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The banality of the design is on full display. The windowed room is where lethal chemicals are stored and used. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

In 2006, the State of California approved a plan to construct a new execution chamber at San Quentin Prison. This week, The Avery Review published an article by Raphael Sperry titled Death by Design: An Execution Chamber at San Quentin State Prison which breaks down the budgeting, the politics and the design wrapped up in the contentious project. Not to mention the secrecy surrounding many details. Just as we’ve learnt about supply chains of chemicals for new drug “cocktails” being used by States to murder people, so too Sperry takes an in-depth look at the manufacturers behind the apparatus of death. It’s a wonderful, informed and terrifying breakdown of what we do to deliver “justice.” It’s a lovely foil to my past lyrics on the aqua green aesthetics of murder at San Quentin and it reveals the absurdity of the death penalty, the most vicious and foolishly symbolic of punishments.

“The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility,” writes Sperry. It’s a project all about sight — political oversight, design based upon sight-lines for both executioner and witnesses. Sperry’s insights are chilling and revelatory. Below, I’ve selected the parts that intrigued me most, but you really should head over to The Avery Review to read the piece in full.

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CAD Model for San Quentin Lethal Injection Facility. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

DEATH BY DESIGN

Painted sheetrock walls, resilient flooring, vinyl cove base, and fluorescent lighting are used in a thoroughly predictable and pedestrian manner, much like a dentist’s office in a strip mall. The buttresses of the adjacent prison housing block, which a more creative designer might have incorporated, are instead covered by new framing; a storage room is used to occupy one of these irregular alcoves. But there is more to this design than meets the eye. Sometimes the banal is not ordinary.

The all-new facility for lethal injection provides more workspace around the body of the condemned man, an adjacent secure workspace and chemical storage room, and separated viewing areas for the various categories of observers. […] Bureaucratic skullduggery initially led to an unrealistically low project budget of $399,000: just under the $400,000 requirement to request legislative authorization of the project.7 Perhaps some secret executive-branch projects stay secret; in this case the state legislature found out about the project, causing further delays (they weren’t happy about having been hoodwinked) and an eventual approved budget increase to over $850,000. This included the use of inmate labor provided by the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (CDCR) vocational training program.

The general layout of the suite of rooms was borrowed from previously completed projects in other states. Unlike in other states, where death chamber design materials are generally only available when they have been released in response to lawsuits, the final project was presented on a tour that included the federal judge presiding in the case, reporters, and a press release that included output of the CAD model used to design the project (now no longer available). Still, when I made a public request for the identity of the architect(s) and engineer(s) responsible for the project, CDCR would not provide an answer.

The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility. CDCR exercised unusual control of the project budget in order to try to keep the project invisible. Yet a floor plan of the design proposal eventually became part of the court record submitted by CDCR to prove the constitutionality of the new facility, making it permanently available to the public. Newspapers published photos of the competed chamber and ancillary spaces and developed infographics of the layout. Nevertheless, today it is an incredibly difficult space for members of the public to visit unless they are part of the highly specified group of participants in or observers of an execution.

Perhaps in the same spirit, or perhaps because of the general obsession with the control of sight lines in prison environments, visibility within the Lethal Injection Room itself is carefully controlled. Witnessing the death of the condemned man is a central component of the execution ritual, with prescribed access for family members of the condemned man, family members of the victim, prison staff, and witnesses to verify that vengeance has been earned for the aggrieved public. Accordingly, the execution room is something of a fishbowl, surrounded on all sides by windows, including a band of wall-to-wall glazing for the public witness and media viewing room. However, mirrored glass is used along the line where the victim’s family might see the inmate’s family: a line that crosses the body of the condemned man, as the two families are positioned at opposite ends of the room just as they are presumed to be of opposite sympathies regarding the murder. Although it is not uncommon for the family of the victim in capital cases to object to the execution of the perpetrator, either out of a generalized objection to killing or after personal reconciliation, the plan denies the opportunity for this kind of potentially healing contact between families. Just as positions of state-driven authority are fixed in a courtroom, with a jury one level up and the judge above them, the dichotomous relations of innocent and guilty inherent in the finality of the death penalty are fixed around the body of the condemned man.

[…]

The death penalty debate, especially in California, now hangs on a tenuous balance between the desire for revenge (an “eye for an eye”) and revulsion at the spectacle of suffering driven by our own blood lust (with a subtext of racism). CDCR—the department charged with conducting executions, and the owner of the chamber in architectural parlance—would clearly prefer to go about its business and has a long history of avoiding public oversight (unsuccessfully in this case), but continuing the death penalty is subject to judgment by a California electorate that is trending toward abolition. Part of the design’s banality (and its low-budget, medical undertones) may be intended to visually deescalate the death penalty debate in order to perpetuate the status quo. But perhaps even the CDCR embodies the same unresolved questions about execution that continue to reverberate in ballot referendums, courtrooms, and public debates. The bland nature of the execution chamber may also indicate a lack of investment in the procedure’s future, a realization that this is no permanent edifice but rather a set of rooms that may be demolished or at least renovated for some other purpose before long.

RAPHAEL SPERRY

Raphael Sperry is an architect and green building consultant, President of Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility, and Adjunct Professor at California College of the Arts where he teaches the course “Rights, Power, and Design.” He is writing a book on architecture and human rights.

THE AVERY REVIEW

The Avery Review is a new online journal dedicated to thinking about books, buildings, and other architectural media. It’s aim is to explore the broader implications of a given object of discourse (whether text, film, exhibition, building, project, or urban environment) and to test and expand the reviewer’s own intellectual commitments.

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The Lethal Injection Facility is the windowless box adjacent to the older, still functional cell block. The CMU exterior walls predate the interior renovations for the new death chamber.

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Injection Room. Window and hose ports to Infusion Control Room at right, mirrored window for victim family viewing in center, public witness / media gallery on extreme left. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

ADPSR

This is the last week you have to catch the ADPSR-created exhibition Sentenced: Architecture & Human Rights at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.

This is funny, and could launch a thousand visual studies crit papers.

Remember Hugh Hefner and co. just sank $900,000 into saving and preserving this sign.

Found via i heart photograph

CONVERGENCE?

Stock vs. Fine Art; Standard view vs. Privileged view etc …

Worth contrasting Getty’s butchering with Emily Shur’s Hollywood Sign, Los Angeles, California. Featured on Shur’s blog.

Spread from Toppled

Toppled by Florian Göttke

Two weeks ago, Foto8’s Guy Lane reviewed Toppled by Florian Göttke. The review is what it is – a description of Göttke’s “(mainly) pictorial study of the destruction, desecration and mutation of many of Iraq’s plentiful statues of its former dictator.”

Lane’s conclusion points to the significance of Göttke’s study:

“Perhaps this might all appear somewhat peripheral, an iconographical diversion from the real business – invasion, subjugation, and expropriation – of Occupation. But from amongst Göttke’s collated written testimonies and reports, it is possible to sense something of the importance that was attached to the Coalition’s iconoclasm. For example, a BBC account of British activities in Basra concluded that ‘the statue of Saddam is in ruins. It is the key target of the whole raid.’ Meanwhile, in Baghdad a US army captain was ordered to delay destroying a statue until a Fox TV crew arrived. Most famously, the Firdous Square episode appears to have been – to a degree – choreographed for the benefit of the foreign media based in the overlooking Palestine Hotel. ‘American and British press officers were indeed actively looking for the opportunity to capture the symbolic action of toppling statues and have the media transmit these to the world,’ writes Göttke. As such, Toppled’s events and pictures correspond tellingly and damningly to the Retort group’s analysis of our ‘new age of war’.”

Would I buy the book? Probably not. The book is a concept. I understand the concept. And, the images are essentially props to the concept (illustrations of the new biographies of statues, of things).

Besides, I can get my fill elsewhere. The best (most ridiculous) image – James Gandolfini meets the Butcher of Baghdad – is on the accompanying Toppled website.

SADDAM’S PERSONAL PHOTO ALBUM

Göttke’s work leaves me wondering how Saddam’s personal photo-album fits in?

Similarly, these images were found and taken during the invasion of Iraq: “On the night of June 18, 2003, the soldiers in the 1-22 Infantry stormed a farm in Tikrit, Iraq, hoping to find a fugitive Saddam Hussein. They didn’t find their target, but they did find a consolation prize: Saddam’s family photo album […] When he returned from Iraq, Lt. Col. Steve Russell, the commander of the 1-22 Infantry, donated the album to the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Ga.” (Source)

This is a reversal, no? Not the effigies of megalomania, but personal snapshots. Not public monstrosities but flimsy two-dimensional depictions. Would these have got pissed on and slapped with sandals? Would they have been torn up/burned up had Lt. Col. Steve Russell not slipped them into his luggage?

Also, to describe the collection (for media publication) as the dictator’s “personal album” is one thing, but to what extent were these Saddam’s photo-memories? Are these really the contents of an album he valued? Are we even glad that Saddam’s images still exist?

One final thought, how do we distinguish between the staging of Saddam’s images to the staging of the images in Göttke’s survey?

JAMAL PENJWENY

On a less-grander scale, Jamal Penjweny is attempting (with his Iraqi subjects) to make sense of the spectre of Saddam. The series is called Saddam is Here. It’s not great photography but I don’t think this type of playful exploration needs to be.

© Jamal Penjweny

MultiEthnicPrisoners

In contrast to the harsh reality of the last post, I present the laughably unreal.

Whenever I find a photographic archive I, by reflex, punch in ‘prison’ into the search tool. I’ve started to do the same with stock agencies.

Multi-EthnicPrisoners

In the microstock world, image search results are disorienting. Instead of American Civil War jails, colonial prisons, prisoners of war, revolutionaries, genocide victims or political prisoners the return is staged portraiture, kitsch orange jumpsuit, bars, locks, handcuffs and silhouetted guard towers.

And, this is beyond the pale. WTF?

For simple graphic design purposes, I am sure even good intentioned advocates scout for imagery in stock databases of complete fiction in order to illustrate their message. Hmm.

A Teachable Moment: Avoiding Cliche

I have bemoaned before the cliche of cell-tier-perspective. I would encourage us all to really think about the relative contribution some prison photographs bring.

Even in photojournalism (a field not without its faults, but a mode I still firmly believe in) photographs of bars, keys and fences are common. So, to practitioners as to viewers, I urge the same rigour in critique.

Jenn Ackerman, Jane Evelyn Atwood, Lloyd Degrane, Jean Gaumy, Andrew Lichtenstein, Danny Lyon, Darcy Padilla, Lizzie Sadin and Taro Yamasaki are just some of the many photographers who’ve managed to describe prison life without overly-relying on the physical fabric of institutions. They spend enough privileged time with the inmates to tell the stories of the inmates.

I started Wednesday Words last week to throw out some brief and wise writings on prisons. I’ve got Winston Churchill, Charles Darrow and David Ramsbottom lying in wait. But they must all hold fire because I am taking the podium this week.

I have just unsubscribed from Getty’s Photoblog. Having it filter through my reader next to thoughtful and (in most cases) non-commercial blogs it became plainly obvious Getty are pandering to their audience. The result is a bland regurgitation of celebrity imagery. I guess this is what their audience wants. GettyBlog is watery gruel compared to the rest of the blogophotobiosphere.

My conclusion: Getty is effectively held captive by their audience.

Apparently, Getty Blog’s readership wants about 60 or 70% of Getty’s narrative to be about young, famous women and their clothing choices. Well, I don’t.

This minor alteration to my daily visual feed came a day after I read Confessions of a Former Online Producer, a candid piece by Jake Ellison;

During my last year at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in its last year as a newspaper, I published online thousands of pictures of half-starved, mostly naked women – celebrities and fashion models. I even became so deranged as to argue vehemently in the newsroom that those photos were necessary because we were a dying industry and people wanted to look at those women, so get on board.

The Seattle PostGlobe is an all volunteer, blog-reporting venture made up of many former Seattle Post Intelligencer journalists. The P-I went under a couple of months ago and the PostGlobe is simultaeneously a service to the now one paper Emerald City, a boredom evasion technique, experiment in new-journalism and an acknowledged unsustainable economic model. For all those reasons I love it, support it and endorse it.

I’d tweet its stories more often but the PostGlobe’s URLs are 142 characters long!

Two weeks ago I attended a talk by Van Jones, the founder of the Ella Baker Center. He advocates for social equality and the rights & opportunities of incarcerated youth. Recently, if he didn’t have enough on his plate, he has added saving the environment to his roster of causes. Jones’ energy is contagious and he quickly convinces you that there indeed is “one solution to our two major problems”.

Manufacturing Photovoltaic Cells (Reuters)

Jarnail Basraa lines up solar cells for a solar energy panel at Evergreen Solar's headquarters in Marlborough, Massachusetts. After decades on the fringe, solar power is closing in on America's mainstream as surging fossil fuel prices and mounting concern over climate change spur states, businesses and homeowners into a quickening embrace with alternative energy. (REUTERS)

Hold on! What? Two problems? Aren’t there more problems than that? Yes, and so Jones, like President Elect Obama, argues that all these can be traced back to economics and environment. Furthermore, Jones argues for a single root solution to these two issues that solves the many related problems. Jones envisages a government-supported, corporate-boosted, people-activated Green Economy that shifts investment from “a 20th century pollution-based & consumption-oriented economy” to “a 21st century clean, solution-oriented economy”. The magic being that the jobless urban poor with the worst cases of asthma, cancers and pollutant-based health problems are the ones to take full advantage of this new platform. Jones asks, “Do we really want to further entrench ourselves in “eco-apartheid” in which the affluent retreat to the hills and the remainder suffer the smog?”

Jones admitted he is not the most likely of authors for a book of this type, but following quick inspection, it (and he) makes sense. Jones seeks routes out of poverty for the urban poor and the formerly incarcerated. His native California is more desperate for solutions than most states.

Solar panels soak up some rays near the Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, Calif. Last week, the state unveiled a 1.18 megawatt solar-power plant at the prison that provides enough electricity to power a quarter of the facility's needs. (REUTERS)

Solar panels soak up some rays near the Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, Calif. Last week, the state unveiled a 1.18 megawatt solar-power plant at the prison that provides enough electricity to power a quarter of the facility

Jones is thinking big. The creation of jobs, personal prosperity and regional economic growth would need to be unprecedented if it were to mop up the wasted lives and wasted dollars of the California Youth Authority & the CDCR let alone the gross deficit of California’s halting economy (For your interest I read that over 20% of California households owe more on money toward their mortgage than their house is actually worth).

It seemed that I had, accidentally, skirted the same issues Jones works with. How do you give enough previously disenfranchised people enough work and pride to reverse social histories of crime and transgression? If the state intervenes, prematurely or not, where friends and family cannot succeed, it absolutely must begin when the offender is committed to an institution. And yet, as I noted in my previous post only 5,400 inmates are involved in PIA work. (This figure doesn’t factor for the number of inmates in retraining programs, which fluctuates. I’ll get back to you) The fact remains, the CDCR is overcrowded and not investing in rehabilitation adequately. All education and vocational training is fully subscribed.

Ironwood Solar Field

Ironwood Solar Field

The unremarkable photograph (above) of the first CDCR solar field at Ironwood State Prison, which I wrongly attributed to Wasco, and used as for closing cynical footnote about watercolour painting is perhaps worth revisiting.

The fields are in the middle of nowhere, because most newly constructed prisons are in the middle of nowhere. I wonder if there could be a conspiracy of persuasion to bring SunEdison or any of their partners and competitors to these remote locations with an inactive but very willing pool of men, set up factories and operations and train inmates during their sentences?

I would like to ask Van Jones if he considers the current CDCR and/or the developing green economy infrastructure flexible enough to execute a long term retraining programme within California’s prison system. How plausible is it that the new green economy can benefit the imprisoned population of America? I  believe Jones when he says we can reach out to the urban poor and provide training schemes. I believe Jones when he expects government support to launch thousands, even millions, of jobs and through doing so gives rise to a multitude of career paths that emerge, shape and change along with the renewable energy industry.

Ironwood Solar Field (REUTERS)

Ironwood Solar Field (REUTERS)

That said, I am skeptical that this herculean social project could dovetail easily with the federal and state prison systems of America. People are suspicious of corporations involved in state corrections; people may be shocked to inaction when learning of the massive investment and rarified leadership required for a large scale prison works programme; people know that historically the prison is hard to access; people may suspect no return on its tax dollars.

Logistically, anything is possible. But culturally many things are proscribed. The political will to enact a sweeping reform of prison training based upon a new-green-economy-doctrine may wither quickly when confronted with public opinion and economic depression. I fear prisoners will get ignored for another  generation and pushed oncemore to the bottom of the priority list.

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