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Okay, the title to this post makes it sound like I’ll be making a habit of recording these stories of abuse. I will not. That isn’t because these episodes aren’t regular (unfortunately, they are quite regular), it is because I don’t have the time most weeks to adequately collect the many stories of misconduct from across this America.
So, why this week? Well, I came across two particularly disgusting and glaring examples of abuse. In both cases, they are presented with great clarity. The first is courtroom video footage. The second is a diaristic, written account.
Above, we see a video from September 2012, in which Denver Sheriff Deputy Brad Lovingier slams a handcuffed prisoner into wall. Face first. Totally unprovoked.
Following the judge’s ruling, the defendant Anthony Waller requested clarification. At which point he is grabbed, from behind, by the handcuffs secured by behind his back, spun around, and flung into the wall. Waller falls to his knees after the impact and is then dragged out of the courtroom and into a holding cell. In the video Lovingier can be heard saying, “You don’t turn on me,” as the only explanation for his actions.
Madness. Ordinarily, a citizen guilty of such an assault would face a 6-month jail term. Lovingier was suspended for 30 days. And he’s appealing that.
SOLITARY CELL FOR GOOD SAMARITAN
The story is as simple as its logic is baffling and its behaviours are brutal.
Man witnesses a bike accident. Calls 9-1-1. Is handcuffed by police for unknown reasons. Taken to jail. Asks legitimate questions. Faces retribution from deputies. Stripped. Thrown in a shit-stained solitary cell.
You just have to read it to believe it: Good Samaritan Backfire or How I Ended Up in Solitary After Calling 911 for Help.
This kid — Paretz Partensky — is a young, educated, white, computer programmer. His abuse is likely no different (it might be less egregious?) than abuse meted out to people in San Francisco far more vulnerable than he. But Partensky gets on hot-new-story-telling-platform Medium and tells the story of his 12 hours of detention.
Officer Durkin, in the foreground, is telling Ben that he cannot take this photo. According to Attorney Krages, you are allowed to take photos in public places. http://www.krages.com/ThePhotographersRight.pdf Officer Durkin’s reprimand is in violation of Ben’s rights.
Partensky’s account is nuanced — he provides necessary details; he gives benefit of doubt to most of the characters involved; he tries to put himself in the position of others throughout the ordeal; he is aware of his white privilege; he ponders what different outcomes may have arisen had he and others interacted differently. In short, it is a compelling read.
Let’s not be churlish and say this is a young, comfy, SF-coder-class entrepreneur using an online platform to have a whinge. Let’s be civic and responsible and say no-one should be subject to arbitrary and vengeful treatment from law enforcement. Let us not allow our uncomfortable relationship to racial and income inequality, nor our relationship to white privilege be an excuse to dismiss Partensky’s story. Let us be shocked. Let us be angry. Let us thank Partensky for bringing his account to light.
I’m not the only one putting up a show (Prison Obscura) of imagery made in and about prisons. The Laband Gallery at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles opens its Voices Of Incarceration exhibition on Saturday 25th January.
It’s an interesting line up of artists that includes artists who are imprisoned and individuals on the outside who are making art about prisons. Laband says:
“Both groups bring to light the emotional costs and injustices of the Prison Industrial Complex. Voices of Incarceration also explores the rehabilitative arts programs in California prisons and the expression of the imprisoned artists’ strength and individuality through the creative process.”
KPCC, the Los Angeles NPR-affiliate has done a couple of programs recently about the small but important attempts to reintroudce arts education into California prisons:
If you’re in L.A., go check it out. It’s open until the 16th March. One last note — it’s great to see in the mix Prison Photography favourites Alyse Emdur, Richard Ross, Michal Chelbin and Sheila Pinkel.
Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night (BITDBITN) is a collection of images, texts, letters, objects, quotes and ephemeral queries borne of Amy’s correspondence with men on death row and in solitary confinement. It is a project I know well having interviewed Amy about it in 2011 and curated it into the exhibition Cruel and Unusual in 2012. I’ve keenly followed the development of BITDBITN. In some cases, Amy and I bounced ideas back-and-forth about it when we lived in the same town. Amy and I are close friends and she once invited me to guest curate at Women In Photography. When Daylight asked me to write an essay to accompany the images and audio it was a no-brainer.
BITDBITN is about execution, time on death row, solitary confinement, sensory deprivation. It is also about the most invisible parts of America’s prison industrial complex. Amy grew up in California, the state that was first to operate a specialised solitary confinement facility at Pelican Bay State Prison. This past summer, as I was writing the piece, the California Prisoner Hunger Strike in protest of conditions in Pelican Bay and other SHU, IMU and solitary facilities was in full swing.
Amy’s work is our entry into this highly contested political territory; a territory that remains, for all intents and purposes, hidden. It is hidden because solitary makes people insane and is psychological torture.
Daylight Digital’s presentation includes the words of Freddy (spoken by Rafael Ramirez) who was sent to prison as a 13 year-old, has spent the last 20+ years of his life in solitary confinement, and with whom Elkins corresponded for four years.
I’m proud to have been invited to join this multimedia collaboration. See the images, listen to the testimony, read the words.
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.
The NYCLU created a mock prison cell to show what life is like in solitary confinement. Kathleen Horan/WNYC
Today resumed a hunger strike by the prisoners of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison SHU (Secure Housing Unit). In solidarity, prisoners across the nation have also joined.
The main issue at hand is solitary confinement. Namely, its longterm use. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, stated that any time over 15 days in solitary confinement constitutes torture. Yet California prisoners have been caged in solitary for 10 to 20 years or more. In addition, the prisoners kept under solitary confinement ask for nutritious food and the same educational programming accessible to prisoners in the general populations of state prisons.
Solitary confinement is an invisible cancer to those outside the system and a terror to those within it.
The prisoners — who refer to themselves at The Short Corridor Collective — are returning to protest that began two years ago. Neither Phase One (July/August 2011) and Phase Two (Sept/Oct 2011) secured the policy changes desired, despite promises from the California Department of Corrections to address the specific issues and reasonable demands made. In 2011, over 6,000 California prisoners went on hunger and work strike making it one of the largest peaceful protests in U.S. prison history.
The Pelican Bay State Prison SHU Short Corridor Collective state:
Our decision does not come lightly. For the past 2 years we’ve patiently kept an open dialogue with state officials, attempting to hold them to their promise to implement meaningful reforms, responsive to our demands. For the past seven months we have repeatedly pointed out CDCR’s failure to honor their word—and we have explained in detail the ways in which they’ve acted in bad faith and what they need to do to avoid the resumption of our protest action.
Five core demands
1. Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.
4. Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).
You can download full text document of the demands here.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Sign the petition.
Involvement in the July 13th Mass Mobilization!
Plan a solidarity action!
Use your imagination and your skills; talk to your family and friends about it, and maybe provide them with a handful of shocking facts about the psychological torture that is solitary ? (See below)
Don’t get despondent, get angry.
WHAT IS SOLITARY CONFINEMENT?
In California, nearly 12,000 imprisoned people spend 23 hours-a-day living in a concrete cell smaller than a large bathroom. Across the United states it is conservatively estimated that 20,000 people are in solitary every day. It could be as high as 70,000; it depends on definitions related to time and contact.
In California solitary cells have no windows, no access to fresh air or sunlight. People in solitary confinement exercise an hour a day in a cage the size of a dog run. They are not allowed to make any phone calls to their loved ones. They cannot touch family members who often travel days for a 90 minute visit. They are not allowed to talk to other imprisoned people. They are denied all educational programs, and their reading materials are censored.
UNFATHOMABLE SCALE AND WIDESPREAD USE
“The [psychological and cognitive effects of long term isolation] is not something that’s easy to study, and not something that prison systems are eager to have people look at,” says Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who notes that the widespread use of solitary is a very modern phenomena.
We have an overwhelmingly crowded prison system in which the mandate to rehabilitate and provide activities for prisoners was suspended at the same time as the prison system became overcrowded. Not surprisingly, prison systems faced with this influx of prisoners, and lacking the rewards they once had to manage and control prisoner behavior, turned to the use of punishment. And one big punishment is the threat of long-term solitary confinement. They’ve used it without a lot of forethought to its consequences. That policy needs to be rethought.
Writing for the New Yorker (Hellhole) in 2009, physician Atul Gawande quoted extensively from Haney’s research and added:
After months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose. Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving” (Haney). [They] become essentially catatonic.
Keep yourself informed; keep progressing; keep honest; follow news on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website.
In solidarity, Pete.
UPDATE, 05/14/2013: Harpers Books confirmed that the collection was bought by an individual at Paris Photo LA.
At Paris Photo: Los Angeles, this week, a collection of California prison polaroids were on display and up for sale. The asking price? $45,000.
The price-tag is remarkable, but so too is the collection’s journey from street fair obscurity to the prestigious international art fair. It is a journey that took only two years.
The seller at Paris Photo LA, Harper’s Books named the anonymous and previously unheard-of collection The Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive. Harper’s has since removed the item from its website, but you can view a cached version here. The removal of the item leads me too presume that it has sold. Whether that is the case or not, my intent here is not to speculate on the current price but on the trail of sales that landed the vernacular prison photos in a glass case for the eyes and consideration of the photo art world.
The Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive on display at Paris Photo LA in April, 2013.
FROM OBSCURITY TO COVETED FINE ART COMMODITY
In Spring 2012, I walked into Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books in NE Portland and introduced myself to owner Myles Haselhorst. Soon after hearing my interest in prison photographs, he mentioned a collection of prison polaroids from California he had recently acquired.
You guessed it. The same collection. Where did Myles acquire it and how did it get to Paris Photo LA?
“I bought the collection from a postcard dealer at the Portland Postcard Show, which at the time was in a gymnasium at the Oregon Army National Guard on NE 33rd,” says Haselhorst of the purchase in February, 2011.
As the postcard dealer trades at shows up and down the west coast, Haselhorst presumes that dealer had picked up the collection in Southern California.
Haselhorst paid a low four figure sum for the collection – which includes two photo albums and numerous loose snapshots totaling over 400 images.
“I thought the collection was both culturally and monetarily valuable,” says Haselhorst. “At the time, individual photos like these were selling on eBay for as much as $30 each, often times more. I bought them with the intention of possibly publishing a book or making an exhibition of some kind.”
Indeed, Haselhorst and I discussed sitting down with the polaroids, leafing through them, and beginning research. As I have noted before, prison polaroids are emerging online. I suspect this reflects a fraction of a fledgling market for contemporary prison snapshots. Not all dealers bother – or need to bother – scanning their sale items.
Haselhorst and I were busy with other ventures and never made the appointment to look over the material.
“In the end, I didn’t really know what I could add to the story,” says Haselhorst. “And, I didn’t want to exploit the images by publishing them.”
Another typical and lucrative way to exploit the images would have been to break up the collection and sell them as single lots through eBay or at fairs, but Haselhorst always thought more of the collection then the valuation he had estimated.
In January 2013, Haselhorst sold the collection in one lot to another Portland dealer, oddly enough, at the Printed Matter LA Art Book Fair.
“Ultimately, after sitting on them for more than two years, I decided they would be a perfect fit for the fair, not only because it was in LA, but also because the fair offers an unmatched cross section of visual printed matter. It was hard putting a price on the collection, but I sold them for a number well below the $45,000 mark,” he says.
Haselhorst made double the amount that he’d paid for them.
The second dealer, who purchased them from Haselhorst, quickly flipped the collection and sold it at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair for an undisclosed number. The third buyer, also a dealer, had them priced at $25,000 at the recent New York Antiquarian Book Fair.
From these figures, we should estimate that Harper’s likely paid around $20,000 for the collection.
Harper’s Books’ brief description (and interpretation) of the collection reads:
Taken between 1977 and 1993. By far the largest vernacular archive of its kind we’ve seen, valuable for the insight it provides into Los Angeles gang, prison, and rap cultures. The first photo album contains 96 Polaroid photographs, many of which have been tagged (some in ink, others with the tag etched directly into the emulsion) by a wide swath of Los Angeles gang members. Most of the photos are of prisoners, with the majority of subjects flashing gang signs.
The second album has 44 photos and images from car magazines appropriated to make endpapers; the “frontispiece” image is of a late 30s-early 40s African-American woman, apparently the album-creator’s mother, captioned “Moms No. 1. With a Bullet for All Seasons.”
In addition, 170 loose color snapshots and 100 loose color Polaroids dating from 1977 through the early 1990s.
In my opinion, the little distinction Harper’s makes between gang culture and rap music culture is offensive. The two are not synonymous. This is an important and larger discussion, but not one to follow here in this article.
HOW SIGNIFICANT A COLLECTION IS THIS?
Harper’s is right on one thing. The newly named ‘Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive’ is a unique collection. Never before have I seen a collection this large. Visually, the text etched directly into the emulsion is a captivating feature of many of the polaroids.
We have seen plenty of vernacular prison photographs from the 19th and early to mid 20th century hit the market. Recently, a collection of 710 mugshots from the San Francisco Police Department made in the 1920′s sold twice within short-shrift. First for $2,150 in Portland, OR and then for $31,000 in New York just four months later! At the time of the sale, AntiqueTrader.com suggested it “may [have] set new record for album of vernacular photography.”
As a quick aside, and for the purposes of thinking out loud, might it be that polaroids that reference Southern California African American prison culture are – in the eyes of collectors and cultural-speculators – as exotic, distant and mysterious as sepia mugshots of last century? How does thirty years differ to one hundred when it comes to mythologising marginalised peoples? Does the elevation of gang ephemera from the gutter to traded high art mean anything? I argue, the market has found a ripe and right time to romanticise the mid-eighties and in particular real-life figures from the era that resemble the stereotypes of popular culture. It is in some ways a distasteful exploitation of people after-the-fact. Perhaps?
WHERE DOES THE $45,000 PRICE-TAG COME FROM?
Just because the so-called ‘Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive’ is rare, doesn’t mean similar collections do not exist, it may just mean they have not hit the market. This is, I argue, because no market exists … until now.
If the price tag seems crazy, it’s because it is. But consider this: one of the main guiding factors for valuations of art is previous sales of similar items. However, in the case of prison polaroids, there is no real discernible market. Harper’s is making the market, so they can name their price.
“All in all, it’s pretty crazy,” says Haselhorst, “especially when you think about how I bought it here in Portland over on 33rd, just a few miles from our gallery.”
All these details probably make up only the second chapter of this object’s biography. The first chapter was their making and ownership by the people in the photographs. Later chapters will be many. Time will tell whether later chapters will be attached to astronomical figures.
Harper’s suggests that rich “narrative arcs might be uncovered by careful research.” I agree. And these are importatn chapters to be written too.
I hope that more of these types of images with their narratives will emerge. If these types of vernacular prison images are to command larger and larger figures in the future, I hope that those who made them and are depiction therein make the sales and make the cash.
As it stands the speculation and rapid price increases, can be interpreted as easily as crass appropriation as it can connoisseurship. If these images deserve a $45,000 price tag, they deserve a vast amount of research to uncover the stories behind them. Who knows if the (presumed) new owner has the intent or access to the research resources required?
Along that same vein, here we identify a difference between the art market and the preservationists; between free trade capitalism and the efforts of museums, historians and academics; between those that trade rare items and those that are best equipped to do the research on rare items.
Whether speculative or accurate, the $45,000 price is way beyond the reach of museums. Photography and art dealers who are limber by comparison to large, immobile museums are working the front lines of preservation.
“Some might say that selling [images such as these] is exploitation, but a dealer’s willingness to monotize something like this is one form of cultural preservation,” argues Haselhorst. “If I had not been in a position to both see the collection’s significance and commodify it, albeit well below the final $45,000 mark, these photographs could have easily ended up in the trash.”
Loose Polaroids from the Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive as displayed by Harper’s Books at Paris Photo LA, Los Angeles, April, 2013.
A cover to one of the two albums that make up the Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive.
In the kitchen of his Brooklyn home, Ruiz flicks through his “portfolio” of prison images.
Stefan Ruiz has made photographs inside San Quentin State Prison, Soledad Prison and the notorious maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison. His photography from within California’s prisons was not accomplished by conventional methods; at no time was Ruiz on press assignment; making documentary work or running a photography workshop.
Ruiz worked for seven years as an art instructor at San Quentin, during which time he regularly made photographic records of individual artworks. He took some portraits of his students on the side. He got inside Pelican Bay as a court-appointed photographer making photographs for use as trial evidence.
It’s a bit of a family affair. Ruiz’s mother, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, was teaching art at Soledad. Ruiz had studied Islamic art in West Africa and went to deliver a talk to Muslim prisoners at Soledad. He delivered the same lecture later at San Quentin, at which time he was introduced to the art program coordinated by the William James Association.
Ruiz’s father is a criminal defense attorney, who in the mid nineties represented a prisoner at Pelican Bay. Ruiz was the case-for-defense’s chosen photographer, documenting conditions the of client’s confinement.
In addition to his photography, Ruiz made sketches, collected his students’ artwork, and acquired objects typical of prison culture. When he showed me a photograph of a DIY prison tattoo gun, I asked, “Is that something an inmate showed you or is it something that had been confiscated?”
“It’s something I have,” Ruiz replied.
The first photos Ruiz made inside were portraits of Soledad prison-artists holding their work. He took six rolls of film. At the age of 23, Ruiz began teaching art at San Quentin. One of his students had been a student of his mother’s at Soledad years prior. Prison-art hangs in Ruiz’ house and he has collected mug-shots for years.
In the mid-nineties, Ruiz cobbled together a photo “notebook” of his pictures of people and vernacular art. He keeps it in an old Fujifilm box bound with packing tape. “I used to take this with me everywhere; it was my portfolio.”
From humble and organic beginnings, Ruiz is now one of the most respected portrait and editorial photographers in America. Until recently he had never spoken about his experiences in California’s prisons. We sat down in his kitchen to unpack his memories and his homebrew portfolio.
PP: Your mother introduced you to prison-life?
SR: My mother organized exhibitions of the prisoners’ artwork. I helped out by taking photos of the artwork and making slides of their work. Some of that would go to William James Association to help them appeal for funding or for entry into competitions. That’s how I got cameras into the prison at first. Whenever I took a camera into a prison it was legal, and it was generally to photograph some type of art object.
PP: Of your prison work, it is your portraits that are known, however minimally, in the public sphere. I wasn’t aware of them until you were featured on VICE TV’s Picture Perfect.
SR: There are more photographs than just portraits. I taught at San Quentin for so long, and my boss had such a good relationship with the officials that gave access, that we were allowed to do quite a few things.
The first portraits I did were of the guys in my mother’s art class at Soledad who were to be involved in an exhibition. The way we were allowed to make portraits was to say, since they couldn’t make it to their show, their portrait would.
PP: Describe the art program.
SR: My boss played bass and the main emphasis of the art class was music but there were two visual artists who taught and I was one. The other was Patrick Maloney, who I guess is still teaching there. Patrick would also teach on Death Row. Sometimes, I would fill for him or accompany him on Death Row.
PP: How did you find working on death row?
SR: You move along the tiers and talk [through bars] to students individually, whereas on the mainline they come out their cells and they come to you.
There are two different sections of death row. In the first, there are a couple of tiers of just death row inmates. You’d need the key to get on the tier, and then you’d go from cell to cell, depending on who was part of the program. There might be three or four guys on a single tier. They had to buy their own supplies but through William James we also gave them supplies. Mostly you’d spend time talking to them. Each day, they might get half an hour outside their cell.
In the other section, the prisoners could leave their cells and go to a common space with some tables. There you could have two or three people in the class. That seemed like a better place to be on death row. The tiers are quite dark. Five tiers. And the other side is just open. One of our students was executed. He had killed a shopkeeper and his wife robbing a store in Los Angeles. He was a good student.
PP: Your mother was a professor at Santa Cruz, teaching art classes at Soledad. Those two institutions have a long and significant relationship going back to the protests and counter culture of the late sixties, Black Pantherism, and the book Soledad Prison: University of the Poor (1975) which was a collaboration between UCSC students and prisoners at Soledad.
PP: You gave a talk to Muslim students at Soledad, then to Muslim students at San Quentin and then you began in the art program. That trajectory explains your path but not your motivations. Why did you decide that leading arts education with prisoners was something you wanted to commit to multiple times a week, and eventually over seven years.
SR: Because it is interesting. I have to say; I think I learnt more from them than they learnt from me.
My father is a lawyer in criminal defense and labor law. His family is Mexican and he’s pretty liberal, so I grew up with that element too. Teaching art in prison was an activity that brought together both sides of my family.
PP: A context in which prison teaching is not a radical act?
SR: My mother was more or less a hippie. My father couldn’t really be one, he was just trying to assimilate, but he was definitely liberal. Growing up in Northern California at that time it was more of a norm than not to be on the left. To do things such as teaching in prison was not considered wild. There was no whole movement about victims’ rights as there is now.
Fair enough. There’s a lot of bad people in prison and some people who deserve to be there but …
When I was a kid, my parents were involved in a free school. We grew up in the country growing organic food. That was way before the trends of today. We composted everything; we weren’t allowed to have plastic bags for lunch. We had wax paper and baked our own bread.
The thing is the prison was interesting to me. At San Quentin they allowed me to take keys. The room where I taught art used to be a laundry room. There was a bunch of people that got murdered there, I guess in the seventies or eighties so they closed it down and eventually opened it up as an art room.
There was never a guard in our room. It was two levels but we would teach on the lower level. The closest guard was in what we would call the max-shack – a checkpoint, probably about 30 yards outside the door. I was really young when I was teaching there and a lot of the guys were way bigger than me. It was interesting to learn how to navigate that. There were anywhere from 5 to 15 people in my class. 15 would be a little bit hectic. Often we’d just get someone from the yard and have him come and sit. Students who wanted could draw him, and if not, they could work on other projects.
PP: Were any of them reluctant to paint or draw other prisoners? My experience teaching art in prison was that collectively they decided it was “suspect”, for want of a better term, to spend the time and energy painting another prisoner. Most of them made portraits of wives, girlfriends or children in a devotional way so to paint another prisoner made no sense to them and was in fact considered strange. They felt other prisoners would misconstrue it as a gesture of adoration or romantic attraction to the subject and that is something most guys wanted to avoid.
SR: No, most of them were into it. They didn’t have to do it but one thing is that since cameras aren’t allowed in prison you can make money if you can draw well, by drawing portraits, usually by copying photographs of prisoners’ family members. If you’re good you can make money. It’s like a throwback to an era before the camera; I can draw fairly realistically and that kind of saved me when I was in there because …
PP: … there’s a lot of respect attached to that ability.
SR: Yes. They’d give me a lot of shit and then we’d start drawing and it’d be fine. I generally had quite a few lifers in the class, because they are the ones who are more serious – eventually they decide to try and use their time. Young guys, who were only in for a little while, might joke around. The older guys kept the class in order.
PP: At what other times did you use your camera?
SR: There’s some really famous murals in San Quentin. I photographed them all.
PP: Was that the San Quentin administration that asked you to do that, or was it William James or was it self-initiated?
SR: My boss, Aida de Arteaga and I, decided it was a good thing to do. There are four dining halls. It used to be one huge one but it was divided because they were worried about riots. Three walls. Six sides on which the murals were painted. A Mexican-American inmate who had been busted, I think, for selling heroin painted the murals in the fifties. When I was still there, he came back to San Quentin, for the first time since his incarceration.
Photos from the San Quentin Prison dining halls. One of Ruiz’ students stands in front of the famous murals.
PP: In Photographs Not Taken you close with a bittersweet statement in which you said while you managed to take photos you still thought about the ones you weren’t allowed to take in such a “visually rich environment.” Did the staff or inmates think of their environment as visually rich?
SR: Obviously, most of the prisoners wanted to be out of there. I’m sure quite a few of the guards would like to have taken photos. Some did. Various guards had cameras for different reasons.
PP: What reasons?
SR: To photograph events. I photographed some of those too. We had concerts in the main yard, which is pretty impressive at San Quentin when you are down there with all the inmates. One time we had Ice Cube come in. On that billing, they had a white performer, a Hispanic performer and Ice Cube was the black performer. The administration has to play it like that.
Ice Cube performed in one of the dining halls and that was pretty crazy. You could see the guards were quite nervous. Some of the inmates were getting fired up. I don’t think they had another concert like that.
The prison liked the art program quite a lot and there were some guards who were supportive of our classes. Guards will either make things easy or hard for you. Basically, I think we were lucky for a lot of the time; we had people who were kind, trusted us, let us do more.
The thing about being there for so long is that you got know people fairly well. Especially being in a classroom when you’re with students for three or four hours at a time just drawing and talking. The thing that struck me was that I had a few guys who were lifers and had been in for 20 to 25 years; that’s a pretty crazy concept, especially now given all the changes that have happened, specifically with technology. I am sure – unless they were using them with their jobs within the prison – none of them had used a computer.
PP: Did you ever think there was an opportunity for you to do a photography workshop?
SR: The administration didn’t want us to do that at all. Even toward the end, they started to question me taking drawings out of the prison because many of them were realistic to the point that you could identify people in the drawings!
PP: What did the administration think of the portraits you did manage to take?
SR: They didn’t see most of them. They had signed-off on me doing photography, but they didn’t necessarily see the photographs. We got releases form the guys too. Guards might follow me round for a while, but I can take photos for days and bore the shit out of anyone. [Laughs].
I’ve probably got one of the best [records of the murals]. They were done on 4×5. I even did some on 8×10. I got in there at different times. Once, I’d used a Linhof 617 lens and camera on a commercial job, then I got access and so I used it in the prison.
PP: Did I hear that the Smithsonian has come to some sort of agreement, where by if and when San Quentin is demolished, they’ll remove and preserve the murals?
SR: They’ve been saying that for years, but I don’t know. The murals depict the history of California. The prisoners love the cable-car because the perspective is right so as you walk around it works.
“This guy before he took his shirt off warned me that his tattoos were considered some of the most racist in the prison. There’s the SS helmet skeletons.” Tattoos read ’100% Honky’ and ‘Aryan’.
Ruiz used a chalkboard as a backdrop, “I liked the color and I liked the reference to education.” Some prisoners shaved their heads ready for the shoot. “They knew I was bringing in the camera so they prepared,” says Ruiz.
PP: It seems like the prison administration’s policy toward camera use was ad hoc?
SR: I photographed in Pelican Bay and Tehachapi, but I actually did that through a court order. My father was representing a prisoner who the CDC said was one of the heads of the Northern Mexican mafia and that he was ordering murders from his cell in Pelican Bay.
In Pelican Bay I had to use the prison’s cameras; they wouldn’t let me take in any of my own equipment, except film. This was 1995. They held on to the film, processed it, and then gave everything to me, negatives and all. The images are a bit … the lenses were a bit crazy. It’s not what I would’ve used but it was fine.
In Tehachapi, I got to use one camera and one lens. Both were mine.
PP: What was your brief for the court order?
SR: I had to photograph the cells and so the reason these photos are joined together is that they only allowed me the one lens.
Ruiz photographs of Pelican Bay State Prison, CA made in 1995 for use as court evidence.
4/4/95, Pelican Bay – “The defendant was in one of these cells.”
“Pelican Bay is obviously freaky.”
“This is the yard at Tehachapi. This is a common area, these are the cells.”
PP: It’s because of the connection through your father that you got the court ordered gig?
SR: As a defense attorney, he was allowed to bring in his own photographer. As an art teacher, I’d actually spent more time inside of prisons than my father had. Normally, he would only go to a visiting room where he would talk to his client. Whereas, I used to go on tiers, I went in cells. There were times at San Quentin when I was totally unsupervised and there were times it felt a little freaky.
PP: Were any limits placed or pre-agreements made by the courts on your photographs to limit their circulation, or are they just yours?
SR: They’re just mine.
PP: Is there a reason why you’ve not shared them widely yet?
SR: There are some that I considered might be a bit sensitive and I didn’t want to get my boss into trouble in any way. The photographs from Pelican Bay and Tehachapi are fine. The ones from San Quentin; she’d help me get the camera in. We had an understanding. I wasn’t going to screw her over.
It’s more important for me to be cool with her than it is to profit from the photos. I’ve done fine with photography without having ever shown these. I probably could’ve done a book with these and with some of the writing and artwork I have a long time ago, but I’ve never been about just promoting myself at all costs without taking others into consideration.
By now, enough time has passed. I’m going through everything. I think I have enough for a book. I have boxes of stuff that just accumulated.
PP: How did all of this work and exposure across three Californian prisons inform the rest of your career?
SR: I always knew I was going to do art. I didn’t know I was going to do photography. I always thought I’d be a painter. The thing that I learned? I learnt that if I couldn’t take any photos, I would collect things!
I took my portfolio everywhere. I got jobs off of the stuff but I never let it out of my hands. You’re the first person to have photographed it, with the exception of the VICE crew who put it in their video. I’m okay with that now. I always guarded it.
I met the guys who were doing COLORS magazine in the late nineties and it definitely influenced them. It influenced their ‘Prison’ issue (June, 2002). I was actually supposed to go to Gaza for COLORS, but the Israelis had bombed the prison right before I was due to leave, so the trip was cancelled. So, I’ve definitely used this stuff to my advantage.
PP: Did you ever give prints to the prisoners?
SR: I’d give them stuff but we kept it low key because I didn’t want any trouble for the program.
PP: Did the guys you taught appreciate that San Quentin had more programs than most prisons?
SR: They liked San Quentin. It’s an old prison. It has a lot of nooks and crannies. There are weird things that go on there that you wouldn’t get in a modern prison.
There was the old hospital built in the 19th century and out of brick. It was structurally unsound after the earthquake and left empty. They’d let certain prisoners go in there at their own risk. The deputy warden or someone in authority allowed one of my students to set up an art studio in there. And he had it for a couple of years! You wouldn’t get that at a lot of other places.
PP: Your photographs form a weird mix.
SR: I’ve always thought it was valid because it was about what I could get and how I could get it.
PP: Do you think prison systems in the U.S. are racist?
SR: If 11% of California’s population is Black but then at least 36% of the prison population is Black something’s not proportional. That says something about this society. Obviously the system can be racist, but it is also classist. You have a hell of a lot more poor people in prison than you do wealthy people and that’s because wealthy people can afford lawyers.
There weren’t many well educated guys in my classes. They’re obviously smart guys who could do all sorts but they weren’t well educated. I had a blonde white guy who I asked him to read something one time, not even thinking that he didn’t know how to read. It was a horrible thing for him and, of course, for me. I didn’t expect it at all. After that he started taking some of the high school classes and learnt to read.
Prisons are a control thing. [Upon release] if you have people who can’t travel, can’t get housing and can’t vote you can keep a whole population controlled. You can keep a whole population one little step away from being thrown straight back into prison.
PP: So the prison system is failing?
SR: I definitely think some people should be in prison.
There was a child molester who was quite collectible. People like to collect his art. He creeped me out. He made drawings of the kids he had killed from newspaper clippings. I took photographs of them, but I didn’t know that’s what they were until he explained them to me later. He had a scrapbook and the first 20 pages were pictures of Hillary Clinton smiling and then after that it was all these pictures of kids. Innocent pictures – many of them from National Geographic, but when you know what he was about, it’s pretty disturbing.
There’s some fucked up people in the world.
But I also saw, all the time, guys in prison for stupid drugs convictions and I think that is just a waste. The three strikes law was foolish. Keeping someone in prison, which at the time cost something like $30,000 – I’m sure it’s more now – is just a waste of money. You can give people education with that money to help them get better jobs.
I used to go to the visitor center a lot. You’d see the damage being done when families would come up from Los Angeles for the day. Wives would go in and the kids would stay in the guesthouse for the day. The separation of families when they have to travel so far [to where loved ones are imprisoned] is harsh.
Obviously, I believe in education over other things. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done what I did.
Ruiz was born in San Francisco, and studied painting and sculpture at the University of California (Santa Cruz) and the Accademia di Belle Arti (Venice, Italy). He took up photography while in West Africa, documenting Islam’s influence on traditional West African art. He taught art at San Quentin State Prison from 1992-1998, and began to work professionally as a photographer in 1994. He has worked editorially for magazines including Colors (for whom he was Creative Director, 2003-04), The New York Times Magazine, L’uomo Vogue, Wallpaper*, The Guardian Weekend, Telegraph Magazine and Rolling Stone. His award winning advertising campaigns include Caterpillar, Camper, Diesel, Air France and Costume National.
Dana Ullman, a Brooklyn-based photographer, has in recent years traveled back-and-forth to California; to Los Angeles’ Skid Row, to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and to the San Joaquin Valley. The series’ title Another Kind Of Prison references the fact that many hardships of prison continue post-release and, furthermore, new challenges emerge. Ullman followed several women as they left prison and readjusted to life on the outside. For Ullman, the choice to go to California was logical.
“California is home to the world’s two largest women prisons and has an annual corrections budget of 10 billion dollars, the highest in the country, yet has limited reentry programs,” she says. “In California, there are about 12,000 women on parole. Unprepared once on parole, without money, housing or resources, institutionalized and isolated, these women find it difficult to regain hold of their lives.”
Over the past 15 years, the number of incarcerated women in prison increased by 203%, as compared to 77% for men. With such a rapid increase in prison populations, services within prisons have inevitably suffered. Ullman reports a lack of training, preparation and rehabilitation for the women she photographed.
Ullman is also keen to emphasize the common factors particular to female prisoners.
“62% of women in prison have children under 18. Many suffer from mental illness and have histories of sexual and physical abuse – 73% of women in prison have symptoms or are diagnosed with a mental illness compared to 55% of men in prison. 65% of women in state prisons are incarcerated for nonviolent drug, property, or public order offenses. Nearly one in three reported committing their offense to support a drug addiction. Many are battered women serving time for crimes related to their abuse,” Ullman writes.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Ullman wants to communicate the strength of the women who – at a particularly difficult junctures in life – have kindly let her into their lives.
“While some women have had difficult transitions, others have become inspirational community leaders – I want to show both sides in an effort to break stigma associated with incarceration.”
Dana Ullman and I share a belief that prisons are increasingly defining our society and economy.
“Another Kind Of Prison is more important then ever in exploring new strategies to better address the complex needs of present and former women prisoners who are often left out of the conversation,” says Ullman. “These stories, the needs and dreams of each woman in their own voice, illuminate the ‘revolving door’ created by poor public policies and lives fragmented by ignorance, poverty and by years, even lifetimes, of abuse. They will also help the public understand who these women are.”
Scroll down for a brief Q&A and a dozen more images. All images and captions by Dana Ullman.
Top image: LaKeisha Burton, 38, a poet and reentry advocate, was convicted as an adult at the age of 15. Ms. Burton served 17 and a half years in prison for shooting a gun into a crowd at the age of 15. She was convicted as an adult for attempted murder and received life plus 9 years. No one was killed or injured. The victim (with whom LaKeisha reconciled while both were serving time in prison), who killed someone, was released from CIW after 9 years. LaKeisha’s story represents the beginning of the disturbing increase in juveniles being tried as adults when many are completely capable of rehabilitation.
Above: On any given day women are paroled in California with a box of personal items, $200 or less in “gate money” and a bus ticket to Skid Row. Unprepared once out on parole, with no income, housing or resources, institutionalized and isolated, many women find it difficult to regain hold of their lives independently.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Clearly the success of a former-prisoner reentering society has a lot to do with their experience while locked up, but I feel in the past – for most people – dialogue about prison reform issues have been lumped in with dialogues about re-entry issues. That is to the detriment of both. It does seem though that, recently, re-entry has been recognised as its own vital step with its own set of issues to be explored. I’m thinking here of Convictions, Gabriela Bulisova’s excellent work in Washington D.C. and the forthcoming VII Photo’s documentary project and partnership with Think Outside The Cell.
Dana Ullman (DU): I am aware, too, of the increased focus on reentry [in photography] that really wasn’t there a few years ago. It is a difficult, complex and fragile issue to document because there are so many factors that lead to former prisoners’ success and failure, especially depending on where they live.
I am really happy to see Another Kind Of Prison getting some light because reentry is where one sees the emergence of all the issues that were not addressed while serving time, the societal factors that underline much of the mass incarceration today – sheer poverty, histories of abuse, racism and mental health. Once men and women are locked up and out of society, they are simplistically labeled “criminals” and the stigmas attached to poverty, abuse, race, mental health and crime are once again enforced.
PP: What are your hopes for the work?
DU: I envision, with some support, that Another Kind Of Prison will travel as an exhibition in community spaces such as libraries or ideally in county jails/state prisons where so many of these women (with very little support) are planning their release. There is one woman I interviewed who had no plan for even a place to sleep the night she got out. It was a random TV show featuring a transitional house that she saw one night, not her parole officer or a reentry prep class, that connected her to where she is now living. Women outside can really speak to those inside about their experiences. I have been making audio recordings of each woman’s story. I want the project to create a forum for discussion, rather than merely point out the problem.
PP: What’s next?
DU: I am not done with the project by any stretch. Documentary photography is tricky (and I am not a master of it by any means). I am following several, very fragile lives over time and waiting patiently for that “visual” moment that doesn’t always come. There is also so so much more I could do with some kind of funding, but that has been difficult, so I have to work with what I can. So for now, I hope to increase awareness of this experience shared by thousands of women in the USA with the general public and keeping plugging away at it making the work stronger.
In San Francisco, I was working very closely with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners who have used my work to support their own causes. I was very happy about that because the CCWP do a lot of direct services and support for these women. In New York, I am expanding the project to look a young 28-year-old upstate woman’s reentry process after being incarcerated at the age of 14 to try and get a younger person’s perspective.
I am going to Uganda this Fall where I will be working with the organization African Prisons Project documenting women in prison. I’ll also be collecting stories of people incarcerated and indefinitely-detained for homosexuality (for which the highest penalty is death). My work is quite capable of being a cross-cultural look at women and prison.
Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California is one of two of the largest women’s prisons in the world; the second, Valley State Prison, is directly across the street.
Mary Shields embraces a long-time friend and advocate one week after being released from Central California Women’s Facility. Mary served 19 years for a crime related to domestic violence.
Mary Shields a week after her release from Central California Women’s Facility laughs with a friend after she had trouble understanding how to use a cell phone, which were not widely used twenty years ago.
LaKeisha Burton performs a spoken word piece at Chuco’s Justice Center, which serves as a youth and community space in Inglewood, California. Today, LaKeisha shares her story through spoken word performances and is dedicated to working with at-risk youth susceptible to gangs and the same injustices as she once experienced.
LaKeisha watches a youth group perform at Chuco’s Justice Center in Los Angeles, California. With her infectious optimism and self-determination, LaKeisha Burton displays almost nothing of her past; she lives, works and dates, as any women like her. Yet, these things are exceptional for someone who had lost, some might say had stolen, nearly two decades of the most developmental period in one’s life and with very little preparation thrust out into society. Ms. Burton says when she was released it was as if she were still 15 going on 16.
In the United States over 1.5 million children have a parent who is incarcerated.* 75% of women in prison are mothers and over half have children under the age of 18. Many children suffer lasting emotional effects of a parent’s incarceration, which can affect all areas as they develop into adults.
After cycling in and out of jail for crimes related to substance abuse, Jean Waldroup, 39, has found “home” at A New Way of Life, a transitional home for formerly incarcerated women that emphasizes keeping mothers and children together. For the last six months, Jean has maintained both her sobriety and role as mother to her son and daughter. Jean is the primary parent and she maintains a relationship with the children’s father.
A New Way of Life purchases homes in residential neighborhoods, giving a quieter, less institutional environment for families to rebuild relationships that may show signs of wear and tear after experiencing incarceration. Community-based organizations like A New Way of Life operate mostly under the radar with few resources and little public recognition despite their critical role in offering rehabilitation, family reunification and successful reentry.
Following her release, and to give her life structure, Molly volunteers to make lunch for clients at the behavioral health clinic she attends in San Francisco. Molly stills battles with drug addiction.
Molly on the bus. To avoid the caustic environment bubbling outside her building, Molly will ride Muni lines between Bayview-Hunter’s Point and Downtown San Francisco for hours. She tends to hide from nouns, that is people, places, and things. Molly’s mental health and substance abuse maintain instability and isolation in her life, some days are good, others hard.
A friend embraces Molly at a local community center.
Molly’s room at the Empress Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The first stable living she has had since the cycle of incarceration began in her life.
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*The advocacy group Children of Promise estimates the number of U.S. children with incarcerated parents at 2.7 million.
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Dana Ullman grew up in Portland, Oregon. She studied photojournalism at the Danish School of Journalism and holds a B.A. in Journalism from San Francisco State University. Dana currently lives in New York City photographing assignments and personal projects.
A New Way of Life Reentry Project is a non-profit organization in South Central Los Angeles with a core mission to help women and girls break the cycle of entrapment in the criminal justice system and lead healthy and satisfying lives.
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) is a grassroots social justice organization, with members inside and outside prison, that challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex. CCWP prioritizes the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement.
The African Prisons Project (APP) is a group of people passionately committed to improving access to healthcare, education, justice and community reintegration for male, female and juvenile prisoners in Africa.