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Photo: “Me & Myself” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
ONO ŠTO SE VIDI A NE ČUJE
If you happen to be in Belgrade, Serbia over the next couple of weeks, I encourage you to head to the Kulturni Centar Beograda (KCB) and see Seen But Not Heard, an exhibition I’ve curated of photographs from American juvenile detention facilities. The show features photographs made by incarcerated youth in photography workshops coordinated by Steve Davis in Washington State and by As220 Youth in Rhode Island, as well as well known photographers Steve Liss, Ara Oshagan, Joseph Rodriguez and Richard Ross.
The invite to put together Seen But Not Heard – which is my first international solo curating gig — was kindly extended by Belgrade Raw, an impressive photo-collective who have operated as guest exhibition coordinators at the KCB’s Artget Gallery throughout 2013. Belgrade Raw called it’s year long program Raw Season. and it was 10 exhibitions strong, including Blake Andrews, Donald Weber and others. Here’s Belgrade Raw’s announcement for Seen But Not Heard.
I’ll update the blog next week with installation shots and a loooong list of acknowledgements (the hospitality, skills and hard work of everyone here has been so overwhelming.)
Beneath, is a long essay I wrote for Seen But Not Heard . Beneath that is a selection from the 200+ works in the exhibition. Beneath the works are the details of the photographer and/or program who made them.
Photo: “Flip” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
USING PHOTOGRAPHY TO COMMUNICATE NOT CONTROL
“Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time … Then that trivial little Kodak, that a child can carry in his pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb.”
- Mark Twain, writing satirically in the voice of King Leopold in condemnation of the Belgian’s brutal rule over the Congo Free State. King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905).
The United States of America is addicted to incarceration. In the course of a year, 13.5 million Americans cycle through the country’s 5,000+ prisons and jails. On any given day, 2.2 million American’s are locked up — 60,500 of whom are children in juvenile correctional facilities or residential programs. The United States imprisons children at more than six times the rate of any other developed nation. With an average cost of $80,000/year to lock up a child under the age of 18, the United States spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention.
What do we know of these spaces behind locked doors? What do we see of juvenile prisons? The short answer is, not a lot. However, photographs can provide some information — provided we approach them with caution and an informed eye.
Seen But Not Heard features the work of five well-known American photographers who have taken their cameras inside. Crucially, the exhibition also includes photographs made by incarcerated children on cameras delivered to them by arts educators and by staff of social justice organizations. Many of the children’s photographs are being exhibited for the first time.
Cameras are used by prison administrations to maintain security and enforce order, so when a camera is operated by a visiting photographer — and especially by a prisoner — a shift in the power relations occurs. All the images in Seen But Not Heard prompt urgent questions about what it means to be able document and what it means to be prohibited from documenting. What difference is there between being the maker of an image compared to being the subject of an image? What happens if you put kids behind the camera instead of in front of it? What stories do children tell that adults cannot? Can a camera can be a tool for artistic expression instead of an apparatus of control?
“Light Paintings” made by students of the Rhode Island Training School (RITS) prove a camera is essential to the artist’s toolkit. The anonymous RITS students’ images conjure angelic limbs and alter-egos from the dark. The images contain the frustration of incarceration; the longing of a (new) time; the aspirations of youth; the childishness of comic drawing. The photography outreach program taught by AS220, a community arts group of long-standing in Rhode Island, is an extension of workshops taught to teens in the free-world. In fact, children have graduated out of RITS and into the many studio arts programs offered by AS220 Youth in the town and neighborhoods of Providence, RI. An adult would or could never make these images; it is a privilege for us to share in them.
The workshops that Steve Davis coordinated in four youth detention centers in Washington State provide us a window into the incarcerated children’s lives. For legal reasons, at Remann Hall, no images could identify the girls and so Davis made use of pinhole cameras with long exposures. The girls treated the opportunity as one for performance enacting torment, official restraint procedures and bored isolation. The blurry images are eerie and evocative; as if the girls are capturing the moments in which they are disappearing from society’s view.
By contrast, the boys’ photographs are very much embedded in reality; they carried cameras outside of structured class time with instructions to make general images and construct photographs along a weekly theme. The boys had one another as immediate audience. We see unfiltered views of their activities, cells, day rooms, programs and priorities; we see costume, computer games, machismo posturing, childlike play and even boring moments. Accidentally they collectively constructed a visual narrative in which motifs such as t-shirts, playing cards and institutional furniture recur. The photographs would be monotonous were it not for the splashed of life the children provide — perfectly communicating why and how humans kept in boxes is not the natural order, nor the ideal circumstance.
The photographers in Seen But Not Heard all had different motivations for going inside. After the experience, they all had the same attitudes.
Without exception, the photographers’ experiences had them wide-eyed, sometimes angry, usually frustrated and certainly more conscious of the politics of incarceration. Consequently, they feel a responsibility to share their images and to describe youth prisons to many audiences.
Steve Liss had watched the children of a Texas juvenile prisons perform a choreographed marching routine for then Texas Governor G.W. Bush. After the ridiculous spectacle, the ridiculous Bush gave a ridiculous moral instruction to stay out of trouble. Liss was furious at the patronizing tone of the event and particularly Bush. As a press photographer, Liss had parachuted in and out of that prison as quick as his subject Bush did. He vowed that if Bush ever made it to be President, he’d return to Texas to photograph the children’s lives. Bush would never see those children, but perhaps the world should. It is alarming how often we see very young and tiny children subject to shackles and apparatus designed for dangerous 200+ lb. men. It’s as if the system is blind to the physicality of its young prisoners. That being the case, how can we presume they understand or provide for the more complex psychology of these children?
Joseph Rodriguez was locked up as a young man. He also experienced homelessness, for a time, and was addicted to drugs. He was sent to the infamous Riker’s Island prison in New York twice — first, for a minor charge related to his anti-war protest activity; second, for burglary. His mother could not afford the $500. He spent 3 months locked up awaiting his court date. Post-release, Rodriguez found photography and it gave him a means to process and describe the world. Having seen the inside, Rodriguez empathizes with children who are going through any prison system. More than 20 years after his incarceration, Rodriguez felt it a duty to use his storytelling skills to tell the stories of incarcerated children. In 1999, he photographed inside the San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties juvenile detention centers and followed children through the cells, courtrooms and counseling of the criminal justice system.
Ara Oshagan’s opportunity to photograph at the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall (the largest juvenile prison in America) was pure happenstance. He met with Leslie Neale a documentary filmmaker for lunch on a Monday. Neale was filming inside the juvenile hall and needed a photographer to shoot b-roll. Oshagan was inside on the Tuesday. He was so moved by the experience that he applied for clearance to return on his own. He followed six youngsters as they progressed through their cases and, in some cases, into California’s adult prison system. Oshagan never felt like his photographs were enough to describe the emotions of the children and so he asked each of them to write poems and presents text and image as diptych. Random circumstance, fine slices of luck, peer pressure and other people’s decisions factor far more heavily in children’s lives than in adults’ lives. Throughout, Oshagan was constantly reminded how his subjects were very much like his own children.
Late in his career and having financial security through a Guggenheim fellowship and teaching sabbatical, Richard Ross turned his lens upon juvenile detention. Ross wanted to give advocates, legislators, educators the visual evidence on which to base discussion and policy. He provides his images for free to individuals and organizations doing work for the betterment of children’s lives.
Repeatedly, Ross met children who were themselves victims; frighteningly often he heard stories of psychological, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, suicide attempts, addiction and illiteracy. Many kids locked up are from poor communities and a disproportionate number of youths detained are boys and girls of color. Ross observed some really positive interventions made by institutions (regular meals, counseling, positive male role models to name a few) but he saw the use of incarceration not as last resort but as routine.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
Unsurprisingly, many have lost faith in the juvenile prison system. Recent scandals have exposed systematic abuses.
In Pennsylvania, two judges accepted millions of dollars in kickbacks from a private prison company to sentence children to custody; in Texas, an inquiry uncovered over 1,000 cases of sexual assault by staff in the state’s juvenile justice system; in New York, on Riker’s Island it has been alleged that young gangs (referred to as “teams”) organized within the jail itself, and controlled and enforced the juvenile wings while the authorities turned a blind eye. The rivalries resulted in fights, stabbings and in one case death. The New York City Department of Corrections denies the allegations, but interestingly it was NYDOC employees that exposed the violence by leaking internal photographs to the Village Voice newspaper.
Nationally, the private company Youth Services International (YSI) inexplicably continues to operate despite being cited for ‘offenses ranging from condoning abuse of inmates to plying politicians with undisclosed gifts while seeking to secure state contracts’ by the Department of Justice and also New York, Florida, Maryland, Nevada and Texas.
Not only is being locked up ineffective as a deterrent in youths who have not reached full cognitive development and don’t understand the consequences of their actions, it can actually make a criminal out of a potentially law-abiding kid. Dr. Barry Krisberg, director of research at the Berkeley School of Law’s Institute on Law & Social Policy, says, “Young people [when detained] often get mixed in with those incarcerated on more serious offenses. Violence and victimization is common in juvenile facilities and it is known that exposure to such an environment accelerates a young person toward criminal behaviors.”
Given the lessons from the failed practices of incarcerating more and more children, States are adopting more progressive policies. Certainly, authorities are turning away from punishing acts such as truancy and delinquency with detention; acts that are not criminal for an adult but have in the past siphoned youths into the court system. But more than that, incarceration for youth is widely considered a last resort.
States that reduced juvenile confinement rates the most between 1997 and 2007 had the greatest declines in juvenile arrested for violent crimes. It’s proof that incarceration doesn’t solve crime. And, it might suggest incarceration damages communities. Following repeated abuse scandals in the California Youth Authority (CYA) facilities in the 90s, California carried forth the largest program of decarceration in U.S. history. Reducing its total number of youth prisons from 11 to 3 and slashing the CYA population by nearly 90%, California simultaneously witnessed a precipitous drop in violent crime committed by under-18s.
The U.S. still has a long way to go if it is to reverse decades of over-reliance on incarceration, but as the recent Supreme Court ruling banning Life Without Parole sentences for children suggests, it seems Americans hold less punitive attitudes when it comes to youth’s transgressions, as compared to the apathetic attitudes to adult prisoners.
We need to expect and applaud photography that depicts imprisoned children as they are — as citizens-in-the-making, as humans with as complex emotional needs as any of us, as not lost causes, as victims as much as they may have been victimizers, as our future, as individuals society must look to help and reintegrate and not discard. Photography can help us appreciate the complexity of the issues at hand. Used responsibly, it can bring us closer.
Photo: “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
Photo: “Icarus” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
AS220 Youth is a free arts education program for young people ages 14-21, with a special focus on those in the care and custody of the state. AS220 Youth provides free studio-based classes in virtually all media including photography. Staff including photography coordinator Scott Lapham and photography instructor Miguel Rosario (who I met when I visited in 2011) help students build a portfolio with help from a staff advisor. AS220 Youth maintains long-term, supportive relationships with youth transitioning out of RITS and the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families (DCYF) care, and offers mentoring, transitional jobs, and financial support. AS220 Youth works to connect youth with professional opportunities in the arts — through exhibitions at the AS220 Gallery and others; through publication in the AS220 quarterly literary magazine called ‘The Hidden Truth’; and through securing photo-assistant jobs on commercial photo shoots for students.
Photo: Steve Liss. Prisoners, ages 10-16, wait in line to march back to their cells in the exercise yard at the Webb County Juvenile Detention facility.
Photo: Steve Liss. 10-year-old Alejandro has his mug shot taken at Webb County Juvenile Detention following his arrest for marijuana possession. Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.
Steve Liss photographed in Texas 2001-2004. His book No Place For Children: Voices from Juvenile Detention (University of Texas Press, 2005) won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 2006.
Steve Liss worked as a Time Magazine photographer for 25 years, assigned to stories of social significance involving ordinary people. Forty-three of his photographs appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. For his work on juvenile justice, Liss was awarded a Soros Justice Media Fellowship (2004) for my work on domestic poverty he was awarded an Alicia Patterson Fellowship (2005). Recently, Liss received the Pictures of the Year International (PoYI) ‘World Understanding Award.’ Liss has taught graduate photojournalism at Columbia College, Chicago and Northwestern University.
Photo: Ara Oshagan, from the series ‘A Poor Imitation Of Death’
Photo: Ara Oshagan, from the series ‘A Poor Imitation Of Death’
Ara Oshagan photographed inside the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall and the California prison system. Oshagan’s book of this work A Poor Imitation of Death is to be published next year (Umbrage Books, 2014). Oshagan is twice a recipient of a California Council on the Humanities Major Grant for his documentary work on diaspora groups in Los Angeles.
Interested in the themes of identity, community and bearing witness, much of Ara Oshagan’s work focuses on the oral histories of survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Since 1995, Oshagan has been creating work for iwitness in collaboration with Levon Parian and the Genocide Project. Father Land, a book project made with his father, well-known author, Vahe Oshagan was published in 2010 by powerHouse books.
Photo: Steve Davis. ‘Tiny, Green Hill, 2000′
Photo: Anonymous student at Green Hill School. Photograph made in response to the prompt “Vulnerability” as part of photography workshop led by Steve Davis.
Photo: Anonymous student at Green Hill School. Discussing photographs made during workshop led by Steve Davis.
Steve Davis coordinated photography workshops in four facilities in Washington State (Maple Lane, Green Hill, Remann Hall and Oakridge) between 1997 and 2005. Simultaneously, Davis made portraits and photographs for his own series Captured Youth.
Davis is a documentary portrait and landscape photographer based in the Pacific Northwest. His work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Russian Esquire, and is in many collections, including the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Seattle Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the George Eastman House. He is a former 1st place recipient of the Santa Fe CENTER Project Competition, and two time winner of Washington Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowships. Davis is the Coordinator of Photography, Media Curator and adjunct faculty member of The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA. Davis is represented by the James Harris Gallery, Seattle.
Photo: Joseph Rodriguez, from the series ‘Juvenile’
Photo: Joseph Rodriguez, from the series ‘Juvenile’
Joseph Rodriguez photographed in the San Francisco County Jails 2001-2004. The work is collected in his book Juvenile (PowerHouse Books, 2004)
Joseph Rodriguez is a documentary photographer from Brooklyn, New York. He studied photography in the School of Visual Arts and in the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Program at the International Center of Photography in New York City. Rodriguez’s work had been exhibited at Galleri Kontrast, Stockholm, Sweden; The African American Museum, Philadelphia, PA; The Fototeca, Havana, Cuba; Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, Alabama, Open Society Institute’s Moving Walls, New York; Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery at the Walter Reade Theater at the Lincoln Center; and the Kari Kenneti Gallery Helsinki, Finland. In 2001 the Juvenile Justice website, featuring Joseph Rodriguez’s photographs, launched in partnership with the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival High School Pilot Program. He teaches at New York University, the International Center of Photography, New York. Rodriguez is the past recipient if Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship in 1993 photographing communities in East Los Angeles.
Photo: Photo: Richard Ross. Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. Downey, California.
Richard Ross is a photographer and professor of art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Juvenile-In-Justice (2006-ongoing) “turns a lens on the placement and treatment of American juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them,” says Ross.
A book Juvenile in Justice (self-published, 2012) and traveling exhibition continue to circulate the work. Ross collaborates with juvenile justice stakeholders and uses the images as catalysts for change. For Juvenile-In-Justice, Richard Ross photographed in over 40 U.S. states in 350 facilities, met and interviewed approximately 1,000 children. Juvenile-In-Justice published on CBS News, WIRED, NPR, PBS Newshour, ProPublica, and Harper’s Magazine, for which it was awarded the 2012 ASME Award for Best News and Documentary Photography.
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!
Issue #86 is a cracker of an issue: North Korea, Al Qaeda’s film production house, surveillance, Tahrir Square, El Narco Blog, Pakistani drone attack survivors’ photographs, Will Steacy’s photos of a dead Philadelphia Inquirer and James Mollison’s images from Sierra Leone; the issue deals with heavy topics and uncomfortable imagery.
Also uncomfortable, is the scene of Fabienne Cherisma’s corpse atop a collapsed cement rooftop in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on the 19th January, 2010 (one week after the massive Haiti earthquake). The scene was captured by multiple photojournalists, whose images COLORS features over 4 pages. They are online here.
The photographs and the circumstances in which they were made are very familiar to me. Between January 27th and April 8th, 2010, I published a fifteen-part series (beginning here) about the photos and photographers activities. In short-shrift, from a desktop in Seattle, I uncovered the similar photographs by scouring the wires, agency websites and news feeds. I interviewed a dozen of the photographers on scene.
The scene of Fabienne splayed out was — and remains — stark. It is one of the more indelible images to emerge from the natural and social disaster. So, the image was known but it’s dissection and the placement of multiple photographers’ works was done by me. My inquiries accelerated the image and the stories into the public sphere (the posts remain the most visited of Prison Photography; approximately 240,000 page views all-in-all). If my work had not put the story of Fabienne’s death and its photojournalist treatment into the spotlight maybe the awards that came later for three of the photographers would?
I was surprised to make the discovery of those images of Fabienne within the pages of COLORS. More than that, I was bothered. Why was I perturbed? I don’t own the images and I certainly don’t own the story. I’ve not been wronged.
In short, the problem for me is COLORS treatment. They could not have researched the piece without being aware of my 15-part series. COLORS doesn’t deal with the issue in any depth. In fact, they rely on the images to drive the segment and then raise the question of ethics without really providing their own position. Of the images Nathan Weber’s image of the photographers surrounding Fabienne’s body is printed larger and with prominence. Are we incited by the image? Has COLORS forfeited a nuanced handling the images, and thus the story?
Prison Photography was the first to publish Nathan Weber’s image; without doubt that was the image that launched many hyperbolic statements about the depravity of Western photojournalism. So, maybe if I hadn’t contacted Weber directly and asked him specifically about the circumstances perhaps he would never have sent that image to me … or anyone? That’s a question for Weber.
I guess, at heart, I am protective of the story. There’s so many sides to the coverage of Fabienne’s death that I don’t like to see it reduced to an over-simplified “it-was-wrong/it-was-what-it-is” argument. COLORS barely takes us past that.
Finally, I am bothered by COLORS‘ passive use of an abbreviated Weber quote that describes the circulation of the many images of Fabienne thusly:
“Even though grouping together is common for photographers in dangerous situations, many in the international photojournalist community were unhappy with having “their laundry aired in public.”
Prison Photography was the root and the source for the extended debate about these pictures. I brought the issue to the international community. All the feedback that I received for my digging and analysis was, without exception, positive. Readers were thankful to have had the scene looked at from the multiple angles, appreciated my interviews with the photographers, and understood more deeply the complexity of the situation.
No one felt that I was hanging-out photojournalists or photojournalism to dry. Pick any laundry metaphor you wish, it was not my experience reporting the story that people were upset. To suggest that the photojournalist community was irritated by having this public discussion is, frankly, insulting.
Just a quick heads up to let you know that my Instagram handle has changed to my actual name. Find me at @petebrook from now on.
All those past mentions for @p3t3brook are confined to history and will only guide you to a non-existent account. Such is the price to be paid.
Also, remember that time I laid out my Instagram rules? I’ve had a couple of slips, but generally I think I’ve done an okay job sticking to them.
Marie Levin holds a photo of her brother, Ronnie Dewberry, taken at San Quentin State Prison in 1988. Until recently, it was the last photograph he’d had taken. Photo credit: Adithya Sambamurthy/The Center for Investigative Reporting
STARVED OF THEIR OWN IMAGE
We are now into the second week of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike. It is difficult to get firm figures on the number of participating prisoners. The Los Angeles Times reports 30,000; CNN reports 12,000 and Yahoo reports 7,000+.
I’m inclined to trust the figures sourced by Solitary Watch:
The hunger strike began on July 8th with participation of approximately 30,000 people in two-thirds of California’s prisons, as well as several out-of-state facilities holding California prisoners. In the first days of the hunger strike, approximately 3,200 others also refused to attend work or education classes as a form of protest in support of the hunger strike. As of Sunday, there are an estimated 4,487 still on hunger strike.
Still, formidable numbers.
INVISIBLE AND UNPHOTOGRAPHED PEOPLE
Last week, in conjunction with the initiation of the mass peaceful protect, Michael Montgomery for the Center for Investigative Reporting published an excellent article California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities about the ban on portrait photographs of prisoners held in solitary confinement.
The ban resulted from a tension between what a photograph meant or could mean.
For families, a photograph is a tangible connection to their loved one behind bars, but for staff of the four maximum security prisons that upheld the ban, photographs were potential calling cards — circulated by prison gang leaders — both to advise other members that they’re still in charge and to pass on orders.
The ban was lifted in 2011, following the last California prison hunger strike. Montgomery quotes Sean Kernan, the former Under-Secretary of the CDCR
“I think we were wrong, and I think (that) to this day,” he said. “How right is it to have an offender who is behaving … (and) to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years?” Kernan directed prison staff to ease the restrictions for inmates who were free of any disciplinary violations.
The ban in the four Californian prisons was extraordinary.
“I have never heard of any other prison system or individual prison in America imposing a long-term ban of this kind,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.
As I have stated frequently on Prison Photography, prison (visiting-room) portraiture is one of the most prevalent types of American vernacular photography.
Until artists such as Alyse Emdur and David Adler began to draw focus to this disparate, decentralised, emotion-laden, and high-stake vernacular sub-genre, prison portraits were kept in wallets, on mantles and in side tables. There’s tens of millions of them out there.
And yet, for over 20 years, thousands of men in California were not allowed images of themselves. The additional ban of mirrors in solitary units meant that many men often did not see images of themselves for years on end. Again, to quote Montgomery’s article:
“I have asked my husband, ‘Do you even know what you look like?’ And he says, ‘Kind of, sort of,’ ” said Irene Huerta, whose husband, Gabriel, 54, has been detained at Pelican Bay for 23 years.
THE PHOTOGRAPH AS AN OBJECT OF DEPLOYMENT
In the free world, photographs are ubiquitous, easily created, shared and possessed. The fact that these seemingly innocuous objects were caught in the tussle of control between prison authorities and prisoners is astonishing, and speaks to the power struggle (real and imagined) between the kept and the keepers.
Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said easing the restrictions on prisoner photographs raised no major security concerns, so long as inmates had to earn them. “It’s not as if there’s been an epidemic of inmate photos on the street,” he said.
I am not sure how Rushford would measure this, or even it would significantly alter the lives of prisoners, specifically now during the hunger strike, and especially now when proven or alleged gang affiliations have been put aside by prisoners in solidarity for improved conditions for all.
In light of recent art market fetishism, it would seem the primary reason anyone would want to gather prison portraits would be to repeat Harper’s Books’ $45,000 hustle and cash in on the images?
As for the families (following the ban lift) the value of newly acquired images is not in any doubt:
Seeing an image of their incarcerated relative for the first time in years has sparked renewed hope and revived dormant family connections. For others, the photographs are a shocking reminder of the length of time some inmates have been held in isolation.
CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING LINKS
Michael Montgomery’s California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities
Interactive Solitary Lives feature.
A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT THE SOLITARY WATCH WEBSITE
I cannot emphasize enough how important the website Solitary Watch is as a resource. Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and their team of reporters produce high quality journalism — not only for their website but for other news outlets including The Guardian, Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation.
Solitary Watch is an independent media and advocacy project, funded by grants and donations. It is a project of the Community Futures Collective, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. You can support the project here.
I don’t hesitate to say that Solitary Watch has driven much of the critical and visible public discourse about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails.
As Solitary Watch describes, “Solitary confinement is one of the nation’s most pressing domestic human rights issues — and also one of the most invisible,” which is why I have a vested interest in their work; we’re each interested in making solitary and other egregious aspects of the U.S. prison system more visible.
The NYCLU created a mock prison cell to show what life is like in solitary confinement. Kathleen Horan/WNYC
Today resumed a hunger strike by the prisoners of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison SHU (Secure Housing Unit). In solidarity, prisoners across the nation have also joined.
The main issue at hand is solitary confinement. Namely, its longterm use. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, stated that any time over 15 days in solitary confinement constitutes torture. Yet California prisoners have been caged in solitary for 10 to 20 years or more. In addition, the prisoners kept under solitary confinement ask for nutritious food and the same educational programming accessible to prisoners in the general populations of state prisons.
Solitary confinement is an invisible cancer to those outside the system and a terror to those within it.
The prisoners — who refer to themselves at The Short Corridor Collective — are returning to protest that began two years ago. Neither Phase One (July/August 2011) and Phase Two (Sept/Oct 2011) secured the policy changes desired, despite promises from the California Department of Corrections to address the specific issues and reasonable demands made. In 2011, over 6,000 California prisoners went on hunger and work strike making it one of the largest peaceful protests in U.S. prison history.
The Pelican Bay State Prison SHU Short Corridor Collective state:
Our decision does not come lightly. For the past 2 years we’ve patiently kept an open dialogue with state officials, attempting to hold them to their promise to implement meaningful reforms, responsive to our demands. For the past seven months we have repeatedly pointed out CDCR’s failure to honor their word—and we have explained in detail the ways in which they’ve acted in bad faith and what they need to do to avoid the resumption of our protest action.
Five core demands
1. Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.
4. Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).
You can download full text document of the demands here.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Sign the petition.
Involvement in the July 13th Mass Mobilization!
Plan a solidarity action!
Use your imagination and your skills; talk to your family and friends about it, and maybe provide them with a handful of shocking facts about the psychological torture that is solitary ? (See below)
Don’t get despondent, get angry.
WHAT IS SOLITARY CONFINEMENT?
In California, nearly 12,000 imprisoned people spend 23 hours-a-day living in a concrete cell smaller than a large bathroom. Across the United states it is conservatively estimated that 20,000 people are in solitary every day. It could be as high as 70,000; it depends on definitions related to time and contact.
In California solitary cells have no windows, no access to fresh air or sunlight. People in solitary confinement exercise an hour a day in a cage the size of a dog run. They are not allowed to make any phone calls to their loved ones. They cannot touch family members who often travel days for a 90 minute visit. They are not allowed to talk to other imprisoned people. They are denied all educational programs, and their reading materials are censored.
UNFATHOMABLE SCALE AND WIDESPREAD USE
“The [psychological and cognitive effects of long term isolation] is not something that’s easy to study, and not something that prison systems are eager to have people look at,” says Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who notes that the widespread use of solitary is a very modern phenomena.
We have an overwhelmingly crowded prison system in which the mandate to rehabilitate and provide activities for prisoners was suspended at the same time as the prison system became overcrowded. Not surprisingly, prison systems faced with this influx of prisoners, and lacking the rewards they once had to manage and control prisoner behavior, turned to the use of punishment. And one big punishment is the threat of long-term solitary confinement. They’ve used it without a lot of forethought to its consequences. That policy needs to be rethought.
Writing for the New Yorker (Hellhole) in 2009, physician Atul Gawande quoted extensively from Haney’s research and added:
After months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose. Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving” (Haney). [They] become essentially catatonic.
Keep yourself informed; keep progressing; keep honest; follow news on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website.
In solidarity, Pete.