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The fight against mass incarceration takes many forms: from protesting outside prisons, to blocking jail construction, to journalism that reaches inside, to hearing prisoners’ voices, to making oneself aware of gross abuses, to viewing the most gruesome pictures, to letter writing, to education and more. Sometimes the fight requires coming together and “hacking” the system by sucking up costs collectively and *joyously* paying bail.

The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund is celebrating creativity, raising consciousness, and tackling unjust bail policies by paying them. The group is identifying poor people who needlessly languish in jail while they await trial. In the past three weeks, and at the time of writing, Philadelphia Bail Out has raised $98,000. A stunning effort.

 

 

No doubt, this short term *solution* also raises a longer term debate about the unfairness about cash bail and can potentially drive future positive change. Thousands of people have donated art, time, skills, money: small contributions that have amassed to a large reserve of cash to bring mothers home for Mother’s Day.

In order to secure release before Sunday 12th, Philadelphia Community Bail Fund has marked today as the last day to ensure your money goes to the release of women on the first round of bail outs on Thursday. Keep donating though and more bail outs will occur through next week.

FREE OUR MOTHERS POSTERS

Among the dozens of community-group-partners, I want to give a shout out the the People’s Paper Co-op, a women led, women focused, women powered art and advocacy project that promotes women in reentry as the leading criminal justice experts. PPC “uses art to amplify their stories, dreams, and visions for a more just and free world.”

People’s Paper Co-op has partnered with Philadelphia Community Bail Fund to create limited edition poster prints for you to buy and all the money goes to getting cis and trans women out of Philly jails. The posters are made of shredded and pulped criminal records that have been expunged.

Artists include Etta Cetera, Kate DeCiccio, Micah Bazant, Molly Crabapple, Molly Fair, Nile Livingston, Rose Jaffe,  Shoshana Gordon and Sanya Hyland.

“We need each other,” says Hyland. “We need community, in order to make the fundamental transformations necessary in our society. The women behind “Mama’s Day Bail Out” have organized something powerful and transformative, showing we do ‘have the power to transform our world’, but ‘we can’t do it alone’.”

Go buy art, or simply donate, get mums out of jail and support true community organizing.

 

   

 

I’m talking in public next week.

GET TICKETS

 

For this Creative Mean convening, artists Rita Bullwinkel, Sam Vernon and I will present on the theme of Relationships. 15-minutes per person, followed by a Q+A/panel chat with the audience.

I’ll be talking about my relationships in the classroom at San Quentin. I’ll reflect on how the ideas about photographs that my students and I hold have shifted and shaped. There’s no scoop here, just observations. There’s no drama, mostly quiet gratitude.

Event is 6pm-8pm on Wednesday, April 10th, at Heath Newsstand, San Francisco. Here’s a map. Here’s a Facebook event page.

It’s gonna set you back $15 so I advise you get there bang on 6 and get your fill of Tartine scran, Fort Point booze and chocolate before you’re asked to sit at 6:30. Dang, they’re even giving away Aesop soap, to which I was a convert in 2017.

 

 

 

PRISON ART LIBRARY IN THE MAKING

If you’re in or near Portland, Oregon and if you’ve art books you no longer want on your shelves, please consider donating the to the Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) Art Book Drive.

This Wednesday, December 13th, from 12-7pm, the CRCI Artist In Residence Program is holding a Book Drive at the 9th Annual Publication Fair held at the Ace Hotel Cleaners space.

The book drive seeks titles related to: conceptual art, social practice, collaboration, critical theory, film, painting, sculpture, art technique, artist monographs, art history, performance art, and curating.

Go on. Donate your books!

The CRCI Art Book Library began in April 2017 as a way to expand access to art books, art writing and documentation. The art library is one component of the Artist in Residence Program, which is open to prisoners at the Columbia River Correctional Institution, a minimum security prison within the Portland city limits, run by the Oregon Department of Corrections. The residency is facilitated by a rotating faculty of artists and students from the Art and Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University.

PUBLICATION FAIR

After you’ve donated your books, go check out the booths full of paper goods from these lovelies:

4341 Press

Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books

Anthology Booksellers

Antiquated Future

Book Arts Editions

Container Corps

Couch Press

Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery

Floating World Comics

Forest Avenue Press

Future Tense Books: A Micro-Press

Gobshite Quarterly

Impossible Wings

Independent Publishing Resource Center

Microcosm Publishing

Mixed Needs

Monograph Bookwerks

Octopus Books

Passages Bookshop

Perfect Day Publishing

Personal Libraries Library

Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Quotidian Press

Sunday Painter Press

Sidebrow

Tavern Books

Tin House

Two Plum Press

University of Hell Press

URe:AD Press

Volumes Volumes

YesYes Books

 

 

Video still from an incident in Maine Correctional Center, June 10th, 2012. Capt. Shawn Welch sprays pepper spray into the face of Paul Schlosser who is bound in a restraint chair after the prisoner, who has an infectious disease, spat at an officer. The video came to light after reporting by The Portland Herald in 2013. Prison Photography‘s analysis at the time: ‘The Spit Mask As Prison Torture Apparatus’

I gave a lecture in Maine this week. It went well. People said nice things. Afterward, attendees and I talked about representation and perceptions—the considerations of which form the core of my work. We talked about feasible image-based actions and intervention. I had some ideas. Questions were raised about direct political action and advocacy too. Here, though, especially specific to Maine, I didn’t feel as though I had real suggestions. But now I do and this post details them.

FIGHT AGAINST VIDEO VISITATION, FIGHT AGAINST SOLITARY CONFINEMENT

After a screening of The Prison In Twelve Landscapes hosted by the ACLU of Maine, at SPACE (a brilliant arts organisation, BTW) a panel of local experts gathered to discuss the most pressing issues at hand for prison reform in Maine and the particulars of current ongoing fights. Joseph Jackson of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Meagan Sway, Justice Fellow at ACLU of Maine and Rachel Talbot-Ross, Maine state legislator talked about their work and that of allies.

(FYI, the film is great. Here’s my review from January 2017.)

Joseph Jackson spoke first. He is a coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. His work supports youth and adults in the system. African Americans account for 1.5% of the Maine population. Yet they account for 25% of the juvenile prison population and 29% of the adult prison population. Jackson detailed how the language and applications of law persist until they go challenged. We as citizens can halt years of inertia simply by paying attention and demanding clarification, renewal.

As examples, Jackson pointed to laws that outlawed marijuana in the fifties based upon racist stereotypes. He also decried the ad hoc application of guidelines set forth by the Maine Department of Corrections; vague language (shall/should/will/may) and the consequent grey areas benefit prison administrations and staff as they can choose at will what guidelines are enforced and which can be side-stepped. When pressed, the DOC said that 1 in 8 guidelines were mere suggestions. Prisoners and advocates want clarity. If guidelines are actual policy, if they are enforced, can they be challenged.

Meagan Sway explained that it is the ACLU of Maine’s current practice to oppose laws intended to define new crimes. In the face of mass incarceration, an obstructionist approach is logical. In tandem with fights for fairer and more humane practices in the courts and prisons, it’s effective too hopefully. Drastic times call for drastic response.

Rachel Talbot-Ross is a Democrat Representative in the Maine state legislature. She spent 12 years working for the NAACP but concluded that while she had close relationships with lawmakers, commissioners, superintendents and the like, she was basically given the run around; kept busy but unable to force through meaningful change. Talbot-Ross resolved she would make more difference as an elected official. She won election in 2016 and is the first black woman to be elected to the Maine legislature since its founding 185 years ago. Think about that. Talbot-Ross doesn’t want congratulations for this and I am merely pointing out the fact.

So, my suggestions for you are these:

Support the campaigns of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC) and the ACLU of Maine against solitary confinement.

A recent PBS documentary Last Days Of Solitary would have us think that Maine leads the way in step down programs out of solitary confinement, but the truth is other regimes and cell-blocks, such as the C-Pod, function equivalently as 22 or 23 hour lockdown. Without doubt, the work of then prison chief Jospeh Ponte deserves recognition, but Ponte left MDOC in 2014 to work at Rikers Island until this year, and more committed work to reduce solitary in Maine prisons still needs to be done in his wake.

(On the topic of new modes of prison image-making, PBS’s VR reel After Solitary is worth look.) 

Go to the next MPAC Statewide Strategy Meeting

Saturday, December 2, 2017. 10:00am (doors at 9:30am). Curtis Memorial Library, Morrell Room, 23 Pleasant Street, Brunswick, ME 04011.

Sign up for news from MPAC to join its actions.

Support the work of Talbot-Ross

On November 30th, the Maine Legislative Council will decide which bills it will work on for the 2nd Regular Session. This is a procedure upon which you can have an effect.

While some bills have already been slated for debate, others have been proposed, initially turned down, but have a last chance, under appeal, to make it onto the docket for 2018/2019. Talbot-Ross and her Democrat colleagues have four bills that deal with criminal justice and if you’re a Maine voter you can influence the 10 law-makers.

One deals with in-person prison visits and the pushback against video visitation replacing physical contact. Another deals with solitary confinement. Now that marijuana is legal in Maine, there’s a push for all past marijuana convictions to be sealed. This is in order to cease the prevention of people getting jobs or other social services due to a conviction for something that is now legal.

Contact Ross’ office directly. Your calls are needed to the 10 law-makers prior to the Nov. 30th meeting to request inclusion of these reform bills in the next session. Talbot Ross’ staff will provide all the info you need to lobby your state officials.

Email: rachel.talbotross@legislature.maine.gov

Phone: 800-423-2900

Legislative website: http://legislature.maine.gov/housedems/rossr/index.html

Support the activities of Maine Inside Out, which engages system-impacted youth in drama and the arts and in advocacy.

 

 

…I’ll be delivering a lecture How We See Prisons on Wednesday, November 8th, in the Kresge Auditorium, Bowdoin College at 7:15pm.

It’s free and open to the public.

College Guild has organised the event.

College Guild is a non-profit org that provides education to prisoners across America through non-traditional correspondence courses. It pairs volunteers on the outside with prisoners on the inside in a one-to-one mail correspondence that provides feedback to prisoners on their work on established coursework units. It’s all-volunteer while maintaining consistent standards. It by the people, for the people.

College Guild is currently partnered with Bates College and Bowdoin College and has more than 50 volunteer-readers on campus. The pedagogy is such that its limit is primarily only the number of man hours available from folks on the outside. The pedagogy is such that people inside and out educate one another. Why am I talking about this though, when the teaser video below describes the benefits of the program in the prisoners’ own words?

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHICAGO FOR ABOLITION: A SUMMIT ON ORGANIZING AND STRATEGY, NOV. 8-12, 2017

Critical Resistance and Chicago For Abolition have organised a weekend of events to strengthen the movement against the Prison Industrial Complex. If your are in, or near Chicago, go!

“In this period of astonishing energy and public discussion about abolition,” says Critical Resistance, “we are excited to build with organizations and communities in Chicago that are fighting to address and eliminate the harms of the interlocking systems of policing, imprisonment, and surveillance—what we call the prison industrial complex.”

Through a weekend of events, workshops, and political dialogue, Critical Resistance and dozens of communities in Chicago are building stronger organizational relationships shared understanding of PIC abolition and the advancement of local and national efforts.

Chicago for Abolition Summit: November 8-12th, 2017

ALL EVENTS FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Wednesday, November 8

No Easy Victories: Fighting For Abolition

A conversation with Angela Y. Davis and Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, moderated by Beth Richie. (Registration closed and all seats are currently full. CR will make an announcement by email if more seats become available.)

Thursday, November 9

Abolition and Rethinking Education

Organizing to get police out of your school? Working on responses to harm in the classroom and staffroom that do not involve criminalization? Want a curriculum that creates possibilities to imagine and build a world without prisons and borders? Building to protect students and families from immigration enforcement (ICE)? Come to this panel discussion with K-12 educators, youth advocates and abolitionist organizers that will deepen learning between and across these constituencies and identify needed tools and resources.

Featuring:
Ayanna Banks Harris – Chicago Math Teacher and Dean of Instruction, Love & Protect
Beatriz Beckford – MomsRising
Cyriac Mathew – Uplift Community High School
Muhammad Sankari – Arab American Action Network
Moderator: Charity Tolliver, Black on Both Sides/BYP 100

Location: First Defense Legal Aid, 601 S. California Ave, Chicago, IL 61612


Date: Thursday Nov. 9


Time: 6:30-8:30 PM



Friday, November 10

Beyond One Chicago: Resisting the Divisions of the Prison Industrial Complex

An event on resisting criminalization, gang databases, and policing. We will feature the launch of a critical new report on the use of gang databases in Chicago. Community organizers will discuss past efforts to fight policing and criminalization. Together we will build abolitionist visions of expansive sanctuary in Chicago.

Featuring: BYP 100, CR, OCAD, and Mijente.


Location: University of Illinois at Chicago. Student Services Building (1200 W Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60607) Conference Rooms B & C


Date: Friday Nov. 10


Time: Doors open at 6pm, start at 6:30

Saturday, November 11

Fight To Win: Shrinking Prisons and Jails / Strengthening Communities

An event on organizing against imprisonment and strategies to strengthen our fight for a world without cages. We will explore and discuss successful campaigns around stopping jail construction, ending money bail, advocating for prison closure, and for supporting prisoner-led struggles.

This event is hosted by Chicago Community Bond Fund, Critical Resistance, Free Write Arts & Literacy, Nehemiah Trinity Rising, The Next Movement.

 


Facebook event page.

Location: Trinity United Church of Christ (400 95th St, Chicago, IL 60628)


Date: Saturday Nov. 11


Time: 12pm-2pm

Chicago for Abolition Summit: November 8-12th, 2017

Poster design by Monica Trinidad

 

 

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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Later today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the nominations for the 2017 Oscars. Ava DuVernay’s doc 13th is on the longlist and tipped to make the shortlist for Best Documentary*. 13th has, deservedly, got a lot of praise since its release in October, but there’s another documentary about the Prison Industrial Complex that came out in 2016 that I’d like to champion here.

The Prison In Twelve Landscapes, directed by Brett Story, is a film that, in many ways, retools the documentary format. It is a film about prison without ever going inside one (although the film closes with a monumental, slow-motion approach to the car-park of the citadel-like Attica Prison). It’s not up for a gong, which is a shame because everyone can benefit from its radical politics and creative verve.

 

Forcefully, The Prison In Twelve Landscapes rejects the common format of prison documentaries. You know, meet a character; set the broader context of incarceration; chart the character’s life; establish a moment in which fortunes changed for the worst; define the injustice; imagine a different future for the main character and possibly thousands or millions of others locked up for whom she/he serves as representative.

“I’ve watched a lot of prison films, documentaries and non-doc’s, and they kind of all take the same shape,” Story told Guernica recently. “You go inside a prison, you point the camera at a black man in a cell and the narrative, especially if it is a progressive or liberal film, will expose what’s going on. You expose the violence, you expose the injustice of this person’s incarceration, or you tell a redemption story, or transformation or an innocence story. It seemed to me that these narratives have their place, but there are limitations to them.”

In her deliberate refusal of orthodoxy, Story comes up with a structure that leaps across geographies, communities and themes: an unnamed female prisoner talks about fighting fire in Marin County with the California Department of Corrections (she is proud of the work but knows she won’t be a fire-fighter after release because of her conviction); a resident of a post-coal Kentucky town thankful for “recession proof” prison jobs; poor Missouri residents kept down by over-policing and rampant ticketing; an overly eager spokesperson for Quicken Loans who has drunk the corporate-Koolaid and extols the virtues of wholesale regeneration, rising rents and private security firms in downtown Detroit; an entrepreneur who negotiates the byzantine NYDOC mailroom rules so prisoners’ loved ones don’t have to.

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The twelve vignettes are tied together by a looming music score and studies of smoke, steam and clouds. We’re all under the same sky, we all breathe the same air. Huge credit to Director of Photography Maya Bankovic and Editor Avrïl Jacobson too.

This film manifests the visuals for abolition activism. Prisons are all around us. They emerge from capitalist logic and conform to economic and geographic structures that are both produced by, and the producer of, racism, classicism, social immobility and chauvinism. Prisons are not about solving crime; they are a punishment of people outside white hetero-normativity. Prisons brutalise marginalized communities by further excluding them from opportunity and thereby delegitimizing them; prisons allow for existent power to confirm its prejudices and further its abuses.

 

Again from Story’s interview with Guernica (which I can’t recommend highly enough) she explains how a narrative knitted through seemingly disparate, seemingly ordinary places reflects the pervasiveness of the problem and also the near invisibility of its (most obvious) infrastructure, the prison building itself.

“I was very cognizant of how difficult it is at this moment to get inside prisons. There are more prisons than ever before, but they are further away and more locked down than ever before. So, I was really interested in the psychic distance created by that geographic distance, and the way in which prisons are spaces of disappearance but also spaces of massive infrastructures, as buildings that hold lots of people, but they’re also disappeared in the landscape.”

Furthermore, on the limits of criminal justice reform conversations, and how those conversations cannot be separate from critiques of economic inequality and labour rights, Story says:

“So long as we are confined to thinking about [prison reform talk] just as a problem of imprisoning the wrong people or punishing people too much, then we don’t actually get at the fundamental relationships that have created the prison build up in the first place. In terms of people on the right and the neoliberal democrats as well, who are all about championing prison reform like the Koch brothers, well they are the biggest union busters in this country.”

“We can’t think about prisons and the problem of mass incarceration outside of the problem of labor. There’s a direct correlation between the stagnation of workers, wages, structural unemployment, especially for African Americans, and union busting. This sort of neoliberalism from the 1970’s onwards maps intimately alongside the rise of the carceral state. In some ways, I want to say who cares if the Koch brothers want to say we’ve locked up too many people and we want to put some money into prison reform. But, let’s not get too excited about that because at the same time they are still undermining worker power and undermining good jobs and good wages at every turn. There’s too close of a relationship between workers and the problem of unemployment, the problem of poverty and mass incarceration in this country.”

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The Prison In Twelve Landscapes has already won a raft of accolades including a nomination for Best Feature Length Documentary at the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Paste had it as one of their best documentaries of 2016. In a glowing review, The New York Times said soberly, “What we see is no less than the draining of hope from one group of citizens to benefit another.” Cinema Politica had it as one of their best political documentaries of the year. It is a film that is impeccably crafted and one that credits its audience with intelligence. It treats the complex issue of mass incarceration in a complex way.

Some of the most infuriating scenes are those from Ferguson, Missouri. Story went there one year after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. Story met citizens like Sherie (above) who faced either a $175 fine or jail. What for? For not securing a trash-can lid. Derrick (below) talks of continual harassment, arrest and fines.

“These communities are over-policed,” explains Story, “because the revenue model is generated based primarily on police fining people of color, mostly poor people for incidental violations like traffic violations. So there is already an existing infrastructure that floods these communities with police, and this is part of the story that gave rise to this murder.”

 

DuVernay’s 13th, and Story’s The Prison In Twelve Landscapes are two quite different films, yet they complement one another and support the arguments of the other. (I wonder what the effect of 12 Landscapes would’ve been had it had the worldwide Netflix distribution that 13th enjoyed?)

13th walks the viewer through a literal historical narrative by means of stats, facts and talking heads. DuVernay illuminates the racist underpinnings to criminal justice and execution of law, drawing the line from slavery, to abolition, to the 13th Amendment, to convict leasing, to Jim Crow, to modern day prisons. DuVernay wants to confront us with the blatant injustice of it all; Story wants to shock us with our complicity in it all.

The two films can be understood as the feedback of one other. DuVernay shows us the injustices of the past, but Story shows us how difficult they are to untangle from the present. We’re caught in a destructive loop. Without a significant reordering of society we are destined to continue the abuse and wastage inherent to mass imprisonment.

The Prison In Twelve Landscapes is a landmark achievement in documentary making. “It’s rare that a film this outraged is also this calm,” said Village Voice. It is a film that is true and true to its form. It is creepy, troubling and near; it is a prism on our society that should deeply unsettle us. It is the best film of 2016 not to win an Oscar.

This is great –> Story’s Five Book Plan: Carceral Geography.

Peep my 2013 article The 20 Best American Prison Documentaries.

Story’s Guernica interview on the whys, whats and hows of her work.

Follow The Prison In Twelve Landscapes on Facebook and Twitter.

Follow Brett Story on Vimeo and Twitter.

* If 13th is shortlisted, I hope it wins as that could only benefit the ongoing awareness about the racist, classist and abusive functioning of prisons and sentencing. Honestly though, I don’t think 13th will win. It uses a formula template of chronological narrative. 13th is a very important film but it doesn’t experiment enough with the documentary form itself. I think Cameraperson will win.

** Update: 14:00 GMT. Cameraperson wasn’t shortlisted, so my prediction withers. Fire At Sea (Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo); I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck); Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman); O.J.: Made In America (Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow); and 13th (Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick and Howard Barish) were shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature.

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