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IS THE INTERNET BECOMING LESS SNARKY?

 

Portraits of incarcerated youth made by Steve Davis were published on BuzzFeed yesterday. That they are featured does not surprise me; no, it is the reasonable comments that follow that surprise me.

They internet, a space known to often bring out the worst in people has had a special place for trolls as far as images of American prison and prisoners are concerned. Often photographs themselves are bypassed in discussion in order for commenters to shortcut straight to their long held positions — by they left or right, sympathetic or not, nuanced or short-sighted, familiar or prejudiced. Prisons are a divisive issue and often people miss the point of prison photographers who, in the first instance at least, are merely trying to hold a mirror to a system. In this case, Davis holds a mirror to a nation that locks up 65,000 youth on any given night at a cost of $5billion per year.

In my own prejudice, I would’ve expected THE INTERNET + BUZZFEED + KIDS IDENTIFIED AS CRIMINALS would be an equation for vitriol. Not so.

Why would I be so pessimistic? Well, despite BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti’s insistence that serious, longform news can exist beside listicles — and despite recent pieces — on last meals of the executed, a trans-activist transforming a prison from within, reflections on wrongful conviction, and the shacking of women prisoners in labor — BuzzFeed content still leasn heavily on shock, innumerable pet vids, “27 things you only know if…” nonsense, and flashes of celeb flesh. The lowest denominators remain our and BuzzFeed’s bread and butter.

All that said, let’s just be thankful for this comment thread:

Some of these faces are so hard. Some are bewildered. And some are just heartbreaking. So beautiful and tragic.

Each one of these faces should never have ended up there. Their incarceration marks the failure of society to raise contributing citizens.

That would imply that society failed every person who has made bad choices. That’s simply not a generalization that pans out entirely. I don’t disagree that we have failed many of these faces as a society, just the generalization.

Look to the parents. Well, perhaps they are/were also incarcerated. Sad all around.

There needs to be a better solution to helping these kids achieve more in life. Yes punish them for their crimes but surely there is better way! Locking them up like this gives them no hope of something better! Nobody but them know the full story so why jump to saying they “deserve” it? some of these kids have been failed by family, peers, society which has resulted in this! Tragic!

I think we should look to the systems used in Scandinavian countries — humane prisons, lots of community service, a focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. …Or we could just stop monetizing the prison system, that would help.

The system makes money off of these children, and I guarantee you there is not one child in there whose parents have a little bit of money! Our prisons are filled with poor people! Justice is definitely not blind!

I can see where you’re coming from, but in my personal experience (two relatives that have been incarcerated both as youth and as adults), there are individuals who will, regardless of the number of chances given, continue to make the wrong choices. You can not force, coerce, or convince someone to act and live as you see fit. They will make choices of their own. These are individuals that do, in fact, deserve the punishments they receive. Like you said only they know the whole story, but regardless of that fact, there are some choices that incarcerated individuals have made that have impacted the lives of innocent people. Do those choices, then, not merit the fullest punishment?

I DO, however, believe there are also individuals who can be guided into a better life because they’ve only known one way. These are the individuals that CHOOSE to make themselves better, both in their own eyes and in societies eyes. They make the choice, and seek out those that can help guide them.

One summer in college, I had an internship in WA for an office of juvenile probation. I went to one of these places with one of the counselors because one of the kids was going to be getting out soon and heading home. This kid was probably 14 or 15 and I remember him sitting there crying because he didn’t want to leave. He had been in out of the system for years and I remember him telling us that no matter how bad it was there, he knew he was going to get fed and have a place to sleep. He told us that he was going to do something as soon as he got out that would send him back. It was tragic on so many levels. Everyone had just given up on this kid and he had pretty much given up on himself.

Locking up a young person in prison is always a shocking and sad thing, but what concerns me is people’s knee jerk reaction that all youth incarceration reflects society’s ultimate failure. Remember, most of you are also the same people who regularly rage against the violent and intolerable stories we read about rape and murder that we regularly see on this site. There are thousands of teenagers (perhaps some of the faces you are seeing here) who are guilty of these crimes. Are you saying that we needn’t incarcerate minors who commit violent crime? Should these individuals only be counseled then allowed to return into society? Despite the fact that several here have unilaterally declared that each of these incarnations are the wholesale fault of society’s failure?

But our prisons out not filled to the brim with people who have committed the kinda of crimes you speak of, and THAT is the failure.

I work in the teen department of my library system, and every librarian takes turns to go visit our JDC to talk to the kids there and find books for them in the collection we maintain at the facilities for them. It’s hard seeing them…especially when they’re super young (I swear a couple I’ve seen couldn’t be older than 11), or especially when you’ve helped them in your branch before. It sucks, and I just always hope that they can come around and learn from the experience and never become a repeat offender.

I have a serious problem with photographers leaving their [captioning on] photos blank when it comes to picturing at risk groups. Each has their own valuable story to tell and name. They are not just “black kids: or troubled youths or street punks etc…the categories that pop up due to the viewers own prejudices. We live in a fucked up world. Such photography should be there to give names to the victims and not participate in their being reduced to a number in the “incarceration game.”

Perhaps the Facebook-linked comment board has sophistication to remove idiot comments and promote those exhibiting most human thought?

Internet, you have my faith again.

Even the commenter that wonders about an anonymous portrait showing a youth with painted nails and foolishly labels the child as possibly “a fabulous homosexual” goes on to demonstrate a knowledge of the system that is unable to adequately care for LGBQIT youth; “In adult prisons obviously gay or transgendered individuals are usually put in solitary confinement for their own protection.” We know that is an unacceptable situation. LGBQIT prisoners are denied access to programming because prisons cannot guarantee their safety in general population.

Unfinished: Incarcerated Youth

Steve Davis is currently taking pre-orders for a book of his photographs from Washington State juvenile prisons, titled, Unfinished: Incarcerated Youth.

You can preorder with Minor Matters Books.

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THE VISUAL CULTURE OF PRISON RESISTANCE

Liz Pelly‘s conversation with Josh MacPhee in The Media is a wonderful read. It coincided with MacPhee and his cohort’s incredible exhibition of prisoner made protest materials going all the way back to the early seventies.

MacPhee urges us to dismantle the idea that prisons are separate from outside society. Crucially, he’s not making, in the first instance, a moral point about how we’re all the same, prisoners and all. MacPhee makes an observation of the structural characteristics of the prison system.

“It’s getting harder and harder to hold up the pretense that prison is somehow distinct from the rest of society,” says MacPhee. “When there’s this many people going in and out all of the time, there’s no way that our lives out here don’t leak into there, and that their lives in there don’t leak out into the rest of society. The idea that these are completely separate realms needs to be dismantled.”

Of course, once the structural facts of the system are revealed, the moral point that we are all one-and-the-same, prisoners and all, is indisputable.

I contacted Pelly and asked if I could republish the conversation. It originally appeared as Inside/Out: On Prison Justice, Art of the Incarcerated, and Interference Archive’s New Show in Issue #44 of The Media (October 10, 2014). It is a privilege to feature Pelly and MacPhee’s interview in full here on the blog.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

Between September 11th and November 16, 2014, Interference Archive exhibited, Self-Determination Inside/Out: Prison Movements Reshaping Society a look back at the visual and material culture of prisoner-led political movements.

Organized by Molly Fair, Josh MacPhee, Anika Paris, Laura Whitehorn, and Ryan Wong, Self-Determination Inside/Out includes sections on the work of incarcerated AIDS educators, the experiences of women and queer prisoners, prison and control unit prisons. The exhibition features prison newsletters, pamphlets, video and audio interviews, prints, photography (!!!) and magazine covers — starting with materials created during the 1971 Attica Rebellion, a massive prisoner uprising in upstate New York, and concluding with work made by current political prisoners, the show highlights moments of self-organization within the prison industrial complex.

You can buy a booklet and a poster for the exhibition.

Interference Archive is a volunteer-run archive in Gowanus, Brooklyn, dedicated to preserving cultural ephemera related to social movements.

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Inside/Out: On Prison Justice, Art of the Incarcerated, and Interference Archive’s New Show

Liz Pelly (LP): What initially inspired the creation of Interference Archive, which mostly houses ephemeral material like posters, t-shirts, and newsletters?

Josh MacPhee (JM): For the different people involved, there are different answers of course. For me, I grew up making this stuff through DIY music, cultural stuff, politics. Through the act of doing, I started collecting it. Flyers, t-shirts, buttons, the ephemera that gets produced by people who are organizing. It was a combination of wanting to understand the history of what I was doing and then at the same time, I was getting really interested in this idea of how people make art and culture in the context of trying to their lives. It’s distinct from art that’s produced purely in the realm of self expression, and the art that tends circulate within the contemporary art world.

This kind of material gets lost. It’s often not clearly authored. Institutions that deal with art don’t quite know what to do with it. Since it’s so political, places like history museums don’t know what to do with it either. It sort of falls through the cracks. But we can see during times like Occupy, or Tahrir Square in Egypt, or with the Maidan in the Ukraine, that this is the stuff of life, [created] when transformation starts to happen. When people have their arms shoulder deep into the constructions of representations of a new world, and the way they want things to be articulated.

For me, doing an archive was a way to say, “just because these moments come and go, and movements have ebbs and flows, doesn’t mean that once the peak has been reached that this material isn’t still valuable to us, to where we’ve come from and therefore where we are going.”

LP: That said, how do you think this sort of exhibit in particular shines light on the experiences of prisoners?

JM: There were five of us who organized this exhibition, and most of us have been engaged with issues around prisons in different ways, whether having been formerly incarcerated, or working with prison activism programs. As far as I know, nothing like this has ever been done before.

We live in a moment where over two million people are in prison. It’s getting harder and harder to hold up the pretense that prison is somehow distinct from the rest of society. When there’s this many people going in and out all of the time, there’s no way that our lives out here don’t leak into there, and that their lives in there don’t leak out into the rest of society. The idea that these are completely separate realms needs to be dismantled.

We thought it was important to marshal primary source material to show that people aren’t just objects of repression or study or someone else’s activism. But they have done immense amounts of organizing inside themselves. Often times that organizing takes place at the same time, or sometimes even ahead of, what people were doing on the outside. Some of the focus we have on organizing around AIDS and AIDS education in prison was really fascinating and important because it shows how people that had the least access to medical care were doing in some cases the most organizing in order to try to deal with a problem that at the time the government was not even acknowledging existed.

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LP: Can you tell me more about your own experiences with prison reform activism?

JM: I first learned about how the prison system functions in the early 1990s. It just sort of blew my mind that there was a whole world of people who largely because of race and class were basically being warehoused. And that, at the time, it was completely absent from the radar of public In the 90s, the only thing discussed in relationship to prisons and criminal justice was this sort of “tough on crime” thing. There was no acknowledgment that a massive increase of the prison population going on, and that it wasn’t actually working. And that the system that decided who went in and out was so manifestly unjust, random often.

That sent me on a path of doing organizing around prison issues. I started in Ohio, and then did some work in Colorado, and then in Chicago. A lot of the organizing I did was around Control Unit Prisons, basically trying to stop solitary confinement. [Organizing around] these men and women who were spending twenty-three-and-a-half or twenty-four hours a day alone in their cells, and the psychological damage that causes and how it basically goes against international conventions of torture, yet it’s completely commonplace in this country.

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LP: Over the past year, there has been lot of in the news about the racist criminal justice system. It’s an apt time for Self-Determination Inside/Out: Prison Movements Reshaping Society. But obviously there is a lot of history of racism in the criminal justice system that this brings to light. Were you inspired to put this together because of recent events, or has this exhibit been in the works longer?

JM: We worked on the exhibition for 6 months. As a space, as an institution, one of our goals is to take this material that’s perceived as marginal and present it in ways that will allow it to be in its own context, but also to actually show that it’s not marginal. Our primary audience is not people who already necessarily agree with everything that would be in this exhibition. We are conscious of, and trying to take advantage of, a moment.

The question becomes, how do we push [the discussion] farther? If we say mass incarceration is not okay, at what point is incarceration okay? If 2 million people in cages is not acceptable, is 1.9 million people in acceptable? Or 1.8? Once you start asking those questions it opens up the space to say, “this whole system is just absolutely corrupt.”

Mass incarceration accomplishes a number of things, none of which are its stated goals. It accomplishes deeply suppressing working class communities of color. That’s never been articulated as what the prison system is supposed to do. It’s just clear that that’s what it does. It clearly is completely ineffectual at actually dealing with crime.

LP: What are some underreported sides to the prison industrial complex that you hope this exhibit brings to light?

JM: The fastest growing portion of the prison population for years now has been women.

Increasingly there is a real gendered aspect of being able to look at how the criminal justice system works. Increasingly it’s used to enforce gender binaries. It’s a brutal system for queer and trans people that get sucked up into it. People are doing a lot of organizing around it now, but until recently, it was assumed if you were gender non-conforming, they have to choose where to put you, and then once they chose a men or a women’s prison, then almost immediately you’d get sent to solitary confinement. You’d do your sentence out in solitary confinement, in complete isolation, because the system is not prepared to deal with gender non-conformity. You are being punished because your very existence challenges the bureaucratic way the system works.

It’s really clear that women who refuse to be abused, who fight back against abusers, almost always get pulled into the criminal justice system. So we have things like Trayvon Martin being shot, and Zimmerman getting off. But any woman that stops an attack from an abuser is inevitably going to do time because that’s just absolutely taboo.

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LP: What were the biggest challenges to getting this exhibit together?

JM: Each exhibition has unique challenges and obstacles, and then there are ones that are sort of similar across the board. For this exhibition, was just that cultural material produced by incarcerated people is hard to access. A lot of it is made in prison and then just never leaves prison.

In general, one of the challenges for all of the exhibitions, is that unless we do something that’s very focused, inevitably there’s so much stuff it’s hard to know when to say “okay we’ve got enough” or to know when to draw the lines. It’s hard to know when to accept that you’re never going to have all of the stuff that you wish you could, that you’re never going to be able to tell the whole story, that maybe even the idea that you’re going to tell some sort of master narrative is questionable in its own right.

When you’re representing things that are so deeply underrepresented, people get attached to wanting their part of the story told, because it’s been marginal or silenced for so long. It makes it really hard to make those choices, because you don’t want anyone else to continue to feel [that way].

We are collecting material from movements that are marginal. Even though they often have extremely deep impacts, rarely is that impact known or visible when they’re most active. It’s kind of like an extra kick in the face when your ideas become commonplace 10 or 20 years later and you’re still written out of the history even though you’re the ones who came up with the ideas.

LP: What do you hope, in general, visitors learn from Self-Determination: Inside/Out?

JM: On the one hand, I hope this contributes to a shift [towards] the idea that prisons are maybe not the answer to the problems that they claim to be. And that locking people in cages is not actually accomplishing what we’re being told it is.

On another level, that incarcerated people are not just objects. They’re loved ones and family members and neighbors and community members. The thing that primarily defines someone as a human being is not whether or not they’re in prison. That people that happen to find themselves in prison, many for reasons that are and then also at the same time many for doing reprehensible things, doesn’t make them not human. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the same desires, life goals, and relationships that everyone else has. And as such, the way that they conceive themselves and their world is part of, needs to be part of, any movement for social transformation.

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THE PEOPLE

The Interference Archive is a collection of posters, flyers, publications, photographs, books, t-shirts, buttons, moving images, audio recordings, and other materials, made by participants of social movements throughout past decades. It is an archive “from below” — collectively run space, powered by people, and with open stacks accessible to all. The Interference Archive explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements. It provides public exhibitions, a study and social center, talks, screenings, publications, workshops, and an online presence, with an aim to preserve and honor histories and material culture that are often marginalized in mainstream institutions. It is at 131 8th Street, #4
, Brooklyn, NY 11215
 (2 blocks from F/G/R trains at 4th Ave/9th Street).

Josh MacPhee is an artist, curator and activist living in Brooklyn, NY. MacPhee is one of the founder of the Just Seeds Artists’ Cooperative, which organizes, creates and distributes radical art. MacPhee is the author of Stencil Pirates: A Global Study of the Street Stencil, which is dedicated to stencil street art. He co-edited Realizing the Impossible: Art Against AuthorityReproduce and Revolt and the upcoming Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today. In 2001 he co-organized the Department of Space and Land Reclamation in Chicago with Emily Forman and Nato Thompson. In 2008 he co-curated the exhibition Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960’s to Now with Dara Greenwald.

Liz Pelly is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. I lives and works at the all-ages collectively-run art space The Silent Barn, where she books (and sometimes plays) shows. She and her friends run the ad-free bi-weekly online newspaper The Media.

The Media is a webpaper covering alternative arts, culture, music, news, and grassroots activism. With contributors often embedded in the communities they cover, The Media aims to bridge the gap between underground presses and mainstream media. Crucially, it is AD-FREE and simply designed. “At a moment marked by short attention spans, decentralized click-bait articles, and newspapers in flux, rethinking the aesthetics of our news websites feels just as crucial as re-imagining their content,” says The Media. “We want our content to resonate on its own merit, free of frivolity and flash, and grounded by a homepage that’s striking in its radical simplicity.”

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Claudia Cass with her children, Matthew, Kaylee, left, and Courtney in 2006. Credit: Alysia Santo/The Marshall Project

The lives of prison officers, as I have said before, are rarely represented by means of photography. I don’t know if that is the case for other mediums. Regardless, Alysia Santo‘s profile of Claudia Cass, a prison officer in New Hampshire, is essential reading.

“Her work in the prison had become so overwhelming that Matthew, her 11-year old son, was often alone, cooking his own dinner and seeing himself off to school,” writes Santo.

Cass, 42, is so stretched by the long hours of her job she feels unable to care adequately for her son. She made the toughest decision of her life and transferred legal custody of Matthew to her mother.

Imagine that? Having to give up legal custody of your child because you’re spending all your waking hours working in a prison? Crazy and depressing.

Santo writes:

Prison guards are often characterized, whether in news accounts or movies, as living under some constant threat of mayhem. But for Cass and her fellow officers, the recurring nightmare is not a prison riot. It is falling asleep at the wheel after a series of 16-hour shifts. Or nodding off with your sidearm exposed while escorting a sick inmate to the hospital. Or even having to tell your child that you don’t have time to be a mother.

 Read 16-Hour Shifts, 300 Prisoners to Watch and 1 Lonely Son

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ACTIVIST-SHAREHOLDERING

I love the term “activist-shareholder.” I envision a person wearing protest t-shirts at the AGM, or the organisation of a silent bloc that suddenly bursts into action and derails the agenda of a meeting. Activist-shareholders are moles in the system. Granted they are very visible roles, and it is soon very obvious as to why they have bought shares in a corporation whose practices they oppose, but still. yay for the little man.

Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News is one such activist shareholder. He made the reasonable proposal that private prisons make attempts to rehabilitate prisoners. Shock horror! And, guess what? The private prison company refused.

I just adore these tactics. If the prison industrial complex is to be dismantled it’ll take an untold amount of imagination and the combination of many tactics. Friedmann’s colleague at Prison Legal News Paul Wright was on hand this week to remind us that talking about the problem is not always doing something about the problem. Wright spoke with Alysia Santo for The Marshall Project, in a provocatively titled interview piece Sure, People Are Talking About Prison Reform, but They Aren’t Actually Doing Anything.

Go forth, let your imagination run wild.

Below, the Human Rights Defense Center press release:

Nation’s Largest Private Prison Firm Objects to Resolution to Fund Rehabilitative, Reentry Programs

Nashville, TN – Last Friday, Corrections Corporation of America (NYSE: CXW), the nation’s largest for-profit prison firm, formally objected to a shareholder resolution that would require the company to spend just 5% of its net income “on programs and services designed to reduce recidivism rates for offenders.”

The resolution was submitted by Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News. An activist shareholder, Friedmann owns a small amount of CCA stock; in the 1990s he served six years at a CCA-operated prison in Clifton, Tennessee prior to his release in 1999.

“As a former prisoner, I know firsthand the importance of providing rehabilitative programs and reentry services,” Friedmann stated. “I also know firsthand the incentive of private prisons to cut costs – including expenses associated with rehabilitative programs – in order to increase their profit margins.”

Citing data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the resolution notes that “Recidivism rates for prisoners released from correctional facilities are extremely high, with almost 77% of offenders being re-arrested within five years of release.” Further, “[t]he need to reduce recidivism rates for offenders held in [CCA’s] facilities is of particular importance, as two recent studies concluded that prisoners housed at privately-operated facilities have higher average recidivism rates.”

The shareholder resolution states that it “provides an opportunity for CCA to do more to reduce the recidivism rates of offenders released from the Company’s facilities, and thus reduce crime and victimization in our communities.”

CCA filed a formal objection with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), seeking to exclude the resolution from its 2015 proxy materials distributed to shareholders. In its objection, CCA argued that the resolution relates to “ordinary business operations,” comparing it to other shareholder resolutions that have, for example, sought to require companies to “test and install showerheads that use limited amounts of water.”

In a press release issued by CCA last year, the company announced “a series of commitments” to rehabilitative programming, stating it would “play a larger role in helping reduce the nation’s high recidivism rate.” At the time, CCA CEO Damon Hininger claimed that “Reentry programs and reducing recidivism are 100 percent aligned with our business model.”

“CCA’s objection to a shareholder resolution that would require the company to spend just 5% of its net income on rehabilitative and reentry programs demonstrates the lack of the company’s sincerity when it claims to care about reducing recidivism,” stated HRDC executive director Paul Wright. “Evidently, retaining 95% of its profits isn’t enough for CCA – which isn’t surprising, because as a for-profit company CCA is only concerned about its bottom line, not what is best for members of the public, including those victimized by crime.”

“If CCA was serious about investing in rehabilitation and reentry programs for prisoners who will be released from the company’s for-profit facilities, then it would not have objected to this resolution,” Friedmann added. “But it did, so we can draw our own conclusions.”

The Human Rights Defense Center, founded in 1990 and based in Lake Worth, Florida, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has around 9,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.

For further information:
 

Alex Friedmann
Associate Director
Human Rights Defense Center
(615) 495-6568
afriedmann@prisonlegalnews.org

Paul Wright
Executive Director
Human Rights Defense Center
(561) 360-2523
pwright@prisonlegalnews.org

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Image source: ACLU

Nigel Boyle

‘TRIUMPH’

For the Winter Issue of Actually People Quarterly (APQ), I interviewed college professor Nigel Boyle who played the beautiful game in circumstances that most would consider unlikely. Nigel explains, however, that football is a way of life among the Ugandan prison population who welcomed he and other educators with untold warmth.

The theme for the Winter APQ Issue was ‘Triumph.’ Nigel had a good game.

It’s great to publish the APQ article, in full, here on the blog. Thanks to my friends over at San Francisco’s Carville Annex for ongoing collaborations.

FOOTIE

Nigel Boyle is a bit like me. He’s English, he’s quite white, he can’t control his bigger smiles, and he’s a mad football fan. Earlier this year, before I visited Nigel’s hometown of Claremont, California, I contacted him because he had been teaching in his local prison. I wanted to know more about that.

I did not know he had taught in a prison in Uganda this summer, too. Nigel invited me to a soiree at his house. It was a reunion of the faculty, students and administrators involved in the Uganda prison teaching program as well as directors of partner organizations. I was made to feel very welcome.

Nigel supports Aston Villa, who play in claret and blue. They’re based in Birmingham, have existed since 1874, and were one of the 12 founding teams of the English Football League. I support Liverpool who play in red and, down the years, have won more trophies than Villa. Neither team haven’t won many titles in recent decades.

Nigel is one of those lucky people that has managed to merge his passion for a particular sport with his professional pursuits. He has taught seminars on the history and political economy of football and once delivered a conference paper titled “What World Cup and Champions League Soccer Teaches Us about Contemporary Europe.” Before he moved to California to teach at Pitzer College, Nigel taught at Duke and Oxford universities.

During his party, Nigel entered the kitchen clasping a photograph. In it, he was pictured with teeth and fists clenched, in mid-sprint in front of a crowd of onlookers. It looked like he had just kicked a ball. He explained that the onlookers were prisoners in the Luzira Upper Prison, in Uganda. Naturally, I had questions.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Why were you in a Ugandan prison?

Nigel Boyle (NB): I was there as a volunteer with the Prison Education Project (PEP), a California program founded by my colleague Professor Renford Reese. PEP had been invited by a Ugandan academic, Arthur Sserwanga, who has been doing third-level education in Ugandan prisons.

PP: So football in prison?

NB: There are 10 “clubs” at the prison and they are all named after renowned European teams — Man United, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Leeds, Chelsea, Arsenal, Newcastle, Everton, Barcelona and Juventus.

PP: Really?

NB: Really. A league structure is an organizing principle inside. They all have long histories and fan clubs. They adhere to league codes of ethics and conduct. They have transfer windows!

PP: Why were you playing?

NB: I watched several games at the prison – tournaments between a game between the Luzira Upper Prison Team and another prison team (Murcheson Bay Prison) and one between the Luzira Upper Prison Team and the prison staff team. I got antsy as a spectator and put together a team of U.S. students and students from Makerere University. Games are the primary entertainment at the prison, 3,000 spectators. I was not sure when the game was going to happen which is why I was wearing my “teaching kit” not my Villa kit. We were playing the Arsenal club team.

PP: How did the game go?

NB: Arsenal started off by scoring early and then went easy on us as we had some inexperienced players on the team. But then we started to play a bit, got an equalizer and the crowd really got into it. They were supporting us mostly (apart from the Arsenal fans, of course). The crowd was most delighted with the “the girl” on our team, a U.S. student called Ashley. That she could actually play well led to roars of approval. As the old Muzungu* on the field I also drew some cheers when I showed I knew how to kick a ball.

PP: Was it tense?

NB: It was the friendliest “friendly” game I have ever played in. In fact all games at Luzira are played in a very gentlemanly fashion – the prison soccer association constitution demands it and sets explicit standards for player and fan behavior, above anything FIFA* can manage.

PP: What are your strengths and weaknesses as a player?

NB: I’m your basic Brummie* parks player. Good in the air, poor control, good passer, slow. I played at the back most of the game, with 10 minutes to go it was 3-3 and I moved up front.

PP: That’s when your moment of glory came?

NB: I scored with a sidefooted shot from 15 yards out, with only 8 minutes of the game to go. The crowd which was about 3,000 roared.

PP: A crowd of 3,000!?!?

NB: My childhood fantasy came true. Then I scored again. I was through on keeper, chasing down a clearance. We won the game. Being “interviewed” about my performance in this game only adds to the sense of my childhood dream coming true at the age of 53! After the game there were speeches (there always are after Luzira UP games). I thanked the Upper Prison Football Association, and it’s president-prisoner Opio Moses, whom I’m proud to call a friend.

PP: Will you ever play in front of a crowd that big again?

NB: Only if I get back to Luzira again, and I would love to do that.

PP: Are you at all tempted to retire on a high?

NB: I know guys in their 60s still playing pick-up soccer and I intend continuing as long as my knees hold out. But this is the story I will be telling my grandchildren.

PP: What’s football got to do with education?

NB: I’ve taught a course on comparative political economy through football (or soccer/futbol/fussball) eight times, at three institutions: Pitzer College, the University of Landau in Germany, and at California Rehabilitation Center, which is a prison in Norco. Is there a better lens for understanding contemporary globalization out there? Certainly not one that engages students the way the beautiful game does.

PP: How do Uganda prisons differ from those in the U.S.?

NB: U.S. prisons use vast human and financial resources to dehumanize prisoners and deny them the ability to function as social beings. I’m only familiar with Level 2, medium-security prisons in the U.S., but these are militarized holding pens.

Luzira Upper Prison is the top maximum security prison in Uganda, but staff carry no weapons, look prisoners in the eye, and treat prisoners as potential co-managers of the prison, not as human refuse. Resource starved Ugandan prisons allow prisoners to organize themselves into a civil society behind walls, and it’s through the football clubs and the Prison Football Association that prisoners have organized and bargained with prison staff.

Upper Prison Luzira was a colonial prison designed to incarcerate and punish men who threatened British law and order. In the last 20 years, this colonial shell has been allowed to sprout prisoner-led education (literacy through degree levels), and sports and cultural organization that provide a training in how to be a productive citizen. U.S. prisons talk about “rehabilitation” but appear to be designed to induce PTSD.

PP: Thanks Nigel.

NB: Thank you, Pete.

A GLOSSARY OF TERMS

Brummie = a person born in Birmingham, England.
Muzungu = Swahili word for white man.
FIFA = The International Federation of Football Associations, known most recently for its bloated coffers, back room deals, golden handshakes and rampant corruption.

Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1st, 2008

Photographer unknown. Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1, 2008

The coalition activist groups Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) are doing tremendous work at tracking was is said as compared to what is done by the Golden State’s politicians. Governor Jerry Brown has been particularly adept at appeasing the centrist and liberal leaning electorate without ever taking bold action to reduce California’s reliance on incarceration.

This morning, Gov. Brown announced an increase in spending on corrections at the state level. Not acceptable.

You may wonder why I focus on California so much. Well, aside of the fact it is my home state, California is often a bellwether for actions in other states. California was the first to enact Three-Strikes-And-You’re-Out Laws in the mid-nineties and it was the first to repeal them at the ballot in 2014.

California is a massive economy — bigger than most nations — and yet inequality in the Golden State has never been more stark. California tells itself it is a global leader. However, if that were true it would be spending less money on cages and more money on education, rehabilitation, and initiatives to build healthy communities.

Today’s announcement from the Governor’s office simply is not good enough. Here’s CURB’s response:

CURB PRESS RELEASE

California Governor Jerry Brown Backslides on Corrections Budget, No Substantial Reductions to the Prison Population Except Costly Expansion

Gov. Brown’s 2015-16 Budget, released this morning, defies comments earlier this week that the administration is committed to shrinking California’s over-sized prisons by increasing prison spending by 1.7%, bringing the total Corrections budget up to $12.676 billion.

“If the Governor believes that ‘we can’t pour more and more dollars down the rat hole of incarceration’ and has actively attributed the voice of the voters in this decision, then why is he increasing spending on corrections, planning for more prisoners rather than fewer and defying the demands of the Federal Court to further shrink the prison system?” asked Christina Tsao of Critical Resistance. The proposed increase of funding for corrections is partially due to 13 new reentry hubs.

California’s overwhelming passage of Prop. 47 was widely recognized as a mandate from voters to further reduce the prison population. County officials in Los Angeles have estimated an annual reduction of 2,500 in their jail population, however today’s budget predicts that in 2015-16 only 1,900 people will be released from state prison under the proposition. The budget highlights the release of people from prison as a result of the expansion of good-time credits (4,418) and elder parole (115). The budget does not outline any further plans to expand these efforts.

“Today’s budget shows the success of parole and sentencing reform measures in beginning to reduce crowding in California’s bloated prisons,” said Diana Zuñiga, Statewide Organizer for Californians United for a Responsible Budget. “Then why is Governor Brown still spending millions of dollars to open thousands of new prison beds, instead of implementing even more aggressive population reduction reforms?” asks Zuñiga. The budget anticipates that 2,376 new state prison beds will open in Feb. 2016 at 3 different locations.

“Today’s budget maintains California as #1 in poverty and #1 in prison spending. This is not an accident, “ said Vanessa Perez from Time for Change Foundation. “This morning Brown applauded the legislature on a balanced budget but we need to tear down the wall of poverty and invest more into vital programs and services that will lift the most vulnerable in our community out of poverty and stop wasting money on building new prisons walls. That is something that will be worthy of an applause”.

After years of cuts, today’s budget includes an increase in spending on K-12 and higher education. Education advocates, particularly in the UC system would like to see even further increases to prevent tuition hikes. “Higher educations in California has needed more funding for years. As we see tuition hikes happening for UC students across the state, here in San Diego they are building new prison beds at Donovan State Prison,” says Allyson Osorio a student working in External Affairs at UC San Diego. “We should support the students in California and stop wasting precious funding to increase incarceration.”

——

CURB Press Contact

Emily Harris, Statewide Coordinator, Californians United for a Responsible Budget

1322 Webster St. #210
Oakland, CA 94612

510-435-1176

emily@curbprisonspending.org

Twitter: @CURB_Prisons

gitmo

On the final day of 2014, In These Times published George Lavender‘s thought-provoking and straightforward Q&A with some of the leading public voices on criminal justice reform.

Lavender asked for their “worst” and “best” moments in criminal justice in 2014, as well as inquiring what we should look out for in 2015. A good think piece.

Here’s my pick of the answers. From author Dan Berger on his “worst” moment:

“It is hard to pick an exact [worst 2014 criminal justice] moment; there are many contenders. But the combination of intransigence and self-congratulation displayed by various state officials who sustain mass incarceration and police violence. The conservative case for prison reform has attracted a lot of money and attention, and then gone on to claim victories for shrinking prison population through flawed “justice reinvestment” processes—the so-called Texas Miracle. But in fact, their politics of social austerity and expanded police power do not bring us any closer to ending mass incarceration; if anything, they have expanded the carceral state in the realms of policing and surveillance. Meanwhile, prison populations have not declined this year the way they did in year’s past; in some places they increased, while Guantanamo remains open and torture remains legal.”

– Dan Berger.

Follow Dan Berger and George Lavender on Twitter.

David_Levi_Strauss_words_not_spent_today

 

TORTURE REVELATIONS

It was a double whammy this week. Everyone noticed the 6,000 page report into CIA torture. Many won’t know that today was the day that Justice Department attorneys presented the Obama administrations rationale for suppressing over 2,100 photos and videos of torture by American military personnel in Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has argued that releasing them would inflame anti-American sentiment abroad and place Americans at risk. Federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York is not so easily convinced and wants the government to explain, photograph by photograph, how each might pose a threat to national security. The fight to release these photos dates to 2004, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

David Levi Strauss has tracked these developments from the very beginning. Several chapters in his new book is Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014) deal directly with the war over control of torture photos.

CONVERSATION

Strauss and I, for WIRED talked about state secrets, how the brain is wired, the political power of images and whether or not photos of Osama Bin Laden’s corpse actually exist.

WIRED: Why has the release of 2,000-plus remaining images and videos made by US military personnel in Abu Ghraib not been resolved?

Strauss: Because of the effectiveness of the images. They became the symbol of the change in US policy to include torture. Images are very powerful. That’s why the US government has become very afraid of the effects of these images worldwide.

The other amazing thing about the Abu Ghraib images was that they crossed the boundary between private and public. That is unusual. It changed things for photojournalism, for the military, certainly, and for the public at large. Prior to the release of the Abu Ghraib images, the military was handing out cameras to soldiers so that they could use photos to stay in touch with their families, and to be used operationally.

Read the full conversation: The War Over the US Government’s Unreleased Torture Pictures.

[All images for this Prison Photography post via Salon]

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