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I wanted to share with you an essay I wrote for the publication that accompanied Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility a project by artist collective ERNEST at c3:initiative, in Portland, Oregon (September 2015).

The essay, titled Never Neutral, considers the drawings of one-time-California-prisoner Ernest Jerome DeFrance. I wander and wonder one way and then the other. For all their looseness, DeFrance’s drawing might be the tightest and most urgent description of solitary confinement, we have. They come from down in the hole.

Pen marks rattle around on the page like people do when they are put in boxes.

I ventured away from photography here. Got a bit speculative. Have a read. See what you think. See what you see.

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NEVER NEUTRAL

Power breeds more power. The unerringly-certain power belonging to, say, nation states, financial posses, military strategists and total institutions, rides roughshod over opposition. The assault upon bodies, ideas and ecology inherent to the process of accumulating power is not always a conscious assault. As a power grows, opponents shrink, relatively. Harder to acknowledge, and even see, opponents that recede from power’s view are easier to crush.

Prisons have crushed their fair share. For the past four decades, the United States’ prison systems have grown exponentially. They have, at times, and in some places, grown unchecked. Since 1975, the number of prisoners has increased five-fold (and the number of women prisoners increased eight-fold). The U.S. spends $80 billion annually to warehouse 2.3 million citizens. In any given year 13 million individuals are cycled through one jail or prison or another. The prison industrial complex has come to dwarf education budgets. It has, in California, battered teachers unions. It removed non-custodial sentencing policy from the table for many a long year. It disavows notions of treatment, restoration or forgiveness. The prisons industrial complex laid to waste many of the key social, moral, political, environmental and psychological underpinnings of community.

In the face of such tumorous growth, common-sense opposition has been edged out and swallowed up. Sporadically, however, narratives that counter the fear, bullying and rhetoric of the prison industrial complex and its beneficiaries capture attention — narratives from advocacy, journalism, personal correspondence, legal briefs, FOI requests, jailhouse law, contraband and whistleblower testimonies. Art, too, has consistently spoken—or sketched—truth to power. Art is part of the resistance.

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Prisoner-made art is, mostly, made for loved ones beyond the walls; prison art rarely gets seen by anyone beyond its intended recipient.

Given the sheer volume of jailhouse artworks made every day, it may seem strange to isolate, for this essay, a single prisoner’s sketches for critique. There is, however, something profound in the works of Ernest Jerome DeFrance that set them apart. Prison-art (pencil portraiture, greeting cards, DIY-calligraphy, envelope doodles) tends to reveal the circumstances of its production; that is, it reveals the facts and parameters of the prison system (limited resources, distant recipients, censor-safe subject matter).

A lot of prison part is personal and figurative, but DeFrance’s work is abstract, loose and reveals not only the circumstances of production but the brutalizing effects of those circumstances. For example, a run-of-the-mill prisoner-drawn portrait of a child — and the hope it may embody — is made in spite of the system, and a child’s innocence is something outside and beyond any corrupted system. Removing sentiment from the equation, a prisoners’ card for her child is an established, safe, non-controversial, and relatively unpoliced gesture. By contrast, DeFrance’s drawings operate outside of the routine prison art economy; they are untethered, non-figurative and non-occasional statements that are difficult to anchor and understand.

DeFrance’s loops and swirls are the feedback of a maddening prison system.

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DeFrance made these images while incarcerated in the California prison system. During that time he spent extended periods of time in solitary confinement. He submitted these works to Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights (UC Berkeley, Fall 2014) an exhibition produced by Architects, Designer and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) an anti-death penalty group that also argues against prolonged solitary confinement.

Architect Raphael Sperry, founder of ADSPR, led a highly visible media campaign for the adoption of language in the American Institute of Architects code of ethics prohibiting the design of spaces that physically and psychologically torture — namely, execution chambers and solitary confinement cells. Why? Because extreme isolation can lead to permanent psychological impairment comparable to that of traumatic brain injury. [1]

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In an attempt to reconnect the most isolated American citizens with the outside world and in order to get some reliable information about solitary confinement, the call for entries for Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights requested drawings of solitary cells by prisoners in solitary cells. Of the 14 men who submitted work, most stuck to the brief and drew plans or annotated elevations. DeFrance sent dozens of frantic nest-like lattices.

I defy anyone to say that DeFrance’s works don’t encapsulate the same terror as the to-scale, measured, line-drawn renderings by fellow exhibitors. It is not even clear if DeFrance had completed these works. What is complete? What is a start and what is an end … to a line, to a thought, to a stint in a box when the lights are always on, the colors are always the same, and sensory deprivation perverts time, taking you outside of yourself?

Solitary confinement “undermines your ability to register and regulate emotion,” says Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The appropriateness of what you’re thinking and feeling is difficult to index, because we’re so dependent on contact with others for that feedback. And for some people, it becomes a struggle to maintain sanity.” [2] Chronic apathy, depression, depression, irrational anger, total withdrawal and despair are common symptoms resulting from long-term isolation. [3]

All we know is that DeFrance considered these works finished enough to mail out.

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Like a Rorschach Test for the horror-inclined, DeFrance’s works trigger all sorts of associations — Munch’s The Scream, Mondrian’s trees, Maurice Sendak’s darker side, Pierre Soulages‘ everyday side and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away character No Face. I can go on. There are knuckles, clenched fists, scarecrows and magic carpets. I see bulging eyes. I see that optical illusion of the old witch’s nose. Or is the neckline of a young woman in necklace and furs?

Reading into DeFrance’s art with ones own visual memory is, admittedly, an exercise fraught with complications. Scanning work for something familiar is to lurch toward inner-biases. How does one land, or explain, connection with this work?

DeFrance’s art defies easy definition. These are not the crying clowns, the soaring eagles, the scantily-clad women or the Harley Davidson cliches common of prison art. These are … well …  you decide. Faces, collars, cliffs, ropes, cliff faces, tourniquets, capes and caps? Is that a helmet? Of a riot cop? Of a cell-extraction specialist? Of the law and that which metes out judgement, retribution, pain and accountability? Or is it a divine shroud? Or is it a torture hood? [4]

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On any given day in the United States, 80,000 people are in solitary. In California, solitary is a 22½-hour lockdown in a 6-by-9-foot cell with a steel door and no windows. Juan E. Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, told the UN General Assembly in June 2011 that solitary confinement is torture and assaults the mental health of prisoners. “It is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.” Mendez recommends stays of no more than 15-days in isolation. Preceding this, in 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a bipartisan national task force, recommended abolishing long-term isolation reporting that stints longer than 10-days offered no benefits and instead caused substantial harm to prisoners, staff and the general public. [5] Some Americans have been in solitary for 15, 20, 25 years or more.

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If a drawing “is simply a line going for a walk” like Paul Klee said then DeFrance’s drawings pace and circle the paper as he would his 54 square feet. One’s eyesight deteriorates rapidly in solitary. Denied any variation in depth-of-field, sharpness and acuity are lost. In a state of looseness and unknowing, gray walls throb and the mind conjures its own forms. Amorphous beings pulse within DeFrance’s work. Solid shape abandons us. Are we looking at shadows of ghosts? Scale suffers too. These forms are as large as you are brave enough to imagine.

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Inasmuch as these images are indicative of solitary confinement experience, they are indicative of all prisons in the United States. “Every terrorist regime in the world uses isolation to break people’s spirits.” said bell hooks in 2002. hooks was talking about social exclusion but the phrase applies as easily to physical confinement. Indeed, with the exception of total-surveillance enclaves (where control needn’t be material) social exclusion and extreme incarceration tend go go hand-in-hand anyway. DeFrance’s works are a commentary, from within, of the philosophy and architectures we’ve perfected as an ever-more-punitive society. No other nation in the world uses solitary to the degree the United Sates does, and no other civilization in the history of man has locked up as greater proportion of its citizens. [6]

“Solitary confinement is a logical result of mass incarceration,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, psychologist and esteemed solitary specialist. [7] The demand for cells to house those handed harsher, longer sentences resulted in a huge prison boom since 1975. Still, these facilities could not adequately accommodate the vast number of people being locked up. Overcrowding gripped all states and any mandates to rehabilitate and provide activities for prisoners were all but abandoned. Haney reasons that extreme isolation resulted directly from prisons attempting to maintain power. He says, “Faced with this influx of prisoners, and lacking the rewards they once had to manage and control prisoner behavior, turned to the use of punishment. One big punishment is the threat of long-term solitary confinement.” [8]

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Kalief Browder’s suicide in June 2015 brought national attention back to the issue of solitary confinement. He was kept in Rikers Island for 3 years without charge for an alleged theft of a backpack. Kalief didn’t kill himself, a broken New York courts and jail system did. [9] Ever since the California Prison Hunger Strikes, beginning in 2011, solitary had been the main topic on which to hang debate about mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. The unforgiving logic of solitary confinement policies is the same as that which has led to thousands of in-custody deaths, so-called “voluntary suicide” and officer-involved killings.

The Black Lives Matter movement has successfully tied over-zealous community policing, to stop-and-frisk, to restraint techniques, to custody conditions, to a bail system that abuses the poor, to extended and unconstitutional pretrial detention, and to solitary confinement in its devastating critique of a structurally racist nexus of law enforcement.

#SayHerName. Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas; Jonathan Saunders in Mississippi; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Charly Leundeu Keunang in Los Angeles; Sgt. James Brown in an El Paso jail; James M. Boyd in the hills of Albuquerque; John Crawford III in a WalMart in Ohio; Walter Scott in North Charleston; Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and thousands of more people over the past 12 months alone killed by law enforcement.

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So corrupted and violent is the prison system that one wonders if it can be fixed at all or whether it should be completely disassembled. Neil Barksy, chairman and founder of The Marshall Project, recently argued for the total closure of Rikers Island [10]. I am often asked if I think there exists people who deserve to be locked up and should be locked up. There’s a presumption in the question that the prison is a neutral factor. And there is a presumption, too, that people don’t change. But a prison is never neutral. In fact, most of the time prisons are very negative factors int he equation. Prisons damage people severely. Mass incarceration has made us less safe, not more safe. At what point and in what places can we confidently state that a prisoner’s violence (or the threat of violence that is attached upon them) is his own?

Conversely, at what point must we accept that the prison itself has caused anti-sociability and incorrigible behavior? Why are we surprised at the notion that a system built on threat and violence creates prisoners who incorporate threat and violence into their survival? Prisons create, often, people who fit better in prison than in free society — most end up institutionalized and docile and a few violent and unpredictable. Ultimately, no one can pass judgement on a prisoner because when hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are serving extremely long sentences or Life Without Possibility Of Parole, they exist in a system that molds them to our worst assumptions.

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How far are we willing to go to protect ourselves against our worst fears and demons of our own creation? The first of  many things I saw when viewing DeFrance’s was an echo of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. According to Roman myth, Saturn was told he his son would overthrow him. To prevent this, Saturn ate his children moments after each was born. His sixth son, Jupiter, was shuttled to safety on the island of Crete by Saturn’s wife Ops. Unwilling to surrender his absolute power, Saturn lost his mind. Goya is one of many artists to depict the scene, but none did it with such gross frenzy.

Goya had watched the Spanish monarchy destroy the country through arrogance. In his despondent old age, Goya reflected upon the darker aspects of society and human condition, and he played with notions surrounding power and the way a power treats it’s own charges. The prison industrial complex devours humans. It relies on bodies. Private prison companies forecast profits based upon toughening legislation to fill their facilities. Our laws have looked to warehousing instead of healing, and our society has travelled too far, for too long, into territories of massive social inequality. Art is part of the resistance and sometimes exposes a system that is programmed to deny witness; sometimes art can give those outside prisons a glimpse of the torture inside.

To see Ernest Jerome DeFrance’s art is to look into the belly of the beast.

FIN

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Atul Gawande, ‘Hellhole‘, New Yorker, March 30, 2009.

[2] Craig Haney, ‘Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement‘, Crime & Delinquency 49 (2003). ps. 124–156.

[3] Stuart Grassian, ‘The Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement‘, Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 22 (2006). p.325.

[4] The four men in charge of reconstructing Abu Ghraib for US military use were hired shills who had overseen disfunctional and scandal-ridden departments of correction the U.S. in the decades prior to 2003. Abu Ghraib was not an abnormal situation; it was a reliable facsimile of the abusive systems routinely in operation in the homeland. They four men were Lane McCotter, former warden of the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, former cabinet secretary for the New Mexico DOC, John Armstrong, former director of the Connecticut DOC. Terrry Stewart, former director of the Arizona DOC and his top deputy Chuck Ryan. View more at Democracy Now!

[5] Confronting Confinement [PDF] Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons: 

[6] For many reasons, the widespread use of isolation in American prisons is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past 20 years. Some prisoners have been kept down in the hole for decades. The controversial use of long-term solitary confinement is one of the most pressing issues of the American prison system currently in public debate. Much of the debate results from the attention drawn to California—and to the SHU at Pelican Bay in particular—by the California Prisoner Hunger Strike.

[7] Terry Kupers, in the keynote address at the Strategic Convening on Solitary Confinement and Human Rights, sponsored by the Midwest Coalition on Human Rights, November 9, 2012, Chicago.

[8] Brandon Keim, ‘Solitary Confinement: The Invisible Torture‘, Wired.com

[9] Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley Debug and pioneer of Participatory Defense makes this argument very well.

[10] Neil Barksy, ‘Shut Down Rikers Island‘, New York Times, July 15, 2015.

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