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Xavier Randolph dances with his father Frank Randolph during a Hope House summer camp program for youth with imprison fathers at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD.
RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.
Raymond Thompson Jr. is a photographer, video journalist, educator and father.
In his Justice Undone Project, Thompson Jr. documents the leaching and negative effects of mass incarceration. He shows us how the poor are criminalised by society and kept down. He’s trying to get past stereotypes of Black America and does so by photographing the families and the communities outside of prison. So far, chapters of Justice Undone include A Dream Denied and The Browns.
Prisons touch nearly everyone in America’s poorest communities. One person’s imprisonment effects many others’ lives. The knock-on effects are profound. Locked up, exiled parents can mean extended family members are the primary care givers. Young children can lack a mother or a father or both for long periods. A child’s emotional and social development can be hampered and the incarceration of a parent vastly increases a child’s chances of being locked up later in life. The cycle continues.
In film, print and photography, America has a history of demonising young black men. In response, Thompson Jr. works to image all generations and races from America’s lower classes in an attempt to build empathy in his audience. So far, Thompson Jr.’s work has focused on African American communities but soon he is to venture into poor white communities in the Midwest, and to demonstrate that our broken criminal justice policies impact the poor. Prisons are a class issue just as much as they are a race issue.
The closer you look at the prison industrial complex, the better you understand society. Thompson Jr. is holding up a mirror in which we are all reflected. He was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about his photography.
[Click on any image to view it larger]
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): It seems your work on issues surrounding community, the war on drugs and incarceration is an ongoing endeavour. Is this the case? If so, tell us what you’re up to and what you’re working on now.
Raymond Thompson Jr. (RTJ): My project Justice Undone started as my master thesis while I was in graduate school in Austin, Texas. I originally intended only to do a story about the long term effects of incarceration on families and communities in East Austin, which is a predominantly African American and Latino part of the city. After I received a grant from the Alexia Foundation to continue the project, I expanded the project to Washington D.C and New Orleans.
In the 18 months since then, my wife and I had our first child and I took a job working as a video producer for West Virginia University. So, most of the last 18 months have been consumed with adjusting to life as a parent. The sleep deprived nights are decreasing. So, I’m slowly moving into the next stage of this project.
Even though I have never been incarcerated and my immediate family has not been directly affected by mass incarceration, I still feel a deep connection to the issue. I saw myself in the faces of the men, women and children navigating the prison system. Now with the birth of my son, I feel it is even more important.
There are several story angles in my project that still need covering. I’m currently in the process of researching and planning local Justice Undone stories for trip this fall and a trip to the midwest in the early spring. I’m currently based in West Virginia, which offers a chance to approach this work from beyond the lens of race and move it more towards class.
A boy stares though a window during a Friends and Family of Incarcerated People (FFOIP) car wash fundraiser in Southeast Washington, D.C. Friends and Family of Incarcerated People, a non-profit based in Washington D.C., offers a summer camp for children of incarcerated parents and other children whose parents are absent.
Members of ‘Mix Emotion’ go-go band pray before a performance at a community gardening event in the Lincoln Heights area of Northeast Washington D.C. Lincoln Heights is a crime plagued area and has a large number of low-income residents.
Several D.C. teenagers relax and socialize during the Friends and Families of Incarcerate People annual retreat in outside Charlottesville, VA. The goal of the retreat is to give youth a chance to experience life outside of their depressed D.C. neighborhoods.
A child looks at a car that had been broken into the night before a Friends and Family of Incarcerated People (FFOIP) summer camp in Southeast Washington, D.C.
PP: When and how did you move toward your current political conscience?
RTJ: In the 1990s, I was a teenager living in the suburbs of Virginia outside of Washington D.C. I watched the War on Drugs rage on my television screen. It was in these moments that I started to feel something was wrong. But I was not equipped with the knowledge or maturity to understand what I was seeing. On my television screen, I watched images of black men and boys dead or being led away in handcuffs. These visual images negatively affected how I felt about myself and other African Americans. Part of the reason for working on Justice Undone is to heal myself and to start to reclaim the visual history of African Americans in the United States.
My political awareness stemmed from my undergraduate studies. I was an American Studies major with a concentration in human rights. In my course work, which spans from American literature and history to sociology, I learned to recognize the complex weave of racial, economic, and political threads that form the social blanket of America. But, what really set me on this path was a senior seminar on the American Prison Industrial Complex. That class expanded my thinking on the subject, which later became my intellectual basis for the project.
PP: How did you decide on strategies to talk about these issues with your photography?
RTJ: There have been so many images about prisons and about the War on Drugs. A lot of the pictures work to reinforce stereotypes about minorities as “The Other.” In the first part of this project, I focused on children and families left behind in mass incarceration’s wake. I felt I had to avoid images of black men in the beginning because I did not want viewers from outside of these communities to immediately write the project off. I needed those viewers to move beyond the stereotypes and to have a empathetic reaction, without relying too heavily on people being portrayed as victims. In the next stages, I will focus more on the men, who are actually directly affected by prison.
Many of the great documentary photographers of the past three decades have produced work that is great but also problematic because they reinforce stereotypical images of urban black life. One of those photography books I have on my bookshelves in Eugene Richard’s Cocaine Blue, Cocaine True. It is an important work, but if you don’t dive into Richard’s words that were published along with the images you can come away with a skewed meaning. It is this decontextualization that worries me.
My strategy to combat this decontextualization is to create images of black life that focuses on the everyday. By searching for images that show African Americans in the mundane ritual of daily life, I hope that people not directly affected by mass incarceration will be able to see themselves in the pictures the way I do, as an antidote to years of self-hate and willful ignorance.
The Booker T. Washington Public Housing complex, in Austin, Texas, is plagued by a revolving door of single-parent households and incarceration.
Nicholas Brown, 19, speaks with his girlfriend before leaving. He has a stained relationship with his mother Vicky who has spent the majority of his childhood away in prison and drug treatment institutions.
Marquis, 18, BB and Leroy Brown hangout on the front porch of Beverly Brown’s house in Austin.
Tyler Pippillion works on a math puzzle during a skills class at the African American Men and Boys Harvest Foundation, a non-profit in Austin, TX that works with at-risk minority youth.
PP: What are the main points you want to communicate in your work?
RTJ: The first thing I hope my audience gain from this project is that U.S. laws have been unequally enforced in poor minority communities. Second, I wanted to make understood that the large numbers of men and women cycling in and out of prison has an immeasurably negative effect on their communities. Finally, I want the audience to realize that the impact of incarceration is falling on small geographic areas within cities, because a large portion of these men and women are being taken from identified communities.
PP: Can you explain the title ‘Justice Undone’?
RTJ: I think that justice and fairness are central to the American ideology. If you follow the rules you will be rewarded. If you break them then you will be punished. For African Americans, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, was “justice” for generations of discrimination and abuse. But, the gains of the 1960’s were essentially rolled back by the War on Drugs, the tough-on-crime movement, three strikes laws, and drug sentencing laws, which unfairly fell on the shoulders of African American communities.
So the title is meant to reflect the havoc of three decades of drug policies and the resulting explosion of the U.S. prison population that has played a big role on the agency and self esteem of African Americans in the United States.
I wanted the title to reflect critically on the U.S. justice system, which has failed to protect its most vulnerable members. While I was writing and reporting for my masters thesis, I was inspired by the hip-hop song Tip The Scale from the Roots’ album Undun.
Lot of niggas go to prison
How many come out Malcolm X?
I know I’m not
Shit, can’t even talk about the rest
Famous last words: “You under arrest”
Will I get popped tonight? It’s anybody’s guess
I guess a nigga need to stay cunning
I guess when the cops comin’ need to start runnin’
I won’t make the same mistakes from my last run in
You either done doing crime now or you done in
I got a brother on the run and one in
Wrote me a letter, he said when you comin’
Shit man, I thought the goal’s to stay out
Back against the wall, then shoot your way out
Gettin’ money’s a style that never plays out
‘Til you end up boxin’ your stash, money’s paid out
The scales of justice ain’t equally weighed out
Only two ways out, digging tunnels or digging graves out
Through the lyrics of this song, I felt the frustration of many black men who have limited choices, but still must navigate the challenges of being a black male in the United States.
A boys listen to instructions on keeping a proper boxing guard during a rally to protest the shooting death of Almeded Bradley by an Austin Police Officer.
Boys play a game of basketball in the Booker T. Washington public housing complex, Austin, Texas.
Teenage boys play basketball at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention facility in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Chelsea Shorts set up a studio in a shed in the backyard of her east Austin home. She uses the space to make clothes, draw and paint. The shed is a refuge from the crowded house that she shares with her parents, grandparents, cousins and one sibling. Chelsea biological father was incarcerated for most of her life.
Beverly Brown covers her eyes as she rest in her living room. Members of three different generation of her family have been incarcerated or had problems with drug addiction.
PP: Is there an easy way to describe the massive effect harsher sentencing and imprisonment has had on communities you’ve documented. How, in other words, do we put it into words?
RTJ:There is no simple way to discuss the topic because it is so complex.
A lot has been put in words, but I don’t know if we have reached the same level of understanding in the visual. Part of my goal is to reimagine the image of African Americans in Americans’ visual memory. These days there is always public outcry at any sort of overt racial discrimination in words, written or verbal. There is a bit of a lag in the public’s response to visual stereotypes of minorities. Responding to these stereotypes and creating what bell hooks, calls the “oppositional black aesthetic,” is a way that image makers can help challenge mainstream biases.
PP: What can we do as audiences to photography and as citizens to improve the situation?
RTJ: The next time they see a newspaper article or a television news report about a drug arrest or a drug sentencing I hope they start a conversation with a friend of family member about what is happening in their name as taxpayers. I want people to see beyond the individual situation and start to see the overarching pattern of crime, punishment, drugs, and incarceration in America.
PP: How do you describe photography’s role in relation to social justice?
RTJ: I don’t know if social justice can happen in a visual vacuum.
Photography’s first purpose is to pass information about an issue to an audience. Its second purpose is to move the social conversation past exposition. There are details in the everyday that offer unique paths to understanding.
PP: And empathy.
RTJ: From the expression of someone’s eyes, to the color of a summer dress, to the chaos of a kitchen before serving Thanksgiving dinner. It is in those common areas that we as human beings find ways to related to each other. Photography as a quasi universal medium is perfectly suited for this task.
PP: Thanks, Raymond. And thank you for your work and conscience.
RTJ: Thank you, Pete.
Chelsea Shorts walks alone railroad tracks in Austin, Texas. Shorts father was incarcerated for most of her life.
Raymond Thompson Jr. is a freelance photographer and multimedia producer based in Morgantown, WV. He currently works as a Multimedia Producer at West Virginia University. He received his Masters degree from the University of Texas at Austin in journalism and graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a BA is American Studies. He has worked as a multimedia photojournalist for the Door County Advocate, the Times of Northwest Indiana, the Kane County Chronicle, Times Community Newspapers and the Washington Times.
Children’s graffiti covers the walls of a cell at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention center in New Orleans, LA. The center serves as the pre-trial detention for youths charge with committing a delinquent offense.
Photo: Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange
In 1981, freelance photographer Karen Ruckman stepped inside the notorious medium-security Lorton Prison to teach prisoners photography. Lorton was a sprawling barrack-like institution nestled in a rural pocket of the Virginia suburbs. Lorton, a Federal facility, closed in 2001. For decades it was where Washington D.C. sent its convicted felons. Initially, the administration didn’t think the program would last more than a few sessions and the students were cautious. Ruckman successfully won grants, donations from Kodak, cash from private donors, and support from then Mayor’s wife Effi Barry to support the photography workshops. Ruckman taught at Lorton until 1988.
When I recently learnt about Ruckman’s work, I was floored. For the longest time I have said that photography workshops inside of American mens prisons ended in the late seventies and mass incarceration had precluded the mere chance. Ruckman’s work at Lorton has forced me to reevaluate my timeline. I hope Ruckman’s work also brings you encouragement.
In 1985, Ruckman invited cameraman Gary Keith Griffin to film the class at work. Now, she and Griffin are working on a documentary about this unique moment in prison arts education. Ruckman and Griffin have followed some of the men since their release and the film, tentatively titled InsideOut, is slated for release in 2015 — the 30 years after Gary made those first reels.
Ruckman has routinely worked with populations considered to have less of a voice in our society – battered women, the poor, and at -risk youth for example. She also taught photography in the D.C. women’s jail, but that single summer program doesn’t feature in the film.
Karen Ruckman and I spoke about her access, the program’s successes and obstacles, the need for diverse image-makers in criminal justice and the lessons the project contains for us all three decades on.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Photo: Calvin Gorman. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Calvin Gorham
Prison Photography (PP): I wasn’t aware of any prison photography workshop programs after the 70’s and so to find your work at Lorton is a revelation. It’s 25 years since the program ended, so let’s start with the basics, how did you get involved? Where did the idea come from?
Karen Ruckman (KR): I was doing work for the Volunteer Clearinghouse here in D.C. and they sent me to the prison to photograph volunteers who were tutoring inmates. I went to Lorton with George Strawn, the head of volunteer services and he asked if I’d be interested in teaching a class. I hadn’t really thought about it, but it happened to coincide with the funding for proposals coming in to the D.C. Arts Commission and I applied for a career development grant and I got it, much to my surprise.
I went down once a week and taught photography with a focus on career development. I approached it as a basic photography class and I brought in guest speakers, photographers from various newspapers, friends of mine in the community who were photographers. It went very well. The men worked hard, so after that I applied for another grant. Actually, D.C. had a category called ‘Arts in Prison’ during the 80s. I got my later funding through that grant category.
PP: Which photographers visited the class?
KR: Craig Herndon, from the Washington Post; Bernie Boston, from The Los Angeles Times, Gary Keith Griffin who works primarily in video and is working with me on the feature documentary now. I had executives from NBC who came in too, as well as local artists and fine arts photographers.
PP: What other arts program were being taught in D.C. prisons at the time?
KR: There were several theater programs and a woman who taught painting. That’s pretty much it.
Photo: Bernard Seaborn. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Bernard Seaborn
PP: How did the program develop over the 8 years? Did the funding, scope or size of the class change?
KR: I had a cap on how many students I could have but I ended up doing two classes. Prisoners who had been in the earlier classes then became mentors to the new guys. Over time, I became more of a facilitator: bringing in supplies, bringing in expertise, working with them, training them and then they took on the job of mentoring each other.
They also ran the dark room when I wasn’t there. We built a dark room in a closet that was in the prison school where classes took place. I had a teaching assistant, Chuck Kennedy, who came with me from the community but I also had a prisoner who was a teaching assistant so the guys could work during the week. The program grew with more men participating, more prisoners developed skills. The inmates took on more of a teaching role; it was always my goal that they would.
PP: How many students would you say you taught over the seven years?
KR: I tried to figure this out once some years ago! More than 100 but less than 200. We had new intakes for each class and some guys stayed in year after year. They’d been charged for felonies in D.C. Some had written bad checks, others had been charged for murder.
PP: Lorton is now closed?
KR: It was closed in 2001. It was a rather controversial move. The prison was actually located in Virginia on hundreds of acres of land. There were different facilities there including two youth centers, Central, the medium security facility where I taught, and maximum. Virginia had been wanting that land for quite some time.
Lorton’s buildings needed a lot of work, and rather than renovate, they closed it. The Federal government transferred the land to Virginia and now D.C. prisoners are farmed out across all of the country.
PP: Ouch! That can’t be good for rehabilitation.
KR: It’s terrible, yes. And so there’s no programing, and they’re in federal facilities all over the country.
Photo: Sidney Davis. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Sidney Davis
PP: What was the reaction and the response from the prison authority? Today, of course, these programs don’t exist and often the language-of-security is used to deny all sorts of things within prisons, and the camera in particular is quickly labelled as a security hazard. What was the feelings of the Lorton authorities at that time?
KR: I had to take on the job of educator. Many didn’t understood the need for the men to go outside the classroom to photograph, and the usefulness of exhibitions. They understood the photo class but part of that, part of each class was doing a show. We always did one in the community and one in the prison — it was a massive job of educating staff about how we could go about producing the program successfully.
I was very fortunate because Effi Barry, the mayor’s wife, had just opened an art gallery and I had her support. I always went top down. It took me a lot of time to go through the necessary channels and to get the permissions. The administrator at Central Facility, Salanda Whitfield, was a really nice guy who supported the program. He died some years ago.
Mr. Whitfield let the program come in, he let us break the rules, because of course cameras weren’t allowed, and of course inmates were not allowed to take photographs. Even with his backing I still had lots of paperwork to do in order to make the classes function well.
I found some resistance from the guards who felt like the inmates were getting something that was too nice, that wasn’t fair, that they shouldn’t get. So, my real problem when I had problems was always from the guards.
Photo: Michael Moses El. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Michael Moses El
Photo: Calvin Gorman. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Calvin Gorham
PP: Before you began the project, did you consider yourself an activist in that field of criminal justice?
KR: No, I was an activist generally but not particularly in prison reform.
PP: Did you ever have visitors that were inspired by the program and wanted to replicate it elsewhere? Or were you working in a bubble?
KR: I guess I worked in a bubble. I mean, I had visitors and help from others. I had photographers come in, other artists as well, but, no, I didn’t have anyone that wanted to replicate it.
PP: Did you understand at the time that you were doing something very pioneering?
KR: I don’t think so. I mean it was a really interesting time. Many of us were doing things in the community and were trying to think sideways, and I felt like it was something exciting. I had a passion about taking the camera to people who couldn’t normally tell their stories. By giving the men in my program this powerful communication tool, it was an opportunity for them to tell people who they were, it was a humanizing agent.
For the documentary, and since 2001, we’ve followed up with two of the men who were in Lorton and the program.
Michael Moses El had a fascination with guns. He found that when he came into the program that he was able to transfer this fascination with guns to the camera. It was a very exciting thing for him.
Calvin Gorham is an artist. He’s a singer; a soulful person and he used photography as an artistic tool to communicate how he felt. He said he saw a lot of dark things in the prison and he photographed to express that.
PP: And so there’s no doubt in your mind that photography is a rehabilitative tool?
KR: It’s a powerful rehabilitative tool. There are so many levels one could do with it as a storytelling device. Now, with digital imaging, possibilities are unlimited. Yes, absolutely. I worked with other groups in the city. In 1988, I also worked with women at D.C. Jail, then in the 90s with women at a pre-release halfway house. Also, women in various shelters and at-risk kids.
PP: And so tell us about the documentary, it’s been thirty years since you’ve been doing this work, how and why did you decide a documentary was necessary?
KR: In 1985, Gary Griffin, a friend and colleague, bought his first TV camera. Gary thought it would be valuable if we could do video about the program. So I got permission again, days of paperwork, but we went in with a crew for a week in 1985.
Some of the footage in the trailer is from ’85. We never were quite sure what it was going to be. We did put together a fundraising piece because I was always having to raise money.
Photo: Michael Moses El. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Michael Moses El
PP: Right, you were constantly communicating with free society how important your work was and asking for help?
KR: To do the programing, I had to constantly write proposals and fundraise. I was somewhat burnt out by the end of the 80s. The funding for the prison program became very difficult to get. I went on to work with other groups and do different things. The guys would stay in touch with me, they had my business phone and they’d call me when they got out of prison and tell me what they were up to.
But, I still have the wonderful images. I was at a workshop in Santa Fe in the late 90s and showed some of the images to National Geographic photographer Sam Abell. I also had an audio tape from one of the graduations that I put with the images and it was a very powerful slideshow (of sorts) — one of the men at one of the graduations gave a marvelous speech about photography.
Sam was excited by the images and very supportive. He said. “You’ve got to do something with this.”
I decided along with my video production friends to do a reunion. We knew Lorton was closing. I tracked down as many of the guys as I could. We had about 20-25 at the reunion. Gary documented the reunion and then we documented some of the men periodically. We later settled on following Michael and Calvin.
Photo: Calvin Gorman. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Calvin Gorham
PP: Why Michael and Calvin?
KR: Number 1, they were interested in participating. Number 2, they’re very interesting people — Michael is business-oriented, very focused about his life. Calvin’s a musician, we have a lot of footage of him singing. We’ve seen them almost every year since 2001. Gary and I think 30 years is a good amount of time. When we get this feature documentary completed by 2015 it will have been 30 years since Gary began filming.
PP: The documentary is a few things, it seems? A record of a moment; the on-going stories of Michael and Calvin; and a call to action asking people to think about photography’s relationship to educational and rehabilitation?
KR: It is. It’s a character study that presents the power of photography, the power of art, and how important both can be in changing lives.
Only a few of the men now make pictures professionally, but they all make pictures still. The documentary is about the program and how the learning experience has stayed with the participants throughout their lives; how it continues to resonate and define their world view in a positive and powerful way.
The discipline required working in the dark room was critical. For example, one participant, David, spent two years learning how to make a good print. And he ultimately made beautiful prints. Two years. It was very impactful.
Photo: David Mitchell El. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + David Mitchell El
PP: Can you give us your thoughts of storytelling, self-representation and empowerment?
KR: It was always their story to tell. I came in, I gave them cameras. I didn’t take a lot of pictures. I was there as a facilitator. I gave them the tool to tell their stories. I think that’s enormously important.
During that period — and even now — there’s something that is bothersome to me when people go in and take pictures of powerless people. It’s important for people to tell their own story; that doesn’t just shift the viewer, it shifts the person telling the story.
PP: It does seem obvious that if one puts a camera into the hands of someone in the community that you’re trying to bring new information about and to the wider world, but there’s still so many people in the photo world who reject that.
KR: Yes. This is off topic, but probably the most amazing experience I had when I took exhibitions to the community was when I hung a show by women at a shelter for victim’s of domestic violence. We did a show of their work at the D.C. library, in the mid-90s. Visitors would ask me who took the photographs, and when I explained the women photographers were survivors of domestic violence, people would just stop and walk out of the room.
How do we relate to issues that we’re uncomfortable about? Do we not want to see these individuals?
PP: Well, what were attitudes like then about crime? What was the reputation of Lorton? What was the general community’s view of Lorton prison?
KR: Lorton and the D.C. community were very connected in the eighties. So many people from the city were incarcerated there that Lorton was just like a subset of the community. So, there wasn’t as much stigma with prisoners as I encountered among other groups that I worked with, at least in D.C. at that time.
Lorton was considered a very dangerous place. The facilities were old even when I was there. The men lived in dorms and there was one guard per dorm at night so you can imagine that there was some violence. I personally, I didn’t get too involved in that. I tried to go in and do my program with them without judgement.
Photo: Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange
PP: And then tell me about the dark room? Were there any issues with taking chemicals and other apparatus in?
KR: The dark room was fabulous! I brought the supplies and the men ran the dark room. Kodak gave me film and photographic paper. I bought chemicals. We had lots of applicants, but I could only take so many, so it was considered a reward for someone to get into the photography program.
PP: On what criteria did you decide admission?
KR: They had to have good behavior to be allowed in the program. When it started out I only admitted men that were within three years of parole because the lessons were about career development; it was my hope to actually help guys get jobs once they got out. After a while, we relaxed that rule and a few guys still had a lot of time to serve.
PP: And could students be removed from the program at the whim of the warden or the staff?
KR: Well, I lost a few people because they misbehaved in prison and were sent to the hole (solitary confinement), or to another prison. That happened.
PP: When you release the documentary have you got any plans for distribution. How do you plan to reach audiences?
KR: I’m taking that a step at a time. We are going to finish a 30-minute short this winter that we’ll take to film festivals. A local organization, Docs In Progress, is hosting a showing of the trailer. I’ll contact our local PBS station, but with the feature-length film I have to plan a more structured distribution plan. It’s very important to get it out. I’ve stayed in connection with people in the D.C. community, people like Marc Mauer at the Sentencing Project and others who care about the issue.
PP: What’s your personal position on prisons? What role does incarceration play in our society?
KR: There are people who commit violent crimes and they belong in prison. Some of the men that I worked with said that being in prison gave them an opportunity to really look at themselves and take a timeout and to correct their behavior. There is a role for prison if they have rehabilitation programs.
Of course, we all know that there are way too many people that are incarcerated and there are people that are incarcerated that just shouldn’t be there, so it’s very frustrating. Things haven’t changed all that much since the eighties except we’ve incarcerated more people.
D.C. incarcerates an enormous number of people. With the poverty and lack of good public education here. That’s the story of the documentary. Calvin’s son went to prison and Michael’s son went to prison. So, we talk about that story, it’s that legacy that’s just, it should be broken. Marian Wright Edelman‘s work with the Children’s Defense Fund deals with this issue, and has a program called the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.
Photo: Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange
PP: Do you think the American public gets reliable information on prisons?
It’s my sense that most people aren’t interested in prisons. When I tried to raise money for the program it was very hard. There’s little compassion. Around drugs and drug culture there’s some alternative sentencing programs happening but by and large, I don’t think people are interested. I mean, now, we have for-profit prisons which is even more atrocious because now we have to maintain the population so that profit lines can be maintained.
PP: I ask because, to my mind, if there were more photography programs like yours occurring in our prisons today, there would exist a more nuanced view of prisons; prisoners’ views. We’d all be in a better place in terms of being informed.
KR: Yes, absolutely. The program had a humanizing effect, both on the participants and in how they were viewed by the community. It provided a bridge, and it didn’t cost the tax payers much. I secured small grants and fundraised and so it was for tax payers a really good deal. That’s true of most arts programming.
PP: Often program funding is based on measurable impacts but a lot of time with prisons you can’t measure those so easily because some people are not getting out for ten or twenty years. You can’t correlate arts rehabilitation with recidivism because the prisoners don’t get out in any short space of time. So, what stories do you have about your students? Any stand out stories that convince you of the efficacy of a photography program?
KR: The men would be the ones to tell you. Sadly, a lot of the guys die; they don’t make it. Some of them die soon after they get out.
I think about Calvin and Michael — the program gave them discipline and an opportunity to evolve productively. Michael told us about a time soon after his release when he was very tempted to commit a violent act against another man. Something stopped him. It was, he said, it was the discipline and working relationships that he had developed during the program. He didn’t want to end up back at Lorton.
A couple of the guys do a lot of professional photography. It’s very hard to answer that question because people want to ask, “Okay, well how many guys got a job as a photographer?”
PP: How many people generally get jobs as photographers!
KR: Actually, Michael was hired by US News and World Report to shoot a cover story on poverty, and he took some amazing pictures. They were going to use one of his photos for the cover but when they found out he was an ex-offender they wouldn’t run his photo. He’s still very bitter about that.
PP: What’s his past history got to do with the suitability of a photograph?
KR: It was many years ago; it was the late 80s.
PP: But that’s complete discrimination.
KR: I was told by several photographers at the Post that they would be uncomfortable to have ex-offenders there because they would be afraid that they would steal equipment. These are the attitudes that make it really tough for ex-offenders to get jobs in fields other than construction or the food industry, though a few of them do get jobs driving Metro buses.
PP: Is there anything I’ve missed?
KR: I appreciate you finding and highlighting the work. We’re excited about finishing the film. The project has ended up — without me realizing it — a life work.
Washington, DC – 2012. “Even though it was a split second decision that caused those women their lives, it was not just one decision. My life pretty much sprouted out of control as far as me being teen mother, high school drop out, unemployed, drug addicted, alone; I was just immersed in the life of crime,” says Lashawna Etheridge-Bey.
This blog post is long overdue. Gabriela Bulisova is a committed multimedia storyteller who, for the past few years, has shaped stories about post-prison lives and focusing often on the experiences of women re-entering society.
In the excellent Convictions (2012) — a video about Our Place, a D.C. non-profit assisting currently and formerly incarcerated women as they transition out of the criminal justice system — Bulisova notes that over 1 million U.S. women are under correctional supervision (prison, jail, probation or parole) and that the female prison population has ballooned by over 830% in the past 30 years. Yes, you read correctly; an eightfold increase in the number of women locked up since 1980. There are 200,000 women behind bars.
Bulisova’s latest piece Time Zone “portrays the story of Lashonia Etheridge-Bey, a 39-year-old resident of Washington, DC, who spent half of her life in prison for a double murder and was paroled in December 2011. It focuses on Lashonia’s personal transformation while in prison, her difficult yet highly successful reentry into society, and the conflicts that remain within herself and with family members,” says Bulisova.
You can view a gallery of stills from Time Zone here.
When she was 16, Etheridge-Bey shot two teenage girls dead. She spent 20 years in prisons and due to her self-discipline and model behaviour was granted parole at the first hearing.
What is interesting about Time Zone is that it doesn’t focus on the systematic problems of the prison industrial complex. Instead, it focuses on the details of Etheridge-Bey’s own story. By exploring family ties, Etheridge-Bey’s feelings of guilt (at one point, she asks, “Do I deserve to forgive myself?”) her support systems and her coping strategies, Bulisova weaves a tale full of complex issues and challenging questions.
I almost feel like Time Zone should be screened in prisons and jails as an example of how extremely difficult circumstances are surmountable. If an incarcerated person has the right discussions, strong resolve and faithful allies in dealing with the past and future then
Etheridge-Bey credits prison — or more specifically, the fact it extracted her from society and a tough life — as a turning point. Prison forced her to examine her life. She took the opportunity and is undoubtedly a success story.
To say that prison is “good” by any definition is difficult for people such as I who advocate for prison-reform. But, of course, prison is only good if an incarcerated individual develops their own skills to make the most of limited resources available. All the while, prisons should meet basic health and safety needs, which is not always the case.
Through tenacity and discipline, Etheridge-Bey propelled her self-improvement. She maintained strong relationships with her family (her daughter’s words in the video are impressive, realistic and hopeful); she accumulated college credit while she was inside; she has beaten the hurdles to employment and study that many post-release felons face.
Reentry can be very difficult. The stigma of incarceration can be very difficult. Not every former prisoner will be as successful as Etheridge-Bey. The question we must ask is how much do we want to invest in people who have made mistakes — sometimes terrible, life-costing mistakes? If people must be locked up, how can we think imaginatively about maximizing the opportunities for prisoners to find a new track?
If you share the notion that prisons should be about rehabilitation and not warehousing, then how far do we push those efforts? For example, with 85-90% of all incarcerated women having suffered a history of domestic and sexual abuse, where is the line between their responsibility and society’s responsibility to break them from entrenched cycles of victimhood? Do we expect women to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps, regardless of their situations? I hope not.
If we must incarcerate people, we should expect and demand a change for the better. We must demand that institutions are imaginative and reflexive enough to match prisoners’ efforts toward self improvement. And to nurture those efforts, instead of stymie them.
I applaud Etheridge-Bey’s efforts. Unfortunately, her great advances are not typical of incarcerated women in America.
I don’t think prisons are invested in recognising the skills and potentials of individuals. Access to meaningful programs and relevant pedagogy varies widely, state-to-state, so I must be careful not to over-generalise, but often, personal advancement is achieved in spite of the system and not because of it.
Clearly, the use of incarceration only as a last resort would go a long way to maximising resources for prisoners. Improved and robust education, easier family visitation procedures, smaller facilities, better mental-healthcare, and better nutrition to name a few factors, prisons can do more, much more, to assist prisoners — both men and women — to realise their full potential.
Sondheim Artscape Prize
Along side Larry Cook, Caitlin Cunningham, Nate Larson, Louie Palu and Dan Steinhilber, Gabriela Bulisova is currently shortlisted for the Sondheim Artscape Prize.
The six finalists for the Sondheim Artscape Prize have their artwork installed in Special Exhibition Gallery of the Walters Art Museum, 600 N Charles St, Baltimore. (June 29 – August 31). The award announcement and reception is this coming Saturday, July 13th, at 7pm.
As you know, I’m a great admirer of photography programs and mentorships for youth. Expression in the arts gives children their voice. I’ve even wondered if the empowerment provided through self-representation could benefit prisoners.
There exist dozens of important non-profits and volunteer programs helping youth of all backgrounds, including at-risk youth, to tell their stories through photography.
Organisations such as Youth in Focus, Seattle; AS220 Youth Photography Program, Providence, RI; New Urban Arts, Providence; First Exposures by SF Camerawork in San Francisco; The In-Sight Photography Project, Vermont; Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE), Nova Scotia; Inner City Light, Chicago; Focus on Youth and My Story in Portland, OR; Picture Me at the MoCP, Chicago; Eye on the Third Ward, Houston; The Bridge, Charlottesville, VA; the Red Hook Photography Project, New York; and Emily Schiffer’s My Viewpoint Photo Initiative are exemplars of youth empowerment through photography.
One of the leading participatory photography bodies is Photovoice in the UK. It has 50 programs in 23 countries.
Simply and brilliantly, Critical Exposure – which was founded in 2004 – gives centre stage to Samera, one of the students. Watch it and celebrate the resilience and thoughtfulness of youth. It’s uncomplicated and effective storytelling, and you will be convinced of the undoubted value of these photography programs.
Samera is a compelling voice. After describing her own situation, she makes quite a simple request. She asks that schools within the same metropolitan area have better communication. She identified a fault in the system and she asked that it be fixed so others wouldn’t have to go through the same clumsy and disappointing mal-communications between Washington school district and a charter school. It’s a fair request.
Communities we shape for better, engender growth. Youths’ enthusiasm to be raised in an encouraging environment should not be neglected.
Lewis Payne, seated and manacled, at the Washington Navy Yard about the time of his 21st birthday in April 1865, three months before he was hanged as one of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Photograph by Alexander Gardner, probably taken aboard the ironclad U.S.S. Montauk or Saugus.
Quick post & a request. We all know about the relentless Shorpy and the site’s daily dose of long gone photo ephemera. It is indeed a treat.
Today, two images from the 1920s went up. Shorpy’s keen to focus on the visual narratives that arrest the attention. Consider it a human interest archive if you will. It is my guess is he/she/it chose these two photographs relating to crime and punishment because they deal with women and children. If there is still one thing true today as was back then, these two groups are distinguished from, sometimes condescended to, and likely protected and abused in equal measure by, prevailing patriarchies.
Washington, D.C., circa 1920. “Jail, Women’s School.” Alternate title: “Complete this sentence.” National Photo Co. Collection glass negative.
Washington, D.C., circa 1922. “House of Detention, Ohio Avenue N.W.” Equipped with a nice playground. National Photo Company glass negative.
These came at an opportune moment because I’ve been wondering what to do with the following four images from the American Civil War. It is not an area I am well read up on. I guess the make-shift nature of jails and prisons in the vicinity of battlefields and front lines attests to the constant flux and shroud of unpredictability across a bloodied young nation.
Prison Photography blog is often concerned with inflexibility and pursuant damage it can cause as applied to institutions. But the modern prison is merely a permanent abstraction of earlier jails. ‘Transitory’ sites of incarceration, especially in times of war, are even more contested as sites than the Supermax prisons of the 21st century.
It’s got me thinking how Castle Thunder and Belle Isle relate to the the GWOT prisons – namely the early incarnation of Abu Ghraib prison, Bagram Airbase and other as yet unknown ‘Black Sites’ of detention and interrogation.
Richmond, 1865. “Castle Thunder, Cary Street. Converted tobacco warehouse for political prisoners.” Main Eastern theater of war, fallen Richmond, April-June 1865. Wet plate glass negative, photographer unknown.
Spring 1865. Belle Isle railroad bridge from the south bank of the James River after the fall of Richmond. Glass plate negative from the Civil War collection compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge.
One of the first Confederate prison camps. Opened after the First Battle of Bull Run and held Union Army NCO’s and enlisted men. There were no barracks constructed, the only shelters were tents. Intended to hold only 3,000 but numbers grew to double that and led to many prisoners being shipped further south to other camps, most infamously Andersonville.
And finally, this site is described as a “slave pen”. This document of slave incarceration is gut-thumping and, however agonising the means, justifies the Civil War and its righteous ends.
Request: I am keen to know more about prisons and jails of the Civil War era. If you’ve any resources I should absolutely be aware of please drop me a note. Thanks
Built in 1812 as a residence for General Andrew Young, this was the office building of the former interstate slave trading complex which stood on the site from 1828 to 1861. By 1835 Franklin and Armfield controlled nearly half the coastal slave trade from Virginia and Maryland to New Orleans. In 1846 the property was sold to a Franklin and Armfield agent, George Kephart, whose business became “the chief slave-dealing firm in [Virginia] and perhaps anywhere along the border between the Free and Slave States.” After 1858, the slave pen was known as Price, Birch, and Co., and their sign can be seen in a Civil War era photograph. The business was appalling to many, especially to active abolitionists in Alexandria, where the large Quaker population contributed to a general distaste for slavery. Several abolitionists’ accounts survive which describe the slave pen and the conditions encountered therein. Male slaves were located in a yard to the west, while women and children were kept in a yard to the east, separated by a passage and a strong grated door of iron. The complex served as a Civil War prison from 1861 to 1865, and housed the Alexandria Hospital from 1878 to 1885.