Louisiana State Penitentiary, known commonly as Angola, is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Of its 6,300 prisoners, over 85 percent are serving life. This shocking fact is due to Louisiana’s harsh sentencing laws. Activists and reformers who fight against Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentencing refer to life sentences as “death by incarceration”. If we focus on the fact of death–as opposed to focusing on the crime, transgression, legal proceedings, or behaviour of the men during their incarceration at Angola–then we see with stark clarity the brutality of the system.
The catastrophic results of LWOP are many, but perhaps one that isn’t so obvious is an emotional turmoil surrounding the death of prisoner’s loved ones during incarceration. What do prisoners think about, do about and cope with when they hear of death beyond the prison walls? What are their responses to sudden death in free society when they’re condemned to a slow, slow death inside the prison industrial complex?
These questions were the starting point for Stories from Prison/Honoring Ancestors, a collaborative project led by Benjamin D. Weber in collaboration with Angola prisoners, their friends and family and students at the University of New Orleans (UNO).
“Due of the length of their sentences, most of Angola’s prisoners have experienced the loss of a loved one while they have been locked away,” says Weber. “Prisoners are quick to remind you, many are doing life for non-violent offenses and many others for first offenses that would not carry such a sentence in just about any other state.”
Weber decided to create a collaboration in which a group of allies could commemorate prisoners’ loved ones who had passed. The commemorations would be directed by prisoners.
Weber distributed forms at Angola on which prisoners could tell a story about a loved one who had died, and request for them to be commemorated in specific places that were meaningful to them. The prisoners chose whether they wanted their story to be shared publicly or not.
All of the commemorations, photographs and supporting documents are presented in interactive map form at the Stories from Prison/Honoring Ancestors website.
Groups of UNO graduate and undergraduate students and Weber performed the commemorations. They then mailed letters and photographs to the prisoners.
“Prisoners requested all sorts of different actions to be performed,” says Weber. “We released balloons inscribed with special messages, visited grave sites to recite poems, placed flowers and a bingo chip atop a waterfall, and even improvised a dance with relatives.”
In the process, Weber and the UNO students discovered that the photographs fell secondary to the performances and commemorations. The photographs are important documents, but creating the photographs was not the primary focus during the commemorations. When it came time to commune and be present with one another, making photographs didn’t always seem important, mindful or, frankly, appropriate.
“Many [photos] were snapped on students phones as we sought to document what we were doing without interrupting it too much,” says Weber.
Such adjustments to behaviours and goals were typical of Stories from Prison/Honoring Ancestors and, indeed, are common to similar socially engaged projects.
Weber was kind enough to speak about the motives, the involvement of the community, the students’ learning and the outcomes of the project. Here, we publish a Q+A and photographs fulfilling the requests of Gerald Davis, Derrick Allen, David Wilson and starting (below) with Elmo Duronselet
Q + A
Prison Photography (PP): Your PhD covers the eighty years between the Civil War to the end of WWII. You have many intersecting interests in prisons, policing, society. How do you summarize the origins and growth of the prison industrial complex in the United States?
Benjamin Weber (BW): There are a number of reasons why the dissertation covers that particular time period. The first is the massive expansion of racialized incarceration that took place after the Civil War, triggered in part by the “convict clause” of the 13th Amendment which allowed for the perpetuation of slavery and involuntary servitude as “punishment for a crime.”
I see the origins of this expansion of the prison system as being bound up with war-making and imperial expansion, first across the continental U.S. and then, especially after 1898, overseas. That’s why the dissertation focuses on practices of confinement and forced labor in places like the Pacific Northwest, the Panama Canal Zone, and the Philippines. I believe that if we can understand these things as part of a history of racial domination in U.S. empire, we might be able to think more clearly and critically about how to fight against them in the present. Or to put it slightly differently, if we can better understand the origins of the problem, as you point out, we might better understand the range of possible solutions.
PP: Where does your interest in incarceration stem from?
BW: I believe the problem of mass incarceration to be the defining social justice issue of our generation.
My academic interest comes from a place of trying to understand how various forms of injustice have operated and how people have struggled to combat them in the past, and the present. My personal commitment comes from experiences visiting friends and former students in jails back in California and witnessing first hand the way that young people, particularly people of color, are treated by the police and prison systems.
Working alongside others who have friends and family members who are locked up provides example after example of how terribly broken and institutionally racist the system is.
PP: You’re at Harvard. This project was at the University of New Orleans. Was this first project for which you’ve travelled and worked with students elsewhere? I ask this because I wonder if it could function as a pilot; with elements that are all replicable by you, or others?
BW: This project came together the way it did largely because my partner and I moved to New Orleans so she could do residency in her hometown and I could finish writing the dissertation and start in on the book manuscript down here. The timing worked well because UNO Professor Molly Mitchell was interested to have the Midlo Center participate in the States Of Incarceration national public history project. So, I agreed to come help run the Louisiana piece of that project.
The Midlo Center has a visiting scholars program that could be replicated by other universities. In terms of replicable elements, I think the workshop or toolkit model tends to be more common when it comes to traveling to work with students from other universities. It worked really well, for instance, to have Mark Strandquist come and do a workshop with my students and I’ve talked with him and many others about how to share materials, strategies, and best practices about teaching issues of racism and mass incarceration. There’s already some really great stuff out there as well; The Knotted Line, as one example, has some pretty creative and inspiring examples of educator resources and curriculum guides for teaching about the prison industrial complex.
PP: The methodology of the project was inspired by Mark Strandquist’s Windows From Prison, but there’s a key difference between the methodology of Strandquist’s project and yours: You are convening a group at a specific place for an action and memorial. Place and gathering is important, for example, in Photo Requests From Solitary by Tamms Year Ten, I was always thrilled by Rachel Herman’s photograph of Bald Knob Cross for Willie Sterling because Mr Sterling understood he could use the general offer to make a photograph to bring/force people together in a physical space, beyond the prison walls.
How important was it for you to convene a group? Was that the core of the project? What does that convening do?
BW: The Tamms Is Torture project is an amazing example, and reminds me in some ways of the role of art-activists like Jackie Summell and Brandan “BMike” Odums in the campaign to free the Angola 3 down here in Louisiana. The comparison with Rachel Herman’s photo is really apt, because we definitely saw ways that prisoners improved upon our project design in precisely this same way.
There were cases where they would write in a person’s name in the line that asked where they wanted us to perform the commemoration. They explained that we could best honor their deceased loved ones by talking, singing, and even dancing with their living relatives. These were some of the most moving experiences for everyone involved.
PP: How did your discussions with students differ or remain the same throughout this project as compared with lectures/seminars in the classroom about incarceration?
BW: In his workshop, Mark Strandquist encouraged us to do the commemorations in groups and spoke about the importance of embodied learning. This type of convening allowed for conversations that could never happen inside a classroom. It was also profoundly moving to see how people of different faiths and spiritual traditions talked and went about honoring ancestors, as it were.
PP: What were the responses of family and friends of the prisoners with whom you contacted and held memorials?
BW: There was definitely a range of responses, from the cautiously apprehensive to the overwhelmingly appreciative. Some relatives who weren’t especially religious were suspicious at first that we belonged to a church group, while others who were more religious promised that God reserves a special place in heaven for people who take time to do this kind of work on behalf of their friends and family locked away in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Some were somber in their recollections about deceased loved ones, while others laughed and joked as they told stories about the person a given prisoner had asked us to commemorate. When we went to find Elmo’s aunt Tamika and do a dance, as he requested, at first she laughingly begged us not to, but we all felt like we needed to honor his request down to the letter so ended up doing a little dance right there on her front doorstep.
Occasionally, interactions turned into more sustained collaborations. Liz, whose fiancé is at Angola, not only performed the commemoration along with us but has stayed involved with the project and will be coming with us to the States of Incarceration exhibit launch in New York City.
PP: Have you received feedback from Gerald, Derrick, Elmo, David or other prisoners about the photo/results of the project?
BW: We received thank-you letters from several of them, and some have carried on extended letter-writing exchanges with my students and I.
Derrick wrote to us that receiving the letter and pictures from the commemoration “kind of felt like the service itself to me,” and signed off with this quote: “there are things we don’t want to happen, but have to accept, things we don’t want to know but have to learn, and people we can’t live without but have to let go.”
Sean told us that “when my days get gloomy, now I have the memories of what you all have done for my mother and for me.”
Gerald and Hannah have now written upwards of ten letters back and forth. And the forms of communication flow in other ways as well. Liz’ fiancé called her during an event we were having at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, for example, and we were able to put him on the microphone to speak to the audience.
Gavin spoke to one of his family members on the phone and had her email me for him to clarify some things about the commemoration we were planning for his father who had recently passed away.
PP: Shortly after you made this work with prisoners of Angola, the longstanding warden Burl Cain resigned amid still-as-yet unclear accusations of shady business dealings. What was your experience working with Cain? Did the prisoners have anything to say about his regime? What lies in store for Angola in the wake of Cain’s departure?
BW: I worked primarily with the staff at Angola’s prison museum, but did have to get approval for the pilot project from Warden Cain’s chief of security and the public relations manager there. There is always a period of transition where people are worried about how things were shift around and shake out when an entrenched figure like Burl Cain leaves a prison like Angola.
The prisoners we worked with didn’t say anything specifically about Warden Cain. Some mentioned being optimistic that the new Louisiana Governor, Democrat John Bell Edwards, will have a better stance on pardons and clemency than Bobby Jindal, the outgoing Republican Governor. As one of them put it in a recent letter to me: “The new governor is supposed to open up doors for some offenders a little early…”
I’m honestly not sure what lies in store for Angola in the wake of Cain’s departure, but I do know that we all need to continue doing absolutely everything we can to address the shamefully high rates of racial disparity in incarceration in Louisiana and around the country, and stop putting so many people in cages period.
Because we know that prisons don’t work.