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Christopher Onstott is a freelance photojournalist, photo editor, and videographer working out of his native Portland, Oregon. Before he turned to image-making, he bounced around in various jobs — most of the sales. He was once high-interest loan officer, pizza delivery boy and used-car salesman. At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and signed up for a college photo program.

I may have left Portland, but I still have friends there and interviews in the can, so here is Christopher and I talking about PDX, rural Oregon, disaster kits, the grounding effect of portraiture, setting up a business, and specifically setting up a business with your love.

In summer of last year, Christopher went inside Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as part of the Oregon Project Dayshoot+30. Our discussion begins there. The two images (above and directly below) are from inside OSP. Other images included are from Christopher’s portfolio.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about your decision to shoot in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).

CO: It was with Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 which was the 30 year anniversary of a day of photographing Oregon by 90 photographers back in 1983. I own the original book One Average Day and the images that stood out to me were the penitentiary photos. In between the usual ‘day in the life’ shots, vineyards, cattle and farmer photos were photographs of a guy in his cell smoking cigarettes.

PP: What was the intrigue?

CO: Prisoners are the under-represented group in Oregon. If you think of Oregonians, you don’t think of prisoners. But they’re residents here.

PP: There’s 14 or 15 thousand people in Oregon’s state prisons these days. Thousands more in county jails.

CO: The Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 was a good reason to get access to OSP which I wouldn’t usually get access to.

I contacted the public liaison office, told them about the project, sent them to the site, sent them a couple of photos of the book that I’d taken on my phone. “Here’s what they did 30 years ago, can I come and shoot?” essentially. They did a security background check and we set up a time. I had only an hour window to shoot. The rest of the day I photographed around Salem.

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CO: When I got to the prison, the gentleman I’d been emailing with was not the man I met. The man I’d been in communication with was off work sick. So, immediately there was this disconnect between what I’d asked for and what was being presented to me.

It wasn’t a good experience.

PP: How so?

CO: I wanted to photograph the residents of OSP with a documentary approach, in the vein of the original project. But, my escort’s perception was I wanted take an updated version of the photo from 30-years-ago!

He asked, “So, you want to take this picture?” as he pointed at a print-off of a camera-phone picture of a image in a book! He walked me to a cell, there were two prisoners. He told me I could only photograph one and he gave me 3 minutes. [Laughs]

PP: You had your own art director!

CO: “The image your holding is an example,” I said. “But let’s look at the whole penitentiary.” He said we were not cleared for that, because all the prisoners were about to move for count. There was no flexibility. My escort was accountable to his boss and he didn’t know what had been said before.

PP: What did the subject think about you photographing?

CO: He was totally okay with it. He thought it was cool. I got the impression he knew he was going to be photographed. He was on LWOP (Life Without Parole). Pretty docile.

PP: You think he’s seen the photograph?

CO: I don’t know. I emailed the prison a copy of the photograph in a thank you email.

PP: when you were in OSP, did you cover your tattoos up?

CO: I wore short sleeves. I don’t really think of myself as being tattooed.

PP: Believe me, the prisoners and staff noticed! Do you think there was more to be seen at OSP?

CO: Definitely, just walking in we passed so many people. There was activity and work details everywhere. I was eyeing pictures everywhere but I couldn’t take them. It’s an entire town in there, right? A cultural complex. There’s a million photographs to be made. But I was only to capture a very slim sliver of life.

Still it’s important that there’s at least a representation of prisoners as residents of Oregon 30 years from now.

Tire Swing, Alberta Steet, hipsters, portland, summer,

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PP: Shifting gears. You grew up in Oregon.

CO: Grew up in Portland, spent a year in Texas, went to college in Washington State, spent a year in Texas, worked for 4 years at the Spectrum and Daily News in St George, Utah. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather sucks five months out of the year.

PP: There’s lots of buzz about Portland, right now.

CO: Oregon really is two different states of mind.

You’ve got the Willamette Valley and the city of Portland and then you’ve got the rest of the state. The one area that doesn’t get attention is Southeastern Oregon. Not a lot of roads, no freeways, hardly a population density. Very rural.

PP: How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?

CO: I think it’s really supportive. We’ve got ASMP Oregon and Newspace. Photographers will move work back and forth and offer one another help. But, on the otherhand, there’s a lot of photographers, so it can be competitive at the same time.

PP: Journalism, editorial?

CO: Magazines. There’s a lot of international attention on the city so we’ve people coming here asking for images. Those stories tend to lean the way of food, style travel; not hardcore news stories. There’s no tornadoes or hurricanes here!

PP: Maybe an earthquake?

CO: I’ve got my 72-hr disaster kit and spare film ready [laughs].

PP: Have you always been a photographer?

CO: No. I’ve been pizza delivery driver. Worked in my dad’s automotive shop. I was a used car sales man for four years. I’ve been a high interest loan officer. I was a bartender for two years. When my father passed away in 2001, I inherited his camera and I was left with “What do I do now?”

My father always told me to be a salesman. But I couldn’t stomach earning a living by getting one over on people. I’d never been to college, so after he died. I decided to go back to college. I was a freshman at 24-years-old! I did Photojournalism at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.

I took a picture of a girl’s basketball game and they ran it big in the paper and that was me hooked. [laughs]

PP: What’s easier to sell? Photographs or used cars?

CO: They’re both really hard!

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PP: How do you feel about photography. Is it as bad as it’s often made out? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty thinker.

CO: I think the glass is awesome. The fact you can wake in the morning, pick up a camera and go make a living. I don’t care if your shooting fashion or street photography or using your iPhone, you just have to make pictures. We’re a society that is devouring images.

PP: But a photographer still has to package and shape stories. Can’t just churn them out!?

CO: You still gotta be good. My degree was in visual rhetoric; saying something with an image. Manage that and you’ve accomplished something as a photographer. If you’re a one trick pony, then you’re not gonna last.

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PP: I recently met Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow recently.

CO: Randy was my mentor at Missouri Photo Workshop last year.

PP: They’re a couple. There’s a few photo couples out there.

CO: Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber.

PP: Two great photographers. Yourself and Leah Nash are a couple. Is there any element of professional competition between you two?

CO: The secret to being in a relationship with another photographer is to be open to criticism and not to take it personally. If you want to grow, take honest feedback from someone who knows you really well and how you operate.

Leah and I edit one another’s work and we don’t take it personally. There’s no relationship argument to be had over photographs.

We’ve agreed not be chasing the same jobs. We’ve formed a separate company, NashCO (Leah Nash & C. Onstott) outside of our own work stylistically that’s focused on corporate and commercial work.

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PP: What you working on now?

CO: Street photography. I’m carrying my camera everyday capturing people in moments.

I’ve been working on a personal project of portraits for 5-years now. Using my Hasselblad. It’s slower. Because when I was at the newspaper I was running around photographing people but not really meeting them, you know? I was encountering into people who … I wouldn’t say were marginalized … but they were people who wouldn’t normally be paid attention to by the news. I wanted to slow down.

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CO: In news you’re photographing people in the highest points of achievement in their life, or at the lowest points of their life. The big award, the win at the big race, or the battle with cancer. Most of the time, we’re overlooking the median, the mean of existence.

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CO: I want to give those everyday people and experiences some attention. In Nevada, New York, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California. Any time I travel, I try to make portraits.

Pick out the person who is trying not to be photographed and ask their name and their story. Often they reply, “Why me?” and my response is “Because you’re interesting.”

I’ve been the only photographer at some of the newspapers I’ve worked at. I was shooting car accidents, house fires and high school sports. My way to decompress from that is to take pictures that I wasn’t taking on the job.

PP: Instagram?

CO: Used to Instagram a lot. When I got my [digital] Leica I stopped posting on Instagram so much. I try to follow people who are making good pictures because I want to be inspired. I don’t want to see pictures of peoples kids.

PP: Where do you shoot?

CO: I’ve been shooting a lot around my neighborhood, the Alberta neighborhood, because it is a gentrified ghetto. There’s a lot of collision. Walk up Alberta or Killingsworth Streets and there’s a photograph every 10 metres. But here’s the hub of Portland’s gentrification.

PP: What else keeps your eye busy?

CO: Portland Squared. It’s a project that Leah started a couple of years ago. 50 photographers. one square mile divided up into fifty squares and you spend the day shooting a square and ASMP event. Last year, they did a bigger square. 2 x 2 miles and 70 photographers. for 24 hours.

PP: Whose work do you admire here in town?

Thom Boyd, Natalie Behring.

Jason Langer’s work blows my mind. Chris Hornbecker who did the Timbers billboards.

Beth Nakamura’s stuff is awesome; she’s just a kick-ass daily newspaper photographer. Her blog is great too.

PP: Anything else to add?

CO: Don’t move to Portland! There’s too many photographers here! [Laughs]

PP: Ha! Thanks, Christopher.

CO: Thank you, Pete.

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SOCIALS

Keep up with Christopher Onstott through his website, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Follow NashCO on Facebook, Vimeo and web and blog.

EYE ON PDX

Eye On PDX is an ongoing series of profiles of photographers based in Portland, Oregon. See past Eye On PDX profiles here and here.

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Giles Clarke is a photographer with the bit between his teeth. Last summer, he wandered into a story about squalid cages being used by El Salvadorian police to hold men accused of gang-related crimes. The pictures — published in the August 2013 issue of VICE — caused some outrage, a lot of gawking and general throwing of hands in the air.

(Click on an image to see it larger.)

It was an unplanned chain of events that led Clarke to the stinking cages. It began on a Saturday night in February of last year when Clarke’s fixer, a local breakdancer who works with youth to divert them from crime, took him to the police station in Quezaltepeque, a town 15 outside of San Salvador.

”I told the police I wanted to ride along and went straight out into Barrio-18 territory,” says Clarke “Bare in mind these gangs are armed to the teeth and control huge swathes of the towns. Armed police units are joined by the military.”

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

At the time of Clarke’s visit, there was a fragile peace truce between Barrio 18 (18th Street Gang) and MS-13  in place. Mostly, the night was eerily quiet but it was later punctuated by violence.

“We responded to a shoot-out at a traffic junction. The shooter had fled and not hit anyone but units swarmed the area. I was told to lie down behind one cop till all clear given. It turned out drunk driver had got in the face of a friend and the friend had popped off a few shots to shut him up. Then we spent another couple of hours searching, pulling kids and gangers over.”

The next day, Clarke returned to the station. A new female officer responsible for caring for victims of domestic abuse asked her captain, “Have you shown him the cages, yet?” The captain of 17 years – who was a bit more enlightened than his rank and file (and also a surfer and guitar enthusiast) — liked to talk about his work and saw value in showing a foreign journalist the cages.

“The captain was very aware of what he was doing [by letting me photograph the cages]. He has a big heart for the issues he is facing,” says Clarke. “The El Salvador legal system is a disaster — with the explosion of gang violence in the last 15 years, the lack of new prisons along with the huge rise in US deportation rates — the justice system can’t handle it so these cages are springing up everywhere. 35 men in each one.”

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

There were three cages at Quezaltepeque police station — one for Barrio 18, one for MS-13 and one for “common criminals.”

“I took the photo (top) that ended up being the VICE cover shot within 10 seconds of seeing it. I knew it was important. That visual hit me first, then came the smell,” says Clarke. “They shit in the back of the cages. It’s fucking disgusting. Stinking hot. It must have been 95 degrees in there.”

The police officers didn’t want Clarke there and were getting nervous, so he worked quickly and started gleaning as much information as he could from the prisoners.

“One kid (below) had been there 17 months. He was there the longest. Waiting for sluggish El Salvador system. Some of the prisoners have not been charged,” says Clarke.

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

Another prisoner, in the common criminals cage, was a army veteran with one leg who’d been locked up for protesting the loss of his veterans’ benefits. Most locals don’t know about the cages (CLarke’s fixer didn’t) but some must as the police do not feed the prisoners. Families and friends must bring in food for them. The prisoners spend their time shredding clothes and hand-weaving hammocks to maximize used space and make sleeping on top of one another a fraction less harrowing.

“Every Thursday, they are shackled, brought out the cages, searched, and sprayed down. The police find drugs. They get in there. You can assume guards are paid off.”

Clarke learnt that most of the gang members had been deported from Los Angeles. Many had fled civil wars, or their families had, and they’d lived in East Los Angeles, Long Beach or other parts of L.A.

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

El Salvadorian gangs are an American product. After serving time in California prisons. many gang members were deported back to El Salvador along with their social tensions, survival modes and high violence. There’s no doubting that Barrio 18 and MS-13 have committed heinous crimes. So far down the rabbit hole, only truces, the reduction of poverty and societal buy-in provides a way out for many of these men. The situation is confounding.

“They all read the bible, just like reading the newspaper,” says Clarke. “I was very surprised. That mixture of high crime and fervent religion is confusing.”

© Giles Clarke

The issues are complex and transborder. Clarke shows us the worst of El Salvador but before we condemn the authorities abroad and dismiss this as someone else’s problem, it might be worth bearing in mind that America has its own cages.

FORTHCOMING GILES CLARKE SERIES ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY

Having lived in the U.S. since the mid-nineties, British-born Clarke has always been aware of the abuse in, and uncontrolled expansion of, American prisons but this story in El Salvador ignited an interest in cages at home. Since this story, Clarke has been photographing in prisons here and abroad.

This is the first of a series of posts featuring Clarke’s work. Prison Photography will bring publishing original images and b-roll from Clarke’s other prison stories, always alongside his biting commentary.

GILES CLARKE

Giles Clarke is a social documentary photographer based in New York City. He is a featured photographer represented by Reportage by Getty and aWHITELABELproduct. A wandering photojournalist and frequent contributor to VICE, his travels in 2014 have taken him from Guatemala to the Netherlands; from Chiapas to Columbia; and from old frontlines in Sarajevo to new frontlines in Ukraine. 

All images: Giles Clarke/Getty images

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If you happen upon a copy of the latest issue of Aperture The Sao Paolo Issue (215), you will find — on p.14 — 200 words by yours truly about evidentiary imagery. As part of Aperture’s ongoing What Matters Now? series, I wrote:

In May 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld an order to cut the prison population in California, on the grounds that overcrowding resulted in inadequate health care conditions and preventable deaths.

The majority ruling for the case, Brown v. Plata, was penned by Justice Kennedy who took the unorthodox step of including in the appendix three photographs of prison conditions. Perhaps, in this case, the facts really needed to be seen in order to be believed?

The three images represented a cache of hundreds of low-resolution, anonymous, poorly lit photographs used in the initial filings and ongoing compliance stages of Brown v. Plata. Their inclusion spurned widespread consternation among some law boffins who believed that photographs are too emotive and too imprecise, and have no place in high-profile legal cases. I wonder at what point did the legal community decide written and oral evidence was more legitimate than visual evidence?

For too long there has been an arrogance among photography traditionalists that a professionally-made documentary image can change the world. If we are to truly identify images that change society, then we’d be better looking to legal briefs and not newspaper front pages. The images made by prison officials and legal teams that were used in Brown v Plata changed the daily living conditions of 165,000 men and women.

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Hundreds of images from Brown vs Plata are part of the exhibition Prison Obscura.

The San Francisco based law firm Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld that represented the prisoners (plaintiffs) have made available materials from the trial online, including many photos.

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P-338 SVSP-13 Dry Cages or Holding Cells for People Waiting for MHCB

 

REST IN PEACE, PETE

Musician, folklorist and champion of the vernacular Pete Seeger died Monday. His legacy is formidable. The New York Times wrote:

His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.

Part of Seeger’s widespread collection of folk songs took him, in March 1966, to the Ellis Unit of Huntsville Prison in Texas.

He traveled south with his wife and constant ally Toshi and their son Daniel. Bruce Jackson also joined them.

Afro-American Work Songs In a Texas Prison (30 mins.) documents the music African American prisoners used to survive the grueling work demanded of them. The prison work songs derive directly from those used by slaves and plantations and those directly from West African agricultural models.

Bruce Jackson wrote in his notes about the film:

“Black slaves used work songs in the plantations exactly as they had used them before they had been taken prisoner and sold to the white men. The difference was this: in Africa the songs were used to time body movements and to give poetic voice to things of interest because people wanted to do their work that way; in the plantations there was added a component of survival. If a man were singled out as working too slowly, he would often be brutally punished. The songs kept everyone together, so no one could be singled out as working more slowly than everyone else.”

Mechanization and integration of farming and forestry methods would soon lead to the disappearance of the work songs. There was an urgency to record them.

I spoke with Jackson in late 2011, when he said, “It is, to my knowledge, the only treatment (of that genre and era) that had ever been done. It was Pete’s idea and Pete paid for it.”

Seeger understood the contradiction. A significant type of folk music — a music that reflected the very survival of an oppressed group — was soon to be consigned to the history books, and yet that loss signified an improvement in their circumstances. As the film’s narration notes:

“The songs are still there but sometimes something is missing. The urgency is eased. Gone is that tension born of the original pain and irony of the situation that a man who could not sing and keep rhythm might die. The prison is the only place left in the country where the work songs survives. And it’s days are numbered. Another generation or two and its only source will be the archives. But given the conditions that produced the songs and maintained them for so long one can hardly regret their passing.”

Seeger understood people’s stories are wrapped up in their art. And with it their dignity. His curiosity was a rare and beautiful thing.

Watch: Afro-American Work Songs In a Texas Prison 

A NOTE ON JACKSON

Bruce Jackson is a prolific prison photographer. Most of his work was made in the sixties and seventies in the South, from his Widelux images at Cummins Prison, his collected mugshots from Arkansas, his 1977 book Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary (Cornell) and his very recent 2013 book Inside The Wire (University of Texas Press) about Texas and Southern prison farms. Bruce Jackson’s book Wake Up Dead Man (University of Georgia Press) is a highly recommended study of work songs in Texas prisons.

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San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia is a singular type of prison. It accepts tourists. It also attracts professional photographers. For me, the story of San Pedro has always been the sporadic schedules of guided tours within the prison. First they are on, then they are off.

The very existence of images made by free-wheeling tourists tells us a lot more about the administration’s attitude to security, social priorities and moneymaking than the visit of any single photographer. One might presume that a professional photographer’s visit would be a rare thing  … if it wasn’t for the thousands of photographs made by amateurs.

Still, I like very much a few of Giovanni Cobianchi‘s portraits in his San Pedro Limbo series.

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If these images from San Pedro interest you, consider looking at Toby BInder’s work I featured earlier this year in Photos of Infamous Bolivian Prison Go Beyond Common Tourist Snaps

Negrel, Christophe

Prison by Christophe Negrel is shot in French prisons and focuses on the physical regimes kept by prisoners. Some great studies of moment in the portfolio.

Prison guards and child, Juba Prison, South Sudan © Zed Nelson

Zed Nelson goes down as one of my fave photographers of 2012. It’s not like he’s suddenly emerged though – he’s consistently produced thoughtful and cohesive series in recent years. It’s just that many of his bodies of work have fallen on my eyeballs and congealed nicely, for me, this year. Big fan.

I especially like his photographs from the Rio Grande (U.S./Mexico border). I recommend also Nelson’s work from Israel, the London Olympics and of trades in Britain that are slowly disappearing.

The image above is from his series South Sudan which features some solid portraits. For 50+ years Sudan was in civil war. In July 2011, a peace agreement secured independence for South Sudan – the world’s 201st and newest nation state. Nelson photographs the still-learning “nation makers.” The work is cautiously optimistic about the capacity of people to create positive change. The variety of subjects reminds us that peace is collaborative and man-made … and woman-made.

PHOTOGRAPHY OF SOUTH SUDAN

Problems still exist for South Sudan. It must wean of its economic reliance on oil, which accounts for 95% of tax income for the region. Oil will run out in 25 years. The South must maintain healthy diplomacy with Khartoum in the north, too. Worrying reports of violence in displacements camps – particularly against women and children – have surfaced recently. South Sudan has some way to go, but it has come a long way. And photographers have covered the journey. Refugee camps and food crises were covered by John Stanmeyer and Jenn Warren. Tim Freccia made portrats that I can’t make my mind up about, but the most recent and thorough coverage is that by Pete Muller who has been living in South Sudan and documenting the elections and transition to independence since 2009.

PHOTOS OF NORWAY’S PRISONS: CONTEXT

Almost without exception, photographs of prisons in Norway featured in international media over the past two years have appeared below a headline featuring the word “luxury” or in simplified articles about the relative comfort of Norwegian prisons. The implication? That no criminals should live in safe, clean, environments and that rehabilitation is folly at best and an insulting waste of taxpayers money at worst.

I’d like to recommend a different take. Six of Fin Serck-Hanssen‘s photographs from Normalising Judgement appear throughout this post.

Serck-Hannsen’s view is neither expressly bleak nor expressly sugary. These drab prisons are nothing to get overly-emotive about and as such probably reflect fairly the predictable life in highly-managed institutions that try to redirect the most antisocial adult behaviours. As you click through to the links included herein, please refer back to Serck-Hanssen’s Normalising Judgement to challenge the “rosy” picture that may have been painted of Norway’s prisons in international media.

Completed in 2008, Serck-Hanssen’s Normalising Judgement pre-dates Breivik’s massacre. The Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security was drafting a white paper, and invited Serck-Hanssen to document multiple prisons. As long as privacy was safeguarded and security was not put at risk, Serck-Hanssen was able to work freely throughout the prisons.

Serck-Hanssen told Mono blog, “In my view, Norwegians in general have the idea that prisons are very human institutions. I wanted to find out how much truth there was in this assumption.”

BREIVIK, MEDIA, ATTITUDES AT HOME AND ABROAD

When mass-murderer Anders Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison by a Norwegian court, it wasn’t at all clear to me how the verdict related to my efforts here at Prison Photography. The court ruled he was sane, yet I am quite happy to describe his ideas as repulsive and his actions as deranged. His offensive gestures and attitudes played out in the court reflected his right-wing islamophobic motives for the murder of 77 innocents on Utoya Island in July 2011.

Breivik has entered the select company of infamous and clearly unhinged murderers that history unfortunately seems to remember. Here at Prison Photography, my concerns are for the majority of American prisoners who are non-violent, poorly-educated, warehoused and given few opportunities to rehabilitate should they find themselves subject to the unusually long sentences the U.S. hands down. Breivik has zero in common with these men, women and children.

Somewhat surprisingly, there is commentary that is spurred by ideas and images about Breivik’s case and that relates to American prisons. Said commentary revolves around the issue of prison conditions. Namely, it centres on the divergent expectations of people in different nations on conditions for convicted criminals.

Even preceding Breivik’s horrendous crimes, there was a characterisation of Norwegian prisons as being “luxury” (the same characterisation/accusation has been aimed at the prisons of other European nations – Austria springs to mind). Sometimes, the term “humane” was used; a welcome alternative given that the term “luxury” often carries an inferred suspicion and jealousy.

In the week following the Utoya Island massacre, innumerable news sources ran stories about how Breivik would potentially serve his sentence in a “cushy” or “super-lux” or, closer to the truth, “progressive” prison.

As it is the highest security facility in the country, it was understandable that international media assumed that Breivik would be held in Norway’s recently constructed (2010) Halden Fengsel Prison. He is actually being held in Ila Prison, near Oslo (details; 14 photos; and the psychology of solitary).

CIVILITY OF PROCESS: CIVILITY OF PRISONS

Repeated slideshows often feigned dismay and disgust, or intended to stoke up anger. But it was an anger engineered for international audiences, not Norwegians. Norway was busy mourning, getting to grips with introspection and formalising the logistics to carry out one of the most high profile cases in its legal history. This isn’t to say that Norwegians didn’t feel anger, but they also knew they had to meet Breivik’s unparalleled assault with a dignified and civil response.

In the U.S., a country that routinely hands down the death penalty and Life Without Parole, Breivik’s sentence of 21 years seems comparatively tiny, even foolish.* Most American citizens would balk at the notion. And yet, when the verdict was passed, most Norwegian celebrated the fact that Norwegian law had handed down it’s most severe punishment and that the civility of the judicial system had remained in tact throughout despite the extreme heinous nature of Breivik’s crime (I only consumed news-stories on this event in the UK, so narratives may have differed elsewhere).

If societies are to learn and move forward from such horrendous events then they need something to rally around. In Norway, the humane and sensible legal system, in the response to acts of utter criminality, was an obvious ‘something.’ Americans can never rally around the death of someone sentenced to execution. Even in non-capital offenses, how proud can any U.S. citizen be of a legal system that has sentenced tens of millions to broken prison systems and is responsible for 2.3 million prisoners on any given day?

Prison (or the electric chair) shouldn’t be considered the final chapter. Prison should be considered an early chapter toward mending a broken individual and society’s shortcomings that led a given individual to transgress. Prison conditions are key in successfully rehabilitating individuals and successfully relieving society of future crime and the associated financial costs.

Dylan Matthews explains on the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog that Making prison worse doesn’t reduce crime. It increases it:

It turns out there’s a pretty extensive literature on the effects of harsh prison conditions. One finding that is growing more and more accepted is that harsh sentences, if anything, increase recidivism. […] Gerald Gaes and Scott Camp found that higher security levels increase recidivism by about 31 percent. Lawrence Bench and Terry Allen randomly assigned prisoners to medium and maximum security sectors of a prison and found that prisoners in maximum security were no less likely to commit in-prison offenses. […] Geographic isolation increases recidivism. A study from Rafael Di Tella and  Ernesto Schargrodsky found that people who are sentenced to house arrest with ankle monitors reoffend at a much lower rate than those sentence to traditional prison. And a wide array of studies have found that in-prison education programs reduce recidivism while improving quality of life. The findings on the effects of prison conditions on recidivism, in short, are a matter of scholarly consensus.

No prison is a cake walk. All prisoners deserve to be safe. I’d argue all prisoners should be as meaningfully engaged in rehabilitative activities and subject to civil attitudes as is possible. But, I also understand why the idea of retribution for some extends to a desire to see prisoners wallow in poor conditions. I hope I’ve made the case here that Norwegian prison are not luxury and that furthermore shouldn’t be the exception. Better prison conditions means less crime in the future. Better prison conditions means improved individuals.

* The maximum sentence possible under Norwegian law is 21 years, although in special circumstances, and Breivik’s certainly one, judges may extend the sentence as it nears an end.

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All images Fin Serck-Hanssen. Get the book Normalizing Judgement here. Via here & now mono blog. Thanks to Robert Gumpert for the tip.

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