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IN THE ARENA
The Prison Rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola Prison) is a controversial event. Is it an opportunity for the prisoners to be more than invisible bodies and maligned felons, or is is gladiatorial and the worst of capitalist exploitation? I veer toward the latter but I’m not inclined to yell too loudly at those that err toward the former. Indeed, as Lee Cowan find out for CBS, even prisoners hold conflicting views.
I’m posting this here because I think in 8-minutes Cowan is about as fair as fair can be on this topic.
Articles on Prison Photography about Angola, the prison I contend is the most photographed in the United States.
My own visit: The Visual Culture of Angola Prison
I’m being facetious of course. Playful, yes. And earnest, oh yes.
Callinan, the campus exhibitions coordinator at Haverford College, builds four shows every year, from the ground up. He’s interested not in the big names per se but the emerging ideas of curators, artists and collectives who’ll connect Haverford students to the world as it is now.
And there’s a good amount there for photo-lovers, too. For example, the recent The Past is a Foreign Country a solo show for François-Xavier Gbré and Possible Cities, curated by Ruti Talmor including the work of photographers Sammy Baloji, Pieter Hugo, Salem Mekuria, Sabelo Mlangeni, Guy Tillim and IngridMwangiRobertHutter.
Oh, and how could I miss the current show?!?! The Wall In Our Heads is a themed show about the Berlin Wall, curated by the legendary Paul M Farber who has written extensively on the TV show, The Wire. Do not miss Farber’s paper The Last Rites of D’Angelo Barksdale: The Life and Afterlife of Photography In The Wire.
How better to follow this hotbed of innovation than through the Instah?
A 1916 American Mug Shot
For anyone who thinks photography has only recently been abducted by state and corporate power for the purposes of control, think again. For anyone who thinks that high-tech-surveillance was the birth of photography being used to discipline and order humans, think again. Cyborgology recently had a great piece by Liam French lecturer in the Journalism and Media Department at the University of St. Mark & St. John, about the historical connects between image-making and criminal justice. French writes:
The relationship between visual technologies and the criminal justice system can be traced back to the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool for documenting ‘reality’ in the nineteenth century. The camera was widely believed, even more so than today, to be able to objectively and truthfully record social reality. A photograph was perceived to be like a window on the world – a mechanically produced, impartial and literal representation of the real world.
One such photographic taxonomy was produced by the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso who drew ink portraits depicting ‘criminal types’. Lombroso’s work is an exemplary case of the rise of positivist criminology in the nineteenth century. He argued that criminals possessed more ‘atavistic’ features and shared more characteristics with our evolutionary ancestors than more law-abiding citizens.
Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision argues that the breadth of surveilling techniques and technologies has extended to the Internet.
Still and moving ‘visual evidence’ is stored in state archives, used in courtrooms as evidence, and disseminated across almost every major media platform: from the printed press to the World Wide Web.
French references both a 2006 article about Mark Michaelson’s book and collection of mugshots and last years viral pic of Jeremy Meeks‘ mugshot to raise the idea that law enforcement photography (mugshots included) have transcended their forensic roots.
Take, for example, the posting of the police mug-shot of criminal Jeremy Meeks on Stockton Police Force Facebook page resulted in his image going viral and concluding with the offer of a quite lucrative modelling contract. What is interesting about the Jeremy Meeks mug-shot story is that once his photograph was displayed outside of the authoritative domain of the police archive and publicly circulated across different social media platforms and networks it accrued different sets of meanings (sexy, hot, good-looking) along the way despite the attempt to officially encode (or fix) the meaning (criminal, dangerous, wanted by the police) of the photograph.
Furthermore, French argues, that John Fiske’s theory that dominant power uses system to segregate and dominate apply here. Fiske says that authority will rely upon systems and “improve” them all the while facing resistance from the lesser power. Crucially, the lesser power uses the same systems to subvert and counter dominate. Sometimes the lesser power is successful and sometimes the larger power replaces old systems with new ones of greater efficiency or new tactics. In any case there is always a push and pull.
Booking photo of Jeremy Meeks, 30. (June 18, 2014). Credit: Stockton Police Department
So in the case of mugshots, there has always been inherent control attached to state-dominate manufacture and exchange of mugshots. Until social media found a way to interrupt that exchange.
Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s mugshot of the day website and the countless mugshot magazines like Busted were examples of larger authorities using the mugshot to their own ends. Arpaio’s use served not the general fraternity of law enforcement but his own ego. Busted wanted to bend the use of mugshots to its own profitable ends but interestingly did so without inconveniencing the state’s power; to the contrary dollar-mugshot magazines enhance the states criminalisation of individuals.
Fiske’s theory was formulated in the late 1980s and so pre-dates the emergence of web 2.0 and social media but his model of culture (and popular culture) does have a resonance with the ways in which social media tools and platforms further open up the terrain of culture for struggles over meaning, semiotic productivity and popular resistance. Imposing official (or dominant) meanings is now much more difficult because there are so many opportunities for contestation.
It would be naïve to cite the Jeremy Meeks example as some kind of paradigm changing moment or as the empowerment of the masses but it does offer an insight into the ways in which the potential for popular resistance is always possible and can surface in the most unlikely of places.
From dusty archives, to venerable vernacular objects, to art-world comedy-fetish, to online consumable, we need to consider deeply our relationship to mugshots. And to the criminal justice systems from which they emerge. Especially as one week we’re approaching them as shallow entertainment and the next we’re demanding a right to them in order to confirm or dispel controversy and conspiracy surrounding in-custody death.
Read French’s full piece Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision here
Photo: Paul Rucker
When Obama went to Marc Maron’s garage to record a WTF episode, he was in a sober frame of mind. He was frank about our situation right now with gun control. After Sandy Hook, he said, his administration tried everything they could to change laws but the legislation was fought by the usual NRA suspects. The legislation was watered down and achieved little.
Astutely, Obama didn’t pin the blame solely on the NRA and the kowtowing politicians but also on us. Yes, us, we, you and me. Sweeping political changes will follow sweeping social pressure. But in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, in Obama’s estimation, there was lots of talk but ultimately not enough public will to ring in the massive changes we need.
This is a teachable moment of sorts. Here, POTUS is telling us that organising works; he is saying that politicians listen if the swell of opinion is unavoidable and undeniable. The wave of gun opposition wasn’t sustained or powerful enough it seems. Well, yes and no. Yes, in that political change didn’t result. But, no, in that the passions and intelligence of the gun law reformers shouldn’t be dismissed, or pegged as total failure. It is my belief that in gun reform, in prison reform, in education reform — in any movement that demands wide-scale change — the efforts of the activists must compensate for the inertia and fear of the politicians they wish to influence.
Even when it makes moral, social and economic sense to enact positive change, we have seen that politicians find it hard to filter out the sound of the waft of of checkbooks and the loud and persistent lobbyist’s din.
We have to work harder to see gun laws change. We have to work harder to reduce hate and homegrown terror acts.
Paul Rucker is one of the hardest working artists I know. He’s always stationed politics at the center of his practice but in recent years he has ventured fearlessly into America’s racial histories, current psyche and shortcomings. I curated Paul’s work in Prison Obscura. This morning, Paul sent out the following message to those on his email list. I think it is eloquent. It is from a point of knowledge. And I hope Paul doesn’t mind me sharing it.
I’ve been in South Carolina this week visiting my mother. The flags are at half staff at the library. The deeply ambivalent feelings I have for home are more real than ever. Growing up, I remember seeing Confederate flags on cars and bumper stickers stating “I should have picked my own damn cotton!” These were just part of the culture. An even deeper and unacknowledged part of the culture are the souls that built this state and this country. In 1860, there were more slaves living in South Carolina than free citizens. Cotton sales were worth $200 million then, the equivalent of $5 billion today. As we argue/discuss the flag, we must also add to our conversation the true and complete history of the South and America. Cotton was shipped all over the country and the world. The role of slave labor in the economic success of our country must be acknowledged, along with the cost of that success in millions of lives not deemed human. If we remove the flag, let us replace it with knowledge, and so honor the souls that brought us here to the prosperous land that we have today.
My condolences to the families of the nine people murdered a week ago. My heart goes out to them and their loved ones.
With a heavy heart,
Also well said.
Everyday, there’s rollerbooters doing their circuits and dances on the smooth asphalt at JFK Drive and 6th in Golden Gate Park.
I love them.
Sunday is the real party. They bring tables and snacks. Pensioners jive with 4-year-olds, ex-cons swing with folks who’ve shed the suit for an afternoon. The posse has its favourite tracks to which they dance and kick their boots in lined formation. Between the routines that function as the glue for the group, they’ll float around in anti-clockwise circles. From sunrise to sunset thousands of people pass by — some throw down blankets and watch for hours, others stop a moment and take a snap. All smile.
I was riding my bike through the park a few weeks ago and wondering why no-one had ever made a feature documentary about this group of typically atypical San Franciscoids. Then, last week, I spotted this.
Totally Free is a film-short made by Daniel Soares (Instagram). And it is beautiful. I sent it to a friend who moved to New Orleans a couple of years ago. He doesn’t have speakers on his computer but watched all 300 seconds of it in silence. He said the footage was hypnotising.
The whole rollerbooting community is hypnotising. I love them. They’re in their bliss. They’re taking it easy for all us sinners out there.
Golden Gate Park was once the crucible for the counter culture movement. Hippie Hill still has its moments, but really the realest community I know that survives is gliding around that most precious and historic 30 x 100ft oval.
— The Dream Defenders (@Dreamdefenders) April 29, 2015
Last week, shareholders in the private prison firm GEO group attended the evil corporation’s AGM. The swarm of conniving, money-grabbing devil sperms were shocked to be joined by some protestors. Shareholders thought they’d encounter only other children of satan at the annual horn-sharpening ceremony.
Across the Boca Resort in Florida, the venue for the GEO AGM, the hell-obsessed portfolio-owners struggled repeatedly to engage with the protestors who appeared to have colorful irises and not the green dollar signs to which they were accustomed. Instead of a glassy stare, the protestors could hold lasting eye-contact and emote.
Some shareholders referred to the protestors as shape-shifters who employed behaviour that suggested confidence, faith, principle, civic duty, anger and nuanced reasoning — all emotions and motives that belonged to a long-lost group known as humanity, but alien to beelzebub’s GEO breed.
If the appearance of the protestors was confusing, it wasn’t a patch on the foreign language they used.
“Opportunities for Black and Brown communities have been intentionally thwarted through intergenerationally maintained oppression. What drives this? The same institution that has fueled this country since its birth—slavery,” says civil rights group Dream Defenders. “Through the proliferation of prisons for profit, the United States is a slaveholder, and private prisons are the cruel overseers who go through extreme means, including documented physical and sexual abuse, lobbying for increased mandatory minimums and fraudulent reporting, to maximize profit.”
Irene, a proud third generation GEO stock holder, mistook some of the protesters in red shirts as valets, at first.
“Then I realized they were trouble makers and just wanted to hurt others with signs. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Something about disadvantaged classes being heard and having a seat at a political forum not manipulated by big money. I dunno, I wasn’t paying attention,” said Irene as she rushed off to make a 4:15 tee-off time.
Okay, seriously now, it didn’t quite go down like that in Florida, last week. It was a 4:25 tee-off! No, no, really seriously. It wasn’t like that; above is just the story I wanted to write. Nothing like that. GEO shareholders are not the kin of lucifer. GEO shareholders are, each, lucifer incarnate. Let’s not dilute responsibility here.
Okay, okay, really, seriously, now.
We live in a society that allows the haves to make cash from the exploitation, hardships and warehousing of the haven-nots. What is wrong with us?
— The Dream Defenders (@Dreamdefenders) April 29, 2015
THE NEED FOR PROTEST
The protest organized by Dream Defenders, Prison Legal News, Grassroots Leadership, SEIU Florida and other groups adopted the slogan to “Expose the Slaveholders” for the protest.
GEO Group is the country’s second-largest for-profit prison operator, reports Nadia Prupis. GEO owns Karnes County Detention Center in Texas, which holds immigrant families and is the site of an ongoing hunger strike by detained mothers, as well as Reeves County Detention Center, currently the subject of a Department of Justice investigation.
Concerning Karnes, a Prison Legal News press release said:
Human Rights Defense Center associate director Alex Friedmann, an activist shareholder who owns a small number of shares of GEO Group stock, attended the meeting. When he asked about recent reports of hunger strikes by immigrant women held at the GEO Group-operated Karnes County Family Detention Center in Texas, he was informed by a GEO executive that there was no hunger strike; rather, it was a “boycott of dining facilities” at the detention facility.
As state budgets dried up, the private prison industry moved its attentions to Homeland Security $$$ and fought to win new build and operate ICE facilities. Which is weird because I don’t think it was a bevy of Latina mothers who flew those planes into the World Trade Center. GEO currently receives 42% of its revenue from contracts with federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Prisons. In 2013, 67% of all federal criminal convictions were for immigration-related crime.
What’s confusing to me is why the arguments for prison reform have been decoupled from those for fewer immigration prisons. Maybe it’s built into the DNA of the United States that the free folks can only fight for the rights of an oppressed group, if there’s another group in line to abused and brutalized? Why have we got bi-partisan support for criminal justice reform, but nothing close to such consensus about immigration reform? Why are politicians making efforts to reduce the number of people in the broken, expensive, abusive state and county prisons, but we don’t apply that same enlightenment to people who don’t carry a bit of U.S.A. paper?
Kudos to these protestors who are going after the private prison firms. Private prisons are where all the worst shit happens and the protestors know it. Private prisons are where the architecture and economic logic of cages is perfected. GEO and their equally sadist competitor CCA account for less than 10% of prisons in the U.S. but they are the growth sector.
“We know that GEO Group and other private prison companies thrive when they are able to obscure the truth about their business practices and what happens inside of their facilities,” said Kymberlie Quong Charles, Grassroots Leadership’s Director of Criminal Justice Programs.
Politicians have decoupled zealous policing and mass incarceration from ever more draconian treatment of migrants. The ICE archipelago of dentition facilities are the latest additions to the Prison Industrial Complex. Politicians hope we won’t notice. Politicians are congratulating themselves for having a civil discussion about criminal justice but they do so, now, because it is safe ground. Where were they for the past 35 years?
While state legislators tweak corrections budgets, the private prison industry will be throwing migrants into boxes at will.
Don’t think that politicians are going to lead on the private prison issue. They won’t. Look to the activists, with boots on the ground, who know what is happening. Hillary Clinton has hopped on the criminal justice reform bandwagon tapping the issue du jour for her presidential run. That other guy with designs on the White House, the Republican Senator Marco Rubio, loves GEO Group
“While Rubio was leading the House, GEO was awarded a state government contract for a $110 million prison soon after Rubio hired an economic consultant who had been a trustee for a GEO real estate trust,” writes Michael Cohen in The Washington Post. “Over his career, Rubio has received nearly $40,000 in campaign donations from GEO, making him the Senate’s top career recipient of contributions from the company.”
Short story: GEO and CCA are evil. Stakeholders have evil in their blood. Politicians are mostly clueless. Activists are without career or money ties to the issue and will speak truth to power.
All images: Courtesy of Grassroots Leadership.