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^^ That’s me ^^, last Tuesday, after two days of installation.
Today, Prison Obscura officially opened in the Clark Humanities Museum at Scripps College in Claremont, just east of Los Angeles. If you’re in the area pop by and have a peek. I’ll also be down there on the 2nd October to deliver a lecture ‘Prison Silences‘ and to attend the opening reception.
Thanks to Kirk, T, Amy, Linda, Juliet and the staff at the Humanities Institute for their welcome, work and support.
All photos: Matthew Seamus Callinan
Filmed by David Hoffman and Harry Wiland.
Two months ago, I published a conversation with Lorenzo Steele, a former NY City Correctional Officer who now gives community talks and makes pop-up street exhibitions of photographs from during his time on Rikers Island. Steele wants to impress upon communities and particularly youngsters how violent jail is.
Steele has produced a video to promote his ongoing work with Behind These Prison Walls. a group he founded to inform, educate, and empower individuals and steer at-risk youth away from the criminal justice system.
Crowdfunding, eh? What to make of it. I feel like the jury is still out, but then again I have had my head somewhat in the sands of late. I have benefited in the past from a Kickstarter campaign and in the immediate aftermath tried to give my feedback on the dos and don’ts.
Where the successful intersections between cultural production and social justice lie is, for me, a constant internal debate, so I hope this post serves two purposes.
Firstly, to clarify my thinking and to highlight the type of crowd funding campaign that I think encapsulates best practice.
Secondly, to bring a half-dozen endeavors (5 prison-related and 1 purely photo-based) that I think deserve your attention and, perhaps, your dollars.
On the first purpose, I’ve identified common traits among these projects that are indicative of a good practice:
- Track record. These fund seekers appearing out of the blue; they’ve done work in the specific area and have chops and connections.
– Direct action. These projects will directly engage with subject and, consequently audience on urgent politic issues
– Community partners. These funders have existing relationships with organizations or programs that will provide support, direction, accountability and extended networks
– Diversity. Of both product and outcomes. Projects that meld digital output/campaigns and boots-on-the-ground activism get my attention. Creators, in these instances, realize that they must leverage every feasible avenue to get out the political message.
– Matching funds. In cases where matching funds exist, I am reassured. It shows that the creator is forging networks and infers that they are inventive and outward looking when it comes fundraising. It infers that we’re all in it together; it might just give us those necessary warm fuzzy feelings when handing over cash on the internet.
On the second purpose, I’ll let you decide.
Let’s start with a campaign to help OUTREACH, a program offered by Toronto’s Gallery 44 that breaks down barriers to the arts by offering black & white photography workshops to 50 young people each year.
OUTREACH’s darkroom is the last publicly accessible wet darkroom in Toronto. Gallery 44 has offered accessible facilities to artists since 1979.
Donations go to workshops costs: photographic paper, film, processing, chemistry, snacks and transit tokens.
OUTREACH has several existing community partners including the Nia Centre for the Arts, Eva’s Phoenix, Toronto Council Fire Native Community Centre, PEACH and UrbanArts.
“I went from being a student to a mentor,” says one participant. “I recently had my work exhibited in the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.”
2. DYING FOR SUNLIGHT
In the summer of 2013, prisoners in California conducted the largest prison hunger strike in U.S. history. 30,000 men refused food in protest against the use of indefinite solitary confinement. Some prisoners refused food for 60 consecutive days. Dying For Sunlight will tell the story.
Across racial lines, from within the belly of the beast (Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit) California prisoners mounted a reasoned and politically robust defense of their basic human rights that garnered nationwide attention. Their families joined them in solidarity. This was a true grassroots movement built by those on the front lines of state violence
“We prisoners of all races have united to force these changes for future generations,” Arturo Castellanos wrote from the Pelican Bay SHU.
Filmmakers Lucas Guilkey and Nazly Siadate have spent the past year building relationships, and covering the California prisoner hunger strikes. They are joined by journalist Salima Hamirani and community organizations Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Critical Resistance, All of Us or None, and California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement in their effort to tell this story.
“In a world of sound bytes, Dying For Sunlight feature length documentary will allow us the time to more fully delve into the questions this movement has raised,” says Guilkey. “Why and how is solitary confinement used in California prisons? What does the movement against it look like? And how did we get to the point where we’ve normalized a system of torture in our own backyards?”
Dying For Sunlight takes the premise that, in order to understand our society with “increasing inequality, militarization, incarceration, surveillance, deportation, and the criminalization of dissent, we must listen to the voices of those who have endured the most repressive form of social control–the solitary confinement unit.”
The U.N. Special Rapporteur, Juan Mendez ruled that solitary for anything more than 15 days is psychological torture, yet California and other states throw people in the hole for decades.
The film is in pre-production and all the fancy-schmancy gear is bought. Donations will go directly to costs associated with travel, expenses and editing related to interviews made up and down the state with family members, formerly incarcerated people, solitary experts, prison officials. They’ll attend rallies and vigils too. They hope to have a rough cut by December.
3. CHANGE THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTS (AIA) CODE OF ETHICS TO OUTLAW DESIGN OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT UNITS
Raphael Sperry continues his battle to rewrite an AIA ethics code which predates the widespread use of solitary confinement in the U.S.
An architect himself, but on hiatus to concentrate on this political and ethical fight, Sperry points out, “even though only 3 to 4% of prisoners are in solitary confinement, half of all prison suicides occur among prisoners who are in solitary confinement.
The AIA is the voice of the architectural profession.
“The AIA has disciplinary authority over its members. In the current code of ethics, they have language that says that members should uphold human rights in all of their professional endeavors. So it’s pretty clear that members shouldn’t design a Supermax prison or an execution chamber,” explains Sperry. “[But] the language about upholding human rights is unenforceable in the AIA code of ethics. So all we’re asking them to do is draft an enforceable rule associated with it that says that members should not design [a project that commits] a specific human rights violation.”
Sperry’s tactics go to the heart of his profession and tackle this issue that stains our collective moral conscience. It’s strategic and laudable. He’s won institutional support before.
Donations go toward ongoing conversations, writing, speaking, research and pressure on the top brass.
4. A LIVING CHANCE
A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life Without Parole is made in collaboration with females serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California. The word “collaboration” is the important detail. It is made with incarcerated members of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), a grassroots social justice organization with members inside and outside of prison. CCWP rightly identifies incarcerated women as the experts on the issue of prisons.
Audio recordings, interviews, letters, and photographs will constitute a website and a publication about LWOP which is considered the “lesser” alternative sentence to the Death Penalty.
People sentenced to LWOP have no chance of release from prison and very slim opportunity for appeals or clemency. There are approximately 190 people sentenced to die in prison by LWOP in California’s women’s prisons. The majority of whom are survivors of childhood and/or intimate partner abuse. In most cases, evidence of their abuse was not presented at their trial.
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex (PIC) and prioritizes the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement. CCWP began in 1995 when people inside the women’s prisons filed a lawsuit against then-governor Pete Wilson rightfully claiming that the healthcare inside prison was so terrible it violated their 8th amendment rights.
A Living Chance was chosen as a recipient of a matching funds award up to the value of $6,000. Already, $2,000 has been raised in individual donations, so the crowdfunding target is $4,000 of a $12,000 total
Donations go creation of the storytelling website and publication, stipends for participants, travel costs to the prisons, and building future effective campaigns.
5. THE PRISON PROBLEM, SHANE BAUER’S YEAR OF JOURNALISM
“We spend over $80 billion a year on our corrections system and the cost is growing. At the same time, the number of privately run prisons is on the rise, and the for-profit prison model is spreading globally. In the US, the percentage of prisoners held in private facilities increased 37 percent between 2002 and 2009. Many of these are immigrants, a large number of which remain in pretrial detention for years,” says Bauer. “I’ll show you how U.S. prison practices are being exported to the rest of the world and dissect the systems that lead so many to be locked up in this country.”
For The Prison Problem, Bauer is basically asking for everything he needs to live on in order to create deep investigative journalism: funds to travel, interview, conduct research, and sometimes sue government bodies refusing access to information.
Bauer reporting in Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit, Crescent City, California, 2013.
Bauer promises at least three or four major feature stories, each is the equivalent of a magazine cover story. He’s got the reporting chops necessary — No Way Out for Mother Jones about solitary in California (video, too) is widely acclaimed.
6. HELPING KIDS OUT OF JAIL AND BACK INTO SCHOOL
Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth (PALY) provides educational rights counseling and assistance to young people in Montgomery County, PA who are reentering the community after being incarcerated. It’s asking for a little help. Montgomery County, PA has been identified as having a disproportionate amount of minority youth being involved in the juvenile system, and suffers from a lack of agencies focused on supporting youth reentering the community.
PALY recruits law student, as volunteers, to work one-on-one with reentering youth crafting individually-designed educational plans.
The average cost of incarcerating a juvenile for a year is about $88k per year; educating that same student is one eighth that cost.
The ask of only $10,000 is small by comparison, but the effect could be huge. Donations will cover PALY’s first year of programming costs: training mentors, youth educational programs, and a ‘Know Your Rights’ campaigns for the community.
Alexandra Diracles,”Be The Witness” installation view, Houston Street, NYC
Photographic artists who collaborate closely — and as equivalents — with communities to amplify voices and forward political movement are at the forefront of my thoughts right now. As you might now, last month I took part in a discussion about socially-engaged photography practice, at Aperture Gallery, NYC. It would, therefore, be unforgivable for me not to share with you my experience visiting Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration an innovative exhibition curated by Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, in Midtown Manhattan. It is the best exhibition with this specific focus I have seen to date.
Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is teeming with powerful and important works. So many, in fact it makes this review quite a lengthy post. Please bear with me, and if nothing else, use the links herein to dig further into the projects.
The exhibition includes portraiture, documentary photography, audio-visual installations, personal narratives and community initiatives. The first thing that should be said is that the space is not ideal for contemplation. Works are hung throughout the openish-plan offices of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. That said, if you email ahead, you’ll be met out the elevator on the 14th floor by a welcoming staff member. Ultimately, the show will move to NYU in the autumn, so you can take your pick of visitor experience.
Immediately to one’s right upon entry are two small rooms dedicated to desktop presentations of Be The Witness a campaign organized by NYU grads that records the voices of wrongfully convicted exonerees; and Hank Willis Thomas’ Question Bridge an interactive’s trans-media initiative promoting dialogue between black males of all backgrounds in order to redefine black male identity in America. The WiFi was kapput but I was familiar with both these projects previously and know I, we, can experience them from our own home computers. I moved on without asking anyone to reset the router.
Next up was #SANDY, a collection of 12×12 iPhone photos prints captured by photographers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Organised by Wyatt Gallery and the Foley Gallery #SANDY raised $21,000 for rebuilding efforts in New York City. It was an immediate and effective response, but the engagement here seems to be more with technology, buyers and exceptional trauma rather than with the quieter, ongoing struggles of systemically disadvantaged communities. Laudable but hardly aesthetically or methodologically groundbreaking.
Squished into a corridor were the works of four projects that operate completely embedded within communities.
First, the NY-based Laundromat Project which uses public art classes to reinforce community networks. Everyone should know about their empowering work within NYC. It is a model that needs to be repeated.
Secondly, Sonia Louise Davis ‘ impressive Across 116th Street. Throughout the Summer of 2013, in conjunction with the Laundromat Project’s Works in Progress Art Education Program, Davis gave free art workshops along 116th Str. and hosted sidewalk family portraits sessions with neighbors using her large format view camera.
© Sonia Louise Davis
116th Street runs the full width of Manhattan, from the Hudson River to the East River. Davis seeks to activate communities’ narratives and histories. She provided all participants enlarged prints. In addition, Davis has asked residents to submit their own images of 116th street to a community-authored “ar(t)chive”.
Third, Lorie Novak‘s photographs. Novak has been working in Mexico for over a decade. She uses art and photography to catalyse communities on a wide-range of issues such as anti-violence against women and anti-GMO food crops. The few prints presented were documentation mainly and didn’t provide a deep or coherent summary of Novak’s very good projects — but that is precisely a tension of socially engaged work when the interaction and not an object-end-product is the main focus. With such projects, if posterity and education is to be served, (photographic) documentation is paramount.
Fourth, was a brief overview of Russell Frederick‘s mentorship of inner-city teenage boys. Frederick is well known for his luscious B&W reverent studies of residents of BedStuy, but here he’s encouraging youngsters to use photography for their own ends and means … with the hope of guiding them away from violence. Frederick has worked with the JustArts Photography program in NYC.
JustArts Photography students explore professional equipment with Russell Frederick
Off the corridor, in a side room, on a TV screen is Hong-An Truong‘s video Rehearsal For Education. Inspired by Gramsci, Truong recorded quotes texts and passages with high-school kids. These are the soundtrack to a conceptual montage of images. The effect is mantra like, but I couldn’t access the atmosphere of the piece nor figure out its extended use. The worth, I hope, is in the transformative nature of performance and theatre enjoyed by schoolchildren during the making.
On a massive wall at the end of the office space is Jamila Mohamad Hooker‘s Foreign Postcards, a crowdsourced visual rally against xenophobia and Islamophobia. People from around the world have exchanged and posed with the project’s postcards to normalise the sight of the Arabic language. The words? Their own name written in Arabic.
While the presentation of tiled selfies filling an entire long wall is impressive, the emotional connect was much stronger in the first instance among friends and family than I was with me, a detached tertiary audience member. That is why I just submitted a request for a postcard with my own name on it! You can too.
The concept is simple. We are all one humanity. A cute, repeatable and adaptable project.
Examples from Jamila Mohamad Hooker’s Foreign Postcards
If my reactions don’t seem gushing enough quite yet, don’t worry the best is yet to come. Again, placed down the length of a single corridor (taking us back to the front of the exhibition space) are a number of phenomenal projects, many of which I was not previously familiar.
Noelle Theard‘s Sunset Park Rent Strike Photography Initiative, which can be seen at the Galeria Del Barrio website is an audio and photographic collaboration advocating for improvements in living conditions of three Brooklyn residences. Landlords were trying to raise rents on long term tenants and Theard joined their resistance and provided images of the struggle and encouraged communities to do the same.
Over the years, Lonnie Graham has worked in U.S. African American communities and in Sub-Saharan African communities, and in each case on issues of nourishment, subsistence and prejudice. Graham’s political consciousness is global but the effects of his work are definitively local. Before “food desert” was even a term, his Gardens Project was empowering people to grow their own healthy foods bringing with it all the associated benefits. Less obesity, connection with the land, increased attention among children, reduced obesity. The right to food os the right to dignity.
Harry in the garden, 2003. © Lonnie Graham
(A poor) installation shot of Lonnie Graham’s Garden Project. © Pete Brook!
Similarly, Ayasha Guerin project Brownstone Bushwick celebrates the consolidating power of nature in the face of urban blight and/or gentrification. Guerin joined up with the Linden-Bushwick Community Garden to document their activities. Her photographs were accompanied by extended captions from the subjects. Guerin is an academic and a researcher and uses photography within a broader ethnological approach. She celebrates the triumphs of Bushwick’s Afro-Caribbean community in beautifying their neighborhood.
Lara Stein Pardo‘s Mobile Public Studio encourages people to have their portrait taken spontaneously in a public space. I cannot think that the positioning of the surveillance camera floating above the heads of the portrait sitters (standers) was accidental. Pardo is exercising her right to photograph publicly, making the briefest of connections. She’s photographing on the street, but she is not a street photographer as her interactions are longer, not fleeting, involve conversation and mutual understanding.
© Lara Stein Pardo
Christine Wong Yap‘s Make Things (Happen) is one of the few non-photo-based projects included in the show. Make Things (Happen) begins with a wall loaded with free worksheets. Each encourage the public to participate in an artistic endeavor. Pick them up, take them home, do the exercises, share your results with #mkthngshppn on social media.
At first, I was skeptical toward the invite, but soon realised that most of us need a prompt to think about actually making something. An unfortunate number of adults need prompt in order to fire their imagination. This project is never-ending, loose-ended. Something might come of it, something might not, but with the array of genuinely fun and simple actions proposed, the results are on us, not the artist.
People suffering from HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia face a huge stigma. Eric Gottesman ‘s repeated and long term projects works alongside youth in Ethiopia to make photographs and videos to raise awareness about the epidemic.
Sudden Flowers is a collective of young people in the Shiromeda/Sidist Kilo neighborhood of Addis Ababa. In cahoots, Gottesman and the youngster install their works in their neighborhoods and throughout the city. They’ve been doing this since 1999. Always getting the voices of the kids out into the communities that will either support or ignore them. These pop-up shows aim to make it the former, not the latter.
“Each of our projects is like a ‘lyric’ in larger poetic structure,” says Gottesman who continues the work still.
Installation shot of Eric Gottesman’s Sudden Flowers
Citizens of Babile, Ethiopia attend “Abul Thona Baraka,” a mobile photographic installation comprised of photographs and texts produced by children of the Shiromeda neighborhood of Addis Ababa in collaboration with artist Eric Gottesman. The work addressed themes of stigma, disease, and grief as well as dialogue and participation. The installation, in the form of a traditional coffee ceremony, travelled to various Ethiopian cities and town in 2006.
The last space to experience is the boardroom in the centre of the offices (the two corridors described above have run either side of it and you’ve circled it). This is a large open space and rightfully it is dedicated to some of the larger and more arty prints.
Kristina Knipe powerful series of portraits and object studies engaged me deeply with the personal struggles of people who have engaged in self-harm. Knipe’s work is mysterious and — while always being respectful — skirts the edges of the issue. It’s as if she is operating from within a deep understanding of her subjects prior victimhood and hard earned relief in recovery. There’s anonymity sometimes and things inferred. There’s no shame involved, of course, but there is the acknowledgement that in unideal circumstances thing unsaid is sometimes just how it is.
There’s a visceral and coherent atmosphere to the series, which is not something I can usually say wholeheartedly about the flat photographic reproductions; the medium rarely allows it. A triumph.
Leannet’s Arm Healed © Kristina Knipe
Finally, we encounter Paul T. Owen‘s Todos Somos Ellas (We Are All Them) photographs that bring attention to the violence against women in Mexico. Owen asks his subjects to pose, seemingly defenselessly before the camera, so as to anonymise them and to bring them and us into solidarity with victims of femicide.
“These are not portraits of individuals,” explains Owen, “but symbols who represent the thousands who have died violent deaths because of their gender.”
After a shocking number of news stories of rape in India, after the kidnap of 200+ schoolgirls in Nigeria, after the UC Santa Barbara shooting and the #YesAllWomen campaign, Owen’s work is as timely as ever. But let’s be frank, grave violence inflicted upon women throughout most societies can only be responsibly described as ‘routine’. As Rebecca Solnit so wisely said, recently, violence may not have a race, it may not have a class, but it certainly does have a gender. In the U.S., nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) have been victim to rape. I don’t believe that enough reliable, caring and suitably responsive infrastructures and attitudes exist to reduce this figure, yet. This is unacceptable. Owen’s portraits reflect the desperate and trapped circumstances many women find themselves in.
All women? All people. All of our problem and shame upon which to work collectively.
© Paul Owen
From the inferred silent violence implicit in Owen’s work, we move to photographs that display the best of our awkward and necessary shared being.
The show closes out with 5 or 6 portraits from Richard Renaldi‘s Touching Strangers which has enjoyed widespread acclaim recently. It’s responsible work. Renaldi provides a growing experience for photographer, subject and viewer alike. It gently and endearingly pricks our consciousness by asking us if we’re doing enough to actively see and empathise with the people around us. Touching Strangers is optimistic and it deserves all the plaudits it is currently receiving.
Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is hosted jointly by the Department of Photography & Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the The Nathan Cummings Foundation.
It is currently on show at the The Nathan Cummings Foundation, 475 10th Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10019, through October 2, 2014. Reservations are required and can be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. After October, the exhibition will be on show at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
If you happen upon a copy of the latest issue of Aperture The Sao Paolo Issue (215), you will find — on p.14 — 200 words by yours truly about evidentiary imagery. As part of Aperture’s ongoing What Matters Now? series, I wrote:
In May 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld an order to cut the prison population in California, on the grounds that overcrowding resulted in inadequate health care conditions and preventable deaths.
The majority ruling for the case, Brown v. Plata, was penned by Justice Kennedy who took the unorthodox step of including in the appendix three photographs of prison conditions. Perhaps, in this case, the facts really needed to be seen in order to be believed?
The three images represented a cache of hundreds of low-resolution, anonymous, poorly lit photographs used in the initial filings and ongoing compliance stages of Brown v. Plata. Their inclusion spurned widespread consternation among some law boffins who believed that photographs are too emotive and too imprecise, and have no place in high-profile legal cases. I wonder at what point did the legal community decide written and oral evidence was more legitimate than visual evidence?
For too long there has been an arrogance among photography traditionalists that a professionally-made documentary image can change the world. If we are to truly identify images that change society, then we’d be better looking to legal briefs and not newspaper front pages. The images made by prison officials and legal teams that were used in Brown v Plata changed the daily living conditions of 165,000 men and women.
Hundreds of images from Brown vs Plata are part of the exhibition Prison Obscura.
The San Francisco based law firm Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld that represented the prisoners (plaintiffs) have made available materials from the trial online, including many photos.
Anyone doing work about drone and drone policy that I’ve spoken to has, as some point in their research, relied on the information put out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ). When I wrote my piece Here’s What Drone Attacks in America Would Look Like for WIRED, BIJ was an invaluable resource, especially in providing solid figures for the numbers of drone strikes, deaths from those strikes, and specifically civilian deaths from those strikes.
With WHERE THE DRONES STRIKE which we can examine drone target types (vehicles; religious; other; domestic; unclear target). Was that an insurgent training camp that was annihilated or was it a marriage celebration full of women and children?
Due to secrecy at the Pentagon (and previously at the CIA, when it controlled the drone program), reliable information on drone attacks is very difficult to come by.
“The CIA has been bombing Pakistan’s tribal agencies with drones since June 2004. In the early years, strikes were rare. But from mid-2008 onward the frequency of strikes increased, peaking in 2010. That year, 128 strikes killed at least 751 people – of whom 84 were civilians. There were 23 strikes in September 2010 alone – the most intense month yet recorded by the Bureau,” say the BIJ.
BIJ routinely collects info on drone strikes through thousands of reports, witness testimonies and on-the-ground data from Pakistan, but this is the first time this data has been put rendered as an interactive to propel human rights and accountability.
“The map demonstrates how the frequency of strikes – and the overall reported casualties – has changed over time. It also shows how the targets of the strikes have changed,” explains BIJ. “Domestic buildings have been the most frequently hit target type in each year of the drone war. Attacks on vehicles have become gradually more frequent, and in 2011 almost as many vehicles were hit per strike, on average, as buildings. But this dropped from a peak that year and in 2013 drones targeted vehicles just three times. Attacks on vehicles tend to kill fewer people than attacks on domestic buildings, and fewer civilians. The highest death tolls of all are in the comparatively rare attacks on madrassas and mosques.”
The U.S. dropped it’s first bomb from a drone in late 2002, on Yemen. The Obama Administration only formally acknowledged it was flying killer robots over foreign lands in 2012.
For a wild editorial break down of the data (and more graphs!) read the BIJ’s report Most US Drone Strikes In Pakistan Attack Houses which accompanied last week’s release of WHERE THE DRONES STRIKE.
For regular updates on drones at home and abroad, may I recommend following the Drone Weekly Roundup and signing up for the Newsletter (scroll down) put out by the Center For The Study Of The Drone at Bard.
“I had buddies that couldn’t take the job and wound up quitting because of the mental abuse and, sometimes, physical abuse,” says Steele. “You could be responding to a fight, not knowing that they’re setting you up to stab you with a shank. It’s a very dangerous job. Corrections officers don’t have guns. At that time we weren’t even carrying mace. The only weapon you really have is your mind — how you used it dictated if you were going to have a good 8 hours or a bad 8 hours.”
COP TURNED ADVOCATE
Lorenzo Steele Jr. worked as correctional officer on Rikers Island between 1987 and 1999. Most of his time was spent in the juvenile units. When the officers had retirement parties and other events, he was the one with the camera. In 1996, Steele began talking his small compact film camera into the units and making photographs of the dirt, the filth and the despair. All without any official approval. As part of his work, he also made evidence photos of injuries following violence inside the Rikers Island.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE INCLUDES GRAPHIC IMAGES OF MUTILATION
When Steele decided to leave the job, his “leap of faith” took him back to community instruction. As founder of Behind These Prison Walls Steele gives public lectures and brings pop-up exhibitions to New York neighbourhoods. It’s a mobile show & tell to shock and educate youngsters on the destructiveness and terror of prison. Steele estimates he has made close to 1,000 presentations in schools, churches and community centres since 2001.
I came across Steele’s archive when some of his images accompanied For Teens at Rikers Island, Solitary Confinement Pushes Mental Limits, a Center for Investigative Reporting article that was also adapted and cross posted to Medium as Inside Rikers Island, part of the excellent ‘Solitary Lives’ series.
It is very unusual for photographs made by correctional staff to surface, let alone for there primary use to be as tools for street-side exhibition and engagement. I called Steele and asked him some questions about his self-propelled cop-to-advocate career change, his motives for making the images, the efficacy of his methods and what we need to start doing differently to decrease the numbers of kids we lock up.
Prison Photography (PP): When did you decide you wanted to be a correctional officer?
Lorenzo Steele (LS): At 21 years old I took a [New York] City test. At that same time I was a para-professional for the New York City Board of Education working with Middle School children. I was there for 8-months and loving the job. I got a letter from the city saying that if I could pass a physical, if I could pass the psychological, if I could pass the drug test, I could become a correction officer.
The only reason I became a correctional officer was because it was paying more money than the Board of Ed. I didn’t know I had to experience the system for 12 years, in order to know the system, and later to help people avoid the system.
I’m 22 years old, and it is just a job — no one in my family went to jail. In the neighborhood I grew up in, nobody went to jail.
The academy was 2 to 3 months at that time. They could never prepare you mentally and physically for what you were about to experience working in a prison. On the first day took the ‘on the job trainees’ OJT’s into an actual facility. Now, they would tell you things — don’t talk to the inmates; don’t stare at the inmates but that was about it. I was afraid, but later I realized that in a prison you can not show fear because you will be manipulated. OJT was about 2 weeks, and after that we were assigned to our facilities.
I worked the C-74 Unit, the Adolescent Recession Detention Center (ARDC) for 14 to 21 year olds. Within that age range, of course, half are adolescents and half are adult inmates. One day you’re working with the adolescents, the next you’re working with adults. I dealt with mental health issues, behavior issues, socio-economical issues. I found out what our people actually go through and why they come to jail.
PP: What were your early impressions of the job?
LS: I’m young, I’m making good money. I have my own apartment, but I have the mind of an officer now.
Can you imagine sitting in a day room with a capacity of 50 inmates and you’re one officer that’s in charge? Your main function is to make sure they don’t kill each other or rape each other and if you see a fight you push a personal body alarm. Depending on which housing area you are in, you can sit there sometimes for 8 hours. I remember the day when I thought, “I can’t do this for twenty years. There are bigger and better things out there for me.”
I’m a photographer. I wondered what I could do legally. I started formulating a mentoring program. I used to volunteer my time in schools as a correction officer and share my insight on what the prison system’s really like. The average person doesn’t really know until its too late. It’s my mission to let these young children know that jail is the last place on earth they want to be.
PP: Do you consider yourself fortunate in that you came to that decision? Because for a lot of people in a lot of jobs, sometimes the stress is so high and the options seem so few they can’t even step back for a minute to see a change in circumstances.
LS: It was very rare for anyone to just resign from the department, unless they were brought up on charges. It was almost unheard of. People asked, “What are you gonna do? This is the best job.”
The last day that I knew I was going to be there, I walked around the jail and I grabbed a little object where I could and wrote on the wall. I carved my name in some wood objects and on some metal doors.
It was around the time of Mother’s Day. My Grandmother was in town and I took her to church. Sometimes, the preacher is actually talking to you. He said, “If there’s anything on your mind just leave it behind you, step out on faith.” That next day, that Monday, I went downtown and turned in my shield, turned in my gun.
PP: What year did you resign?
PP: In between which years did you make photographs in Rikers?
LS: I began maybe around ’95 or ’96.
I was the photographer for COBA, the NYC Correctional Officers Benevolent Association. People retire or you have parties or special events. I always had a camera on me. After that, I used to take pictures of inside of the prison not knowing that I was to turn it into an enterprise to save people from going into the jail.
I had a camera with no flash. Can you imagine taking out a camera? You’ve got 200 prisoners coming down the corridor to the cafeteria — they’re going to see the camera going off so I had to disguise it somehow. You get an adrenaline rush knowing that you can’t get caught. Once that shutter button is released its almost the best feeling in the world. Its like a high once that shutter button goes off and you’ve captured that image. And you know.
PP: Where did you keep the camera? In an office or did you take it home with you every day?
LS: I had it in my pocket. Sometimes I would take pictures of the officers in their uniform because the average officer never really has a picture of himself in uniform. It was a good time back then because the camaraderie was great. We had one team; the officers, the captains, the deputies, the warden. We were all one team back then, but you couldn’t do it today because after twenty years things change in the department.
PP: What type of camera did you use?
LS: A 35mm. One of those CVC store cameras. Digital cameras weren’t even out then. I put some black tape around the flash and disguised it almost like a cell phone or a beeper.
PP: How many photographs do you think you took, in total, inside the prison?
LS: Over 200 photos. Shots of prisoners in cells, of the solitary confinement unit, pictures of prisoners who were physically cut. In colour. You can’t imagine the power of those images when I show the kids: “If you don’t change your ways, this could happen to you.”
LS: Children cannot relate to prison, yet they see the negative violence on television and sometimes a rapper will glorify prison. Some rappers are promoting violence, promoting gang activity, and that’s some children’s reference to the criminal justice system.
But, once you step foot in that criminal justice system your life changes forever. Sometimes they might not even make it out. At 15-years-old we’ve had adolescents that end up taking 25 years with them upstate because they caught jail cases cutting and stabbing individuals while they was on Rikers Island.
PP: How do you exhibit those 200 photographs to the public?
LS: It depends on the audience. I have a lot of graphic images so I don’t put those in the schools with the kindergarten kids and the third graders.
I have select images that I use when I exhibit on the sidewalk in at-risk communities. About 20 images at a time but it depends on where and what message I’m trying to get out.
PP: I’ve seen only a few images like the ones you’ve published. One example is the selection of images leaked by a Riker’ Island officer to the Village Voice two years ago.
We don’t see many images shot from the hip. If we do, they’re usually anonymous. Such images do exist but one must work hard to seek them out. How many people see your presentations? Are people shocked? Surprised? Do people respond to the images in the way that you hope they will?
LS: The first time they see the images, yes, they are shocked, especially students. Students that I deal whether in the church, in schools, in the community, are shocked. Images are powerful but the knock out blow is information, the experience, that actually goes behind what’s in that image.
PP: How dangerous was Rikers? In the 12 years you worked there how many incidents of serious assault and possibly even murder occurred or occurred on your shifts?
LS: Let’s talk about the adolescents first. Rikers Island was considered the most violent prison in the nation. We used to average sometimes 50 to 60 razor slashings a month. Slashing with the single edge razor blade. Cut somebody over the face multiple times inside. There was a lot of blood.
When I went into corrections, I didn’t like the sight of blood [but] I saw so many people get cut that it became normal. I was so desensitized. And that’s scary because that normalcy meant somebody had a scar on their face for life and for every cutting there was a repercussion; if a prisoner got cut he had to get revenge on the other guy and catch another jail case.
PP: I have no idea how politics, street politics or gang culture — in or out of prison — work in New York today let alone in the late 80s and 90s. Over your twelve years, was there consistent gang activity or did it change?
LS: In ’87, there weren’t gangs in the New York prison system. In the early ’90s, we realized we had a gang problem in the prisons. The gangs had their own language. 300 prisoners in the cafeteria and five officers. We had to learn the language real quick and that is what established the Gang Intelligence Unit. By conducting cell searches, we would get the paraphernalia and the by-laws of the gangs
Later on, they flipped gang members into telling the department what the language meant; that’s how the Department of Corrections infiltrated the gangs. We passed the information on to NYPD.
It was very dangerous. You had to be on your toes all the time. The gangs recruited younger people whom they would force sometimes to do harm on officers or do harm to prisoners. We did the best we could.
One of the blessings was that I always had good supervisors. When the captain said ‘go’, you went, and when he said ‘stop’, you stopped. You put your life in the hands of your captain; it’s almost like being in a war. I am old school. That’s what really kept us on top of the prisoners. The jail would never be overrun because you had a select group of officers that demanded respect and that knew how to take care of the business without anybody getting hurt. When prisoners saw that select group of officers, nothing was going down that day.
Part of being a Correction Officer is knowing your prisoners and you always wanted to know the gangster, you always wanted to know the person who was running the housing area because that’s the one that you would use, you know. “Listen man, while I’m here today, nothing’s gonna go down. Tell the boys man to shut it down while I’m here.”
PP: Clearly, I’m opposed to prisons as they exist. I think we lock too many people up and I think when we’re locking people up we’re not providing the right sort of conditions or services for them. Obviously, what goes on in the jails and prisons relates to outside society. The reason you do your work now, I presume, is because you see that link between poverty, what goes on in the neighborhoods and what happens in the jails.
What do we need to do better? How do we rely less on incarceration and when you must imprison people, how do you make it safer for everyone in the place? How do you stop people from coming back? Do we need smaller prisons, do we need more money, do we need different sentences for different crimes?
LS: It starts before prison. I worked in the neighborhoods classified by criminal justice books as “high-crime areas” and it starts with parenting.
Bill Cosby said on National TV that we have parents more focused on giving their kids cell phones, expensive gear and expensive pants. And they condemned Cosby. They found some black guy on CNN to come on and say ‘Cosby, you are wrong.’ But he was right. Unless you are inside the school system you wouldn’t necessarily know.
That’s why I hit the streets. I try to let the parents know that without that proper parenting their child has more chance of going through the criminal justice system.
Imagine being in a first grade class in an impoverished neighborhood (it depends on the school district) with 30 to 35 students in one class. 1st grade. Half the children can read, half the children cannot read, now you have one teacher. How is that teacher going to really teach? There’s two different dynamics going on in that classroom. We have children across America that are coming into the public school system unprepared to learn.
LS: Poverty is a crime, because poverty comes with where you live. Those in impoverished neighborhoods are subjected to crime, shootings, and drugs, and then children have to go into a school system that doesn’t have the necessary resources. It’s a ticking time bomb.
Unless a parent or guardian is there to break down that math homework, for them, some children don’t know what’s going on. Unless there’s a parent there that could check the homework that the teacher gives every night. Its not going to get done. There’s a lot parents in poorer communities who are uneducated themselves. Look at the statistics coming out of poor neighborhoods — many young adults are not finishing high school and are not going to college. If a parent is not educated, then probably education is not talked about in the home.
The point of attack, strategically, needs to be that early childhood.
PP: Parenting and education. I can agree. But we can’t roll back the years’ generations to correct past mistakes. So what about the situation as it stands now? Say, you have a 15-year-old who’s acted out, he’s been pulled in by the police, he’s got a serious charge over his head. Is Rikers Island the best place to deal with that kid? Is Rikers Island the sort of institution in which — while they are kept away from the public for public safety — they themselves are kept safe?
LS: If you break the law there are consequences. There are necessary disciplines in place so we have a civil society. But is it Rikers Island or is it a juvenile detention center?
If you would have asked me this question as an officer, I’d have said, “Rikers, yeah.” But, now, when I go into the communities and hear what the parents have to say about a lot of these children just mimicking their parents, I wonder is that child at fault? Why did he steal that cell phone? Maybe his father was a thief, or maybe they don’t have structure in the home. Maybe there needs to be a place where a child’s whole history needs to be examined? What’s going on in that child’s home. Does he have a support system? He lives in a high crime area, how much do we expect him to succeed?
LS: Yes, I feel there needs to be places where children can go to receive those special considerations, not thrown into a place like Rikers Island in which you’re housed with murderers.
Let’s create places and bring in the necessary mentors. And I’m not just talking about doctors in psychology. Sometimes, it takes the correction officer. Sometimes, it takes that guy that did 25 years in jail.
Create a first offense type place. “Young man, we give you a year. If you do the right thing in this place we’ll seal your record, but if you don’t, you gotta go to the next level.” Sometimes, some people have to go through that prison system if they’re going to turn their lives around.
Create a place where they could come in and get properly mentored to. You understand? Some people have degrees and others not, but there’s only a select few who can really get through to these children.
PP: So, the prison system is too rigid?
LS: It doesn’t always work. Prisons are putting way too many adolescents with mental health problems behind bars. They’re banging on the cells for 3 or 4 hours. These young children need advocates. They can’t speak. Not too many kids are writing a letter to mommy saying, “I’m thinking about suicide tonight; being locked in a 8×6 foot cell for 23 hours, I can’t take it no more.”
PP: Your photographs were used in an article by the Center for Investigative Reporting about solitary confinement. Over your time as a correctional officer did you see the use of solitary for youngsters increase, decrease, or stay the same?
LS: We had one unit, about 66 cells. Prisoners that cut, stabbed, or assaulted officers, were locked in solitary confinement.
Warden Robinson implemented a program called Institute for Inner Development (IID). The warden put together a team. Hand-picked. A select few that you could trust and you knew they weren’t going to violate any prisoners rights. We did two weeks of training and took it to a select housing area. We transformed that housing area. Imagine going from 50 slashings a month, [among the] adolescents, to zero for four years.
Programs work if you can get the necessary personnel to properly run and maintain them. When we ran the IID program, we took another housing area — a hundred more prisoners — then another housing area. Eventually, we had 200 prisoners in the nation’s most violent prison in America and and next to no violence.
PP: What was different about that program? What was it that you provided the youngsters?
LS: I love children. I’m a disciplinarian, I love reading, so I had tons of knowledge about slavery and the connection between slavery and incarceration, so when you start talking about this new thing, they just love it. These 14, 15, 16 year-olds didn’t have any type of discipline at home, didn’t have the male role models at home. “This is what men do young man. Pull your pants up. Grown men do not walk around with their pants down.”
PP: So it was more about developing different interactions between the correctional officers and the prisoners, and changing the culture within the unit?
LS: Out of all of those officers, twelve officers, we had no psychologists, no therapists. We were the psychologists we were the therapists. Just because you have a degree that doesn’t mean that you can work in an area like that. There’s a lot of passion that’s involved in that.
PP: After you resigned, when did you begin exhibiting the photographs?
LS: I detoxed for about 8 months, just not doing anything. From being on the drill to taking it back to normal. Then I started going into the schools and just sharing my information.
PP: With the images?
LS: I laminated some 8×10” color prints and put them on the blackboard. Then I got a laptop and a projector, and went from holding the pictures in my hand to projecting them agains auditoriums and classrooms walls. My first printed use of the images came in a 2005 Don Diva Magazine feature. They gave me 5 or 6 pages. I provided my phone number. Soon after, a police officer who worked with youth called me and asked, “Could you come in a talk to my youth?” That was the start of giving back.
PP: How do you evaluate your work?
LS: Seeing that look on somebody’s face when they think they know what jail was like, but then I show them the reality. Talking to 500 students in an auditorium and asking them, “Is this new information?” and they all say yes. Many of them have to make a change right there. For others its going to take longer to make that change.
PP: Is what you do anything like Scared Straight!?
LS: I’m not trying to scare you straight I’m trying to inform you straight.
When you’re looking at somebody and they got a thousand stitches on their face, the shock is there but along with the shock is the information behind it. Prison is a violent place and the criminal justice system is a for profit agency and so I break down a lot of information within the program.
PP: What images do we need to see?
LS: We need to see the graphic images of the young guy that was in solitary confinement unit who just cut himself with a razor blade because that was the only way that he could get out.
LS: We need to see the images of a young girl in shackles walking down the corridor with a hospital gown on. We need to see images of somebody crying in their cell at night and the only reason he’s in the cell is because his parents didn’t have the money to bail him out. We need to see those images of the abuses, we need to see the dirt, we need to see the filth.
We need to see the pain the officers go through — the officers that get cut and the officers that get feces thrown in their face hoping that they don’t have Hepatitis. An image is what stays in the mind. Every time you think about doing bad you need to think about that image.
Hollywood uses images too to glorify the rich and powerful with the jewelry on their neck. But it is fake. I use images to bring awareness to what really takes place behind bars and what young adolescents are actually going through. Everyday. It has to be traumatic.
Is the prison system still in the business of rehabilitation? That’s a question that needs to be asked in the Department of Corrections nationwide. Are prisons and jails in the business of rehabilitation? Yes, he did commit a crime, but does he have to be put into a cell for 23 hours. Is that rehabilitation? Or is that torture? We have to define cruel and inhumane treatment. We have to bring up those: terms, rehabilitation or torture.
What we do with this young child while we have him here for a couple years could make or break him for the rest of his life. There’s volunteers that go into the prison and mentor. Recently, I had the week off so I went back to Rikers Island, and did some workshops, talking to the kids. I felt obligated because we’re in a place that could make or break them. Some are going to the street. Some are going upstate. If you’re going to the street, prepare their minds while they’re here. If we’re trying to rehabilitate.
PP: Over the 12 years that you’ve been doing this work, if you can estimate, how many times have you presented to groups speaking and how many times have you presented images?
LS: I’ve done close a thousand presentations — in churches, schools, and sometimes putting them on the streets. Just taking the images right to the high crime areas and putting them right on the sidewalk. People in the poor neighborhoods are not going to go to the museum so I bring the museum to the streets.
PP: Thanks, Lorenzo.
LS: Thank you, Pete.