You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Prison Non-Photography’ category.
Screengrab from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s webcam of jail construction.
I always say that I’m open to looking at all types of prison imagery, so I guess I’m obliged to mention the 24-hour coverage of a prison that does not yet exist. (It’s a first for Prison Photography.)
The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department in California has set up a webcam to track construction of the county’s new jail. Why? Maybe the Sheriff was buoyed by the popularity of Panda Cam at the San Diego Zoo, Condor Cam in California, or Portland’s Osprey Cam?
The live feed is “an innovative and exciting way to involve the public,” said Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Rebecca Rosenblatt said.
Slated for a 2015 opening, tax payers can watch the construction of Maple Street Correctional Center in Redwood City. I suppose if you’re forking out $165 million for a jail, you want to see your money being spent?
The truth is this webcam is pitiful reminder of California’s budget woes and political battles over prison management and spending.
There’s an argument that a new jail is necessary due to California’s ongoing “Realignment” — a court-mandated program whereby state prisoners are being transferred to county jails in order to comply with federal orders to reduce the state prison system by approximately 32,000 prisoners.
That decision came about after a decade long legal battle — that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States — ruled that the overcrowding in the California state prison system led to inadequate physical and mental health care and an estimated one preventable death every 10 days. As a result the prison system was deemed “cruel and unusual” in its punishment and is in violation of every single California prisoner’s constitutional rights.
Unfortunately, Governor Brown refused to look at strategic release programs for non-violent offenders, at compassionate release for elderly and terminally ill prisoners or at drug treatment programs to ease overcrowding. Instead, Brown raided the state’s budget surplus — to the tune of $315 million — and will start paying private prison corporations to warehouse prisoners.
Money pouring into new jail construction. The indubitable Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) report:
“In addition to AB109 realignment money, Sacramento has offered two funding streams that encourage county jail expansion and has refused to offer incentives for thoughtful decarceration. AB 900 authorized $1.2 billion in lease revenue bonds for the construction or expansion of jails, and SB 1022 authorized $500 million for jail expansion. If realignment is to be successful, the state must support counties to reduce their jail populations, rather than making plans to grow them.”
In time, the San Mateo Sheriff’s Office plans to release a time-lapse video of the creation of the 280,000-square-foot jail grow from start to finish.
via the usually useless SF Examiner
IVY LEAGUE LAW GRADS MAKING FILMS?
The project runs “a year-long practicum at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School that trains law students in the art of visual advocacy — making effective arguments through film.”
I’d think being a law graduate and then a real world lawyer would be enough; one expects visual journalists or documentarians to have this sort of territory covered. Perhaps not? Never too many advocates or concerned observers, right?
There’s more answers on the FAQ page:
Q: Why should law students learn visual advocacy?
A: Visual and digital technologies have transformed the practice of law. Lawyers are using videos to present evidence, closing arguments, and victim-impact statements; advocates are making viral videos to advance public education campaigns; and scholars are debating ideas in a multimedia blogosphere. Everyone’s doing it. But no one is really teaching it — or reflecting upon it. We see training in visual advocacy — effectively evaluating and making arguments through videos and images — as a vital part of our legal education.
Of the films the VLP has produced The Worst Of The Worst is of particular interest to me. One can be lax and think that solitary confinement is a brutal practice prevalent only in California, New York, Illinois and other large states, but every state has at least one SuperMax including the seemingly genteel Connecticut.
The Worst of the Worst takes us inside Northern Correctional Institution, CT’s sole supermax prison, and includes interviews with a range of experts and administrators are interwoven with the stories of inmates and correctional officers who spend their days within the walls of Northern.
From the trailer, the treatment of the correctional officers and prisoners seems sympathetic. This gives me hope; it suggests the problem is the fabric of the facility which prohibits rehabilitation, rather than a presumption of fault or inadequacy. Prisons are toxic and often inflexible enough to capitalise on the potential of people who are caged and work within.
Check out the fledgling (est. 2011) student run Visual Law Project.
Thanks to Larissa Leclair for the tip!
Screengrab from LOCK EM UP! Juvenile Injustice at Rikers Island Prison
Often, people don’t want to read an article, seek out a book, or even browse photographs about American prisons. Myself included, at times. Often, you just want to crawl up on the sofa and watch real life difficult issues on screen.
Often, I am asked if I have seen a famous prison film. Often one of the ones on this list. Often, I have and more often I am at pains to say that dramatisations — not matter how they refer to real life events — are not real life events. I like to refer people to documentaries about American prisons that have been made in the past forty years. Most on this list have been made in the past decade. Together they paint a picture very different to that in the (Hollywood) movies. There’s no WWII Germans, no mid-20th-century tyrant wardens, no Sly Stallone or Pelé.
In this list you’ll find petty grievances, coercive tactics, routine frustration, difficult truths, repeated lose-lose scenarios, intractable prison violence in overcrowded facilities and the constant games of submission, power and suspicion.
I’ve included them with annotated links because hopefully these videos — just as I hope with photographs — may offer you entry into these daily and virtual invisible abuses.
THE LIST (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)
Nick Broomfield’s Tattooed Tears (1979: 85 minutes) remains an uncomfortable classic. It was filmed in the early days of youth lock up in California. The California Youth Authority (CYA) made the mistake of treating its juvenile detention facilities as adult prisons and its wards as incorrigible criminals. Since the film was made the youth prison population bloated to over 11,000 and 10 facilities before the courts ruled the system needed to be completely restructured. The system has been renamed the California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and now runs only three facilities for about 1,200 boys. The shrinkage was the largest single system process of decarceration in U.S. history. Criticism of the long hours of lockdown, suicide and violence continue.
The “soundtrack” to Tattooed Tears is the constant hooping and hollering and banging of heavy doors and furniture. There’s a dispute between staff (in remarkably casual dress) and a young man about food. One prisoner refuses to be subjected to a search and so is taken to an x-ray machine for a rectum-scan in another building. The exchange is cagey and about not losing face. The x-ray shows the prisoner had no concealed weapons and the question is why would he go through all that dark theater? Well, what else was he going to do that night? The protracted exchange was about refusal to cede the power over ones own body – the little power one retains as a prisoner.
There are so many pointed observations about the perversity of institutionalized life; the military boot-camp style training in the yard seems facile, the parole board hearing will have you crying; the bro-down restraint technique training among the staff is strangely light-hearted, the exchange between a female counsellor and a boy about his hallucinations is tense and sad. The closing scene of a yelling preacher is madness embodied.
Broomfield filmed for 14 weeks. He and his small staff slept in the adjoining hospital. The juvenile prison ”got to him” and the constant racket left him feeling it was a space in which “nothing sensitive can happen.”
LOCK EM UP! Juvenile Injustice at Rikers Island Prison (2011: 15 minutes) is a examination of violence among youth in the notorious Rikers Island. Two thirds of the near 5,000 Rikers prisoners are juveniles. Violence at Rikers has been widely reported including, in 2012, staff of the NYDOC leaking photographs of gruesome injuries, in an attempt to tell the outside world of the escalating violence.
While LOCK EM UP! Juvenile Injustice at Rikers Island Prison makes very questionable use of footage of violence in adult facilities that confuses — and perhaps manipulates — the viewer, it presents one of the most recent and serious cases of institutional failure. The film covers the physical lay-out of the dormitories, interviews with young men who’ve been locked up and focuses on the horrendous 2008 death of Christopher Robinson. Robinson was a beaten to death because he reportedly did not fall in line with “The Program” an alleged gang structure that the Rikers’ authorities failed to address.
Tragically, Robinson was only inside Rikers because he had stayed at work too late, broke curfew and was in violation of his probation. It’s a stand out case of a needless death. The film ends with 4 minutes of statistics outlining the disproportionate number of minorities in the NY juvenile detention system.
Here’s a “two-fer.” Spaced six years apart, Louis Theroux has made a couple of documentaries about two highly-populated and highly-pressurised institutions. In Behind Bars, a documentary about San Quentin Prison, Theroux speaks to guards, trouble makers, white racists, and a transgendered prisoner called Deborah Lee Worledge (who Robert Gumpert photographed in the San Francisco Jails shortly before her death in 2008).
Despite the clickbait title, MegaJail (2011, 120 minutes) is a lesson in how a facility should not be run. Miami’s main jail has many pretrial detainees and a high turn over of prisoner. With overcrowding comes violence and coercion.
In both documentaries, Theroux interviews perpetrators and potential victims of violence and prison staff. He does so with his usual slightly-bumbling and disarming demeanour. At times, the attitudes he encounters are almost unbelievable.
Within the five fold increase of the U.S. prison population over the past 35 years, the number of women in prison has increased eightfold. This is due to longer sentencing and many women being sentenced for conspiracy or possession under extended War On Drugs legislation.
Mothers Of Bedford looks at the support offered through the Children’s Center at Bedford Hills Prison, which is New York State’s maximum security women’s facility.
In the U.S. there are 1.5 million children with an incarcerated parent (PDF).
The House I Live In, the much publicised and toured film about the economic and moral failure of the War on Drugs by director Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Reagan, Freakonomics) is a punch in the gut for those that think racial inequality is a small problem in America’s criminal justice systems. The War on Drugs has been a war on poor people and mostly a war on minority communities.
The House I Live In is a documentary fusion of the ideas forwarded by Michelle Alexander scholarship and David Simon’s dramatizations. Simon appears in the film and describes the assault on poor communities of colour as a “holocaust in slow motion.”
Brought to you by Al Jazeera’s excellent documentary series ‘Fault Lines’, Women Behind Bars ventures into the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) which is the largest women’s prison in the world. The population at the prison fluctuates northward of 4,000, nearly twice the prison design capacity. The problems are innumerable at CCWF but include overcrowding, inadequate health care, scant personal care essentials such as sanitary towels (rationed to 5 pads per month), and most appallingly, 148 non-consented sterilizations.
Of all activist groups, I recommend plugging yourselves into those of Californians United for a Responsible Budget and California Coalition for Women Prisoners — two groups that offer solidarity, direct services and advocacy to California female prisoners and visits CCWF.
Finally, hats of to Al Jazeera for putting together this excellent primer on the California womens prison crisis.
Herman Wallace died on October 4th, 2013. Against the state’s wishes, a judge ordered his release on compassionate grounds 3 days prior to his death from cancer. One of the Angola 3 and one of America’s most well-known political prisoners, Wallace lived in solitary confinement for 41 years.
Despite the brutalization of body and mind, Wallace somehow stayed sane and fought for a retrial with allies inside and out. From his 6×9 cell, he was asked by artist Jackie Summell to imagine his dream house. Herman’s House (and here) documents Wallace’s and Summell’s longterm collaboration and through this one story shines a light on the issue of widespread and abusive use of solitary confinement in the U.S.
In The Land Of The Free, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, tells the story of the Angola 3.
A family member of a prison guard – whose murder was controversially pegged on Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King — states in the film that she doesn’t think they are guilty. It’s an opinion that has long been held by the activists and legal scholars who’ve looked at the inadequate process that sent the three men into longterm solitary confinement.
Another film invested in describing forgiveness in difficult circumstances, Unlikely Friends goes inside San Quentin Prison to explore how families of crime victims and prisoners can build a positive future out of very unfortunate circumstances.
Often the idea of forgiveness is the reserve of religion, but its embrace must be central to social justice if we are to progress from medieval retribution within our criminal justice systems. This is a film designed to challenge all your preconceptions.
Filmmaker Leslie Neale shared some of her still photographs from within San Quentin with Prison Photography recently.
Wrongful conviction brings persistent shame upon any criminal justice system which makes claim to effective and neutral application of the law. Mistakes and injustices occur and they are most grave in cases of death sentences. The film-series One For Ten derives its name from the statistic that 1 in 10 death penalty sentences are passed down on innocent persons.
Over five weeks in April and May of 2013, a team of four traveled the width of the US and interviewed ten individuals who had been freed from death row. Each film profiles a major issue in wrongful convictions highlighted through an individual case.
You can check out all the first hand testimonies of exonerees here. Above, I’ve embedded John Thompson’s film. Thompson was a victim of prosecutorial misconduct in which the prosecutor illegally withheld evidence from the court that would’ve proved Thompson’s innocence. Since his release after serving 14 years, Thompson has gone on to found Resurrection After Exoneration, been a Open Society Fellow and campaigned for accountability among state prosecutors.
Director Matthew Pillischer began Broken On All Sides as a way to explore, educate about, and advocate change around the overcrowding of the Philadelphia county jail system. The documentary fast became an analysis of mass incarceration across the nation and the intersection of race and poverty within criminal justice.
Broken On All Sides centers around the theory that mass incarceration has become “The New Jim Crow.” That is, since the rise of the drug war and the explosion of the prison population, and because discretion within the system allows for arrest and prosecution of people of color at alarmingly higher rates than whites, prisons and criminal penalties have become a new version of Jim Crow. People of color have been targeted at significantly higher rates for stops, searches, arrests, prosecution, and harsher sentences. So, where does this leave criminal justice?
The feature-length documentary is available for activists and educators to use in order to raise consciousness and organize for change. If your school, workplace or organization wants to host a screening, you can contact the director.
Originally aired in , the UK Channel 4′s Torture: America’s Brutal Prisons is a convincing argument to say that Abu Ghraib was not just an outlying aberration on foreign soil. Rather the Abu Ghraib abuses were the logically outcome of carceral philosophies grown here in the U.S. Two of the senior guards at Abu Ghraib, Ivan L. (Chip) Frederick II and Charles Graner, had careers in Utah as correctional officers.
Conceived by photojournalist Susan Madden Lankford (on Prison Photography here) of Humane Exposures and directed by award-winning director Alan Swyer, It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing features interviews with more than 25 experts in the fields of law enforcement, law, politics, life training, addiction treatment, and childhood development. Nonviolent offenders who have turned their lives around after successfully completing remediation and literacy programs are featured as well.
The film ushers the audience through facilities with proven track records for changing the lives of both juvenile and adult offenders. The film asks why funding for multiagency complex solutions to feasible reentry programs are so difficult to put in place by California’s legislature. The question is even more pressing given the state’s overcrowded prisons and the proven reduction in recidivism well-designed reentry programs deliver.
More video excerpts by Lankford here.
The emergence of prison yoga and prison transcendental meditation programs may point to a trend for eastern philosophy in U.S. prisons. Dhamma Brothers documents the first extended Vipassana retreat in a North American maximum-security prison.
The Vipassana retreat is an emotionally and physically demanding program of silent meditation lasting ten days and requiring 100 hours of meditation.
Produced by Oprah Winfrey and narrated by Forest Whitaker, Serving Life documents Angola Prison’s hospice in which prisoners care for dying fellow prisoners. Louisiana has ridiculously harsh, long sentences and far too many Life Without Parole sentences. As a result, 85-90% of the men imprisoned at Angola will die there. Imprisoning the elderly is an expensive and foolish proposition — in all states, the average age of the prisoner is increasing.
Edgar Barens (who also made a documentary about the Angola prison hospice) is currently shortlisted for an Oscar for Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
Shot over a six-month period in Iowa State Penitentiary, Prison Terminal tells the story of the final months in the life of a terminally ill prisoner, Jack Hall and the hospice volunteers, they themselves prisoners, who care for him. It provides a poignant account of how the hospice experience can profoundly touch even the forgotten and often maligned lives of prisoners.
Read an interview with Barens.
Certainly one of the most unexpected narratives in the list, Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo tells of female prisoners preparations and competing in an Oklahoma prison rodeo, in 2007.
Since 1940, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary has held an annual ‘Prison Rodeo.’ In 2006, female prisoners were allowed to participate for the first time. Oklahaoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the country. The women share common experiences such as broken homes, drug abuse and alienation from their children.
Prison Rodeo’s used to be common. One still exists at Angola Prison in Louisiana. They are exploitative gladiatorial spectacles. Some prisoners and prison officials will say it brings variety, money-earning potential, momentary hero-worship to prisoners lives, but I’d argue esteem and productivity can be earned in ways other than placing men and women at serious physical risk.
I admire this statement from the filmmakers:
There remains a strange irony in the romantic intrigue we have with a population of people that we’ve systematically closed off from society and largely ignored. Before making this documentary, we were mostly informed by the cultural lore of prison through film and music such as Cool Hand Luke, Stir Crazy, and Folsom Prison Blues. […] A gained sense of humanity for the offenders became a guiding theme in telling their stories. […] We’d like to use this documentary to help recognize the lives of prisoners and those re-integrating into society. Through prison and public screenings, community forums and an outreach plan, we’d like to create grassroots dialogue to improve awareness of issues and create opportunities. In addition, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo is establishing a Scholarship for inmates attending college while incarcerated.
The Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia has been working tirelessly for three decades to unite the city’s many constituencies. One of the taller orders is to unite the prison population with the outside world, but in Concrete, Steel & Paint we see just how that is possible — specifically the bringing together of prisoners (people who’ve been convicted of crime) with victims of crime.
The Mural Arts Program is about restorative justice. In other words, by expanding the scope of activities beyond mere punishment and by opening up unlikely conversations and shared activities, every individual effected by a (violent) crime can find a voice, be heard and hopefully find some closure, or at least new means to move on with life. The stakes are high but the rewards potentially huge. But, it takes courage. See what happens when you bring victims and perpetrators of crime together to explore healing, social justice and even forgiveness.
What I Want My Words To Do To You follows the four years that Eve Ensler worked with women from Bedford Hills Prison, NY, on creative writing.
Ensler staged performances of their writing in the free world, but crucially took the performance into Bedford Hills. Ensler enlisted superstars Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei, Rosie Perez and others, but the real stars of the program are the women who give so much of themselves to each other, to their writing and to us the audience. Very emotional.
TWENTY - BONUS MATERIAL
I’m a lover of primary source material so C-SPAN’s unedited reel from filming at Sing Sing Prison, NY, in 1997 is a rare treat. Multiple people who live and work at Sing Sing are interviewed including the prison chaplain says, “prison religion is one piece of the survival kit.” What an interesting turn of phrase? Religion as a tactic rather than a spiritual choice. Or at best, religion as a coping mechanism. Religion — which is treated with much skepticism in liberal America — as a naive bandaid.
IF YOU DO PREFER DRAMATISATIONS
WHAT DID I MISS?
Any other documentaries about U.S. prisons you recommend? Leave them in the comments section below.
Last year, I congratulated Edgar Barens on his devotion to a story about a terminally-ill prisoner in Iowa.
That devotion is paying off. This week, Barens’ film titled Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall has been placed on a shortlist of eight for Best Documentary Short Film for the 2014 Oscars.
Those eight are still to be narrowed to five before the final night. Best of luck, Edgar!
Between the California Prisoners Hunger Strike and battles over prison spending as part of the state budget there’s been an incredible amount going on in California these past few months and I want to hold my hands up by saying I’ve not done my part in bringing you timely updates. The battles in California are in some ways a bellwether for the country. Victories against California’s prison industrial complex indicate some movement toward fiscal and moral responsibility. More to come on this.
If you’ve been overwhelmed as I have, or if you want a refresher on where we are at now as regards public information this video made by Lucas Guilkey for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group gets straight to the point.
Guilkey’s video shows former prisoners — who were held in solitary — and family members making their pleas to politicians to end the psychological torture, telling of their family members slowly losing their minds, and themselves succumbing to emotion and sobbing through their words.
On September 4th, following a meeting between organisers and prison officials in a small prison law library, and after 60 days of striking and one death, prisoners suspended the strike, and California legislators committed to hold public hearings.
After all the words, news articles, claims and counter-claims, Guilkey’s video cuts to the heart of the matter. The use of solitary confinement is not about public safety; and the eradication of solitary confinement is all about decent human values.
“The U.S holds more prisoners and employs more prison staff than any other nation on earth. But there is no central location where the public, policy makers, students or researchers can benefit from the many years of first-hand experience of prisoners and prison workers,” read the email that landed in my inbox last week.
The American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) is an in-progress, internet-based, digital archive of non-fiction essays recently established by the Digital Humanities Initiative at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York.
APWA addresses a need and it could be of immeasurable value. It’s early days; the archive has yet to fill. Digital storage provides an almost limitless potential for growth. The accumulation of material is also without deadline.
Sure, there are many great places such as the PEN American Center, The Beat Within, Prison Legal News, The Angolite, San Quentin News, Prison Writing blog, where one can find expert prison writing, but how much of this is searchable by key terms? On what page of a Google search does it land? There’s so much good but untapped writing on prisons out there that to have a feasible search tool (designed by library-scientists) is very exciting.
FROM THE SOURCE
“We seek authors who write with the authority that only first-person experience can bring,” says APWA about it’s one parameter for submissions. I think that insistence gives the project weight and legitimacy.
While the APWA is open to all styles, they encourage first hand accounts from prisoners, prison employees, and prison volunteers of life and work conditions within American prisons.
Often prisoners and prison employees are in opposition, but with submissions from both groups who knows what cross-pollination of perspectives might emerge?
From here, I’ll leave you with APWA’s own description of the project:
All topics are of interest, including descriptions of sources of stress, ways of coping, health care, causes of violence and ways to reduce violence, material conditions, education, employment conditions and the challenges these conditions present, the environment for volunteers, the aging prison population, visions of a better way to operate (personally, politically, institutionally, etc.), reflections on the work of dealing with time inside (for workers as well as prisoners), the challenges of physical and psychological survival, public perception and popular depictions of prisoners and prison workers, the politics and economics of mass incarceration, what works and why it works, and what doesn’t work and why it doesn’t work (i.e. practical views on reform), etc. We are open to any testimony about the issues that matter to prison staff, administrators, corrections officers, teachers, volunteers, and prisoners.
We value writing that takes thoughtful, constructive positions even on passionately felt ideas.
The APWA is intended for researchers and for the general public, to help them understand American prison conditions and the prison’s practical effects and place in society. All the work in the APWA will be accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world with access to the Internet. The APWA will open the American prison to public observation, and showcase the thinking and writing being produced inside.
Once included in the APWA, work will be retained indefinitely. Contributors can write under pseudonyms or anonymously. We reserve the right to edit or reject work that advocates violence, names names in ongoing legal cases, or libels named individuals. The APWA is not currently accepting poetry or fiction.
We accept art (on a single 8.5×11 page) only if accompanied by an essay. A signed permission sheet must be included to post work on the APWA. By signing on the signature line below, you are granting us permission to include your work in the APWA. The questionnaire information will be used to offer researchers points of reference (for example, to study the specific concerns of staff who are veterans, or of Black and Latino men in maximum-security facilities).
There is no deadline. We seek the widest possible gathering of American prison writing, and we will read, scan, and transcribe essays into the APWA on a continuing basis. Previously published work is acceptable if authors retain copyright. Please let us know where and when your essay appeared in print.
Non-fiction essays, based on first-hand experience, should be limited to 5,000 words (15 double-spaced pages). Clearly hand-written pages are welcome. We charge no fees. We will read all writing submitted.
There is a PDF form to submit with your essay. It includes the usual stuff — name, age, address, date, prison facility. It also includes an optional questionnaire to help the archivists digitally tag and organise essays.
Please share the project, the link, and the address below far and wide.
Mail essays to: APWA, 198 College Hill Road, Clinton, NY 13323.
A single wall representing the meals of men and women executed in Texas, part of Julie Green’s The Last Supper: 500 Plates exhibited at Marylhurst University, Oregon (April 16 – May 17, 2013). Photo: Pete Brook.
In The Make — a new(ish) website that celebrates artists in their crafty environments with dedicated studio visits and conversations — has a smashing feature on my friend and fellow Oregonian Julie Green. It sure beats the 2011 write-up of my visit to Julie’s studio!
I’ve been thinking a lot about productivity and it’s obstacles recently and I think Julie maintains an incredible output. Part of that is the security of teaching for her but mostly it is passion and commitment to connections and getting the work seen. What use is studio time if the products are not then widely shared?
Julie’s The Last Supper which is now 552 plates deep, is broad and grasps solidly the size of the issue it takes on. Bravo to Julie for leveraging the agency she has as an artist.
Pop over to In The Make and read what makes Julie tick. Here’s a snippet:
Shipping and installation of fragile ceramics is quite an undertaking. I am looking for a library or a university or a museum- in Texas would be great—to donate the project on a ten-year loan. The Last Supper is not for sale.
I plan to continue adding fifty plates a year until capital punishment is abolished. A poet asked if I ever get tired of painting lumpy blue food. No, I don’t.
Oklahoma has higher per capita executions than Texas. I taught there, and that is how I came to read final meal requests in the morning paper. Requests provide clues on region, race, and economic background.
Why is this important? It is because the death penalty is applied unequally depending on the race of the defendant and the victim, not to mention access to adequate counsel, jury bias, prosecutorial misconduct and a whole plethora of factors that make wrongful convictions too frequent to dismiss. End the death penalty and we’ll end the murder of innocent people. As Bryan Stevenson brilliantly puts it, the question isn’t so much does a person deserve to die, it is do we deserve to kill?
Coincidentally, I edited a story for Wired about the work of Klea McKenna who is editor of In The Make. Check out Crumpled and Abused Photo Paper Makes for New Landscape Photography
The image above was drawn by Katherine Fontaine, a San Francisco based architect, prison-questioner, friend to all, and book-art-space-collective co-runner.
“There are very few pictures of SHUs. The last drawing that was found at the Freedom Archives in San Francisco was from when Reagan was the Governor of California,” says Fontaine.
With solitary confinement, such a hot news topic, Fontaine was compelled to sketch when she realised there were very few images of solitary cells in circulation.
“I was given the few photos that exist from other similar prisons and a diagram that was used in a previous court case drawn by a prisoner while in an SHU at Pelican Bay. The drawing is what I came up with from the materials I was given,” explains Fontaine who hopes her drawing of a Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (SHU) will be used — in media materials and campaigns — by any organizations protesting solitary confinement.
Fontaine’s commitment to make reliable sketches of prison spaces and apparatus was spurred by a chance encounter with some fellow professionals in an unlikely place. She was among a crowd outside the Central California Women’s Facility protesting overcrowding inside the prison.
Fontaine noticed a person within the crowd with a sign that read ‘Architects Against Overcrowding In Prisons.’ On the back of the sign was www.ADPSR.org. The acronym stands for Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility. Despite her day job as an architect, ADPSR was not a group with whom she was familiar. Upon reading the statement for the Prison Alternatives Initiative, one of ADPSR’s projects, Fontaine was all-in.
“Our prison system is both a devastating moral blight on our society and an overwhelming economic burden on our tax dollars, taking away much needed resources from schools, health care and affordable housing. The prison system is corrupting our society and making us more threatened, rather than protecting us as its proponents claim. It is a system built on fear, racism, and the exploitation of poverty. Our current prison system has no place in a society that aspires to liberty, justice, and equality for all. As architects, we are responsible for one of the most expensive parts of the prison system, the construction of new prison buildings. Almost all of us would rather be using our professional skills to design positive social institutions such as universities or playgrounds, but these institutions lack funding because of spending on prisons. If we would rather design schools and community centers, we must stop building prisons.”
Fontaine’s sketches will regularly appear in Actually People Quarterly, partly to inform as partly as a means to focus her thoughts.
“People need to see them,” she says. “Also it was such a powerful thing for me to draw that SHU cell. I wonder if anyone else can have a similar feeling just by looking at it or if I just feel so changed by it because I drew it. Maybe it is because I’ve spent years of my life drawing, studying, measuring and designing spaces that in actually creating that image I imagined that actual space so much more clearly than I had before? To imagine being an architect and *designing* that space is incomprehensible to me.”
Below is Fontaine’s sketch of cage used routinely within the California prison system. The cages are sometimes to hold prisoners during transfer between units but, increasingly, used for group *therapy* — an oxymoron if there ever was one.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to share the work of some other determined prison sketchers, some of whom are prisoners.
From the website, Solitary Watch:
One of the most prolific and talented artists in solitary is 60-year-old Thomas Silverstein, who has been in extreme isolation in the federal prison system under a “no human contact” order for going on 30 years. (He describes the experience here.) His artwork appears on this site. It includes meticulously detailed drawings of some of the cells he has occupied, including one pictured below, which is designed (with built-in shower and remote-controlled door to an exercise yard) so that he never has to leave it or encounter anyone at all.
Next is this cell in Ohio, drawn by prisoner Greg Curry.
When depicting prisons and their abuses there is no hierarchy of medium; sketches, photos, videos and oral testimony conspire to deliver a fuller picture. I will say though that these narrative rich drawings are more powerful than many photographs I come across.