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Two weeks ago, I was lolling in bed with the local NPR station airing in the background. It was one of those times when the free sway between sleep and wake buoyed the iterations feeding the subconscious. The words from the waves were deep and clear and the meanings my own to navigate without the filters of plain-sailing reality. The whole reverie was quite comforting. Rick Steves was at the mic and his words about ‘otherness’ charted the same course my thoughts had – many times previous.
Rick Steves is a travel journalist who is keen to see (American) tourists embrace an less-disneyfied, more-connected type of travel. He was answering a listener’s question about border towns, but instead of responding with specific tales from specific towns Steves was much more interested in excavating the structure of thought that defines the appreciation of border towns. What parameters of thought do we rely on when thinking about borders? Why do border towns gain notoriety? Why do border towns evoke fear, love, misery and hope? Why do borders bring people escape, opportunity, exploitation, largess and threat?
Before I quote Steves’ answer, I want to put his response into the context of my somnolent appreciation. Borders delineate two forms of existence; the difference sometimes extreme, and sometimes barely recognizable. Nevertheless, borders are defined by the imposition of different rules on either side. Borders have many manifestations and, unfortunately, walls have become a recent embodiment of bi-national relations.
Prisons also have central to their function the imposition of one set of rules on one side of the wall in order to maintain the prevailing rules on the other. A border delineates the exterior reaches of a territory, whereas the prison exists within the interior. The prison, historically, is less porous than a border and is more heavily policed – although in the case of the US border the distinctions are becoming less evident.
In short, I believe prisons (and other sites of incarceration) should be thought as systems of state/corporate authority, based on the lowest common economic denominators, based on the concealment of activity and the creation of an excluded class whose definitions are open to manipulation. In the most tragic interpretation of Edward Said’s theory, I contend that on the other side of prison walls, just as on the other side of border walls, “The Other” exists.
And so, Rick Steves:
I am standing on top of the rock of Gibraltar. I read that this is the only place on the planet where you can see two continents and see two seas come together. There are tiderips. It is a confused sea, but there is food there. And all the seagulls go to the tiderips and the salmon are underneath, and the swarms of little herring, and so on … and it is a fascinating thing when two bodies of water come together. It makes danger for your boat, but there is food there and that is where the fish come and that is where people go for sustenance and that where the action is. And I am standing on the rock overlooking the tiderips. And there’s the ocean going freighters and the local people worried about the maritime environment. There are the stresses between Christianity and Islam which is just over [the water] in Africa, and that morning I was stood in a church, which was built on the ruins of a mosque, which was built on the ruins of a church, which itself was built on the ruins of a pre-Christian holy site! And if you can go to the places where cultures come together that’s where you have tension and you can have opportunity.
Translation – expect, witness and embrace difference in novel ways. Choose between tension and opportunity.
We have tension now [in America]. If we have unsophisticated political leadership, and dumbed down media and an electorate that doesn’t expect its neighbors to be nuanced and complex and more thoughtful in how they approach these challenges right now then the places where these cultures come together will be a big, expensive headache. And if we have smarter leadership and we engage the world, then the places where the cultures come together will be a plus. When we have cultures coming together in a constructive way it becomes a blessing instead of a curse. If it’s “my way or the highway” and if it’s just shock and awe then it’s not going to work.
Steves wasn’t talking about methods of incarceration, but his structuralist description that clearly defined ecological, socio-cultural, tectonic and psychological tensions of borders reflected society’s same unconscious antagonism that I have observed in popular thought. At best the American public is apathetic; at worst, it breeds searing hatred of those on the other side of the walls.
In the case of prisons, the American public has been duped by dumbed down media – Cops, News bulletins disproportionately reporting crime, movies that exploit false stereotypes of prisons and prisoners. In the case of prisons, the American public has been scared by the shock and awe tactics of politicians – “Tough on Crime” rhetoric. In the case of prisons, the American public has been fooled by an unsophisticated civic leadership that panders to the public’s desire to not think any further than “throwing criminals” in prison – massive prison expansion, state budgets dominated by corrections spending. Prisons have become a big expensive headache.
We need to stop ignoring the harsh facts about prisons and we need to bring them closer to our society, in which they sit. We need to reevaluate the failed prison expansion experiment of the past 30 years and we need to look upon the problem as an opportunity for sensible decision-making. We need to stop our fear and anger from dictating our reason and we need to analyse the system and not judge those subject to it.
The prison is a focus of hard emotions for those who reside, work and visit. It is a tumultuous place with fierce tensions. Those of us on the side of the wall with more resources and opportunity should think about how we can affect existence on the other side. We shouldn’t be fooled by the physical barrier dividing us because history has only ever shown that walls are temporary and humanity lasting. We should not allow the concrete walls to harden a psychological barrier to the communities on the other side. We should not find excuses – we should find opportunities.
And with this said, it is apparent why photography as a medium appeals so personally to me. Of all media, photography seems one of the most responsible. Photography has a history of social responsibility. Photography, some would argue, takes a bit more effort than TV. If photography is to be allied to the moving image, I prefer it allied to cinema and film. I hope to support this theory over many more posts.
Eros Hoagland has recently done some excellent work in newly constructed prisons of Southern California that I shall return to soon.
Jon Lowenstein is extending his portfolio rapidly. He rightly won plaudits for his documentary work in South Chicago schools back in 2005. He continues his commitment to Chicago.
Glyph Hunter, by his own admission, got lucky and caught a great exposure.
On a recent search of the Harry Ransom Center photographic archive at the University of Texas, Austin (an incredible collection) I came across this image by Arnold Genthe.
Genthe is a widely respected practitioner of early photography, and (besides some notable exceptions) made it all the way out west before many others. Historians thank Genthe for having enough curiosity in the Chinese immigrants of San Francisco to photograph their community before the 1906 earthquake and resultant fire razed large swathes of the city. His are the only images of Chinatown from that time period.
Genthe’s Slave Prison, (Calabozo), New Orleans is, in all honesty, not an image that interests me very much. Without the caption I would not have known that this negative depicted a site of incarceration. It is reminiscent of Fox Talbot’s The Open Door; both images are mundane, both photographers pointed their lens at doors. One inconsequential but observable difference is that Genthe’s door is closed – which is, at least, consistent with the subject.
The Library of Congress record states that Genthe photographed the Calabozo between 1920 and 1926, and yet, in a reliable source I uncovered during a brief internet foray, it is stated the Calabozo was demolished in 1837. There are two likely explanations. One, Genthe was photographing another city jail and wrongly identified it as the Calabozo; or, two, Genthe set his camera up in the courtyard of the building that stood on the former site of the Calabozo (in which case the courtyard may have been original). There is uncertainty here that needs to be cleared up, but I don’t intend, here, to pursue the correct subject-hence-caption for Genthe’s sleepy image.
Despite the image’s astonishing banality, I was intrigued by the flawed description and I sensed an opportunity to sate my thirst for amateurish detective work. Furthermore, the fact remains it is an image of a prison; I was compelled to give it a second glance. I reasoned that a slave prison in a city that had operated under three different flags throughout the late 18th and early 19th century would have some intriguing history. The first questions that sprang to mind were: Do any other images of this same building exist? Do images of modern New Orleans’ prisons or jails exist that could provide interesting juxtaposition? I read and viewed whichever resources presented themselves readily.
Of the many passages that hooked me was this description from Louisiana: A Guide to the State (1947). It describes the conditions of the Calabozo.
An investigation in 1818 of the old Spanish Calabozo in New Orleans found the convicts “not provided for as humanity would dictate since many were destitute of clothing and others were almost destroyed by vermin.” Debtors were confined with the blackest of criminals. Entrance and exit fees as well as board and lodging payments were required of the prisoners. In 1861 a debtor was free after 90 days imprisonment, provided his keep for the interim had been paid.
Obviously, in the early 19th century matters of care while in detention & exit privileges were more easily negotiated by those with ready cash. A crude inequality that no longer remains, right? Possibly not. As I read this historical passage, I was also mousing over a slew of stories from modern newspapers that reported contemporary incidents of neglectful custodianship of men by state authorities.
The abandonment of prisoners in New Orlean’s jails during Hurricane Katrina is in no way more shocking than the early 19th century account. Within my web browser two centuries dissolved. Neglect, as the lowest common denominator, collapsed time. Men penning other men as animals showed itself ugly and unfortunate. The shortcomings of the system, the inflexibility of the system and the neglect within the system were revealed in New Orleans following Katrina in August 2005 as existed in 1818.
The BBC This World documentary Prisoners of Katrina details the week of fear, panic, riots and evacuation at Orleans Parish Prison. When Sheriff Gusman’s initial plan to retain the prisoners at O.P.P. through the duration of the storm proved to be a disastrous decision, a tactical team from Angola Prison bailed Gusman out. Over 7,000 inmates were herded out (via an engulfed freeway overpass) and relocated to 42 facilities over a period of four dehydrated, sun-scorched, unsanitary days. Accounts conflict as to whether any inmates died, but eye witness testimonies have reported floating corpses in the halls of O.P.P. during evacuation.
Still today, the Louisiana justice system has not recovered. It is in total disarray. Prior to Katrina O.P.P. held a variety of inmates including lifers, violent offenders, short stay non-violent offenders and (the most unfortunate group) those awaiting trial for offenses yet unproven. These inmates are now indistinguishable from one another because their case histories were lost in the hurricane. They are all just “in the system”.
It is contended that half of the evacuated prisoners have never been to trial. Hundreds of inmates were arrested for minor offenses, traffic fines, jay-walking and sleeping on the sidewalk. Hundreds of the prisoners do not know why they were arrested, and the system can’t tell them either. But neither can the system cannot exonerate them. Unconvicted men are now warehoused while the system tries to decide what the charge is for each inmate. Public defenders are leaving their positions in droves after seeing their caseloads increase by six, seven, even eight hundred percent.
Judge Calvin Johnson states that Katrina “blew the system apart” and they now cannot cope with the backlog of over 6,000 cases. To make matters worse still, the basement which stored the majority of files and forensic evidence was flooded destroying any hopes to rule on individual cases in a timely manner.
Three years on this is still a system in crisis. O.P.P. has been repopulated and inmates suffer doubly – firstly as victims of a system in deadlock and secondly as victims to the decrepitude of the O.P.P after the ravages of flood and riot. Unsurprisingly, those that suffer most are the poor minorities. Efforts to glean facts for a fuller story by interviewing outgoing inmates continue.
In Spring of 2008, the Times Picayune reported once more on the desperate need to overhaul the newly populated Orleans Parish Prison. When a hundred year storm converges with poor catastrophe-contingency-planning, it is those that have no means and no voice who are left to suffer longest. In the scramble to get cases heard, those without resources are shunted to the bottom of the pile. Not only are the poor and the minority populations suffering, but also the mentally ill. The stretched system has until recently only had lock up as a resort to deal with inmates with mental health care needs. The majority of the men in O.P.P. are poor and black and many of them are in the O.P.P for minor unproven offenses.
Where does all this lead? How does this relate to photography? The image above from O.P.P left a pit in my stomach. The pit lingered, long. I could not fathom why. Later, I remembered an image I had viewed the previous year. The two photographs had the same components; the orange jumpsuit, the seemingly unaware subject in the orange jumpsuit, the subject positioned as a motif of solitude, and (most oppressively) the downward angle of view as seen through the cell door window.
But look closer and one identifies small comforts – linen, spare linen, spare prison-threads, reading and writing material, food being saved for later. Nicole Brockett had committed a proven traffic offence. She was fortunate to be tried in Orange County and so have the option of incarceration with frills. Santa Ana Jail at $82 a day is not the most luxurious of the Californian “Pay-as-you-Stay” lock-ups. At Fullerton you can take your cell phone. Montebello and Seal Beach Jails allow iPods.
The New York Times did a great job of illustrating the cushty cells as elite privilege.
For offenders whose crimes are usually relatively minor (carjackers should not bother) and whose bank accounts remain lofty, a dozen or so city jails across the state offer pay-to-stay upgrades. Theirs are a clean, quiet, if not exactly recherché alternative to the standard county jails, where the walls are bars, the fellow inmates are hardened and privileges are few. Many of the self-pay jails operate like secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world.
The realities of these dozen or so city jails are a far cry from those at O.P.P. How is it the US criminal system fosters such inequality? How have tenets of consumerism and favouritism crept into state systems intended to administer lawful punishment? What clearer message do these two contrasting stories offer than to point out that there is no equality in our current justice system. Those that pay, just as 200 years ago, receive preferential treatment. In a country where race and class are indivisible, those not in a position to pay for cell-upgrades are more likely to be people of colour. How low have our standards dropped to allow bare-faced state authority to operate penal systems with buy-in/opt out clauses on comfort and cell-mates? How many more social institutions do we want to hand over to the amorality of supply/demand economics?
I was going to suggest that things haven’t changed in 200 years, but they have in fact gotten worse. When trangressors of the early 19th century were locked up they received the same treatment regardless of class or race. Now segregation can occur at the will (and wallet) of the inmate. The inmate can buy the comfort of their own cell and avoid the dangerous inconveniences of “hardened inmates”. By “hardened inmates” the New York Times is by definition referencing the typical inmate of the California penal system, which is to say a minority male or female, which is in the parlence of 1818, “the blackest of criminals”. It would seem discrimination between the races has always existed … the difference being that now the penal systems afford privileged prisoners the opportunity to act upon those discriminations.
If the first post of an anthology is supposed to bear weight then I shall face this expectation head on – in fact I’ll insist upon it. San Quentin was the first American prison I visited. In the summer of 2004, I conducted research at the San Quentin Prison Museum (SQPM), analyzed the exhibits and evaluated its predominant narrative. I found, as with many small museums it suffered from the vagaries of volunteer staffing, poor marketing and unreliable access. Above all, however, the SQPM’s biggest failure was that it employed a historical narrative that ended abruptly in the early 70s and omitted contemporary issues of the California prison system. It was a particularly noticeable failure given the number of problematic issues faced by the CDCR – overcrowding, under-staffing, inadequate health services, dilapidated buildings – and especially noticeable as the named problems were severe-to-acute at San Quentin prison.
The piecemeal SQPM collection was brought together by an appeal and a spirited drive that saw former prison employees alongside local enthusiasts donating artifacts they had acquired in times past. The museum’s narrative ends in approximately 1971 – a year in San Quentin’s history widely considered as its most traumatic. Racial tensions and new variations of Marxism, both inside and outside the walls, were growing and divining credence among disparate groups. It wasn’t so much that the prison, as an apparatus of state, was being called into question; more that the militant Black Panthers, with their cohesive social critique of modern America, led the questioning.
White America didn’t know where to position itself. This was revolution in its most-feared guise and, in so being, paralysed many Americans who were unable to objectively judge the Black Panthers’ arguments.
On the 21st August, an infamous day at San Quentin, George Jackson took over his tier of the adjustment center and attempted an armed escape. The escape failed and he was one of six people who died. The only SQPM artifact to speak of this event was a rifle mounted as centerpiece in a wall-display of weaponry.
This same rifle was discharged by a former prison guard, from the hip, along a tier of cells during the insurrection. It was shot indiscriminately as the guard ran the length of the tier. Of course, the museum label beneath the semi-automatic weapon doesn’t volunteer this information.
The interim president of the San Quentin Prison Museum Association in 2004 was Vernell Crittendon. In mid 2007, Darcy Padilla, a freelance San Francisco based photographer, went to photograph Vernell on his daily duties. The images were to accompany an article by Tad Friend entitled Dean of Death Row in the July issue of The New Yorker. The article does a remarkable job of describing Vernell’s astounding work history, heavy responsibilities, personal amiability and curious (but not fallacious) role-playing. Padilla’s pictures were to accompany Friend’s article, which was and is the most thorough examination of Vernell’s personality, motives and politic. It was a timely piece of journalism as retirement for “Mr San Quentin” approached.
Vernell gave me access to the museum and invited me to tour the prison. He was the only staff member at San Quentin I had any meaningful interaction with, but he played out his multiple roles with aplomb. Vernell was a personal guide and shopkeeper at the museum, historian on the prison-yard, eye witness in the gas chamber, and state department mouthpiece throughout. The first 250 words of my M.A. thesis relied on Vernell as the segue into the issues at, and description of, both the museum and the prison;
Lieutenant Crittendon has thrived as the public relations officer of San Quentin Prison. He is poised, gregarious, proud of office and a great raconteur. His enthusiasm for facts, years and tales of San Quentin blur the man and employee – if a distinction was necessary – and he confesses a long-standing predilection for history.
Vernell is familiar and distant simultaneously. He can always dictate the terms of an exchange but in so doing somehow doesn’t insult his company. Tad Friend, for the New Yorker, expertly summarized how Vernell navigates discussion and parries unwelcome inquiries;
Vernell excels at dispensing just enough information to satisfy reporters, and his sonorous locutions and forbearing gravity discourage further inquiry.
I found myself comforted (never duped) by Vernell’s version of events even when I didn’t believe his words 100%. I always felt that Vernell had said much more by what he excluded and it was my privilege to have witnessed his reticence.
Tad Friend’s economical ten page summary of Lt. Crittendon’s career is, in my opinion, the best reflection of a complex man with shrouded emotions and conflicting duties you are likely to find. What then of Padilla’s task to illustrate the man and the article? She does a fine job. From the evidence of the images on her website (only one of which was used for the article) she had only one window of opportunity on one day to capture her shots. I suspect she shadowed Vernell’s work for a little over an hour for the assignment. Already the odds were stacked against Padilla. We cannot know how well she and Vernell were acquainted beforehand, but prior acquaintance doesn’t necessarily mean an easier time capturing the most faithfully depicting portrait. It is fair to say, however, if Padilla had worked within the walls at San Quentin prison before (which is likely) she certainly knew Vernell. Furthermore, in the interests of another’s professional duties, Vernell was always accommodating.
Judging from the few clues in her principled, varied and continuing series AIDS in Prison, the image below could be from San Quentin. These background hills, however, could as easily be Vacaville or Tracy’s surrounding topography.
Back to San Quentin. Padilla’s San Quentin series captures the solitude of the yard; Vernell is alone in many images. During the days at many prisons the yards are empty. If they are not empty they are more likely being used as necessary routes for groups of traversing prisoners rather than ‘free’ time. When the prisoners are at recreation in the yard (a privilege that differs facility to facility), the staff is at distance unless addressing particular inmate inquiries or directing a group of inmates to their next secure location. Any visitors in the yard at this time (which I have been in San Quentin) are usually following closely the instructions of the guards. Regardless of reasons for being in San Quentin, the slowness of movement from one area to another is characteristic of all people’s experiences. Keys, locks, keys, calls, response, keys, locks, keys.
It is likely Vernell had to hunt out some activity involving inmates to vary the picture content. There is a chronic lack of rehabilitative and counseling programs throughout the stretched CDCR, but in reality, if there is one prison that is trying to counter this trend, it is San Quentin by means of its atypically large pool of Bay Area volunteers, the committed efforts of the Prison University Project (San Quentin is the only state prison that offers a college degree program) and not least the efforts of Vernell himself, “Crittendon helped oversee inmate self-help programs like No More Tears and the Vietnam Veterans Group, and was an adviser to many others. Every other Friday, as the centerpiece of a program called Real Choices, which tries to set wayward urban kids on responsible paths, [Vernell] would escort a group of ten-to-eighteen-year-olds into the prison to meet lifers, who tried to talk some sense into them.”
When Vernell is not photographed alone on the yard (look at the reflection of only him and Padilla in the fish eye mirror) he is taking a back stage to the activities of others. Vernell would not want to interfere in these rare interactions between prisoners and visitors from the outside. Vernell’s approach was typical of a San Quentin staff member; constant observation, constant vigilance and a silent restraint. I rationalized that this was simply a sensible approach – minimize ones own noise and be best positioned to pick up on the small signals/noises around. Words and gesture is used with strict efficiency at San Quentin.
Vernell’s open hand gestures, lumbering gait, deliberate pauses and dramatic referrals to the contents of his satchel are all part of an ensemble he has developed to impose the pace of an interaction and, I believe, to reassure the inmate. He promoted from the ranks of prison guard a long time ago, and so had the benefit of a different type of relationship with the prisoners. He was no longer the enforcer – in truth, he was often the only chance a prisoner had to negotiate a desired variation from system norms. Vernell never did favours per se but he could always see any request, however small, on its own merits. Now he is retired. His formal San Quentin spokesman duties went to his successor Eric Messick. Vernell self-adopted responsibilities were diluted by other staff and may have disappeared altogether. Padilla’s photographs do well to reflect a man carrying out his most unextraordinary job tasks. I think Vernell may be happy that the world has a few images of him to counter those charged press images of him outside the East-gate on the night of an execution.