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A few months ago, you may recall, I mounted a show in a brewery in Seattle. It was a prison art fundraiser organised by University Beyond Bars and an appended exhibition of prison photography from Washington State – including the work of Bettina Hansen, Tim Matsui, Steve Davis, Cheryl Hanna-Truscott and Erika Schultz.
During the opening, there was a couple of filmmakers snagging folk for interviews and trying to make sense of what college education can do for a prisoners’ community and why an art auction and photography show can bring those ideas to the public.
Well, the resulting video has just been published. It’s not the slickest media production you’ll find but it is earnest and the film recognises the work of the many individuals and volunteers who quietly work to make prisons more humane and hopeful.
I wanted to share some PPOTR snapshots with you. Angola Prison (Louisiana State Penitentiary) is the state’s maximum security prison. An 18,000 acre former slave plantation, Angola is the size of Manhattan. At the time of my visit, Angola was “home” to 5,400 men, over 4,500 of whom will die within its razor wire.
Angola is a strange place. Burl Cain, warden since 1994, has blurred the lines between church and state by implementing a regime of “moral rehabilitation”. Of the six interfaith chapels on prison grounds, four have been constructed under his watch.
As well as providing God, Cain also provides as many programmes as possible to keep the prisoners active. From harvesting tonnes of crops (“We never open a can of food in our kitchens,” said prison spokesperson Gary Young), to refurbing wheelchairs for charitable use; from the twice annual rodeo season to the dog-training facility; from the horse breeding programme to the prison hospice; and from the prison newspaper – The Angolite – to the prison’s own TV station, prisoners who tow the line are kept busy.
Of course, on my media tour, I wondered what I didn’t see: the death row, the solitary confinement cells, the staff quarters.
I did see worklines in the fields guarded by armed correctional officers on horseback. I was also provided a meal of beans, rice and fried chicken at the Warden’s Ranch House. I visited shortly after Thanksgiving so the Christmas decorations were going up.
All in all, on that sunny late autumn day, I was driven through what outwardly appeared to be a pastoral idyll. I focused my lens at the signage, the murals, the markings of the regime. I present this little snapshot not in an ironic way, but that it may confound some viewers and we might wonder what lies behind these very surface-level illustrations.
I’d like to feature here two very separate projects. If you’ll allow me, I want to overview Matej Kren’s Book Cell and think of the book literally as a sculptural physical constraint. At the same time, I’d like to introduce Herman Spector’s program of bibliotherapy at San Quentin Prison and frame the book as a pedagogical tool for control.
The Book Cell Project repeats the recurring procedure, in the work of this artist, of piling up thousands of books, creating an architectonic structure where we are invited to step inside.
The memory and knowledge accumulated in the books gathered, closed and inaccessible, diverse and precious will be potentially recovered in the end, when all of the books can return to their function of being read, but meanwhile they will have been worked on as sculpting matter and as the spirit of the place where the artist intends to hold us: an hexagonal enclosure with a passage defined by mirrors that assure the vertigo of a fall, the ad infinitum fragmentation, the panic of spatial disorientation characteristic of a virtual infinity.
The fact that these structures are made from the library/archive of the hosting institution makes me shudder. CAMJAP claims a pride in this making the structures site specific.
Prague is a great literary city and the absurdity of being confined by books would be appreciated by Kafka, and yet Krens offers us a way out that Kafka never would. He intends that books return to use and are reborn into cultural thought.
Kren’s literal use of bound knowledge in the fortification of space calls to mind other powerful (if less poetic) uses of books in controlling inmate populations. I’m thinking specifically of Herman Spector’s program of Bibliotherapy at San Quentin State Prison
From 1947 until 1968, Herman Spector was employed as senior librarian at San Quentin. He put in place a meticulous, long-term program offering 7-days-a-week library access and a choice from over 33,000 titles. By the end of his tenure he stated (not estimated, for he knew every book checked out) that 3,096,377 books had circulated through his system. His project drove up prisoner literacy and had inmates reading 98 books/year.
The project sounds nothing but positive and indeed it brought about much self improvement. But, remember this was a grand experiment with a captive audience and Spector had total control over the reading lists – and latterly, the outward correspondence and writing by San Quentin inmates. Spector employed censorship as readily as he conducted reading groups and assigned classic texts.
Five years ago I was fortunate to meet Eric Cummins, whose book The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement details Spector’s manipulations at San Quentin (Chapter Two: Bibliotherapy & Civil Death). It is the most thorough examination of that great experiment. Cummins writes:
‘Books, for Spector, were the “deathless weapons of progress” by which prisoners could be “paroled into the custody of their better selves … by feeding on hallowed thoughts.” And, “The hermitage of a small, dank cell,” Spector wrote, “if provided with books, can yield a rich harvest of sheer delight and practical values.“‘ (Page 26)
‘Though the prison’s official censor was the associate warden for care and treatment, the actual work fell to Spector. Except for mail, which was read in the cell blocks or the mail room, the senior librarian censored all writings by inmates that left the prison and decided what publications would be purchased for the library.‘ (Page 24)
‘Spector stated his own censorship policy as follows: “Those which emphasise morbid or antisocial attitudes, behaviour, or disrespect for religion or government or other undesirable materials are not purchased.” Like most other librarians of the treatment era, Spector gave little thought to the danger of political, class or cultural bias implicit in his prison censorship policies, and he wasted no time worrying that denying prisoners law books might be unfair or even unconstitutional. Books that gave inmates access to the law were to be confiscated at the gates. Books that criticised church or state were seditious.‘ (Pages 25/26)
It wasn’t only reading that was controlled and owned; writing too:
‘The reduced civil status of prisoners was reaffirmed in 1941 in a section of the penal code titled “Civil Death,” penal code 2600-2601. As a consequence of the Civil Death statute, the California Department of Corrections regarded all writing produced by state prisoners as state property, just as a chair or table made in the prison industries belonged to the state.‘ (Page 25)
Almost constantly throughout his tenure, Spector was at odds with the prison administration who were either unable to grasp, or unwilling to endorse, his aggressive methods of control. When Spector left his post over 25 years of meticulous notes and records were destroyed.
Bibliotherapy and censorship, as Cummin’s concludes, ‘separated prisoners from the power of their own words. Even so, the underlying assumptions of bibliotherapy would soon have a tremendous influence on the lives of certain of the brightest of San Quentin’s inmates, for they would take the notion of reform through reading and writin, the foundation of Herman Spector’s faith, as their own first principle … turning the notion of civil death on its head, reconnecting themsleves to the power of words previously denied them.‘ (Pages 31/32)
Spector’s project founded,at San Quentin, a tradition of literacy that would engender the works of Caryl Chessman, Eldridge Cleaver and the expanded political prison writing movement of the 1970’s. In some ways, the approaches of autodidactism and self determination of the Black Panthers began with the obsessive endeavours of the eccentric biblio-evangelist Herman Spector.