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Marie Levin holds a photo of her brother, Ronnie Dewberry, taken at San Quentin State Prison in 1988. Until recently, it was the last photograph he’d had taken. Photo credit: Adithya Sambamurthy/The Center for Investigative Reporting
STARVED OF THEIR OWN IMAGE
We are now into the second week of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike. It is difficult to get firm figures on the number of participating prisoners. The Los Angeles Times reports 30,000; CNN reports 12,000 and Yahoo reports 7,000+.
I’m inclined to trust the figures sourced by Solitary Watch:
The hunger strike began on July 8th with participation of approximately 30,000 people in two-thirds of California’s prisons, as well as several out-of-state facilities holding California prisoners. In the first days of the hunger strike, approximately 3,200 others also refused to attend work or education classes as a form of protest in support of the hunger strike. As of Sunday, there are an estimated 4,487 still on hunger strike.
Still, formidable numbers.
INVISIBLE AND UNPHOTOGRAPHED PEOPLE
Last week, in conjunction with the initiation of the mass peaceful protect, Michael Montgomery for the Center for Investigative Reporting published an excellent article California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities about the ban on portrait photographs of prisoners held in solitary confinement.
The ban resulted from a tension between what a photograph meant or could mean.
For families, a photograph is a tangible connection to their loved one behind bars, but for staff of the four maximum security prisons that upheld the ban, photographs were potential calling cards — circulated by prison gang leaders — both to advise other members that they’re still in charge and to pass on orders.
The ban was lifted in 2011, following the last California prison hunger strike. Montgomery quotes Sean Kernan, the former Under-Secretary of the CDCR
“I think we were wrong, and I think (that) to this day,” he said. “How right is it to have an offender who is behaving … (and) to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years?” Kernan directed prison staff to ease the restrictions for inmates who were free of any disciplinary violations.
The ban in the four Californian prisons was extraordinary.
“I have never heard of any other prison system or individual prison in America imposing a long-term ban of this kind,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.
As I have stated frequently on Prison Photography, prison (visiting-room) portraiture is one of the most prevalent types of American vernacular photography.
Until artists such as Alyse Emdur and David Adler began to draw focus to this disparate, decentralised, emotion-laden, and high-stake vernacular sub-genre, prison portraits were kept in wallets, on mantles and in side tables. There’s tens of millions of them out there.
And yet, for over 20 years, thousands of men in California were not allowed images of themselves. The additional ban of mirrors in solitary units meant that many men often did not see images of themselves for years on end. Again, to quote Montgomery’s article:
“I have asked my husband, ‘Do you even know what you look like?’ And he says, ‘Kind of, sort of,’ ” said Irene Huerta, whose husband, Gabriel, 54, has been detained at Pelican Bay for 23 years.
THE PHOTOGRAPH AS AN OBJECT OF DEPLOYMENT
In the free world, photographs are ubiquitous, easily created, shared and possessed. The fact that these seemingly innocuous objects were caught in the tussle of control between prison authorities and prisoners is astonishing, and speaks to the power struggle (real and imagined) between the kept and the keepers.
Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said easing the restrictions on prisoner photographs raised no major security concerns, so long as inmates had to earn them. “It’s not as if there’s been an epidemic of inmate photos on the street,” he said.
I am not sure how Rushford would measure this, or even it would significantly alter the lives of prisoners, specifically now during the hunger strike, and especially now when proven or alleged gang affiliations have been put aside by prisoners in solidarity for improved conditions for all.
In light of recent art market fetishism, it would seem the primary reason anyone would want to gather prison portraits would be to repeat Harper’s Books’ $45,000 hustle and cash in on the images?
As for the families (following the ban lift) the value of newly acquired images is not in any doubt:
Seeing an image of their incarcerated relative for the first time in years has sparked renewed hope and revived dormant family connections. For others, the photographs are a shocking reminder of the length of time some inmates have been held in isolation.
CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING LINKS
Michael Montgomery’s California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities
Interactive Solitary Lives feature.
A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT THE SOLITARY WATCH WEBSITE
I cannot emphasize enough how important the website Solitary Watch is as a resource. Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and their team of reporters produce high quality journalism — not only for their website but for other news outlets including The Guardian, Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation.
Solitary Watch is an independent media and advocacy project, funded by grants and donations. It is a project of the Community Futures Collective, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. You can support the project here.
I don’t hesitate to say that Solitary Watch has driven much of the critical and visible public discourse about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails.
As Solitary Watch describes, “Solitary confinement is one of the nation’s most pressing domestic human rights issues — and also one of the most invisible,” which is why I have a vested interest in their work; we’re each interested in making solitary and other egregious aspects of the U.S. prison system more visible.
Nigel Poor (left and Doug Dertinger (right).
The intersection of photography and prisons doesn’t always manifest as a photographer pointing his or her lens at incarcerated people.
Photography – or more specifically the discussion of it and associated issues – can enter relationships, education, exchange. Both the practice and theory of photography can be taught and learned within prisons.
Last September, Nigel Poor, Associate Professor of Photography at California State University, Sacramento contacted me to tell me about her volunteer role teaching the History of Photography at San Quentin State Prison. I was blown away. Never before had I come across a photo history class taught behind bars. Immediately, I made arrangements to meet Nigel and her co-teacher and fellow CSUS professor Doug Dertinger.
As faculty, Poor and Dertinger adapted their existing CSUS syllabus, covering photography from 1970 to the present. However, the California Department of Corrections understandably wanted veto power over slides presented during the course.
Depictions of drugs, violence, sex, children, nudity are problematic for prison administrations … “Which is about 95% of photography,” points out Poor.
Poor and Dertinger were helped out by the experience of Jody Lewen, director of the Prison University Project at San Quentin. Lewen is insistent that PUP teachers do not self-censor, but respectfully present their preferred teaching material and allow the burden – and justification – for any censorship to fall upon the prison administration.
The interaction, therefore, was unorthodox but successful: Poor presented her entire 12 week course to Scott Kernan, Under Secretary to the CDCr (now retired) and to Mike Martel, the then Warden at San Quentin … in two hours!
Of the entire course, only four images were deemed unsuitable, a surprising but pleasing result that Poor describes as “a triumph.”
With Poor focusing on portraits and Dertinger focusing on land use and media, they quickly schooled their students in line, formal composition and leapt from there into sophisticated readings of images.
“I told them the photograph is like a crime scene,” says Poor, “and it is ours from which to draw evidence.”
Poor and Dertinger talk about what a life-affirming experience teaching inside proved to be; about how the men in San Quentin were the “most present students” they’ve ever taught; how invigorating it is to have a passion that isn’t only about oneself; and about the responsibility to educate people in free society about the potential of incarcerated people, a “veiled population.”
“They were ready to travel,” says Dertinger of the students’ willingness to unleash their own emotions and imagination upon photographs read.
Interestingly, the idea that the photograph was not – is not – a reflection of truth was disconcerting for the many of the students. Obviously, the reliability, or not, of narrative and testimony may have had a more profound effect on the reality of their lives as compared to others not subject to the criminal justice system. If you can’t use the language of truth and reality when discussing photography (popularly considered to be objective), then can you use those concepts when discussing your own life?
We end the conversation on a high note: One of the students wrote a comparative analysis of Richard Misrach’s Drive-In Theatre, Las Vegas and one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theatres. He wrote a 9-page essay during a four-week solitary confinement stint. He concluded Misrach’s work is about space; Sugimoto’s about time.
So impressed were Poor and Dertinger they got the essay into Misrach’s hands … and he read the essay to an audience of 2,500 at the November Pop-Up Magazine Event in San Francisco.
LISTEN TO OUR CONVERSATION AT THE PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY PODBEAN PAGE
© Richard Misrach. Drive-In Theatre, Las Vegas, 1987
© Hiroshi Sugimoto
Image: Rupert Ganzer
California has more prisoners serving life than any other state.
Life Support Alliance (LSA) has identified a group of prisoners – the life-term prisoners – who have increasingly become subject to Kafkaesque procedure in California justice. LSA advocates on behalf of these life-term prisoners and educates the public on the invisible cycle of parole denial.
There are four types of sentences handed down to California prisoners; the death sentence (execution), life without parole (never released), determinate sentences of a fixed period (3,5,10 years for example), and indeterminate sentences (5 to life, 12 to life, 20 to life). It is in this last category that life-term prisoners fall. If they are ever to win release they must serve the minimum term first and then convince a parole board that they are suitable for release. Suitability means not being a public threat.
In California there are 22,000 men and women on indeterminate term-life sentences. The average number of years served by a prisoner serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole is 20 years. For all these prisoners release is dependent on the Board of Parole Hearings.
GAIL BROWN ON THE CALIFORNIA PAROLE SYSTEM
The Board of Parole Hearings is not a neutral group however, and it is susceptible to political influence. New appointees to the board are made by the Governor. During our conversation, Gail Brown, Founder of Life Support Alliance talks about how the parole grant rate under Governor Gray Davis was 0%. During the tenures of Schwarzenegger and current Governor Jerry Brown, the figure rose as high as 20% and now sits at 18%. This increase is partly due to a more sensible approach to criminal justice, but also down to the economic crunch and to the fact that the governorship is likely to be Brown’s final job in public office; he doesn’t have to bow to powerful *tough-on-crime* lobby groups. Incidentally, California is one of only 3 states in which the governor has veto power over the board of parole hearings.
We should listen to Gail Brown. Her proposals will save every CA taxpayer money, forge progressive and forgiving attitudes, and force a return to legal procedure that means thousands of prisoners won’t be held in limbo, or worse, denied release because politicians don’t want to have prisoners – perceived as public safety hazards – released on their watch. (For a lesson in the damage a discharged prisoner can do in the worst circumstances to a political career, read up on Willie Horton and Al Gore.)
It also makes good common sense to release term-life prisoners. They are aging or aged. Costs to house an adult prisoner nearly double from $50,000/year to $98,000 when a prisoner turns 55. When they pass the age of 65, the cost triples to $150,000. The majority of these costs are medical care (which in CA was ruled as cruel and unusual in any case.)
As well as reducing costs, Gail Brown points out that aged prisoners have grown out of transgressive behaviours and are statistically the safest population to release.
In December 2011, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center released the first rigorous empirical study of prisoners serving life sentences with the possibility of parole in California called, “Life After Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences with the Possibility of Parole in California.”
The report found that California has laws enacted through the three branches of government often contradict one another.
In 2008, Marsy’s Law (also known as Proposition 9) gave victims additional rights to participate in parole hearings and the law greatly extended the time between hearings once a lifer is denied parole by the Board.
That same year, the California Supreme Court ruled in the Lawrence Decision that while the commitment offense is probative, in and of itself, it cannot serve as the sole reason to deny parole. The relevant standard for the Board to use in considering whether to release an inmate serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole is whether the prisoner is a current threat to public safety.
To further complicate matters, newly proposed legislation – SB 391 – would authorize the Parole Board to base its decision to deny parole solely upon the circumstances of the commitment offense. That would directly overrule the California Supreme Court opinion.
THE LAST WORD
More than statistics, costs and legal definitions, Brown wants us to heal as a society and look toward restorative justice and not rely on state agencies to enact vengeance within unseen penal institutions. As much as we are all potential victims of crime, we are all potential activists against the cycles of punitive violence that persist in broken prison systems.