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Okay, the title to this post makes it sound like I’ll be making a habit of recording these stories of abuse. I will not. That isn’t because these episodes aren’t regular (unfortunately, they are quite regular), it is because I don’t have the time most weeks to adequately collect the many stories of misconduct from across this America.

So, why this week? Well, I came across two particularly disgusting and glaring examples of abuse. In both cases, they are presented with great clarity. The first is courtroom video footage. The second is a diaristic, written account.


Above, we see a video from September 2012, in which Denver Sheriff Deputy Brad Lovingier slams a handcuffed prisoner into wall. Face first. Totally unprovoked.

Following the judge’s ruling, the defendant Anthony Waller requested clarification. At which point he is grabbed, from behind, by the handcuffs secured by behind his back, spun around, and flung into the wall. Waller falls to his knees after the impact and is then dragged out of the courtroom and into a holding cell. In the video Lovingier can be heard saying, “You don’t turn on me,” as the only explanation for his actions.

Madness. Ordinarily, a citizen guilty of such an assault would face a 6-month jail term. Lovingier was suspended for 30 days. And he’s appealing that.


The story is as simple as its logic is baffling and its behaviours are brutal.

Man witnesses a bike accident. Calls 9-1-1. Is handcuffed by police for unknown reasons. Taken to jail. Asks legitimate questions. Faces retribution from deputies. Stripped. Thrown in a shit-stained solitary cell.

You just have to read it to believe it: Good Samaritan Backfire or How I Ended Up in Solitary After Calling 911 for Help

This kid —  Paretz Partensky — is a young, educated, white, computer programmer. His abuse is likely no different (it might be less egregious?) than abuse meted out to people in San Francisco far more vulnerable than he. But Partensky gets on hot-new-story-telling-platform Medium and tells the story of his 12 hours of detention.


Officer Durkin, in the foreground, is telling Ben that he cannot take this photo. According to Attorney Krages, you are allowed to take photos in public places. Officer Durkin’s reprimand is in violation of Ben’s rights.

Partensky’s account is nuanced — he provides necessary details; he gives benefit of doubt to most of the characters involved; he tries to put himself in the position of others throughout the ordeal; he is aware of his white privilege; he ponders what different outcomes may have arisen had he and others interacted differently. In short, it is a compelling read.

Let’s not be churlish and say this is a young, comfy, SF-coder-class entrepreneur using an online platform to have a whinge. Let’s be civic and responsible and say no-one should be subject to arbitrary and vengeful treatment from law enforcement. Let us not allow our uncomfortable relationship to racial and income inequality, nor our relationship to white privilege be an excuse to dismiss Partensky’s story. Let us be shocked. Let us be angry. Let us thank Partensky for bringing his account to light.

Dana Ullman, a Brooklyn-based photographer, has in recent years traveled back-and-forth to California; to Los Angeles’ Skid Row, to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and to the San Joaquin Valley. The series’ title Another Kind Of Prison references the fact that many hardships of prison continue post-release and, furthermore, new challenges emerge. Ullman followed several women as they left prison and readjusted to life on the outside. For Ullman, the choice to go to California was logical.

“California is home to the world’s two largest women prisons and has an annual corrections budget of 10 billion dollars, the highest in the country, yet has limited reentry programs,” she says. “In California, there are about 12,000 women on parole. Unprepared once on parole, without money, housing or resources, institutionalized and isolated, these women find it difficult to regain hold of their lives.”

Over the past 15 years, the number of incarcerated women in prison increased by 203%, as compared to 77% for men. With such a rapid increase in prison populations, services within prisons have inevitably suffered. Ullman reports a lack of training, preparation and rehabilitation for the women she photographed.

Ullman is also keen to emphasize the common factors particular to female prisoners.

“62% of women in prison have children under 18. Many suffer from mental illness and have histories of sexual and physical abuse – 73% of women in prison have symptoms or are diagnosed with a mental illness compared to 55% of men in prison. 65% of women in state prisons are incarcerated for nonviolent drug, property, or public order offenses. Nearly one in three reported committing their offense to support a drug addiction. Many are battered women serving time for crimes related to their abuse,” Ullman writes.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Ullman wants to communicate the strength of the women who – at a particularly difficult junctures in life – have kindly let her into their lives.

“While some women have had difficult transitions, others have become inspirational community leaders – I want to show both sides in an effort to break stigma associated with incarceration.”

Dana Ullman and I share a belief that prisons are increasingly defining our society and economy.

Another Kind Of Prison is more important then ever in exploring new strategies to better address the complex needs of present and former women prisoners who are often left out of the conversation,” says Ullman. “These stories, the needs and dreams of each woman in their own voice, illuminate the ‘revolving door’ created by poor public policies and lives fragmented by ignorance, poverty and by years, even lifetimes, of abuse. They will also help the public understand who these women are.”

Scroll down for a brief Q&A and a dozen more images. All images and captions by Dana Ullman.

Top image: LaKeisha Burton, 38, a poet and reentry advocate, was convicted as an adult at the age of 15. Ms. Burton served 17 and a half years in prison for shooting a gun into a crowd at the age of 15. She was convicted as an adult for attempted murder and received life plus 9 years. No one was killed or injured. The victim (with whom LaKeisha reconciled while both were serving time in prison), who killed someone, was released from CIW after 9 years. LaKeisha’s story represents the beginning of the disturbing increase in juveniles being tried as adults when many are completely capable of rehabilitation.

Above: On any given day women are paroled in California with a box of personal items, $200 or less in “gate money” and a bus ticket to Skid Row. Unprepared once out on parole, with no income, housing or resources, institutionalized and isolated, many women find it difficult to regain hold of their lives independently.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Clearly the success of a former-prisoner reentering society has a lot to do with their experience while locked up, but I feel in the past – for most people – dialogue about prison reform issues have been lumped in with dialogues about re-entry issues. That is to the detriment of both. It does seem though that, recently, re-entry has been recognised as its own vital step with its own set of issues to be explored. I’m thinking here of Convictions, Gabriela Bulisova’s excellent work in Washington D.C. and the forthcoming VII Photo’s documentary project and partnership with Think Outside The Cell.

Dana Ullman (DU): I am aware, too, of the increased focus on reentry [in photography] that really wasn’t there a few years ago. It is a difficult, complex and fragile issue to document because there are so many factors that lead to former prisoners’ success and failure, especially depending on where they live.

I am really happy to see Another Kind Of Prison getting some light because reentry is where one sees the emergence of all the issues that were not addressed while serving time, the societal factors that underline much of the mass incarceration today – sheer poverty, histories of abuse, racism and mental health. Once men and women are locked up and out of society, they are simplistically labeled “criminals” and the stigmas attached to poverty, abuse, race, mental health and crime are once again enforced.

PP: What are your hopes for the work?

DU: I envision, with some support, that Another Kind Of Prison will travel as an exhibition in community spaces such as libraries or ideally in county jails/state prisons where so many of these women (with very little support) are planning their release. There is one woman I interviewed who had no plan for even a place to sleep the night she got out. It was a random TV show featuring a transitional house that she saw one night, not her parole officer or a reentry prep class, that connected her to where she is now living. Women outside can really speak to those inside about their experiences. I have been making audio recordings of each woman’s story. I want the project to create a forum for discussion, rather than merely point out the problem.

PP: What’s next?

DU: I am not done with the project by any stretch. Documentary photography is tricky (and I am not a master of it by any means). I am following several, very fragile lives over time and waiting patiently for that “visual” moment that doesn’t always come. There is also so so much more I could do with some kind of funding, but that has been difficult, so I have to work with what I can. So for now, I hope to increase awareness of this experience shared by thousands of women in the USA with the general public and keeping plugging away at it making the work stronger.

In San Francisco, I was working very closely with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners who have used my work to support their own causes. I was very happy about that because the CCWP do a lot of direct services and support for these women. In New York, I am expanding the project to look a young 28-year-old upstate woman’s reentry process after being incarcerated at the age of 14 to try and get a younger person’s perspective.

I am going to Uganda this Fall where I will be working with the organization African Prisons Project documenting women in prison. I’ll also be collecting stories of people incarcerated and indefinitely-detained for homosexuality (for which the highest penalty is death). My work is quite capable of being a cross-cultural look at women and prison.

Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California is one of two of the largest women’s prisons in the world; the second, Valley State Prison, is directly across the street.

Mary Shields embraces a long-time friend and advocate one week after being released from Central California Women’s Facility. Mary served 19 years for a crime related to domestic violence.

Mary Shields a week after her release from Central California Women’s Facility laughs with a friend after she had trouble understanding how to use a cell phone, which were not widely used twenty years ago.

LaKeisha Burton performs a spoken word piece at Chuco’s Justice Center, which serves as a youth and community space in Inglewood, California. Today, LaKeisha shares her story through spoken word performances and is dedicated to working with at-risk youth susceptible to gangs and the same injustices as she once experienced.

LaKeisha watches a youth group perform at Chuco’s Justice Center in Los Angeles, California. With her infectious optimism and self-determination, LaKeisha Burton displays almost nothing of her past; she lives, works and dates, as any women like her. Yet, these things are exceptional for someone who had lost, some might say had stolen, nearly two decades of the most developmental period in one’s life and with very little preparation thrust out into society. Ms. Burton says when she was released it was as if she were still 15 going on 16.

In the United States over 1.5 million children have a parent who is incarcerated.* 75% of women in prison are mothers and over half have children under the age of 18. Many children suffer lasting emotional effects of a parent’s incarceration, which can affect all areas as they develop into adults.

After cycling in and out of jail for crimes related to substance abuse, Jean Waldroup, 39, has found “home” at A New Way of Life, a transitional home for formerly incarcerated women that emphasizes keeping mothers and children together. For the last six months, Jean has maintained both her sobriety and role as mother to her son and daughter. Jean is the primary parent and she maintains a relationship with the children’s father.

A New Way of Life purchases homes in residential neighborhoods, giving a quieter, less institutional environment for families to rebuild relationships that may show signs of wear and tear after experiencing incarceration. Community-based organizations like A New Way of Life operate mostly under the radar with few resources and little public recognition despite their critical role in offering rehabilitation, family reunification and successful reentry.

Following her release, and to give her life structure, Molly volunteers to make lunch for clients at the behavioral health clinic she attends in San Francisco. Molly stills battles with drug addiction.

Molly on the bus. To avoid the caustic environment bubbling outside her building, Molly will ride Muni lines between Bayview-Hunter’s Point and Downtown San Francisco for hours. She tends to hide from nouns, that is people, places, and things. Molly’s mental health and substance abuse maintain instability and isolation in her life, some days are good, others hard.

A friend embraces Molly at a local community center.

Molly’s room at the Empress Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The first stable living she has had since the cycle of incarceration began in her life.

- – - -

*The advocacy group Children of Promise estimates the number of U.S. children with incarcerated parents at 2.7 million.

- – - -


Dana Ullman grew up in Portland, Oregon. She studied photojournalism at the Danish School of Journalism and holds a B.A. in Journalism from San Francisco State University. Dana currently lives in New York City photographing assignments and personal projects.

A New Way of Life Reentry Project is a non-profit organization in South Central Los Angeles with a core mission to help women and girls break the cycle of entrapment in the criminal justice system and lead healthy and satisfying lives.

California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) is a grassroots social justice organization, with members inside and outside prison, that challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex. CCWP prioritizes the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement.

The African Prisons Project (APP) is a group of people passionately committed to improving access to healthcare, education, justice and community reintegration for male, female and juvenile prisoners in Africa.

There were two categories of interviewees I planned to connect with during PPOTR – photographers and prison reformers. I didn’t expect to meet many individuals who satisfied both definitions. Ruth Morgan does.

Morgan became director of Community Works, a restorative justice arts program in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994. Prior to that, she was director of the Jail Arts Program, in the San Francisco County Jail system (1980-1994).

It should be noted that the county jail system is entirely different to the state prison system and operate under separate jurisdictions. County jails hold shorter term inmates.

For three remarkable years, Morgan and her colleague Barbara Yaley had free reign of San Quentin State Prison to interview and photograph the men. In 1979, it was the sympathetic Warden George Sumner who provided Morgan and Yaley access. In 1981, a new Warden at San Quentin abruptly cut-off access.

“I think there were a few reasons [we were successful],” explains Morgan. “Despite the fact I was a young woman, I had a big 2-and-a-quarter camera and a tripod and so they took me seriously. That helped us get the portraits and the stories we did.”

The San Quentin News (Vol. I.II, Issue 11, June, 1982) reported on Morgan and Yaley’s activities. The story Photo-Documentary Team Captures Essence of SQ can be read on page 3 of this PDF version of the newspaper.

Ruth and I talk about how the demographics of prison populations remain the same; her original attraction to the topic; the use of her photographs in the important Toussaint v. McCarthy case (1984) brought by the Prison Law Office against poor conditions in segregation cells of four Northern California prisons; why she never published the photos of men on San Quentin’s Death Row; and the emergence, funding for, and power of restorative justice.


Ruth Morgan, San Quentin (1979-81)


In one of modern politics’ most outrageous adoptions of Doublespeak, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – in 2004 – renamed the California Department of Corrections the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.* You can see videos – here and here and here – of the press conference announcing not only a change in name, but a supposed change in the management philosophy of the CDCr.

At that time, legal challenges were being made over the adequacy of healthcare. Following the 2004 criticisms and despite the 2004 promises, consistent constitutional healthcare was not provided to the prison population of California.

The CDCr failed to deliver on both medical care and meaningful rehabilitation. To prove the emptiness of the rhetoric we can look to John Gramlich’s report for the PEW Center’s Stateline last month. Gramlich made the point, that shortly after Schwarzenegger’s rebranding the “administration cut funding for prison rehabilitation programs by about 40 percent.”


It’s just as well for you and I, a diligent group of California citizens have for 17 years challenged the claim on the CDC acronym and since 2004 reclaimed entirely the discarded California Department of Corrections name. The CDC works to put right misleading messages, empty words and muddy communication.

Founded in 1994, the California Department of Corrections (CDC) describes itself as “a private correctional facility that protects the public through the secure management, discipline, and rehabilitation of California’s advertising.

Above is the CDC’s latest correction of fact and assault on complacency. From their website:

The California Department of Corrections (CDC) has unveiled a new campaign of bus shelter ads to celebrate America’s assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Released prior to July 4th, a total of ten ads in MUNI bus shelters throughout San Francisco were apprehended, rehabilitated and discharged without incident. The ten liberated ads represent each year in the long decade spanning the declaration of the War on Terror by President Bush and the eventual demise of al-Qaeda’s elusive leader.

Joining in celebration with millions of US civilians after the demise of bin Laden, the red, white and blue advertisements not only pay patriotic tribute to our country, but also celebrate the unsung history of American assassinations.

The rehabilitated advertisements are currently at liberty and seem to have successfully readjusted to public life. However, these ads will remain under surveillance by department staff to prevent recidivism and any potential lapse into prior criminal behavior.

You gotta love direct action. View more works here.

* You may have noticed I always refer to the Golden State’s prison system as CDCr; using a lowercase “r” is an simple text-based slight but it makes the point.

(Via the ever-wonderful Just Seeds Blog.)

Bob Gumpert‘s Locked and Found portraits are on show at HOST Gallery for the next month (April 7th – May 7th).

On the 13th April, there’s a panel discussion on three different projects made in, around and about jails and prisons, with Bob, Edmund Clark and Guardian writer Erwin James.

HOST’s blurb:

Robert Gumpert has been documenting the criminal justice system in San Francisco since 1994. We are delighted to bring his matchless archive of convicts, cops and courthouses to HOST gallery, where it will be exhibited for the first time in the UK.  

Gumpert’s project began with an idea to photograph a homicide detective, but quickly expanded to cover numerous other aspects of the criminal justice system. After he exhibited the work in San Francisco in 2000, he thought that was the end of it, until he received a call from the sheriff’s office. California’s oldest jail was about to close, and for Gumpert, whose photographic roots were planted in the social activism of the 70s, this was a piece of history he felt compelled to document.

“‘Old Bruno’ was built in 1934 as an example of progressive incarceration, but it had become a toxic dump of a place where deputies and prisoners where expelled. Over the years the courts had ordered its closure and finally in August of 2006 everyone moved to the adjacent new Bruno. I documented the old jail, its closing and the opening of the new one,” says Gumpert, who then sought and received permission to continue his photographic quest across six county jails.

As his work progressed, so too did his attitude towards his subjects, the majority of whom were incarcerated men (he also photographed police officers and prison guards). From an ‘us and them’ relationship, his modus operandi evolved to one of participation, as Gumpert conducted audio interviews with everyone he photographed, in a kind of reciprocal exchange: a picture for a story.

Robert Gumpert has been working as a photographer since 1974, when he documented the coal miners’ strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. Since then he has worked on a series of long-term projects, including studies of the US criminal justice system and emergency health care in the United States.

For more information contact Anna Pfab on anna [at] or 020 7253 2770.

HOST Gallery, 1-5 Honduras Street, EC1Y 0TH, London,UK

© Evan Bissell

Artist Evan Bissell brought together a group of teens who had not known each other previously, but shared a common circumstance; they were children of men incarcerated at San Francisco County Jail.

The project, What Cannot Be Taken Away: Families and Prisons Project, spanned 9 months.

Bissell and the teens shared writings and audio to establish themes for their work. Later they would visit family in SF County Jail and take photographic portraits to work from. Eventual they mounted a show at SOMArts in San Francisco.

I am a little unsure as to the ultimate claim the students have on the final product. Evidently, they decided the elements and the design, but every piece is finished with the polished painting skills of Bissell’s brush. But of course, it wasn’t only these large portraits on view;  exploratory/experiential paintings of the students were displayed and the centre-piece of the show was an installation piece.

Despite the apparent dominance by Bissell over the final product, the intangibles of the collaborative project – including but not limited to discussion, new ideas, “healing & justice”, friendship, self esteem – far outweigh a critic’s (my) reserve.

I highly recommend you download the PDF time-line; it offers an impression of the shared politics of the project. Also the process describes the engagement between teacher and student.


The tie in comes from a quote by Bissell, I was unfortunately not allowed to photograph our workshops in the jail, so all of the pictures come from our meetings with the youth.”

© Evan Bissell

© Evan Bissell

© SOMArts

© Evan Bissell

© Evan Bissell

© SOMArts

© SOMArts

Image credit: Joe, by Evan Bissell, acrylic paint on board.

Image credit: Joe, by Evan Bissell, acrylic paint on board. © SOMArts

What Cannot Be Taken Away: Families and Prisons Project. Closing September 19th 12:00-2:00 at SOMArts – 934 Brannan St. in San Francisco (at 8th Street).

All images from Bissell’s WCBTA website and SOMArts Flickr.


I just came across one of Rigo‘s works in a book about prisons, but I can’t find it online so I wanted to share that which I could find.

I wondered if Rigo had done anything else. Turns out he has and he’s passionate about criminal justice abuses. Aside of his piece above in support of Mumia Abu Jamal*, Rigo has done works to rally support for America’s other most famous political prisoner, Leonard Peltier*.

Rigo also painted TRUTH (2002), an epic mural on Market Street in San Francisco, which I used to cycle past most days a without knowing its reason for being. It commemorates the 2001 quashed conviction of Robert H. King, one of the Angola 3, after 32 years of incarceration, 29 of which were spent in solitary confinement.

* Yes, I know I could have chosen from thousands of links for Mumia and Peltier, but I chose their Twitter profiles with my eyes open to how bizarre it is. I have wondered if we live in a post-revolutionary world in which our radicals are reduced to blips of 140 characters, but then I figure the famous and infamous of the past have always survived on soundbites. I guess I ask that you use Mumia’s and Peltier’s Twitter feeds as one of many starting points for learning about their cases.


Ilka Hartmann

Belva Cottier and a young Chicano man during the Occupation of Alcatraz Island, May 31, 1970. Photo: © 2009 Ilka Hartmann

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the start of the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz, an action that lasted over eighteen months until June 11th 1971.

Photographic documents of the time are surprisingly scant. Over the past few decades, Ilka Hartmann‘s work has appeared almost ubiquitously in publications about the Indian Occupation. We spoke by telephone about her experiences, the dearth of Native American photographers, the Black Panthers, Richard Nixon, the recent revival of academic research on the occupation and what she’ll be doing to mark the anniversary.

Your entire career has been devoted to social justice issues, particularly the fight for Native American rights. Did your interest begin with the Alcatraz occupation?

No, it began earlier. I came the U.S. in 1964 and that was during the human rights movement. I was a student at the time but I really wanted to go and work with the Native Americans on the reservations of Southern California. I was connected to the Indian community here through a friend who had emigrated to California earlier. I learnt very early about the conditions for American Indians. It reminded my of what I had learnt as a teenager about Nazi rule.

When the occupation began I wanted to go but I couldn’t because I was not Native American, but I waited until 1970.

Concurrently you were photographing the Black Panther movement – centered in Oakland – and the other counter culture movements of the late sixties in the Bay Area. How did they relate to one another?

They were all the same, each group struggling to advertise their conditions, the police brutality and the lack of educational and cultural institutions. I was involved in the fights for American Indians, African Americans, Chicano and Asian Americans in Berkeley. We were protesting as part of the Third World Strike. For me everything was connected and it was the same people who were speaking up later at Alcatraz.

My new book is actually about the relations between the different groups of the civil rights movement. There was a lot of solidarity between groups. The Black Panther Party understood this.  Many people think that the Black Panthers were concentrated on their own politics but they understood solidarity and got a lot of help from non-Black people. If you look at my pictures of the Black Panther movement a lot of supporters were the white students of Berkeley. There is a saying, “The suffering of one, is the suffering of everybody”.

In the Bay Area people were so willing to help the Indians at Alcatraz and help in the Black Panther movement and they really felt things were going to change.

I was a student at UC Berkeley and stopped in February 1970. I went to Alcatraz in May of 1970. I had learnt to open my eyes and emotions at UC Berkeley through all the different groups we had.

How many times did you visit Alcatraz during the occupation? And how long did you stay each time?

I only went twice to the island. It is funny because I didn’t even know if my photographs would turn out. I had a camera that I’d borrowed from a friend with a 135 mm Pentax lens … and also a Leica that a friend have given me too. But I didn’t have a light-meter for the Leica so I didn’t know if the photographs I took in the fog would come out. It was so light. I was amazed that they came out. I also went over in a small boat that same year.

So I made contact sheets and tried to get them published which was a big problem because you had to really work on that. My first picture of the occupation was published in an underground paper called the Berkeley Barb then in June 1971 I was at KQED, a Northern California Television station, for an interview with an art editor. I had hitch-hiked there from the area north of San Francisco and I just opened my box of pictures to show him topics I was concerned about when over the intercom came an announcement “The Indians are being taken from Alcatraz.”

I saw some video guys run by, I grabbed my bag and camera and asked them if I could join them. They said, “Yes, ride with us and say you are with us.” We got into an old VW and drove around on the mainland to see the occupiers and that is how I got those shots of the removal. It was an incredible coincidence because I actually lived far from the city. It’s quite incredible. I only went two times during the occupation and then I got those shots afterward.

Ilka Hartmann
Atha Rider Whitemankiller at the Senator Hotel in San Francisco after the removal of the Indian Occupiers from Alcatraz. Whitemankiller was a courageous and eloquent speaker to the press that day. His face reflects the disappointment felt by those who occupied the island for nineteen months but lost the final battle. June 11, 1971. Photo Ilka Hartmann

From then on I made contact with people and in that year I showed my pictures at an Indian Women’s conference, making very good friends with people in the American Indian movement. From then on I went to cultural events, powwows and so on and my pictures appeared in the underground press. I wrote articles and people contacted me for images. That’s how I made the connection.

So really you made no arrangements?

I didn’t make any arrangements. I followed everything from the first day in the papers and on that day in May … on May 30th the Indians asked all the journalists to go and I wanted to be there. That’s how it all started; they invited us there that day.

Did you realize at the time how profound an historical event it was?

Yes, I always felt how important it was. This was the first time they [Native Americans] spoke up. All over the world people wrote about it and the cause became known globally, and especially known in the United States. I believed in it … I still do.

What are your lasting memories of your time and work during the occupation?

It was a prison that had been closed so it was surrounded by barbed wire fence. Some of it had become loose and I took some pictures. The wire swung loose in the air and there was a sound across the island of the wind whispering over it. And if you looked out over the beautiful waters, you really got the sense – with the barbed wire – that the Indians were prisoners, as well as occupiers of the Bay. Prisoners of the Bay; which means prisoners of the World. In that sense I really had a strong feeling of the prison.

How did you react to the environment?

For me, strangely, the experience of going to Alcatraz has always been a very high and wonderful experience. It is hard for me to even explain. Of course I know it was a prison. On the tour of Alcatraz I got very upset, especially during the part when you’re taken downstairs to learn about the lesser known incarceration of Elders and also the cells for those people who didn’t want to go to war. So of course I know it is was a prison, yet when I go there I am struck by exuberance and hope about [Indian] people being able to make statements about their conditions.

I was a witness to that and wanted to be a conduit for those statements. There were no American Indian journalists, we were nearly all white. There was one Indian photographer, John Whitefox, who is now dead. But he lost his film. So we really saw it as our job, politically, as underground photographers and writers to cover what was part of the revolution and social upheaval.

Ilka Hartmann

Eldy Bratt, Alcatraz Island, May 1970. Photo: © 2009 Ilka Hartmann

Ilka Hartmann

Two Indian children play on abandoned Department of Justice equipment. Alcatraz Island, 1970. Photo: © 2009 Ilka Hartmann

San Francisco Bay has a strange history with islands, incarceration and subjugation. San Quentin was the focus of the Black Panther resistance – it is just ten miles north of the city. Angel Island was an immigrations station for Asians – it is known as the “Ellis Island of the West” and some Chinese migrants were kept there for years. And, then there’s Alcatraz. How do you reconcile all this?

It’s totally horrible to me. I come form Germany. Before I came I’d heard about Sing Sing on the river on the East coast. It was a horrible thought to me that they could put people in such prisons.

I drive past San Quentin most days, I have actually been inside and taken photographs. And of Angel Island – it is almost sarcastic to imprison people like that; it’s such a contradiction to the beauty of the Bay. It’s the hubris of human beings to do that to one another.

Of course there are people who should be in prison, like at San Quentin, but certainly the Chinese should not have been treated like that on Angel Island. The Indians and the anti-war demonstrators should absolutely not have been treated like that on Alcatraz. Actually the authorities were respectful to the antiwar demonstrators than they were to the Indians, but still both are an aberration of human nature to treat others like that. I don’t know what to do with murderers but I do know I am against the death penalty.

Ilka Hartmann

An Indian man arrives at Pier 40 on the mainland following the removal in June 1971. Indians of All Tribes operated a receiving facility on Pier 40, where donated materials were stored and where Indian people could wait for boats to transport them to Alcatraz Island. Photo: © 2009 Ilka Hartmann

"We will not give up". Indian occupiers moments after the removal from Alcatraz Island on June 11, 1971. Oohosis, a Cree from Canada (Left) and Peggy Lee Ellenwood, a Sioux from Wolf Point, Montana (Right). Photo Ilka Hartmann

"We will not give up". Indian occupiers moments after the removal from Alcatraz Island on June 11, 1971. Oohosis, a Cree from Canada (Left) and Peggy Lee Ellenwood, a Sioux from Wolf Point, Montana (Right). Photo © 2009 Ilka Hartmann

How do you see the situation for Native Americans today?

When I started there was said to be one million American Indians and now statistics say there are one and a half million. This is down to two things: first, the numbers have increased, but secondly more people identify as Native Americans where they had tried to hide it before due to racism and prejudice.

I went on one trip with a Native American Family for six weeks across the southwest and I kept asking if the Indians were going to survive and there was some doubt, but now people really think the culture is growing and there has been a notable revival. There advances being made dealing with treatments for alcoholism and returning to free practices of traditional worship. I know that the Omaha are talking of a Renaissance of the Omaha culture. My friend and historian, Dennis Hastings, who was also an occupier of Alcatraz, said to me ten years ago “It could still go either way. Half the Native peoples are debilitated with alcoholism and the other half are vibrant and healthy.”

Great afflictions still exist but there are many more Indians who are able to function in the Western aspects of society and traditional ways of life. When I entered the movement there was only one [Native American] PhD; now there are over a hundred. There is hope now.

What we felt came out of Alcatraz was the influence that it had on Nixon. Because he was a proponent of the war I always used to think of him in only negative ways but that is a learning experience too. It is a shock that someone responsible for the deaths of so many people in the world, of so many Vietnamese, could do something good. He signed the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act (1978). Edward Kennedy also worked a lot on these laws.

We believe the returns of lands such as Blue Lake/Taos Pueblos in New Mexico and lands in Washington followed on from the occupation of Alcatraz. There is a famous picture of Nixon with a group of Paiute American Indians. I believe a former high school sports coach of Nixon’s from San Clememnte was Native American and so we think this teacher influenced him.

As a result of Alcatraz, as well as the land takeovers, the consciousness has been raised among non-Indians and this was very important. People in the Bay Area were very supportive of the occupation, until the point where people were not responsible; it got messy the security got too strong and there were drugs and alcohol. Bad things did happen but in the beginning all that was important to expose to the world was written about, particularly by Tim Findley and all the writers working to get this into the underground press.

Until about 15 years when Troy R. Johnson and Adam Fortunate Eagle wrote and researched their books we didn’t understand everything that had happened – we just knew it was exhilarating. We now have the information of policy changes and the knowledge of people who went back to the reservations; leaders such as Wilma Mankiller who was the principle chief of the Cherokee for a long time. Dennis Hastings was the historian of the Omaha people and brought back the sacred star from Harvard University.

Many people have done things to allow a return to the Native culture and it is so strong now – both the urban and reservation culture. American Indians are making films about urban America – part of modern America but also within their Indian backgrounds. Things have changed enormously.

The benevolence of Richard Nixon is not something I’ve heard about before!

Yes, You can read more about it in our book.

What will you be doing for the 40th anniversary?

I’l be going to UC Berkeley. I’ve been working on an event with a young Native American man who is part of the Native American Studies Program which was established in 1970 as a result of the Third World Strikes. I walked and demonstrated at that time many times. I’m very happy to be returning. LaNada Boyer Means who was one of the leaders of the occupation will be present. We’ll be thinking of Richard Aoki, who was a prominent Asian American in the Black Panther movement, who died just a few months ago.

When these people would lead demonstrations, I would photograph it and then I’d rush to the lab, work through the night to get them printed the next day in the Daily Cal and then have to teach my classes and then take my seminars and it would go on like that for weeks.

So, a young man Richie Richards has organized a 40th Anniversary celebration at Berkeley. It includes events that will run all week, films, speakers, I’ll be showing my slides and then on Saturday we’re going to Alcatraz for a sunrise ceremony. Adam Fortunate Eagle, who wrote the Alcatraz Proclamation, will lead the ceremony on the Island.

In addition at San Francisco State where the 1969 student protests originated their will be a mural unveiled to mark the occasion. There have already been recognition ceremonies for ‘veterans’ of the occupation this week in Berkeley and starting tonight there are events for Native American High School students from all over the area in Berkeley also. Interest has really rekindled recently. The text books have really changed so much and I think that is excellent for younger generations.

And many more to come …

Thanks so much Ilka.

Thank you, Pete.


For this interview I used Ilka’s portrait shots from the occupation. There are many more photographs to feast on here and here.

Overcoming exhaustion and disillusionment, young Alcatraz Occupier Atha Rider Whitemankiller (Cherokee) stands tall before the press at the Senator Hotel. His eloquent words about the purpose of the occupation - to publicize his people's plight and establish a land base for the Indians of the Bay Area - were the most quoted of the day. San Francisco, California. June 11th 1971. Photo Ilka Hartmann


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