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Photo: Paul Rucker
When Obama went to Marc Maron’s garage to record a WTF episode, he was in a sober frame of mind. He was frank about our situation right now with gun control. After Sandy Hook, he said, his administration tried everything they could to change laws but the legislation was fought by the usual NRA suspects. The legislation was watered down and achieved little.
Astutely, Obama didn’t pin the blame solely on the NRA and the kowtowing politicians but also on us. Yes, us, we, you and me. Sweeping political changes will follow sweeping social pressure. But in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, in Obama’s estimation, there was lots of talk but ultimately not enough public will to ring in the massive changes we need.
This is a teachable moment of sorts. Here, POTUS is telling us that organising works; he is saying that politicians listen if the swell of opinion is unavoidable and undeniable. The wave of gun opposition wasn’t sustained or powerful enough it seems. Well, yes and no. Yes, in that political change didn’t result. But, no, in that the passions and intelligence of the gun law reformers shouldn’t be dismissed, or pegged as total failure. It is my belief that in gun reform, in prison reform, in education reform — in any movement that demands wide-scale change — the efforts of the activists must compensate for the inertia and fear of the politicians they wish to influence.
Even when it makes moral, social and economic sense to enact positive change, we have seen that politicians find it hard to filter out the sound of the waft of of checkbooks and the loud and persistent lobbyist’s din.
We have to work harder to see gun laws change. We have to work harder to reduce hate and homegrown terror acts.
Paul Rucker is one of the hardest working artists I know. He’s always stationed politics at the center of his practice but in recent years he has ventured fearlessly into America’s racial histories, current psyche and shortcomings. I curated Paul’s work in Prison Obscura. This morning, Paul sent out the following message to those on his email list. I think it is eloquent. It is from a point of knowledge. And I hope Paul doesn’t mind me sharing it.
I’ve been in South Carolina this week visiting my mother. The flags are at half staff at the library. The deeply ambivalent feelings I have for home are more real than ever. Growing up, I remember seeing Confederate flags on cars and bumper stickers stating “I should have picked my own damn cotton!” These were just part of the culture. An even deeper and unacknowledged part of the culture are the souls that built this state and this country. In 1860, there were more slaves living in South Carolina than free citizens. Cotton sales were worth $200 million then, the equivalent of $5 billion today. As we argue/discuss the flag, we must also add to our conversation the true and complete history of the South and America. Cotton was shipped all over the country and the world. The role of slave labor in the economic success of our country must be acknowledged, along with the cost of that success in millions of lives not deemed human. If we remove the flag, let us replace it with knowledge, and so honor the souls that brought us here to the prosperous land that we have today.
My condolences to the families of the nine people murdered a week ago. My heart goes out to them and their loved ones.
With a heavy heart,
Also well said.
I was interviewed by ACLU recently: Prisons Are Man-Made … They Can Be Unmade.
The Q&A focuses around the exhibition Prison Obscura and you’ll notice a return to many of my favourite talking points. Still, the work never ends, and I know that ACLU will push out — to an expanded audience — my argument that we should all be more active and conscientious consumers of prison imagery. My thanks to Matthew Harwood for the questions.
Everyone keeps telling me it’s going to be alright. Everyone keeps telling me they didn’t understand my work when I began in 2008 but now they do. They understand it because prison reform and criminal justice reform is in the news. They understand it because Orange Is The New Black is on their screens.
Everyone keeps telling me it is going to be okay because politicians and Departments of Corrections are trying to fix the problems. What? Back up. What makes you think that those who built the Prison Industrial Complex are best positioned to reverse its crimes and abuses?
Much has been made about the bipartisan nature of contemporary efforts to end mass incarceration, as everyone from Newt Gingrich and the Koch Brothers to Van Jones and the American Civil Liberties Union, and now even Hillary Clinton, says that the United States needs to reduce the number of people it incarcerates in its own gulag archipelago. If all these people agree, the conventional wisdom goes, surely we can get something done. Are prisons the only thing that can end Washington gridlock?
And it ends:
To paraphrase the poet Gil Scott-Heron, “decarceration will not be incentivized,” decarceration will not be incentivized, decarceration will not be incentivized. Decarceration will not be incentivized.
Any OpEd that ends with that flourish gets my vote. A MUST READ.
Image source: CUNY
“We cannot build up a system of sanction on supposed danger, in my view.”
Nils Christie, Norwegian sociologist and criminologist, died Wednesday May 27th at the age of 87.
Christie’s great achievement was to detach discussion of prisons solely from discussions of crime and to afix them firmly to conversation about economic inequality and the definitions of behaviour we attach hastily to those outside of our social class.
Christie ushered in the modern prison abolition movement. Activist group Critical Resistance writes:
“Christie challenged the accepted notions of crime and the legitimacy of imprisonment throughout his career. Along with Thomas Mathiesen and Louk Hulsman, Christie was at the forefront of a tendency of European social scientists that pushed prison abolition into mainstream conversation.”
In this very accessible Q&A, Christie explains that someone stealing money or threatening violence inside or outside the family is an unwanted act in both cases, but only in the latter is it defined as “crime” and therefore more likely to be dealt with courts. Transgression has other “solutions” and responses than prosecution. Judicial systems have to be more than merely punishment.
At different times, Churchill, Mandela and Dostoyevsky encouraged scrutiny of a society’s prisons in order to understand a society itself. Christie asked us to go further and scrutinise the level of pain — psychological, physical, medical — induced by a society’s systems of crime control and punishment in order to understand a society’s character. What level of widespread revenge and hurt are American prisons willing to enact under the auspices of “justice”?
Christie’s seminal book Limits To Pain was the most rounded delivery of his ideas. It was translated into 11 languages. You can read it in full online here.
IN EUROPE, IN THE UNITED STATES
Christie was able to stave off, somewhat, the drive toward punitive sentencing and warehousing in his home nation Norway. He and other thinkers in the social sciences had a place at the table.
Unfortunately, the U.S. prison boom was driven by politicians’ fear of losing votes, guards’ fear of losing jobs, and the public’s fear of the ever-present, media-manufactured predator. The Prison Industrial Complex emerged as a result. Christie describes this money-driven brand of American exceptionalism:
It is quite a fantastic situation when those who administer the pain-delivery in our society have such a great say. It’s as if the hangman’s association got together to work for more hanging. We might feel a bit uneasy about this. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a trend in the military industry to turn to law-and-order production. There has been a series of meetings between defence contractors and penal authorities. The US Secretary of Defence addressed them saying: ‘You won the war abroad, now help us win the war at home.’ It is the electronics industry that is most heavily involved wiring prisons, producing electronic bracelets, electric monitoring both inside and outside prisons. It involves lots of industries – construction, food-catering, even telephone companies. The journal of the American Corrections Association is filled with ads to tap this billion-dollar market.
Rest in peace, Nils.
It gets worse. 1 in 2 Black women have an incarcerated family member.
The Essie Justice Group writes:
On May 20, 2015, the Du Bois Review published Racial Inequalities in Connectedness to Imprisoned Individuals in the United States, a groundbreaking article exposing the devastating effects of mass incarceration on the women who are so often left behind to pick up the pieces.
The article reports that 1 in 4 women in the United States currently has an imprisoned family member. Forty-four percent of black women—just over 1 in 2.5—have an incarcerated family member, compared to 12 percent of white women. Black women have over 11 times as many imprisoned family members as white women, and are more likely to be connected to multiple people in prison. Over 6 million black women in the United States have a family member currently imprisoned.
While the racial inequalities are striking, the number of women overall affected by the incarceration of family members and loved ones is staggering. The study makes clear that women in the United States currently have unprecedented levels of connectedness to people in prison. With men making up 90 percent of the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated, women who have incarcerated loved ones are often left raising children, managing family finances, and facing stigma in their communities and workplaces. As a result, these women are at greater risk for a whole host of harmful health and economic outcomes.
As Anita Wills, a member of Essie Justice Group, explains, “In 2003, when my son Kerry was sentenced to 66 years in prison, I was devastated. I had to keep it together for my son and grandsons. I am now 68 years old and raising my 17-year-old grandson. This is not how I envisioned living my retirement years.”
Terryon Cross, whose father is in prison, says, “I’ve grown up with incarceration all around me. When my son Yancy was born, I was 16 years old. I want more than anything for my four-year-old to grow up without me having to drive to prison to see and hug our family. I don’t want him to think this is normal, even though it is happening all around us.”
This trailblazing article sheds light on the scope of mass incarceration’s effect on families and loved ones—particularly women—and alerts us to the fact that this group has been under-studied and often ignored. It helps lay the groundwork for a better understanding of the consequences of mass imprisonment in the United States and its particularly devastating impact on women with incarcerated loved ones.
 The article was co-authored by Hedwig Lee and Tyler McCormick of the University of Washington, Seattle; Margaret T. Hicken of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and Christopher Wildeman of Cornell University.
 “Family members” include male and female relatives such as aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as children, partners, and parents. It is important to note that this analysis focuses only on people serving sentences in prison, and not those in jail. Had the article included people in jail, the number of women affected by family member incarceration would be much higher.
Essie Justice Group is an organization that works directly with women with incarcerated loved ones. Media contact: Gina at email@example.com.
Image: Cell-block, Angola Prison, Louisiana, 2014. Giles Clarke/Getty Images.
I was recently alerted about a disturbing change in policy within the California prison system. There are numerous reasons to be alarmed and thankfully Kenneth Hartman details them below and in the linked Los Angeles Times Op-Ed he wrote.
Californians United for Responsible Budget (CURB), for whom Hartman is an Advisory Board Member, forwarded me his open letter.
Dear Friends & Colleagues:
As you may already know, the CDCR has implemented a new screening system for visitors that includes the use of Ion Scanners and dogs. The upshot of this is visitors, and only visitors, if found positive by either of these highly inaccurate methods, are required to submit to a strip search in order to have a contact visit. For the details of what constitutes a strip search, please see my opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Strip-Searches Will Keep Helpful Visitors, Not Illegal Drugs, Out Of Prison.
Over the past few weeks, at this prison alone, a 77-year old woman with a recent knee replacement was ordered to squat naked, another woman who refused to submit to the humiliation of a strip search was denied contact visits, but when she reluctantly agreed the following weekend she was forced to strip search twice as punishment, and multiple other visitors were placed on non-contact visiting status for not surrendering their dignity.
The goal of all of this is clear. The CDCR wants to do away with contact visiting. They are heaping their own failure to control the drug problem in the prisons onto the backs of the visitors. It’s a terrible thing we all have to fight back against now before it’s too late, before we’re all on non-contact visiting status forever.
As a starting point to this campaign, there’s an online petition called “Stop Strip Searching My Mom.” I encourage all of you to sign the petition and get everyone you know to sign the petition. Further, please forward this to all your contacts and ask them to do the same thing. We need 100,000 signers before we send it to the governor. Let’s get to work!
And there will be more to this campaign, so please get ready to participate again when we press for legislative help and seek legal help in the not too distant future.
Thank you in advance for your help in defeating these unreasonable policies.
Take the best of care and strive to be happy. Peace…
Sincerely, Kenneth E. Hartman
“Photos are a vision of the past. So, among the many things they are, they are ghosts. However, due to the lazy overuse of the word, ‘Haunting’ doesn’t apply anymore. A key characteristic of the photographic medium has been slowly and silently eradicated because of our lack of invention. Alongside ‘Stunning’ ‘Awesome’ and ‘Epic’, ‘Haunting’ is a word that carries no meaning in photography any more. It’s a turn off. And it’s a hard sell. I reserve similar contempt for the adjectives ‘Eerie’ and ’Surreal.’ The real shame is that these formulas are almost unavoidable in publishing these days. I’m guilty. Stories I’ve written have been published under headlines that have included the words ‘Stunning’ ‘Awesome’ ‘Epic’ ‘Eerie’ and ’Surreal’. And, yes, ‘Haunting’ too.”
^^^ What I said when Humble Arts invited me to trash an adjective. ^^^