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© Mark Murrmann, from the series, Invitation To A Hanging.

Two very potent articles published in Guernica Magazine have impressed recently.

First up, Ann Neumann details the heavy-handed force-feeding procedures by prison staff in response to the longest ongoing hunger strike in America.

The Longest Hunger Strike: American courts recognize rights to refuse life-saving treatment. So why won’t the State of Connecticut let William Coleman die?

“Staff turned off the video camera typically used to record medical procedures. They strapped Coleman down at “four points” with seatbelt-like “therapeutic” restraints. Edward Blanchette, the internist and prison medical director at the time, pushed a thick, flexible tube up Coleman’s right nostril. Rubber scraped against cartilage and bone and drew blood. Coleman howled. As the tube snaked into his throat, it kinked, bringing the force of insertion onto the sharp edges of the bent tube. They thought he was resisting so they secured a wide mesh strap over his shoulders to keep him from moving. A nurse held his head. Blanchette finally realized that the tube had kinked and pulled it back out. He pushed a second tube up Coleman’s nose, down his throat, and into his stomach. Blanchette filled the tube with vanilla Ensure. Coleman’s nose bled. He gagged constantly against the tube. He puked. As they led him back to his cell, the cuffs of Coleman’s gray sweatshirt were soaked with snot, saliva, vomit, and blood.”

““I have been tortured,” he would say later. And it was enough to make Coleman start drinking fluids again. For a while. When he stopped a few months later, the prison force-fed him again, and twelve more times over the next two years. By last year they could no longer use Coleman’s right nostril. A broken nose in his youth and repeated insertion of the tube have made it too sensitive.”

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Secondly, S.J. Culver writes about his discomfort visiting Alcatraz, discussing the problems that plague all sites of dark tourism.

Escape to Alcatraz: Notes on prison tourism.

“Alcatraz Island, understandably, does not bill itself as a place to spend twenty-eight dollars to get really depressed about a country’s piss-poor priorities regarding human rights. [...] I begin to think that, if the point of an authentic tourism experience (if such a thing exists) is to understand another condition closely, the Alcatraz cellhouse tour fails. The punishing repetitiveness of incarceration is utterly absent in the carefully paced rise and fall of the yarns on the recorded tour. Worse, there’s no mention of how the Alcatraz cellblock, with its dioramas meticulously re-creating midcentury prison life, might resemble or not resemble a contemporary working U.S. prison. Plenty of the visitors around me seem to think they are witnessing “real” incarceration. I sense my initial impression had more truth than I realized; what we’re taking in is closer to a film set than to county lockup.”

The gulf between the realities of prison life and museum prison narratives are sometimes more pronounced than the differences between the realities of prison life and photographs of prisons in the media.

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While we’re on the topic of prison museums, a mention of Mark Murrmann‘s photographs of Invitation To A Hanging is long overdue. You might know Murrmann as the kick-ass photographer of punk. He is also the very kind and engaged photo editor at Mother Jones.

‘Prison museums?’ I hear you say. There’s more than you think.

Prison museums and dark tourism on Prison Photography

19th Century Museum Prison Ships
Roger Cremers: Auschwitz Tourist Photography
Daniel and Geo Fuchs’ STASI – Secret Rooms
Steve Davis visits the Old Montana Prison
Hohenschönhausen, Berlin: Stasi Prison Polaroids
Philipp Lohöfener at the Stasi Prison Museum, Berlin
San Pedro Prison, Bolivia: As the Tourists, Dollars and Snapshots End the Riots Begin

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Thanks to Bob for the tip.

© Richard Ross

Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California is one of the most oppressive regimes of the U.S. prison system. It was designed to control and isolate the growing gang affiliations within California prisons following the CDCR’s massive expansion throughout the 1980s. It opened in 1989 and established THE model for maximum security prisons in states across the U.S.

Pelican Bay Prison specialises in solitary confinement. When photographer Richard Ross documented prisons as part of his Architecture of Authority project he went to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Pelican Bay.

The most segregated inmates spend 22 and half hours in a cell barely larger then your bedrooms or bathrooms. For the other 1 and a half hours they occupy a concrete pen for “exercise.”

Pelican Bay is notorious for it’s history of violence and despair. It is also, according to Christian Parenti, a boon for small town economics.

It is a god-forsaken hole.

The most isolated prisoners have put together a strike plan. Yes, they have demands, but more than that they want to make a point about the inhumane and invisible conditions they inhabit. Yes, many of them have committed heinous crimes but cooping them up like dogs serves only to increase tension, anger and danger.

BACKGROUND AND DEMANDS

From California Prison Focus

Prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison have called for an indefinite hunger strike as of July 1, 2011 to protest the cruel and inhumane conditions of their imprisonment.  The hunger strike was organized by prisoners in an unusual show of racial unity.  The prisoners developed five core demands

California Prison Focus supports these prisoners and their very reasonable demands, and calls on Governor Jerry Brown, CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate, and Pelican Bay State Prison Warden Greg Lewis to implement these changes.  California Prison Focus has also joined “Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity,” a coalition of grassroots human rights activist groups in the Bay Area supporting the demands of the prisoners participating in the hunger strike.

Briefly the five core demands of the prisoners are:

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).

The Pelican Bay hunger strikers have support form the other SuperMax in California Corcoran Bay Prison.

More here and here and here.

Hunger

During 1981, there were two hunger strikes – the culmination of a five-year protest during The Troubles by Irish republican prisoners in Northern Ireland.

Ten men died.

28 years ago today, 3rd October, the strikes were called to an official end.

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