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STATE BILL 124

The indubitable Ella Baker Center alerted me this morning to the efforts by activists and good-headed politicians in California to prevent the use of extended solitary confinement for people under the age of 18.

The Ella Baker Center is working to end the solitary confinement of youth with the Youth Justice Coalition,Children’s Defense Fund California, and California Public Defenders Association. Senator Mark Leno introduced the bill, SB-124

DeAngelo Cortijo who is formerly incarcerated explains why SB-124 is a good thing.

The first time I experienced solitary confinement, I was 11 years old.

Now, 11 years later I’m fighting to end the widespread use of solitary confinement in California’s youth prisons.

I’m writing today to ask you to join me in taking action.

As I would stare out of my cell window I could see the other kids outside and I remember feeling empty and afraid. On several occasions I contemplated suicide.

My own experiences in solitary are the reason I am supporting Senate Bill 124, a bill introduced by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that would limit the solitary confinement of youth. SB 124 is about to come up for a vote in the Senate and we need you to let senators know that we will no longer stand for this torture of our youth.
Along with Youth Justice Coalition, Children’s Defense Fund-California, and the California Public Defenders Association, the Ella Baker Center is a co-sponsor of this legislation, which would also provide a uniform definition of solitary confinement and require statewide reporting of its use.

If we unite and make our voices heard, we can end this cruel and inhumane practice.

I was most recently placed in solitary confinement last year for two months. I spent at least 21 hours per day alone in a tiny cell. I kept thinking, I could be in college right now, but instead I’m just wasting away in here.

Today, I am still affected by these experiences. I am afraid of being alone. I went into prison feeling angry and confused and I ended up coming out of the system feeling even worse than when I went in.

Now, I am an intern at the National Center for Youth Law, working to ensure that young people like me have a chance at a better life. This bill is an important first step toward that goal.

Kids in California’s youth prisons and jails cannot wait—Will you stand with me and all of the other young people who have been victims of this abusive practice?

In solidarity, DeAngelo Cortijo, Intern, National Center for Youth Law

Yup. If you live in California, sign this and let them know you support the bill.

Image © Richard Ross, from the series Girls In Justice.

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I was recently alerted about a disturbing change in policy within the California prison system. There are numerous reasons to be alarmed and thankfully Kenneth Hartman details them below and in the linked Los Angeles Times Op-Ed he wrote.

Californians United for Responsible Budget (CURB), for whom Hartman is an Advisory Board Member, forwarded me his open letter.

Dear Friends & Colleagues:

As you may already know, the CDCR has implemented a new screening system for visitors that includes the use of Ion Scanners and dogs. The upshot of this is visitors, and only visitors, if found positive by either of these highly inaccurate methods, are required to submit to a strip search in order to have a contact visit. For the details of what constitutes a strip search, please see my opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Strip-Searches Will Keep Helpful Visitors, Not Illegal Drugs, Out Of Prison.

Over the past few weeks, at this prison alone, a 77-year old woman with a recent knee replacement was ordered to squat naked, another woman who refused to submit to the humiliation of a strip search was denied contact visits, but when she reluctantly agreed the following weekend she was forced to strip search twice as punishment, and multiple other visitors were placed on non-contact visiting status for not surrendering their dignity.

The goal of all of this is clear.  The CDCR wants to do away with contact visiting. They are heaping their own failure to control the drug problem in the prisons onto the backs of the visitors.  It’s a terrible thing we all have to fight back against now before it’s too late, before we’re all on non-contact visiting status forever.

As a starting point to this campaign, there’s an online petition called “Stop Strip Searching My Mom.” I encourage all of you to sign the petition and get everyone you know to sign the petition.  Further, please forward this to all your contacts and ask them to do the same thing.  We need 100,000 signers before we send it to the governor.  Let’s get to work!

And there will be more to this campaign, so please get ready to participate again when we press for legislative help and seek legal help in the not too distant future.

Thank you in advance for your help in defeating these unreasonable policies.

Take the best of care and strive to be happy. Peace…

Sincerely, Kenneth E. Hartman

advocacy group w juicy

Advocacy group after a day of presenting their position as part of the Formerly Incarcerated Quest for Democracy: Voices and Faces event, Sacramento, 2015.

FAMILIES AND RETURNING CITIZENS DRIVING THE CHANGE

Every day, across the nation, activists and advocates are going to State capitol’s and presenting arguments against the  implementation (sometimes blind implementation) of laws that hamper the abilities of prisoners and formerly incarcerated to realistically turn their lives around. In California, many groups such as California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), The Ella Baker Center, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) and many more.

Commonly, these groups are made up of the family members of prisoners or people who were formerly incarcerated. They carry a knowledge about the draconian, obstructive and overly-punitive criminal justice system that most others in privileged and comfortable living circumstances do not. They are activists by necessity.

It goes without saying that knowing these activists’ experiences and knowing them will only help in bringing us all (California residents or otherwise) to an understanding of what is happening beyond our sight-lines, but in our name, in our prisons.

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) held its annual Formerly Incarcerated Quest for Democracy: Voices and Faces last week. It is a day on which advocates get to educate each other and elected politicians about legislation relevant to formerly incarcerated people and our communities.

Full group photo
Group photo of participants at the Formerly Incarcerated Quest for Democracy: Voices and Faces

LSPC co-ordinated more than 250 advocates, organised into 30 teams to intervene in the business as usual operations of Sacramento. Some legislators met with activists. Senator Holly Mitchell as well as Assembly-members Reginald Jones-Sawyer and Autumn Burke addressed participants.

I cannot know if politicians and their staffers are moved by the personal testimonies of those impacted by the prison system, but I was. And I deeply admire LSPC’s strategic focus on these stories as a way to drive the day of organising, but also to reach secondary audiences such as myself … and yourselves.

With permission of LSPC, I’m reposting its recap of the day, replete with the words of advocates.

Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of LSPC, reminds us why these faces and voices are the most important:

“It is the drive for greater recognition of a class of people for whom democracy looks a lot different. We don’t have a guaranteed right to vote [in California] – if we move to another state we could easily lose it. We’re still struggling for the fundamental rights of citizenship, such as the right to sit on juries,” says Dorsey. “We’re fighting for all who don’t have political power. We’re crying for justice for the youth – torturing them by locking them in solitary confinement is beyond reprehensible. We’re crying for justice for our elders – locked up so far beyond any pretense of public safety, it simply becomes irrational revenge.”

Hear, hear!

Crucially, LSPC included a list of the state bills it and its allies are backing. Please scroll to the bottom of this post to inform yourselves about those upcoming bills. Their adoption will mean incremental, positive change for communities who have suffered over policing and over-criminalisation for too long.

And now, the words of those for whom democracy look very different.

VOICES AND FACES

“I’m a formerly incarcerated person myself. I support a lot of the bills we’re talking about today, but especially the housing bill, AB 1056. I’ve been out for 15 months and could afford my own place but I’ve been turned down over and over again because of my record. If you come out and don’t have a safe place to live, what are your options? I’ve applied to be a security guard, and I have a team of seven people backing me up. They all gave recommendations as to my good character, and I was still turned down. The reason they cited was ‘insufficient rehabilitation.’ What does it take?” — Kevin, Oakland.

“It’s very ironic that we’re here on a quest for democracy in the land of so-called democracy. I’m a youth organizer with Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, and I’m here to support the voice of those who can’t be heard.” — Tariq Muhammad, Stockton.

Role Play at Q4D training_cropped

Multi-generational Quest for Democracy participants role play an advocacy meeting with a legislative aide.

“Who are we? We are PEOPLE. We want to go in and blow all their stereotypes about who we are.” — Vonya Quarles, All Of Us Or None (Riverside Chapter) and Starting Over, Inc.

“I’m here because I have friends and family still locked up. I want to be a voice for them.” – Ruben, Oakland.

“I’m formerly incarcerated, and feel it’s important to participate. I would like to be a facilitator at some point, so I’m here today to see how that works. I support SB 504. Even as an adult those ‘juvenile’ records can be held against you. It’s a double-edged sword – you get out and try to change, but they hold it against you and you can’t get a job.” — Leon, Riverside.

Dorsey and Reggie Jones-Sawyer
Dorsey Nunn (left) asking Assembly-member Reggie Jones-Sawyer (right) for his support on an executive order to Ban the Box. He gave his support, and further agreed to ask the Congressional Black Caucus for theirs.

“I’m an AB 109 resource specialist for Fathers and Families of San Joaquin. As a formerly incarcerated person myself I have a direct empathy for people coming out. Any way we can assist, I’m on the bus. I think AB 1351, allowing pre-plea diversions so crimes are never entered onto a person’s record, is an important bill. With that we can avoid Prop 47 altogether.” — Jagada Chambers, Stockton.

“I’m here because I have a commitment to formerly incarcerated people being treated like human beings. I’ve always felt that way, but a couple of things really solidified that for me. One is my nephew being incarcerated, and the other is witnessing the extreme trauma of my friend’s family over her son’s incarceration. My friend’s young daughter is still traumatized by the years of prison visits to her brother.” — Victoria M.

Alex and Project WHAT
Alex Berliner (far left) facilitated an advocacy group of Project WHAT members. Project WHAT is an organization for children of incarcerated parents.

“I’m here because I like the fact that we’re working to change laws that could affect our family members. I’m most interested in the bills for sealing ‘juvenile’ records and getting our elders out on parole.” — Jada Layne, Project WHAT, high school student.

“I’m an organizer and I’m here to be around beautiful people, and to let legislators know that people like myself, formerly incarcerated people, have a stake and a say in the direction of how things are going. I want to advance policies that advance the lives of formerly incarcerated people and also those who aren’t incarcerated but are impacted by it, the larger community that is dealing with poor schools, lack of infrastructure, etc. Too often they want to focus on individuals and not really look at the impact on communities.” — Darris Young, Oakland

Participants at briefing on bills

Briefing inside the capitol hearing about proposed bills (see more in table below) from representatives of co-sponsoring organizations.

“I marched with Martin Luther King, and since then, I have to say, I have not seen enough of a change. I was active in the Tyisha Miller case down in Riverside. The police shot and killed her. After two years of constant protesting the police finally got fired, but no charges were pressed, and one of them was rehired right away in another county. I’m also interested in prison reform, because I have three incarcerated family members – one in juvenile and two others who are in prison and are mentally ill. We have to get better treatment for incarcerated people, because prisons are an extension of our community.” — Gloria Willis, All Of Us Or None (Riverside Chapter).

“I run a house similar to a Catholic Worker’s house for formerly incarcerated men in Fruitvale. I’m another white person trying to be in solidarity as best I can. I do believe that mass incarceration is the defining obscenity of our time, just as slavery was in another era.” — Nicholas Routledge, Oakland.

“I work at Planting Justice in Oakland, and also have my own business. Planting Justice is a permaculture skills training program currently in San Quentin and Solano prisons, and we want to get our program into Mule Creek and Folsom prisons. I’m here to speak in support of the bills providing housing funds for formerly incarcerated people and preventing discrimination based on conviction history. This is important to expanding our program – we teach people permaculture so they can have a job when they get out, but how can they have a job if they don’t have housing?” — Anthony Forrest, Oakland.

“My first arrest was for theft, and I got ‘juvenile’ probation for a year. But what I didn’t get were any resources, for employment or education or housing. I wound up back in detention and had an epileptic seizure. The guards accused me of lying and put me into solitary confinement. I remember it being so cold, and it felt like I was going crazy.” — Devon Williams, Los Angeles.

Emily_Deirdre and Hafsah
Emily Harris, along with Deirdre Wilson and Hafsah Al-Amin from California Coalition for Women Prisoners Sharina Chavis, San Bernardino.

“I’m formerly incarcerated myself. I was doing a six year term and then my daughter came to the same prison. While I was inside my mom also passed. When I got out my biggest worry was where to live, and I was fortunate to get accepted into A Time for Change in San Bernardino. After being in prison, so many people have low self-esteem, and really need help. I’m a big advocate for Ban the Box. It’s really powerful to be here today!” — Sharina Chavis, San Bernadino.

“I’m a formerly incarcerated person. I work at Amity Foundation, and I’m here for the solitary confinement bill. I spent time in and out of solitary when I was inside, and I know what it does to you both mentally and physically.” — Ernest, Los Angeles

Bills Supported by Quest For Democracy Advocacy

Listed by number, proposal, sponsoring legislator.

AB 1056 – Gives housing funding for people exiting prison (Atkins)
AB 1351 – Prevents deportation by allowing pretrial diversion (Eggman)
AB 1352 – Withdraws plea after successful diversion program (Eggman)
AB 256  – Expands crime of falsifying evidence to include digital video and photo evidence (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 267 – Provides that judges must inform defendants of collateral consequences of convictions (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 324 – Allows people with felonies to serve on juries (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 396 – Ends housing discrimination based on convictions (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 512 – Expands Milestone Program credit incentives to shorten sentences from 6 weeks to 18 weeks (Stone)
AB 829 – Gives people the right to appeal their gang database status (Nazarian)
AB 891 – Decriminalizes fare evasion for school transit (Campos)
AB 926 – Shortens parole terms based on compliance (Jones-Sawyer)
SB 124  – Ends juvenile solitary confinement (Leno)
SB 224 – Gives elder parole program to people over 50 (Liu)
SB 405 – Stops suspending drivers licenses for owing court debt (Hertzberg)
SB 504 – Enacts free sealing of youth records (Lara)
SB 759 – Gives good time credits to prisoners in solitary confinement (Anderson)

Good news arrived today for Think Ten Media, producers of the innovative web series The wHole: funding has been secured to continue production. Producer Jennifer Fischer tweeted, “Big News! The wHOLE got the greenlight. Episode 2 is a go.”

$$$ ONWARD $$$

But the fundraising and the efforts are not over. If you’ve got any money to throw in the pot. I know Fischer and writer & director Ramon Hamilton would love to push toward the 100% funding. (At the time of writing, they are at 80%). You can view the pilot episode here, and if you like what you see, then donate.

If you need a little more convincing about why to support a web series about this issue then read this conversation about “The Truth Behind Solitary” — hosted by ACLU — between Amy Fettig, senior counsel at the National Prison Project at the ACLU; Jeff Deskovic, advocate and exoneree who was released after 16 years in prison; and Hamilton.

The wHole was filmed at the empty and never-used Wapato Jail in Portland, Oregon. When they were working on the pilot last year, I argued that it was the only good thing to come out of the vacant jail.

J_Krimes_ESP_Install

In the past, I have sung the praises of both Jesse Krimes’ huge 39 cloth-panel mural Apokaluptein:16389067 and the programming at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Last night, the two joined forces to insert Krimes’ otherwise massive flat mural into one of the cells at ESP.

The wrap around, judging from the photo (above) looks very effective. I’m guessing they’ve reproduced the mural on paper and pasted it up on those damp, crumbling ESP walls. If I wasn’t 3,000 miles away I’d pay a visit and immerse myself in this work.

Krimes’ work is part of a new season of art installations at ESP (see the flyer below) in which Emily Waters’ fantastic “commemorative” plates of the 10 worst prisons in the United States is also featured. More on Waters’ project here.

ESP_ArtInvitePostcard

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Site Unseen: Incarceration flyer. Featuring the work of Jack L. Morris, a California prisoner who has been in solitary confinement for almost 25 years.

Do artworks made on opposite sides of prison walls work together in a gallery space?

Yesterday, at the Los Angeles Valley College, in Valley Glen, CA the exhibition Site Unseen: Incarceration came down form the walls. It was an exhibition bringing together prisoner-made art with artworks made by outside artists about prisons. (Catalogue in PDF, here)

Some artists I knew — Alyse Emdur, Anthony Friedkin, Los Angeles Poverty Department, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Mark Strandquist, and Margaret Stratton. Others are new to me — Robert V. Montenegro, Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes, Robert Stockton and David Earl Williams.

Shamefully, all those names with which I am unfamiliar I quickly learnt are prisoners. Why shame? Well, it’s all about consistency. I value activism that is built upon close alliance with, and information, from prisoners. There are no better experts on the system than those subject to it. At the very least, I should know and support the leading Prison Artists.

However, when it comes to painting and illustration, I have adopted lazy double standards. Without examination, I have demoted prisoner made art — commonly referred to by the catch all “Prison Art” — to an inferior status. I have prejudged most Prison Art. For my own comfort, I have bracketed Prison Art as naive and limited. I’ve conveniently focused on scarcity of supplies inside prison of prison to cursorily explain the lo-fi aesthetic of Prison Art.

My “logic” blinded me to the invention, resourcefulness and resistance inherent to almost all prison art. Hell, we’ve got prisoners making work out of M&Ms.

Site Unseen: Incarceration, therefore, is a nice kick back in the right direction. If we don’t have prisoners’ own artwork upon which to meditate then we lose site of the issues fast. As much as I have championed the work of Emdur, Ross, Strandquist and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, I want to now celebrate the works of Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes and David Earl Williams.

I wish also to applaud Sheila Pinkel for bringing together inside and outside, and for committing the oppressed and their allies to one another upon gallery walls.

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Sheila Pinkel. Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (2014). 7’ x 14’ Archival ink jet prints. Pinkel remarks, “Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration includes the major laws that have resulted in the expansion of the prison system, the Sentencing Reform Act (1984), Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Law (1986) and Three Strikes Law (1994). It is important to note that in the 1960s, during the civil rights era, rate of incarceration was declining as people adopted the ‘rehabilitation not incarceration’ attitude. However, after the Rockefeller Drug Laws took hold, incarceration in the United States began to grow exponentially. Also included is demographic information about the high rate of incarceration of non-white people and women, the great number of people being held in solitary confinement and the massive amounts of money being made by investors in the prison industrial complex. The backdrop for the graph is a set of images from U.S. history taken in the 19th and 20th centuries that reflect the treatment of minorities and prisoners. The poor, non-white and uneducated make up the majority of incarcerated today.

Origins of the Show

In 2004, Pinkel exhibited for the first time her mammoth work Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (above). While the shared title between this catalyst work and the exhibition confuses matters a little, it demonstrates the degree to which Pinkel is bound to prison reform. Passion + politics is usually a good recipe for art.

Pinkel’s motivations for mounting the show are many — concerns for Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case; an awareness of slavery (past and present); the doctrines of ownership and manifest destiny; sensitivity to the quiet traditions of aboriginal people; a raised consciousness toward the unparalleled use of torturous solitary confinement; and the profit making industries of the prison industrial complex; and more besides.

The urgent issues within the reform and abolitionist movements are so great that often they can drown each other out, or obscure one another. Perhaps, that is where silent 2D artworks come to play their part. Perhaps, a gallery space in which viewers can mediate their own responses is a hushed but vital contribution to the reform debate?

David Earl Williams 2000

David Earl Williams. Parrots (1996). 22” x 28” Ball point pen.

It is helpful for me to interrogate the idea that gallery shows and art have an effect upon political realities. I make a conscious effort to justify my workand others’ and to continually ask if analysing images and creative output from prisons changes the daily experience of the United States’ 2.3 million prisoners.

I conclude, often, that conscientious and intellectually honest analysis of images from prisons plays its role in the wider discussion needed to drag us out of this prison crisis.

Prison Sketches in the Absence of Prison Photos

Undoubtedly, in the past few years, solitary confinement has emerged as one of the main, digestible and terrifying issues behind which reformers could win arguments, gain traction and mindshare. The public now know that 80,000 people on any given day are subject to psychological torture within our prisons.

Many of the photographs of Supermax and solitary units — and there are not many — have come about because of court ordered entry to facilities. With the exception of Social Practice make-believe, artists and photographers have, for the most part, failed to image these dark, hidden spaces for the public. I’m apportioning no blame here, just pointing out fact. With that understanding, then, it is significant that the majority of prison artists in Site Unseen are either in solitary or on death row.

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Brendan Murdock. Tower (2012). 9” x 12” Linoleum cut print.

One of the artists in Site Unseen is Jack L. Morris, a creative spirit with whom Pinkel has had a lasting personal and professional relationship. In 2011, Pinkel began corresponding with Morris. At that point, he’d been incarcerated for 31 years. In 1978, aged 18, Morris was sentenced to a 15 years to life for being an accomplice to a murder. When the California Department of Corrections (CDCr) opened Pelican Bay Sate Prison (the first state-run Supermax in the nation) in 1989, Morris was transferred. He’s been in solitary confinement since.

“During this time he has not seen sunlight or touched another person,” says Pinkel.

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Jack L. Morris. Turtle (2012). Dimensions: 12” x 12” Medium: pen, pencil, peanut butter oil, pastel color.

Pinkel points out that the decision-making power to place someone in solitary is solely in the hands of the correctional officers. Checks and balances against abuse in this ‘Us vs. Them’ equation are largely absent. Pinkel believes that Morris, like many prisoners in the SHU, is subject to a Kafkaesque situation in which solitary is inescapable. While policies are shifting after attention from Sacramento politicians, it remains incredibly difficult to get out of the SHU if CDCr has classed you as a gang member.

“Jack has not been involved in gang activity and has had no ability to be involved in it since he has been in solitary. However, he is repeatedly denied release from solitary and has had his designation increased to active gang affiliation,” says Pinkel. “At the moment, there is no legal way for him to get out and, to my mind, there is no good being served by his continued incarceration, either in solitary or in prison at all.”

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Alyse Emdur. Anonymous backdrop painted in New York State Correctional Facility Woodburn (2012). Dimensions:42” x 52” Inkjet print.

Clearly, Pinkel has an affiliation. Put that aside though and consider Morris for his work and you can’t help but be impressed. In order to prevent himself “losing his mind”, Morris created poems, drawing and letters. Pinkel published them in the book The World of Jack L. Morris: From the SHU.

“Together,” says Pinkel, “they form a complex picture of a talented person who believed most of his life that he was not intelligent.”

And so we arrive here. At Morris’ and other art from inside. To be mesmerised by the intricacy of the work is understandable, but more-so we should be quietly and slowly scrutinising the work and using it as a gateway to a psychology we must surely hope we, or any of our loved ones, ever come to know.

Prison illustrations work very similarly to photographs in some ways, in that tropes recur and we find ourselves glossing over them. We presume that the system gives rise to them same type of images of flora, fauna, cars, tattoo-inspired designs, versions of women, motorcycles, sad clowns, tears and blood. These things are prevalent, but individual touches exist in the gaps and it is there we may identify the individual artist.

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Gabriel Ramirez. De Profundis … Dreams (Before 2007). 11.5” x 15” Medium: Pencil on manilla envelope.

The worst thing prison art and photography, alike, can be is misunderstood as aesthetic cliche and used as excuse to bypass the social conditions from which they arise. Prisoner art from solitary is the most reliable source of imagery on which we can rely to learn about extreme confinement. We just need to give it space to percolate. A gallery can do that.

There’s a perverse clash of time appreciation at work in order for prison art to have an effect. The artist labors for days and weeks on a single piece and goes to great lengths to deliver it outside the institution. On the outside, we’re spoilt for images and it’s almost luck or strange happenstance for us to spend more than a few seconds with an image. But, it is possible and a gallery can do that.

Strandquist 2000

Mark Strandquist. Windows From Prison (2014). Banners 5’ x 11’. Digital prints on vinyl.

Strange Brew

As might evident, I am largely in support of Site Unseen. However, looking over the catalogue, I am a bit skeptical toward the mix of works. Does Mark Strandquist’s work (above) that relies heavily on public education and engagement work when he cannot transform the gallery into a workshop space or collaborate with local reform groups? Are we getting to the point that a prison show cannot exist without the work of Richard Ross!? (I’m friends with Richard and had breakfast with him this morning; he won’t mind the snark). It just seems Ross might be an easy option.

Ross 2000

Is Site Unseen a prison art show supported by outside sympathisers, some of whom happen to be artists? Or is it a genuine attempt to level the field and present artists inside and outside as equivalents? The latter is a tough proposition. I have seen it done though. The Cell and the Sanctuary (Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History) managed to knit insider and outsider artists works together, but they managed it effectively because they were all either students or faculty in the William James Association’s Arts In Corrections program at San Quentin. A visual thread ran through The Cell and the Sanctuary that is not as immediately apparent in Site Unseen.

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Margaret Stratton. Ship’s Passenger Log, December 1916, Ellis Island, New York City, June 29, 1999, 10:35 a.m. (1999). 16” x 20”. Archival digital print.

The main culprit, for me, is the work of Margaret Stratton (above). I’ve constantly wondered what use have images of decaying/ abandoned prisons for connecting us to pressing contemporary prison issues. I can find value in most other works in Site Unseen as they’ve a clear umbilical cord to the tumorous, pulsing Prison Industrial Complex. We can sense the toxic bile of the system in the majority of the works. We can wonder at the ability to stay sane and creative from within such a system. I get none of that awe from Stratton’s work.

I understand Stratton’s B&W images employ a different route to the issue and I don’t want to suggest there’s any inherent flaw in the work or its tactics. The fault, if any, lies with the decision to include this type of work that I identify as an outlier within the collected works.

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Four Convicts, Folsom Prison, CA (1991). Dimensions: 11” x 14” Black and white gelatin silver print.

Another , but slightly less obvious, outlier is Anthony Friedkin’s photo of four Folsom prisoners in the early 90s. It is a captivating portrait for sure (one that I featured very early on Prison Photography) but it is hardly representative — of either recent photographs from prisons, or the U.S. prison population as a whole. Friedkin is best known for his illuminating access into, and photographs of, gay culture in San Francisco and Los Angeles. His respectful treatment of these derided communities was light years ahead of mainstream political consciousness. Friedkin lived among the LGBQT community and the intimacy and support shows through in his work.

I cannot think that Friedkin had a mere fraction of that sort of access to the prison population. I suspect he made his image above on a single visit to Folsom Prison. I have not seen any other photographs from prison by Friedkin. And so, this image, is neither representative of Friedkin’s work. It is ham, distant and reliant on the tropes of prison cliche. Not only is it out of place, it is out of time.

Reyes 2000

Gabriel Reyes. Like a Hook (Before 2007). 8.5” x 11”, Ball point pen on paper.

As far as I am concerned, any and all mentions of Alyse Emdur’s Prison Landscapes and the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s performances (below) are absolutely essential and cannot be reiterated enough. Each are powerful statements on the nature of power and the over-reach of state control.

LAPD’s dramatisations are informed by the experiences of people who have been incarcerated and Emdur’s collected portraits and large format photos of prison visiting room backdrops originate from a keen engagements with the visual logic of carceral systems.

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Robert Stockton. Fight (Before 2007): 8.5” x 11”. Pen, additional color.

Prisons and criminal justice reform are gaining attention in the news and public consciousness (a good thing), but just because the conversation is being had and the appetite for a show like Site Unseen might be more ready, the challenging logistics of putting together a curated show of this kind remain unchanged. Kudos to Pinkel for bringing togther artists from inside and outside prison invested in the same goal of making the U.S. a less dangerous, punitive and misunderstood place.

At first glance, the mix of ‘prison art’ on one hand and ‘art made about prisons’ on the other might appear incongruous, but that attitude is exposed as flawed very quickly. As the majority of works in Site Unseen emerge as responses to this country’s brutal, class-dividing prison system, I must conclude that they can do nothing but work together. And so must we if we’re to scale back on decades of fear, bad law and failed policy. If you need resolve and fire-in-your-belly for the task then merely look to the work of those who are subject to confinement. You’ll find it, quietly roaring, there.

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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 point 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.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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