James Burn VICE La Paz Co Jail

Screengrab from the VICE webpage livestreaming James Burns’ 30 days in La Paz County Jail, Parker, AZ. Captured 02.01.2017

VICE reporter James Burns is spending 30 days in solitary confinement in La Paz County Jail in Parker, Arizona. You can watch any time. He’s into his third week. Why? Good question. Burns has many a good answer. He explains:

Unlike most of the rest of the planet, America embraces this practice at almost every level of the system—local jails, state and federal prisons, mental health facilities, you name it. By most estimates, solitary ensnares 65,000 to 100,000 people at any given time in the United States. Just this past month, a study from Yale Law School carried out in coordination with the heads of state prisons across America suggested nearly 6,000 of them have been in solitary for three years or longer. And like most layers of the American criminal justice system, solitary disproportionately impacts people of color.

It’d be one thing if this practice of confining people in cramped, isolated cells worked—if all the loneliness and human misery had a point. But report after report (and study after study) suggests solitary brutalizes the incarcerated and in some cases may even make them more likely to hurt others when they get out.

I’ve just watched 15-minutes. My immediate response was one of anxiety. Usually when I view a screen it’s with interest in a narrative (documentary film), or for clear information (news broadcast), or for the development of script and fictional character (TV), or the footage is reflexive of itself as a medium (video art), or it’s a quick, cheap laugh (cat GIFs). In other words, there’s always something happening, or about to happen. Or there’s mystery, tension or story arc; something’s coming up and something will change. The livestream puts me on edge because there’s no obvious movement in it, for it. We see everything in Burns’ world and at his disposal and it’s almost nothing. The footage not only holds no change, it inhabits the near-complete absence of any potential for change.

If the cell was to erupt in action, it’d likely be in a moment of Burns’ crisis or breakdown. Watching, I find myself simultaneously tormented by the lack of action but also fearful of anything extreme (because it’ll be very negative) actually happening. If Burns can last the 30 days and the “program” runs its full course I hope Burns can quietly survive.

I wasn’t convinced about the 30-day livestream as a form when VICE launched it on the 14th December, but having spent an hour with it I am greatly intrigued. (As I type have the feed playing in another browser tab, and the audio of Burns pacing his cell passing an orange from one hand to the other)

This isn’t active reporting but it is a full 30-day long report. It isn’t time-based art, but it is without doubt performative and requires investment by, and presence from, the audience. The slow-pace and anti-narrative are very effecting.

We cannot ignore the full cooperation of the jail administration though.  Lieutenant Curt Bagby explains La Paz Sheriff departments motives:

“Having cameras in our facility showing any part of the process is an easy thing for us to agree to because we take great care to follow the rules set forth for us by the Arizona guidelines on dealing with our incarcerated population. We are happy to show the general public the way we operate as we have nothing to hide. We understand VICE wanted to highlight the practice of solitary confinement, and we are willing to show how it is done here.”

I and many other activists could list countless prisons and jails in which a month-long live web-feed of a cell would not be considered or carried out. Merely the noise from a disturbance on the tier would be enough to put of most administrations. I don’t know the configuration of other cells and corridors in the pod or the block Burns is in, but I have heard noises from beyond his cell suggesting that a large disturbance would be clearly audible. I take Bagby at his word and I speculate he derives confidence from a belief or measurement that La Paz County Jail is less volatile than other facilities.

After years of conjecture about prison and jail administrators’ attitudes toward cameras, I’m interested to read Bagby’s statement on cameras relationship to transparency and management. It also is a clear indicator that no external factor will dictate the outcome of this experiment. Only mental stress upon Burns will end the confinement prematurely. We wait either for nothing or for total disaster. By occupying this box (at considerable risk to himself) Burns embodies the fact that confining others to solitary results either in absolutely nothing or in the complete destruction of the spirit.

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