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wrote about the emergence of the Black Power movement in the UK, for Timeline. Specifically, about a small set of images of one protest and associated ephemera:

At the start of the 1970s, the Black Panther movement in the United States was both well established and well organized. It was also well feared by the authorities. By contrast, black activism in the U.K. was young, with barely a toehold on power. The trial of the Mangrove Nine, in 1970, changed all that.

and

According to the National Archives, photographs such as the ones you see here were “used by the police to suggest that key allies of the Black Power movement were implicated in planning and inciting a riot.”

Read more: When cops raided a hip 1970s London cafe, Britain’s Black Power movement rose up

 

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I wrote recently about Davi Russo‘s family portraits made inside two New Jersey State prisons between 1987 and 2007: 20 years of prison polaroids chart son’s resolve, love, and only contact with dad.

The Polaroids chart visits he, his mother, sister, grandparents and friends made to see his father David who was incarcerated on suspicion of murder in 1984, stood trial, and was found guilty and sentenced, in 1987, to life plus 20 years. He has been eligible for parole since 2010 but remains in prison today. Russo, a director and photographer these days, was nine years old at the time of his father’s conviction.

Russo hoped sharing his experience might help others get free of the stigma of incarceration too.

“Growing up with Shawshank Redemption and all the horrible prison TV shows, I wanted to take authorship,” explains Russo. “I had a chance to put something different together. And it was legitimate. Polaroids are thought of as the most fun type of photography. Super quick, on the beach, snap, shake it. The world is perfect! Shoot it on polaroid! But not for me. I didn’t experience polaroids that way and I knew I wasn’t the only one.”

Russo was reluctant to share the photos publicly for many years and when he finally did he asked his father to write a reflection on the collection. Instead, his father wrote single memories on Post-It notes of each photo … of each moment they stood before the camera. Those written memories became the captions for each image–an unexpected and personal twenty year narrative. Therefore, I encourage you to visit the series, which Russo has named Picture Time, on Russo’s website and read the full captions. There too, you will find essays by Russo’s sister and mother.

Read and see more:  20 years of prison polaroids chart son’s resolve, love, and only contact with dad.

 

  

 

 

 

What to do with a defunct prison? Demolish? Renovate into a hotel or apartments. Create a museum or arts centre? The response and reuse of prisons depends largely on economics but also on whether a society has written and agreed on a narrative and the place of the prison in relation to the state and body politic.

For example, Robben Island is an obvious memorial to anti-Apartheid campaigners and their unjust imprisonment; a rejection of state-sanctioned racism. Similarly, Tuol Sleng in Cambodia is a Genocide Museum honouring the victims of the Khmer Rouge. While Alcatraz does include information about the American Indian Movement and the Indian Occupation of the island in 1969-71, the narrative is mostly a distant historical view of “The Rock” in which tourists can get macabre and creeped out, safely.

Now closed, Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, doesn’t have an agreed history, yet. It cannot be so easily be packaged for a public, or narrative. Opened in 1835, Kingston Pen established the basis of Canada’s prison philosophy; the architectural embodiment of prison as a legal structure in accordance with British rule and colonial prerogatives. It was a place for carceral not corporal punishment—100 months instead of 100 licks of the paddle.

Until its closure in 2013, Kingston Pen was one of the longest continuous operating prisons in the world. It was shuttered due to rising maintenance costs and documented human rights violations. In its 160 years, Kingston Pen served up hardship and oppression. Not least, as in all Western societies, for minority groups and indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples make up less than four percent of the Canadian population, yet they account for the largest demographic of prisoners.

Into the awaiting “space” of cultural definition and narrative framing of Kingston Pen, enter Through a Penal System, Darkly (2013 – 2015), a raking, bamboozling, photo-based survey of the prison by artist Cindy Blažević and partners. Onto a general history of the institution, Blažević knits oral histories of current and past corrections administrators, legal experts, staff and prisoners. Audio clips, maps, photo-documentation and photo-composites bring the past to this very moment and foreground prison abolition arguments.

 

An illustration of a Plains-style teepee is superimposed onto a photo of a small, enclosed prison yard – a place where Indigenous cultural practices would often take place. The actual teepee was packed away, as part of the decommissioning process, before Blažević had a chance to photograph it.

 

For some, the closure of Kingston Pen, as with many iconic prisons, might serve as an excuse to draw a line and refrain from examining history, but Through a Penal System, Darkly encourages us to do the opposite and leap right back into our immediate history; to face the many shortcomings of incarceration.

In an excellent read of Blažević’s work, Ellyn Walker delineates the way, familial, racial and social-control dynamics persist in society, through the prison, and because of the prison.

“One must consider deeply the ways in which justice and compassion go hand-in-hand, in particular, in spaces of extreme vulnerability and oppression, such as the prison,” writes Walker, who quotes Dr. Angela Y. Davis as she urges us to look toward contested sites: “The prison is one of the most important features of our image environment,” said Davis.

“[The prison] reveals the imperative for reimagining how we both understand and practice justice,” adds Walker. That’s why Through a Penal System, Darkly is such a landmark work of art and research. Comprehensive and content-rich, Through a Penal System, Darkly has been presented as an exhibition and lives online as a multi-pronged inquiry. Working with law students, Blažević made the project while the inaugural artist-in-residence (2013-14) at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto.

Energised by the way in which she pushed passed the mere static image and committed political and complex readings of the prison, I pressed Blažević with some questions on the kernels, goals and outcomes of the project. I can only provide a smattering of the hundreds of photograph Blažević made and as the audio and context for the photos is so key, I encourage you all to visit the Through a Penal System, Darkly website and spend some time.

 

 

Some of the surprising colours in Blažević’s images are reminiscent of William Eggleston’s photography. Somehow the electrical switch boxes, mail-drops, wall paintings, signage and the vernacular touches make for the most engaging photos. The deadpan images of children’s play structures and lawn chairs speak to the normalisation of prison operations. Janitorial, medical and infrastructural observations reveal the comprehensiveness of resources and operations. The exterior shots seem mostly to be establishing shots and hold the least interest, but I suspect Blažević is aware of this. Still, she was there to photograph as much as possible, almost forensically while her access lasted. There are other comparisons to be made between Through a Penal System, Darkly and other photographers work, and Blažević and I talk about them in the Q&A below.

While Through a Penal System, Darkly undoubtedly required a massive amount of work, significant institutional support, the buy-in of co-makers, and others’ skillsets, I think it is a project that is instructive about how professionals working with media can explode the issue of prisons and other controversial, historically-rich sites.

Scroll on for our Q&A.

 

Q & A

Why should people care about prisons?

This Angela Davis quote really nails it: “There is reluctance to face the realities hidden within [prisons], a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings.”

That, in a nutshell, is why people should care. We’re naïve to think that prisons and criminal justice happen in a bubble that has nothing to do with the configuration of all of society.

Prisons are very much a reflection of our deepest, seemingly unsolvable social problems. This project looked at the many ways that prisons obscure our individual and collective responsibilities of taking seriously the ongoing problems of our society, particularly those produced by racism, colonialism, patriarchy and global capitalism. Kim Pate, one of the contributors to my project, at the time Director of the Elizabeth Fry Societies and currently a Canadian senator, spoke about prison being the only system that couldn’t say no. In other words, when the health care system and the legal aid system and the welfare system are unable to help you, because of successive budget cuts, the prison will be there for you.

Decarceration should be everybody’s business.

The relatability of the project was important to me, which is why the exhibition that accompanied the website was a massive photograph mounted on the exterior of the law school, accessible to all passers-by and not exclusively to law students or gallery goers, and linked to the website. I want everyone to care.

 

 

Where did your interest in prisons begin? Generally, or with Kingston specifically?

Who doesn’t have a natural fascination with prisons? With what it means to lose one’s freedom?

As a visual artist, I have a specific interest in spaces and how they define us, as individuals and as a society. I majored in International Relations and minored in political science, so the interest has always been there, simmering away in the background, as a backdrop to many of the subjects I’ve explored over the years, academically and artistically.

Kingston Penitentiary, whose interior architecture had never been photographed in any systematic way, holds a deep fascination with the Canadian public. So when I heard it would close, I thought, let me try to get in there. And I did.

What started as a project to photograph 19th century experiments in prison architecture no longer acceptable to our current ideas of incarceration, turned into a massive photographic and audio compendium of issues and thoughts expressed and experienced about the Canadian justice system, all through the lens of Kingston Penitentiary.

At its root, I think Through a Penal System, Darkly is a project about fairness, about what is actually fair when it comes to punishment. Working on it has given me pause to appreciate how fundamental our preoccupation with justice is. I have three children and it is really incredible how fairness and a sense of justness is prevalent even at an extremely early age. One could dismiss this as philosophical waxing, but the basic ubiquity of it is undeniable.

 

 

What is the public opinion in Canada toward prisons?

An apathy arising from the false comfort that America has a problem with over-incarceration and that, because we’re not America, we don’t. Canadians see themselves as social progressives, as we are on many fronts. This seemed to stop at prisons under the previous, Conservative government. Even though statistics showed crime rates have been dropping for decades, the Harper Conservative government took a “tough on crime” approach: more prisons, longer sentences, mandatory minimums, and eliminating discretion for courts. Under the current Liberal government, whatever its shortcomings, the Supreme Court has ruled that many of the anti-crime laws enacted by the Harper government were unconstitutional. These actions have a role in shaping public opinion, tangentially.

Just the other day our national broadcaster, CBC, aired a story about the “shock and dismay” of parents and area residents to news that a halfway house for federal penitentiary inmates would open beside a Toronto Catholic elementary school. It’s telling. It’s sad that media perpetuates many of the black-and-white, negative, populist stereotypes surrounding criminal justice.

Honestly, I think most people don’t have a clue about what happens inside prison. A few days into my project I realised I didn’t either, not really. For example, I hadn’t given any thought to the reality that when one is sentenced to prison the term of their removal from freedom is supposed to be the punishment itself, but, actually, prisoners experience layer after layer of additional punishments and micro-aggressions—from withholding mail to arbitrary corporal punishment. Why would a former inmate have to endure continued punishment, say, in the form of community isolation, while finishing the terms of his or her sentence in a halfway house?

 

 

Why did you decide to lay out the information as you did in this wide-ranging, chapter-esque history of Kingston Prison?

The reality of incarceration is not simple or easily summarised, so how could depicting that reality be any less complex? I wanted to create a legal and historical context for the photographs. There are many chapters to the story of this prison, so many ways of thinking about incarceration and concepts of justice. I had real difficulty editing down the many stories and perspectives I encountered while fitting them into the parameters of the residency. And that is why the project sits at such a busy intersection of art, photographic documentation, social justice, cultural anthropology, legal theory, historical research and oral storytelling.

At heart is the realisation that every photograph I took has long tendrils of political, legal and social reality trailing beneath it. That’s not just a fenced-in yard or a sad-looking metal door you’re looking at, that’s the consequence of a policy that was drawn up, discussed, implemented and is a plan for how to go about “correcting” behaviour, how to set a moral balance right.

At its simplest, the project maps out—literally and conceptually—the relationship of the architecture to its previous inhabitants. It’s a political, legal and historical choose-your-own adventure.

Were the experts and others you interviewed keen to talk? It seems a decommissioned facility gives more license to be honest about the criminal justice system? Would you agree?

Ha! I had great difficulty getting access. I had to leverage my grant from the Canada Council for the Arts (a federal body) to get permission from the Commissioner of the Corrections Services Canada to enter the facility.

The experts were, indeed, keen to talk, but the Department of Justice was not so keen to let their employees do so. On the morning of a scheduled interview with two CSC employees, the DoJ intercepted, postponing it until my questions had been screened. Initially, I was surprised. However, the CSC, already cautious and unforthcoming, became perceptively more so following the 2007 suicide of Ashley Smith while in detention and especially when a 2013 inquest ruled her death a homicide. My interviews and inquiries took place in the months following this ruling, when the CSC was under greater scrutiny for its treatment of prisoners, especially the mentally ill. I don’t think an artist is particularly threatening, though an artist paired with a law school might be, I suppose.

What were the most surprising testimonies you heard?

The syndicated prison radio show really hit me. The tongue-in-cheek songs and skits paint a very different picture from the kind of controlled environment, detached from its surrounding community, that we’ve come to associate with a federal penitentiary.

The emotional account given by Margaret Beare of the breakdown in humaneness that happens inside total institutions.

Kim Pate, who is now a Senator, talking about what the replacement of old-fashioned metal keys with electronic buttons (to open cell doors) means for the mental health of prisoners.

How extremely poorly correctional officers are educated in mental health intervention, not to mention how much the officers themselves struggle in this regard, with PTSD at post-Vietnam War levels.

And new information that stuck with you?

The bricks and mortar architecture dictating how we imprison, how we punish/correct long after our ideologies and laws change. The implication being that a more progressive approach to justice would be curtailed by the expensive assemblage of bricks that themselves were the result of the imperfect plans and fads of the day.

 

 

 

Who did you work with on Through a Penal System, Darkly?

The photography was made possible thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. What followed—the contextualization of the photographs, the website – was the result of an artist residency at the Osgoode Hall Law School, an unusual intersection of disciplines that was the brainchild of the school’s forward-thinking Dean, Lorne Sossin.

The focus of the residency was to research and create a legal and historical context for the photographs I had taken—which was accomplished through collaboration with seven upper-year law students who elected to take my Directed Reading course.

Through research, discussions and interviews with the various stakeholders, the students and I explored the ideals of the criminal justice system—past, present and future. Ultimately, the photographs and accompanying stories, essays, historical anecdotes tell us something about Kingston Penitentiary. However, they also invite us to ruminate on the bigger picture—that is, on the evolving structure of the penal system, on society’s changing understanding of the role of prison, and on the role played by the many people who have a willing or unwilling stake in the criminal justice and penal systems. The breadth and scope of the interviews and essays are owed mostly to them.

The work for me sits somewhere between Donovan Wylie’s work on the decommissioned Long Kesh Prison, Northern Ireland, Geoffrey James’ work on Kingston and perhaps even the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History.

I love Donovan Wylie’s comment about “applying a [photographic] system to a [prison] system”. I can relate to it. Wylie’s Maze series is one of my favourites. Those curtains! I couldn’t help but have him in the back of my mind when I was arranging my project.

It wasn’t until Geoffrey James published his book that I had any idea he, too, had photographed the prison. We don’t run in similar circles. He had such great access! My access was minimum and given grudgingly by the Head of the Correctional Service Canada.

I like thinking that my project aligns with the work of Tings Chak, which strives to be more experiential than the more straight-forward documentarian photographs of, say, Geoffrey James. Her graphic novel, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, explores the role and ethics of architectural design and representation in mass incarceration, and is pretty amazing.

Another artist who is documenting from an interesting angle is Brett Story, who just finished her PhD in geography at University of Toronto and made a film The Prison In Twelve Landscapes about the influence of prisons on public systems, cities and economics.

It’s a gorgeous, harrowing film. I thought it was one of the best films of 2016.

I’d like to see more multimedia in-depth photo-based pieces like Through a Penal System, Darkly. It seems the skills to code all this might beyond most people? Am I right, or am I just a luddite? Could Through a Penal System, Darkly be used as a template for other projects?

Thank you! You’re no luddite—the coding was beyond me and so would have been the cost of hiring a programmer without institutional support. I am grateful to Osgoode Hall Law School for generously providing the resources (developers, hosting, etc) to bring to life the idea in my head. I would love to use it as a template for future projects.

These types of projects are expensive and there is some risk. Another major project (also map-based) that I worked on 2007-2010 across seven Balkan countries with multiple arts organisations and which was funded by major European institutions went offline in 2015 because Google stopped supporting the web-based map platform on which the entire site was built. And, poof!, the work no longer exists. The cost of rebuilding it is too high and the momentum to search for support has passed. In-depth multimedia web projects are tricky things.

 

 

How and where do you want the work to sit? What do you hope it will do?

I hope the work sparks reaction and thought. It would be great if my own small contribution could inspire a change in the direction and tone of the conversation around decarceration.

I would love the opportunity to re-mount the exhibition publicly elsewhere.

I hope the website will continue to be used as a resource at Osgoode Hall Law School. It’s currently being used by high school students via the Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) program, an innovative collaborative academic and extracurricular education program aimed at supporting, guiding and motivating high school students who face challenges in engaging successfully with school and accessing postsecondary education, which is wonderful.

Thanks, Cindy.

Thank you, Pete.

 

 

All images: Cindy Blažević

 

 

 

Narratives of abuse leak steadily from our prison systems. All too often, though, the true extent and horror of violence and corruption within remains shrouded or unspoken. And certainly unseen. Frequently, the narratives of abuse are singular incidents deemed extraordinary enough to warrant investigation and perhaps some local news coverage. Frequently, single incidents are described in the media as originating, and limited to, a single institution. The flow of information of, and investigation into, wrongdoing in Florida’s youth prison system is, by comparison, an overwhelming flood of longstanding, coordinated manipulation and orchestrated abuse across multiple facilities.

Recently, The Miami Herald published a years-long investigation into into Florida’s juvenile justice system. Following the death of 17-year-old Elord Revolte, the Herald sourced documents, interviews and surveillance videos that reveal “a disturbing pattern of beatings doled out or ordered by officers”.

The investigation is aptly, and devastatingly, named Fight Club. It’s a sprawling deep-dive not only into the most egregious incidents of scandal but also into the deaths of 12 children in the system since 2000. This is difficult but important reporting.

Officers staged fights for entertainment, for gambling and to exert control. Officers relied on youths deemed stronger to enforce violent hierarchy and to mete out vicious beatings.

“Youthful enforcers are rewarded with sweet pastries from the employee vending machines, a phenomenon known as honey-bunning,” explains the Herald. “Beatings bought for the price of a pastry.”

The Miami Herald found that many of the staff were rejects from the adult prison system, previously fired due to an array of disqualifying behaviours.

“Florida’s youth corrections programs are sprinkled with hundreds of staffers who were jettisoned by the adult prison system or staffs at local jails but welcomed by institutions looking after incarcerated youths. Some had short-lived second-chance stints. Others remain on the job.”

Predators — both men and women — with violent histories were paid to look over society’s vulnerable children.

“Tommy Williams’ arrest for clobbering a severely disabled man he was paid to protect didn’t discourage his prospective employers at the Duval Youth Academy. They hired him,” writes the Herald. “Uriah T. Harris’ rap sheet featured a long string of arrests, including aggravated battery and child neglect. That didn’t deter his future bosses at the Avon Park Youth Academy. Both were hires that would prove regrettable.”

Some officers initiated sex with youthful detainees; they raped minors in their custody. All the while, staff built up a culture of see-nothing and say-nothing denial.

The online presentation of the reporting makes prominent use of acquired CCTV footage. Organised beating after organised beating. It’s shocking to watch. In one video, the youth are ordered to beat another once he enters the room. The staff member then kills the lights to make their ambush harder to deflect.

I’ve pulled some screencaps from the Herald’s designated webpage for the investigation. The sadistic manipulation of children as evidenced in weeks of footage the Herald sifted cannot be boiled down to any number of frames but here, at least, the inset captions give you an idea of the sick practices and abuse carried out by staff and by boys under the coercion of staff.

As revelatory as these CCTV videos are (as compared to the usual opaqueness from which prisons benefit) they are not a total indictment in every circumstance. While the videos paint a brutal picture of routine violence they did not, have not, and will not in every circumstance identify the perpetrator. Such was the case in the death of Elord Revolte. He was beaten by over a dozen prisoners and unprotected by staff at the Miami Dade Juvenile Correctional Center. Five staff were fired, but no prosecution was made. (Read the 66-page DJJ report here.)

The investigation, Fight Club, is incredibly difficult viewing and reading but it is a benchmark of prison reporting. Rarely is abuse from inside detailed so thoroughly and viscerally. Of the many profoundly sad aspects of the reporting are the interviews with parents of children killed or severely injured. No matter what your child has done, you do not expect the state to send him or her home in a body bag.

View Fight Club. It is beyond shocking but it is also imperative journalism.

 

Sadie Barnette‘s exhibition Dear 1968 is an exploration of family and political history. Barnette uses sketches, family photos and selections from the 500-page FBI file on her father, Rodney Barnette, member of the Black Panther Party. Dear 1968 is an extension and reworking of her earlier show Do Not Destroy which focused exclusively on the COINTELPRO surveillance of her father Ronald over a ten year period.

“Barnette’s family story is not theirs alone,” says the press release. “Examining the fraught relationship between the personal and the political, the everyday and the otherworldly, the past and the present, she reveals that the injustices of 1968 have not yet been relegated to the pages of history, but live on in new forms today.”

Good stuff.

If you’re in or near Philly, catch the mainline out to Haverford and catch the show at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College.

 

 

Dear 1968 is in conjunction with the symposium “The Black Extra/ordinary,” which will be held on October 6th/7th at Haverford College, exploring the poles of black representation in historical archives, social media, fine arts, and other arenas.

 

 

 

 

 

This year marks 200 years since Auburn Prison went in to operation. Joe Librandi-Cowan grew up in the shadow of massive maximum-security prison in upstate New York. Over the past three years, Librandi-Cowan has been photographing the neighborhoods around the prison (now called Auburn Correctional Facility), has been meeting locals, diving into archives and exhibiting the work within the region. His main body of work is The Auburn System, titled after the Auburn System of prison management that added hard labour to the Philadelphia System of solitary, penitence and prayer. His photobook Songs of a Silent Wall brings together archive images of American prisons.

Librandi-Cowan has contempt for the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) in the United States and the manner in which its decentralized and embedded nature allows for its silent persistence. His work mounts a narrative that writes Auburn into the early chapters of the development of the PIC. It’s not a narrative closely examined by others in his hometown. Shaping and presenting the work has not been without its challenges.

It is Librandi-Cowan’s negotiations between critiquing the system and maintaining empathy for ordinary people who work in it–who are also swallowed by it–that fascinate me. Not least, because other image-makers focused on prisons are dealing with similarly delicate negotiations.

I’m grateful to Librandi-Cowan for making time to answer my questions.

Scroll on for our Q&A.

Q&A

PP: How did your work on Auburn Prison come about? Is it still ongoing?

JLC: The project formed into the focus of my undergraduate studies and eventually into my thesis work. The project is ongoing. The work requires a slow, long-term approach. While Auburn is my hometown, I still struggle to understand and represent it visually. My relationship to Auburn, much like the town’s relationship to the prison industry, is complex. I critique and question the history of an institution that has almost always supported the community. The fact that I am a member of the community, forces me to move slowly and carefully.

The history takes a while to sift through, the relationships I make with fellow Auburnians take a while to forge, and figuring out how to represent and combat the prison industrial complex isn’t something that is simple to figure out.

PP: When did you first start thinking of the prison as a topic for your art and inquiry?

JLC: The prison sits in the middle of the city. Many members of local families, generations deep, have been employed by the prison industry. Growing up, I was vaguely aware that some of my family had worked in the prison, but I never gave the prison – which was down the street from where I lived, always in view – much of a thought.

I knew little bits about the prison’s history – that it was one of the oldest prisons in New York State, and that it was the first place to host an execution by electrocution – but the prison, and ideas related to imprisonment, were seldom discussed or explained. I never questioned or understood the prison beyond it being a place for employment.

It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t necessarily normal to have a prison down the street or to have a family member or neighbor that worked inside a prison.

JLC: As I got older, I began to learn more about the prison system, mass incarceration, the economics involved and I began to realize that the prison had a much larger influence on my community than I had initially thought or understood. I began making images to make sense of the complicated role the prison has had with my hometown, with history, and with myself as a young person living in the town. I began photographing in an attempt to make sense of the prison system from the lens of a prison host community, but immediately I realized that it further pushed me to question it.

PP: Where have you presented this work?

JLC: I have presented this at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art, which is Auburn’s local history museum. I have also shown selections of the work at LightWork in Syracuse, NY, and I recently opened a show at SUNY Onondaga.

PP: When you showed it in Auburn itself how was it received?

JLC: Reactions varied – it was positive, negative, and also a bit static/unresponsive. Much of the feedback I received were initial aesthetic responses, and not feedback on the conceptual aspects or questions the work asked.

The prison is a top employer within the community, so people are seemingly reluctant to critique or question the role of the prison, its historical implications, or what the hosting of a prison means for a community.

While showing the work in Auburn, I made it clear within my presentation that I was questioning Auburn’s role within the prison industrial complex – past and present – and that I was interested in finding a way within our community to talk about the increasing problem of mass incarceration within the United States.

JLC: I found this information to be much more difficult to present and discuss within Auburn because so many within my community are directly involved with the correctional system. It was incredibly difficult to find ways to talk about what the work questions without the perception that I was criticizing the generations of people within my community who work or have worked at the prison. Finding productive ways to critically engage, discuss, and question the livelihood of many in my community has been very difficult.

In turn, the response to the work often ends up being extremely limited. Employee contracts won’t allow for correctional officers to discuss some of these issues with me, nor they do not want to talk ill of their work. Many people within my community have a difficult time reasoning with my questioning of the prison system; their relationships to it are complex, deep, and difficult to reckon with.

While many may generally agree that the prison system doesn’t function properly or fairly, Auburn’s relationship to its prison doesn’t seem to allow for a communal discussion on the matter.

PP: You suggested to me in an email that your worry over local reactions have effected the way you edit and present?

JLC: I wouldn’t say that I’ve necessarily changed the work, but I often worry that the project, and that the directness of my stance on the prison industry, may do damage to my community – especially when presented internally. Auburn has bore witness to much trauma. It has direct and early links to the Prison Industrial Complex, the electric chair, and to correctional practices that have helped shaped modern day incarceration. Condensing and presenting that information to the community almost produces and perpetuates this trauma. While it’s not the community’s direct fault, my questioning of these practices and histories has the potential to produce the feeling that the community itself is to blame.

While it is important to combat mass incarceration and the toxic attitudes that prison work can breed, I believe it’s also important to realize and remember that prisons have direct effects on the people who work within them and on the communities that host them.

To me, the ability of many within my community to navigate between the daily entrapment of prison walls and civilian life, begins to raise many questions about how traumas and toxic attitudes are transferred and perpetuated within my community and within society in general.

JLC: Prisons not only affect incarcerated individuals – they affect those who staff the prisons, the people close to those staff too. They affect towns that host prisons and communities from which members are extracted to then be incarcerated.

Prisons shape, and are shaped, by local and regional economies connected to the prison industry, and attitudes towards race – the list goes on. I’m trying to show that the web of the prison industrial complex, while much closer to my hometown than others, is something, often almost invisible, that is local to almost every American.

While I doubt many would pick prison work as their first employment opportunity, it is one of the only financially stable options within the Auburn area. Attacking the industry that financially provides for many within the community doesn’t seem to be the best way to have these conversations or to figure out alternatives or answers to the prison.

As I continue this project, I am attempting to find ways to properly and effectively critique mass incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex without alienating or further damaging my subjects – whether they be community members, correctional officers, or incarcerated individuals, or returning citizens.

PP: What is gained and what is lost by such slow and reflexive approach?

JLC: Being cautious and thoughtful about how the work may impact the actual people that the work represents will only help further the project and its possible impacts.

Much of the contemporary work on prisons deals with incarcerated individuals, however, I’m becoming increasingly interested in figuring out how conversations and representations of others within the prison industrial complex can impact and change our discussions on mass incarceration. Maybe if it can be shown that mass incarceration negativity effects all within the equation, different sources of change may occur?

I believe The Auburn System functions well outside of Auburn because distance from the work allows for a more general discussion around mass incarceration. But showing the work within Auburn has made me rethink how it should function within the town.

PP: Thanks, Joe

JLC: Thank you, Pete

JOE LIBRANDI-COWAN

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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So why this footage? Well Malefactors band-member J.P. Olsen is also an author and filmmaker. He directed the fantastic documentary The Narcotic Farmand 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.

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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.)

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Intake. Credit: Unknown.
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Courtesy of Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen & Luke Walden. Credit :Arthur Rothstein, Kentucky Historical Society
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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
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At its peak, the institution’s award-winning dairy herd numbered more than ninety cows. Credit: Unknown.
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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
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‘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
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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”
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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.
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‘Narcotic Farm at Lexington, Kentucky, 1939. Credit: Arthur Rothstein
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Hypodermic syringes confiscated during admissions in 1939. Note one disguised as a fountain pen. Credit: Arthur Rothstein, National Library of Medicine.
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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.

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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.

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