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Photo: “Me & Myself” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
ONO ŠTO SE VIDI A NE ČUJE
If you happen to be in Belgrade, Serbia over the next couple of weeks, I encourage you to head to the Kulturni Centar Beograda (KCB) and see Seen But Not Heard, an exhibition I’ve curated of photographs from American juvenile detention facilities. The show features photographs made by incarcerated youth in photography workshops coordinated by Steve Davis in Washington State and by As220 Youth in Rhode Island, as well as well known photographers Steve Liss, Ara Oshagan, Joseph Rodriguez and Richard Ross.
The invite to put together Seen But Not Heard – which is my first international solo curating gig — was kindly extended by Belgrade Raw, an impressive photo-collective who have operated as guest exhibition coordinators at the KCB’s Artget Gallery throughout 2013. Belgrade Raw called it’s year long program Raw Season. and it was 10 exhibitions strong, including Blake Andrews, Donald Weber and others. Here’s Belgrade Raw’s announcement for Seen But Not Heard.
I’ll update the blog next week with installation shots and a loooong list of acknowledgements (the hospitality, skills and hard work of everyone here has been so overwhelming.)
Beneath, is a long essay I wrote for Seen But Not Heard . Beneath that is a selection from the 200+ works in the exhibition. Beneath the works are the details of the photographer and/or program who made them.
Photo: “Flip” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
USING PHOTOGRAPHY TO COMMUNICATE NOT CONTROL
“Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time … Then that trivial little Kodak, that a child can carry in his pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb.”
- Mark Twain, writing satirically in the voice of King Leopold in condemnation of the Belgian’s brutal rule over the Congo Free State. King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905).
The United States of America is addicted to incarceration. In the course of a year, 13.5 million Americans cycle through the country’s 5,000+ prisons and jails. On any given day, 2.2 million American’s are locked up — 60,500 of whom are children in juvenile correctional facilities or residential programs. The United States imprisons children at more than six times the rate of any other developed nation. With an average cost of $80,000/year to lock up a child under the age of 18, the United States spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention.
What do we know of these spaces behind locked doors? What do we see of juvenile prisons? The short answer is, not a lot. However, photographs can provide some information — provided we approach them with caution and an informed eye.
Seen But Not Heard features the work of five well-known American photographers who have taken their cameras inside. Crucially, the exhibition also includes photographs made by incarcerated children on cameras delivered to them by arts educators and by staff of social justice organizations. Many of the children’s photographs are being exhibited for the first time.
Cameras are used by prison administrations to maintain security and enforce order, so when a camera is operated by a visiting photographer — and especially by a prisoner — a shift in the power relations occurs. All the images in Seen But Not Heard prompt urgent questions about what it means to be able document and what it means to be prohibited from documenting. What difference is there between being the maker of an image compared to being the subject of an image? What happens if you put kids behind the camera instead of in front of it? What stories do children tell that adults cannot? Can a camera can be a tool for artistic expression instead of an apparatus of control?
“Light Paintings” made by students of the Rhode Island Training School (RITS) prove a camera is essential to the artist’s toolkit. The anonymous RITS students’ images conjure angelic limbs and alter-egos from the dark. The images contain the frustration of incarceration; the longing of a (new) time; the aspirations of youth; the childishness of comic drawing. The photography outreach program taught by AS220, a community arts group of long-standing in Rhode Island, is an extension of workshops taught to teens in the free-world. In fact, children have graduated out of RITS and into the many studio arts programs offered by AS220 Youth in the town and neighborhoods of Providence, RI. An adult would or could never make these images; it is a privilege for us to share in them.
The workshops that Steve Davis coordinated in four youth detention centers in Washington State provide us a window into the incarcerated children’s lives. For legal reasons, at Remann Hall, no images could identify the girls and so Davis made use of pinhole cameras with long exposures. The girls treated the opportunity as one for performance enacting torment, official restraint procedures and bored isolation. The blurry images are eerie and evocative; as if the girls are capturing the moments in which they are disappearing from society’s view.
By contrast, the boys’ photographs are very much embedded in reality; they carried cameras outside of structured class time with instructions to make general images and construct photographs along a weekly theme. The boys had one another as immediate audience. We see unfiltered views of their activities, cells, day rooms, programs and priorities; we see costume, computer games, machismo posturing, childlike play and even boring moments. Accidentally they collectively constructed a visual narrative in which motifs such as t-shirts, playing cards and institutional furniture recur. The photographs would be monotonous were it not for the splashed of life the children provide — perfectly communicating why and how humans kept in boxes is not the natural order, nor the ideal circumstance.
The photographers in Seen But Not Heard all had different motivations for going inside. After the experience, they all had the same attitudes.
Without exception, the photographers’ experiences had them wide-eyed, sometimes angry, usually frustrated and certainly more conscious of the politics of incarceration. Consequently, they feel a responsibility to share their images and to describe youth prisons to many audiences.
Steve Liss had watched the children of a Texas juvenile prisons perform a choreographed marching routine for then Texas Governor G.W. Bush. After the ridiculous spectacle, the ridiculous Bush gave a ridiculous moral instruction to stay out of trouble. Liss was furious at the patronizing tone of the event and particularly Bush. As a press photographer, Liss had parachuted in and out of that prison as quick as his subject Bush did. He vowed that if Bush ever made it to be President, he’d return to Texas to photograph the children’s lives. Bush would never see those children, but perhaps the world should. It is alarming how often we see very young and tiny children subject to shackles and apparatus designed for dangerous 200+ lb. men. It’s as if the system is blind to the physicality of its young prisoners. That being the case, how can we presume they understand or provide for the more complex psychology of these children?
Joseph Rodriguez was locked up as a young man. He also experienced homelessness, for a time, and was addicted to drugs. He was sent to the infamous Riker’s Island prison in New York twice — first, for a minor charge related to his anti-war protest activity; second, for burglary. His mother could not afford the $500. He spent 3 months locked up awaiting his court date. Post-release, Rodriguez found photography and it gave him a means to process and describe the world. Having seen the inside, Rodriguez empathizes with children who are going through any prison system. More than 20 years after his incarceration, Rodriguez felt it a duty to use his storytelling skills to tell the stories of incarcerated children. In 1999, he photographed inside the San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties juvenile detention centers and followed children through the cells, courtrooms and counseling of the criminal justice system.
Ara Oshagan’s opportunity to photograph at the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall (the largest juvenile prison in America) was pure happenstance. He met with Leslie Neale a documentary filmmaker for lunch on a Monday. Neale was filming inside the juvenile hall and needed a photographer to shoot b-roll. Oshagan was inside on the Tuesday. He was so moved by the experience that he applied for clearance to return on his own. He followed six youngsters as they progressed through their cases and, in some cases, into California’s adult prison system. Oshagan never felt like his photographs were enough to describe the emotions of the children and so he asked each of them to write poems and presents text and image as diptych. Random circumstance, fine slices of luck, peer pressure and other people’s decisions factor far more heavily in children’s lives than in adults’ lives. Throughout, Oshagan was constantly reminded how his subjects were very much like his own children.
Late in his career and having financial security through a Guggenheim fellowship and teaching sabbatical, Richard Ross turned his lens upon juvenile detention. Ross wanted to give advocates, legislators, educators the visual evidence on which to base discussion and policy. He provides his images for free to individuals and organizations doing work for the betterment of children’s lives.
Repeatedly, Ross met children who were themselves victims; frighteningly often he heard stories of psychological, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, suicide attempts, addiction and illiteracy. Many kids locked up are from poor communities and a disproportionate number of youths detained are boys and girls of color. Ross observed some really positive interventions made by institutions (regular meals, counseling, positive male role models to name a few) but he saw the use of incarceration not as last resort but as routine.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
Unsurprisingly, many have lost faith in the juvenile prison system. Recent scandals have exposed systematic abuses.
In Pennsylvania, two judges accepted millions of dollars in kickbacks from a private prison company to sentence children to custody; in Texas, an inquiry uncovered over 1,000 cases of sexual assault by staff in the state’s juvenile justice system; in New York, on Riker’s Island it has been alleged that young gangs (referred to as “teams”) organized within the jail itself, and controlled and enforced the juvenile wings while the authorities turned a blind eye. The rivalries resulted in fights, stabbings and in one case death. The New York City Department of Corrections denies the allegations, but interestingly it was NYDOC employees that exposed the violence by leaking internal photographs to the Village Voice newspaper.
Nationally, the private company Youth Services International (YSI) inexplicably continues to operate despite being cited for ‘offenses ranging from condoning abuse of inmates to plying politicians with undisclosed gifts while seeking to secure state contracts’ by the Department of Justice and also New York, Florida, Maryland, Nevada and Texas.
Not only is being locked up ineffective as a deterrent in youths who have not reached full cognitive development and don’t understand the consequences of their actions, it can actually make a criminal out of a potentially law-abiding kid. Dr. Barry Krisberg, director of research at the Berkeley School of Law’s Institute on Law & Social Policy, says, “Young people [when detained] often get mixed in with those incarcerated on more serious offenses. Violence and victimization is common in juvenile facilities and it is known that exposure to such an environment accelerates a young person toward criminal behaviors.”
Given the lessons from the failed practices of incarcerating more and more children, States are adopting more progressive policies. Certainly, authorities are turning away from punishing acts such as truancy and delinquency with detention; acts that are not criminal for an adult but have in the past siphoned youths into the court system. But more than that, incarceration for youth is widely considered a last resort.
States that reduced juvenile confinement rates the most between 1997 and 2007 had the greatest declines in juvenile arrested for violent crimes. It’s proof that incarceration doesn’t solve crime. And, it might suggest incarceration damages communities. Following repeated abuse scandals in the California Youth Authority (CYA) facilities in the 90s, California carried forth the largest program of decarceration in U.S. history. Reducing its total number of youth prisons from 11 to 3 and slashing the CYA population by nearly 90%, California simultaneously witnessed a precipitous drop in violent crime committed by under-18s.
The U.S. still has a long way to go if it is to reverse decades of over-reliance on incarceration, but as the recent Supreme Court ruling banning Life Without Parole sentences for children suggests, it seems Americans hold less punitive attitudes when it comes to youth’s transgressions, as compared to the apathetic attitudes to adult prisoners.
We need to expect and applaud photography that depicts imprisoned children as they are — as citizens-in-the-making, as humans with as complex emotional needs as any of us, as not lost causes, as victims as much as they may have been victimizers, as our future, as individuals society must look to help and reintegrate and not discard. Photography can help us appreciate the complexity of the issues at hand. Used responsibly, it can bring us closer.
Photo: “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
Photo: “Icarus” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
AS220 Youth is a free arts education program for young people ages 14-21, with a special focus on those in the care and custody of the state. AS220 Youth provides free studio-based classes in virtually all media including photography. Staff including photography coordinator Scott Lapham and photography instructor Miguel Rosario (who I met when I visited in 2011) help students build a portfolio with help from a staff advisor. AS220 Youth maintains long-term, supportive relationships with youth transitioning out of RITS and the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families (DCYF) care, and offers mentoring, transitional jobs, and financial support. AS220 Youth works to connect youth with professional opportunities in the arts — through exhibitions at the AS220 Gallery and others; through publication in the AS220 quarterly literary magazine called ‘The Hidden Truth’; and through securing photo-assistant jobs on commercial photo shoots for students.
Photo: Steve Liss. Prisoners, ages 10-16, wait in line to march back to their cells in the exercise yard at the Webb County Juvenile Detention facility.
Photo: Steve Liss. 10-year-old Alejandro has his mug shot taken at Webb County Juvenile Detention following his arrest for marijuana possession. Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.
Steve Liss photographed in Texas 2001-2004. His book No Place For Children: Voices from Juvenile Detention (University of Texas Press, 2005) won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 2006.
Steve Liss worked as a Time Magazine photographer for 25 years, assigned to stories of social significance involving ordinary people. Forty-three of his photographs appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. For his work on juvenile justice, Liss was awarded a Soros Justice Media Fellowship (2004) for my work on domestic poverty he was awarded an Alicia Patterson Fellowship (2005). Recently, Liss received the Pictures of the Year International (PoYI) ‘World Understanding Award.’ Liss has taught graduate photojournalism at Columbia College, Chicago and Northwestern University.
Photo: Ara Oshagan, from the series ‘A Poor Imitation Of Death’
Photo: Ara Oshagan, from the series ‘A Poor Imitation Of Death’
Ara Oshagan photographed inside the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall and the California prison system. Oshagan’s book of this work A Poor Imitation of Death is to be published next year (Umbrage Books, 2014). Oshagan is twice a recipient of a California Council on the Humanities Major Grant for his documentary work on diaspora groups in Los Angeles.
Interested in the themes of identity, community and bearing witness, much of Ara Oshagan’s work focuses on the oral histories of survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Since 1995, Oshagan has been creating work for iwitness in collaboration with Levon Parian and the Genocide Project. Father Land, a book project made with his father, well-known author, Vahe Oshagan was published in 2010 by powerHouse books.
Photo: Steve Davis. ‘Tiny, Green Hill, 2000′
Photo: Anonymous student at Green Hill School. Photograph made in response to the prompt “Vulnerability” as part of photography workshop led by Steve Davis.
Photo: Anonymous student at Green Hill School. Discussing photographs made during workshop led by Steve Davis.
Steve Davis coordinated photography workshops in four facilities in Washington State (Maple Lane, Green Hill, Remann Hall and Oakridge) between 1997 and 2005. Simultaneously, Davis made portraits and photographs for his own series Captured Youth.
Davis is a documentary portrait and landscape photographer based in the Pacific Northwest. His work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Russian Esquire, and is in many collections, including the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Seattle Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the George Eastman House. He is a former 1st place recipient of the Santa Fe CENTER Project Competition, and two time winner of Washington Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowships. Davis is the Coordinator of Photography, Media Curator and adjunct faculty member of The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA. Davis is represented by the James Harris Gallery, Seattle.
Photo: Joseph Rodriguez, from the series ‘Juvenile’
Photo: Joseph Rodriguez, from the series ‘Juvenile’
Joseph Rodriguez photographed in the San Francisco County Jails 2001-2004. The work is collected in his book Juvenile (PowerHouse Books, 2004)
Joseph Rodriguez is a documentary photographer from Brooklyn, New York. He studied photography in the School of Visual Arts and in the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Program at the International Center of Photography in New York City. Rodriguez’s work had been exhibited at Galleri Kontrast, Stockholm, Sweden; The African American Museum, Philadelphia, PA; The Fototeca, Havana, Cuba; Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, Alabama, Open Society Institute’s Moving Walls, New York; Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery at the Walter Reade Theater at the Lincoln Center; and the Kari Kenneti Gallery Helsinki, Finland. In 2001 the Juvenile Justice website, featuring Joseph Rodriguez’s photographs, launched in partnership with the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival High School Pilot Program. He teaches at New York University, the International Center of Photography, New York. Rodriguez is the past recipient if Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship in 1993 photographing communities in East Los Angeles.
Photo: Photo: Richard Ross. Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. Downey, California.
Richard Ross is a photographer and professor of art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Juvenile-In-Justice (2006-ongoing) “turns a lens on the placement and treatment of American juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them,” says Ross.
A book Juvenile in Justice (self-published, 2012) and traveling exhibition continue to circulate the work. Ross collaborates with juvenile justice stakeholders and uses the images as catalysts for change. For Juvenile-In-Justice, Richard Ross photographed in over 40 U.S. states in 350 facilities, met and interviewed approximately 1,000 children. Juvenile-In-Justice published on CBS News, WIRED, NPR, PBS Newshour, ProPublica, and Harper’s Magazine, for which it was awarded the 2012 ASME Award for Best News and Documentary Photography.
Photo: Robin Holland. Source: Bill Moyers Show
Bryan Stevenson founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) made arguments to the United States Supreme Court in May 2012 against the sentencing of Juvenile to Life Without Parole. He is fervently against the death penalty and has consistently pointed out the injustices within the US legal system that benefit the rich over the poor.
This is the second part of a two-part conversation with Prison Photography. You can read part one here.
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PP: While presenting at TED, you encouraged the audience to educate themselves about communities beyond their circles, but you also warned the audience that the type of awareness that spurs you and your work – an awareness of profound inequality in American society – “will get to you”. Can you expand on that?
Bryan Stevenson: It is a challenge. It’s a new relationship with the world of injustice, poverty and bias that implicates you in ways in which you are otherwise not implicated. That’s both a burden and – in my judgment – a privilege, because to be able to respond to those things animates human beings in ways that very few things do. It creates meaning and purpose that can be transcendental.
I think the way you do it is by trying to insulate yourself from the politics of fear that have created many of these dynamics. We very rarely ask ourselves ‘What are we afraid of?’, ‘What are we angry about?’ but in public life we’ve been encouraged through our political leaders to be very angry about crime, to be very afraid of the society that we live in. There are things that we should be legitimately angry and legitimately concerned about, but I think as a world view this is a very destructive way to live.
When you’re consumed with fear and anger you make decisions about how you treat other people, even about how you think of your own needs, that often time leads to inequality, injustice and oppression. When you look at every example of massive human rights violations the story always begins with a narrative around fear and anger. I think one of the things we have to do is step back from that and begin to ask harder, more critical questions about the issues around us. Is it better to punish crime or to prevent crime? Are there things that we can do to reduce the prison population? Is it better to have a free population or an incarcerated population? If you start asking those kind of questions it will lead you to different policy outcomes than the outcomes we’ve largely elected.
What that means for individuals – and I think for me – is that you sometimes have to say things which are challenging; you have to be willing to stand when everyone else is sitting and be the voice that says ‘But what about this?’ You have to be willing to speak when everyone else is quiet. That’s not always easy and that’s not always comfortable. Certainly for me, it has at times been pretty overwhelming and vexing to be the target of other people’s anger and frustration because of what I am saying and who I am representing.
It has been frustrating to deal with this wall of ignorance when people are making decisions with so little information and with so little context of the people whose lives are being directly affected. What it has taught me is that I do have to believe things I haven’t seen and that is not always easy for people to embrace but I think it essential if you are going to create justice, if you’re going to create a new world.
As a little boy, growing up in the civil rights movement you’d hear Martin Luther King say, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I heard the words, I understood their individual meaning but I didn’t really get what he was talking about until I became actively engaged in advocating for people who were hated and condemned.
One of the great challenges for our generation and community today is that so much of academic training is trying to deconstruct the things we believe, know and understand, and to make you accept the status quo – it is really intended to make you less idealistic, less aspirational, less confident that you can change the world in which you inhabit. That is unfortunate and while we have to be smart and strategic, we still have to be hopeful and we still have to believe in things we haven’t seen.
PP: This year you presented arguments in the cases Jackson vs. Hobbs and Miller vs. Alabama at the US Supreme Court. How did it go?
Bryan Stevenson: The United States Supreme Court is a tough room full of smart, thoughtful people who know these issues inside out. They ask a lot of difficult questions. Many of the justices asked some interesting questions about what sort of remedy would be necessary if relief were granted which is more encouraging than if they had asked no questions! I was pleased that the court granted review – that’s the hard part. There are thousands of petitions filed every year and the court rarely grants review, so for the court to do so on such an important constitutional question like this is even less common.
PP: In June, The Supreme Court ruled that all mandatory life sentences without parole given to children 17 and younger are unconstitutional. What happens now?
Bryan Stevenson: EJI will be dealing with as many of those cases as we can. We have made commitment to over 100 people in the last few months. We prepared to help those who would be affected by a favorable ruling. A lot of these kids don’t have right to counsel so even if the court grants relief, they’re going to have a hard time finding the legal help they need to get their sentence corrected. We’re trying to take that up.
In addition to ending LWOP for children, we are committed to ending the incarceration of children with adults. There’s still 27 or 28 states that put kids in adult facilities so that’s another campaign we’re trying to advance. We’ll take those cases on. We’re very interested in ending the underage prosecution of children; there is still a lot of states that have no minimum age for trying a child as an adult so frequently 9 and 10 year olds are looking at adult prosecution, something we think should never happen and we’ll keep doing those cases no matter what the court rules on Miller and Jackson.
PP: EJI was one of the earliest organizations to partner with Richard Ross. He has provided EJI with photographs for its reports and advocacy. In April, I wrote a piece for Wired.com titles Uncompromising Photos Expose Juvenile Detention In America about Richard’s photographs. What does photography do or change – if anything at all – in helping EJI describe these worlds we can talk about but rarely see?
Bryan Stevenson: I think photography is essential. There’s no question that Richard’s images provide a power and an intimacy to these issues that cannot be achieved any other way. It is important for photography and photojournalism to be a component of the kind of work we’re trying to do because in many ways the issues we’re discussing are underground issues.
We don’t really know what prisons and jails look like. We don’t know what the people inside them look like. We have some very outdated and exaggerated presentations of jails and prisons in popular culture. I don’t think people can get a perspective on what it is like to lock someone down 23 hours a day, year after year, decade after decade. We don’t understand what it is like for a child to be in custody in an adult facility where the risk of sexual assault is 10 times greater than it would be for an adult. We don’t know what it is like to go week after week with no contact with anybody who is not either a prisoner or a prison guard, which is true for many of our clients.
There is cruelty, real misconduct and brutality in prisons. There are all of these realities that good photographers can expose and give a lens to that is critical. Richard’s work has been hugely influential and we’ve worked with other photographers to bring these issues to light. Our first report in 2007 was mostly photographs, driven by images by Steve Liss who’d spent time in facilities taking photographs of young kids incarcerated.
Until we show people these children and the conditions of confinement in which we find these children we are not going to be able to get people to deal carefully and honestly with these issues. Photo-advocacy is critical to the work we do.
PP: Once an image is made and seen of a child in a prison cell it smashes all the stereotypes that you talked about within our a culture of fear?
Bryan Stevenson: That’s right.
PP: You argued at the Supreme Court that Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) is cruel and unusual. Definitions of cruel and unusual change over time. We perceive punishments as cruel and unusual depending on what we collectively consider socially reasonable. What do we need to do as a society to label practices that lead to mass incarceration as cruel and unusual?
Bryan Stevenson: We need to be quite intentional about how recognizing that having the highest rate of incarceration in the world is a negative thing. It is not a good reflection on a society that is committed to freedom and equality. We’re going to have to be as deliberate in our efforts to eliminate and reduce mass incarceration as we have been in creating it.
We have to begin a conversation where we say it would be better if 1 out 3 young men of color were not in jail, prison, probation or parole. It would be a positive thing if we solved the problems of drug addiction and misuse in our society rather than just continuing to imprison people. If you orient that way, then you can ask ‘What can we do instead?’
One of the things EJI talks about is having a deliberate target of reducing the prison pollution by 50% over the next 6 or 7 years. We have to be intentional. Drug policy is the largest contributor to our current prison population. We started about 30 years ago making something like simple drug possession a crime. We made drug addiction a crime. If we thought about drugs and drug abuse as a healthcare problem, rather than a criminal justice problem not only would we not be saving the thirty, forty, fifty thousands dollars a year to it costs incarcerate a person who has a health problem we could actually begin to pursue the interventions that reduce drug addiction. Redirect the resources.
That’s not just good for the government and for taxpayers; it’s good for families and communities. That orientation would go a long way to move us forward and eliminate these race disparities and the disparities that are created by class and status. If we did that seriously over the next 2 or 3 years we would dramatically reduce our prison population almost overnight.
If we added to that a punishment system and scale influenced by what science has to teach us about rehabilitation, behavior modification, about how human beings can recover, I think we’d also save billions of dollars – billions with a B – on resources that are now being invested in doing nothing more than warehousing people, further damaging them before we release them back into society.
There are states where we spend over $100,000 per year to keep teenagers incarcerated. I can’t identify any educator who couldn’t make better use of those dollars. Most educators will tell you that for half of that – for a quarter of that – invested in each child you are working with, you could do some magical things to re-orient them and prevent crime and the problems we’re trying to deal with in the public safety sphere. We must approach this problem by first acknowledging it’s a PROBLEM, it’s not just an aspect of life in America that we incarcerate the poor and disadvantaged.
You’re right; the notion of cruel and unusual has evolved. It is rooted in a concept of how we relate to one another, but it is also related in a vision of human rights and human dignity that the framers of our constitution understood was critical in a free society. If we tolerate cruelty and violations of human rights we sow the seeds of destruction, discontent and animosity that ultimately undermine any free community. That’s why we can never make peace – in my judgment – the type of cruelty we see too much. To say to any child of thirteen, ‘You are only fit to die in prison’ is cruel. I don’t think you need a law degree or a degree in adolescent development to acknowledge that. You just need to be willing to think critically and honestly about what protecting children requires. A lot of these issues are much more simple than people think.
PP: It’s the first time I’ve heard someone put a figure on targets for decarceration in America. A reduction of 50% would mean releasing more than 1.1 million people. That figure would scare the hell out of most Americans.
Bryan Stevenson: [Laughs] Only because they don’t know who those people are!
There are hundreds of thousands of people in jails and prisons who have never committed a violent crime, they’ve never hurt anybody. We have close to a million people in prison for non-violent property crimes or drug crimes. Frankly, if someone stole $50 from your house, you’re never going to get that back in our current system, but you can imagine a world where the obligation to pay back to restore and to compensate the victims of crime in ways that are meaningful could replace the use of prisons to punish and crush folks.
All of a sudden a whole host of things are happening that I think are positive to our society; once we begin defining and describing how people get to prison and who they are, the idea of reducing the prison population becomes a lot more attractive. Also, when we start talking about the collateral consequences of the money we’re spending; we are undermining education in this country because of mass incarceration. We are depleting resources for public safety because of mass incarceration. We are stripping basic services and public utilities because of mass incarceration.
PP: At TED, you said that as a society we will not be judged by our technology. Will we be judged by the fairness of our laws?
Bryan Stevenson: Our laws express our fundamental norms and our fundamental values; I think it more complex than just our laws or just our technology. It has to do with the dynamics in our community. If we get comfortable with widespread racial bias and discrimination; if we get comfortable with a widespread population of people who are desperately poor; if we get comfortable with these vertical relationships then we are destined to become a different kind of America – an America that is not defined by commitment to fairness, equality and opportunity.
We have to pay attention to all of the strategies and techniques that create opportunity, and technologies are at the heart of that, design is at the heart of that, even entertainment can stimulate the kind of creativity we need. Those are important parts of it, and so are our laws. Ultimately, for me, the measure is what we do with technological tools and where we stand. There are more people living under the poverty line today than there were forty years ago. That’s a bad thing. Having 2.3 million people in jails and prisons is a bad thing. The growing population of people who have permanently lost the right to vote who are African-American – after the civil rights struggle – is a bad thing. The despair and hopelessness that I see in poor communities and minority communities – where 13 year old children believe they’re either going to be dead or incarcerated by the time they are 21 – is a bad thing. We will ultimately have to measure our commitment to society and to our norms and values by how we respond to those problems.
PP: And you’re helping us learn deeply about the problems, and offering solutions. More power to you. Thank you Bryan.
Bryan Stevenson: Thanks Pete.
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The first part of this conversation was published October 31st, 2012.
Below is Stevenson’s full TED presentation.