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obama

Barack Obama is TIME’s Person Of The Year. The accolade is less interesting than Obama’s words in the TIME interview. The President of the United States talks about criminal justice and prison reform. Obama says,

“There’s a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal-justice system, that is involved in nonviolent crimes. I think we have to figure out what are we doing right to make sure that that downward trend in violence continues, but also, there are millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven’t fully thought through our process.”

Granted it takes until the fifth page (of five) until we get to criminal justice issues. But, still. I’m going to say ‘wow’.

In November, I half-wrote a blog post about the complete absence of talk about criminal justice policy during the presidential debates. It never published; the details were more depressing than the simple fact. These words by Obama in some way make up for that. Watch this space. Watch Obama’s team.

via Prison Policy Initiative.

A few months ago Bob Gumpert and I sat down and talked at length about the reasons why photographers should endeavour to tell the stories of social movements, workers rights, crime, justice and injustice. The conversation rolled and rolled which partly explains why the edited interview hasn’t surfaced yet.

Bob’s activism emerged in the Labor Movement of the 1970s. He began documenting the criminal justice system by following police officers and public defenders in the San Francisco Bay Area. From there he traversed to tell the stories of people in the jail and probation systems.

This morning I received this email:

As some of you know, since 1994 I’ve been documenting the criminal justice system. There is now a website for the latest segment of “Lost Promise: The Criminal Justice System.”

“Take A Picture, Tell A Story” is where you can find portraits and recorded stories from the two major projects of my 35 years in documentary photography.  In “Locked and Found” prisoners in the county jails of San Francisco tell stories of their circumstances, hopes and sorrows.  In “Tales of Work” workers tell of their lives and their jobs.

Bob

So don’t wait for my interview to familiarise yourself with Bob’s work. Listen to the tales he’s recorded – they reflect the complexities that rattle about in an inevitably inflexible system that deals with hundreds of thousands of individuals.

Wild thanks to Brendan over at Anxiety Neurosis for publishing on the world wide web my recent heartfelt plea to close friends. My words are now world wide … and webby. Seriously, I’d encourage you to read his analysis as he said, with some degree of wit and intelligence, what I had relied on the New York Times Opinion Page to say for me.

David Alan Harvey, Title Unknown, from Living Proof 1 series

David Alan Harvey, Title Unknown, from Living Proof 1 series

I’d advise that you don’t read on after Brendan’s discussion of the propositions regarding criminal justice, as the tone changes to one of outrage and profanity. Do, however, consider Brendan’s intriguing solution to our failed social experiment and financial black hole we know as the prison-industrial-complex.

My daydreams might seem a little strange to you. I envision a system of work-camps spread throughout California. Low-level offenders (obviously non-violent) would be siphoned away from the concrete and steel onto various prison farms. They would become, possibly for the first time, acquainted with the world of plants, dirt, sky. They would be required to till the soil, sow the seed, reap the harvest and above all else participate in a cycle of life greater than their own. The crops (organic, obviously) would be distributed throughout state agencies providing food for the convicts, prisons, schools and state hospitals. Imagine school-children eating something that hadn’t be processed and purchased from a profit-driven third party with no regard for the kids’ health or well-being. At night the inmates of my farms would take various classes both academic and trade-oriented. They could see therapists, take workshops or paint the distant mountains in watercolor. Whatever they need to show them something outside of the life they’ve known. They would have free range of the property in question, requiring a couple fences and a small staff of guards. Where are they going to run to?

Knowing Brendan as I do, he hides here a vulnerable idealism that we would all like to embrace but the bottom-line mentality of modern life has disappointed us too often. We keep our arms folded. Brendan’s main points are uncontestable though – remove non-violent offenders from prisons; engage them in more than wall-staring for 23 hours a day; provide meaningful, even plentiful, opportunities for rehabilitation, education and therapy. Unfortunately, all this costs money and when CDCR struggles to cover the cost of inhumane lock-up the chance of seeing an individual-oriented rehabilitation is less than zero.

Work-camps do exist in California and they specialise in training for fire-abatement. This is a far cry from Brendan’s organic farming initiative, but probably skills in bio-diverse agriculture are as handy as skills in fire suppression. As we continue to burn fossil fuels and globally-warm our summers, growing local crops and putting pay to the 3,000 mile caesar salad, will be as relevant as beating annual forest fires.

Photographer Unknown

Photographer Unknown

But if we are talking about productive inmates it is worth noting that the CDCR runs the Prison Industry Authority paying inmates anywhere between 30 cents and 95 cents before deductions. This is a body that provides state departments with furniture, uniforms and California drivers with their license plates. Many have described this system as “Modern Day Slave Labor”. If it seems that way, it’s because it is.

CDCR runs the PIA because the state profits from it. Engaging the inmate in daily activity is essential, but we should try to move away from repetitive factory production, or at the very least break it up with other outlets of energy (and ideally even creativity). What other administered programs could occupy inmates’ time? We must consider here programs that do not turn an immediate product or profit – but secure long term savings for society as the inmate is provided with skills and self esteem. The PIA uses 5,900 CDCR inmates. What do the remaining 312,511 men, women and children under CDCR jurisdiction do?

These are general questions (and admittedly subjective gripes) for which there are no correct answers. Nevertheless, with so many systemic problems we should only focus on the problems we can affect and the most timely problems of the CDCR. Californians’ priorities now must be to prevent the motion to change the criminal-justice system into a “victim-vengeance system” (Prop. 9) and the motion to broaden the state’s definition of crime, subjecting thousands more citizens to the abuses of a failed system (Prop. 6).

In the meantime, we can all focus on the watercolour opportunities available to inmates at Wasco State Prison.

Wasco State Prison's new solar field

Wasco State Prison's new solar field

Note on Images: David Alan Harvey’s image here is included purely for aesthetic reasons. The author confesses no background knowledge of the image, only an intrigue in the juxtaposition between uniform-pressed youth and caricatured-inmates subjected to the humility of stripes and trucker hats. Even if these young men grew up and/or went to the same schools together, there is no relationship between them now. All this is neatly summarised by the wielding of the gun. The guard pays attention to the camera almost unaware of his responsibilities over his shoulder. The rifle makes the guard’s close personal observation of inmates unnecessary; the guard has a back-up. With the use of weaponry, any misdemeanour can be remedied/snuffed out within an instant.

I do not know David Alan Harvey’s views on the prison industrial complex. If I ever acquire that knowledge I will be sure to share it. As well as his website he also has a solid blog.

Disclaimer: This post, while making use of photographic imagery is a non-objective commentary. It has more to do with the author’s politic than an academic look at the photographic medium.

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