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Matthew Gunther

PREAMBLE

Prisons are but one step in the criminal justice machine. After the division and disciplining brought by a society of economic inequality, the next most abrupt interaction for U.S. citizens with state structures is likely to be that with police and other law enforcement officials. In 2012, just shy of 12,200,000 arrests were made nationwide.

That’s one arrest every 2 seconds. Arrests for marijuana-related offenses alone occurred at a rate of one every 42 seconds.

These figures does not include traffic citations.

At any given time, there are nearly 7 million American’s under correctional supervision — roughly about 2.3 million in prisons or jails and 4.6 million on probation or parole. In any given year 13 million individuals will be locked up for a given period.

Given that police are the sharp end of many of these fractious interactions, it makes sense for us to look at a body of work that focuses deeply on a single city’s police force.

Between 2003 and 2011, Matt Gunther was — on and off — effectively embedded with the Newark Police Department in New Jersey. Gunther’s resulting book Probable Cause (Schilt Publishing, 2014) is one of the most rounded, smartly edited bodies of work on police work I’ve encountered. It is, remarkably, sympathetic to all involved. The police and citizens (particularly those photographed in the precinct) are dealt an equal hand. Within its pages, the drudgery of employment meets the complex issues of social order.

You can see a 15 page preview of Probable Cause here.

Matthew Gunther and I chat about fear, persistence, allegiances, the inside-view, where a book comes from, and boozing with cops before a vice squad bust. Scroll down for our conversation.

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The following Q&A has been edited from a longer conversation.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): You worked in Newark a long time. Did you always intend it to be a book or did that emerge as you worked? 

Matthew Gunther (MG): My issue as a person or as a photographer is that I would not go the whole-nine-yards on a project. I’d get very deep into any project and then it would peter out. This project on Newark was on the verge of petering out many times — it was such an endless pit of imagery and I just couldn’t let go. Until this day, I could still be shooting. Joshua Lutz told me to stop shooting, to edit my images and that I had a book.

So, I did not know it was to be a book. I just started this project. It was cathartic. My projects tackle my fears, or dive into my loves.

PP: Newark is known for it’s toughness and it’s poverty. How did you come to be working so intimately with the police force?

MG: I was taking an ex-girlfriend to Newark airport and we got lost. I’m a native New Yorker, and instantly fell in love with this city so close to my hometown.

I would take my 35mm camera and spend days walking through Newark and still it took me probably about six months to figure out. It’s a pretty tough city. New York is not that tough anymore. Newark feels like New York may have done in the eighties, perhaps. I wanted to do something that is constant in this metropolitan area: cops and liquor stores.

Each project that I’ve done before or since Newark was always to tackle my fears. I grew up in New York as sort of an art-jock with other jocks and street kids, skateboarders and graffiti artists. I had the artistic gift but I didn’t have the strength to show my artistic skills against these tough kids and I guess as soon as I became an adult I was always trying to go back to that place.

Access? I almost hate to say it. My mother was the Head of the Democratic Club of the West Side of New York and I called her up and asked how I’d get into access to the cops. She gave me the number of a retired police captain in Florida. My mom is a waddling, older Jewish woman who knows everyone on the street. My father as well. Born and raised here. The captain in Florida gave me the name of the captain over at the Newark Police Department. It was 8 months of getting denied and constantly sending repeated proposals.

Then, one day out of the blue, I got a phone call, “Matt, you are accepted. What do you want to do?”

Matthew Gunther

Matthew Gunther

Matthew Gunther

PP: It seems like you almost become an artist in residence? The door had been open by this higher official. 

MG: You could say that. In the beginning, I had to tell the NPD that I wasn’t going to sell pictures to a magazine. It was strictly an art project and if it became something else I had to tell them. I was happy to promise that as I had no idea where the project might go.

I just wanted to shoot. I didn’t go looking for funding money. I’m dyslexic and so it’s hard for me to write proposals. Even to write a simple proposal takes me a while, but put a camera in my hand and I’m okay. But I wrote a proposal for the project. They didn’t really care if it was an art or not. They just didn’t want me to sue them if I got killed. I was happy to sign away.

Matthew Gunther

MG: Newark is a special place. It was truly like the wild west. Back then, it didn’t look like 2003; it looks like ’91 or ’89. It feels like there’s a gap of about 15 years between big brother New York and this, the biggest city [in the region] outside of New York which is only half-an-hour away. I was always a big Sidney Lumet fan. And films like Siegel’s The French Connection and Friedkin’s Dirty Harry. Newark brought back that sort of aesthetic sensibility.

By deciding to shoot with a large format 8×10 camera I decided I was okay to miss images. It was my way of slowing down and trying to control some of my reality. I constantly moved and I did shoot some images on a Fuji 6×9.

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PP: What reactions did you get from the police officers? 

MG: The older cops loved it. Once they knew I wasn’t a reporter and that I wasn’t out to exploit them, I became a fly on the wall. Even with the 8×10 camera! The older guys loved the big camera. They loved history and they ate it up. The younger cops couldn’t care less. They just wanted me to stay out of their way. I had freedom and rarely did I get bothered. Even the non-cops seemed not to worry.

PP: I suppose they had other things to worry about?

MG: Often. There were girls doing tricks in the back of a Portuguese restaurant. I spent time with them. Then when I came out with my camera, I turned it on a girl who was in a towncar for a good 45 minutes. Just waiting on her friend. She was scared to come out because she was scared that the cops would arrest her.

PP: When you were out on the street, were you traveling with police officers and then exiting the vehicle with your camera equipment to begin shooting? Did people on the street see you arrive with the officers?

MG: I was doing drive alongs. With my 8 x 10 I wanted to set up like old imaging and see what I could get. A lot of my enjoyment was in not taking the photograph. I’ve always enjoyed these types of projects as much as I do taking the photograph. But, I just would tell them what I want to do and if they said move along I’m moving along. Maybe with my 35mm I’d be a little more aggressive.

PP: But was there a reaction from people on the streets shaped by the fact you were with police officers? 

MG: There were moments where I was definitely one of the cops … even though I didn’t look like it. I looked like a photographer.

There were times that I would take my camera into Newark gentlemen’s clubs and there were all these gang-members. The cops were vicious at some moments; it felt like Hollywood to them sometimes. And, there were moments on the street when kids wanted their pictures taken.

There were tense moments on the streets when civilians felt vulnerable but I felt I needed to get that image. I often felt really bad and grappled with those moments for many days. I was justified as an artist; I had to get these images.

Matthew Gunther

Matthew Gunther

Matthew Gunther

MG: You know, I was a street kid and I got into many fights, but I also grew up white in Manhattan. The privileges I had. No matter how bad it was, if you come from a white educated family…

But, it’s not an even-playing field. I always had to deal with that. In Newark, cops are on one side and they took full advantage of it. Once the vice squad came out and busted these women doing tricks. Beforehand, the cops were drinking while we ate at a Portuguese restaurant right by the headquarters. We were drinking beers and doing shots and I remember saying, “Is this okay? That we’re going out there?”

“We’re doing whatever we want. I’m the captain of the vice squad,” was the attitude.

That wouldn’t have happened in the New York Police Department, there’s way too much bureaucracy there.

Matthew Gunther

PP: Some of your night time group shots (below) look like Rembrandt paintings. Two or three sets of eyeballs looking at you as the photographer. The composition of the group. The lighting. 

MG: When the cops do these weekend sweeps, you have this vice squad and you have a truckload of cops — about 6 cars full of cops. Every weekend. This is where the cat-and-mouse comes in between cops and perps. This caravan would come through all the neighborhoods that they knew had some issues or drugs problems; the same exact neighborhoods. This, basically, went on every Friday at 12 o’clock.

The kids at the school yard knew exactly what was coming, and you can just see they’re exhausted from it. If it happened to me as a kid, we’d have a politician at them, or someone would be getting into a fight with the cop with, ‘How dare you stop our night.’

The looks on especially the two kids sitting in their white T-shirts, that’s how I sort of felt shooting. Those are the moments when I truly grappled with what I was doing there, and where I almost had the same sense they had to the cops — that it’s just too much.

Matthew Gunther

Matthew Gunther

PP: Tell us mores about Joshua Lutz’s encouragement? 

MG: When I first met Josh the project needed polishing. I’d have let it peter out. Even so, I would still constantly show friends and mentors the work. They all said I had something great and those comments just kept on pushing me back to work. Lutz said all I needed to do was fill in some holes.

I liked Josh’s sensibility. He was getting into publishing and we understood New Jersey. We knew the printer had to be right. Through Dutch publisher Schilt in Amsterdam, we found a printer in Germany and we let the German’s do what they do so well.

PP: When I saw the post-industrial landscapes in Probable Cause I immediately thought of Lutz’s Meadowlands.

MG: Originally, I wanted to document the sense of place in Newark. Later, I fell in love with the cops and how they looked. I started asking them to join me outside and then I developed toward shooting landscapes so it had so many different branches.

Maybe, the 4×5 and the 6×9 sort of helped me live on in this project longer. Does that make sense? How do all these wires connect? How does this urban existence work? Can you feel the hum of it all? Might it explode at any point?

Matthew Gunther

Matthew Gunther

PP: There’s a constant precariousness to the work. There’s homage to labor, but it’s not “pure.” The work is very deliberate but it’s also uncomfortable because of your obvious privilege to be in that space. This fact is underlined when we see a photograph of a cop with a camera taking a picture of an arrested individual.

On the inside covers, front and back, there are walls of Polaroids of suspects.

MG: Matthew Sharpe talks about them very well in his introductory essay. He asks, ‘Can you tell the difference between the cops and the suspects?’

PP: There’s a very honest presence of photography and it’s many uses — it’s both art and it’s also an apparatus of power and control and policing. I think this is one of the successes of the book.

MG: I had probably over 300 negatives of large format images. Josh and I edited to a hundred pages. It was difficult.

PP: I also wanted to ask about the cover picture. It is a very different picture to all of the photographs within.

MG: I kept coming back to the image on the front of one of the editions of Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood. I could not get it out of my head that I needed a sky image. I needed clouds.

Matthew Gunther

cover

MG: I needed something that had some significance about the formation of society, or this world, or the wasteland that Newark is, or New Jersey. The cover is a shot of a beautiful sky above beautiful wetlands but it is also a site where the cops found a body.

Joel Sternfeld did Haunting Grounds, a book on hate and environmental crimes.

PP: A very powerful juxtaposition of seemingly innocuous scenes and horrifying back-stories.

MG: And that’s how I felt the book should be. At one point, it was just going to be Newark but then it became something more. The landscapes made it something more.

Matthew Gunther

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PP: Can you talk about the attitudes in Newark and New Jersey toward crime. What were the relationships between the police force and citizens like? What’s the background — learned from your photographing for almost a decade — that we should know? 

MG: Newark is predominantly African American and there is a large portion of Portuguese. Then there’s Ironbound which can be a little more blue collar but it’s predominantly poor African Americans.

The Newark PD is one of the largest police forces, and in 2001, I think, it was 50% African American police. Now I think that it is 70% African-American. It’s a huge difference to go out with an all-white force compared to an all-black force — from the way people on the streets react which is, you know, it’s hard when you’re coming there with guns, badges and uniforms but it helps to be part of the same group. Things just get calmer. When you have a mix it tends to break down racial tensions. That’s where it has changed in a good way.

Matthew Gunther

Matthew Gunther

Matthew Gunther

PP: Your work, as foolish as it sounds, runs counter to easy conclusions. There’s cops and suspects; there’s all races; there’s Muslim cops and female cops; there’s chiefs and beat cops too. Policing is made of all stripes.

MG: I didn’t want to lose that fairness to both cop and non-cop. I truly feel romance about the images. I wanted to show a fair balance. This is how cities work and the people among them. I’m not trying to sway public opinion.

In a narcissistic way, it has been a cathartic trip.

PP: Because it was about you entering an “alien” world?

MG: Everyone’s just trying to get their job done in this capitalist system in which it’s hard to get ahead. The cop and the perp are on the same track, but there’s a moment some go one way and others the other way. I felt for both parties. They’re stuck. At 17-years-old, the options are pretty much there for cop and for criminal. It’s about fear, overtime and getting in your years. The cop has his cycle, the robber theirs. They both have their routines. It’s the balance of urban play. Social infrastructure plays its part in shaping these groups’ lives.

In Newark, as a cop, it’s 25 years in a tough environment. It’s not easy. They’re working on a word processor in 2003!?

PP: Did you get over your fear?

MG: No. But I came a long way. I’m excited to do another project like it. In some ways, I hate that it is a book, because it suggests, it feels, like it’s over.

PP: If it is, it’s a significant and successful end. Truly, it is one of my favourite photobooks of recent years. Thanks, Matthew.

MG: Thank you, Pete.

Matthew Gunther

BIOGRAPHY

Matt Gunther, a native new Yorker, is a film-maker and photographer who has been documenting a sense of place and moments of time throughout his career. His portraits endeavor to uncover and expose the vulnerability and compassion- the core of his subjects. Matt received his Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from SUNY Purchase. Matt’s work has been featured in numerous international and national publications, Including The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, London Sunday Times and Gentlemen’s Quarterly. His work has been awarded and written about in American Photography, PDN, and Communication Arts among others. Matt’s work is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum and The Palais De Toyko in Paris. He is currently working on his first Monograph, Probable Cause, documenting daily life in Newark New Jersey, which will be published in the fall of 2012.

pennies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. OUTREACH

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

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

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

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

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

DONATE HERE

2. DYING FOR SUNLIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DONATE HERE

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

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

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

The AIA is the voice of the architectural profession.

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

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

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

DONATE HERE

4. A LIVING CHANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

DONATE HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

DONATE HERE.

6. HELPING KIDS OUT OF JAIL AND BACK INTO SCHOOL

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

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

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

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

DONATE HERE.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

drone

Anyone doing work about drone and drone policy that I’ve spoken to has, as some point in their research, relied on the information put out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ). When I wrote my piece Here’s What Drone Attacks in America Would Look Like for WIRED, BIJ was an invaluable resource, especially in providing solid figures for the numbers of drone strikes, deaths from those strikes, and specifically civilian deaths from those strikes.

BIJ’s good work continues, as it played host to the Forensic Architecture (Goldsmiths University, London) and SITU Research to produce an online interactive WHERE THE DRONES STRIKE.

With WHERE THE DRONES STRIKE which we can examine drone target types (vehicles; religious; other; domestic; unclear target). Was that an insurgent training camp that was annihilated or was it a marriage celebration full of women and children?

Due to secrecy at the Pentagon (and previously at the CIA, when it controlled the drone program), reliable information on drone attacks is very difficult to come by.

“The CIA has been bombing Pakistan’s tribal agencies with drones since June 2004. In the early years, strikes were rare. But from mid-2008 onward the frequency of strikes increased, peaking in 2010. That year, 128 strikes killed at least 751 people – of whom 84 were civilians. There were 23 strikes in September 2010 alone – the most intense month yet recorded by the Bureau,” say the BIJ.

BIJ routinely collects info on drone strikes through thousands of reports, witness testimonies and on-the-ground data from Pakistan, but this is the first time this data has been put rendered as an interactive to propel human rights and accountability.

“The map demonstrates how the frequency of strikes – and the overall reported casualties – has changed over time. It also shows how the targets of the strikes have changed,” explains BIJ. “Domestic buildings have been the most frequently hit target type in each year of the drone war. Attacks on vehicles have become gradually more frequent, and in 2011 almost as many vehicles were hit per strike, on average, as buildings. But this dropped from a peak that year and in 2013 drones targeted vehicles just three times. Attacks on vehicles tend to kill fewer people than attacks on domestic buildings, and fewer civilians. The highest death tolls of all are in the comparatively rare attacks on madrassas and mosques.”

The U.S. dropped it’s first bomb from a drone in late 2002, on Yemen. The Obama Administration only formally acknowledged it was flying killer robots over foreign lands in 2012.

Go to www.WHERETHEDRONESSTRIKE.com

For a wild editorial break down of the data (and more graphs!) read the BIJ’s report Most US Drone Strikes In Pakistan Attack Houses which accompanied last week’s release of WHERE THE DRONES STRIKE.

For regular updates on drones at home and abroad, may I recommend following the Drone Weekly Roundup and signing up for the Newsletter (scroll down) put out by the Center For The Study Of The Drone at Bard.

Lorenzo Steele

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

COP TURNED ADVOCATE

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

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE INCLUDES GRAPHIC IMAGES OF MUTILATION

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

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

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

Lorenzo Steele

Q&A

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

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

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

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

Lorenzo Steele

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

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

PP: What were your early impressions of the job?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PP: What year did you resign? 

LS: 1999.

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

LS: I began maybe around ’95 or ’96.

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

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

Lorenzo Steele

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

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

PP: What type of camera did you use?

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

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

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

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

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

Lorenzo Steele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorenzo Steele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorenzo Steele

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

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

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

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

PP: So, the prison system is too rigid?

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

Lorenzo Steele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorenzo Steele

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

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

PP: With the images?

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

PP: How do you evaluate your work? 

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

PP: Is what you do anything like Scared Straight!

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

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

PP: What images do we need to see? 

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

Lorenzo Steele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PP: Thanks, Lorenzo.

LS: Thank you, Pete.

           Lorenzo Steele

1angel-diaz-execution-left-arm

Diaz’s left arm had an 11-by-7 inch chemical burn from the lethal drugs. By the time the autopsy began, the superficial skin had sloughed off, revealing white subcutaneous skin. (Source: New Republic)

Yesterday, The New Republic published for the first time a set of photographs of a chemically burnt corpse. The body was that of Angel Diaz, a man executed by the state of Florida in December of 2006.

As author of the piece, Ben Crair explains, “The execution team pushed IV catheters straight through the veins in both his arms and into the underlying tissue.”

Diaz sustained horrendous surface and subcutaneous chemical burns.

“As a result,” Crair continues, “Diaz required two full doses of the lethal drugs, and an execution scheduled to take only 10 to 15 minutes lasted 34. It was one of the worst botches since states began using lethal injection in the 1980s, and Jeb Bush, then the governor of Florida, responded with a moratorium on executions.”

The photographs were made by a Florida medical examiner during Diaz’s autopsy. Crair discovered the photographs in the case file of Ian Lightbourne, a Florida death-row prisoner whose lawyers submitted them as evidence that lethal injection poses an unconstitutional risk of cruel and unusual punishment. While the details of Diaz’s botched execution have been known since 2006, this is the first time visual evidence of the injuries sustained from the lethal injection has been presented publicly.

I’d like to tell you that such images are anomalous, but sadly that is not the case.

I, myself, have seen a set of images of a burnt corpse post execution. The victim in that case was executed in the electric chair. Similarly, in that case, the images were in the possession of a lawyer (who had acquired them through family of the executed) and used in court in argument against the electric chair as cruel and unusual punishment.*1

May I suggest that the photographs of Angel Diaz’ corpse, and all those images like them, be accessioned into the Library of Congress?

If the Library of Congress’ mandate is to preserve those things that are central to American culture; central to the American conscience, dear to this nation’s body politic and truly reflective of our culture, then I hold there is no better collection of images than these.

Between 1890 and 2010, the U.S. has executed 8,776 people. Of those, Austin Sarat, author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty says 276 went wrong in some way. Of all the methods used, lethal injection had the highest rate of botched executions — about 7%.

Photographs of a botched execution are as American as apple pie.

Whether an execution is considered officially “botched” or not, the torture imposed on a body in the minutes before death is unconscionable. Crair pursued the story and the publication of the images, rightly so, in the aftermath of the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.

“The execution team struggled for 51 minutes to find a vein for IV access,” writes Crair, “eventually aiming for the femoral vein deep in Lockett’s groin. Something went wrong: Oklahoma first said the vein had “blown,” then “exploded,” and eventually just “collapsed,” all of which would be unusual for the thick femoral vein if an IV had been inserted correctly. Whatever it was, the drugs saturated the surrounding tissue rather than flowing into his bloodstream. The director of corrections called off the execution, at which point the lethal injection became a life-saving operation. But it was too late for Lockett. Ten minutes later, and a full hour-and-forty-seven minutes after Lockett entered the death chamber, a doctor pronounced him dead.”

CLOSING THE BLINDS

The single detail about the Oklahoma debacle that really stuck in my mind was the state’s decision — upon realising the execution was being botched — to drop the blinds.

The gallery of spectators including press, victim’s family and prisoner’s family lost their privileged view.

In that instance when the blinds dropped, the scene switched from that of official, public enactment of justice to the messy, sick, complicit torture of a human. In that instance, the barbarity of the state revealed itself fully. And the state was ashamed. The public were no longer allowed to see.

The notion — indeed the internal logic of the state — that viewing one type of execution is acceptable and another is not is astounding. By virtue of its actions during Lockett’s botched execution, the state has distinguished between what types of torture (execution) it is acceptable to see. Quick, quiet, seemingly painless = good. Noisy, drawn out, demonstratively torturous = not good.

The distinctions are petty. All executions are cruel and unusual.

At this point, I can only presume those who still support the death penalty are those who subscribe to some pathological eye-for-an-eye illogic. Wake up! The state shouldn’t be involved in murdering people. Especially when we have seen 1 in 10 people locked up for life or on death row for capital offenses later exonerated due to DNA evidence or prosecutorial misconduct. The state shouldn’t be involved in murdering innocent people.

*1 People are under the misconception that the electric chair zaps a person and kills them instantly. This is not the case. Electricity takes the paths of least resistance which is outside of the body. Therefore, tens of thousands of volts serve only to burn the points at which they are attached, namely the lower leg and the skull. Death by electric chair is in fact just boiling the victims brain for 7 seconds. Boiling the brain alive.

In recent months, there’s been a number of interesting — and in some cases, urgent — photo stories coming out of prisons worldwide, that I’d like to draw you attention to.

ANDREW BURTON

Andrew Burton

Anthony Alvarez, left, 82, eats breakfast with Phillip Burdick, a fellow prisoner and member of the Gold Coats program at California Men’s Colony prison in December. Mr. Alvarez said he has been incarcerated for 42 years for a series of burglaries, possession of illegal firearms and escapes from county jail. He eventually got a life sentence due to three-strikes laws. Shown is Mr. Alvarez’s first day being assisted by the Gold Coats; he largely needs help with mobility. Mr. Alvarez tries to work out for a few minutes every other day. Mr. Burdick, 62, has been volunteering with the Gold Coats for more than 18 years and is the longest-serving member of the program. Mr. Burdick has served 37 years on a 7-years-to-life sentence for first-degree murder.

Andrew Burton‘s photographs of aging prisoners for the Wall Street Journal have been well-received. With one of the largest state prison populations, a history of long sentencing laws and inadequate healthcare, the old men and women have the odds stacked against them for a comfortable day-to-day living.

The percentage of prisoners 55 or older in the U.S. increased by more than 500% between 1990 and 2009.

Burton’s photos focus on the Gold Coats program at California Men’s Colony, in San Luis Obispo, which pairs younger, willing prisoners with older prisoners suffering dementia and terminal illness. In 1991, California Medical Facility created the first prison hospice program in the nation to deal with the AIDS crisis, and the hospice is now used for elderly prisoners who are terminally ill.

Great photos. Burton is realistic about the situation but seems clearly impressed with efforts there.

However, here’s some context. Ever since California’s medical prison system was deemed cruel and unusual and it was brought under federal receivership, the state has been making efforts to deliver specific facilities for health care. The largest was to open the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, CA. It is the largest medical prison in the world. At a cost of $840M it was supposed to solve many issues and provide care for 1,800 prisoners. Nothing is so straightforward. Since opening in July, 2013, it has been beset by waste, mismanagement and miscommunication between the prison and medical staffs.

Watch this space. Hopefully vast, vast improvements will ensue.

[Todd Heisler has photographed at the California Men's Colony too.]

ANDREA WISE

Andrea Wise

Erika Roberts, 26, of Hartford is a factory worker, a dancer, a teaching artist, a worshiper, a mother of three, and a felon.

Photographer Andrea Wise soon realised that when lives are intertwined with the criminal justice system nothing is straightforward. From the millions of effected formerly-incarcerated millions, Wise’s Freedom Bound manages to tell the story of Erika Roberts on very humanising terms. And with touching photographs.

“Her story is both a simpler one – a quiet story of a young family just trying to do the best they can – and a more complex and nuanced story about life in poor urban communities where people grow up in and around trauma, where criminal activity and incarceration are commonplace, and where Erika’s story isn’t all that uncommon,” says Wise.

Freedom Bound explores Erika’s quiet determination and struggle to break the cycle of incarceration.

“Erika strives for more from life, for her children, and for her community,” writes Wise.

ANIBAL MARTEL

Anibal Martel

In 2012, Anibal Martel photographed inside Lurigancho Prison, the largest and most overcrowded prison in Peru.

“According to the National Penitentiary Institute of Peru (January 2012) Lurigancho has a capacity limit of 3,204 prisoners but it actually holds 6,713 with a ratio of one police officer to 100 inmates,” says Martel.

“With corruption, tuberculosis and drug dependency together with its appalling management by the state, the prison gained a reputation as one of the most dangerous prisons in the world,” Martel continues. “Today, Lurigancho is fighting to survive thanks to the internal organization of some prisoners and their work. These prisoners have managed to create a small, internal infrastructure that allows them to feed themselves and live a more dignified life.”

ERIC GOURLAN

Gourlan, Eric - Bishkek, Kygryzstan Juvenile Prison

French photographer Eric Gourlan voluntarily spent a month inside Kyrgyrzstan’s prison and documented life in two men’s prisons, one women’s jail, and a juvenile detention centre — all in the capital Bishkek.

Gourlan has published on Flickr photographs from the juvenile facility in Bishkek, Kyrgryzstan.

There’s a great interview with Gourlan on the Institute for War and Peace Reporting website. Gourlan explains that he gained access through valuable partnerships with State Service for Execution of Punishment (GSIN), the United States Agency for International Development, Freedom House, the OSCE Center in Bishkek, the GSIN Public Oversight Council and the Kyrgyz NGO Egel — a long list which gives us an idea of the importance of partners for this type of work.

“I would really like to commend the openness of [prison] officials in Kyrgyzstan – I could go almost everywhere I wanted,” says Gourlan. “The only thing was that in the first two days, I was accompanied by guards until everyone got used to me. But then I was given more freedom and practically could move around on my own. On some occasions, I ate with prisoners.”

Gourlan met some hardened criminals but also met people who’ve been victims of overly-punitive sentences.

“One woman told me that she had been in a very difficult financial situation and somebody asked her to transport 30 grams of heroin from point A to point B for 100 [US] dollars. She was caught and given 12 years in prison. She had never used drugs before, never sold them, and never got her 100 dollars, but she has been locked up for 12 years,” explains Gourlan. “Obviously I do not know if those stories I was told were true or not. But that was not why I embarked on this project.”

Eric Gourlan’s project was backed by Freedom House, the OSCE Centre in Bishkek, a local NGO called Egl, and the prison service in Kyrgyzstan.

More photos on l’Oeil de la Photographie and this video on Freedom House, a group in support of human rights in Kyrgyzstan.

ISABELLE SEROUART

Isabelle Serouart‘s rare photographs from within a prison in Madagascar were published by SoPhot. The images are small and embedded, but I also found this footage Serouart made of female prisoners singing.

“In a very confidential way record of women song in a jail in Madagascar,” says Serouart. “To sing is a way for her to survive together.”

DAVID RYDER

David Ryder

David Ryder, for The Wall Street Journal, made a video about the Prison Pet Partnership at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington is an interesting watch.

“The program allows inmates to learn job and life skills while providing kennel and grooming services to clients from the surrounding community,” says Ryder. “In addition, unruly dogs from other programs (who might otherwise be put to sleep) are able to have a second chance by entering the prison’s training program.”

This is a win-win for the women, the dogs, the prison administrators and the media. Despite prisons being a continual source of distress and latent abuse, the press always needs new angles — depressing stories don’t have the readership coming back. A human interest story about (wo)man’s best friend and redemption plays well, and we’ve seen them before. Here’s a couple more similar project in Florida and Colorado.

Another thing that makes me slightly uncomfortable with the story is that simultaneously, just over an hour south, detained immigrants were on hunger strike for their confinement in solitary and slow progress of their cases. Now I know, the state prison system and U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement are different authorities, but if we’re to look at lock-up in Washington State, I’d suggest we factor in ALL types of prisons and prisoners. ICE facilities remain the most inviisble.

The full WSJ story, to accompany Ryder’s video, by Joel Millman and with photos by Stuart Isett, you can see here (behind a paywall).

As an aside, the most interesting photography project on prison dog’s programs remains Jeff Barnett-Winsby’s Mark West & Molly Rose. After Barnett-Winsby had photographed the prisoner (Manard) and the program administrator absconded from the Safe Harbor Program and escaped from Lansing Prison, KS and went on the lam for 11 days. A weird tale of fact and fiction, manipulation and unsaid knowns. The investigating police acquired Barnett-Winsby’s photos because he had made the most recent images of Manard’s tattoos. Yet Manard had drawn false tattoos for the shoot predicting their use later following his escape. Twists and turns. No photographer can ever plan or predict such a bizarre story, or implication in it.

MAE RYAN

Mae Ryan

A child plays with his mother at the cafeteria inside The Community Prisoner Mother Program in Pomona, California. Mothers and their children live in open barracks shared with two other mother-child family pairs.

Mae Ryan‘s series on the Community Prisoner Mother Program in Pomona, California was one of the last assignment’s she made before moving from KPCC to The Guardian. And it is stand out.

Pregnant in Prison offers a look at a select group of minimum security prisoners who may live with their young children until the child turns seven years old. Mothers live with their children in rooms shared with other prisoners. During the day, children are enrolled in the on-site preschool and Kindergarten and mothers take rehabilitation and other classes.

In 2011 and 2012, 233 female prisoners gave birth while serving time in the California prison system. So, this program applies to only a tiny fraction of women suffering California’s prison system. It is a welcome, forward-thinking program. Psychological studies are unanimous that close bonds between mother and baby, from the earliest hours, are vital in sparking healthy cognitive and social behaviours. Why wouldn’t we allow incarcerated mothers the ability to raise their own children?

In terms of such residential programs, most (and there are only a handful) allow mothers and babies to be together until the baby is 2 or 3 years of age. Pomona is exceptional.

Let me be clear though, I don’t want to see more prisons with this type of program; I want to see less prisons with lesser need for these types of programs. I want to see community supervision instead of incarceration and if prisons must be used, then for them to be bursting with positive programs designed around the women’s needs. That said, the Community Prisoner Mother Program has many elements to inform better care.

ANONYMOUS GREEK PRISONER

Greece

An expose by a Greek Prisoner registered on American news consumers’ radar when Medium published the piece Greece’s Biggest Prison Is Boiling by Yiannis Baboulias. The photographs accompanying the piece were taken by a prisoner and were then published repeatedly through the Twitter account @kolastirio.

He also got his footage out:

The expose caused outrage.

Baboulias writes, “People suffering from HIV, tuberculosis, psoriasis, cancer and other serious diseases, are discarded like trash in common rooms where hygiene is an unknown term. Spaces designed to hold 60 people, now hold more than 200. Reports say that some of these diseases have already started spreading amongst the inmates, making the prison a threat to public health in the general area. As inmates report, when the staff realises someone is close to death, he is quickly transported to a hospital, so his death won’t be recorded in the prison’s logs.”

Given that the infrastructure of Greece is collapsing in the wake of it economic meltdown, how surprising is this neglect? Hospitals are having budgets cut by 25% so what chance have the prisons and prisoners in the grapple for resources?

In an update, Baboulias says that the prisoner that leaked the photos and video has been prosecuted and faced trial.

VALERIO BISPURI

Valerio Bispuri

Valerio Bispuri has photographed in 74 prisons in South America, over a period of a decade. I was grateful to find a short interview with him as part of Fotografia’s ‘Prison Week

“It was clear to me that  would have required a great time commitment when I realized that permissions to photograph in the prison were going to take months to obtain,” says Bispuri. “In a few cases I’ve had to wait for years.”

Women’s prisons are rarely any better.

“There certainly is anger in female prisons as well, which sometimes turns into violent attacks. Moreover, in most prisons, female inmates are denied the “intimate visit”, that is the possibility to have sexual intercourse with their husband or partner, which is instead granted to those male inmates who behave properly,” explains Bispuri.

The work has had some effect. Following an exhibition of Bispuri’s photographs, in Buenos Aires in 2009, in collaboration with Amnesty International and the Argentine Government, Mendoza Prison’s Pavilion N5 was closed down.

“Life conditions there were tragic,” says Bispuri.

Bispuri’s series Encerrados describes how hellish many of the facilities. He has had a knife held to his neck and infected fluids thrown at him as protest to being photographed. Still, Bispuri is sympathetic to the resolve of many prisoners.

Also, featured during prison week were photographers Stephen Tourlentes, Sergei Vasiliev and Amy Elkins.

AMY ELKINS

Amy Elkins

Amy Elkins recently won the Aperture Portfolio Prize for her projects Parting Words and Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night. Congratulations to her. I’ve written and thought extensively about both projects (for Huffington Post and for Daylight Digital, respectively) and in the wider context of Elkins’ approach.

Hope you appreciate these works and find something you like. Sorry this post is effectively an illustrated barrage of links, but we should be grateful there’s so much work being published! Let me know what you think of it all.

Update 05.11.2014: The Eventbrite registration page has been closed after 80 sign-ups. But, there’s space for walk-ins and allcomers. We don’t want to turn anyone away!

Email info@asocialpractice.com to extend your interest. Thanks.

A BIG PUBLIC CHAT

Next Friday, May 16th, as part of the Open Engagement conference, I’ll be part of a conversation about photography based art and social practice.

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The Photo-Based Social Practice panel and group brainstorming is at the Aperture Gallery in New York, 10am – 12 noon.

Moderator Eliza Gregory along with panelists Gemma-Rose Turnbull, Mark Strandquist, Wendy Ewald and I will be discussing socially engaged, transdisciplinary, and expanded practices in contemporary photography.

Highfalutin, huh? Not really. The language is big, but the query is simple. Can photography build community and empower subjects? How can photography be nice?

It’s free, but preregistration is required. Do that HERE (6th option on the list).

We’re only going to do the briefest of introductions to our work before breaking into groups to tackle a host of questions that deal with audience, relevance and good design. It only makes sense that we collaborate to tackle answers to these issues.

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We hope that the panel will follow nicely on from December’s Collaboration: Revisiting the History of Photography event that crowdsourced a new timeline of photo-history by focusing on projects with communities and groups as creators. I love the ideas involved in that.

While the Collaboration: Revisiting the History of Photography event gave new recognition to old projects and while it presented a new timeline and framework, it didn’t tackle best practices. From the projects it unearthed we can surmise the nature of some socially responsible projects, methodologies and motivations. In our discussion next week we hope to extend the conversation further and start to define common language, and potentially best practices, for socially engaged photography projects.

Please join us and help us along!

LOCATION, DATE, TIME

Aperture Gallery and Bookstore
547 West 27th Street, New York
10:00 am – 12:00 pm, Friday, May 16th.
FREE WITH REGISTRATION

NEW VENTURE! ‘PHOTOGRAPHY AS A SOCIAL PRACTICE’

Now is a good time to mention a joint venture recently started by my fellow panelists, Eliza Gregory, Gemma-Rose Turnbull and Mark Strandquist.

Photography As A Social Practice is a website for reference tools, teaching tools, and conversation about the intersection of social practice and photography. I’ll be contributing every so often and chatting on the phone about content. You can suggest resources by emailing info[at]asocialpractice[dot]com

SPONSORS

The panel is offered in conjunction with the Magnum Foundation and the Aperture Foundation who combined to publish Documentary, Expanded, the Spring Issue (#214) of Aperture Magazine as part of the Photography, Expanded initiative. Support also comes from the Open Society Documentary Photography ProjectThe School of Journalism and Communication (University of Queensland) and Portland State University‘s Art and Social Practice Program.

OPEN ENGAGEMENT, 2014

The Photo-Based Social Practice panel is part of Open Engagement, an international conference that sets out to explore various perspectives on art and social practice, and expand the dialogue around socially engaged art-making. This year, the conference addresses the theme of Life/Work. It is 2 days of programming (Sat, May 17 – Sun, May 18) at the Queens Museum, plus 1 day of pre-conference events on Fri 16th at different locations around the New York boroughs.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

Prison Photography Archives

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