prison which breaks down the budgeting, the politics and the design wrapped up in the contentious project. Not to mention the secrecy surrounding many details. Just as we’ve learnt about supply chains of chemicals for new drug “cocktails” being used by States to murder people, so too Sperry takes an in-depth look at the manufacturers behind the apparatus of death. It’s a wonderful, informed and terrifying breakdown of what we do to deliver “justice.” It’s a lovely foil to my past lyrics on the aqua green aesthetics of murder at San Quentin and it reveals the absurdity of the death penalty, the most vicious and foolishly symbolic of punishments.

“The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility,” writes Sperry. It’s a project all about sight — political oversight, design based upon sight-lines for both executioner and witnesses. Sperry’s insights are chilling and revelatory. Below, I’ve selected the parts that intrigued me most, but you really should head over to The Avery Review to read the piece in full.

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CAD Model for San Quentin Lethal Injection Facility. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

DEATH BY DESIGN

Painted sheetrock walls, resilient flooring, vinyl cove base, and fluorescent lighting are used in a thoroughly predictable and pedestrian manner, much like a dentist’s office in a strip mall. The buttresses of the adjacent prison housing block, which a more creative designer might have incorporated, are instead covered by new framing; a storage room is used to occupy one of these irregular alcoves. But there is more to this design than meets the eye. Sometimes the banal is not ordinary.

The all-new facility for lethal injection provides more workspace around the body of the condemned man, an adjacent secure workspace and chemical storage room, and separated viewing areas for the various categories of observers. […] Bureaucratic skullduggery initially led to an unrealistically low project budget of $399,000: just under the $400,000 requirement to request legislative authorization of the project.7 Perhaps some secret executive-branch projects stay secret; in this case the state legislature found out about the project, causing further delays (they weren’t happy about having been hoodwinked) and an eventual approved budget increase to over $850,000. This included the use of inmate labor provided by the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (CDCR) vocational training program.

The general layout of the suite of rooms was borrowed from previously completed projects in other states. Unlike in other states, where death chamber design materials are generally only available when they have been released in response to lawsuits, the final project was presented on a tour that included the federal judge presiding in the case, reporters, and a press release that included output of the CAD model used to design the project (now no longer available). Still, when I made a public request for the identity of the architect(s) and engineer(s) responsible for the project, CDCR would not provide an answer.

The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility. CDCR exercised unusual control of the project budget in order to try to keep the project invisible. Yet a floor plan of the design proposal eventually became part of the court record submitted by CDCR to prove the constitutionality of the new facility, making it permanently available to the public. Newspapers published photos of the competed chamber and ancillary spaces and developed infographics of the layout. Nevertheless, today it is an incredibly difficult space for members of the public to visit unless they are part of the highly specified group of participants in or observers of an execution.

Perhaps in the same spirit, or perhaps because of the general obsession with the control of sight lines in prison environments, visibility within the Lethal Injection Room itself is carefully controlled. Witnessing the death of the condemned man is a central component of the execution ritual, with prescribed access for family members of the condemned man, family members of the victim, prison staff, and witnesses to verify that vengeance has been earned for the aggrieved public. Accordingly, the execution room is something of a fishbowl, surrounded on all sides by windows, including a band of wall-to-wall glazing for the public witness and media viewing room. However, mirrored glass is used along the line where the victim’s family might see the inmate’s family: a line that crosses the body of the condemned man, as the two families are positioned at opposite ends of the room just as they are presumed to be of opposite sympathies regarding the murder. Although it is not uncommon for the family of the victim in capital cases to object to the execution of the perpetrator, either out of a generalized objection to killing or after personal reconciliation, the plan denies the opportunity for this kind of potentially healing contact between families. Just as positions of state-driven authority are fixed in a courtroom, with a jury one level up and the judge above them, the dichotomous relations of innocent and guilty inherent in the finality of the death penalty are fixed around the body of the condemned man.

[…]

The death penalty debate, especially in California, now hangs on a tenuous balance between the desire for revenge (an “eye for an eye”) and revulsion at the spectacle of suffering driven by our own blood lust (with a subtext of racism). CDCR—the department charged with conducting executions, and the owner of the chamber in architectural parlance—would clearly prefer to go about its business and has a long history of avoiding public oversight (unsuccessfully in this case), but continuing the death penalty is subject to judgment by a California electorate that is trending toward abolition. Part of the design’s banality (and its low-budget, medical undertones) may be intended to visually deescalate the death penalty debate in order to perpetuate the status quo. But perhaps even the CDCR embodies the same unresolved questions about execution that continue to reverberate in ballot referendums, courtrooms, and public debates. The bland nature of the execution chamber may also indicate a lack of investment in the procedure’s future, a realization that this is no permanent edifice but rather a set of rooms that may be demolished or at least renovated for some other purpose before long.

RAPHAEL SPERRY

Raphael Sperry is an architect and green building consultant, President of Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility, and Adjunct Professor at California College of the Arts where he teaches the course “Rights, Power, and Design.” He is writing a book on architecture and human rights.

THE AVERY REVIEW

The Avery Review is a new online journal dedicated to thinking about books, buildings, and other architectural media. It’s aim is to explore the broader implications of a given object of discourse (whether text, film, exhibition, building, project, or urban environment) and to test and expand the reviewer’s own intellectual commitments.

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The Lethal Injection Facility is the windowless box adjacent to the older, still functional cell block. The CMU exterior walls predate the interior renovations for the new death chamber.

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Injection Room. Window and hose ports to Infusion Control Room at right, mirrored window for victim family viewing in center, public witness / media gallery on extreme left. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

ADPSR

This is the last week you have to catch the ADPSR-created exhibition Sentenced: Architecture & Human Rights at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.

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Pursuant to my recent conversation with Beth Nakamura, I feel it necessary to focus on particular aspect of Oregon’s prison system on which she and Bryan Denson reported. The Blue Room.

Inside the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) at Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Institution, Nakamura photographed the Blue Room, a space in which prisoners watch videos of nature. Nakamura’s photographs and Denson’s words is the first news reporting on this fringe behavioural management method.

Firstly, why does the Blue Room exist? Prisoners in solitary are completely deprived of nature. In the IMU at Snake River, they are locked in their cell for 23 hours and 20 minutes every day. Prisoners’ only time outside of their windowless cell is 40 minutes in a concrete pen with high walls and a metal grate between they and the sky. IMU, the hole, SHU, the cooler, the box, solitary, call it what you like, extreme isolation makes men mad. Solitary is psychological torture. Neuroscience proves as much. Solitary is deprivation made physical.

The working hypothesis of the Blue Room is that exposure to video recorded scenes of nature will calm prisoners. It began operation in April 2013.

Let’s just pause right there and consider what  is happening here. Let’s consider the carceral logic and policies from which the Blue Room has emerged. The state has decided to isolate prisoners in bare cells, with only artificial light, in a state of near total sensory deprivation, for 23 in every 24 hours. Let’s not speculate why prisoners are isolated; I’m less interested in what behaviours land a prisoner in the harshest custody conditions, and more interested in if and how those custody conditions improve or exacerbate existing problems and/or create new problems.

There are many employees of the state — such as Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU at Snake River — who acknowledge that solitary destroys one’s sense of self. In his article, Denson quotes Gilbertson:

“I’ve seen over the years how an inmate will come into the facility, and they’ll almost appear to be completely normal,” Gilbertson said. “After a phase of isolation, those guys – especially those guys with mental health issues – tend to decompensate. They break down and go a different route. And it brings out a whole different person in them.”

Nearly two-thirds of the 200+ men in Snake River’s IMU suffer moderate to severe mental illness. Solitary makes them more prone to violence.

In the past 25 years, states across the U.S. have built, staffed and populated Supermax prisons that specialise in abuse. Once in operation, even well-meaning employees and mental health care-givers can’t change the structure therein; their primary function is to limit the damage of the rigid, brutalising environment.

If we really wanted to provide prisoners with some nature, we could open a gate and let them go sit out in the yard for the afternoon! Put a window in their cell?! Give them exercise options beyond the standard “dog-pen.” But no. From within a carceral logic that says controlled bodies stay within the walls, ludicrous makeshift responses such as the Blue Room emerge.

When I first learned of the Blue Room’s existence, I immediately thought to the scene from the film A Clockwork Orange in which the character Alex has his eyes pinned open and is forced to view “scenes of ultra-violence.” The notion that psychological ills can be rectified by the sights and sounds of projected montages, for me, is the domain of fiction. What would Stanley Kubrick make of this private screening room? Or Anthony Burgess, for that matter? Would they conclude that Snake River prison is as dystopic as the near-future-Britain they created in novel and cinema?

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Film still, from A Clockwork Orange (1971), by Stanley Kubrick.

My first question about the Blue Room is not does it work? Rather, I have to wonder, why does it need to exist? What conditions of social order and disciplinary regime give rise to its “need” and justification?

The Blue Room is a pilot program drawing upon lesser-tested theories in eco-psychology. Denson explains that it came into being through a series of conversations.

In a 2010 TED talk, biologist Nalini Nadkarni talked generally about how nature can be used to rehabilitate and prisoners with jobs skills. At the time, I thought Nadkarni’s implementation of programs to identify moss species and raise endangered frogs as part of the Prison Sustainability Project was fantastic. I still do. Laudable initiatives. (I’ve talked about Nadkarni-started projects here and here on the blog before).

During her TED talk, Nadkarni mentioned she was thinking about installing large-scale murals of nature in the Supermax facilities of Washington. The Washington DOC was supportive but the correctional officers were opposed and the idea was shelved. Then, in late 2012, a Snake River corrections officer named Kevin Karpati watched the TED talk. Karpati emailed the link to Mark Nooth, the prison’s superintendent. Nooth, in turn, emailed the link to Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU. Gilbertson contacted Nadkarni and asked if it could work.

This is where I wish to acknowledge that the people involved in instituting the Blue Room are making — from within a very restrictive law enforcement environment — efforts to improve the lot of prisoners. They have initiated the Blue Room as a response to severe deficiencies in the system. They cannot change the penal codes and administrative laws, but they can change the available practices within the walls. The Blue Room is an attempt to restore positive sensory input within a facility that routinely denies such inputs.

Nadkarni said she hoped it would work but had no evidence. All agreed that the only way to know was to test the hypothesis. An interior exercise room was converted to a screening room with projector and two chairs.

Nadkarni, along with National Gepgraphic documentary-maker Tierney Thys sourced nature videos. Many came from the NatGeo archives: Big Sur, New Zealand, Costa Rica, mountains, rivers, forest, tropical beaches, underwater reefs, roaring fires and a couple dozen other videos.

[Previously, I’ve written about bibliotherapy (the calculated use of reading lists to spur prisoners’ self-directed correction of “deviance”) in San Quentin Prison in the 1950s. The videotherapy at play in the Blue Room could be interpreted as a modern day equivalent. Words replaced by images?]

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Denson reports that early anecdotes and observations suggest that the Blue Room can have a calming effect. “Lance Schnacker, a researcher for the Oregon Youth Authority, studied the disciplinary records of Snake River’s IMU inmates in the year before, and the year after, the Blue Room opened,” writes Denson. “He calculated that those who didn’t get the unique therapy posted more referrals for disciplinary infractions, while those allowed to use the Blue Room showed a slight dip. Schnacker cautioned that these data were preliminary, but promising.”

Should we be surprised? Give prisoners any small amount of added agency and the opportunity to take-in stimulus that breaks the norm and the monotony then, I’d argue, we would observe a change in behaviour. And most likely, toward the positive. Again, I am left to wonder why prison administrations are initiating small-scale projects such as the Blue Room, instead of taking a step back and recognising that the institutional logic which returns to solitary time-and-time again is the more fundamental issue to address.

Nadkarni, Thys, Schnacker and eco-psychologist Patricia H. Hasbach are set work with Snake River staffers to observe prisoners, conduct surveys and correlate results to existing mental health files. They hope to be able to determine to what degree exactly the Blue Room calms prisoners.

However, determining whether the Blue Room does or does not reduce suicidal or violent tendencies is a red herring. The study misses the point. Whether prisoners see 20-minute long reels of guppy fish and seaweed, or not, doesn’t alter the fact that solitary confinement makes people lose their minds. Why are we interested in mitigating the effects of a barbarous facility when we should be dismantling the walls of the facility altogether?

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All images: Beth Nakamura

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prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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