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Marie Levin holds a photo of her brother, Ronnie Dewberry, taken at San Quentin State Prison in 1988. Until recently, it was the last photograph he’d had taken. Photo credit: Adithya Sambamurthy/The Center for Investigative Reporting
STARVED OF THEIR OWN IMAGE
We are now into the second week of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike. It is difficult to get firm figures on the number of participating prisoners. The Los Angeles Times reports 30,000; CNN reports 12,000 and Yahoo reports 7,000+.
I’m inclined to trust the figures sourced by Solitary Watch:
The hunger strike began on July 8th with participation of approximately 30,000 people in two-thirds of California’s prisons, as well as several out-of-state facilities holding California prisoners. In the first days of the hunger strike, approximately 3,200 others also refused to attend work or education classes as a form of protest in support of the hunger strike. As of Sunday, there are an estimated 4,487 still on hunger strike.
Still, formidable numbers.
INVISIBLE AND UNPHOTOGRAPHED PEOPLE
Last week, in conjunction with the initiation of the mass peaceful protect, Michael Montgomery for the Center for Investigative Reporting published an excellent article California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities about the ban on portrait photographs of prisoners held in solitary confinement.
The ban resulted from a tension between what a photograph meant or could mean.
For families, a photograph is a tangible connection to their loved one behind bars, but for staff of the four maximum security prisons that upheld the ban, photographs were potential calling cards — circulated by prison gang leaders — both to advise other members that they’re still in charge and to pass on orders.
The ban was lifted in 2011, following the last California prison hunger strike. Montgomery quotes Sean Kernan, the former Under-Secretary of the CDCR
“I think we were wrong, and I think (that) to this day,” he said. “How right is it to have an offender who is behaving … (and) to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years?” Kernan directed prison staff to ease the restrictions for inmates who were free of any disciplinary violations.
The ban in the four Californian prisons was extraordinary.
“I have never heard of any other prison system or individual prison in America imposing a long-term ban of this kind,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.
As I have stated frequently on Prison Photography, prison (visiting-room) portraiture is one of the most prevalent types of American vernacular photography.
Until artists such as Alyse Emdur and David Adler began to draw focus to this disparate, decentralised, emotion-laden, and high-stake vernacular sub-genre, prison portraits were kept in wallets, on mantles and in side tables. There’s tens of millions of them out there.
And yet, for over 20 years, thousands of men in California were not allowed images of themselves. The additional ban of mirrors in solitary units meant that many men often did not see images of themselves for years on end. Again, to quote Montgomery’s article:
“I have asked my husband, ‘Do you even know what you look like?’ And he says, ‘Kind of, sort of,’ ” said Irene Huerta, whose husband, Gabriel, 54, has been detained at Pelican Bay for 23 years.
THE PHOTOGRAPH AS AN OBJECT OF DEPLOYMENT
In the free world, photographs are ubiquitous, easily created, shared and possessed. The fact that these seemingly innocuous objects were caught in the tussle of control between prison authorities and prisoners is astonishing, and speaks to the power struggle (real and imagined) between the kept and the keepers.
Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said easing the restrictions on prisoner photographs raised no major security concerns, so long as inmates had to earn them. “It’s not as if there’s been an epidemic of inmate photos on the street,” he said.
I am not sure how Rushford would measure this, or even it would significantly alter the lives of prisoners, specifically now during the hunger strike, and especially now when proven or alleged gang affiliations have been put aside by prisoners in solidarity for improved conditions for all.
In light of recent art market fetishism, it would seem the primary reason anyone would want to gather prison portraits would be to repeat Harper’s Books’ $45,000 hustle and cash in on the images?
As for the families (following the ban lift) the value of newly acquired images is not in any doubt:
Seeing an image of their incarcerated relative for the first time in years has sparked renewed hope and revived dormant family connections. For others, the photographs are a shocking reminder of the length of time some inmates have been held in isolation.
CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING LINKS
Michael Montgomery’s California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities
Interactive Solitary Lives feature.
A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT THE SOLITARY WATCH WEBSITE
I cannot emphasize enough how important the website Solitary Watch is as a resource. Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and their team of reporters produce high quality journalism — not only for their website but for other news outlets including The Guardian, Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation.
Solitary Watch is an independent media and advocacy project, funded by grants and donations. It is a project of the Community Futures Collective, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. You can support the project here.
I don’t hesitate to say that Solitary Watch has driven much of the critical and visible public discourse about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails.
As Solitary Watch describes, “Solitary confinement is one of the nation’s most pressing domestic human rights issues — and also one of the most invisible,” which is why I have a vested interest in their work; we’re each interested in making solitary and other egregious aspects of the U.S. prison system more visible.
California State Prison, Corcoran. 2006, ink and pencil on paper, 52 x 156 inches.
Not a photographer, but an illustrator.
Bunting, like Sandow Birk and Alex Donis before him uses canny illustration to rifle home the banality of (secure) structures and signs in the mundane US hinterlands. Bunting’s grayscale world is one of malls, excavated hillsides, prisons and abandonment.
These subjects are old and familiar to American artists; artists who have attempted to reconcile their art with the psychology of deserts, gas stations and limitless geographies.
Bunting’s work is brooding, but most disturbingly it stakes out an invisible truth – that being, that post-industrial activities in dislocated rural areas are of sinister and charged ideological purpose.
The celebrated colour photography of Shore, Sternfeld and Eggleston is laconic, seductive and – admittedly – sometimes jarring, but never is it so critical or detached as Bunting’s work. Regarding detachment and the artist’s distance, the claim here that sketching has pushed out the great photographers may seem ludicrous and yet that is how I read Bunting’s very intelligent work.
READ & LISTEN
Oregon Gatehouse (its yellow mimicked the shade of rock looming behind as a train went through). 2008, ink and pencil on paper, 30 x 52 inches.