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Joseph Harmon spent eight years in solitary at Pelican Bay State Prison in California. He is now a preacher, but still feels the need to withdraw. Credit Max Whittaker for The New York Times

I’ve spent a good amount of time over the past few weeks putting final touches to an essay for a forthcoming exhibition/project/programming by ERNEST Collective at c:3Initiative in Portland Oregon, in September.

The essay is about the sketches of a man who was held in solitary confinement for extended periods in the California prison system. Within it, I quote Dr. Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, a couple of times. His latest research was featured in the New York Times this week:

Most studies have focused on laboratory volunteers or prison inmates who have been isolated for relatively short periods. Dr. Haney’s interviews offer the first systematic look at inmates isolated from normal human contact for much of their adult lives and the profound losses that such confinement appears to produce.

The interviews, conducted over the last two years as part of a lawsuit over prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, have not yet been written up as a formal study or reviewed by other researchers. But Dr. Haney’s work provides a vivid portrait of men so severely isolated that, to use Dr. Haney’s term, they have undergone a “social death.”

[…]

Dr. Haney interviewed 56 prisoners who had spent 10 to 28 years in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit, or S.H.U., including seven men he had interviewed in 1993, eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit and 41 randomly selected inmates. For comparison, he also interviewed 25 maximum-security inmates who were not in solitary.

It’s a very important read and a good primer for those who are not up to speed on the torture in our supermax prisons. Make no bones about it solitary IS torture.

The best part of the article, for me, was not the words, the well researched links, the historical context or even the portraits by Max Whitaker, it was the embedded 4min, 41sec video of prisoners speaking about their decades in solitary.

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The final interviewee breaks down in tears and barely gets the words, “No human should live like this.” “Just give me a death sentence.”

Another prisoner, the article notes, said that the hour he had spent in Haney’s interview was “the most I’ve talked in years.”

Read: Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life

If you are in Portland, Ore. this autumn may I recommend you pay a visit to ERNEST’s show Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, and particularly the opening on Friday September 18th.

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Statewide Coordinated Action to End Solitary Confinement, Oakland

Critical Resistance, today, reflected back upon the California Prisoner Hunger Strike, which had several iterations beginning in 2011 and culminating in 2013.

The update:

Two years ago today, the largest prisoner hunger strike in California’s history was started by prisoners in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. Within the first month of the strike, over 30,000 in California’s prisons had joined, raising the call for the five core demands in unified struggle. The strikers received overwhelming support, with prisoners from across the U.S., in Guantanamo Bay, and as far as Palestine sending statements of solidarity. Outside prison walls, families, loved ones, and organizers elevated the imprisoned voices to an international scale, sparking solidarity actions all over the world, and even prompting the U.N. to call on California to end the use of solitary.

However, the struggle continues. The prison regime has refused to meet the strikers’ demands in any meaningful way, opting to demonize and repress prisoners.

A class action lawsuit brought on behalf of Pelican Bay solitary prisoners in 2012 is ongoing despite numerous attempts by the state to weaken and halt it. Importantly, grassroots organizing has been reinvigorated, with the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition organizing statewide coordinated actions on the 23rd of each month since March of this year to continue raising awareness and building the movement to end solitary, with the actions growing larger across the state.

In the words of Todd Ashker, one of the hunger strike leaders, “I personally believe the prisoncrats’ efforts to turn the global support we have gained for our cause against us will fail […] CDCr rhetoric indicates desperation – a very concerning desperation in the sense that it is demonstrative of CDCr’s top administrators’ intent to continue their culture of dehumanization, torture and other types of abusive policies and practices […] Our key demands remain unresolved. The primary goal is abolishing indefinite SHU and Ad Seg confinement and related torturous conditions.”

Especially in the wake of Riker’s Island scandal and Kalief Browder’s death, the nation is aware of widespread torture — by means of solitary confinement — in U.S. prisons. But, a few years ago the issue was only just beginning to register on the national conscience. It cannot be overstated how vital California prisoners’ efforts (with support from families and allies outside) led the march against this abusive and invisible practice.

Two long and short years … depending on which side of the box you are.

Also, not to be missed is this extended, #longread analysis of the situation two years on by the indubitable Vikki Law at Truthout, Two Years After Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, What’s Changed for People Inside the Prison?

Law writes:

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to claim that “there is no ‘solitary confinement’ in California’s prisons and the SHU is not ‘solitary confinement,'” but people inside the Pelican Bay State Prison’s security housing unit say they remain locked in for at least 23 hours per day. Meanwhile, in June 2015, the CDCR released proposed new regulations around its use of the security housing unit and administrative segregation – regulations that may, in part, curb participation in future strikes and other prison protests. […] The regulations are currently going through the required public comment period in which any member of the public, incarcerated or otherwise, can submit written comments. A public hearing is scheduled for August 7, 2015.

Author Todd Ashker, who was locked in the security housing unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison, disagrees with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s assertion that its prisons do not have solitary confinement.

In a 13-page typed statement, Ashker describes how, along with over 1,000 other people, he is locked for 25 years of his life into 11-by-seven-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day. The security housing unit cells have no windows and their doors face a wall so that those inside cannot see each other through the door slot. Any time they are taken out of their cells – for a shower, a visit or an hour of recreation in an exercise cage – they are handcuffed and ankle chained.

“What would it be like to have one’s bodily contact with others reduced to the fastening and unfastening of restraints, punctuated with the most intimate probing of the surface and depths of one’s body?” Ashker writes in his statement.

Solitary still exists and for long as it does, and for as many years tick by, it must be opposed. By us. We.

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A Portrait Of A Bankrupt City

My latest for Vantage:

When Stockton filed for bankruptcy in 2012, it was the largest city in US history to do so. Kirk Crippens has spent the past three years photographing its residents.

It seems unlikely Kirk Crippens’ portraits are really going to affect the lives of the residents of Stockton, California. It is their portraits that make up his series Bank Rupture. Rather, it will be food banks, loan relief, and Stockton’s fiscal restructuring that will deliver much more direct — negative and positive — effects.

Grand statements and big claims aren’t Crippens’ style. Modest and curious, Crippens uses image-making to investigate and connect with the world. He photographs to establish relationships beyond his immediate working and daily experience. It might sound trite, but Crippens employs photography to show he cares. Having interviewed Crippens numerous times I’m confident in the claim.

“I served as witness. I immersed myself for a time and took some photographs along the way,” says Crippens.

Read the full piece and see a larger selection of images larger.

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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

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Site Unseen: Incarceration flyer. Featuring the work of Jack L. Morris, a California prisoner who has been in solitary confinement for almost 25 years.

Do artworks made on opposite sides of prison walls work together in a gallery space?

Yesterday, at the Los Angeles Valley College, in Valley Glen, CA the exhibition Site Unseen: Incarceration came down form the walls. It was an exhibition bringing together prisoner-made art with artworks made by outside artists about prisons. (Catalogue in PDF, here)

Some artists I knew — Alyse Emdur, Anthony Friedkin, Los Angeles Poverty Department, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Mark Strandquist, and Margaret Stratton. Others are new to me — Robert V. Montenegro, Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes, Robert Stockton and David Earl Williams.

Shamefully, all those names with which I am unfamiliar I quickly learnt are prisoners. Why shame? Well, it’s all about consistency. I value activism that is built upon close alliance with, and information, from prisoners. There are no better experts on the system than those subject to it. At the very least, I should know and support the leading Prison Artists.

However, when it comes to painting and illustration, I have adopted lazy double standards. Without examination, I have demoted prisoner made art — commonly referred to by the catch all “Prison Art” — to an inferior status. I have prejudged most Prison Art. For my own comfort, I have bracketed Prison Art as naive and limited. I’ve conveniently focused on scarcity of supplies inside prison of prison to cursorily explain the lo-fi aesthetic of Prison Art.

My “logic” blinded me to the invention, resourcefulness and resistance inherent to almost all prison art. Hell, we’ve got prisoners making work out of M&Ms.

Site Unseen: Incarceration, therefore, is a nice kick back in the right direction. If we don’t have prisoners’ own artwork upon which to meditate then we lose site of the issues fast. As much as I have championed the work of Emdur, Ross, Strandquist and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, I want to now celebrate the works of Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes and David Earl Williams.

I wish also to applaud Sheila Pinkel for bringing together inside and outside, and for committing the oppressed and their allies to one another upon gallery walls.

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Sheila Pinkel. Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (2014). 7’ x 14’ Archival ink jet prints. Pinkel remarks, “Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration includes the major laws that have resulted in the expansion of the prison system, the Sentencing Reform Act (1984), Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Law (1986) and Three Strikes Law (1994). It is important to note that in the 1960s, during the civil rights era, rate of incarceration was declining as people adopted the ‘rehabilitation not incarceration’ attitude. However, after the Rockefeller Drug Laws took hold, incarceration in the United States began to grow exponentially. Also included is demographic information about the high rate of incarceration of non-white people and women, the great number of people being held in solitary confinement and the massive amounts of money being made by investors in the prison industrial complex. The backdrop for the graph is a set of images from U.S. history taken in the 19th and 20th centuries that reflect the treatment of minorities and prisoners. The poor, non-white and uneducated make up the majority of incarcerated today.

Origins of the Show

In 2004, Pinkel exhibited for the first time her mammoth work Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (above). While the shared title between this catalyst work and the exhibition confuses matters a little, it demonstrates the degree to which Pinkel is bound to prison reform. Passion + politics is usually a good recipe for art.

Pinkel’s motivations for mounting the show are many — concerns for Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case; an awareness of slavery (past and present); the doctrines of ownership and manifest destiny; sensitivity to the quiet traditions of aboriginal people; a raised consciousness toward the unparalleled use of torturous solitary confinement; and the profit making industries of the prison industrial complex; and more besides.

The urgent issues within the reform and abolitionist movements are so great that often they can drown each other out, or obscure one another. Perhaps, that is where silent 2D artworks come to play their part. Perhaps, a gallery space in which viewers can mediate their own responses is a hushed but vital contribution to the reform debate?

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David Earl Williams. Parrots (1996). 22” x 28” Ball point pen.

It is helpful for me to interrogate the idea that gallery shows and art have an effect upon political realities. I make a conscious effort to justify my workand others’ and to continually ask if analysing images and creative output from prisons changes the daily experience of the United States’ 2.3 million prisoners.

I conclude, often, that conscientious and intellectually honest analysis of images from prisons plays its role in the wider discussion needed to drag us out of this prison crisis.

Prison Sketches in the Absence of Prison Photos

Undoubtedly, in the past few years, solitary confinement has emerged as one of the main, digestible and terrifying issues behind which reformers could win arguments, gain traction and mindshare. The public now know that 80,000 people on any given day are subject to psychological torture within our prisons.

Many of the photographs of Supermax and solitary units — and there are not many — have come about because of court ordered entry to facilities. With the exception of Social Practice make-believe, artists and photographers have, for the most part, failed to image these dark, hidden spaces for the public. I’m apportioning no blame here, just pointing out fact. With that understanding, then, it is significant that the majority of prison artists in Site Unseen are either in solitary or on death row.

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Brendan Murdock. Tower (2012). 9” x 12” Linoleum cut print.

One of the artists in Site Unseen is Jack L. Morris, a creative spirit with whom Pinkel has had a lasting personal and professional relationship. In 2011, Pinkel began corresponding with Morris. At that point, he’d been incarcerated for 31 years. In 1978, aged 18, Morris was sentenced to a 15 years to life for being an accomplice to a murder. When the California Department of Corrections (CDCr) opened Pelican Bay Sate Prison (the first state-run Supermax in the nation) in 1989, Morris was transferred. He’s been in solitary confinement since.

“During this time he has not seen sunlight or touched another person,” says Pinkel.

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Jack L. Morris. Turtle (2012). Dimensions: 12” x 12” Medium: pen, pencil, peanut butter oil, pastel color.

Pinkel points out that the decision-making power to place someone in solitary is solely in the hands of the correctional officers. Checks and balances against abuse in this ‘Us vs. Them’ equation are largely absent. Pinkel believes that Morris, like many prisoners in the SHU, is subject to a Kafkaesque situation in which solitary is inescapable. While policies are shifting after attention from Sacramento politicians, it remains incredibly difficult to get out of the SHU if CDCr has classed you as a gang member.

“Jack has not been involved in gang activity and has had no ability to be involved in it since he has been in solitary. However, he is repeatedly denied release from solitary and has had his designation increased to active gang affiliation,” says Pinkel. “At the moment, there is no legal way for him to get out and, to my mind, there is no good being served by his continued incarceration, either in solitary or in prison at all.”

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Alyse Emdur. Anonymous backdrop painted in New York State Correctional Facility Woodburn (2012). Dimensions:42” x 52” Inkjet print.

Clearly, Pinkel has an affiliation. Put that aside though and consider Morris for his work and you can’t help but be impressed. In order to prevent himself “losing his mind”, Morris created poems, drawing and letters. Pinkel published them in the book The World of Jack L. Morris: From the SHU.

“Together,” says Pinkel, “they form a complex picture of a talented person who believed most of his life that he was not intelligent.”

And so we arrive here. At Morris’ and other art from inside. To be mesmerised by the intricacy of the work is understandable, but more-so we should be quietly and slowly scrutinising the work and using it as a gateway to a psychology we must surely hope we, or any of our loved ones, ever come to know.

Prison illustrations work very similarly to photographs in some ways, in that tropes recur and we find ourselves glossing over them. We presume that the system gives rise to them same type of images of flora, fauna, cars, tattoo-inspired designs, versions of women, motorcycles, sad clowns, tears and blood. These things are prevalent, but individual touches exist in the gaps and it is there we may identify the individual artist.

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Gabriel Ramirez. De Profundis … Dreams (Before 2007). 11.5” x 15” Medium: Pencil on manilla envelope.

The worst thing prison art and photography, alike, can be is misunderstood as aesthetic cliche and used as excuse to bypass the social conditions from which they arise. Prisoner art from solitary is the most reliable source of imagery on which we can rely to learn about extreme confinement. We just need to give it space to percolate. A gallery can do that.

There’s a perverse clash of time appreciation at work in order for prison art to have an effect. The artist labors for days and weeks on a single piece and goes to great lengths to deliver it outside the institution. On the outside, we’re spoilt for images and it’s almost luck or strange happenstance for us to spend more than a few seconds with an image. But, it is possible and a gallery can do that.

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Mark Strandquist. Windows From Prison (2014). Banners 5’ x 11’. Digital prints on vinyl.

Strange Brew

As might evident, I am largely in support of Site Unseen. However, looking over the catalogue, I am a bit skeptical toward the mix of works. Does Mark Strandquist’s work (above) that relies heavily on public education and engagement work when he cannot transform the gallery into a workshop space or collaborate with local reform groups? Are we getting to the point that a prison show cannot exist without the work of Richard Ross!? (I’m friends with Richard and had breakfast with him this morning; he won’t mind the snark). It just seems Ross might be an easy option.

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Is Site Unseen a prison art show supported by outside sympathisers, some of whom happen to be artists? Or is it a genuine attempt to level the field and present artists inside and outside as equivalents? The latter is a tough proposition. I have seen it done though. The Cell and the Sanctuary (Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History) managed to knit insider and outsider artists works together, but they managed it effectively because they were all either students or faculty in the William James Association’s Arts In Corrections program at San Quentin. A visual thread ran through The Cell and the Sanctuary that is not as immediately apparent in Site Unseen.

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Margaret Stratton. Ship’s Passenger Log, December 1916, Ellis Island, New York City, June 29, 1999, 10:35 a.m. (1999). 16” x 20”. Archival digital print.

The main culprit, for me, is the work of Margaret Stratton (above). I’ve constantly wondered what use have images of decaying/ abandoned prisons for connecting us to pressing contemporary prison issues. I can find value in most other works in Site Unseen as they’ve a clear umbilical cord to the tumorous, pulsing Prison Industrial Complex. We can sense the toxic bile of the system in the majority of the works. We can wonder at the ability to stay sane and creative from within such a system. I get none of that awe from Stratton’s work.

I understand Stratton’s B&W images employ a different route to the issue and I don’t want to suggest there’s any inherent flaw in the work or its tactics. The fault, if any, lies with the decision to include this type of work that I identify as an outlier within the collected works.

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Four Convicts, Folsom Prison, CA (1991). Dimensions: 11” x 14” Black and white gelatin silver print.

Another , but slightly less obvious, outlier is Anthony Friedkin’s photo of four Folsom prisoners in the early 90s. It is a captivating portrait for sure (one that I featured very early on Prison Photography) but it is hardly representative — of either recent photographs from prisons, or the U.S. prison population as a whole. Friedkin is best known for his illuminating access into, and photographs of, gay culture in San Francisco and Los Angeles. His respectful treatment of these derided communities was light years ahead of mainstream political consciousness. Friedkin lived among the LGBQT community and the intimacy and support shows through in his work.

I cannot think that Friedkin had a mere fraction of that sort of access to the prison population. I suspect he made his image above on a single visit to Folsom Prison. I have not seen any other photographs from prison by Friedkin. And so, this image, is neither representative of Friedkin’s work. It is ham, distant and reliant on the tropes of prison cliche. Not only is it out of place, it is out of time.

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Gabriel Reyes. Like a Hook (Before 2007). 8.5” x 11”, Ball point pen on paper.

As far as I am concerned, any and all mentions of Alyse Emdur’s Prison Landscapes and the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s performances (below) are absolutely essential and cannot be reiterated enough. Each are powerful statements on the nature of power and the over-reach of state control.

LAPD’s dramatisations are informed by the experiences of people who have been incarcerated and Emdur’s collected portraits and large format photos of prison visiting room backdrops originate from a keen engagements with the visual logic of carceral systems.

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Robert Stockton. Fight (Before 2007): 8.5” x 11”. Pen, additional color.

Prisons and criminal justice reform are gaining attention in the news and public consciousness (a good thing), but just because the conversation is being had and the appetite for a show like Site Unseen might be more ready, the challenging logistics of putting together a curated show of this kind remain unchanged. Kudos to Pinkel for bringing togther artists from inside and outside prison invested in the same goal of making the U.S. a less dangerous, punitive and misunderstood place.

At first glance, the mix of ‘prison art’ on one hand and ‘art made about prisons’ on the other might appear incongruous, but that attitude is exposed as flawed very quickly. As the majority of works in Site Unseen emerge as responses to this country’s brutal, class-dividing prison system, I must conclude that they can do nothing but work together. And so must we if we’re to scale back on decades of fear, bad law and failed policy. If you need resolve and fire-in-your-belly for the task then merely look to the work of those who are subject to confinement. You’ll find it, quietly roaring, there.

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© Richard Ross

I never thought I’d see a trans prison guard. I didn’t think transgender persons worked in the corrections industry and — given the culture of prisons — I did not expect that a trans person would ever want to.

However, she exists and her name is Mandi Camille Hauwert.

The Marshall Project continues to uncover surprising and new angles on this nation’s prisons. Their profile of Hauwert Call Me Mandi: The Life of a Transgender Corrections Officer is no exception. It is a story with which Richard Ross, a well-traveled photographer of prisons, approached them. Alongside the photographs are Ross’ own words.

Hauwert began work at San Quentin as a male, but transitioned in the job and has been taking hormones for 3 years. She faces hostility from fellow staff.

It’s worth noting how dangerous prison systems are to transgender folk. A few weeks back, I attended Bringing To Light a conference in San Francisco, at which I learnt the routine brutalisation of LGBQIT persons at the hands of the prison system — threats of rape, the use of solitary “for protection” and all its associated deprivations, the denial of prescribed hormones, and many other daily humiliations.

Janetta Johnson spoke about surviving a 3-year federal sentence in a men’s prison. She and her colleagues at the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) now help trans folk deal with trauma and reentry following release.

Unwittingly and without buy-in, transgender prisoners swiftly expose the oppressive logic and total inflexibility of the prison industrial complex. Follow TGIJP‘s work and that of the other organisations that presented at Bringing To Light. Their work often goes unrecognised in the larger fight for reforms and abolition, but it precisely the prisons’ adherence to patriarchy and outdated constructs of gender that establishes the tension and abuses.

Ross’ Call Me Mandi: The Life of a Transgender Corrections Officer is a brief but illuminating feature. Read it.

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Photographer, friend and fellow San Franciscoer Robert Gumpert will be exhibiting at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California from January 25th to March 15th.

On show will be photographs from two projects — Gumpert’s ongoing Take A Picture, Tell A Story, and images from “I Need Some Deodorant. My Skin Is Getting Restless” which were made between 1996 and 2002 at the Alameda County’s Psychiatric Emergency Services at John George, Oakland. In both bodies of work, Gumpert uses oral history (audio and text interviews) to add description, depth and context to the experiences of his subjects.

If you’re in the Bay Area, I strongly recommend a trip through the Caldecott Tunnel out to Moraga.I’ve long been an admirer of Gumpert’s work, specifically Take A Picture, Tell A Story which is part of my curated effort Prison Obscura.

Prior to the public reception on January 25th, will be an hour long panel discussion with Gumpert; architect/activist Raphael Sperry; and psychologist/authority on solitary confinement Terry Kupers.

Click on the flier below to see it larger and glean all the critical information.

Robert Gumpert

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Tameika Smith, San Francisco, CA. SF CJ2. 9 July 2012.
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Deborah Lee Worledge, San Francisco, CA. CJ1 Men’s jail. 4 April 2008.

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Michael Johnson, San Bruno, CA. CJ5.

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The banality of the design is on full display. The windowed room is where lethal chemicals are stored and used. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

In 2006, the State of California approved a plan to construct a new execution chamber at San Quentin Prison. This week, The Avery Review published an article by Raphael Sperry titled Death by Design: An Execution Chamber at San Quentin State Prison which breaks down the budgeting, the politics and the design wrapped up in the contentious project. Not to mention the secrecy surrounding many details. Just as we’ve learnt about supply chains of chemicals for new drug “cocktails” being used by States to murder people, so too Sperry takes an in-depth look at the manufacturers behind the apparatus of death. It’s a wonderful, informed and terrifying breakdown of what we do to deliver “justice.” It’s a lovely foil to my past lyrics on the aqua green aesthetics of murder at San Quentin and it reveals the absurdity of the death penalty, the most vicious and foolishly symbolic of punishments.

“The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility,” writes Sperry. It’s a project all about sight — political oversight, design based upon sight-lines for both executioner and witnesses. Sperry’s insights are chilling and revelatory. Below, I’ve selected the parts that intrigued me most, but you really should head over to The Avery Review to read the piece in full.

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CAD Model for San Quentin Lethal Injection Facility. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

DEATH BY DESIGN

Painted sheetrock walls, resilient flooring, vinyl cove base, and fluorescent lighting are used in a thoroughly predictable and pedestrian manner, much like a dentist’s office in a strip mall. The buttresses of the adjacent prison housing block, which a more creative designer might have incorporated, are instead covered by new framing; a storage room is used to occupy one of these irregular alcoves. But there is more to this design than meets the eye. Sometimes the banal is not ordinary.

The all-new facility for lethal injection provides more workspace around the body of the condemned man, an adjacent secure workspace and chemical storage room, and separated viewing areas for the various categories of observers. […] Bureaucratic skullduggery initially led to an unrealistically low project budget of $399,000: just under the $400,000 requirement to request legislative authorization of the project.7 Perhaps some secret executive-branch projects stay secret; in this case the state legislature found out about the project, causing further delays (they weren’t happy about having been hoodwinked) and an eventual approved budget increase to over $850,000. This included the use of inmate labor provided by the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (CDCR) vocational training program.

The general layout of the suite of rooms was borrowed from previously completed projects in other states. Unlike in other states, where death chamber design materials are generally only available when they have been released in response to lawsuits, the final project was presented on a tour that included the federal judge presiding in the case, reporters, and a press release that included output of the CAD model used to design the project (now no longer available). Still, when I made a public request for the identity of the architect(s) and engineer(s) responsible for the project, CDCR would not provide an answer.

The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility. CDCR exercised unusual control of the project budget in order to try to keep the project invisible. Yet a floor plan of the design proposal eventually became part of the court record submitted by CDCR to prove the constitutionality of the new facility, making it permanently available to the public. Newspapers published photos of the competed chamber and ancillary spaces and developed infographics of the layout. Nevertheless, today it is an incredibly difficult space for members of the public to visit unless they are part of the highly specified group of participants in or observers of an execution.

Perhaps in the same spirit, or perhaps because of the general obsession with the control of sight lines in prison environments, visibility within the Lethal Injection Room itself is carefully controlled. Witnessing the death of the condemned man is a central component of the execution ritual, with prescribed access for family members of the condemned man, family members of the victim, prison staff, and witnesses to verify that vengeance has been earned for the aggrieved public. Accordingly, the execution room is something of a fishbowl, surrounded on all sides by windows, including a band of wall-to-wall glazing for the public witness and media viewing room. However, mirrored glass is used along the line where the victim’s family might see the inmate’s family: a line that crosses the body of the condemned man, as the two families are positioned at opposite ends of the room just as they are presumed to be of opposite sympathies regarding the murder. Although it is not uncommon for the family of the victim in capital cases to object to the execution of the perpetrator, either out of a generalized objection to killing or after personal reconciliation, the plan denies the opportunity for this kind of potentially healing contact between families. Just as positions of state-driven authority are fixed in a courtroom, with a jury one level up and the judge above them, the dichotomous relations of innocent and guilty inherent in the finality of the death penalty are fixed around the body of the condemned man.

[…]

The death penalty debate, especially in California, now hangs on a tenuous balance between the desire for revenge (an “eye for an eye”) and revulsion at the spectacle of suffering driven by our own blood lust (with a subtext of racism). CDCR—the department charged with conducting executions, and the owner of the chamber in architectural parlance—would clearly prefer to go about its business and has a long history of avoiding public oversight (unsuccessfully in this case), but continuing the death penalty is subject to judgment by a California electorate that is trending toward abolition. Part of the design’s banality (and its low-budget, medical undertones) may be intended to visually deescalate the death penalty debate in order to perpetuate the status quo. But perhaps even the CDCR embodies the same unresolved questions about execution that continue to reverberate in ballot referendums, courtrooms, and public debates. The bland nature of the execution chamber may also indicate a lack of investment in the procedure’s future, a realization that this is no permanent edifice but rather a set of rooms that may be demolished or at least renovated for some other purpose before long.

RAPHAEL SPERRY

Raphael Sperry is an architect and green building consultant, President of Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility, and Adjunct Professor at California College of the Arts where he teaches the course “Rights, Power, and Design.” He is writing a book on architecture and human rights.

THE AVERY REVIEW

The Avery Review is a new online journal dedicated to thinking about books, buildings, and other architectural media. It’s aim is to explore the broader implications of a given object of discourse (whether text, film, exhibition, building, project, or urban environment) and to test and expand the reviewer’s own intellectual commitments.

sperry-2

The Lethal Injection Facility is the windowless box adjacent to the older, still functional cell block. The CMU exterior walls predate the interior renovations for the new death chamber.

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Injection Room. Window and hose ports to Infusion Control Room at right, mirrored window for victim family viewing in center, public witness / media gallery on extreme left. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

ADPSR

This is the last week you have to catch the ADPSR-created exhibition Sentenced: Architecture & Human Rights at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.

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