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While I was researching the United States Narcotic Farm, I came across this music video for a song named Prisontown by the band the Malefactors of Great Wealth. The history of the Narcotic Farm, its residents, staff, philosophies and experiments is enthralling. There’s so much to confound and surprise we could start any place, so we might as well start with this music video.
The Malefactors are a contemporary band whereas this footage clearly is not. The band here is Pacific Gas & Electric playing in 1970 at the National Institute of Mental Health & Clinical Research Center. (The U.S. Narcotic Farm was renamed the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital and later the National Institute of Mental Health.) Throughout all of it’s iterations, residents and staff just called it ‘Narco’.
Lexington Narcotic Hospital, 1935. Credit: University of Kentucky Archives
The Narcotic Farm was established to treat drug use and addiction as a health issue and not a criminal issue. Ostensibly, the residents were considered patients, not prisoners. They were thought of not as deviant but as sick.
The administration wanted to rehabilitate as and when it could but, in those times, society, science and the public had a lot to learn if they were to successfully treat addiction. Bear in mind, manufactured heroin had been in the public realm for less than 40 years up to that point, and from its introduction to market in 1898 until 1910 it was advertised as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant.
The Narcotic Farm had several types of resident. One third had been sent there in lieu of custody in other federal prisons. Two thirds, however, were volunteers wanting to kick drugs. They checked themselves in and could leave any time, though most stayed for extended periods.
As much of the work was trial and error (literally experiments in laboratories) the farm’s levels of success in its treatment of drug addiction varied greatly. The context to all the work was the rural setting. Away from the iniquity of the city, patients worked in the fields, harvesting crops and milking cattle. Sports, group therapies and music were all encouraged as healthy outlets. The walls were relatively porous; local softball teams played patient-teams in the courtyard. No users went cold-turkey, instead the doctors prescribed methadone and other replacements to wean patients off heroin. Hundreds of the best jazz musicians passed through the farm in the 40s and 50s. Concerts and jam sessions were a mainstay.
So why this footage? Well Malefactors band-member J.P. Olsen is also an author and filmmaker. He directed the fantastic documentary The Narcotic Farm, and co-authored the accompanying book The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts. The Prisontown video was made with footage that Olsen did not use for the documentary. The band is Pacific Gas & Electric, an American blues rock band known for their biggest hit Are You Ready? in 1970. I highly recommend the documentary Olsen made with Luke Walden and Nancy Campbell. You can watch The Narcotic Farm in full on Vimeo.
Under its many different titles, the United States Narcotic Farm carved a fascinating history. It’s generally thought it failed to rehab patients (90% of residents returned to opiate addiction after their stays) but much of our knowledge about the chemistry and physical effects of addiction stems from research carried out there. Not all research was ethical by todays standards though. Volunteer patients would sign up to take various drugs–from LSD to barbiturates to marijuana–so that they might be monitored during withdrawal or medical interventions.
The Narcotic Farm succeeded in unmasking many prescription drugs and tranquilizers as addictive when they’d only been marketed previously as positive agents. To give you a sense of the open and relaxed approach to research see this brief clip:
Some of the payments to volunteer-patients in these trials were made in drugs–heroin, methadone included. The patients could even put these drugs “in the bank” so to speak, so that they might, at a later date, go to the dispensary, claim and imbibe them. If it sounds crazy it’s because, in all honesty, it is.
Five years after the band footage (top) was made, the institution was designated as a federal psychiatric hospital. All volunteer patients were moved out and the Addiction Research Center was closed down. It is now the Federal Medical Center with an adjacent minimum security camp and 1,900 prisoners in total.
The United States Narcotic Farm represents a fascinating, surprising chapter in American medical and correctional history. There’s many great resources online which I encourage you to read: an academic history of the farm by Erin Weiss; a brief history of the farm by the Alcohol and Drugs History Society; an interview with Narcotic Farm book author Dr. Nancy Campbell by the Public Library of Science; some reflections by documentary maker Luke Walden; an interview with Olsen and Campbell on NPR; a feature on Kentucky Educational Television; a slideshow of images from the farm on Scientific American; and a slideshow on the website of the Lexington Herald Leader newspaper.
To close, I went on an Internet joyride scouring for images from the farm and dump the most intriguing here. Note, several made by Arthur Rothstein are staged promotional shots, which you can read more about here.)
Intake. Credit: Unknown.
Courtesy of Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen & Luke Walden. Credit :Arthur Rothstein, Kentucky Historical Society
Courtesy of Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen & Luke Walden, “The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts”, Kentucky Historical Society
At its peak, the institution’s award-winning dairy herd numbered more than ninety cows. Credit: Unknown.
Nurses clip patients fingernails. Manicures and pedicures were part of the early program to improve patients’ personal hygiene and were considered part of “the cure”. Circa 1940s. Credit: Kentucky Historical Society
‘Narcotic Farm at Lexington, Kentucky, Circa. 1950.’ Furniture was made in the institution’s woodshop was used throughout the prison and was also sent to various federal agencies, including the Treasury Department and, in later years, NASA. Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Kentucky Historical Society
Male and female patients perform a Latin dance accompanied by Marco’s big band. Former patient Eddie Flowers recalls: “We used to put on a big extravaganza with sets and everything. It was one of the good times down there in Lexington, Kentucky. And everybody came to the show-the females, the personnel, the males, you know. For that couple of hours we were just in a whole other space and time.” Courtesy of Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen & Luke Walden, “The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts”
This photo from 1939 was one of scores made by Arthur Rothstein used to promote the “disease model” practiced by doctors at Lexington. Drug use was seen as an illness not a inherently criminal behaviour.
‘Narcotic Farm at Lexington, Kentucky, 1939. Credit: Arthur Rothstein
Hypodermic syringes confiscated during admissions in 1939. Note one disguised as a fountain pen. Credit: Arthur Rothstein, National Library of Medicine.
The Darrow Photopolygraph measured a patient’s mental and physical reaction to slang references to drugs. In this 1939 photo, a researcher shows the addict words such as “dope” and “informer”, while monitoring the patient’s reaction. The patient is an actor posing for promotional material created by the government to publicize the Narcotic Farm. Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Kentucky Historical Society.
Still from video of a TDCJ officer firing a tear gas canister at a group of prisoners from just several metres. Source: ABC
If you’re in any doubt about either the power of images or the vindictiveness of prison authorities then consider this story.
Elderick Brass, a former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) officer leaked a video in May 2015 that showed a Lychner State Jail guard firing a tear gas canister into the chest of a prisoner. The video appeared in an ABC report in August 2015.
Indicted by a grand jury in December, Brass is due to appear in court February for “misuse of official information.” The law states he could face between 2 and 10 years if found guilty.
WHY THE PUBLIC EXPOSURE?
TDCJ has already admitted the improper use of the tear gas gun, but it has not sanctioned the trigger happy guard, let alone terminate his employment. Not wanting to cause itself problems, I presume, the TDCJ is hoping the matter will be forgotten and the retraining of staff it says it has done since will prevent a repeat event. Usually, the authorities want stuff like this to go away as quietly and as quickly as possible; for it to get out and off the news. One wonders then what the prosecution of Brass does? It certainly brings the video back to public attention.
Assuming that the TDCJ are willing to tolerate the scrutiny afresh, one must conclude that they really want a prosecution for the purposes of intimidating whistle-blowers and putting staff back under the order of command. They’re bringing the boot down especially to quash internal leaks of misconduct and injustice. They’re accommodating the continued circulation of this video in order to preclude the future circulation of others.
Worth noting is that the video on ABC includes only the incident and the moments leading immediately up to it. There is a longer video depicting the before and after and giving more context to the altercation between prisoners that gave rise to this nervy cop’s point-blank violence. Get the full context of the video and the TDCJ response in the ABC August 2015 report.
NEW VISUAL PARADIGM
Between whistle-blowers, FOIA requests, court materials, leaked CCTV and contraband cellphone vids there is a wealth of visual material emerging from the Prison Industrial Complex that describes the system very differently to the descriptions of professional photographers.
Whether the video and images are amateur, operational or prisoner-made they tend to share a grain and a noise. Characterised by awkward angles, low resolution, ambient cacophony and muted tones, prisoners’ illegal vids resemble surveillance footage. Prisons and jails give rise to horrific conditions and in some ways all the images and videos in what I’m referring to as a new visual paradigm are horrifying too. Often, if a video comes to our attention it is due to the violence or injustice it includes.
Even within images and videos in which abuse is not explicit, our eyes are being trained on the aesthetics and, crucially, the psychological and existential threat of incarceration. I’m thinking this through as I write.
I’ve not put into words fully, yet, what the emergence of this distinctly new type of visual evidence means. I expect it’ll function in the courts and for journalism as it always has; to construct, confirm and dispute narrative. And so, I guess, I am more interested in what it means for us as citizens.
Are we aware that more and more of the visual representations of US prisons and jails are shifting toward raw, unpolished feeds captured by wall-mounted cameras, body cams and illicit phone-cameras?
As we are exposed to this new type of imagery do we process it with the narrative its given to us through news and Internet alongside ads and comment boards? Do we take empathetic leaps to imagine all experiences within the scenes of abuse played out on our screens? Do we appreciate that events in one prison, at any moment, may be repeating in hundreds of the other 6,000+ locked facilities in the U.S.?
Visuals are one of the key ways outside-citizens learn about prisons. They are a key tool with which authorities–and increasingly prisoners–tweak their narratives for public consumption. Being a engaged citizen means to approach this new paradigm armed with information, skepticism and visual literacy.
‘Chasing the Dragon’ © Robert Saltzman / Juan Archuleta. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”
I’ve heard from a couple of folk that when I started Prison Photography, they laughed at its folly. Not only had a bleeding-heart liberal thug-hugger come along to explain a world no-one cared about to no-one in particular, but silly-little-leftie-me would run out of projects and photographs in no time. Not only had I picked a subject nobody cared for, I’d neglected to do the proper amount of research and maths.
Well, more than eight years later, and I’m still stumbling upon scintillating projects that challenge my ever-evolving timeline of prison-based visual arts. Case in point La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, a collaboration between Robert Saltzman and the prisoners of New Mexico State Penitentiary, in Santa Fe, NM.
© Robert Saltzman / Keith Baker. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”
Saltzman first visited the prison in 1982 to visit a friend and thereafter was fascinated by the lives behind the walls. Despite a massive riot less than two years prior, Saltzman convinced the warden to allow him in with his 35mm SLR, three lenses and camera-mounted flash. Saltzman gave assurances he was there as an artist and not as a reporter.
Over 9 months, Saltzman made 500 images on Kodachrome64 film. He picked the 35 strongest portraits but still wasn’t happy. They failed to tell a fraction of the stories or reflect even a small slice of the range of emotions he encountered. So he printed the 35 out and mounted them on white illustration board. He sent them back in, a few at a time, with a request.
“Please use the white space however you want,” Saltzman told Popular Photography in 1985.
© Robert Saltzman / Jonathan S. Shaw. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)
Some photographers would be happy to get in and out with some portraits and call it a day. Plaudits to Saltzman that he distanced himself enough to make a hard call about the nature of his pictures. And with it adding more time and uncertainty to the project.
28 total works came back. In the first exhibition of La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, 11 were shown. Later, 14 were exhibited.
“The drawings and writings, coupled with Saltzman’s portraits, communicate a poignant and often tension-filled commentary on the prison experience,” writes James Hugunin, art historian, expert on prison imagery and curator of a 1996 show Discipline and Photograph which included Saltzman’s work.
© Robert Saltzman / Ralph K Millam. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)
This work excites me because it avoids easy categorisation. This type of collaborative work is standard-fare these days with a new generation of practitioners inspired by the social justice priorities of photographers like Wendy Ewald, Anthony Luvera, Eric Gottesman and many more. In the early eighties however, when Saltzman et al. made these, collaboration was considered a bit amateurish. God forbid you allow scrawls upon photographs! Pencil was meant only for contact sheets, editing and for marking crops for the darkroom. Note that among famous photographers Robert Frank made some good scrawls on his stuff in the 70s for himself and for ad campaigns in the 80s and we all know Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor (1977-78) was before its time and the high-profile example of a photographer handing over prints for subjects to write upon.
With the exception of Danny Lyon, all the photographers I know that preceded Robert Saltzman in photographing inside US prisons–Steven Malinowski, Gary Walrath, Joshua Freiwald, Sean Kernan, Cornell Capa, Ruth Morgan, Douglas Kent Hall, Taro Yamasaki–were invested in keeping the camera, and thus the message and interpretation, in their own hands. Given the times and the preciousness of access, it makes sense that photographers would internalise society’s general attitude toward them as special messengers. (I should flag here, as I always do, that Ethan Hoffman’s work and book Concrete Mama was exemplary of this time in terms of giving over great space for his imprisoned subjects recount their stories.)
I wouldn’t say that photographing prison guards hadn’t happened by the early eighties, but it was unusual. So for Saltzman to get the written reflections of guard Ralph K. Millam (above) is significant too. Most photography projects within prison focus on the prisoners and very few focus on both the kept and the keepers.
In short, due to both its subject matter and approach, Saltzman’s La Pinta is landmark. Prisons weren’t photographed much in the early eighties and certainly not for as long as a year, the time it took Saltzman to complete the work. Its collaborative methodology allows for heightened emotional impact and positions it ahead of other works that later used similar formulas and embodied likeminded sympathies.
See more here.
Photo: Daniel Stier, from Ways of Knowing, 2015.
A couple of my fav photo-peeps are hosting a live online chat today about photography and science in the modern era. You can be involved. Michael Shaw of Reading the Pictures and independent curator Marvin Heiferman are putting on a salon conversation to analyze a group of ten news photos of “science” of one guise or another.
Panelists include Rebecca Adelman UMBC Professor of Media & Communication Studies; Ben de la Cruz, Multimedia Editor, Science Desk, NPR; Corey Keller, Curator, SFMOMA; Kurt Mutchler, Senior Editor, Science, Photography Department, National Geographic; and Max Mutchler, Space Telescope Science Institute, Hubble Heritage Project manager. Nate Stormer, University of Maine professor will moderate.
The ten photos were selected from thousands of media images.
“If photography was invented,” writes Shaw, “so that the sciences could communicate with each other, now it’s as much about making that investigation relevant to consumers, investors and alternately curious, fearful or enthralled citizens. This discussion is interested in science as a social agenda and a media phenomenon. It’s about the popularization of science, the attitude and approach on the part of science toward its own activities and what the general public sees of it.”
It will be fascinating. The salon is free but registration is required. Register here. Kicks of today December 1st, at 7 pm EST and will go for 2 hours on Google HangOut with live audio, video and with involvement from the public via live chat.
The discussion, jointly produced with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is a featured component of SEEING SCIENCE, a year-long project that explores the role photography plays in shaping, representing, and furthering the sciences.
Screengrab from the Los Angeles Times’ interactive feature Should California execute these 749 death row inmates?
Pursuant to recent posts about California’s potential bellwether ballot vote to repeal the death penalty and about the grouping portraits of men executed by the state of Texas, here’s an important interactive feature from the Los Angeles Times on the 749 prisoners on California’s death row: Should California execute these 749 death row inmates?
Thirteen prisoners have been executed in California since 1978. A tiny figure in contrast to the 728 men and 21 women currently on its death row. With 749 prisoners, California has by far the largest number of capital convictions of any state.
The Los Angeles Times provides a close look at each condemned prisoner and the crimes that put them on death row. Crucially, for me, they’re using photographs (mugshots) of each as the entry point into the cases. This is a deliberate attempt to put a face to the statistics. I wouldn’t say it is humanizing, but it does hammer home the individuality of each prisoner. Even with each prisoner represented by only a small thumbnail, it is a long, long scroll through the portraits. The effect is chilling. There are a lot of lives at stake and they are, effectively, in our hands. The title Should California execute these 749 death row inmates? is a direct challenge to each of us.
As I outlined earlier this week, California has two competing initiatives on its ballot, Prop 66 would expedite executions whereas Prop 62 would repeal the death penalty replacing it with Life Without Parole (LWOP). For me, Prop 62 is not an ideal solution as LWOP is just another form of state-delivered death, yet Prop 62 could be a step in the right direction if future campaigning against LWOP succeeds. And it does get California out of the business of killing its residents.
In light of this vitriolic, shambolic and bilious Presidential campaign, I guess I’m also relieved to see images that are related to criminal justice being used responsibly and without spin. Of course, that’s what we should expect from journalism. The tone of this news treatment of mugshots runs counter corporate circulation of mugshots for personal, financial gain, and the abuse of people in mugshots by public officials. (Thankfully, Maricopa County in Arizona has ceased its ‘Mugshot Of The Day’ public humiliation exercise).
What do you think about the LA Times’ use of these photographs to inform public debate? Do they help California voters decide?
Richard Wayne Jones was convicted and sentenced to death for the February 1986 kidnapping and murder of Tammy Livingston in Hurst, Texas. Photographed on Aug. 2, 2000, executed Aug. 22, 2000 (AP Photo/Brett Coomer)
Rian Dundon, photo editor at Timeline, has pieced together 20 years of Texas Death-Row Portraits, a photo-gallery depicting some of the men executed by the state of Texas since the early eighties. The images are made by a host of photographers down the years working for the Associated Press (AP).
“As the only non-local news organization with a guaranteed seat at every execution, the AP is granted special access to prisoners, and as a result the agency has accumulated an unusual set of portraits made shortly before inmates’ executions,” writes Dundon.
Never intended to be seen in aggregate, Dundon argues that the portraits assume a weight and significance when brought together. Prisons are a time capsule so regardless of who is shooting, the visiting booths, prison issue uniforms, standard spectacles and prisoners’ pallid skin are constants throughout. The lighting is artificial adding to the sense of unnaturalness in which the subject and photographer operate. Dundon makes comparison to lauded photographers of our time.
If art exists here, I’d argue it is not in the individual portraits per se but in Dundon’s grouping. A whole greater than its parts. Looking into the eyes of these condemned men provides a view into the soul of a nation. Here’s a gallery of American vengeance. An album devoted to violence in response to violence.
For its seventh and final stop, Prison Obscura will be on show at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon from April 1 to May 28.
I’ll be at Newspace for the opening next Friday night, April 1, 6–8pm. I’ll be installing Wednesday and Thursday so stop by and say hello.
Also, on the Saturday afternoon I’m moderating a panel titled Can Images Counter Mass Incarceration? with some of my favourite artists and thinkers. Here’s the Facebook event page and see bolded events’ details below.
THE BLURB (AGAIN)
No country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. More than 2.2 million people are currently locked up in the U.S.—a number that has more than quadrupled since 1980. But sadly, the lives lived behind bars are all too often invisible to those on the outside. Prison Obscura sheds light on such experiences and the prison-industrial complex as a whole by showcasing rarely seen surveillance, evidentiary, and prisoner-made photographs. The exhibition encourages visitors to ask why tax-paying, prison-funding citizens rarely get the chance to see such images, and what roles such pictures play for those within the system.
Alyse Emdur’s prison visiting room portraits from across the nation and Robert Gumpert’s recorded audio stories from within the San Francisco jail system provide an opportunity to see, read, and listen to subjects in the contexts of their incarceration. Juvenile and adult prisoners in different workshops led by Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, and Kristen S. Wilkins perform for the camera, reflect on their past, describe their memories, and self-represent through photographs. The exhibition moves between these intimate portrayals of life within the prison system to more expansive views of legal and spatial surveillance in Josh Begley’s manipulation of Google Maps’ API code and Paul Rucker’s animated video. Prison Obscura builds the case that Americans must come face-to-face with these images to grasp the proliferation of the U.S. prison system and to connect with those it confines.
Prison Obscura is made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Newspace is hosting a series of events related to the prison industrial complex and the role images play in exposing the structures of the U.S. criminal justice system.
OFFSITE Panel discussion: Can Images Counter Mass Incarceration? Saturday April 2, 2-4pm: Panelists Lorenzo Triburgo, Sarah-Jasmine Calvetti and Barry Sanders. Moderated by me. OFFSITE Location: Native American Student and Community Center, Portland State University (710 SW Jackson St). Sponsored by Portland State University Camera Arts Society.
Discussion: Re-Envisioning Justice: What Is Between Reform and Abolition of the Criminal Justice System?: Sunday, April 24, 4-6pm. At Newspace (1632 SE 10th Ave.)
Community Discussion: The Ethics of Photography: Thursday, May 12, 6:30-8pm, organized in collaboration with the Oregon Jewish Museum. At Newspace (1632 SE 10th Ave.)
All public programs are free, open to the public. Please note event location.
Expanding Photography: Discovering the Stories Behind Your Work: May 9 – May 23, 6:30 -9:30 pm | Instructor: Gregory Parra.
Education Lecture Series: The Screen Politics of Public Projections: May 17, 7:00 – 8:30pm | Instructor: Dr. Abigail Susik.
Build Your Own Pinhole Camera: June 5, 12:00-4:00pm | Instructor: Pete Gomena.
INFO + HOURS
Newspace Center for Photography, 1632 SE 10th Ave, Portland, OR 97214
Mon–Thurs 10am-9:30pm; Fri–Sun 10am-6pm
For press inquiries, contact Newspace Curator Yaelle S. Amir at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503.963.1935.
Cameron Rowland, “New York State Unified Court System” (2016), oak wood, distributed by Corcraft, 165 x 57.5 x 36 inches, rental at cost. Courtrooms throughout New York State use benches built by prisoners in Green Haven Correctional Facility. The court reproduces itself materially through the labor of those it sentences. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)
You may have sat in the chairs, or slept on the pillows, or worn the smocks. What am I talking about? You may have used goods made by prison labour. You or your kids, depending what state you’re in, may have eaten school meals made by prisoners.
Wellington boots, uniforms, mattresses, furniture, binders, paper-goods, forms, flagpoles, hardware, utensils, even cookies … the list of goods made by prison industries is long. CALPIA (California Prison Industries Authority) in California and Corcraft in New York State are just two government agencies making high-quality goods while paying low-quality wages.
Prisoners working for CALPIA earn between 30 and 90 cents per hour (the higher end is rare) and then about 50% is taken out for taxes, charges and restitution. Supporters of these multimillion dollar agencies say it they provide valuable jobs training for prisoners. Opponents say it’s slave labor. Of course, you’re opinion will be swayed by whether you think prisons and jails are a net benefit or a net cost for society.
For prison abolitionists these state-insider agencies are second only in evil to the private prison companies. Why? Because they execute the quieter but some of the more pernicious maneuvering within capitalism. They devalue labor and devalue human beings. In California, those that defend CALPIA point out CALPIA only sells to other state bodies, but a market is a market and who the buyer is doesn’t change the work, wages or conditions for prisoners. In fact, most state-run prison industries don’t sell beyond state agencies is because they’d destroy many “free” markets simply by undercutting them on price–so great is the savings on wages. Look at those benches above; the joinery on those is out of this world. A steal at $654.50 (see below).
Artist Cameron Rowland is dismayed. And energised. The benches and the jackets and desk in the images here are from Rowland’s latest show 91020000 at Artists Space in New York. Continuing his minimalist installation approach, Rowland has put a few (of the bigger) Corcraft goods in the gallery space. The project is as much an extended and deeply researched essay as it is this gallery installation.
“Property is preserved through inheritance,” writes Rowland. “Legal and economic adaptations have maintained and reconfigured the property interests established by the economy of slavery in the United States. The 13th constitutional amendment outlawed private chattel slavery; however, its exception clause legalized slavery and involuntary servitude when administered “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
To prison activists this is not new language. Even to Oprah’s List devotees this is not new. Michelle Alexander put into plain and passionate terms how the legal inequities of first, convict leasing, then Jim Crow laws and, now, expanded disenfranchisement laws in the era of mass incarceration, have maintained a “sub-class” made up disproportionately of people of colour.
Crucially, when Rowland talks of inheritance, he’s not talking about the bank accounts and assets of our parents. No, he’s talking about our shared inheritance as a nation that enjoys civic infrastructure and communities who benefit from, or not, the provision of nurturing institutions and spaces. Capitalism depends upon the movement and trade of raw materials. Roads, ports, markets, factories and comms all built upon a dependent system of inequality.
Rowland describes how convict leasing replaced a “largely ineffective” statute labor provision. And the roads in southern states got built. From there, Rowland rolls with the examples into modern day, not letting up to allow us an escape route argument of ‘This is now, That was then.’ It all connects. Read it.
Cameron Rowland, “1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011” (2016), Nomex fire suit, distributed by CALPIA, 50 x 13 x 8 inches. Rental at cost “The Department of Corrections shall require of every able-bodied prisoner imprisoned in any state prison as many hours of faithful labor in each day and every day during his or her term of imprisonment as shall be prescribed by the rules and regulations of the Director of Corrections.” – California Penal Code § 2700. CC35933 is the customer number assigned to the nonprofit organization California College of the Arts upon registering with the CALPIA, the market name for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Prison Industry Authority. Inmates working for CALPIA produce orange Nomex fire suits for the state’s 4300 inmate wildland firefighters. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)
Alternatively, and also, read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Case For Reparations. It looks at generations of African Americans robbed of earnings, assets and net-worth, with a focus on agriculture in the south and red-lining of properties in Chicago. Coates’ piece is not a tour de force only because of its impeccable research but because he puts figures on it.
Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.
To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte. Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.
Which brings us to the modern day. And to the darker corners of American commerce.
Let’s be clear, Rowland isn’t arguing about the merits, or lack thereof, of the existing judicial system and the rightness or wrongness of the control of prisoners. No, he’s more interested in the economic uses of the prisoners, of those bodies.
I’ll argue, in Rowland’s absence, that prisons in the U.S. are morally repugnant and a violence on poor Americans to a unconscionable degree. I’ll double back round and point to Rowland’s beautifully constructed text and visual arguments as one piece of evidence for the assertion.
I’m sure Rowland and I would agree that the over-arching forces of commerce (from which all hands are a few steps removed from the control panel and therefore responsibility) are the problem.
This excerpt particularly:
But how do we conceal the theft? The question that has to be posed when people are systematically disappeared is: Where do we hide the bodies? “In prison” is only part of the answer. The deeper, more sinister response is also the most seemingly benign: we abstract them so they become only sources of labor and wealth. We reduce them to lines in an actuarial table, an oblique reference in a statute, a number in a log book. We dissolve people into fungible assets.
A lot of the time quiet gallery spaces don’t do a lot for me. They just seem sad. But when an artist can fill the space with poignancy … and especially when they are dealing with a grave matter that is–like in the case of prison labor–desperately sad, then I think it works.
Cameron Rowland: 91020000 continues at Artists Space (3rd Floor, 38 Greene St, Soho, Manhattan) through March 13. Get there if you can.
Cameron Rowland, “Attica Series Desk” (2016), steel, powder coating, laminated particleboard, distributed by Corcraft, 60 x 71.5 x 28.75 inches. Rental at cost: The Attica Series Desk is manufactured by prisoners in Attica Correctional Facility. Prisoners seized control of the D-Yard in Attica from September 9th to 13th 1971. Following the inmates’ immediate demands for amnesty, the first in their list of practical proposals was to extend the enforcement of “the New York State minimum wage law to prison industries.” Inmates working in New York State prisons are currently paid $0.10 to $1.14 an hour. Inmates in Attica produce furniture for government offices throughout the state. This component of government administration depends on inmate labor. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)
Installation view of ‘Cameron Rowland: 91020000’ at Artists Space, New York (photo by Adam Reich)