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In recent months, there’s been a number of interesting — and in some cases, urgent — photo stories coming out of prisons worldwide, that I’d like to draw you attention to.
Anthony Alvarez, left, 82, eats breakfast with Phillip Burdick, a fellow prisoner and member of the Gold Coats program at California Men’s Colony prison in December. Mr. Alvarez said he has been incarcerated for 42 years for a series of burglaries, possession of illegal firearms and escapes from county jail. He eventually got a life sentence due to three-strikes laws. Shown is Mr. Alvarez’s first day being assisted by the Gold Coats; he largely needs help with mobility. Mr. Alvarez tries to work out for a few minutes every other day. Mr. Burdick, 62, has been volunteering with the Gold Coats for more than 18 years and is the longest-serving member of the program. Mr. Burdick has served 37 years on a 7-years-to-life sentence for first-degree murder.
Andrew Burton‘s photographs of aging prisoners for the Wall Street Journal have been well-received. With one of the largest state prison populations, a history of long sentencing laws and inadequate healthcare, the old men and women have the odds stacked against them for a comfortable day-to-day living.
The percentage of prisoners 55 or older in the U.S. increased by more than 500% between 1990 and 2009.
Burton’s photos focus on the Gold Coats program at California Men’s Colony, in San Luis Obispo, which pairs younger, willing prisoners with older prisoners suffering dementia and terminal illness. In 1991, California Medical Facility created the first prison hospice program in the nation to deal with the AIDS crisis, and the hospice is now used for elderly prisoners who are terminally ill.
Great photos. Burton is realistic about the situation but seems clearly impressed with efforts there.
However, here’s some context. Ever since California’s medical prison system was deemed cruel and unusual and it was brought under federal receivership, the state has been making efforts to deliver specific facilities for health care. The largest was to open the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, CA. It is the largest medical prison in the world. At a cost of $840M it was supposed to solve many issues and provide care for 1,800 prisoners. Nothing is so straightforward. Since opening in July, 2013, it has been beset by waste, mismanagement and miscommunication between the prison and medical staffs.
Watch this space. Hopefully vast, vast improvements will ensue.
[Todd Heisler has photographed at the California Men's Colony too.]
Erika Roberts, 26, of Hartford is a factory worker, a dancer, a teaching artist, a worshiper, a mother of three, and a felon.
Photographer Andrea Wise soon realised that when lives are intertwined with the criminal justice system nothing is straightforward. From the millions of effected formerly-incarcerated millions, Wise’s Freedom Bound manages to tell the story of Erika Roberts on very humanising terms. And with touching photographs.
“Her story is both a simpler one – a quiet story of a young family just trying to do the best they can – and a more complex and nuanced story about life in poor urban communities where people grow up in and around trauma, where criminal activity and incarceration are commonplace, and where Erika’s story isn’t all that uncommon,” says Wise.
Freedom Bound explores Erika’s quiet determination and struggle to break the cycle of incarceration.
“Erika strives for more from life, for her children, and for her community,” writes Wise.
In 2012, Anibal Martel photographed inside Lurigancho Prison, the largest and most overcrowded prison in Peru.
“According to the National Penitentiary Institute of Peru (January 2012) Lurigancho has a capacity limit of 3,204 prisoners but it actually holds 6,713 with a ratio of one police ofﬁcer to 100 inmates,” says Martel.
“With corruption, tuberculosis and drug dependency together with its appalling management by the state, the prison gained a reputation as one of the most dangerous prisons in the world,” Martel continues. “Today, Lurigancho is fighting to survive thanks to the internal organization of some prisoners and their work. These prisoners have managed to create a small, internal infrastructure that allows them to feed themselves and live a more dignified life.”
French photographer Eric Gourlan voluntarily spent a month inside Kyrgyrzstan’s prison and documented life in two men’s prisons, one women’s jail, and a juvenile detention centre — all in the capital Bishkek.
Gourlan has published on Flickr photographs from the juvenile facility in Bishkek, Kyrgryzstan.
There’s a great interview with Gourlan on the Institute for War and Peace Reporting website. Gourlan explains that he gained access through valuable partnerships with State Service for Execution of Punishment (GSIN), the United States Agency for International Development, Freedom House, the OSCE Center in Bishkek, the GSIN Public Oversight Council and the Kyrgyz NGO Egel — a long list which gives us an idea of the importance of partners for this type of work.
“I would really like to commend the openness of [prison] officials in Kyrgyzstan – I could go almost everywhere I wanted,” says Gourlan. “The only thing was that in the first two days, I was accompanied by guards until everyone got used to me. But then I was given more freedom and practically could move around on my own. On some occasions, I ate with prisoners.”
Gourlan met some hardened criminals but also met people who’ve been victims of overly-punitive sentences.
“One woman told me that she had been in a very difficult financial situation and somebody asked her to transport 30 grams of heroin from point A to point B for 100 [US] dollars. She was caught and given 12 years in prison. She had never used drugs before, never sold them, and never got her 100 dollars, but she has been locked up for 12 years,” explains Gourlan. “Obviously I do not know if those stories I was told were true or not. But that was not why I embarked on this project.”
Eric Gourlan’s project was backed by Freedom House, the OSCE Centre in Bishkek, a local NGO called Egl, and the prison service in Kyrgyzstan.
Isabelle Serouart‘s rare photographs from within a prison in Madagascar were published by SoPhot. The images are small and embedded, but I also found this footage Serouart made of female prisoners singing.
“In a very confidential way record of women song in a jail in Madagascar,” says Serouart. “To sing is a way for her to survive together.”
“The program allows inmates to learn job and life skills while providing kennel and grooming services to clients from the surrounding community,” says Ryder. “In addition, unruly dogs from other programs (who might otherwise be put to sleep) are able to have a second chance by entering the prison’s training program.”
This is a win-win for the women, the dogs, the prison administrators and the media. Despite prisons being a continual source of distress and latent abuse, the press always needs new angles — depressing stories don’t have the readership coming back. A human interest story about (wo)man’s best friend and redemption plays well, and we’ve seen them before. Here’s a couple more similar project in Florida and Colorado.
Another thing that makes me slightly uncomfortable with the story is that simultaneously, just over an hour south, detained immigrants were on hunger strike for their confinement in solitary and slow progress of their cases. Now I know, the state prison system and U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement are different authorities, but if we’re to look at lock-up in Washington State, I’d suggest we factor in ALL types of prisons and prisoners. ICE facilities remain the most inviisble.
The full WSJ story, to accompany Ryder’s video, by Joel Millman and with photos by Stuart Isett, you can see here (behind a paywall).
As an aside, the most interesting photography project on prison dog’s programs remains Jeff Barnett-Winsby’s Mark West & Molly Rose. After Barnett-Winsby had photographed the prisoner (Manard) and the program administrator absconded from the Safe Harbor Program and escaped from Lansing Prison, KS and went on the lam for 11 days. A weird tale of fact and fiction, manipulation and unsaid knowns. The investigating police acquired Barnett-Winsby’s photos because he had made the most recent images of Manard’s tattoos. Yet Manard had drawn false tattoos for the shoot predicting their use later following his escape. Twists and turns. No photographer can ever plan or predict such a bizarre story, or implication in it.
A child plays with his mother at the cafeteria inside The Community Prisoner Mother Program in Pomona, California. Mothers and their children live in open barracks shared with two other mother-child family pairs.
Pregnant in Prison offers a look at a select group of minimum security prisoners who may live with their young children until the child turns seven years old. Mothers live with their children in rooms shared with other prisoners. During the day, children are enrolled in the on-site preschool and Kindergarten and mothers take rehabilitation and other classes.
In 2011 and 2012, 233 female prisoners gave birth while serving time in the California prison system. So, this program applies to only a tiny fraction of women suffering California’s prison system. It is a welcome, forward-thinking program. Psychological studies are unanimous that close bonds between mother and baby, from the earliest hours, are vital in sparking healthy cognitive and social behaviours. Why wouldn’t we allow incarcerated mothers the ability to raise their own children?
In terms of such residential programs, most (and there are only a handful) allow mothers and babies to be together until the baby is 2 or 3 years of age. Pomona is exceptional.
Let me be clear though, I don’t want to see more prisons with this type of program; I want to see less prisons with lesser need for these types of programs. I want to see community supervision instead of incarceration and if prisons must be used, then for them to be bursting with positive programs designed around the women’s needs. That said, the Community Prisoner Mother Program has many elements to inform better care.
ANONYMOUS GREEK PRISONER
An expose by a Greek Prisoner registered on American news consumers’ radar when Medium published the piece Greece’s Biggest Prison Is Boiling by Yiannis Baboulias. The photographs accompanying the piece were taken by a prisoner and were then published repeatedly through the Twitter account @kolastirio.
He also got his footage out:
The expose caused outrage.
Baboulias writes, “People suffering from HIV, tuberculosis, psoriasis, cancer and other serious diseases, are discarded like trash in common rooms where hygiene is an unknown term. Spaces designed to hold 60 people, now hold more than 200. Reports say that some of these diseases have already started spreading amongst the inmates, making the prison a threat to public health in the general area. As inmates report, when the staff realises someone is close to death, he is quickly transported to a hospital, so his death won’t be recorded in the prison’s logs.”
Given that the infrastructure of Greece is collapsing in the wake of it economic meltdown, how surprising is this neglect? Hospitals are having budgets cut by 25% so what chance have the prisons and prisoners in the grapple for resources?
In an update, Baboulias says that the prisoner that leaked the photos and video has been prosecuted and faced trial.
“It was clear to me that would have required a great time commitment when I realized that permissions to photograph in the prison were going to take months to obtain,” says Bispuri. “In a few cases I’ve had to wait for years.”
Women’s prisons are rarely any better.
“There certainly is anger in female prisons as well, which sometimes turns into violent attacks. Moreover, in most prisons, female inmates are denied the “intimate visit”, that is the possibility to have sexual intercourse with their husband or partner, which is instead granted to those male inmates who behave properly,” explains Bispuri.
The work has had some effect. Following an exhibition of Bispuri’s photographs, in Buenos Aires in 2009, in collaboration with Amnesty International and the Argentine Government, Mendoza Prison’s Pavilion N5 was closed down.
“Life conditions there were tragic,” says Bispuri.
Bispuri’s series Encerrados describes how hellish many of the facilities. He has had a knife held to his neck and infected fluids thrown at him as protest to being photographed. Still, Bispuri is sympathetic to the resolve of many prisoners.
Amy Elkins recently won the Aperture Portfolio Prize for her projects Parting Words and Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night. Congratulations to her. I’ve written and thought extensively about both projects (for Huffington Post and for Daylight Digital, respectively) and in the wider context of Elkins’ approach.
Hope you appreciate these works and find something you like. Sorry this post is effectively an illustrated barrage of links, but we should be grateful there’s so much work being published! Let me know what you think of it all.
Grey Mountain, artwork by Chip Thomas © Erika Schultz
Let me track back a week though.
SOME THOUGHTS AND CONTEXT ON NAVAJO GRAFFITI
A friend of mine who I’ve seen only twice in two years visited Seattle last weekend. He’s Native American … what white folks would call Navajo, but what he refers to as Dineh or Dine (pronounced d-Nay). We were talking about youth culture on the reservation and I mentioned passing through Window Rock (a junction with two gas stations, some vernacular murals and loose packs of dogs). He tells me I was in the wrong part of Navajo Reservation …
Anyway, the murals had me thinking. I saw graffiti on Navajo land – some of it good, some of it terrible; some of it lazy tags, some of it a bit more invested – and I wondered about the social context of these scrawls, paintings and artwork. I proposed to him that a long term photography project NAVAJO GRAFFITI could capture these temporary art interventions. The project would include interviews about the grafs and the social strata from which they emerge. It seemed like it could be a meaningful, novel photography project, a stellar book. Maybe?
In my mind (a place I often invent projects I’d like to see and promote) I envisioned image-making that could incorporate the narratives of a marginalised people without relying on cliches of documentary photography. The grafs could be photographed in the medium format stillness that is all too often wasted on garages, topiary and mall parking lots.
Just a thought.
Thinking on, my friend was as stumped as I to think of any photography work that the Navajo had been able to present, let alone self-represent.
BACK TO NW PHOTOJOURNALISM
The co-organiser of NW Photojournalism is Erika Schultz a PJ at the Seattle Times. When I got home, I checked out her blog. On which, I was blown away to find graffiti on Navajo land. I’d call it street art, except there’s only the open Black Mesa surrounding.
Grey Mountain, artwork by Chip Thomas © Erika Schultz
The work is by Chip Thomas an artist, self taught photographer and Health Services Physician who has lived on Navajo land for 16 years or more. He may not be Navajo by blood but I can be quite certain he has the rights of the Navajo/Dineh people close to his pounding heart.
I want to see more of this. I am not a photographer. Why aren’t photogs out on Native American lands finding more nuanced ways of telling the stories of the people?
The only Native American photographer I’ve identified is Tom Jones of the Ho Chunk Nation, and he is a long, long ways from the Western Deserts; of a different people.
So, two things: 1) Tell me about more Native American photographers (I want to stand corrected) and 2.) Somebody consider a project along the lines of NAVAJO GRAFFITI (I would if I could, but I don’t know cameras).