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HERE NOW: Digital Stories from the San Francisco
In December, I was a guest at San Bruno Jail, near San Francisco, for morning of screenings of HERE NOW: Digital Stories from the San Francisco Jails. The 18 film-shorts were made inside San Bruno Jail drawing on both the drama therapy expertise of the University of San Francisco’s Performing Arts and Social Justice Department and the community media skills of the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC).
The Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP)—a longstanding collaboration Community Works and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department with programs inside the numerous San Francisco County Jail system–hosted the 12-week course and that inaugural screening.
Tomorrow, January 27th, a screening of HERE NOW will be held for the public. It’ll be at Noh Space which is in the Potrero Hill neighbourhood of San Francisco, specifically at 2840 Mariposa St (b/t Florida St & Alabama St), SF, CA 94110. The screening will include a panel discussion with restorative justice practitioners and members of the project.
Within the confines of one of San Bruno’s jail pods, the 20-or-so prisoners made use of every space, surface and angle to visualise their stories. The “digital stories” they developed include percussion, spoken word, movement, writing, and visual imagery. There’s some large leaps of faith to be made here. Firstly, the men must be comfortable sharing personal tales, then they must be willing to process them with a group, firstly and for a general public audience latterly.
“The men came in with strong visual concepts and artistic choices and we followed them as they were the directors for each of their stories. I approached each production as a camera operator and followed their carefully crafted shot list,” says Kristian Melom, one of the facilitators with BAVC and HERE NOW.
Furthermore, not being experts, the prisoners handed over some control of the editing and sequencing. At least those bits that they couldn’t master on their successful, short and steep learning curves!
“In the editing process, the students from each of the classes worked together and essentially learned digital film editing as they collaboratively made these pieces. It was really inspiring to see how much can happen in the edit when you have very little recording time allowed and lots of improvisation is needed,” says Melom. “We had a blast.”
In advance of tomorrow screening, I wanted to share a handful of notable videos.
In Motivation Through Life’s Struggles, J. Howard organizes the loneliest dinner party. One at which photographs of his loved ones substitute for the persons themselves. A lone 4×6 print on each seat.
You don’t even see Delon Barker’s face in Where I Grew Up, which is a clever tool because it makes his powerful story–about knowing where a hidden gun was and using it at the age of 5–all the more powerful.
“Where I grew up, I was taught to be bad and fight everyone.”
JDJ’s ode to his daughter simultaneously shares his joyful memories of her earliest words but also the pain of being apart. All this plays out to a video track composed of dozens of portraits of her.
June’s Baby Skee is the comic turn of the bunch. June recounts the first time he was charged with changing a diaper.
Testimony Of A Moth is Jack MacLennan’s space to reflect upon, and reenact, a moment he was the victim of gun violence. But also in that moment he reflexively protected those close to him, by literally putting his body on the line. How conflicting to find pride amidst violence. This is a reconciliation of those contradicting emotional memories.
I Kill Time is a bittersweet look back at, well … it’s your guess. Is this a clear metaphor for drug selling? Or is that a presumption? Either way, Vinnie was adamant from the very start that the 2 minutes would be played backward, meaning that action were acted out in reverse. Killing time? He’s playing with time. Very effective and a little disconcerting. Great soundtrack too.
The participants made four short interludes to sit in the middle and at each end of HERE NOW. These four shorts make use of the most expansive cinematography, song and percussion. They’re also the moment that most participants are actors in a single reel.
Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins, from the series Supplication
Bit of housekeeping folks! I need to let you know three things about Prison Obscura:
- Prison Obscura is going to Washington State.
- Prison Obscura is going to Oregon.
- Prison Obscura will be retired in June, 2016.
The exhibition opens at Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington this Thursday, January 16th, from 4pm-6pm. I’ll be there giving a curator’s talk.
Prison Obscura Installation in progress, Evergreen State College.
The show is up January 14 – March 2 at Evergreen Gallery, Library 2204, Evergreen State College, 98505 (Google Map)
Mark your calendars waaaaaaay in advance for the opening reception 6-9pm on Friday, April 1st (no joke). I’ll be in Portland all weekend, giving a curator’s talk at the opening and then convening with others for events and panels.
1632 SE 10th Ave., Portland, OR 97214. (Google Map)
Supplication #4, Landscape. From the series ’Supplication.’ “The Pryor Mountains. It is so special to me because I am from Pryor and I miss home. Castlerock at sunset.” Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins.
Supplication #4, Landscape. From the series ’Supplication.’ “The Pryor Mountains. It is so special to me because I am from Pryor and I miss home. Castlerock at sunset.” Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins.
RETIRING ‘PRISON OBSCURA’
To say that the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford had never travelled a show before, they–namely Matthew Callinan–have done a magnificent and utterly-indispensible job in administering Prison Obscura over what will be seven venues.
I didn’t know exactly what was involved in traveling a show such as this and I’m so so grateful that Callinan had the support of his peers at Haverford College to produce an exhibition that could stretch beyond Philadelphia where it all began. We learnt together.
It’s been a great run. After Olympia and Portland though, it’s time to say goodbye. I celebrate Prison Obscura‘s unexpected and gratifying success, but I know that after 2-and-a-half years, it’s time to move energies on to other things. I need to step back and to think about what next, if anything, is appropriate for a prison-based exhibition.
There are massive amounts of vital work and organizing being done around prison activism, policing, power and community-empowerment. I’d like to learn more; take the time to hear and see. Observe and act more; perhaps talk and type less–for a while, at least.
No doubt, I’ll have more to say when Prison Obscura wraps up in Portland, the final show, toward the end of May. For now, I hope that if you are in the Pacific Northwest you’ll be able to check out the show and engage with the ideas its artists propose. Thanks to Alyse Emdur, Robert Gumpert, Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, Kristen S. Wilkins, Josh Begley and Paul Rucker and the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the men of the Restorative Justice Project at Graterford Prison.
David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series ‘Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).’ Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Alyse Emdur.
Alonso Castillo is a freelance photographer based in the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico. Predominantly, he works as a stringer for Reuters. Most of his work focuses on the border and he is a specialist in reporting on migration and social issues. He has instructed workshops in the past, is a college teacher and, since 2009, has worked as an editor at www.numerof.org.
Mauricio Palos, a mutual friend of Castillo and I, contacted me to tell me of Castillo’s 2013 photography workshop in a local youth prison, the Instituto de Tratamiento y de Aplicación de Medidas para Adolescentes (ITAMA) which is in the city of Hermosillo, in Sonora, northwestern México.
ITAMA houses approximately 450 boys and men. All the prisoners were convicted as juveniles but currently 70% of the prisoners are adults as they’ve turned 18 during their incarceration. Castillo led a photography workshop with 10 boys aged between 15 and 21. When he sent me the photographs I was floored by how sparse and rudimentary the environment for these kids appeared. I wondered if this was a case in which, more so than others, the camera didn’t lie?
All these photographs were made by the 10 participants. Castillo and his colleagues only made technical recommendations in order for the boys to take advantage of available light and framing. “The boys decided how to work and what to photograph,” says Castillo.
Kindly, Castillo answered some questions about the project to accompany this exclusive showing of the juvenile prisoners’ photographs.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Did you find prisons/social justice first? Or did you find photography first?
Alonso Castillo (AC): It is hard to say, I come first of photojournalism but this area is combined with social justice; that is, I do believe that our work is for the other. In this case this two territories are combined with an equal third one that is working with young people who have committed crimes.
Anyway, due to my job, I suppose I found photography first.
Alonso Castillo and his students in the middle of a workshop session.
PP: What gave you the idea to do a workshop in the prison?
AC: I’ve taught, and participated in, workshops before—in Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, Ecuador and Colombia. I try to make workshops part of broader and more complete projects of research into specific topics, or provide media training, or instruct on the practices of street journalism.
I knew a writer, Carlos Sanchez, who taught literature and creative writing at ITAMA. Together, we planned to work with young prisoners and teach photography. Carlos usually facilitates writing workshops so this was the first in which we worked with photography. For me, as a journalist and teacher, it was also a means to research and observe [the prison]. And the way things worked out, it was a very enjoyable observation.
PP: How did you get access?
AC: The workshop was organized in conjunction with Fotoseptiembre an annual photography festival which recently celebrated its 25th year anniversary. Although Fotoseptembiere no longer takes place in all countries, it still exists in the city where I live. The festival served as a pretext to get authorization and work with these guys as part of a program that also included an exhibition to show the end results.
PP: How long was the course?
AC: It lasted about 40 hours but we sometimes relaxed the formal schedule to adjust to the schedule of the boys or what was needed to complete the exercises. It is more accurate to say that we worked during the months of July and August 2013, and mounted a small exhibition in September. First we worked in the classroom with classes on theory; we saw some portfolios and documentary photography and we talked with the group and watched movies about photography. Later, disposable film cameras were given to each participant.
Participants were ten young people from five cities in central, northern and southern Sonora. Some of them came from the border municipalities for drug trafficking and murder.
The first exercise was carried out, then the cameras were processed and together we reviewed the work they had done. Then they were given yet another camera and had a chance to improve the ways they were seeing.
Much of the discussion topic was “everyday life”—their daily lives within ITAMA.
PP: What was the aim of the course?
AC: We wanted to share with them tools and skills to help with their rehabilitation and reintegration; they could acquire knowledge and then approach a job when they finished their detention. We also wanted to give them occupational therapy during their time inside the ITAMA.
As we move forward in the activities it became a very human exchange of experiences between us and them, in which analyzed and talked topics of art, history, music, cultural references and social problems.
The photography and talk about photographs was as a part of healing.
PP: Did you achieve the aims?
AC: It is difficult to know if what we did at that time will serve for something when they came out, which was an important part. With what happened in the classroom, yes, I am satisfied.
While in detention because they committed crimes (and some of them very serious), it was very emotional to reveal their “other faces”, the other sides to these young people.
AC: Although criminals, they remain children. This plain fact is something that the system ignores or cannot sufficiently deal with. All these boys are in the middle of a long learning process and maturation; they experience the same intangible fears as any of us. It is a matter of influencing the values and beliefs they have, rather than corrective measures and punishments.
There are also other related matters. The environment has a very strong and decisive weight. These facilities provide for the operation of organized crime on the streets and in the offices of government. Rehabilitation doesn’t work if the institution operates in the midst of corruption. The Mexican political system besides not favoring conditions for social security and education, seems to be working to do otherwise.
PP: Any unexpected surprises?
AC: They showed huge interest in the workshop, which very often does not happen when you’re outside teaching boys in the regular education system and even in college. It is sad but sometimes you find more resistance in a student who had better educational opportunities. With this group, everything happened in an easy way.
There was a boy with a natural look, he made some of the best photos of the workshop; he had a sophisticated way of seeing that gave the images a very contemporary look.
That happens sometimes in the workshops: anyone can worry so much about making a picture look easy and then someone comes in and just do it.
PP: Anything you’d want to do differently if you wanted to/could teach another prison photography workshop?
AC: Of course. Working on more personalized projects. The conditions are limited but we could work with them in a better recognition of the environment. Projects could be designed for collective or personal response — online journals, a newspaper produced by themselves, and so on.
PP: Why did the prison authorities let you in?
AC: I think they did not take us seriously to consider us as a threat, except for us to fulfill the security conditions such as the introduction of dangerous objects or not allowed.
PP: Had you been in a prison before? What did you expect to find? What did you find?
AC: Yes, I had been before taking pictures for a story. The access we now had was restricted only to the area to teach the workshop, so we only saw facilities from afar … and in photographs!
PP: What were the boys’ reactions? How did they work?
AC: The first reaction kept at a distance but then it broke. There were different profiles and even some involving more than others, empathy was virtually total. Then we work with maximum freedom. Sure, they are young and at some point they laughed at us but at no time was any kind of rejection or problem.
AC: After the workshop we had a very modest exhibition in the courtyards of ITAMA, with some family and other visitors. When we worked on that, we processed some film close to the date and we found a picture of the soles of the boys feet. As the exhibition was to be called Desde Adentro (From Within), the boys did a special photo for that—they sat on the floor and wrote the name of the exhibition on the soles of the feet. That was something we were not expecting.
In 2014, a selection of work from the boys won an honorable mention in a local photo competition.
PP: What was the staff’s reactions to the boys walking around with cameras?
AC: We did not know of any reaction. You know, reading the photograph depends on the social construction and context. It is that possible for them and the staff of the detention center, there was no threat from outside, were themselves taking pictures around. We did not go as journalists and we weren’t there to make a report or complaint or observation of human rights in the prison.
In a subtle way, these photographs depict these young people for whom we have used the prison to delete their presence and hide them … and we’ve done so only for our own convenience. These photographs confront us with facts that lay counter to our simplistic thinking.
PP: Do prisons work?
AC: Prisons serve as a reflection of human behavior in which the administration of justice becomes confused with revenge.
We want justice but don’t think very deeply about its application. People go to prison for many different types of crime but when they’re inside we make no distinctions. Initially, justice is operational and later it is a process that becomes bureaucratic, expensive and exhausting for those who experience it. The legal part of the system is a mess; it is much harder to get out even with the law in your favor. Prisons may be where all traffic comes to a dead end.
PP: Can photography heal social ills?
AC: Yes. It is an effective tool to communicate, to visualize and generate impact to social problems. Although it’s not a massively used tool for educational purposes, I think no efforts are small and everything we do is important.
In the near future, I want to train groups of people to jump-start local journalism projects involving vulnerable sectors of population and minorities (native groups, sexual minorities, neighborhoods, and others.
PP: So reach is a big factor too.
AC: Yes. César Holm, who works on a project for the professionalization of photographers in Mexico, in a conversation we had recently, mentioned the need to get an audience for photography and the promotion of a profile for teaching. I agree with him.
I say it is not a massive tool because although photojournalism represents a broad global distribution circuit, I have the impression that we are producing for ourselves. This phrase I heard a few years ago and I still like it, “only photographers know photographers”. We like to publish books that we read, there are contests and scholarships for specialized circle of consumers, who are we and our friends.
I think we could expand that circle.
Rajeshree Roy with Carolyn Miller, a close friend, on a visit at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF).
Something very significant is brewing in California right now. Female prisoners in the Yuba County Jail are organising in solidarity with immigrants in detention.
Yesterday (Monday 14th December) a group of women began a hunger strike, joining hundreds of other detainees taking part in hunger strikes at facilities across the country.
You may or may not have heard about the fasting and hunger strikes going on in immigrant detention facilities across the country. Up and down the country–in the Hutto Immigrant Detention Center in Texas; in an immigrant detention center in the high desert city of Adelanto, California; in the Krome Service Processing Center in Florida; and in Alabama, in El Paso, Texas and in Lasalle, Louisiana, too.
Vikki Law has covered these as a trend. And they are. Collectively, the strikes are known as the #FreedomGiving Strikes and they were launched on Thanksgiving by hundreds of South Asian and African detainees at three separate facilities. The movement has grown.
Never before (to my knowledge) has the political resistance of detained immigrants run in cohort with the political action of citizens in county or state facilities. The Yuba County Jail rents space to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain people. For the first time, women in criminal custody are fasting with detainees in immigration custody as an act of solidarity. Phenomenal. Principled. Inspiring.
The Yuba Co. Jail hunger strike is led by, and in support of, Rajashree Roy (above). You can read a longer detailed account of Roy’s journey here.
To be brief, Roy faces deportation back to Fiji where she has not lived since she was 8-years-old. As a child, Roy suffered sexual abuse and upon relocation to the United States never received counseling or help. By the time she was in her teens she was both attempting suicide and robbing and beating people. She was very troubled and the undelrying causes had never been addressed.
Sentenced as an adult at age 16, Rajashree spent 17-years at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). Nine years later, struggling to survive and feed her children while in an abusive relationship, she stole a garden hosepipe from a store, a misdemeanor petty theft.
Due to her priors, the District Attorney set bail at $1million and offered a 25-to-life sentence. In 2011, Roy accepted a plea bargain of seven years. In November 2014, she qualified for release under Prop 47. When Rajashree Roy stepped foot out of CCWF, she was picked up by ICE and slated for deportation back to Fiji, away from her children.
After years of silence due to shame and stigma as an abuse survivor and ‘criminal’, Rajashree Roy has gained confidence through peer and advocacy support and decided to be public with her story and fight for herself and others.
“We are locked up together and refuse to be divided into immigrants and citizens. None of us belong in this cage separated from our families. We join the brave immigrant hunger strikers across the country in fasting to force recognition of our humanity,” says the staement of Roy and her fellow hunger strikers at Yuba County Jail.
WHAT TO DO
- Join community organizers at ASPIRE, the nation’s first pan-Asian undocumented youth-led group, at a fast in solidarity outside Yuba County Jail.
- Support the #FreedomGiving strikers by signing the petition.
- Help raise funds for Rajashree’s $10,000 bond.
- Write letters of support to the women on hunger strike:
Booking No. 229860
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901
Booking No. 235161
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901
Booking No. 233892
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901
Booking No. 234664
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901
Booking No. 235553
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901
Booking No. 235550
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901
The websiteDangerous Minds picked up my story Prison Yard to Paris Photo LA: How an Art Market Hustle Put a $45K Price-Tag on Prison Polaroids about the rapid inflation of price of a few hundred lost Polaroids.
I am not surprised by the art market capitalising on this subculture within its general thirst for vernacular photographs. I do urge caution though; the people who made and are in these photos are not the ones profiting from their cultural appropriation.
There are two general and conflicting positions on this matter.
The first position, expressed by Dangerous Minds says it’s a good thing for folks who were inside because they can potentially make money.
“Whether the art market is fetishizing African-American gang members or not, the likely result of the exorbitant price for these photos will be to incentivize owners of similar collections to make them public, which is good news …”
Even if someone in the photos is impartial and happy to let their image loose on the market, are they likely to have the connections to buyers and the desire to negotiate a deal? My thinking is that the art market benefits those in it and the dealers will be the ones with the luxury of time, network and collateral to leverage most profit from exchanges of collections such as the Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive.
The second position on all of this, by contrast, at the World’s Best Ever blog post from which Dangerous Minds sourced the story has an alternative view. One comment reads:
“also we paid for them pic someone stole them from poppy or pj and east coast has nothing to do with new york its in la and who gives you guys the right to post or flicks some of us or out and would like to forget about that time in the 80s.”
Who gives you (us) the right?
Who polices this stuff? Nobody. Who is responsible for these images being on the market? A uncoordinated group of individuals.Who is responsible for these images being on the market? I am. The original Harpers Books listing from which I sourced the images was deleted after sale. I had to use Google cache and Wayback Machine to source the jpegs, after which I gave them a permanent home under an article with good SEO returns. Otherwise, these images would’ve been and gone. But my intervention allowed them to be copied, shared and has made them quite permanent on the web.
What gave me the right to condemn these images to permanence and deny the subjects their right to forget?
Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Portraits of Purpose series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
ARE WE HITTING PEAK-PRISON-ART-SHOW?
Of course, I’m being provocative, but the rise and rise of prison criticism and reflection (and commodification) in the cultural sphere bears consideration.
Here is not an exhaustive list but a few examples — Life After Death and Elsewhere, curated by Robin Paris and Tom Williams at apexart; To Shoot A Kite curated by Yaelle Amir at the CUE Foundation; Voices Of Incarceration at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles; Try Youth As Youth curated by Meg Noe at David Weinberg in Chicago; Site Unseen: Incarceration curated by Sheila Pinkel; The Cell and the Sanctuary put on by the William James Association in Santa Cruz, CA; and my own Prison Obscura.
This weekend, Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives will end its 10-week run at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art at Chaffey College in Southern California. Inside/Outside is a relatively large survey of prisoner art, prison photography and visual activism that brings together the work of Sandow Birk, Camilo Cruz, Amy Elkins, Alyse Emdur, Ashley Hunt, Spencer Lowell, Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), Jason Metcalf, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Kristen S. Wilkins, Steve Shoffner, the Counter Narrative Society and students at the California Institute for Women.
It’s a great exhibition.
As many of the names in Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives are familiar, I felt a review by me would be redundant; it’d be dominated by applause to the committed artists I see as asking the right questions … because they’re the questions I’ve ask too.
Instead, I wanted to focus on the recent uptick in fine art exhibitions orbiting the issues of prisons.
Rebecca Trawick, Director of the Wignall Museum and co-curator of Inside/Outside and I were in touch a while before I realised that this should be what we should discuss. And how the cultural production of art around, and about, the prison industrial complex propels, inspires, derails (and much else besides) dialogue about mass incarceration in America.
Kindly, Trawick and her co-curator, Misty Burruel, Associate Professor of Art at Chaffey College accepted my invite to answer some questions. The Q&A is peppered with artworks from Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives.
Scroll down for our discussion.
Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Theater of Souls series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Why did you make this exhibition?
Rebecca Trawick (RT): Incarceration was an issue that I kept returning to in my research.
As a curator, I’m specifically interested in shedding light on important but difficult social issues through the lens of contemporary art. I love how artists can take an unwieldly topic and consider it thoughtfully, often personally, and in really compelling ways that allow the viewer a chance at transformation, or expansion of, thought and perspective.
Because we work at an institution of higher education, these exhibitions become a safe space to start difficult discussions about issues such as incarceration, and they become a tool to educate and inform. This kind of exhibition (if done well) can demonstrate the value of art to transform ideas, minds, and communities.
Misty Burruel (MB): Because it was a challenge. On the heels of a number of incarceration exhibitions in southern California that focused on works by incarcerated artists and artists confronting the criminal justice system, it was appropriate to look at it through the lens of education.
We are confronted daily with students that have either been incarcerated or have family who are incarcerated. It was time to have difficult discussions about the role of education in the penal system, our responsibility as citizens to each other, and how parolees reintegrate into yet another system.
Spencer Lowell, La Palma prison, Arizona
PP: Is incarceration a “hot topic” right now? Why?
RT: As Misty and I mention in our remarks in the printed takeaway, we seem to be experiencing a unique convergence of policy discussions in the US as well as popular culture interests, so we feel like the conversation is already happening in certain circles.
We hope our exhibition helps to expand the discussion and dig a little deeper into some of the topics looked at in contemporary documentary (think the recent Vice episode, Fixing the System, in which President Obama – the first sitting US President to do so – visited a federal prison) to the popularity of Orange is the New Black.
MB: Jenji Kohan’s, Orange is the New Black, portrayal of incarcerated women created a splash on Netflix and revealed through mass media the complexities of a system within a system. The women were all too real and relatable. We live in the Inland Empire and have two prisons at our footstep.
PP: California Institute for Men and California Institute for Women.
Jason Metcalf, Cheeseburger, French Fries, Iced Tea (Dwight Adanandus), 2013, archival pigment print, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
PP: Is Inside/Outside about incarceration or is it about the representation of incarceration?
RT: The exhibition is about the many issues surrounding incarceration that we hope our viewers will consider more deeply after viewing the work on view. Issues include the value of rehabilitation behind bars; juveniles in justice; death penalty, segregation, prison labor, and isolation as systems of control, among others.
PP: How did you select the artists?
RT: The Wignall Museum mainly draws from Southern California for practical reasons–funding limits us to local pickups mainly. In some cases (Kristin S. Wilkins, for example) agreed to ship the work to us so we were able to include her. We’re often limited regionally, which explains the SoCal bias. We would have loved to include works outside our region, if possible. (see next question for a list of some we would have included if possible.) The one thing I remind myself is that we’re not trying to be essentialist in what we portray or explore, but rather offer some really amazing work to assist us in digging a little deeper into the state of incarceration today.
MB: We are in a human warehousing gridlock. The works collectively focus on how the system of control does not discriminate (women, men, and youth detention).
Kristen S. Wilkins, Untitled #10. From the series ‘Supplication’ (2009-2014) “Grand Ave. by Shiloh (Cemetery). Left side of water fountain. Has colorful wreath with flowers. It is where my son is @. He is the best thing that happened to me in my life. He was my world.”
PP: Were there any artists or works out there that you’d wanted in the show but couldn’t for whatever reason?
RT: Yes! Many. The list includes Deborah Luster, Dread Scott, Jackie Sumell’s The House That Herman Built, and Julie Green’s Last Supper installation all immediately come to mind. There were many others, but those three stand out for me.
MB: We wanted to have more guest speakers, but funding always seems to be a hurdle. We can certainly look at the issue, but we really wanted to talk about it.
PP: Really? From the outside that you had a phenomenal amount of programming. I applaud you. How important was programing around the exhibition?
RT: Programming is critical. Because we’re limited in many ways in terms of what we can show – due to spatial and fiscal restrictions – programming allows us to bring in experts in the field to further contextualize and expand the themes of the exhibition. It also allows community engagement and for other voices to join in the conversation, often in a public forum. That ability can’t be underestimated, I think.
MB: When the discussing an exhibition about incarceration we were most focused on programming. Rebecca and I are collaborative by nature and we were able to find others who were very interested in asking difficult questions within their own disciplines (Sociology, Philosophy, Correctional Science, Administration of Justice).
© Sheila Pinkel
PP: I’ve been asked a number of times “Who are you (a white, cis-gender, male, college graduate) to speak to these issues?” Every time by a highschooler — God, I love them. Were you ever challenged over your role and/or position while putting Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives together?
RT: As a curator at an institution situated on the campus of a Community College I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to explore a wide array of topics in our exhibitions and to look from a place of diversity – diversity of media, content, viewpoint, race, ethnicity, etc. – and through the lens of contemporary art, but it is critical that we do so in a way that is thoughtful and multifaceted.
Philosophically we try to schedule our exhibitions and programs in a way that expand outside of our own limited perspectives. We also try to use multiple guest voices – guest curators, guest speakers, etc. to expand the discourse around an exhibition. But the long and the short of it is, I try to always be conscious of my privilege and to present diverse voices. That said, my own experience/perspective was never called into question during the exhibition planning or implementation phase.
MB: The college has wholeheartedly embraced the exhibition and its programming.
Amy Elkins. 26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was), 2011. Portrait of a man twenty-six years into his death row sentence where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.
You’ve said the response so far has been positive. More than other Wignall shows? More among the student body, or beyond? How do you measure response/success?
RT: This exhibition definitely has seemed to link to something that is personal and relatable for many of our students, faculty and community visitors, evident by the verbal responses and reactions we’ve seen in the galleries. We’ve held a number of panel discussions, engagement activities, a film screening, and dozens of tours. Unequivocally, discussions always seem to lead to the personal and comments suggest that the ability to discuss a somewhat taboo topic has been relevant.
MB: This work is incredibly personal and relevant to the Inland Empire.
PP: Can you see the successes and failures of the show already? Or is it too soon for that type of assessment?
RT: Success can be measured in qualitative and quantitative ways … (as of course, can failure). Due to the high level of programming, and the sheer number of student tours we’ve conducted, we can see an increased level of engagement. Our visitor numbers are up, the number of students speaking up during tours has increased a great deal, and the unsolicited feedback from students/faculty/staff we’re getting has been remarkable.
We also ask all students who visit us as part of a tour to fill out a short survey. Results won’t be tabulated until the close of the exhibition, but I feel the results will mirror the anecdotal evidence we’re seeing. As a curator, however, I’m always thinking about what we can improve upon – from the curatorial practice, to layout and installation, to printed collateral and programming…reflection is key.
MB: I think the museum does an amazing job of allowing artists to ask difficult questions and explore relevant social and political issues.
The Wignall Museum hosted workshops and discussion led by Mabel Negrete and the Counter Narratives Society.
PP: Anything you’d like to add?
RT: We hope that Inside/Outside and the many other excellent exhibitions and artists looking at incarceration with a critical perspective will encourage the questioning of the system as it is, and that it might even encourage engagement in our communities in ways that can make real change in the world.
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.
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.
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.
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. 
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.”  Chronic apathy, depression, depression, irrational anger, total withdrawal and despair are common symptoms resulting from long-term isolation. 
All we know is that DeFrance considered these works finished enough to mail out.
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? 
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.  Some Americans have been in solitary for 15, 20, 25 years or more.
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.
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. 
“Solitary confinement is a logical result of mass incarceration,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, psychologist and esteemed solitary specialist.  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.” 
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.  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.
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 . 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.
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.
 Atul Gawande, ‘Hellhole‘, New Yorker, March 30, 2009.
 Craig Haney, ‘Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement‘, Crime & Delinquency 49 (2003). ps. 124–156.
 Stuart Grassian, ‘The Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement‘, Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 22 (2006). p.325.
 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!
 Confronting Confinement [PDF] Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons:
 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.
 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.
 Brandon Keim, ‘Solitary Confinement: The Invisible Torture‘, Wired.com
 Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley Debug and pioneer of Participatory Defense makes this argument very well.
 Neil Barksy, ‘Shut Down Rikers Island‘, New York Times, July 15, 2015.