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Carnell Hunnicutt, Sr. Northern Correctional Institution, Somers, CT. Courtesy Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. Via Solitary Watch.
Today, December 10th, is Human Rights Day. Organised by the United Nations, the day of action is based around the central tenet that “Each one of us, everywhere, at all times is entitled to the full range of human rights. Human rights belong equally to each of us and bind us together as a global community with the same ideals and values.”
The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains several articles which would apply broadly to prisoners and former prisoners in the U.S., but unfortunately remain unrecognized by the U.S. government.”
Specifically, we should be looking at the enforcement of policy and law as they would uphold Articles 4, 8, 9 and 21.
The problems are endless. Executions need to stop — the state shouldn’t be murdering citizens. Mass incarceration, generally, brings with it almost insurmountable problems (overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, predation, sexual and psychological abuse). The prison industrial complex magnifies these problems in poor communities. I’ve noticed a cycle of issues-du-jour that append to critique of American prisons. Most recently, no doubt, the issue of solitary confinement has been widely discussed. Why? Because it is abusive and counter-productive. Moves in the right direction are starting to reign in the rampant use of solitary as a disciplining technique. I wrote about what’s at stake for Daylight Digital last year:
Juan E. Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture, is clear that solitary confinement is torture and permanently damages the mental health of prisoners.
“Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit…whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” said Mendez in front of the UN General Assembly in June 2011. “It is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”
Prisoners lose their minds quickly when deprived of human contact. Identity is socially created, and it is through relationships that individuals understand themselves.
Solitary confinement “undermines your ability to register and regulate emotion,” explained Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in an interview with WIRED. “The appropriateness of what you’re thinking and feeling is difficult to index, because we’re so dependent on contact with others for that feedback. And for some people, it becomes a struggle to maintain sanity.”
Common symptoms resulting from long-term isolation include chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair. In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving and become essentially catatonic.
If a prisoner doesn’t withdraw within him or herself, he or she may resort to aggression. In his study of Pelican Bay SHU prisoners, Haney found that nearly 90 percent had difficulties with irrational anger, compared with just 3 percent of the general US population.
Physician Atul Gawande has compared the permanent psychological impairment described in Haney’s research to that incurred by traumatic brain injury.
For many, calendar days such as these serve to raise brief awareness. Often not much more. In our busy lives it can be hard to stay on top of the ebb and flow of politics, policy and information; it’s tough to hold those in power accountable, especially if day-to-day we’re just trying to get the bare minimum done.
I don’t know what I think of e-petitions as I don’t know how to gauge their efficacy, but I do know it takes seconds to sign one and you can do it after the kids are in bed and the washing up’s drying.
Thanks to Prisoner Activist for this comprehensive list of 22 active petitions against solitary confinement.
ACLU of Arizona: Arizona is Maxed Out! No New Supermax Prison Beds
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC): Stop Abuse of
Amnesty International: US super-maximum security prisons must be opened up for UN scrutiny!
Amnesty International USA: Free Albert Woodfox – End the Injustice. Remove Woodfox from Isolation
Amnesty International USA: Solitary Confinement: US Government Must End This Cruel and Inhumane Practice
Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB): Demand the State of California Stop the Torture
Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR): Honor the Pelican Bay SHU Prisoners’ Demands
Friends Committee on Legislation of California: Stop the abuse of solitary confinement
National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): End Prolonged Solitary Confinement Now
National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): Take Action to End Solitary Confinement of Youth in California
National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): People of Faith Support Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2014
New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC) Says: End Solitary Confinement; No Supermax at Rikers
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition: Support Pelican Bay SHU Prisoners’ Five Core Demands (hunger strike)
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition: Corcoran SHU Prisoners Start Hunger Strike for Decent Healthcare
Roots Action: End prolonged solitary confinement
Sylvia Rivera Law Project: DOCCS, Make Housing Safer for Trans People in New York State Prisons!
The Petition Site: End Child Torture: Stop Holding Our Kids in Solitary Confinement!
Image: White Construction.
SMALL STEPS TO A BIG PROBLEM
If we’re ever wondering how and when we transformed into a society supporting a Prison Industrial Complex, then we can and should look to events in Karnes County, Texas this week.
Playing out in Karnes Co. this week is a scene that we’ve seen thousands of times before. And ultimately, we’ll see a decision to build or not to build.
For every one of the 6,000+ prisons in America (Federal penitentiaries, State prisons, County Jails, private prisons and ICE detention facilities) there has been a process of planning, discussion, budgeting and approval. The degree to which these political mechanics are visible and accessible to the public and the degrees to which public are aware or activated for and against prison in their earliest proposal stages, of course, differs wildly. But, I want to make the point here that prisons don’t simply emerge as a natural consequence of crime. Prisons are buildings with construction and operating costs. Prisons are places of labor and sites of capital. Prisons are designed and they are manufactured by men who want to assume some type of responsibility for them.
PRISONS FOR IMMIGRANTS IS A BOOMING BUSINESS
The GEO Group, a corporation with a long history of poorly-run facilities and abuse of prisoners on its watch stands to benefit most from the proposed expansion of the facility from 532 women and children to more than 1,300.
Watch Karnes Co. this week, because it is in its Commissioners’ offices that the absolute decision by some humans to put more humans behind chain-link and razor-wire will be made.
Watch Karnes Co. this week because this is one of thousands of current battle sites in the nation, right now, in which activists are intervening and slowing or stopping our insane march toward incarceration.
Watch Karnes Co. this week because those opposing the expansion are true American heroes.
Watch Karnes Co. this week because not since WWII internment has the United States put so many non-criminal women and children behind bars.
According to local channel KSAT, opinions are split, but in the VT those in favour were making simple arguments based upon the jobs the GEO prison would bring. Opposing views are nuanced and based in a broader and ethical perspectives.
When the family prison opened in 2012, NPR did its best to distinguish it from other places by describing it as “less like prison.” Well, such a *new dawn* and such an enlightened approach to the sick practice of looking up women and children has not yielded results. This new type of prison, apparently, leads to a bigger prison and not *a solution* to the perceived problem!
WHAT TO DO
If you’re concerned sign the petition. Your letter will go directly to the Karnes County Commissioners.
Watch a 30-minute documentary about the Karnes facility. Here’s the trailer.
If you would like to show the film in your commnunity, email email@example.com
Again, please, sign the petition.
Larry Mayes Larry Mayes Scene of arrest, The Royal Inn, Gary, Indiana. Police found Mayes hiding beneath a mattress in this room. Served 18.5 years of an 80-year sentence for Rape, Robbery, and Unlawful Deviate Conduct, 2002. Chromogenic print, 48 x 60 inches (121.9 x 152.4 cm), Edition of 5. © Taryn Simon
It probably doesn’t need me to tell you that The Marshall Project launched this week.
Ever since Bill Keller announced his departure, after 30 years, from the New York Times to take up the editor in chief role at the Marshall Project, people have wondered what could possibly emerge from within a new “nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering America’s criminal justice system.”
Early output is good.
STAFF & STORIES
Pre-launch, The Marshall Project published two pieces of investigation — Dana Goldstein wrote about youth corrections in West Virginia; and Maurice Possley recovered and uncovered the startling facts of Cameron Todd Willingham‘s wrongful conviction and execution.
Upon launch, Ken Armstrong looked at a legal quirk that literally effects life and death (Parts One and Two). Keller and managing editor Tim Golden interviewed outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder about many things including his attitude toward the death penalty.
Lisa Iaboni revisited Taryn Simon’s groundbreaking series The Innocents, for which Simon asked wrongfully accused men following their exoneration to pose for portraits at the sites of alibi, crime or with the original victims of the crime.
I interpret these three features as not coincidental to one another. The documented mistakes in the application of the death penalty — and the consequent murder-by-the-state of innocent people — is a barometer to shortcomings in the wider criminal justice system. Stories of life and death usual force people to sit up and take notice.
Elsewhere on the site, Andrew Cohen‘s been busy examining racial disparity in policing in the aftermath of Ferguson, the crisis in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and asking if mass incarceration is going away.
John Lennon speaks to a case of aging in Attica; Simone Weischelbaum looks at improvised make-up (fake-up) in women’s prisons; and Ivan Vong has produced an interactive of all the stats associated with the U.S. criminal justice system.
The team of journalists assembled is impressive. The visuals should be good too. One of the two managing editors is Gabriel Dance who won a Pulitzer Prize with The Guardian for his team’s data visualisation of the NSA leak. Probably the best way to acquaint yourself with the people is with this Twitter list of Marshall Project Staff.
DOLLARS & DOING
The great unknown about this venture is the money. It’s not likely journalism grants will cover the great expense to cover investigative reporting on these matters. Money from super-wealthy individuals will play a key part. Here’s what we do know.
Thus far, the Marshall Project has partnered with Slate and the Washington Post and plans to team with other established media as and when needed to amplify the reach of the reporting. The Marshall Project has hit the ground sprinting and I’m intrigued by the possibilities. In some ways, I am surprised it has taken so long for a single issue outfit focused on criminal justice to emerge. The need has been around for a long time.
Here’s some of Keller’s launch statement:
We are not here to promote any particular agenda or ideology. But we have a sense of mission. We want to move the discussion of our institutions of justice — law enforcement, courts, prisons, probation — to a more central place in our national dialogue. We believe, as the great jurist Thurgood Marshall did, that protection under the law is the most fundamental civil right in a free society. Yet, by the numbers, the United States is a global outlier, with a prison population matched by no nation except, possibly, North Korea, with a justice system that disproportionately afflicts communities of need and of color, with a corrections regime that rarely corrects.
We aim to accomplish our mission through probing, fair-minded journalism, combining investigative rigor, careful analysis, and lively storytelling. We will examine the failings of our criminal justice system — but also test promising reforms. While a number of news organizations are doing distinguished reporting on crime and punishment, the journalistic energy devoted to this kind of reporting — time consuming and expensive as it is — has been sapped by the financial traumas of the news industry. Our aim is both to restore some of that lost energy and to be a catalyst for coverage elsewhere. We will publish the fruits of our reporting here and expand our audience by collaborating with first-rate newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and other online news sites.
In addition to our original reporting, we will compile the most interesting news and commentary from around the world of criminal justice, distributing our findings in our daily email, and offering this site as a hub for debate and accord. We are nonpartisan and non-ideological, which means you will find here the voices of progressives and conservatives, centrists and provocateurs. As it happens, criminal justice is one of the few areas of public policy where there is a significant patch of common ground between right and left.
Keller closes his welcome with an invitation to respond in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ feature. Get writing.
This is the embarrassing shit — the unconstitutional and serious shit — that politicians get up to when they are driven by fear, assume constituents are docile, and think no-one will call them out.
Well, I and many other good people in the Quaker State are calling them out.
This brouhaha began last month when people were up in arms at political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal delivering the commencement speech for students at Goddard College. Abu-Jamal attended Goddard via correspondence course while imprisoned. Many of the Pennsylvania legislators have admitted they had not heard or read Abu-Jamal’s speech and yet voted unanimously to introduce into law procedures that prevented Americans from exercising their 1st amendment right. This debacle is politically motivated; by signing the so-called “Revictimization Relief Act” into law Governor Corbett and the lazy lawmakers around him are attempting to not look soft in the face of Abu-Jamal’s continued and bare logic. They want him silent and they want all like him silent.
The Abolitionist Law Center say this:
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s scheduled signing of what the Harrisburg Patriot referred to as the “Muzzle Mumia Law” today allows those who have been victims of a personal-injury crime to sue an offender for conduct that causes the victim “mental anguish.” The statute is so devoid of definition or standards that the Harrisburg Patriot wrote: “Some victims of terrible crimes will be in a ‘state of mental anguish’ as long as the person who did it to them is alive and breathing. Does ‘breathing’ qualify as ‘conduct’ that’s now subject to court action?”
Things in the prisons of Pennsylvania are desperate; the activist group DecarceratePA are at the forefront of exposing the repeated arrogance of politicians and the Fraternal Order of Police, who some believe are the driving force behind this law to silence prisoners.
Many prisoners in Pennsylvania are smart and many know what is going on. They know that their state disallows journalists’ visits with cameras and now the State of Pennsylvania is prohibiting prisoners to read their own writings. It’s a scandal. In the final two minutes of the Democracy Now! clip (above) journalist Noelle Hanrahan puts into great context the continued silencing and attacks on prisoners’ agency over the past few decades in Pennsylvania.
Fortunately, immediate legal response is in swing. More from the Abolitionist Law Center:
Prison Radio and imprisoned intellectual and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal have retained the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) to provide legal representation for them in response to Pennsylvania General Assembly’s passage of a bill intended to subvert the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and repress their free speech rights. The Abolitionist Law Center is working with the attorneys Kris Henderson and Nikki Grant of the Philadelphia-based Amistad Law Project on this matter as well. Amistad Law Project is a public interest law center that advocates for the human rights of all people and currently focuses its work on those inside Pennsylvania’s prisons. ALC, along with the Amistad Law Project, are representing Robert Saleem Holbrook, an imprisoned activist, writer, and member of the Human Rights Coalition.
The law was passed in response to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s selection as a commencement speaker to Goddard College students at his alma mater in Vermont. Leading up to and in the wake of this speech, the Fraternal Order of Police, Governor Corbett, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, and a number of legislators staged a media campaign designed to whip up a frenzy of support for depriving Abu-Jamal, and any other person convicted of a crime, of their constitutional right to free speech. The law also permits the District Attorney where the criminal conviction was obtained, or the state’s Attorney General, to use their public offices and taxpayer funds to file the lawsuit, raising the possibility that Mumia will be sued for his speech by politicians and government officials who have made a habit of attacking him in order to win the support of the FOP for their election campaigns.
On October 17, Mumia Abu-Jamal issued a statement (broadcast at Prison Radio) from the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy where he is serving a sentence of life-without-parole after being framed for the killing of a Philadelphia police officer:
I welcome Governor Corbett’s signature on an unconstitutional bill that proves that the government of Pennsylvania, the executive and the legislature, don’t give one wit about their own constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, nor the United States Constitution. I welcome that because it proves that they are the outlaws.
Abu-Jamal has spent 33 years in prison, 30 of which were in solitary confinement on death row, after being convicted at a 1982 trial that, according to Amnesty International, “failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings.” (see Manufacturing Guilt to learn more about the case) By continuing his journalism as well as maintaining his innocence and attracting a massive international movement of supporters, Mumia has long been targeted by the Fraternal Order of Police and their political counterparts. “Having failed to kill Mumia on the street in 1981, and having failed to execute him during his over 30 years on death row, the FOP and the government of Pennsylvania continues to try to silence him, this time by extinguishing his speech,” said Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.
Abu-Jamal has given three other commencement addresses in the past: Goddard in 2008, Antioch College in 2000, and Evergreen College in 1999. He has recorded more than 3,000 essays, published seven books in nine languages, with two more books set for publication in 2015, and has been the subject of three major broadcast and theatrical movies. The latest film, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary, is currently airing on the Starz network, sold out theatres coast to coast, and has sold more than 20,000 DVDs.
“The ‘Silence Mumia Law’ should be understood as part of a reaction against recent criticisms of the prison and criminal legal systems. In the wake of the Ferguson rebellion, race and class-based mass incarceration, and the role of police in enforcing it with arbitrary arrests, frame-ups, and extrajudicial killings, is being questioned more than ever. The Fraternal Order of Police and the government are scrambling to silence those questions, disingenuously using the language of ‘victims rights’ to re-establish the lie that police forces and other institutions of state violence are righteous protectors of public safety that are beyond question. This illegal attack on our clients’ constitutional and human rights will be fiercely challenged in the streets and the courts,” said ALC Legal Director Bret Grote.
For more information contact Noelle Hanrahan on firstname.lastname@example.org or 415-706-5222. Alternatively, contact Bret Grote on email@example.com or 412-654-9070
I’ve wondered before where all the photographs of solitary are. This question presupposes that the American public’s exposure to the inside of these modern dungeons will spur a degree of enlightenment, consternation and protest.
Putting the veracity of that string of causality aside for a moment, it might be worth saying that photographs are perhaps not necessary to stir emotional and political response. Maybe sketches can do these things as well, or better?
An opportunity to discuss this will arise in the next few weeks at the UC Berkeley’s Wurster Hall Gallery, in the College of Environmental Design.
Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) present “Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights,” an exhibit about the architecture of incarceration featuring drawings of solitary confinement cells by people currently being held inside.
In addition, rarely seen designs for execution chambers built in the U.S. and photographs by Richard Ross will be on show.
“Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights,” highlights problematic and little-known spaces within United States prisons and detention centers that house activities deemed to violate human rights. What do these spaces have to teach us about the state of freedom in America?
The exhibit is free and open to the public M-F 10-5 until Nov. 21st, and the opening reception is this Tuesday, October 14th from 6-8pm, at which author Sarah Shourd, Professor Jill Stoner, and architect John MacAllister will be in attendance.
Shadae “Dae Dae” Schmidt died in February 3rd 2014 in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) of California Institution for Women, following a stroke and repeated calls to staff for different medications and treatment. Schmidt’s death is only one of seven deaths advocates say were entirely avoidable.
Activists and families of women imprisoned in California are calling for an independent inquiry into multiple deaths. Activists and families believe the deaths were preventable and many details of the circumstances of death have been concealed.
For those involved, this is an important call for transparency. And, for us, it is an important case to notice as the information gained by advocates was gleaned from interviews with women inside. No persons are bigger experts on the prison industrial complex than those held within it. The call is coordinated by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) which maintains close communication with incarcerated women and the families of incarcerated women. Without there efforts we wouldn’t know about the dangerous conditions — and alleged negligence — within.
This from the CCWP:
On July 30, 2014 a woman committed suicide in the Solitary Housing Unit (SHU) of the California Institution for Women (CIW), in Corona. According to information gathered by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), there have been seven preventable deaths at CIW so far in 2014 and three attempted suicides since July alone. None of these deaths have been made public by CIW or CDCR although they signify a state of crisis in the prison.
Prison officials have failed to inform bereaved family members of these deaths in a timely and respectful manner. Margie Kobashigawa, the mother of 30-year-old Alicia Thompson, who died of an alleged suicide on February 24, 2014 in the SHU, was ignored by prison staff. “Nobody from the prison would call me back, nobody would talk to me. I was planning to pick up my daughter’s body and suddenly CIW was trying to cremate her again, and quickly. To me it’s like they’re trying to hide everything,” said Margie. As she prepared her daughter for burial, she found no signs of hanging trauma to her body and has reason to believe her daughter died from some other type of violent force. On March 13, 2014 Shadae Schmidt, a 32-year-old African American woman, died in the CIW SHU. Shadae had a stroke in February 2014 and was prematurely returned to the SHU. She was given medication that made her sick but her requests for a change in prescription fell on deaf ears; and then she died.
CCWP received information regarding these two deaths from friends and family members, but other deaths, suicides and attempted suicides remain shrouded in mystery. The majority of people in the SHU have some type of mental health problem, which is exacerbated by solitary confinement. CCWP continues to hear reports that there is no medical staff to monitor people’s vital signs and mental states when physical and mental health crises occur. People scream for help and get no response at all.
Since the closure of Valley State Women’s Prison in January 2013, overcrowding at CIW has skyrocketed. Medical care has significantly deteriorated and there has been a dramatic increase in the population of the SHU and other disciplinary segregation units. Overcrowding has aggravated mental health issues causing an increase in the number of mentally disabled people in the SHU even though this is the worst place to put them.
In August 2014, in response to a court order, the CDCR released revised policies to reduce the number of people with mental health diagnoses in isolation. Policy changes are only useful if they are implemented. It is crucial for the CDCR to transfer all people with mental health issues out of the CIW SHU as soon as possible in accordance with the court order.
Despite decades of lawsuits to remedy prison health care and court orders to reduce prison overcrowding, the inhuman conditions inside CA women’s prisons continue and have led to these tragic, violent and untimely deaths. In order to reverse the crisis at CIW, CCWP calls for the following immediate actions:
- Immediate transfer of all prisoners with mental health issues from the SHU and implementation of care programs.
- Increased healthcare staffing and care for people in the SHU.
- An independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding all deaths at CIW in 2014.
- Reduction of overcrowding through the implementation of existing release programs rather than transfers to other equally problematic prisons and jails.
Contact the following politicians and CDCR representatives to call for an independent investigation:
Sara Malone, Chief Ombudsman
Office of the Ombudsman
1515 S. Street, Room 124 S.
Sacramento, CA 95811
Tel: (916) 327-8467 Fax: (916) 324-8263
Kimberly Hughes, Warden CIW
Tel: (909) 597-1771
Senator Hannah Beth-Jackson
District 19, Senate Budget Committee
Vice-Chair of Women’s Caucus
Assemblymember Nancy Skinner
District 15, Women’s Caucus
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano
Senator Mark Leno
Senator Loni Hancock
Senator Holly Mitchell
District 26, Women’s Caucus
Public Safety Committee (916) 651-4015
Senator Jim Beall
District 15, Senate Budget Committee
Jay Virbel, Associate Director of Female Offender Programs & Services
PO Box 942883
Sacramento, CA 95811
Jeffrey Beard, CDCR Secretary
PO Box 942883
Sacramento, CA 95811
For more information contact: California Coalition for Women Prisoners at (415) 255-7035 ext. 314 , or firstname.lastname@example.org
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 we don’t. And in this case were aren’t. This is a photo from the set of the in-production web series 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.
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.
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 web series and links to production photos.
Filming the filmers.
A cell doubles as a make-up room.
Filming inside a cell.
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.
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.
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.
Lunch on set
Looks depressingly accurate.
Downloading the day’s footage in the control room.
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.
All images courtesy of Think Ten Media and William Meeker.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
GO THROW SOME MONEY IN THE ONE & THE MANY KICKSTARTER BUCKET!