Artist-filmmaker Nirit Peled and director Sara Kolster have produced A Temporary Contact, a real time series of text messages and short videos delivered via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, that allows users to join family members as they journey from New York city to upstate prisons and back.

Over 30-hours, beginning at 10pm the evening after you sign up, you’ll receive at first few texts and then consistent volley of 22 short videos. The main protagonist is Amanda, a 20-year-old from Brooklyn who is visiting her brother, but other women speak to the camera and relay their experiences. Most videos are 45 seconds long and shot from the aisle of the bus. Gas station and restroom breaks are a relief for all. Audio is overlaid the blurred land at 60mph. I include a few screencaps for the purposes of this commentary.

 

 

As we know, the majority of new prison construction in the past 30 years has occurred in rural America and in post-industrial towns. The “logic” was to replace the dead agriculture and manufacturing jobs with prison jobs. However, the small (and ever-decreasing) benefits that may have been brought to struggling, job-scarce populations are eclipsed by the hardships wrought upon prisoners and their distant friends and families. A Temporary Contact takes us on the weekend journey that family–mostly women and children–make; a journey essential for keeping family ties. Bear in mind that, for incarcerated persons, maintaining close relations with loved ones is the most important factor in helping them stay out the system after release.

New York state, as with other large states such as California, Texas and Illinois, is one of the worst offenders in siting prisons hundreds of miles from the communities from which prisoners are extracted. A Temporary Contact offers users a moment inside the collateral damage done by this particular extended and prohibitively expensive travel.

Some thoughts on the title: Temporary contact is fleeting, it’s real but not sustained. The title simultaneously recognises the intermittent opportunities that family have to make in-person visits (those with financial means and time, might make the journey as often as twice a month), but also points to our passing point of contact with a time-consuming (and likely foreign) travel-commitment which prisoners’ loved ones regularly and necessarily sign up for.

Despite the journey’s substantial 30-hour timeframe, it’s one that is largely self-contained and not seen … except for maybe the lines of people waiting for pick up at 34th street or Columbus Circle in NYC late on a Friday or Saturday evening. (For an in-depth photo essay on prison buses, please see Jacobia Dahm’s work; read the interview she and I did; and then read this follow-up conversation Dahm had with Candis Cumberbatch-Overton, who Dahm photographed as she visited her husband John.)

There are many revealing moments in A Temporary Contact and it’d be foolhardy to describe them; you should just sign up for the messages toy our own smartphone. The presence of time–and time seen–is part of the art’s structure! That said, I thought it instructive that immediately following their departure from the prisons, the women shared photos of their loved ones and talked about the costs to have the portraits made.

“The only thing we take out the visits,” says Amanda, “are the pictures.”

 

 

The women compare costs of a single Instax picture. In one prison it is $2 per photo. In another it is $4. They talk about physical changes, new facial hair, how they all appear in one another’s photos. They laugh and gripe about the quality of the murals in front of which they must stand for the portraits.

Visitors are allowed to have five pictures made on each visit. Despite the huge expense (relative to single prints in free society) the women tend to get five. Max out on memories. Optimise the presence of their loved one in the world. A photo is a thin slice of time, but it is a substantial presence in the free world of someone who is behind bars in a limbo-state of social death.

 

 

It seems that every photography conference these days is talking about getting beyond the frame, and using new technologies and digital platforms to tell stories. Peled and Kolster propose a model that delivers important, compelling content with direct efficiency. The bar for access is as low as it gets; who doesn’t have WhatsApp or Facebook on their phones at this point? The temporal quality of the project is key. The success of A Temporary Contact rests on the fact that, every one or two hours, users are prodded with gentle reminders of other’s devotion to time … time spent in love and support of prisoners.

I wholly recommend A Temporary Contact. I learnt new things, I think you will too.

A Temporary Contact was developed within the framework of the veryveryshort competition, a NFB and ARTE co-production in collaboration of IDFA Doclab. Very very short is a collection of 10 interactive projects for smartphones, exploring the theme of mobility through very, very short experiences – all under 60 seconds.

Credits
Creators: Nirit Peled & Sara Kolster
Camera: Aafke Beernink
Editor: Wietse de Swart
Additional editing: Paul Delput
Sound mix: Sander den Broeder
Color: Maurik de Ridder
Developer: Martijn Eerens
Scripting: Wireless Services
Music: Amit Gur & Itai Weissman
Cast: Amanda, Diamond, Gina, Latoya and Stephany
Research help: Ilja Willems, Five Mualimm-ak, Ray Simmons
Special thanks: Katie Turinski, Junior from Flambouyant Transportation Inc., Het Raam, Hortense Lauras

 

 

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So great, and so important, to see the Participatory Defense movement expanding to, and empowering within, more U.S. cities.

Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project

Philadelphia has to be one of the most exciting cities in the country when it comes to community power challenging the daily operations of the courts. Philadelphia has elected a civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner as their next District Attorney, has a head of the Public Defender Office Keir Bradford-Grey who is committed to building community support for those facing court, and the people are taking to the streets for Meek Mill. Changes are happening in Philly that may be a blue print for the rest of the country.

And now, Philadelphia is starting participatory defense. Read this piece in the Philadelphia Citizen “Ideas We Should Steal: Participatory Defense” to see how the community is well-positioned to take the methodology to new heights.

phillyflier(Poster from the first participatory defense forum in Philadelphia.)


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PRISON ART LIBRARY IN THE MAKING

If you’re in or near Portland, Oregon and if you’ve art books you no longer want on your shelves, please consider donating the to the Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) Art Book Drive.

This Wednesday, December 13th, from 12-7pm, the CRCI Artist In Residence Program is holding a Book Drive at the 9th Annual Publication Fair held at the Ace Hotel Cleaners space.

The book drive seeks titles related to: conceptual art, social practice, collaboration, critical theory, film, painting, sculpture, art technique, artist monographs, art history, performance art, and curating.

Go on. Donate your books!

The CRCI Art Book Library began in April 2017 as a way to expand access to art books, art writing and documentation. The art library is one component of the Artist in Residence Program, which is open to prisoners at the Columbia River Correctional Institution, a minimum security prison within the Portland city limits, run by the Oregon Department of Corrections. The residency is facilitated by a rotating faculty of artists and students from the Art and Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University.

PUBLICATION FAIR

After you’ve donated your books, go check out the booths full of paper goods from these lovelies:

4341 Press

Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books

Anthology Booksellers

Antiquated Future

Book Arts Editions

Container Corps

Couch Press

Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery

Floating World Comics

Forest Avenue Press

Future Tense Books: A Micro-Press

Gobshite Quarterly

Impossible Wings

Independent Publishing Resource Center

Microcosm Publishing

Mixed Needs

Monograph Bookwerks

Octopus Books

Passages Bookshop

Perfect Day Publishing

Personal Libraries Library

Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Quotidian Press

Sunday Painter Press

Sidebrow

Tavern Books

Tin House

Two Plum Press

University of Hell Press

URe:AD Press

Volumes Volumes

YesYes Books

 

 

 

I wrote recently about Davi Russo‘s family portraits made inside two New Jersey State prisons between 1987 and 2007: 20 years of prison polaroids chart son’s resolve, love, and only contact with dad.

The Polaroids chart visits he, his mother, sister, grandparents and friends made to see his father David who was incarcerated on suspicion of murder in 1984, stood trial, and was found guilty and sentenced, in 1987, to life plus 20 years. He has been eligible for parole since 2010 but remains in prison today. Russo, a director and photographer these days, was nine years old at the time of his father’s conviction.

Russo hoped sharing his experience might help others get free of the stigma of incarceration too.

“Growing up with Shawshank Redemption and all the horrible prison TV shows, I wanted to take authorship,” explains Russo. “I had a chance to put something different together. And it was legitimate. Polaroids are thought of as the most fun type of photography. Super quick, on the beach, snap, shake it. The world is perfect! Shoot it on polaroid! But not for me. I didn’t experience polaroids that way and I knew I wasn’t the only one.”

Russo was reluctant to share the photos publicly for many years and when he finally did he asked his father to write a reflection on the collection. Instead, his father wrote single memories on Post-It notes of each photo … of each moment they stood before the camera. Those written memories became the captions for each image–an unexpected and personal twenty year narrative. Therefore, I encourage you to visit the series, which Russo has named Picture Time, on Russo’s website and read the full captions. There too, you will find essays by Russo’s sister and mother.

Read and see more:  20 years of prison polaroids chart son’s resolve, love, and only contact with dad.

 

  

 

 

 

What to do with a defunct prison? Demolish? Renovate into a hotel or apartments. Create a museum or arts centre? The response and reuse of prisons depends largely on economics but also on whether a society has written and agreed on a narrative and the place of the prison in relation to the state and body politic.

For example, Robben Island is an obvious memorial to anti-Apartheid campaigners and their unjust imprisonment; a rejection of state-sanctioned racism. Similarly, Tuol Sleng in Cambodia is a Genocide Museum honouring the victims of the Khmer Rouge. While Alcatraz does include information about the American Indian Movement and the Indian Occupation of the island in 1969-71, the narrative is mostly a distant historical view of “The Rock” in which tourists can get macabre and creeped out, safely.

Now closed, Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, doesn’t have an agreed history, yet. It cannot be so easily be packaged for a public, or narrative. Opened in 1835, Kingston Pen established the basis of Canada’s prison philosophy; the architectural embodiment of prison as a legal structure in accordance with British rule and colonial prerogatives. It was a place for carceral not corporal punishment—100 months instead of 100 licks of the paddle.

Until its closure in 2013, Kingston Pen was one of the longest continuous operating prisons in the world. It was shuttered due to rising maintenance costs and documented human rights violations. In its 160 years, Kingston Pen served up hardship and oppression. Not least, as in all Western societies, for minority groups and indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples make up less than four percent of the Canadian population, yet they account for the largest demographic of prisoners.

Into the awaiting “space” of cultural definition and narrative framing of Kingston Pen, enter Through a Penal System, Darkly (2013 – 2015), a raking, bamboozling, photo-based survey of the prison by artist Cindy Blažević and partners. Onto a general history of the institution, Blažević knits oral histories of current and past corrections administrators, legal experts, staff and prisoners. Audio clips, maps, photo-documentation and photo-composites bring the past to this very moment and foreground prison abolition arguments.

 

An illustration of a Plains-style teepee is superimposed onto a photo of a small, enclosed prison yard – a place where Indigenous cultural practices would often take place. The actual teepee was packed away, as part of the decommissioning process, before Blažević had a chance to photograph it.

 

For some, the closure of Kingston Pen, as with many iconic prisons, might serve as an excuse to draw a line and refrain from examining history, but Through a Penal System, Darkly encourages us to do the opposite and leap right back into our immediate history; to face the many shortcomings of incarceration.

In an excellent read of Blažević’s work, Ellyn Walker delineates the way, familial, racial and social-control dynamics persist in society, through the prison, and because of the prison.

“One must consider deeply the ways in which justice and compassion go hand-in-hand, in particular, in spaces of extreme vulnerability and oppression, such as the prison,” writes Walker, who quotes Dr. Angela Y. Davis as she urges us to look toward contested sites: “The prison is one of the most important features of our image environment,” said Davis.

“[The prison] reveals the imperative for reimagining how we both understand and practice justice,” adds Walker. That’s why Through a Penal System, Darkly is such a landmark work of art and research. Comprehensive and content-rich, Through a Penal System, Darkly has been presented as an exhibition and lives online as a multi-pronged inquiry. Working with law students, Blažević made the project while the inaugural artist-in-residence (2013-14) at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto.

Energised by the way in which she pushed passed the mere static image and committed political and complex readings of the prison, I pressed Blažević with some questions on the kernels, goals and outcomes of the project. I can only provide a smattering of the hundreds of photograph Blažević made and as the audio and context for the photos is so key, I encourage you all to visit the Through a Penal System, Darkly website and spend some time.

 

 

Some of the surprising colours in Blažević’s images are reminiscent of William Eggleston’s photography. Somehow the electrical switch boxes, mail-drops, wall paintings, signage and the vernacular touches make for the most engaging photos. The deadpan images of children’s play structures and lawn chairs speak to the normalisation of prison operations. Janitorial, medical and infrastructural observations reveal the comprehensiveness of resources and operations. The exterior shots seem mostly to be establishing shots and hold the least interest, but I suspect Blažević is aware of this. Still, she was there to photograph as much as possible, almost forensically while her access lasted. There are other comparisons to be made between Through a Penal System, Darkly and other photographers work, and Blažević and I talk about them in the Q&A below.

While Through a Penal System, Darkly undoubtedly required a massive amount of work, significant institutional support, the buy-in of co-makers, and others’ skillsets, I think it is a project that is instructive about how professionals working with media can explode the issue of prisons and other controversial, historically-rich sites.

Scroll on for our Q&A.

 

Q & A

Why should people care about prisons?

This Angela Davis quote really nails it: “There is reluctance to face the realities hidden within [prisons], a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings.”

That, in a nutshell, is why people should care. We’re naïve to think that prisons and criminal justice happen in a bubble that has nothing to do with the configuration of all of society.

Prisons are very much a reflection of our deepest, seemingly unsolvable social problems. This project looked at the many ways that prisons obscure our individual and collective responsibilities of taking seriously the ongoing problems of our society, particularly those produced by racism, colonialism, patriarchy and global capitalism. Kim Pate, one of the contributors to my project, at the time Director of the Elizabeth Fry Societies and currently a Canadian senator, spoke about prison being the only system that couldn’t say no. In other words, when the health care system and the legal aid system and the welfare system are unable to help you, because of successive budget cuts, the prison will be there for you.

Decarceration should be everybody’s business.

The relatability of the project was important to me, which is why the exhibition that accompanied the website was a massive photograph mounted on the exterior of the law school, accessible to all passers-by and not exclusively to law students or gallery goers, and linked to the website. I want everyone to care.

 

 

Where did your interest in prisons begin? Generally, or with Kingston specifically?

Who doesn’t have a natural fascination with prisons? With what it means to lose one’s freedom?

As a visual artist, I have a specific interest in spaces and how they define us, as individuals and as a society. I majored in International Relations and minored in political science, so the interest has always been there, simmering away in the background, as a backdrop to many of the subjects I’ve explored over the years, academically and artistically.

Kingston Penitentiary, whose interior architecture had never been photographed in any systematic way, holds a deep fascination with the Canadian public. So when I heard it would close, I thought, let me try to get in there. And I did.

What started as a project to photograph 19th century experiments in prison architecture no longer acceptable to our current ideas of incarceration, turned into a massive photographic and audio compendium of issues and thoughts expressed and experienced about the Canadian justice system, all through the lens of Kingston Penitentiary.

At its root, I think Through a Penal System, Darkly is a project about fairness, about what is actually fair when it comes to punishment. Working on it has given me pause to appreciate how fundamental our preoccupation with justice is. I have three children and it is really incredible how fairness and a sense of justness is prevalent even at an extremely early age. One could dismiss this as philosophical waxing, but the basic ubiquity of it is undeniable.

 

 

What is the public opinion in Canada toward prisons?

An apathy arising from the false comfort that America has a problem with over-incarceration and that, because we’re not America, we don’t. Canadians see themselves as social progressives, as we are on many fronts. This seemed to stop at prisons under the previous, Conservative government. Even though statistics showed crime rates have been dropping for decades, the Harper Conservative government took a “tough on crime” approach: more prisons, longer sentences, mandatory minimums, and eliminating discretion for courts. Under the current Liberal government, whatever its shortcomings, the Supreme Court has ruled that many of the anti-crime laws enacted by the Harper government were unconstitutional. These actions have a role in shaping public opinion, tangentially.

Just the other day our national broadcaster, CBC, aired a story about the “shock and dismay” of parents and area residents to news that a halfway house for federal penitentiary inmates would open beside a Toronto Catholic elementary school. It’s telling. It’s sad that media perpetuates many of the black-and-white, negative, populist stereotypes surrounding criminal justice.

Honestly, I think most people don’t have a clue about what happens inside prison. A few days into my project I realised I didn’t either, not really. For example, I hadn’t given any thought to the reality that when one is sentenced to prison the term of their removal from freedom is supposed to be the punishment itself, but, actually, prisoners experience layer after layer of additional punishments and micro-aggressions—from withholding mail to arbitrary corporal punishment. Why would a former inmate have to endure continued punishment, say, in the form of community isolation, while finishing the terms of his or her sentence in a halfway house?

 

 

Why did you decide to lay out the information as you did in this wide-ranging, chapter-esque history of Kingston Prison?

The reality of incarceration is not simple or easily summarised, so how could depicting that reality be any less complex? I wanted to create a legal and historical context for the photographs. There are many chapters to the story of this prison, so many ways of thinking about incarceration and concepts of justice. I had real difficulty editing down the many stories and perspectives I encountered while fitting them into the parameters of the residency. And that is why the project sits at such a busy intersection of art, photographic documentation, social justice, cultural anthropology, legal theory, historical research and oral storytelling.

At heart is the realisation that every photograph I took has long tendrils of political, legal and social reality trailing beneath it. That’s not just a fenced-in yard or a sad-looking metal door you’re looking at, that’s the consequence of a policy that was drawn up, discussed, implemented and is a plan for how to go about “correcting” behaviour, how to set a moral balance right.

At its simplest, the project maps out—literally and conceptually—the relationship of the architecture to its previous inhabitants. It’s a political, legal and historical choose-your-own adventure.

Were the experts and others you interviewed keen to talk? It seems a decommissioned facility gives more license to be honest about the criminal justice system? Would you agree?

Ha! I had great difficulty getting access. I had to leverage my grant from the Canada Council for the Arts (a federal body) to get permission from the Commissioner of the Corrections Services Canada to enter the facility.

The experts were, indeed, keen to talk, but the Department of Justice was not so keen to let their employees do so. On the morning of a scheduled interview with two CSC employees, the DoJ intercepted, postponing it until my questions had been screened. Initially, I was surprised. However, the CSC, already cautious and unforthcoming, became perceptively more so following the 2007 suicide of Ashley Smith while in detention and especially when a 2013 inquest ruled her death a homicide. My interviews and inquiries took place in the months following this ruling, when the CSC was under greater scrutiny for its treatment of prisoners, especially the mentally ill. I don’t think an artist is particularly threatening, though an artist paired with a law school might be, I suppose.

What were the most surprising testimonies you heard?

The syndicated prison radio show really hit me. The tongue-in-cheek songs and skits paint a very different picture from the kind of controlled environment, detached from its surrounding community, that we’ve come to associate with a federal penitentiary.

The emotional account given by Margaret Beare of the breakdown in humaneness that happens inside total institutions.

Kim Pate, who is now a Senator, talking about what the replacement of old-fashioned metal keys with electronic buttons (to open cell doors) means for the mental health of prisoners.

How extremely poorly correctional officers are educated in mental health intervention, not to mention how much the officers themselves struggle in this regard, with PTSD at post-Vietnam War levels.

And new information that stuck with you?

The bricks and mortar architecture dictating how we imprison, how we punish/correct long after our ideologies and laws change. The implication being that a more progressive approach to justice would be curtailed by the expensive assemblage of bricks that themselves were the result of the imperfect plans and fads of the day.

 

 

 

Who did you work with on Through a Penal System, Darkly?

The photography was made possible thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. What followed—the contextualization of the photographs, the website – was the result of an artist residency at the Osgoode Hall Law School, an unusual intersection of disciplines that was the brainchild of the school’s forward-thinking Dean, Lorne Sossin.

The focus of the residency was to research and create a legal and historical context for the photographs I had taken—which was accomplished through collaboration with seven upper-year law students who elected to take my Directed Reading course.

Through research, discussions and interviews with the various stakeholders, the students and I explored the ideals of the criminal justice system—past, present and future. Ultimately, the photographs and accompanying stories, essays, historical anecdotes tell us something about Kingston Penitentiary. However, they also invite us to ruminate on the bigger picture—that is, on the evolving structure of the penal system, on society’s changing understanding of the role of prison, and on the role played by the many people who have a willing or unwilling stake in the criminal justice and penal systems. The breadth and scope of the interviews and essays are owed mostly to them.

The work for me sits somewhere between Donovan Wylie’s work on the decommissioned Long Kesh Prison, Northern Ireland, Geoffrey James’ work on Kingston and perhaps even the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History.

I love Donovan Wylie’s comment about “applying a [photographic] system to a [prison] system”. I can relate to it. Wylie’s Maze series is one of my favourites. Those curtains! I couldn’t help but have him in the back of my mind when I was arranging my project.

It wasn’t until Geoffrey James published his book that I had any idea he, too, had photographed the prison. We don’t run in similar circles. He had such great access! My access was minimum and given grudgingly by the Head of the Correctional Service Canada.

I like thinking that my project aligns with the work of Tings Chak, which strives to be more experiential than the more straight-forward documentarian photographs of, say, Geoffrey James. Her graphic novel, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, explores the role and ethics of architectural design and representation in mass incarceration, and is pretty amazing.

Another artist who is documenting from an interesting angle is Brett Story, who just finished her PhD in geography at University of Toronto and made a film The Prison In Twelve Landscapes about the influence of prisons on public systems, cities and economics.

It’s a gorgeous, harrowing film. I thought it was one of the best films of 2016.

I’d like to see more multimedia in-depth photo-based pieces like Through a Penal System, Darkly. It seems the skills to code all this might beyond most people? Am I right, or am I just a luddite? Could Through a Penal System, Darkly be used as a template for other projects?

Thank you! You’re no luddite—the coding was beyond me and so would have been the cost of hiring a programmer without institutional support. I am grateful to Osgoode Hall Law School for generously providing the resources (developers, hosting, etc) to bring to life the idea in my head. I would love to use it as a template for future projects.

These types of projects are expensive and there is some risk. Another major project (also map-based) that I worked on 2007-2010 across seven Balkan countries with multiple arts organisations and which was funded by major European institutions went offline in 2015 because Google stopped supporting the web-based map platform on which the entire site was built. And, poof!, the work no longer exists. The cost of rebuilding it is too high and the momentum to search for support has passed. In-depth multimedia web projects are tricky things.

 

 

How and where do you want the work to sit? What do you hope it will do?

I hope the work sparks reaction and thought. It would be great if my own small contribution could inspire a change in the direction and tone of the conversation around decarceration.

I would love the opportunity to re-mount the exhibition publicly elsewhere.

I hope the website will continue to be used as a resource at Osgoode Hall Law School. It’s currently being used by high school students via the Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) program, an innovative collaborative academic and extracurricular education program aimed at supporting, guiding and motivating high school students who face challenges in engaging successfully with school and accessing postsecondary education, which is wonderful.

Thanks, Cindy.

Thank you, Pete.

 

 

All images: Cindy Blažević

 

 

 

Video still from an incident in Maine Correctional Center, June 10th, 2012. Capt. Shawn Welch sprays pepper spray into the face of Paul Schlosser who is bound in a restraint chair after the prisoner, who has an infectious disease, spat at an officer. The video came to light after reporting by The Portland Herald in 2013. Prison Photography‘s analysis at the time: ‘The Spit Mask As Prison Torture Apparatus’

I gave a lecture in Maine this week. It went well. People said nice things. Afterward, attendees and I talked about representation and perceptions—the considerations of which form the core of my work. We talked about feasible image-based actions and intervention. I had some ideas. Questions were raised about direct political action and advocacy too. Here, though, especially specific to Maine, I didn’t feel as though I had real suggestions. But now I do and this post details them.

FIGHT AGAINST VIDEO VISITATION, FIGHT AGAINST SOLITARY CONFINEMENT

After a screening of The Prison In Twelve Landscapes hosted by the ACLU of Maine, at SPACE (a brilliant arts organisation, BTW) a panel of local experts gathered to discuss the most pressing issues at hand for prison reform in Maine and the particulars of current ongoing fights. Joseph Jackson of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Meagan Sway, Justice Fellow at ACLU of Maine and Rachel Talbot-Ross, Maine state legislator talked about their work and that of allies.

(FYI, the film is great. Here’s my review from January 2017.)

Joseph Jackson spoke first. He is a coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. His work supports youth and adults in the system. African Americans account for 1.5% of the Maine population. Yet they account for 25% of the juvenile prison population and 29% of the adult prison population. Jackson detailed how the language and applications of law persist until they go challenged. We as citizens can halt years of inertia simply by paying attention and demanding clarification, renewal.

As examples, Jackson pointed to laws that outlawed marijuana in the fifties based upon racist stereotypes. He also decried the ad hoc application of guidelines set forth by the Maine Department of Corrections; vague language (shall/should/will/may) and the consequent grey areas benefit prison administrations and staff as they can choose at will what guidelines are enforced and which can be side-stepped. When pressed, the DOC said that 1 in 8 guidelines were mere suggestions. Prisoners and advocates want clarity. If guidelines are actual policy, if they are enforced, can they be challenged.

Meagan Sway explained that it is the ACLU of Maine’s current practice to oppose laws intended to define new crimes. In the face of mass incarceration, an obstructionist approach is logical. In tandem with fights for fairer and more humane practices in the courts and prisons, it’s effective too hopefully. Drastic times call for drastic response.

Rachel Talbot-Ross is a Democrat Representative in the Maine state legislature. She spent 12 years working for the NAACP but concluded that while she had close relationships with lawmakers, commissioners, superintendents and the like, she was basically given the run around; kept busy but unable to force through meaningful change. Talbot-Ross resolved she would make more difference as an elected official. She won election in 2016 and is the first black woman to be elected to the Maine legislature since its founding 185 years ago. Think about that. Talbot-Ross doesn’t want congratulations for this and I am merely pointing out the fact.

So, my suggestions for you are these:

Support the campaigns of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC) and the ACLU of Maine against solitary confinement.

A recent PBS documentary Last Days Of Solitary would have us think that Maine leads the way in step down programs out of solitary confinement, but the truth is other regimes and cell-blocks, such as the C-Pod, function equivalently as 22 or 23 hour lockdown. Without doubt, the work of then prison chief Jospeh Ponte deserves recognition, but Ponte left MDOC in 2014 to work at Rikers Island until this year, and more committed work to reduce solitary in Maine prisons still needs to be done in his wake.

(On the topic of new modes of prison image-making, PBS’s VR reel After Solitary is worth look.) 

Go to the next MPAC Statewide Strategy Meeting

Saturday, December 2, 2017. 10:00am (doors at 9:30am). Curtis Memorial Library, Morrell Room, 23 Pleasant Street, Brunswick, ME 04011.

Sign up for news from MPAC to join its actions.

Support the work of Talbot-Ross

On November 30th, the Maine Legislative Council will decide which bills it will work on for the 2nd Regular Session. This is a procedure upon which you can have an effect.

While some bills have already been slated for debate, others have been proposed, initially turned down, but have a last chance, under appeal, to make it onto the docket for 2018/2019. Talbot-Ross and her Democrat colleagues have four bills that deal with criminal justice and if you’re a Maine voter you can influence the 10 law-makers.

One deals with in-person prison visits and the pushback against video visitation replacing physical contact. Another deals with solitary confinement. Now that marijuana is legal in Maine, there’s a push for all past marijuana convictions to be sealed. This is in order to cease the prevention of people getting jobs or other social services due to a conviction for something that is now legal.

Contact Ross’ office directly. Your calls are needed to the 10 law-makers prior to the Nov. 30th meeting to request inclusion of these reform bills in the next session. Talbot Ross’ staff will provide all the info you need to lobby your state officials.

Email: rachel.talbotross@legislature.maine.gov

Phone: 800-423-2900

Legislative website: http://legislature.maine.gov/housedems/rossr/index.html

Support the activities of Maine Inside Out, which engages system-impacted youth in drama and the arts and in advocacy.

 

This article was originally published as Vinny: David, Mon Frere, in French translation in Polka, Issue 39.

Vinny and David is a story about two brothers coming of age in New Mexico. Growing up with near absent fathers and a loving but struggling mother, Vinny and David came to rely on, and love, one another. They have both been incarcerated but their lives are more than the prisons, poverty and addictions that have inundated their young lives. Isadora Kosofsky has been photographing the siblings and their family for five years.

“You’ve taken the pictures that show what we are feeling inside,” says David. “The photos that go inside us.”

Kosofsky gets close. She consciously develops friendships first. Sometimes those friendships develop into a long-term project, sometimes not. At aged 24, she been documenting Vinny and David for nearly a quarter of her life.

“I must share in my subjects’ struggles over a sustained period of time in order to forge a bond. The relationships are more important to me than the actual image making,” she says.

 

 

The long association began one evening in 2012 in the juvenile detention center in Albuquerque. Vinny, aged 13, had just been arrested for stabbing a man who was assaulting his mother, Eve. Once he took his seat, Kosofsky introduced herself and listened. Though young, Vinny was full of wisdom and sensitivity.

“He spoke extensively about his relationship with his older brother,” says Kosofsky, “particularly talking about wanting his brother’s attention. What I had learned about Vinny and David’s brotherly relationship intrigued me, and I knew that in order to document Vinny’s life, I had to include David.”

One of the reasons Vinny was compelled to defend his mother was David’s absence. David was locked up, in the local county jail. Between 2011 and 2014, while awaiting trial for aggravated assault, David was repeatedly locked up for parole violations—either failure to check in with his parole officer or a dirty urine analysis.

After one-month, Vinny was released. The man he stabbed was not seriously injured. Vinny has not returned to jail since.

 

 

David got out of jail a couple of weeks before Vinny. Felicia, who was then David’s girlfriend, remembers only one good thing from that time: Vinny’s phone-call, from juvenile hall, on the day David was released.

“Vinny told David for the first time that he loved him, and that he was his brother,” says Felicia. “It brought them closer.”

Kosofsky asked the family if she could document them in their daily lives. Vinny doubted they’d agree to it, but they did. David was the most guarded. It was a year before his “mask” came off and Kosofsky was able to capture moments of his life.

Exposure to the prison system has marked effects on the whole family. Kosofsky describes Vinny, Davids and the family’s lives as ‘transcarceral’.

“As a relative or friend, one is powerless to intervene, waiting hours for phone calls, weeks for visits and years for legal decisions and then release, sometimes with an unknown date,” she says. “When David was cycling in and out of jail, a looming fear of loss hovered over the entire family.”

 

 

Furthermore, incarceration only adds to the emotional and financial stress of life, particularly so in New Mexico, the 49th poorest U.S. state. Children from lower-economic backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by incarceration.

In 2015, the most recent year’s figures available, approximately 921,600 juveniles were arrested. On any given night there are 40,970 children behind bars. With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child, the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention. The Justice Policy Institute estimates the long-term consequences of incarcerating young people could cost taxpayers $8 billion to $21 billion each year. New Mexico spends $74 million per year on supervision and services for youth in the system.

The rate of youth incarceration and spending wasn’t always so high. Throughout the 80s and 90s, politicians across the spectrum rallied votes by promising to be tough on crime. But, lawmakers failed to adequately distinguish between the transgressions of adults and the waywardness of youth. Juvenile systems built facilities that functioned like adult prisons. Youth were warehoused for longer sentences and rehabilitation was sidelined or suspended all together.

Fortunately, recent years have shown a move away from youth incarceration. States now realize that prisons do not reduce recidivism as effectively as other interventions. Prisons harm youth.

 

 

In April 2017, New Mexico received millions of dollars from the U.S. Justice Department to establish more appropriate, non-custodial, responses to parole violations. This will have real world effects. For example, had David’s parole violations occurred under these new rules, he would not have been in and out of prison more than ten times since 2011.

The number of youth now referred to the juvenile justice system is 50% lower than in 2009. The number of youth in New Mexico on probation has declined by 55%. There are fewer youth in New Mexico’s juvenile justice system now than at any time in the last decade.

 

     

 

 

As well as helping the public see the connections between poverty, addiction and incarceration, Kosofsky’s work has helped the family see themselves.

“All these pictures, every one of them,” says David, “bring back these memories to everyone in my family. It reminds us of what dope has done. What incarceration has done. What we have lost. The last five years,” says David. “It’s a fall out for my family. Especially myself.”

 

 

In the past, Vinny has looked at David as a father figure. David views Vinny as the only person who appreciates him. But David’s repeated absence has strained their relationship. Vinny feels his brother has let himself and his family down.

“I see two brothers who love each other unconditionally but one brother wasn’t there when he needed him to be. The younger brother,“ says Vinny about himself, “had to become the more mature brother.”

Now 18, Vinny is married with a one-year-old daughter, Jordyn. He’s staying away from trouble in a way he wishes his older brother would.

“I have my job, I’m relied on and I’m still employed. As long as I have income, I can support my child. It has brought responsibility and adulthood.”

 

 

Every time David strays he feels guilt. He wouldn’t argue with Vinny about having let him down.

“When I think about the photos of me in jail,” reflects David, “I think of how I don’t realize my actions until I’ve already reacted. You regret a lot of things in jail. A lot of things that you can’t change.”

Throughout Kosofsky’s photos, family members drape over each other, they hold one another and hold each other up. They entwine and grasp as if to tap some collective energy. A sense of exhaustion is pervasive, but exhaustion is held at bay by the love and (literal) support of loved ones.

The years have conjured visual repetitions too. In a recent photo, Vinny cradles his baby in the same way Eve cradled him and his siblings years ago. Vinny now lays on a motel bed with his wife Krystle, just as he did with his brother during their closer, more vulnerable times, years past.

 

 

In play, in grooming, in rest, the family gravitates toward physical touch. Perhaps they do this because they know that prison, child protective services and the courts can deny, and have denied, them proximity to one another. The project may have started in a prison but has extended far beyond.

“It’s about a relationship of a family,” says Vinny.

Vinny and David was part of Juveniles In Prison, and After, an exhibition of Kosofsky’s work debuted at Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, France, September 2nd-23rd. This Polka article was commissioned in response to the show.

Images from Vinny and David were shown on Capitol Hill when Senate Bill 1524, also known as The Dignity Act, was introduced to senate by Cory Booker (co-sponsored by senators Elizabeth Warren, Richard Durbin and Kamala Harris).

In October 2017, Kosofsky was awarded the Getty Images Instagram Grant.

 

 

…I’ll be delivering a lecture How We See Prisons on Wednesday, November 8th, in the Kresge Auditorium, Bowdoin College at 7:15pm.

It’s free and open to the public.

College Guild has organised the event.

College Guild is a non-profit org that provides education to prisoners across America through non-traditional correspondence courses. It pairs volunteers on the outside with prisoners on the inside in a one-to-one mail correspondence that provides feedback to prisoners on their work on established coursework units. It’s all-volunteer while maintaining consistent standards. It by the people, for the people.

College Guild is currently partnered with Bates College and Bowdoin College and has more than 50 volunteer-readers on campus. The pedagogy is such that its limit is primarily only the number of man hours available from folks on the outside. The pedagogy is such that people inside and out educate one another. Why am I talking about this though, when the teaser video below describes the benefits of the program in the prisoners’ own words?

 

 

 

 

 

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