8 June 2012: Crescent City, CA. California State Prison: Pelican Bay Prison. Examples of kites (messages) written by prisoners. These were discovered before they were smuggled out.
Too often since writing this post, I have lamented the dearth of images of solitary confinement. We have suffered as a society from not seeing. A few years back a change began. Solitary confinement became an anchor issue to the prison reform and abolition movements. Thanks largely to activist and journalist inquiry we’ve seen more and more images of solitary confinement emerge. However, news outlets still relying on video animation to tell stories, which would indicate images remain scarce and at a premium.
Robert Gumpert has just updated his website with photographs of Pelican Bay State Prison. Some are from the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) that has been the center of years of controversy and the locus of 3 hunger strikes since the summer of 2011. Other photographs are from the general population areas of the supermaximum security facility.
Click the “i” icon at the top right of Gumpert’s gallery to see caption info, so that you can be sure which wing of this brutal facility is in each photograph.
Despite seeing Gumpert regularly, I am still not aware of exactly how these images came about. I think Gumpert was on assignment but the publication didn’t, in the end, pull the trigger. Their loss is our gain. Gumpert provides 33 images. It’s a strange mix. I’d go as far to say stifled. Everything is eerily still under dank light. We encounter, at distance, a cuffed prisoner brought out for the camera. Gumpert’s captions indicate interviews took place, but there are no prisoners’ quotes. In a deprived environment it makes sense that Gumpert focuses on signs — they point toward the operations and attitudes more than a portrait of officer or prisoner does, I think.
The gallery opens with images from the SHU and then moves into the ‘Transition Housing Unit’ which is where prisoners who have signed up for the Step-Down Program are making their transition from assigned gang-status to return to the general population. Critics of the Step-Down Program say it is coercive and serves the prisons’ need more than the prisoners.
Note: It doesn’t matter how the prisoner identifies — if the prison authority has classed a prisoner as a gang member it is very difficult to shake the label. The Kafkaesque irreversibility of many CDCR assertions was what led to a growth in use of solitary in the California prisons.
8 June 2012: Crescent City, CA. California State Prison: Pelican Bay Prison. A SHU cell occupied by two prisoners. Cell is about 8×10 with no windows. Bunks are concrete with mattress roles. When rolled up the bunk serves at a seat and table.. Cones on the wall are home made speakers using ear-phones for the TV or radio. Speakers are not allowed.
I’ve picked out three images from Gumpert’s 33 that I think are instructive in different ways. While we may be amazed by the teeny writing of a prisoner in his kites (top) we should also be aware that these were shown to Gumpert to re-enforce the point that prisoners in solitary are incorrigible. The suggestion is that these words are a threat and we should be fearful. But we cannot know if we cannot read them fully. How good is your eyesight? Click the image to see it larger.
As for the “speakers” made of earphones and cardboards cylinders! Can those really amplify sound in any meaning full way?
And finally, to the image below. I thought the quotation marks in the church banner (below) were yet another case of poor prison signage grammar, but reading the caption and learning that the chapel caters for 47 faiths, makes “LORD’S” entirely applicable. Not a single lord but the widest, most ill-defined, catch-all version of a lord (higher presence/Yahweh/Gaia/Sheba/fog-spirit/Allah/fill-in-the-blank) in a prison that is all but god-forsaken.
See the full gallery.