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At first glance, the image above looks like the usual press photograph of a suspect accompanied to the stand, being escorted between holding cells and a courtroom. Alternatively, it could be a scene from inside a jail. Jumpsuit, shackles and guards are glaring visual clues and we think we know what we are seeing. But, in most cases w edon’t. And in this case were aren’t. This is a photo from the set of the in-production movie wHole, for which filming began last month at the vacant Wapato Jail in Portland, Oregon.

wHole, made by Think Ten Media and directed by Ramon Hamilton (who is actually to the left in this picture) aims to raise awareness about the sensory deprivation and widespread use of solitary confinement in American today. The limited information this fictional scene provides us is akin to the limited visual information available to us generally of solitary confinement in America’s prisons. (Aside of photography, we must recognise there is currently a good swell of great advocacy journalism about solitary, not least by Solitary Watch).

Even though Wapato was designed as a medium-level-security county jail. Think Ten Media thought it a worthy location for depicting Supermax facilities. wHole might be the only good thing to come out of this waste of space and money.

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In 1996, the taxpayers of Multnomah County (Portland, Oregon) approved a bond measure to build a 168,420-square-foot, 525-bed jail back, but county leaders never set aside money to open and operate it. Construction was completed ten years ago at a total cost of $58M. Wapato was a bad idea to start with, but changes in legislation and a drop in crime proved it a terrible idea. The jail never went into operation. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good thing that no-one has been locked up at Wapato, but it is a terrible thing that it was built in the first place. What could have that $58M (plus the $3M of tax payers money spent over the past decade to merely to maintain the place) achieved in terms of rehabilitation, jobs training and addiction treatment?

Last year, sensible suggestions such as repurposing the jail as a drug rehab center, a homeless shelter or a community center were invoked but didn’t develop. More recently, the county made concerted efforts to sell the jail and get it off the books. In a typical Portlandish well-meaning, transparent but somewhat comic and farce-like public relations stutter, the county called for proposals from companies and citizens alike and then promptly rejected them. The proposals? Some people wanted to make a community garden for at-risk youth, other a prison for international war criminals. A TV production company wanted to make a reality TV show and a private prison firm wanted to use it and use it for you can guess what.

There has been a persistent myth in Portland that Wapato sat empty and was never used for any type of revenue raising, including the exploitation of opportunities presented by the many production companies wanting to film at Wapato. That’s simply not true. Maybe, more filming and more money could’ve been supported, yet, speculation aside and to date, wHole is the 32nd project filmed there int he past 6 years.

That wHole is about mass incarceration makes it, in my book, the most worthy of projects. When the nearly two-month-long California Prisoner Hunger Strike kicked off in the summers of 2011 and 2013, filmmakers Ramon Hamilton and Jennifer Fischer knew they wanted to make a project about solitary. wHole is intended to be “raw and real.”

The locals are excited about the future impact of wHole, which is a far cry from Orange is the New Black. While no mainstream TV show has depicted prisoners so sympathetically, Orange Is The New Black carries its fictional aspects and as such doesn’t reflect reality.

I wanted to know more about how you get into a jail to film and so asked Jennifer Fischer, Think Ten Media co-founder, a few questions.

Scroll down for our Q&A and then further still for more information on the project.

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Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): How many vacant jails or prisons are there in the U.S. in which to make feature films or TV series?

Jennifer Fischer (JF): I am not sure. I know Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility is used often for filming by productions in the Los Angeles Area. I believe Hancock shot there, and there’s lots going on with it right now.

PP: Why did you choose Wapato?

JF: There was really nothing like Wapato Jail that was reasonable in terms of cost. There is a facility in New Jersey I recall Five mentioning to me. I lost all of my research notes about prison locations when my hard drive crashed recently!

We looked into shooting at Nelles and at other locations, but all were prohibitively expensive for our project being made on a limited budget. There were other challenges, such as no running water or electricity, the requirement of a water truck on site.

Some active prisons and jails are often used for filming! But with these locations, if they need the cell you are shooting in, you get booted. At Wapato we’d have access to the entire facility.

PP: How was the process to secure use of the facility?

To secure the facility, we had to speak with Mark Gustafson, who is the property manager. He had a few questions, but the process was really pretty simple. The important thing was getting the correct insurance. Here’s the county’s property management webpage for Wapato jail.

PP: Were the rates reasonable?

JF: Yes, the rates are quite reasonable, basically covering the cost to operate — security guard on site, opening and closing of the facility and any janitorial costs incurred from our use.

In fact, we initially went up to Portland because of the [relatively low] cost of the facility. Before we went we were still considering building a cell somewhere in L.A. when the whole series was greenlit.

However, given how wonderful and support everyone in Portland was and how professional the local cast and crew were, we are now absolutely committed to being back in Portland at Wapato to shoot the entire show.

Scroll down for more info on the film and links to production photos.

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Filming the filmers.

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A cell doubles as a make-up room.

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Filming inside a cell.

INTIMATE EXPERTISE

wHole draws on the intimate knowledge of two people who have been incarcerated.

Actor William Brown plays the protagonist in wHole. He has served time in prison. Fischer and Hamilton connected with Brown through Deborah Tobola who runs the Poetic Justice Project, a theater program in California for individuals who have been incarcerated. Tobola and Brown worked together when he was in prison in a program called Arts in Corrections.

Five Mualimmak is a co-producer for the project. Mualimmak also spent time in solitary confinement, 5 years, before he was exonerated. Mualimmak works with the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow and is the Executive Director of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign.

“As I wrote the screenplay, I was in touch with Five throughout,” explains Hamilton who is the series writer and director. “I want to make sure that viewers get a real sense of what it is like for a person to live in complete isolation for years.”

Mualimmak wrote about Solitary confinement’s “invisible scars” for the Guardian.

SET PHOTOGRAPHS

In chatting with Fischer, one of the intriguing resources she pointed me toward was the set photography for wHole. I’ve included some of my preferred shots thorughout this post.

View images from day one, day two, day three and day four. Perhaps most interesting are photos made by crew of the facility’s control room, surveillance systems and control boards.

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Five Mualimmak, who spent 5 years of his 12 prison term in solitary confinement, before being exonerated is co-producer on wHole. Above, he plays a prison guard.

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Lunch on set

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Looks depressingly accurate.

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On set.

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Downloading the day’s footage in the control room.

COLLABORATION

wHole was made in partnership with American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Incarcerated Nation Campaign, the Media Change Makers (of the University of Texas-El Paso), SendAPackage.Com, Broken On All Sides, Jail Action Coalition New York City, The Bronx Defenders.

Additionally, Academy Award-Winning Producer Jonathan Sanger is an Executive Producer for the project and Dr. Arvind Singhal is the Entertainment Education Specialist for the project.

In Portland, specifically, the assistance of Jan Elfers, Public Policy Director at Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, and Shannon Wright, Deputy Director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice was crucial.

IMAGE USE

All images courtesy of Think Ten Media and William Meeker.

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THE DRAMA INSIDE

For over 25 years, prisoners at Volterra Prison in Italy have been performing elaborate, ruffled, high heeled performances of classic theater. The Compagnia della Fortezza, under the directorship of Armando Punzo is now stuff of legend in Italy. Shakespeare, Brecht, Virgil as well as the work of national playwrights have been acted out inside the walls but in front of attending publics. The company has had some coverage outside of Italy, but not nearly enough according to filmmaker Inaya Graciana Yusuf.

She and her crew observed, documented and lived this past season at Volterra Prison. It was a transformative experience. “We became part of something intensively rewarding and beautiful. We forged new friendships, bonded and engaged in each other’s stories,” says Yusuf.

Now back on home soil, Yusuf wants to share the atmosphere of positive change, unexpected growth and group achievement through a documentary film named The One & The Many which follows the fortunes, preparations and final performance of a prisoner theater troupe as they deliver a Jean Genet work.

“The film will explore how deeply impactful theatre and arts programs can be forprisoners,” says Yusuf.

Yusuf looks forward to returning to Compagnia della Fortezza but her ability to do so depends on our help. Today, Yusuf and her production crew launched a Kickstarter to raise monies for the second round of filming (they spent the month of July in Volterra) and post-production, media management, editing, graphics, so on and so forth. I wish them luck. Prison theatre intrigues me. Without exception, prison theater productions deliver a different type of image — of course, that has a lot to do with the costume and the make up, but I think that the act of the act allows prisoners to explore new parts of personality. A good photograph can capture that even though masks and thick mascara.

I wanted to delve deeper and find out exactly what prison theater is and how it does what it does. Scroll down for a Q&A with Yusuf.

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Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Both yourself and the prisoners express great repeats for the director Armando. Can you describe briefly why his methods are so admirable and what aspects of his approach other prison theatre coordinators could learn from?

Inaya Graciana Yusuf (IGF): Armando is a progressive and stimulating individual. His mind is always going and in turn, his process is always evolving. He pushes boundaries and brings out something in you that you would otherwise never realize on your own. He essentially sees each individual as the person they are and not as a prisoner. Through encouragement he is able to bring out their best even humors them into embracing their flaws. Armando creates a balance.

I have learned about camaraderie and friendship through this tight-knit community. Everyone treats each other as equals, helping each other move forward with Armando’s guidance. I was able to understand that individual performances make up for the group’s performance collectively.

Armando always practices an open door policy. He welcomes opinions, criticism and direction because at an essential level, he is always inspired. Being able to supervise and influence, but equally empathetic and open minded are important abilities of leadership. So many other people facilitate programs and end up distancing themselves from developing human connection.

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PP: What is particular about drama and theater that makes it good for rehabilitation?

IGF: Theatre is a reflection of society. It is an inevitable reciprocity. It enables the mood of a certain [prison] community and mirrors different facets of life.

What significantly appealing about theatre is that it allows us to critically process civil life and the drama of the everyday. I think this goes back into the idea of dramaturgy and the role it plays in our personal and professional development. I have always been a fan of Erving Goffman, and I apply his theories into analyzing this idea of the multiple-self facilitated by the aspect of performance. Essentially we are all performers and what theatre can bring into rehabilitation programs is helping people understand how to utilize and integrate it with certain situations. Theatre provides us with wisdom, be it cultural, political or satirical of any kind. I think its perfect because you get to work on your social and presentation skills based on the role that eventually falls on your lap.

What theatre can do more than any other form is shift attitudes, articulate discontent and reflect the environment you are surrounded by.

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PP: What sort of productions and scripts really resonate with prison population best? What characters do prisoners enjoy playing the most? And why?

IGF: Armando always reminds everyone “It is not you who choose theatre, it is theatre that chooses you.” It is in a way, true. You can choose as many texts as you possibly want but eventually, there is only a few that will resonate and stick to you. The prisoner-actors actually mentioned this to me on numerous occasions. They enjoy the texts to which they are exposed to because they provide them with challenges to overcome. It is always about how does it relate to them personally and how can they express it. A few prisoners really connected with Mercuzio Non Deve Morrire and Hamlice a couple of years ago.

The texts they perform are all experimental, written and directed by Armando himself. He adapts them from existing classical and/or modern plays. I think this gives room for interpretation and personalization for all participating actors, which makes it more enticing and powerful upon completion. The method is that of psychodrama — it heavily relies on creativity, participation and spontaneity. The final performance is more or less personal and experiential for each audience that attends.

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PP: Have you seen the documentary 12 Angry Lebanese?

IGF: I have.

PP: It’s about a production of 12 Angry Men in a Lebanese prison. Overall, the show is a great success and actually brings about legislative change, but throughout the preparations, there’s stern words, positive reinforcement, mutual growth but also a main actor who drops out last minute — it was no smooth ride. How were the workshops, education and rehearsals for Santo Genet?

IGF: The rehearsals and education for Santo Genet were ongoing and they were trial and error.

More than anything, it is about knowing what is doable in a limited time. I have spoken to both Armando and the participants about this. Everything that is on the “idea book” will be tried and tested, what matters is, accepting that it has been tried and done. Everything is discussed openly in front of everyone. New ideas and interpretations will come up and old ones will die down. It is a cycle and more importantly it is a creative journey. I think what is crucial to understand that experimental theatre is based on spontaneity and improvisation.

Santo Genet is a great example of collaboration and teamwork. Armando, along with his collaborators, work extremely hard in putting together his vision. The prisoner-actors rehearse every day, either with each other or on their own, with or without supervision.

It is interesting that you say, “It was no smooth ride.” When is anything in such programs ever a smooth ride? Armando always works through the different challenges he faces daily, and it gives rise to some incredible outcomes. What Santo Genet rehearsals taught me is to always be ready for the unexpected. It may hit you from any direction, but it doesn’t mean that there is no solution.

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PP: There are several prison theater projects like the one you feature. Can you name some in the U.S. that you admire and/or have heard positive things about?

IGF: Yes, locally, I admire the work of Rehabilitation for The Arts, they are facilitators for art based programs inside Sing Sing prison here in New York. They do great work. I would recommend people with teaching experience to seek them out and work with them.

Other programs that have been inspiring to me is Prison Performing Arts in Missouri run by Agnes Wilcox, The Prison Arts Coalition run by Buzz Alexander in Michigan, and of course Shakespeare Behind Bars. Each of them has something unique to bring to the table, especially in terms of approach and programming.

PP: A silly question, perhaps not, but my readers would be interested. How do the prisoners feel about wearing eyeliner?

IGF: This is a very funny question and I am glad you asked.

The majority of the men enjoy dressing up, performing and using makeup. They are playful and many take pleasure in seeing transformation. I remember one prisoner asking me if I could do his makeup because he saw me with eyeliner. I explained that makeup was not my forte! These men are adept and capable of any adventure.

PP: Thanks Inaya

IGF: Thank you, Pete.

CASH MONIES

GO THROW SOME MONEY IN THE ONE & THE MANY KICKSTARTER BUCKET!

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Filmed by David Hoffman and Harry Wiland.

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The city of Los Angeles has the highest population of incarcerated youth of any city on the planet. A new non-profit on the block, named New Earth, that offers programs for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth in the City of Angels is working with media, music, gardens and outward-bound programs to offer children skills, alternatives to gang life.

New Earth claims that their efforts have reduced rates recidivism from 80% to 5% among those in their program. Quite a statistic!

You can see the work of students here and below is New Earth’s latest press release.

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From New Earth:

A Step to Ending the Youth-to-Prison Pipeline – New Earth’s Programs Reduce the LA County Youth Recidivism Rate From 80% to 5%

It is time to shed light on an unacceptable unspoken fact that lies in the belly beneath the surface of awareness in Los Angeles. As of July 2014, there are roughly 30,000 young people on probation or locked up in L.A. County, more than any other metropolitan area in the world. 95% of these youth face incarceration for nonviolent offenses. Once a young person meets such a fate, there is an 80% recidivism rate, which means 80% will end up incarcerated again. This system is broken and its rehabilitation depends upon the deployment of acute and revolutionary tactics.

New Earth, a non-profit started in 2004, is making significant strides in reducing the recidivism rate in Los Angeles. They provide mentor-based arts, educational and vocational programs to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth ages 13-22. These programs aim to reduce the recidivism rate by empowering these youth’s lives, and enable them to reach full potential as contributing members of our community.

It’s working.

New Earth’s programs have an incredible success rate. Once a youth starts a New Earth program while incarcerated and continues on with New Earth programs and services post release, his chance of getting re-incarcerated drops down from 80% to less than 5%. It costs taxpayers $125,000 per year to lock up one youth, however it takes a mere $3,500 to put one young person through the New Earth programs for an entire year. Youth remain free from gangs, crime and jail – they’re kept inspired, productive and ALIVE. Today, New Earth serves 2,500 young people per year in 9 out of the 18 juvenile probation camps in Los Angeles County. They work with more incarcerated youth in L.A. than any other non–governmental organization.

“Our goal is to reduce the recidivism rate in Los Angeles and keep these kids from coming back to the camps, going to prison or worse yet, becoming a statistic” explains Harry Grammer, Founder and CEO of New Earth.

The results are inspiring. One of New Earth’s foundational programs is F.L.O.W, an acronym for Fluent Love of Words, which is a writing, poetry and music program based on the California Common Core Standards of Education. Through the discovery of their unique voice, youth begin to realize their potential as artists, creators and instruments of positive societal change. These programs have the ability to prevent violence, increase social consciousness, and expand vocabularies and reading comprehension by creating safe places for creative expression. This leads to broadening of their sense of freedom and self-esteem, and recrafting of their attitudes towards authority, their peers, and their self-perception.

“New Earth has changed my life in many ways,” says Alex Pham (21) a program alumni who now works at the New Earth offices as a camera operator. “It has changed how I view the simplest things in life. The love, care, and appreciation the viewers have for the job I do is incredibly outstanding. It made me realize that we should appreciate more and be grateful for every little thing in life.”

The road to change within the historically harsh and unjust industrial prison system is one with deep rooted complexities, but New Earth’s programs are a firm step in the direction of repair and life-changing retribution.

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SOCIAL

Every other month, New Earth hosts awareness mixers to share information about the problems of youth prison systems and its own contributions to combat them.

The next mixer is on Wednesday July 30th, 5:30pm-7:30pm at the Center for Arts and Educational Justice, 3131 Olympic Blvd. 2nd Floor, Santa Monica, CA 90404.

You can contact Melissa Wynne-Jones on 415-637-2965 and melissa@theconfluencegroup.com, or visit www.newearthlife.org for more info or call 310-455-2847. RSVP for the mixer  at info@newearthlife.org

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SHUT-Down-McFarland

California used to be a private prison-free state, but as overcrowding, unconstitutional conditions and budget crises have gripped, Governor Brown and legislators have increasingly turned to the quick-fix of leasing private facilities.

“One out of 10 California inmates is serving time in a leased or private prison,” reports the Los Angeles Times. “Women’s prisons are the most cramped: the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla is listed at 182% capacity in last week’s state prison census report, with 1,600 prisoners more than it was intended to hold.”

The latest addition to California’s archipelago of lockdowns is McFarland Women’s Prison operated by GEO group, one of the two largest private prison corporations in the U.S. This is a backward step, not only because it is the reopening of a prison the state doesn’t need, but because profits will be made off of the back of those imprisoned. GEO Group has a history that includes sexual abuse and poor medical care in its jails and prisons.

Grassroots organising is to protest the new prison at the end of this month. From the organisers:

RALLY AT MCFARLAND PARK, 100 FRONTAGE RD, MCFARLAND, CA, THURSDAY, JULY 31, 2014, 5 PM

Rally against McFarland Women’s Prison the GEO for-profit women’s prison recently opened in McFarland, California. Demand that the CDCR cancel its contract with GEO, release all prisoners through available alternative programs and divert the money being used to fund the prison to community-based services.

We will be linking up in McFarland with the Trail for Humanity, women and children marching across California to demand the protection of immigrant women and their families, comprehensive immigration reform and an end to racial profiling, and with members of the California Prison Moratorium Project who are joining the march.

Car caravan in the Bay Area is leaving from MacArthur BART, at 11 am, Thursday July 31, 2014. 
Information about other meeting sites to come soon.

For more campaign information and to sign up to caravan to McFarland, go to http://womenprisoners.org/ or email notomcfarlandgeo@gmail.com or call the California Coalition for Women Prisoners at 415-255-7036 ext. 4.

Women and trans people at two of California’s women’s prisons provided the following statement for our education on the matter.

STOP THE MCFARLAND GEO WOMEN’S PRISON!

We the undersigned incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and  the California Institution for Women (CIW) are outraged that CDCR has signed a contract with the GEO Group, the 2nd largest private, for-profit prison corporation in the U.S. According to the contract, GEO will open a new women’s prison in McFarland, CA by fall of 2014. We call upon California State Legislators to direct CDCR to cancel the contract with GEO and implement existing release programs instead of opening a new prison!

Once again we are shuffled around without regard for our well-being or our human rights. Since VSPW was converted to a men’s prison in January 2013, we have been subjected to overcrowding at historically high levels (CCWF is now at 185% capacity), even while the state is under court order to reduce the prison population. This is discrimination against people in women’s’ prisons!  As a result of this overcrowding, health care, mail services, food and education have greatly deteriorated. We are locked down more frequently, leading to heightened tensions, drug overdoses and suicides. The prison staff has responded by locking more people into solitary, further violating our human rights.

CDCR could easily implement existing programs to reduce overcrowding, such as: Alternative Custody Programs (ACP); Elder and Medical Parole; and Compassionate Release. Instead, on April 1, 2014 GEO announced its new contract with CDCR to open a 260 bed women’s prison with an “enhanced rehabilitation and recidivism reduction program.” This is nothing but a bad April Fool’s joke! The 260 women who are “chosen” to go to McFarland could be released through one of these other programs instead. None of us should be hauled off to showcase a so-called “gender responsive” prison and to put money in the pockets of GEO investors.

GEO is a private corporation whose business makes profit from imprisoning primarily people of color and immigrants. GEO’s press release about the new prison reports expected revenue of $9 million in McFarland’s first year. Think of how much $9 million could do for providing community-based re-entry services!

GEO has been the subject of numerous lawsuits around the country about atrocious, unconstitutional conditions. Private prisons are notorious for operating with even greater secrecy than the CDCR: assaults are 49% more frequent; racist behavior and sexual abuse by staff are widespread.

• GEO is responsible for human rights violations at many of their facilities.  In 2012 GEO was forced to close the Walnut Grove, Mississippi youth detention Center after being condemned for allowing, in the words of Fed. Judge Carlton Reeves, “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk..”

• In March 2014, 1200 people detained in GEO’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA (for immigrants) went on hunger strike to protest the grossly inadequate medical care, exorbitant commissary prices and low or NO pay for work within the center.  Other GEO prisoners have since gone on hunger strike at detention facilities in Conroe, Texas and Stewart, Georgia.

• The city of McFarland is located in an area known as an environmental cancer cluster and breeding ground for Valley Fever.  Instead of opening new prisons in this area, all of them should be shut down.

• In January of 2014, Governor Jerry Brown’s reelection campaign reported $54,400 in donations from GEO Group. GEO Group has spent $7.6 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in the U.S. in the last decade.

• GEO lobbied strongly to advance laws that increased the time served for drug convictions and other non-violent crimes through mandatory minimum sentencing, three-strikes laws, and truth-in-sentencing laws. GEO was a member of the American Legislative Exchange Commission (ALEC) when the model bill that became AB 1070 (profiling immigrants in Arizona) was drafted. These legal changes resulted in significant profits for GEO.

• In McFarland, CA, GEO has signed a contract incentivizing prolonged incarceration over release by charging the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation less per prisoner if the facility is more than half full.

• GEO operates reentry facilities around the state, including the Taylor Street Center at in San Francisco and the Oakland Center in Oakland.  Residents experience these facilities as “re-entry prisons” that are structured to threaten and punish people rather than providing support for people to reenter community life.

It is shameful that CDCR is about to open a for-profit “boutique prison” that does nothing positive to solve the disproportionate overcrowding in the women’s prisons at this time. Assembly Members and Senators, please intervene!  Stop the GEO prison from opening. Instead use this $9 million to fully implement existing release programs immediately and fund community-based (not for-profit) reentry programs.

Thank you for listening to this urgent request,

Natalie DeMola, CCWF

Jane Dorotik, CIW

Fonda Gayden, CCWF

Anne Marie Harrison, CCWF

Valerie Juarez, CCWF

Terah Lawyer, CCWF

ChiChi Locci, CCWF

Maydee Morris, CCWF

Amy Preasmeyer, CCWF

Patrice Wallace, CCWF

If you can make it to McFarland (a typically remotely-located prison) in California’s central valley, I urge you to do so.

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One might think the cob of corn and carrot held by a hand in a prison protest banner is an unusual inclusion, Unfortunately, access to nutritional food in prisons up and down the country is not guaranteed. This symbol is highly indicative of the very basic struggles prisoners take on in the face of slashed budgets and disregard for life’s basics. Poor food and cutbacks in food provision are not unusual.

As part of a peaceful protest at SCI Coal Township, a petition from the prisoners is now being circulated. It includes 22 demands seeking the restoration of human rights and dignity for the people being held in Pennsylvania prisons.

There are hundreds of actions each year for better conditions for prisoners, but I thought the ask for simple nutrition was a good indicator of the desperate situation in some U.S. prisons. The protest is also being supported by DecarceratePA, an abolitionist group I support and admire.

This week, I received the following letter from activist Emily Abendroth and the DecarceratePA group:

In late June, in response to dramatic food cutbacks at the State Correctional Institute at Coal Township, over 1300 men staged a week-long boycott of the prison dining hall. At the end of a week of peaceful protest, with still no commitment to change forthcoming from the prison administration, participants released a list of 22 requests/demands.

The prisoners are asking that prison officials at SCI Coal Township, and across the PA Department of Corrections, honor the basic human rights of people in prison. Among other things, these men are petitioning for: access to adequate food, the ability to hold cultural events, an effective grievance process, respectful medical care, and an end to policies that dehumanize and punish prisoners and their families.

Given the fact that more than 1,300 prisoners at Coal Township were able to stand and act in solidarity with one another in the name of changing current prison conditions, at great risk to their personal livelihood, we on the outside should be aiming not only to match but to massively amplify those numbers in our own displays of support.

Take action now:

Sign the Petition

Share on Twitter

Share on Facebook

Call PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel on 717-728-4109

 and/or SCI Coal Township Superintendent Vincent Mooney on 570-644-7890 to register your thoughts on the demands and situation at Coal Township.

Keep up with breaking news and information from participants on the inside.

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Crowdfunding, eh? What to make of it. I feel like the jury is still out, but then again I have had my head somewhat in the sands of late. I have benefited in the past from a Kickstarter campaign and in the immediate aftermath tried to give my feedback on the dos and don’ts.

Where the successful intersections between cultural production and social justice lie is, for me, a constant internal debate, so I hope this post serves two purposes.

Firstly, to clarify my thinking and to highlight the type of crowd funding campaign that I think encapsulates best practice.

Secondly, to bring a half-dozen endeavors (5 prison-related and 1 purely photo-based) that I think deserve your attention and, perhaps, your dollars.

On the first purpose, I’ve identified common traits among these projects that are indicative of a good practice:

- Track record. These fund seekers appearing out of the blue; they’ve done work in the specific area and have chops and connections.
Direct action. These projects will directly engage with subject and, consequently audience on urgent politic issues
Community partners. These funders have existing relationships with organizations or programs that will provide support, direction, accountability and extended networks
Diversity. Of both product and outcomes. Projects that meld digital output/campaigns and boots-on-the-ground activism get my attention. Creators, in these instances, realize that they must leverage every feasible avenue to get out the political message.
Matching funds. In cases where matching funds exist, I am reassured. It shows that the creator is forging networks and infers that they are inventive and outward looking when it comes fundraising. It infers that we’re all in it together; it might just give us those necessary warm fuzzy feelings when handing over cash on the internet.

On the second purpose, I’ll let you decide.

1. OUTREACH

Let’s start with a campaign to help OUTREACH, a program offered by Toronto’s Gallery 44 that breaks down barriers to the arts by offering black & white photography workshops to 50 young people each year.

OUTREACH’s darkroom is the last publicly accessible wet darkroom in Toronto. Gallery 44 has offered accessible facilities to artists since 1979.

Donations go to workshops costs: photographic paper, film, processing, chemistry, snacks and transit tokens.

OUTREACH has several existing community partners including the Nia Centre for the Arts, Eva’s Phoenix, Toronto Council Fire Native Community Centre, PEACH and UrbanArts.

“I went from being a student to a mentor,” says one participant. “I recently had my work exhibited in the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.”

DONATE HERE

2. DYING FOR SUNLIGHT

In the summer of 2013, prisoners in California conducted the largest prison hunger strike in U.S. history. 30,000 men refused food in protest against the use of indefinite solitary confinement. Some prisoners refused food for 60 consecutive days. Dying For Sunlight will tell the story.

Across racial lines, from within the belly of the beast (Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit) California prisoners mounted a reasoned and politically robust defense of their basic human rights that garnered nationwide attention. Their families joined them in solidarity. This was a true grassroots movement built by those on the front lines of state violence

“We prisoners of all races have united to force these changes for future generations,” Arturo Castellanos wrote from the Pelican Bay SHU.

Filmmakers Lucas Guilkey and Nazly Siadate have spent the past year building relationships, and covering the California prisoner hunger strikes. They are joined by journalist Salima Hamirani and community organizations Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Critical Resistance, All of Us or None, and California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement in their effort to tell this story.

“In a world of sound bytes, Dying For Sunlight feature length documentary will allow us the time to more fully delve into the questions this movement has raised,” says Guilkey. “Why and how is solitary confinement used in California prisons? What does the movement against it look like? And how did we get to the point where we’ve normalized a system of torture in our own backyards?”

Dying For Sunlight takes the premise that, in order to understand our society with “increasing inequality, militarization, incarceration, surveillance, deportation, and the criminalization of dissent, we must listen to the voices of those who have endured the most repressive form of social control–the solitary confinement unit.”

The U.N. Special Rapporteur, Juan Mendez ruled that solitary for anything more than 15 days is psychological torture, yet California and other states throw people in the hole for decades.

The film is in pre-production and all the fancy-schmancy gear is bought. Donations will go directly to costs associated with travel, expenses and editing related to interviews made up and down the state with family members, formerly incarcerated people, solitary experts, prison officials. They’ll attend rallies and vigils too. They hope to have a rough cut by December.

DONATE HERE

3. CHANGE THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTS (AIA) CODE OF ETHICS TO OUTLAW DESIGN OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT UNITS

Raphael Sperry continues his battle to rewrite an AIA ethics code which predates the widespread use of solitary confinement in the U.S.

An architect himself, but on hiatus to concentrate on this political and ethical fight, Sperry points out, “even though only 3 to 4% of prisoners are in solitary confinement, half of all prison suicides occur among prisoners who are in solitary confinement.

The AIA is the voice of the architectural profession.

“The AIA has disciplinary authority over its members. In the current code of ethics, they have language that says that members should uphold human rights in all of their professional endeavors. So it’s pretty clear that members shouldn’t design a Supermax prison or an execution chamber,” explains Sperry. “[But] the language about upholding human rights is unenforceable in the AIA code of ethics. So all we’re asking them to do is draft an enforceable rule associated with it that says that members should not design [a project that commits] a specific human rights violation.”

Sperry’s tactics go to the heart of his profession and tackle this issue that stains our collective moral conscience. It’s strategic and laudable. He’s won institutional support before.

Donations go toward ongoing conversations, writing, speaking, research and pressure on the top brass.

DONATE HERE

4. A LIVING CHANCE

A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life Without Parole is made in collaboration with females serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California. The word “collaboration” is the important detail. It is made with incarcerated members of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), a grassroots social justice organization with members inside and outside of prison. CCWP rightly identifies incarcerated women as the experts on the issue of prisons.

Audio recordings, interviews, letters, and photographs will constitute a website and a publication about LWOP which is considered the “lesser” alternative sentence to the Death Penalty.

People sentenced to LWOP have no chance of release from prison and very slim opportunity for appeals or clemency. There are approximately 190 people sentenced to die in prison by LWOP in California’s women’s prisons. The majority of whom are survivors of childhood and/or intimate partner abuse. In most cases, evidence of their abuse was not presented at their trial.

California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex (PIC) and prioritizes the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement. CCWP began in 1995 when people inside the women’s prisons filed a lawsuit against then-governor Pete Wilson rightfully claiming that the healthcare inside prison was so terrible it violated their 8th amendment rights.

A Living Chance was chosen as a recipient of a matching funds award up to the value of $6,000. Already, $2,000 has been raised in individual donations, so the crowdfunding target is $4,000 of a $12,000 total

Donations go creation of the storytelling website and publication, stipends for participants, travel costs to the prisons, and building future effective campaigns.

DONATE HERE

5. THE PRISON PROBLEM, SHANE BAUER’S YEAR OF JOURNALISM

Shane Bauer, a journalist I have long admired, wants to focus for one year on the urgent politics of prisons, specifically those routinely using solitary confinement.

“We spend over $80 billion a year on our corrections system and the cost is growing. At the same time, the number of privately run prisons is on the rise, and the for-profit prison model is spreading globally. In the US, the percentage of prisoners held in private facilities increased 37 percent between 2002 and 2009. Many of these are immigrants, a large number of which remain in pretrial detention for years,” says Bauer. “I’ll show you how U.S. prison practices are being exported to the rest of the world and dissect the systems that lead so many to be locked up in this country.”

For The Prison Problem, Bauer is basically asking for everything he needs to live on in order to create deep investigative journalism: funds to travel, interview, conduct research, and sometimes sue government bodies refusing access to information.

bauer

Bauer reporting in Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit, Crescent City, California, 2013.

Bauer promises at least three or four major feature stories, each is the equivalent of a magazine cover story. He’s got the reporting chops necessary —  No Way Out for Mother Jones about solitary in California (video, too) is widely acclaimed.

DONATE HERE.

6. HELPING KIDS OUT OF JAIL AND BACK INTO SCHOOL

Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth (PALY) provides educational rights counseling and assistance to young people in Montgomery County, PA who are reentering the community after being incarcerated. It’s asking for a little help. Montgomery County, PA has been identified as having a disproportionate amount of minority youth being involved in the juvenile system, and suffers from a lack of agencies focused on supporting youth reentering the community.

PALY recruits law student, as volunteers, to work one-on-one with reentering youth crafting individually-designed educational plans.

The average cost of incarcerating a juvenile for a year is about $88k per year; educating that same student is one eighth that cost.

The ask of only $10,000 is small by comparison, but the effect could be huge. Donations will cover PALY’s first year of programming costs: training mentors, youth educational programs, and a ‘Know Your Rights’ campaigns for the community.

DONATE HERE.

 

Sing Sing Museum-2

The old Sing Sing power plant

AP reported today that an old power plant at Sing Sing Prison is being considered as the site for a museum.

Immediately, for me, alarm bells rang. The report focused on tourist dollars a potential museum could bring in. I have a great fear that the proposed Sing Sing prison museum will replicate the cheap and nasty shock-exhibits common of so many prison museums. Sure enough the report mentions the electric chair “Old Sparky”, “a metal ‘head cage’ used when prisoners were transported” and a “display of prisoners’ weapons, from axes made in metal shop to shivs fashioned from plastic forks.” Furthermore, a famous 1932 escape attempt, infamous hired killers of the mafia, and Hollywood films are also mentioned.

Crap, they’re talking about brand and forecasting a quarter million visitors per year.

“Sing Sing is a brand name,” said John Wunderlich, president of the Ossining Historical Society Museum. “You go anywhere in this country, in Europe even, everybody’s heard of Sing Sing.”

It’s all to predictable. It’s all to blinkered. Ultimately, it will be damaging to our collective consciousness.

America doesn’t need another prison museum to prematurely historicise an institution and package, for consumption, the lives destroyed within. America does need a prison museum that engages communities; a museum that serves and forwards conversations about inequality, policing, poverty, the war on drugs, public education, mental health, the politics of crime and employment, restorative justuice and existing together.

This need is particularly acute at Sing Sing, which still functions as a prison with 1,600 men inside. Many of the prisoners at Sing Sing would be well positioned to contribute to the programming and exhibitions. In 2011, I visited Sing Sing and discussed photography, representations and public perceptions of prison and prisoners. We agreed that more needed to be done to help the public understand lives inside. Unanimously, the men did not think mainstream media representations of crime and prisoners were in any way favorable.

Actively talking about current controversies and thinking about how to present them in exhibition-form is way, way more difficult than putting a bunch of objects on view. But it is what is needed. We must set high standards and take on tricky, multi-faceted and collaborative ways of curating and programming in museums.

There’s many men inside Sing Sing who have thought about the American prison industrial complex for a long time. They are the experts. Let the Sing Sing Prison Museum give them a voice. Also, let the proposed museum give a voice to victims and to communities that are impacted by crime. Let the proposed museum give a voice to labor unions and to the formerly incarcerated.

Prison Photography Workshop, Sing Sing

Student in a Prison Photography workshop holding a Richard Ross print, Sing Sing Prison, NY, 2011. Photo: Tim Matsui.

There are plenty of prison museums but nearly all are at closed facilities. Angola Prison (official name Louisiana State Penitentiary) is exceptional in that it not only has a museum, it offers tours of the prison itself. But then, it also has a golf course and a rodeo.

I care deeply about the potential for prison museums and frutrated when the potential is wasted.

In 2004, I wrote a Masters thesis about the San Quentin Prison Museum (SQPM). Some background here. The museum is just inside the gates. It is now closed or maybe just sporadically open? It’s narrative ends in 1971, prior to the era of mass incarceration. In order to evaluate the narrative at SQPM I had to learn about California prison politics then. The facts shocked me then and shock me still. Looking at prison museums and the transferral (or not) of knowledge put me on my course as a prison activist and writer.

Prison museums for too long have missed the opportunity to engage the public in purposeful discussion. The single exception I would like to applaud would be Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) which, under the direction of Sean Kelley and colleagues, really grapples with modern day realities, with power & knowledge, and with the museum site as a nexus for exchange. ESP’s monumental sculpture Big Graph is an excellent case in point.

eastern-state-big-graph-2

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

To close, I’d like to offer some suggestions for reflexive programming that the Sing Sing Prison Museum could pursue during its first few of years of programming.

- Exhibitions such as Geographies of Detention, No Bingo For Felons, Voices Of The Incarcerated. Heck, I’ll send over Prison Obscura.

- Partner with any number of schools and community organisations in New York city, for example The Young New Yorkers, The Red Hook Community Justice Center, Immigrant Movement International. The possibilities are endless.

- Commission themed, reflexive works from the prison population (in Sing Sing and in other prisons).

- Live performances by the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) and similar groups.

- Plumb the archives of existing projects such as WUWM’s I Am More Than My Record. I Am … or One For Ten.

- Photography exhibitions? All the research is right here on Prison Photography.

- Film screenings to coincide with programming. There’s plenty of choices.

- Any of the artworks (of all media) from the timeless PRISON/CULTURE project and book.

The options are huge. Hey, readers! If you’ve any other powerful art or cultural projects that attend to mass incarceration please add them in the comments.

 

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