Happy New Year.
I hope you’ve all had lovely holiday seasons and been provided with time to reflect on the good, to recognise the less-good, and to meet 2015 with strategies to promote the former and reduce the latter. That’s what I intend to do. We’ve an overwhelming amount of information to consume online, so my only resolution is to be efficient with my words, clear in thought, and to respect your time and mine. That means no faffing around; no dillydallying on photography that serves only ego and/or market; no reticence; and only honesty about the world in which we live. Prison Photography might be a modest platform, but it’s everything I have. [Thumbs up emoji].
This year I promise to deal readily and energetically with imagery upon which crucial political realities rest. I’ll only discuss aesthetics if they point toward necessary discussions of citizenship and inequality in society, and if they reveal characteristics of our prison industrial complex.
So let me start as I mean to go on …
This story about a county sheriff delivering Christmas gifts to jail prisoners hit my radar a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a story that reminds us of our need to be diligent in the face of fluff-pieces, staged photo-ops and lazy journalism.
Here’s a story that reminds us of the uncritical eye that dominates media coverage of prisons and prisoners.
Here’s a story that reveals its true self through images. All we have to do is look. Look closely.
In the above photo, consider the prisoner in the green (far left) looking confusedly toward the camera, and us. What about the other prisoner in green (just to the left of Sheriif Santa in the photo) who peers to his left at the photographer stalking the edge of the group. How about the man in the centre with his head in his hands. Is he laughing out of embarrassment or is he hiding his face from the media cameras? Please, take your pick from any of the other prisoners with sideways glances, folded arms, smirks and obedient positioning which says that they know — and so should we — that they’ve been trotted out for a media photo op.
In the Santa outfit is Sheriff Wayne Anderson of Sullivan County, TN. Over a period of three hours, Anderson visits all 560 prisoners in his jail. The scene above, it would seem, is public show of gifting to a dozen or so privileged prisoners. This is a scene for the invited news teams. Prisoners with backs against a wall. News personnel buzzing around them.
This is cringeworthy stuff.
In the bags are soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo and snacks. The gifts are provided by the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry. The Ministry has routinely provided useful small items to jail prisoners at Christmas down the years. Excellent. All for it.
Sheriff Anderson began dressing up as a benevolent Father at Christmas seven years ago. He and the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry work it out just fine.
Frankly, this whole thing is weird. Anderson might be well-meaning but this sort of God-infused pantomime serves he and the ministry more than it does the prisoners. Sure, toiletries are very welcome gifts in an institution where scarcity reigns, but the charity needn’t be played out for the cameras.
Anderson is decking his jail’s halls with bells and folly.
This set of photos oozes awkwardness and stage-set best behaviour. The Santa myth plays centrally here. American prisons and jails already do a great job of infantilizing their populations, and we don’t need a festive version.
Maybe there’s more fundamental issues to attend to at Sullivan County Jail? Say, reasonable conditions of confinement?
In September, Sheriff Anderson and County Mayor Richard Venable had to stand before Tennessee Corrections Institute board committee to explain what they were going to do about persistent overcrowding in Sullivan County Jail.
I want to see the cells for the 500+ other prisoners, not the be-striped docile prisoners chosen because they can presumably behave in front of the cameras.
If overcrowding and underfunding that stretches back years is the reality at Sullivan County Jail, why are we being spoon fed an yuletide act-out of child’s play?
For me, these photos present a scene quite different to that described in the local Tennessee “news” pieces they accompany.
Tricities.com quotes Anderson: “[Prisoners] look forward to this every year. If I walk through the jail the week before I do this, they want to know when Santa is going to be here. They get excited about it.” WATE.com adds that prisoners “showed their Christmas spirit by singing along to Christmas carols.”
Prisoners already suffer indignities. It is not surprising that they’d stand and sing (what choice do they actually have?) for some free swag, especially that which improves their daily lives.
Anderson is free to have his take on the afternoon’s events, but it’d be nice to see a prisoner quoted in the media coverage too.
It might seem strange to protest so much at a bunch of poor photographs (in case you’re wondering, the aspect ratios are corrupted in the original publication by WATE) but just because the criticism is easy, or obvious, doesn’t mean that it is not needed. Local news stations feed our homes with information daily. They are powerful agents and require watchdogs as much as national cable outlets. There are prison/media collusions occurring everyday to peddle this type of chintzy reporting.
Ironically, these cheap and ill-considered photographs emerge from the ned to illustrate slipshod journalism while also revealing the process of the reporting itself. Without these photographs, I would have no jumping off point for my criticism.
In 2015, I hope to keep a keen critical eye and to not let up on image-makers who circulate photos under false pretenses or over misleading captions. Enough of these types of misguided and cycnical PR-stunts aimed at papering the cracks of broken prison systems.
Charity doesn’t need an audience. And prison administrations don’t need any more reason for me to doubt their operations.