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Photo: Bob Schutz. Inmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity, Sept. 1971, during the Attica uprising, which took the lives of 43 people.
Last week marked the 43rd anniversary of the historic Attica Rebellion. In conjunction with the anniversary, Critical Resistance New York City (CRNYC) has launched the Attica Interview Project, to support prison closure organizing in New York. CRNYC is looking for people with personal archives stories and will collect and facilitate oral history, video and audio recordings, and still images.
CRNYC’s documentation is grounded in a philosophy of self-representation.
“People who participate determine how and when they are photographed and recorded,” says a CRNYC statement. “We strive to represent interview participants not as victims, but as agents of social change struggling individually and collectively to improve their lives and conditions.”
ATTICA INTERVIEW PROJECT
Bryan Welton, a member with Critical Resistance New York City wrote:
At the time of the rebellion, the US prison population was less than 200,000. On the fourth day of the prisoner-led takeover of Attica, September 4, 1971, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller deployed New York State Troopers to set murderous siege on the prison. A campaign of sustained terror and repression to restore the power of guards and administrators at Attica followed. The systematic attack against the gains won by struggles inside and outside prison walls, which nourished the spirit of revolt in Attica and the broader prisoner movement of the period, parallels the rise of the prison industrial complex to where we stand today. Few people then imagined that the imprisoned population in the US would explode to 2.4 million.
The Attica Rebellion developed not only in response to conditions of dehumanizing racism and violence in the prison, but was strengthened by the confluence of imprisoned revolutionaries from Black liberation, Native and Puerto Rican anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist movements. The demands articulated by the Attica Liberation Faction unleashed an abolitionist imagination that continues to propel prisoner-led struggles up to today. Through oral history, the project seeks to document the legacy of repression, survival and resistance at Attica, while using material to shape a broader narrative about the PIC and abolition and fuel ongoing demands to close Attica.
Supported by sentencing reforms won through organized opposition to the Rockefeller Drug Laws and fights over deadly conditions in New York prisons and jails, prison populations in New York have decreased by 15,000 people since 2000. This decrease combined with the costs of maintaining staffing and infrastructure for empty prisons moved Governor Andrew Cuomo to close nine prisons in four years, with four more closures projected within the year. Although dispersed across the state and including both men’s and women’s prisons, what is common among these closure targets is their classification as minimum or medium security prisons holding people convicted of low-level drug offenses and “nonviolent crimes.” As we seize on any and all opportunities for prison closures, we understand the threat of cementing the “worst of the worst” classification for people held in maximum security, supermax and solitary confinement units and how the deepening of that logic enables the disappearance, dehumanization, torture and death of people in prisons everywhere. This criminalization is being amplified as prison-dependent economies, from the political representatives of prison towns to the 26,000 member guards’ unions (NYSCOPBA), desperately mobilize against decarceration and prison closures.
The stories of resistance, resilience, and struggle coming from the survivors of Attica and prisons across the country can offer not only a reminder of the history in which our movement is rooted, but a signal fire of which direction we should head. In the words of Attica Brother, LD Barkley, “The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those that are oppressed.”
To get involved contact:
Critical Resistance New York City
PO Box 2282
New York NY 10163
Photo: AP. Prisoners of Attica state prison, right, negotiate with state prisons Commissioner Russell Oswald, lower left, at the facility in Attica, N.Y., where prisoners had taken control of the maximum-security prison in rural western New York. Sept. 10, 1971.
Such a careful approach and revisiting of Attica’s history is timely and essential. An accurate version — and not the official state version — must be established. Following Attica, there were a number of inquiries (for example, Cornell Capa’s photographic survey of the facility here and here), however, not all inquiries met or served public need. Suspicions of a cover up of excessive violence and extrajudicial murder during the retaking of the prison have been constant.
The second and third parts of the Meyer Report (1975), an investigation of a commission headed by New York State Supreme Court JusticeBernard Meyer, were sealed and never released to the public.
The Democrat & Chronicle reports:
The focused on claims of a cover-up of crimes committed by police who seized control of the prison with a deadly fusillade of gunfire. Those allegations came from Assistant Attorney General Malcolm Bell, who had been part of an investigation into fatal shootings and other possible crimes committed during the retaking.
Wikipedia, quoted civil rights documentary Eyes On The Prize, triangulates the claims:
Elliot L.D. Barkley, was a strong force during the negotiations, speaking with great articulation to the inmates, the camera crews, and outsiders at home. Barkley was killed during the recapturing of the prison. Assemblyman Arthur Eve testified that Barkley was alive after the prisoners had surrendered and the state regained control; another inmate stated that the officers searched him out, yelling for Barkley, and shot him in the back.
It is believed parts two and three of the Meyer Report detail grand jury testimony given during an investigation into the riot and retaking. Late last year, a New York judge ruled the documents could be opened. It came at a request of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The majority of people are in support of the move, understandably given the length of time since the murders. The state troopers are opposed.
It’s high time the people had access to the same information the state has had for nearly four decades. Only then can we confirm or dismiss a state cover-up and the protection of law enforcement individuals and those from whom they took orders, namely then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Photo: Goran Hugo Olsson. Source.
Bobby Seale, 11 Sept 1971. Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther movement, was brought in at one point during the rebellion to help with negotiations.
A prisoners’ make-shift hospital during the rebellion.
Law enforcement, civilians and press cover their nostrils from the airborne teargas following the state’s storming of Attica Prison, Sept. 13th, 1971.
Photo: John Shearer. Law enforcement escort a prisoner out of Attica following the storming of the facility. (Source)
This gruesome photo is one of several of murdered corpses included on this webpage. The images are uncredited, so I cannot verify there veracity. I’ve not seen them elsewhere. The boots, railings and sunken yard look consistent with Attica.
Prisoners are regimented following the state’s retaking of control of Attica Prison. (I have no idea when the trench was dug, by whom or for what purpose).
An injured prisoner is assisted out of D-Yard, following the state’s teargassing and assault upon the prisoners.
There’s so much out there online for you to dig into, so I humbly recommend these starting points:
Attica Uprising 101, is the best brief description of the events those 5 days in September 1971.
Forgotten Survivors of Attica, a group of guards and prisoners’ families alike who are in search of transparency and believe there was a state cover up.
Project Attica, a recent project with school children to teach them about racial politics, oral histories and Black America using Attica as a prism through which to do so.
Here is one of the better collection of images online in a single place.
Finally, I’d like to know if these photographs of prisoners’ corpses can be verified as being from Attica on the 13th, September, 1971. They are presented as images of those killed as a result of the state assault on the prison.
Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers has got America in a tizzy. It’s entertaining but it’s no classic. Korine is the master of non-linear narrative, or to put it another way at bunching weird stuff together that could go in any order and ends up making a movie. Spring Breakers, his first – and hopefully only – “mainstream” offering follows a straight forward and straight plot; the spiraling of four young girls’ lives into a world of hyper-violence and sexuality.
As many have commented, Spring Breakers isn’t about spring break, but more about capitalism, survival, hedonism and a crime-chic version of the American Dream. A tried and tested cinema recipe if there ever was one. It’s just that in Spring Breakers the gunmen are gunwomen and they’re wearing glow in the dark bikinis.
The perfect reality check is the story of Sheriff Frank McKeithen’s beachfront jail in the city of Panama Beach, Florida (the spring break capital of the world.) Bay County Sheriff McKeithen has been doing the press rounds, this week explaining his temporary and mobile jail. He calls it his “welcome center.”
It’s a practical solution. The county jail is an hours round-trip from downtown Panama Beach. When you have college kids exploding with excitement, booze and idiocy, it’s good not to have your officers’ in a squad car stuck in traffic.
The mobile unit and holding-pens serve the same functions as the regular jail – booking, fingerprinting and photographing.
McKeithen says spring break in his county can be “chaos.” It cannot be as lawless as Korine’s shoot-em-up version, but if you’re in any doubt as to the bacchanalia, perhaps (in photography at least) Emiliano Granado’s Beach Party shows this youngsters’ holiday tradition in the harshest and most honest light.
I prefer McKeithen’s version to Korine’s. The sheriff knows trouble is coming and makes preparations. Korine’s presentation – requiring unbelievably large and frequent suspensions of disbelief – is impractical.
What McKeithen, Korine, Granado and anyone else who takes a look at spring break, have in common is that the Florida resorts are bubbles in which people shed normative behaviours as quickly as they shed clothes.
It’s a bubble in which bad behaviour might be met with one of McKeithen’s open air cells, or just as easily it might be something one gets away with. Spoiler alert: all four of Korine’s femme fatales walk away scott-free from the bubble.
With repeated reference to escape; some place different; “creating ones own worlds” (James Franco’s character says he comes from out of space); paradise, Spring Breakers almost ad nauseum drives home the point that the bubble remains apart from the real world. Duh! Richard Brody for The New Yorker notes:
“The four young women are closed units whose sole connection to the wider world is in their deceptive phone calls to family members, a sweetened vision of kids socializing in a constructive way that’s as fake as the values of the parents or grandparents who fall for it.”
So, we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t profess to know what’s going on in the pools and hotels rooms. Sure, and with his anti-heroines walking away unscathed, Korine lets us play along with the fantastic unreality he has so cleverly exaggerated.
Okay, we can walk away now? Despite the sex (there’s lots of boobs) and the self-consciously ludicrous gun fetishism (Franco gives two pistols a blow-job), Spring Breakers is a walk into a harmless silver-screen fantasy-land, right? No. There’s one crucial element of the film that Korine fudges. Big time. Race.
“The director’s ultimate spring-break fantasy is a vision of murder camp—and of “black camp”—and he doesn’t make any effort to distinguish the two. The very mainspring of the movie is his stereotypical and reductive view of black life as one of drug dealing and gang violence.”
Once again, depictions of race are skewed. Clumsy at best, irresponsible at worst.
Brody’s observation that the UV light darkens the bikini-clad skin in the crucial climatic scenes of murder and mayhem might be over thinking it, but doesn’t detract from his overall point that while directing is a game, it’s a game poorly played when stuck on “old stories, old images, old stereotypes.”
The film was quite deifferent to that I had expected from the trailer. A success. Not enough thumping Skrillex dubstep, but some surprisingly good inclusion of Britney Spears (during the most celebratory of the violence montages).
All images: WMBB
General Abul Waleed, Head of Command for the Wolf Brigade, and Col. James Steele, Samarra, Iraq. Gilles Peress/Magnum, for The New York Times.
Remember at the height of the Iraq War, when sectarian fighting raged and bodies were being dumped in the streets daily? Well, the U.S. military was directly funding many of the killers’ activities. U.S. Colonel James Steele, decorated by Rumsfeld, was the man in collusion with the murderers.
Gilles Peress‘ made the above-photo during a 2005 New York Times assignment on Iraqi counterterrorism commando units. (You can find 27 of Peress’ images by searching “Peress Iraq 2005” on the Magnum website.) On the right is Colonel James Steele, head of General David Petraeus’ counterterrorism operations.
I included the same photo in a blog-post nearly two-and-a-half years ago alerting readers to The Guardian‘s investigation into United States’ funding of Iraqi police commandoes.
Today, and in continuation of its investigation, The Guardian published details of a massive network of torture centers operated by the Iraqi police commandos.
See the full length 51-minute documentary about Steele and read the article of horrendous details accompanied with a 5-minute edited version of the film. to the crimes covering all the essential details of U.S. Military
“The United States funded a sectarian police commando force that set up a network of torture centers to fight the insurgency. It was a decision that helped fuel a sectarian war. At it’s height it was claiming 3,000 deaths per month,” says the narrator.
Until now, the media hasn’t been certain if these commando units were part or all of the feared ‘Death Squads’ that kidnapped, disappeared and killed people, usually following night-time raids.
Both Peress and his fellow journalist Peter Maass offer statement in the Guardian video. Peress speaks of the inexplicable amounts of blood he saw in a room of the building. During the visit incredibly loud screams of pain could be heard throughout the building. According to Maass, Steele left the room, the screams fell silent, Steele returned and Maass continued his interview with a Saudi prisoner.
General David Petraeus – and Col. Steele of course – continually denied the Iraqi police commando force had been infiltrated by Shia militias looking for revenge against the Sunni’s who had benefitted under Saddam Hussein’s reign. Iraqi’s say this is preposterous as everyone knew the police were corrupt, and that sectarian and murderous groups such as the Badr Brigade had in regions completely taken over commando operations.
Absolute scandal. What else do we not know? What else have we not seen?
Prisoner reads a book to pass the time during head count, California.
Unlikely Friends is Leslie Neale‘s third feature length film about prisons, so she knows a thing to two. I have spoken before about the difficulty in photographing the two distinguishing features of prison, namely violence and boredom. The former is rare and the latter endemic. Neale observed the same.
“The subjects of my photos aren’t in Unlikely Friends – they are just photos I managed to click off between directing the crew and interviewing people,” says Neale. “Whenever I go into prisons, I am always struck by the culture created by so many living so close together. Even though the threat of violence is a constant presence, there is a calm peace and the mundanity is palpable.”
These photographs were made in prisons in California and Florida. They’re not the best images, but I don’t think Neale claims them as such. They simply show moments. These are not stolen moments as the rigamarole and boredom of prison is persistent.
Before scrolling down through the images, I encourage you to pay the Unlikely Friends website a visit and view the trailer. Neale has hit upon a theme that is often discredited in the discussion of prisons – that of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is at a premium in the criminal justice system – not because people are incapable, but rather because the system doesn’t facilitate it. The system keeps victims and offenders at great distances. Those distances often have good reason, but in the event that victim and offender wish to embark upon a restorative process, it can be an uphill battle. This difficulty is something that cropped up in my PPOTR discussion with Gail Brown. Advocates such as Brown do not want to see blind forgiveness for perpetrators of serious crimes but they want to see feasible routes for prisoners to take to make as best amends as is possible and also to come to full accountability for their actions. Forgiveness is wrapped up in hearing the effects of ones crime and learning from victims the often life-changing and deeply saddening repercussions crime can have. I applaud Neale for taking on this unlikely and complex aspect of humanity within an inhuman system.
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As a side note, I first heard of Neale’s filmmaking when I interviewed photographer Ara Oshagan. He shot B-roll on set in Californian juvenile lock-ups during the production of Neale’s documentary Juvies.
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You can also see a few more images by Neale here.
Prisoners read in a dorm room of Moore Haven State Prison, Florida.
Correctional officers at San Quentin State Prison.
Two prisoners outside their cells on a tier in San Quentin State Prison, California.
Prisoners play chess in San Quentin State Prison.
Prisoner working in his cell at a makeshift desk, San Quentin State Prison, California.
Boots hang outside a cell in San Quentin State Prison, California.
Prisoners in San Quentin State Prison use the phones.
Recreation time for prisoners on the yard of a Florida State Prison.
An old man sits on his bunk in a California State Prison.
“Life lived in dorm housing in a California State Prison.”
The grind and hustle of daily news photojournalism is no joke. Some people can be a bit sniffy about news photographers. Screw them.
As much as possible I try to ignore the haters and the artificial boundaries they construct in the photoworld. True, my interests primarily lie in documentary, participatory, vernacular and some fine art photography, but in every interaction with photographers I want to explore and understand the contexts in which they make work. Therefore, it was a pleasure – for the latest Eye On PDX feature – to chat with Thomas Boyd.
The lifestyle and work-style of news photographers has always intrigued me. Unfortunately, often my discussions of news photography begins with iconic or controversial images, images’ subtexts and imagery’s distribution in our larger ad-fed visual culture; rarely do I get to ask nuts-and-bolts questions to the individuals who create the widely-circulated images we see daily.
An avowed Oregonian, Boyd is a news shooter through-and-through. He is a staffer with The Oregonian, the state’s biggest paper and as such has important insights into journalism (past, present and future). Here, Boyd talks frankly about his experience with the paper; what makes a good image; the peers he admires; and the rise of the amateur.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
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Prison Photography (PP): How long have you been in Portland? How long have you been with the Oregonian? What’s the deal with this town?
Thomas Boyd (TB): I came up from Eugene five years ago, but before that I lived in the Portland area for about 10-years. I grew up in North Bend on the Oregon Coast and Portland has always been a special place for me. I find it endlessly fascinating.
PP: Day to day, what do you shoot?
TB: I shoot assignments! I shoot between one and three assignments a day and I never know what they’re going to be until the night before or even an hour before. Yesterday, I shot a basketball game in Eugene, today, I shot a portrait of a documentary filmmaker and an overweight police horse. Tomorrow, I’ll shoot a cat show. That’s a typical random week. I also shoot a lot of Duck football, Portland Timbers and track and field.
PP: I understand the photo staff has shrunk at The Oregonian in recent years? Tell us about the changes at the the newspaper.
TB: Like all newspapers, the business is eroding. With that came layoffs three years ago and buyouts before that. We now have three less photo editors and the staff is down to 10 with two part timers from 19 full timers five years ago. They hire very few freelancers. However, in a recent meeting the we heard the paper met it’s financial goals for 2012 and merit pay raises may be possible. The paper is making money.
But, even with these changes, the way I work really hasn’t changed. I pitch story ideas and I shoot assignments.
I actually see more change with the organizations I cover. I’m seeing them keeping us out of situations so they can document it themselves and drive traffic to their own websites. I’m seeing this with all types of organizations from non-profits to professional/college sports teams. We are essentially competing with the organizations we cover.
Reporters are also being asked to do more with photos, video and social media. I’ve found myself competing with them on stories as well. It’s really awkward for the people we cover. They don’t readily understand what our roles are.
The amount of bloggers covering events is big change too. If you look at the amount of journalists just covering the Timbers, you’ll see that newspapers and television stations are drastically outnumbered. It’s really strange to me. As far as I can tell, none of them are making any real money. If there are two dozen photographers on the field, maybe only four of us are actually getting paid. They do it because they are fans and have day jobs. It’s a head-scratcher for me.
PP: Do you make images outside of work?
TB: I shoot outside of work quite a bit. I take as much commercial and editorial freelance as I can, shoot a few weddings here and there, and pick away at my personal projects.
PP: Do you have time to follow the news, blogs, discussions online, or are you too busy being a producer and filing stories?
TB: I wouldn’t say I’m too busy because I somehow find the time…but I don’t follow all that stuff as much as I used to. I probably spend as much time online reading about motorcycles and home remodeling as I spend reading about photography. I also write for a blog called ApertureExpert.com.
PP: Does a lot of the gas-bagging (I’m being self-referential there) online affect the daily life and work of photojournalists? If so, how?
TB: Good question. I suppose photojournalists are influenced by influential work. We see a trend and try to emulate that or be inspired by it to some degree. I’m probably more influenced and more interested in talk about the photography business than actual shooting. As far as my daily work, I’ve become pretty good at sticking to my approach and not preconceiving a situation. It took me a long time to get to that point. When I first started I was all over the map stylistically and how I approached a story. I’m much more methodical and disciplined now, but I do still like to try new things and experiment.
PP: How do you define a successful day/shoot/assignment/image? What brings the smiles at the end of a day?
TB: The only thing that makes me happy at the end of the day is walking away with a photo I like. And, that is a rare thing. Starting out I was more into the experience of making the photo. The results were not as important to me, probably because I couldn’t differentiate between an above average image and a great one.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy great experiences on assignment and that happens all the time, but making a great image is where it’s at. I will forget all the suffering I experienced, if I end up with something worth looking at.
I really love the rare times when I’m in the creative zone and everything falls into place. I have an idea, the circumstances are ideal, and I get lucky. The thing about photojournalism is, you never really know if what you are doing will work until it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s all about anticipating what will happen instead executing a plan. If what you are striving to create is spontaneous, real and in the moment, there’s a huge amount of luck involved. It’s all about putting your self in a situation to that favors luck. I’d compare it to hitting a home run or a hole in one. The more you do it, the luckier you get.
PP: Are photo editors important?
TB: Good photo editors are important in that they can take great work and make it better. Mediocre photo editors get in the way of good work.
I rarely sit with an editor and have them go through my work. I mostly work remotely. I’ll send in my top picks and they take it from there.
I seek out advice on projects, but I believe photo editing is as important and creative as shooting. For that reason, I like to do it myself. I like the idea that I have more authorship in the final product. We make online photo galleries for the web and that’s really what I’m shooting for these days.
PP: How do you characterize the photo scene in Portland?
TB: By my estimation, there are way too many of us. Worse yet, there are too many mediocre photographers that manage to get work by under-cutting better ones. I suspect they won’t last much longer than their trust fund, but that can’t be too soon. That sounds harsh, but I’ve stood in the rental line at Pro Photo and watched a Craigslist wedding photographer rent $400 worth of gear to shoot a $800 wedding. That’s happening in all sectors of photography on different scales.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some great, highly accomplished Portland photographers that deserve everything they get. Dan Root, Lars Topelmann, Steve Bloch, Sol Neelman, Chris Hornbecker, Bruce Ely, Jamie Francis, Brian Lee, Leah Nash, Chris Onstott, Thomas Patterson, Jonathan Ferrey, Ray Gordon, Anthony Georgis, Craig Mitchelldyer, Andy Batt, and many more that inspire me with solid, professional work.
PP: What lies in the future for you?
TB: If I could have my way, I’d retire at The Oregonian doing what I’m doing now. I’m a newspaper shooter and have been since I started stringing for the AP and The Oregonian while I was still in college at Portland State in the late eighties. I’m a home grown Oregonian and I don’t want to live anywhere else. I’m hardwired to shoot newspaper assignments and I love it.
The future probably won’t turn out the way I want. If it doesn’t, I see myself launching a successful freelance career, starting a business and riding motorcycles.
PP: Anything else you like to add?
TB: For the first time in my career, I’m worried for the future of the photography business. There are just so many forces out there driving down the value of photography and there doesn’t seem to be a bottom. At the same time, there are so many people wanting to do it and schools are cranking out more and more photographers. I’ve always believed that with desire, hard work, a bit of talent, and a little help, a person could make a go of it. I’m not so sure anymore. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it now.
The internet has created a huge demand for photography, but it hasn’t translated into more work and money for photographers.
The challenge is to avoid thinking about all the negative stuff, and keeping my level of creative energy up. At the end of day, I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to do it this long.
PP: Thanks Thomas.
TB: Thank you, Pete.
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All images: Thomas Boyd.
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The Seattle Times reports some enlightened thinking at the WA DOC:
Washington state is at the forefront of a national re-examination. Instead of facing nothing but forced solitude, Washington inmates in solitary units — called Intensive Management Units, or IMUs — are increasingly being let out for hours to attend classes, see counselors or hit the gym.
It is a clear move to the left in prison management, but one that Washington prison managers say is rooted in data. More emphasis on rehabilitation appears to calm behavior in the prison, and cuts violent recidivism on the streets, experts say. It is also a cost-saver: Solitary confinement costs about three times as much as keeping a prisoner in general custody.
Let us hope other states follow the example.
Photo by Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times. Caption: Earnest Collins says he’s open to change after fights twice landed him in the Intensive Management Unit at Clallam Bay. “If you’re not mentally strong, it’ll drive you crazy,” said Collins. “You hear a lot of crazy things in IMU.”
Oregon spotted frogs at the Cedar Creek prison, WA. © Matthew Ryan Williams for the New York Times
Seattle photographer and all round nice guy, Matt Williams had his work published by the New York Times recently in an article titled Raising Frogs for Freedom, Prison Project Opens Doors. Williams himself pitched the story about the Prison Sustainability Project and teamed up with writer Kirk Johnson. The story has all the right ingredients – charismatic fauna, positive environmental change, a challenge of stereotypes, and social justice thought that bucks the lock ‘em trend and attitudes.
“The prisoners, who trained with a state biologist but also learned from one another, must compete to enter the program and maintain a record of perfect behavior to stay in it. They are paid 42 cents an hour, standard prison wages, for 10-hour workdays that involve sometimes tedious tasks like monitoring the frogs’ water temperature or harvesting the hundreds of crickets grown for frog food — something that even an oppressed graduate student might avoid at real wages.”
“It is about procedural order, point A to point B, with every step measured and marked for others to check and follow. And when the focus of that work is a creature that undergoes a profound metamorphosis from egg to tadpole to adult, the lesson is also one about the possibilities of change.”
The program is exemplary, as are the other prison environmental/education programs mentioned in the article. Good stuff.
You can see more images over at Matt’s blog.
PREVIOUSLY ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY
I’ve held the Prison Sustainability Project in high esteem for some time:
Isolation exercise yard, Security Housing Unit, Pelican Bay, Crescent City, California, a supermax-type control, high security facility said to house California’s most dangerous prisoners. © Richard Ross
Solitary confinement is in the news … for lots of reasons – a lawsuit brought by prisoners against the Federal Bureau of Prisons; a lawsuit brought by 10 prisoners in solitary against the state of California; a June Senate hearing on the psychological and human rights implications of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons (which included the fabrication of a replica sized AdSeg cell in the courtroom); an ACLU report pegging solitary as human rights abuse; a NYCLU report showing arbitrary use of solitary, a NYT Op-Ed by Lisa Guenther; the rising use of solitary at immigration detention centres; and the United Nations’ announcement that solitary is torture.
Recently, journalists from across America have contacted me looking for photographs of solitary confinement to accompany their article. I could only think of three photographers – one of whom wishes to remain anonymous; another, Stefan Ruiz is not releasing his images yet; which leaves Richard Ross‘ work which is well known.
Stefan Ruiz’ photographs of Pelican Bay State Prison, CA made in 1995 for use as court evidence. (See full Prison Photography interview with Ruiz here.)
With a seeming paucity, I went in search of other images. I found an image of a “therapy session” by Lucy Nicholson from her Reuters photo essay Inside San Quentin. A scene that has been taken to task by psychologist and political image blogger Michael Shaw.
Rich Pedroncelli for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Pelican Bay has been hosting media tours and welcoming journalists in the past year – partly due to public pressure and partly through a strategic shift by the CDCR to appear to be responding to public outcry. Maybe the courts have had a say, too?
© Lucy Nicholson / Reuters. Prisoners of San Quentin’s AdSeg unit in group therapy. (Source)
© Shane Bauer. Pelican Bay SHU cell. (Source)
© Shane Bauer. CA CDCR employees show investigative journalist Shane Bauer the Pelcian Bay SHU “Dog run.” (Source)
Correctional Officer Lt. Christopher Acosta is seen in the exercise area in the Secure Housing Unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. State prison officials allowed the media to tour Pelican’ Bay’s secure housing unit, known as the SHU, where inmates are isolated for 22 1/2 hours a day in windowless, soundproofed cells to counter allegations of mistreatment made during an inmate hunger strike last month. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP/SF (Source)
The amount of visual evidence still seems limited. It’s not that reporting on solitary confinement is lax or missing. To the contrary, I’ve listed at the foot of this piece some excellent recent journalism on the issue form the past year. We lack images.
Look Inside A Supermax a piece done with text and not images is typical of the invisibility of these sites. National Geographic tried a couple of years to bring solitary confinement to a screen near you. ABC News journalist Dan Harris spent the “two worst days of his life” in solitary to report the issue.
Why do we need to see these super-locked facilities? Well, depending on your sources there are between 15,000 and 80,000 people held in isolation daily (definitions of isolation differ). My conservative estimate is that 20,000 men, women and children are held in single occupancy cells 23 hours a day.
Gabriel Reyes, prisoner at Pelican Bay SHU writes about his experience for the San Francisco Chronicle:
“For the past 16 years, I have spent at least 22 1/2 hours of every day completely isolated within a tiny, windowless cell. [...] The circumstances of my case are not unique; in fact, about a third of Pelican Bay’s 3,400 prisoners are in solitary confinement; more than 500 have been there for 10 years, including 78 who have been here for more than 20 years.”
Solitary confinement is a “living death”; an isolating “gray box” and “life in a black hole.” Imagine locking yourself in a space the size of your bathroom for 23 hours a day. As James Ridgeway, currently the most prolific and reliable reporter on American solitary confinement, writes:
“A growing body of academic research suggests that solitary confinement can cause severe psychological damage, and may in fact increase both violent behavior and suicide rates among prisoners. In recent years, criminal justice reformers and human rights and civil liberties advocates have increasingly questioned the widespread and routine use of solitary confinement in America’s prisons and jails, and states from Maine to Mississippi have taken steps to reduce the number of inmates they hold in isolation.”
The over zealous and under regulated use of solitary confinement to control risk and populations within U.S. prisons is a cancer within already broken corrections systems. I’m posting a few more image that Google images afforded me – but I urge caution – these are just a glimpse and may not be indicative of solitary/SHU conditions. Windows are a rarity in solitary despite three images below showing them.
The main reason I’m posting here is to ask for your help in sourcing all the photography of U.S. solitary confinement we can. Please post links in the comments section and I’ll add them to the article as time goes on.
© Alice Lynd. Front view of cell D1-119. Todd Ashker has been in a Security Housing Unit (SHU) for more than 25 years, since August 1986, and in the Pelican Bay SHU nearly 22 years, since May 2, 1990. “The locked tray slot is where I get my food trays, mail.” (Source)
A typical special housing unit (SHU) cell for two prisoners, in use at Upstate Correctional Facility and SHU 20.0.s in New York. Photo: Unknown. (Source)
Bunk in Secure Housing Unit cell, Pelican Bay, California © Rina Palta/KALW. (Source)
Solitary Confinement at the Carter Youth Facility. Since the arrival of the girls’ program at Carter, the administration has created a new seclusion cell. This cell contains no pillow, sheet, pillow case or blanket. In fact, there is nothing in the cell other than a mattress, which was added after numerous requests from the monitor. Girls are routinely placed in this room for “time out.” Photo: Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit. (Source)
© Rina Palta, KALW. “More than 3,000 prisoners in California endure inhuman conditions in solitary confinement.” This photo, taken in August 2011 of a corridor inside the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison, illustrated Amnesty’s report. (Source)
© National Geographic. In Colorado State Penitentiary 756 inmates are held in “administrative segregation” alone in their cells for 23 hours a day. 5 times a week they are allowed into the rec room where they can exercise and breath fresh air through a grated window. (Source)
Eddie Griffin, prisoner in s Supermax prison in Marion, IL writes about “Breaking Men’s Minds” [PDF.]
Boxed In NYCLU campaign and report with resources and video against use of solitary confinement. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The Gray Box, an investigative journalism series and film about solitary across the U.S., by Susan Greene. (Dart Society) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
ACLU – Stop Solitary Confinement – Resources - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
ACLU _ State specific reports on solitary confinement
Andrew Cohen’s three part series on “The American Gulag” (Atlantic)
Atul Gawande’s take on the psychological impacts of solitary confinement (New Yorker)
Sharon Shalev, author of Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement, here writes about conditions. (New Humanist)
The shocking abuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons (Amnesty)
SOLITARY ELSEWHERE ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY
Interview with Isaac Ontiveros, Director of Communications with Critical Resistance, about Pelican Bay solitary and community activism.
The invention of solitary confinement.
RIGO 23, Michelle Vignes, the Black Panthers and Leonard Peltier
Chilean Miners, Russian Cosmonauts and 20,000 American Prisoners
Robert King, of the Angola 3, writes for the Guardian