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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
Reporting on the prison industrial complex requires many tactics of approach in order to sustain audiences’ attentions and emotions. For all the constant misery, shame and violence the prison systems of America mete out, that relentless mood of defeat cannot dominate the flow of reported stories. Prisons are scary enough without giving people added fatigue and an easy option to turn away from stories heated the same beat-down drum. I guess this applies to all serious issues and is why human interest stories exist in journalism.
Human interest stories are great, but they have their place. Within the prison system are human interest stories ones that journalist find or are they ones fed to them? We’re headed into the weekend here and the sun is up so I don’t want to be a debbie-downer but I want to flag this contested context before celebrating Grant Blankenship’s latest human interest story, Say a Prayer for the Barber.
Anthony Ponder spent many years in prison in Georgia. He was released on August 18th. Not knowing where to go he spent his first night out asleep in the truck outside his uncle’s house. While he was inside he was the prison barber.
“Population barber. So I’ve got plenty of practice. Unfortunately.”
Anthony wasn’t afforded much help when he got out form the state. But two churches in the town of Macon, GA did; Centenary Church and Vineville United Methodist Church gave him clippers, scissors and a chair and a space to cut hair. Every Sunday morning, Anthony cut the hair of men.
Every Sunday morning, Anthony cut the hair of men who are making the transition, as he did, from prison or jail back into society.
“I was attracted to the story because of its simple reciprocity. A man is given a hand up and he returns the favor,” says Blankenship. “I was not assigned the story, but when I heard about Anthony I jumped on it pretty quickly.”
The full piece, including audio is titled Say a Prayer for the Barber. Recommended.
Anthony’s “shop” is located in Centenary Church which works with a number of men, providing transitional housing and other services. Eric, an organizer at Centenary, asked Anthony if he would like to volunteer but Anthony couldn’t imagine how to without the gear he had had before his incarceration.
“So Mr. Eric, we had a conversation he said he had a way that he could buy all the tools for me if I worked so many times cutting hair he would donate them to me,” recounts Anthony in Blankenship’s story.
Blankenship a staff audio and visual reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting is at the forefront of highlighting, through images, the issues of incarceration to Georgians.
“Public policy regarding former prisoners is shifting,” says Blankenship, who stresses he no expert on prison issues. “For example, my community of Bibb County, GA recently adopted a ban questions on job applications about felon status in an attempt to make hiring practices more immediately meritocratic.”
At the state level, new programs are slowly being introduced to aid returning citizens’ reintegration into communities and the wider economy. I’ve heard anecdotally, from photographers who’ve worked in Georgia’s prisons, that they’re below par, threatening and without significant programs. Georgia’s prisons are overcrowded. Reentry efforts will have to be redoubled to scale back on the damage done by an out of control system.
“Time will tell how those efforts pan out,” says Blankenship of reentry projects.
The state is making moves toward accountability.
“Though it has yet to be tested, a bill passed this year is touted as making the parole process, and even the granting or denial of clemency for death row inmates, more transparent,” says Blankenship who reported on the vague language of a new death penalty pardons bill here and here. “We are in the midst of a subtle but perceptible cultural shift. That’s the eight mile high view.”
In the mean time, we can hope for the best for Anthony and other men and women rejoining society after long stints away. Thanks to some imaginative thinking on the part of some church leaders, Anthony can connect with others in one of their most difficult moments.
“I want to give him some hope. Like I have. That’s my aim. Give him hope. Let him know there is hope. There’s a better way. If he’s down and depressed and discouraged, let him know there’s a better way.”
It’s an uplifting story, but returning to me opening caution. We must remember that people make it out of prison and stay out in spite of the system not because of it. As heartwarming as Anthony’s story is and as easy it is to connect with his warmth and generosity, we must not be distracted from seeing the larger systemic inequalities at play that.
That said, Blankenship’s cracking images and Anthony Ponder’s words of wisdom are the hook by which we are all snagged. And here we are talking about Georgia’s prisons.
The story was only positive for Blankenship. A joy to work on.
“I am grateful to Anthony for sharing so much with me for no good reason,” says Blankenship. “I’m left wanting the absolute best for him. He’s a kind man.
Read and listen to Blankenship’s full report Say a Prayer for the Barber.
Heidi Levine hugs her driver Ashraf Al Masri after his home in Gaza was destroyed. Photo: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis
It can be tricky to talk about photojournalists’ work without over-simplifying, romanticising or glorifying. Thankfully, this piece Bearing Witness does none. Writer Doug Bierend does a sterling job of describing the decade-long work of Heidi Levine and teasing out the bittersweet award of the inaugural Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award for her coverage of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014. Levine knew Niedringhaus and an award is a strange thing in the face of societies destroyed by war:
“This award has made me reflect, and spend a lot of time thinking back and understanding — I have been very lucky. We were talking about experience — sometimes it’s not even how experienced you are, it can boil down to just having bad luck. I guess I’ve always felt committed to bearing witness, and feel that is just so important to give people the opportunity to know what’s happening in the world, and I don’t believe that there’s any excuse anymore for people looking the other way and claiming, as they did in the past, in history, that they were just unaware and didn’t know.”
Wounded Palestinian Rawya abu Jom’a, 17 years old, lays in a hospital bed at the Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, July 22, 2014. Rawya was seriously injured when two Israeli air strikes hit her family’s apartment. Her sister and three of her cousins were killed in the attack. She is suffering from shrapnel in her face, her legs have perforated holes in them and the bones of her right hand were crushed. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Some photos we feature are gorgeous and some are gory. In Levine’s case she manages to combine to the two. As Bierend puts it, Levine makes pictures in “a subtle or even artful way requiring a high degree of sensitivity [that] sees through the violence to the dignity of the subjects suffering at its heart. At its best, this skill can convey the true stories of conflict, the hidden personal and private lives shaken to their foundations by the nations, militaries, and leaders which tend to be the sole subjects in any discussions about war.”
It’s a sobering piece. Levine talks about risk, fixers and luck. I’ll leave you with another statement of hers:
“If you’re not trained, it’s really, really important to become trained, to take a hostile environment course, to take a combat medical training class … I have seen a lot of people out there in the field that are very inexperienced. It’s not like rockets or bullets discriminate between who is experienced and who’s not experienced. As you saw, Chris Hondros, who was one of the most experienced conflict photographers, was killed in Libya.”
Read in full at Bearing Witness.
Women mourn during the funeral of the boys killed by an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza, Gaza City, July 16, 2014. Four boys died instantly during an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza, a fifth boy died shortly after the attack in hospital. Israel stepped up its attacks on July 16 by bombing the homes of Hamas leaders after the Islamist movement rejected a truce proposal and instead launched dozens more rockets into Israel. Photo: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Palestinian men run with a white flag in the Shejaia neighborhood, which was heavily shelled by Israel during the fighting, in Gaza City, July 20, 2014. At least 50 Palestinians were killed on Sunday by Israeli shelling in the Gaza neighborhood, and thousands fled for shelter to a hospital packed with wounded, while bodies were unable to be recovered for hours until a brief cease-fire was implemented. Photo: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Palestinians collect religious books in the rubble of the Al-Qassam mosque in Nuseitat camp, located in the middle of the Gaza Strip, July 9, 2014. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Hidya Atash stands on the top floor of her home as she overlooks the destruction in Shujayea, at dawn Aug 8, 2014. Her family’s home was hit two weeks prior by a warning rocket and the family of 40 people fled. When they returned during the cease-fire, they discovered their home was heavily damaged during the fighting. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
We’ve seen Obama in a cell block before (no not those photoshop hack jobs by wingnut-conspiracy-theorists) but photos of Obama and the First Family, in 2013, touring Robben Island, the prison in which Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were held during South Africa’s regime of Apartheid. (BTW, Robben Island was, apparently, “a paradise by comparison” to modern U.S. prisons.)
One expects to see empty cells in photos of visitors–presidents included–to defunct prisons such as Robben Island. But one might not expect to see a quiet, vacant cellblock inside a functioning, policed, inhabited, tax-funded prison. I did not. Yet, that is what we have. The government at work is not in evidence here.
But then again, this is the first time a sitting president has visited a prison, so there is no precedent. POTUS’ handlers made their own rules at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. To get an idea how lonely and echoey an experience it was, consider these two images made by White House Chief photographer Pete Souza. Both [one & two] were posted to Twitter.
© Pete Souza / White House
None of the other images from Obama’s visit that I’ve seen have the vantage point of the second story mezzanine. Was Souza was the only one with the privilege of this overview? That Souza patrolled the gantry, looking down upon bodies milling below, was not happenstance. It made for more riveting pictures.
Michael Shaw over at BagNewsNotes approves of Souza’s up-above-angle arguing that it puts Obama “both in the belly of the beast, and also squarely facing the larger institutional problem.”
© Pete Souza / White House
Souza’s images are in contrast to the rest of the press pack who took shots, from a fixed position, at the end of the cellblock, with a long lens, during Obama’s brief walkabout.
During his 5-minute outline White House philosophy/policy to the press (transcript here), a couple of photographers (Saul Loeb and Doug Mills), got down on their haunches and shot images from knee-level looking upward toward POTUS (see below). These images elevate Obama, resizing him, and recasting him back into his more usual role as a leader in control; as a person in a position to rectify decades of failed policy and to reverse mass incarceration.
© Getty Images
Shaw also notes that these images of a controlled Obama might reflect a significant enough change in policy that this is a teachable moment — that this is Obama instructing the nation he leads. This is Obama as educator and reasoned orator it is argued. I can’t quite get to that conclusion, for I’m still wrapped up on the fact that Obama and his prison-guard-tour-guide Ronald Warlick are dressed in virtually identical garb!
President Barack Obama, alongside Ronald Warlick (L), a correctional officer, tours a cell block at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. © Getty
The matching uniforms might be an unfortunate visual turn for POTUS. But then again, if the shoe fits. Obama remains a law and order man. Sure, the White House is capitalising on widespread public and bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, but the president remains walking a fine line. He calls for the absolute necessary application of common sense but he does so in a way that doesn’t alarm opponents who are ready to pounce.
For example, Obama emphasised his support of correctional staff, “I want to give a special shout-out to our prison guards. They’ve got a really tough job, and most of them are doing it in exemplary fashion.” No president can alienate law enforcement so Obama’s words are no surprise. But given how vocal and momentum-winning the Black Lives Matter movement is, and given that many communities subject to over-zealous and murderous policing make no distinction between street cops and prison guards, it gets pretty uncomfortable.
On the other hand, much of America is still unversed in the racist and classist underpinnings of the prison industrial complex and will need time to take in Obama’s message. Why do you think he is hanging his every speech on the “5% of the world’s pop; 25% of the prison pop” stat? It’s a simple, shocking stat. It points the finger, but at all of us and none of us; it is a stat that calls out the problem without calling out those who created it. Sure, in front of a Philly NAACP crowd, Obama can get into more specifics and mention slavery but that won’t be the middle-ground message that the White House will adopt between now and January 2017.
President Obama speaks to reporters during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. © Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Obama may have just pardoned 46 people who were serving long sentences for drug related offences but that was a safe symbolic gesture that indicated the White House’s awareness of the issue without pissing too many people off. But really, what is 46 as a percentage of 2.3 million?
Furthermore, Obama’s persistent argument is that locking up drug users and low levels dealers for decades is foolish. A news report I saw today said there might be 2,500 people serving 20 years or more for non-violent drug offenses. Again, what percentage is 2,500 of 2.3 million?
We should recognise Obama for getting to the starting line but he still has a marathon to run.
President Obama toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on Thursday and met with six inmates. © Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Images
Another thing that bothers me about the “safe” rhetoric about emancipating non-violent, low level drug offenders, is that it immediately divides America’s massive prison population — it assumes there are those who deserve some help in the face of an admittedly failed, brutalising system and it leaves the rest for no help within the failed, brutalising system.
Reformers are playing with definitions, shifting policitcal lines and seeing what lands. We’ll soon rest upon a point where those one side of the line receive some relief, but the great number of prisoners the other side of it get none. We are, arguably, doing nothing to disassemble the system and to redirect public funds toward more sweeping programs promoting social equality (yes, that’s schools, social entrepreneurship programs, prenatal healthcare, food programs).
Just because a person is convicted of a violent crime doesn’t mean they are a violent person. And just because someone has been violent once doesn’t mean they’ll be violent again. A wife who murders her husband after decades of abuse is an easy to understand example of this.
Making policy based upon legal definitions drawn up under a system that has violated citizens for decades is wrongheaded. Making arguments for violent offenders, too, is probably a step too far for most Americans to stomach but here again we find a measure by which “free” people and those subject to prisons and jails see the criminal justice issue so massively differently, still.
“I know Obama can’t fix everything, but I really hope his sole focus isn’t just on helping drug offenders,” said Nathan Mikulak, a former federal prisoner convicted of a gun offense and tagged in the federal system as an Armed Career Criminal (ACC) a system parts of which the SCOTUS just ruled unconstitutional.
President Obama toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on Thursday. © Doug Mills/The New York Times
The more I look at these images the odder they become. They mimic the press photos we’ve seen of shareholders and politicians touring schools or hospitals or factories or prisons (!) before they go online. Look at that shiny floor! Look at that fresh paint! Look at how the locks work!
These images might become iconic for the wrong reasons. This historic visit was reduced to a rapid press photo op. It’s the ultimate sanitised facility tour in the well-known genre that is the “Politician Prison Tour.”
I’ve been in a prison a week after politicians tour and heard the prisoners describe how the place was cleaned up beforehand. Obama’s tour of one of the “outstanding institutions” in the system — albeit cleaned out — is an unusual case of the Politician Prison Tour genre because it was played out for the cameras and because the whole nation was watching.
In giving politicians the benefit of the doubt, I could argue that they simply have not known what has gone on in the nation’s prisons and can be forgiven for doing virtually nothing for so long. Tours have not helped to inform them. Let’s hope that’s not the case here with our president.
US President Barack Obama, Charles Samuels, right, Bureau of Prisons Director, and Ronald Warlick, left, a correctional officer, looks at a prison cell as he tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, July 16, 2015, in El Reno, Oklahoma. © AFP/Getty Images
I presume Obama’s handlers didn’t make a photograph of him looking inside an empty cell because it’d undermine the “bravery” of the gesture to visit a prison … conveniently vacated of its prisoners.
The secret service knew it would be impossible to secure a cellblock full of convicts. Ironically, a prison provides levels of control over citizens that the secret service can only dream of as compared to manning presidential appearances in public! In a prison every single person undergoes the scrutiny, searches and discipline of a space designed for monitoring! And yet, the danger for the leader of the free world to wander amid a functioning cellblock with prisoners was surely too great.
Imagine, the PR nightmare should, on the slimmest of slim possibilities, a prison riot break out around the president and his entourage? Now you understand why we have these images.
President Barack Obama looks inside a cell alongside correctional officerRonald Warlick (front) and Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels
Obama did meet with six prisoners and VICE + HBO made some video of the meeting for a forthcoming documentary. When it is published, that footage might assuage this continued, discomfiting knowledge. That’s the knowledge that neither Obama or we have seen prison yet. We saw a photo op in a building in a prison compound.
Joey Milledge has a plush replica of his late father Army Sgt. Joseph B. Milledge at his home in Gig Harbor, Washington. “I like to sleep with it because it gives me good memories of my dad and sometimesÉ and good dreams, too,” he said.
Touched base with my old mucker Erika Schultz this week. She’s great, her colleagues are great, The Seattle Times is great. It’s a paper that allows its photographers to dive into projects deep. All my buds who shoot at the Times work super hard. It’s not easy, but it can be rewarding. Usually, it’s important.
I tacked on a question to my email to Erika about the photo she’s made recently and most proud of. Erika replied:
An image from a video and photo project on two local woman (and their sons) who lost their husbands in the Iraq War. The women — who were similar ages as me — thought it was important to share their stories on Memorial Day to remind the public of the human cost and sacrifice of war, and keep the memory alive of their husbands for their children.
I was listening to a radio program round up of the latest announcements by politicians for the 2016 Democratic ticket. One of candidates is Lincoln Chafee. He was a Republican U.S. Senator (1999-2007) and later a Governor of Rhode Island (2011-2015) but as an Independent. Well now he wants to challenge Hillary.
Chafee’s distinguishing feature is that he was the only Republican Senator to vote against authorising the use of force in Iraq. Will it matter? Probably not; the radio commentators suggested past wars aren’t of any importance to most Americans, now. Sad.
It’s easy to forget that moving on and away is difficult-to-impossible for some.
Here’s the video. put together by Corinne Chin and Lauren Frohne.
Manchester United play Liverpool on a pitch surrounded by watching prison inmates. Photograph: Ronald Kabuubi/EAPPA images/Demotix
This week, it was great to see the Guardian publish a long read about the knockout football tournament at Luzira Upper Prison in Uganda. The article’s author, football historian David Goldblatt, argues that football has helped transform Luzira UP from Uganda’s most notorious prison to one in which self-discipline, shared goals, and self-policing shape the friendly culture..
Pain, shame, stagnation are not tolerated at Luzira. It is a prison with fixed but fair sentences (no Life Without Parole) and a mandate to prepare prisoners for release. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no cake-walk but the prisoners’ buy-in to the social structure and how football feeds positive engagement between prisoners and prisoners & staff is exemplary.
Nigel Boyle playing at Luzira Upper Prison, Uganda, summer 2014.
You might recall that 5 month’s ago I published an interview with Nigel Boyle, an Englishman and U.S.-based academic specialising in the economics of global football. He reported witnessing the same community as Goldblatt.
“It was the friendliest ‘friendly’ game I have ever played in,” said Boyle. “In fact all games at Luzira are played in a very gentlemanly fashion – the prison soccer association constitution demands it and sets explicit standards for player and fan behavior, above anything FIFA can manage.”
Of course, the shocking scandals over at FIFA are a lighting rod for irony right now. We have long known about FIFA’s corruption but the stunning series of arrests of high-profile FIFA leaders — after US Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s years long investigation — comes at a perfect time.
When money becomes the driving force, football loses its soul. The Ugandan prisoners playing here for a new jersey and share of a slaughtered goat are the true heart and soul of the sport.
All this leads me to ask, who are the real crooks?
Google search for “Minnesota prison”
If the image above is useless, get used to it. The Minnesota Department of Corrections has banned news cameras.
Under a sub-head of ‘Special Access’, the policy, which was introduced in February, reads:
A visit facilitated by the communications unit and lasting one hour in length. The representative of the public news media may bring a recording device (if approved), paper, and a writing utensil. Video and photography cameras are not allowed.
Interviews with prisoners should not be considered special access; they should be considered key to maintaining open access to information and to accountability. Society uses prison to deny prisoners their liberty, not their voice.
Incredibly, this ban is not a response to any embarrassing or damaging event or story. It is, by the DOC’s reasoning, a shift of policy in line with other rules about contraband!
Because cellphones (with cameras) are contraband in prisons, the twisted logic of the prison administration goes that news cameras are also contraband! What?
This is reckless bureaucracy in full swing. The public will lose out by not having a free and unencumbered press on which to rely for impartial information. The biggest losers will be the prisoners who are silenced. In a reasoned OpEd for the Star Tribune, journalist James Eli Schiffer writes:
“My concern about the camera ban goes beyond the implications for my own industry. It means that the nearly 10,000 inmates of Minnesota prisons will recede even further from public view, their faces all but invisible.”
Schiffer points out that a long term project Young & Armed that he and colleagues made in 2012 about youth gun violence, which included dozens of interviews from inside prisons, just would not be possible today.
The Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is outraged.
“The Minnesota DOC is now equating both still and video news cameras with contraband items such as pornography and lighters, which is patently absurd,” says the SPJ Minnesota Pro Chapter. “Other DOC concerns could be dealt with through policies other than a full ban on cameras. We urge the Minnesota DOC to immediately reverse its camera ban.”
Unfortunately, Minnesota Gov. Dayton sees no political advantage in calling out this nonsense policy and has backed his DOC Secretary’s decision. Ugh.
Thanks to Aaron Lavinsky for the tip.