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Image source: Insouciant Writing

THE WRITING ON THE WALL

If you’re in NYC between now and May 22nd go see The Writing on the Wall, an installation by Hank Willis Thomas and Baz Dreisinger. It opened yesterday at the President’s Gallery at John Jay College.

The Writing on the Wall debuted in September 2014, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit (MoCAD) where it was part of the Peoples’ Biennial.

There’s an opening reception tomorrow night, Weds, April 22nd, from 5:30 to 7:30pm.

THE BLURB

The installation is made from essays, poems, letters, stories, diagrams and notes written by individuals in prison around the world, from America and Australia to Brazil, Norway and Uganda. The hand-written and typed pieces were accrued by Dr. Dreisinger during her years teaching in US and international prisons, in the context of both the Prison-to-College Pipeline program she founded at John Jay and her forthcoming book Incarceration Nations: Journeying to Justice in Prisons Around the World.

On a basic and literal level, The Writing on the Wall is about giving voice to the voiceless and humanizing a deeply de-humanized population. It represents a kind of modern-day hieroglyphics, projecting a hidden world into a very public space and allowing a people too often spoken of and for—by politicians and a punishment-hungry public—to speak for themselves, in the most intimate of ways. It is a tribute to the power of the pen, a deliberate verbal intrusion and an assertion that some words need very much to be seen in order to be heard. Indeed the writing is not just on the wall but on the floor, on every inch of the installation space, such that the viewer, unable to look away, is compelled to confront a crisis: global mass incarceration. The piece thus fittingly references the Biblical story in which the writing on the wall, as interpreted by the prophet Daniel, foreshadowed imminent doom and destruction.

Just as mass incarceration is a living, growing global phenomenon, The Writing on the Wall is an ever-evolving installation. With every iteration, it grows and assumes a new shape, because the documents comprising it—material written by those living behind bars—continue to land in Dr. Dreisinger’s hands and mailbox.

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THE BIOGRAPHIES

Hank Willis Thomas is a photo conceptual artist working with themes related to identity, history, and popular culture. He received his BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and his MFA in photography, along with an MA in visual criticism, from California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Thomas has acted as a visiting professor at CCA and in the MFA programs at Maryland Institute College of Art and ICP/Bard and has lectured at Yale University, Princeton University, the Birmingham Museum of Art, and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. His work has been featured in several publications including 25 under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers (CDS, 2003) and 30 Americans (RFC, 2008), as well as his monograph Pitch Blackness (Aperture, 2008). He received a new media fellowship through the Tribeca Film Institute and was an artist in residence at John Hopkins University as well as a 2011 fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University. He has exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the U.S. and abroad. Thomas’s work is in numerous public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. His collaborative projects have been featured at the Sundance Film Festival and installed publicly at the Oakland International Airport, the Oakland Museum of California, and the University of California, San Francisco. He is an Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media, Columbia College Chicago Spring 2012 Fellow.

Baz Dreisinger is an Associate Professor in the English Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. She is the founder and Academic Director of the college’s Prison-to-College Pipeline Program (P2CP), which offers credit-bearing college courses and reentry planning to incarcerated men at Otisville Correctional Facility. She is also a reporter on popular culture, the Caribbean, world music, and race-related issues for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal, among other outlets; she produces on-air segments for NPR and is the co-producer and co-writer of the documentaries Black & Blue: Legends of the Hip-Hop Cop, which investigates the New York Police Department’s monitoring of the hip-hop industry, and Rhyme & Punishment, about hip-hop and the prison industrial complex. The author of Near Black: White to Black Passing in American Culture (2008) and the forthcoming Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World (2015), Dreisinger earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University and has been a Whiting Fellow and a postdoctoral fellow in African-American studies at UCLA.

THE DETAILS

President’s Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
 899 10th Avenue, Haaren Hall, 6th Floor
, NY 10019.

Hours: 9am-5pm, Mon-Fri.

Contact: gallery@jjay.cuny.edu or 212.237.1439.

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GRAVE ISSUE AND A GRAVE VIDEO APPEAL

Prisons are hostile, and potentially lethal, environments for transgender individuals. The acute need for understanding, medical care, and protection from predatory abuse is made visible for us through the remarkable efforts of Ashley diamond, a woman incarcerated in the mens’ Georgia State Prison.

Hearing her case and the evidence put forth by her advocates, The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it is a wonder Ms. Diamond is still alive. She has suffered no fewer than seven serious sexual assaults in the three years of her term.

Georgia’s prison system is notoriously dysfunctional and brutal. The prison in which Ms. Diamond is incarcerated is Georgia State. It had more sexual assaults between 2009 and 2014 than all but one other state prison. Ms. Diamond’s access to safety is merely one of her request in the recent lawsuit. Mainly, Ms. Diamond asks that her medically diagnosed condition of Gender identity disorder (GID) or gender dysphoria is recognised by the Georgia Department of Corrections and that they provide her the hormones that she was taking for 17 years prior to imprisonment.

Ms. Diamond describes her incarceration to this pint as nothing short of torture. Her gender identity is held in contempt by the authorities and her vulnerable situation is in no way accommodated. Bravo to her for forcing a lawsuit against the state in order to secure recognition, medical hormones treatments. This is a fight that will not only elevate the visibility of the severe issues facing LGBQT in prison but may secure human rights hitherto ignored or trampled.

Ms. Diamond and transgender prisoners like her are in a perilous position.

In reporting on the case and the subsequent Federal level support for it, The New York Times says, “Many face rejection by their families, harassment at school and discrimination in the workplace. Black transgender people have inordinately high rates of extreme poverty, homelessness, suicide attempts and imprisonment; nearly half those surveyed for the National Transgender Discrimination Survey had been imprisoned, compared with 16 percent of the study’s 6,450 participants. Transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than is the general population, with 59 percent reporting sexual assaults, according to a frequently cited California study.”

When budgets for non-profit advocacy groups are so scarce and the resources and intractability of the state opposition is so large, media outreach and messaging has to be perfect. Bravo to SPLC for delivering a message in which Ms. Diamond is front and center. From a contraband cellphone, Diamond makes a direct plea to the public. The illicit nature of the act adds a sense of urgency to the appeal. It is as if all other avenues have been cut off and desperate times require desperate measures.

It’s a bold move and possibly not without its consequences. I would not be surprised if the GDOC was to retroactively punish Ms. Diamond for possession and use of a cellphone. Given the daily threat to which Ms. Diamond is subject, it hardly seems sanction for possessing a cellphone would be high on her list concerns. Whatever the extent of “risk” is involved in publishing this cellphone video it is another significant lens through which we can see this case, this story and this political action.

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Video still from Ashley Diamond’s prison cell video.

ALLIES

It is also crucial that other prisoners are present in the video. It is empowering to see anonymous prisoners feature as allies and supporters. It balances the narrative of prisoners only being predators. Prisoner-led self-organisation is the most quickly silenced but the most effective of resistance against the state and prison industrial complex. I wonder if videos such as this could potentially add further to future struggles?

A FEW QUICK THOUGHTS ON PRISON VIDS

I’ve been promising myself for years to in some way put together an analysis of contraband cellphone photo and video footage. The only definitive thing I can say is that I’ve not seen the vast majority of it and never will.

99.99% of prisoner made recordings are shared between devices, between loved ones and never uploaded to the internet for public viewing. If they do make it to social media they are on the internet behind passworded social media accounts.

Often when prisoner made cellphone videos emerge it is to villianise the prisoner further. News stories peddle in public consternation — we abhor prisoners who might be seen to be thumbing their noses at authority. We also like to frame the stupid or “foolish criminal” and mock them when their video gets them caught. But the truth is, prisoners are very, very sensible with their videos and digital distributions. Why do you think we see so few prison videos?

Prisoners have an interest in protecting their assets — this applies to cellphones that are expensive to acquire and very, very useful. Prisoners have zero incentive for making it publicly known they have or had have had a cellphone. Most prisoners use cellphones to contact families as a cheaper alternative to a price-gouged market. And, let’s remember that phones — like any contraband — get into prisons through the hands of staff as much as they do because of family visitors or civilians.

If the cellphone becomes an issue for the prison administration then their complete lack of understanding of the complaint is exposed — it’d prove the point being made by Diamond and SPLC that the Georgia DOC has demoted human rights to the point of endangering lives.

SPLC’s strategic use of Diamond’s video testimony is deliberate, timely and well-advised. It accelerated and humanised the issue. I, for one, hope it might be a method repeated in the future to benefit the crucial legal battles of prisoners. If so, it could also change our appreciation of prisoner-led political actions.

LET’S AGREE TO AGREE

There’s nothing new here that advocates for prison reform don’t already know, but it’s worth a listen just to hear Obama declare that Omar was his favourite character in The Wire.

The conversation starts off pretty left of progressive with Simon asserting that “What the drugs didn’t destroy, the war on them did.” It’s a line he uses often but it’s a good one, and an accurate summary.

Obama makes pains a few minutes in to stress sympathy for police forces. To be expected from a leader who is taking the effort to first and foremost express sympathy for people who may have antagonist views toward an arrogant and broken record of policy as regards crime and punishment in American cities.

The political turn turns us toward the children. If we can’t all rally around a love of the children then what have we? The depiction of struggling Baltimore schools in The Wire was particularly hard for Obama, he says.

These 12 minutes weren’t a total waste of time. Simon got to register his dismay at the failings of government to help poor and addicted people. Obama got to express optimism for the more sensible debates we’re having about crime and transgression and where that might take us. He was very excited about bipartisan buy in, without any criticism that’s its come decades later than it should. Oh, that’s right people’s lives impacted by tough-on-crime-rhetoric were political footballs for the past 40 years.

The most sensible and realistic thing in the conversation is the closing remark of Obama when he says if we keep being honest about putting our policing, policy and sentencing failures right, we may see an improvement in about 20 years.

This was good PR for everyone involved. I doubt Obama would have sat down with Simon for this same conversation in 2009, but now it’s safer to be sensible — government budgets have told us so.

It’s not really significant what Obama and Simon said when they sat down together. Of most significance is the fact they sat down together, for the cameras, at all.

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I realised last week that my banner for my Twitter profile was enlarged and pixelated and looked a bit naff, so I put a call out for suggestions for a new one. Out of left-field came artist David Kelly-Mancaux a.k.a. Erkembode who offered any of his sketches from his series Prison Fights. I took the opportunity.

If you’re confused by them, I am too. David tells me they are based upon prison photographs, presumably portraits. He made them in response to his friend’s book Prison Fights about people who’d got into violent altercation. They’re from 2011.

I think, but am not sure, they are the product of a process David calls Visual Translation which seems to me like a mandatory type of doodling. Whenever, wherever. David has made visual translations of poems, poetry reading, Egon Schiele paintings; I don’t think there’s anything off bounds.

I might not fully understand the motives and the process but I don’t understand the world so it works. Also, the process by which I came across the Prison Photography logo was of equal abandon and random.

See the banner at my Twitter account.

And thank you to David Kelly-Mancaux!

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AK Press stock after the fire

ATTENTION

Stop what you’re doing. Listen up. Help out.

There was a massive fire in Oakland this weekend. Two people died. 30 people have been relocated from the now charred, smoky, water-damaged buildings. This is a costly tragedy from every angle you look at it. My respects go out to the victims and the victims’ friends and families.

The structure that went up was behind and attached to a building in which AK Press and 1984 Printing — two of Oakland’s phenomenal political publishing operations — operated. They lost paper stock, computers, presses, book inventory and more.

Here’s why they are both so impressive and this is why you should throw them some cash.

AK Press has published and distributed anarchist literature since 1990. It is worker run and collectively managed. Over the years, it has put out some of the staples of my library — including Captive Nation by Dan Berger, Resistance Behind Bars by Vikki Law, and Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis.

AK has consistently raised the bar for analysis of the prison industrial complex, state violence, violence against women and many other social justice urgencies. AK has built community and audience for radical writers. Precisely because the work has to be in the world, AK has to be in the world. Nobody does it better.

1984 Printing is one of the very few all-women-owned businesses I know. They’re happy, open, dog-loving crafts folk who turn the presses not to turn profit but to build knowledge for a better society. Amy and Richard know all their clients by first name and care for each and every project.

1984 does the best offset printing around — they’ve printed the two Carville Annex Press books So Many Mountains But This One Specifically, by Junior Clemons and It Hasn’t Stopped Being California Here, by Jordan Karnes. They also printed Rian Dundon’s Out Here series.

Yesterday, buildings were redtagged by the City of Oakland, meaning both operations are prohibited from occupying the warehouse and shops and shut down until further notice.

AK is raising money. GIVE

1984 is raising money. GIVE

If all you have between now and sanity is beer money and a punk spirit there’s a fundraising outlet for that with a benefit gig at 924 Gilman on May 9th.

Follow the situation at AK Press’ Facebook and Twitter and blog.

Follow 1984 on Facebook and the blog.

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There’s a 6 x 12 foot cell in the library at Marquette University in Milwaukee. It’s made of wood not cinderblocks. The toilet mimics the stainless steel of actual cells. This mock-up is intended to grip students and activate petitions and political awareness. Hey, if it’s good for politicians, it’s good for college kids.

I guess the installation — made by the theater department at Madison’s Edgewood College — relies on part shock & awe and part compassion. Students can step inside for a few minutes or can elect a 45 minute stint alone with a Bible or Qur’an and pen and piece of paper, just like prisoners. An iPad and headphones play the sounds of incarceration — the audio comes from a Frontline story on solitary.

I’ve questioned the frequent use of the cell floor-plan at prison art exhibitions (here, here and here), but mapping out the confines of a human-cage isn’t the worst tactic to snag people and have them think about the issue. The United Nations has defined solitary confinement for more than 15 days as torture. People in long term solitary suffer damage comparable to traumatic brain injury. A 6-sided box, with a door might be very effective in provoking response.

Built last year, the cell at Marquette has previously shown on the Capitol steps in Madison and at churches and schools in Wisconsin. Organizers hope more communities and schools will want to display the prison cell. So do I. Let’s get replicas made and installed at every seat of learning in the country. Youngsters need to know about the brutal, crushing systems older Americans have danced into law. Along side many others, the young adults we anoint with education, privilege and upward mobility are important constituents in the resistance movement.

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All images by Michael McLoone / Journal Sentinel.

 

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

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Guidelines for Art Proposals, 2016

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

READ! FULL INFO HERE

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

DEADLINE: JUNE 17TH

THE NEED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GO TO AN ORIENTATION

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

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

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

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

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

PAST GRANTEES

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

DEADLINE: JUNE 17TH, 2015

ALL INFORMATIONS

Additional Resources

Sample Proposals
Past Installations

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

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Say NO to a New Jail in SF

The discussion about the long proposed San Francisco County Jail has taken many turns. It’d have been built by now without the opposition of many California groups fighting for social justice under the umbrella organisation CURB (Californian’s United for Responsible Budget).

On Monday, March 2nd from 6-8pm, Sheriff Mirkarimi and staff from the Department of Public Works will be hosting a public meeting on the environmental impact of the $278 million dollar jail plan at the Community Assessment and Service Center (CASC).

The CASC at 564 6th Street in San Francisco — it is just around the corner from San Francisco County Jail #3, at 850 Bryant.

All info and RSVP here.

RALLY

The protest rally begins in front of the jail at 850 Bryant on Monday, March 2nd at 5:30pm and moves to the Community Assessment and Service Center (CASC).

“Come prepared to dance! We will be joined by the BLO (Brass Liberation Orchestra)” says organiser Lisa Marie Alatorre, of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. “San Francisco needs real solutions to public safety, housing, jobs, education, mental health care, not more of the same failed policies that harm our community. Justice is won when we build a future of opportunity for everyone, not more jails.”

Make banners and signs that reflect the environmental impacts that jail and incarceration has on your life and your community.

All info and RSVP here.

CITY HALL MEETING

Separately to the Sheriff’s meeting, the Capitol Planning Committee is voting on the jail plan also on Monday!

Anyone who can speak out against the jail should go to San Francisco City Hall from noon to 2pm Monday, March 2nd and voice their concerns.

GET THE WORD OUT

On Facebook

Share the flyer.

#NoMoreJails

All info and RSVP here.

 

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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