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Angelo on his cell bunk
Marc and Brett of Temporary Services shared a tribute to Angelo this week. They collaborated together on Prisoners’ Inventions, and although I never knew (very few people did) Angelo (not his real name, his artist name), I wanted to mark his passing here on the blog.
Prisoners’ Inventions started as a collection of more than one hundred annotated illustrations of inventions that Angelo made, saw, or heard about while incarcerated. From homemade sex dolls, salt & pepper shakers to chess sets, from privacy curtains and radios to condoms and water heaters–all “attempts to fill needs that the restrictive environment of the prison tries to suppress,” writes Temporary Services.
Battery Cigarette Lighter
It seems so long since Prisoners’ Inventions landed on my radar and even then, I was years late to the project. Someone showed me a copy of the book in 2011. But the first edition of the book was published in 2003, and new editions followed. In 2003 and 2004, Prisoners’ Inventions was presented as an exhibition at MassMOCA, complete with a full replica of Angelo’s cell, and later travelled to numerous venues. Around that time, international press blew up around the originality and the cheekiness of it all. This American Life did a bit.
Prisoners’ Inventions set a standard in many ways for artists and incarcerated individuals working in tandem–the way Angelo insisted on anonymity; the way Temporary Services held the space; the way together they let the illustrations do the work; the manner in which they (despite the barriers and censorship) communicated transparently and studiously; the way they fired public imagination with recognitions of human spirit, ingenuity and agency among a prison population so frequently vilified; the way Angelo and Temporary Services resisted any over-politicization of the project; I could go on and on.
Too often we think of art as being things not doings, as objects not relationships or as things that can exist on a shelf instead of in our hearts and minds. While Angelo and Temporary Services made objects based upon the drawings, objects were never the goal. Prisoners’ Inventions existed to demonstrate the innate creativity we all hold and also the potential in even simple written (and drawn) correspondence. It was about meaningful relation and understanding of people in very different circumstances. Temporary Services call Angelo their greatest ever collaborator, which is a huge statement from an art collective known for it communal underpinnings.
“Angelo’s writings and drawings about the creativity he observed in prison collapsed the distinctions between art and everyday survival,” said Temporary Services. “He transformed our thinking in ways that have influenced everything we’ve done since.”
In truth, Prisoners’ Inventions has influenced many an artist’s thinking and methodology since.
A common problem with artwork that deals (even tangentially) with the issue of mass incarceration, or with prisoners directly as art makers, is that the art can often fail to break down the inherent power imbalance; that the prisoner is packaged by the outsider for outside public consumption. Furthermore, some art and language can’t help but fall into patronizing stereotypes about how the artist is helping the prisoner … and that the prisoner is helpless. Prisoners’ Inventions never trivialised, infantilized or boxed Angelo’s work. Nor did Temporary Services and Angelo ever try to argue it was something it was not which I think is a reflection of their trust, equity and confidence.
“People seem willing to accept the inventions of prisoners as creative objects that merit our attention and thought without us having to force them into goofy critical constructs like *Outsider Art*,” said Temporary Services in the book Prisoners’ Inventions: Three Dialogues (PDF). “These objects don’t need critical help to become interesting. New terminology does not need to be invented to create a niche market or new genre for a stick of melted-together toothbrushes and bits of metal that can be used to make apple strudel in a prison cell.”
If you can take the time to read Prisoners’ Inventions: Three Dialogues, please do. It lays out the origins, conversations, adaptations and logistics of the multi-year project. It elaborates on subtle concepts. It shows that good art rests on a solid idea and no-bullshit presentation of the idea. The way Prisoners’ Inventions moved through cultural space, both IRL (galleries, vitrines, fabricators’ hands) and virtual (image, video, online featurettes, audience mind and assumption) and through real economic systems is fascinating. The way Temporary Services discuss the negotiation of these things in relation to their promises and shared goals with Angelo is grounding and, I think, instructive.
Stinger (Immersion Heater)
Marc and Brett explain that since Angelo’s release in 2014 he lived quietly in Los Angeles, keeping to himself, catching up on TV and films he missed while locked up for 20 years. They also mention that Angelo had to wait until release before he could see and hold a book of his drawings; the prison administration banned any copies entering the prison because (and you can’t help but laugh) the drawings would show Angelo how to jury-rig objects and homebrew solutions!
The threat was imagined and the logic flawed, of course, but this brings me to a final point. Prisoners’ Inventions did not advocate for Angelo. Never did he and Temporary Services get involved in discussions about his case or legal matters. Not once did the work threaten prison security or reveal anything unknown to nearly every prisoner locked up in America. Opportunities for meaningful, collaborative and non-combative artwork within the prison industrial complex are few and far between. I think it is vital that we recognize art and activity that amplifies the existence of some without ignoring that of others; that we seek projects that lift us all. Mass incarceration is a depressing thing, but there are moments of humor, surprise quirk and enlightenment. Be ready for them! Prisoners’ Inventions succeeded in closing the gap between us and them without forcefully or uncomfortably insisting on the defining terms of us and them. Prisoners’ Inventions occupied a rarified space and we do well to learn from it.
“Stunned and angered that an inmate had somehow acquired photos of his own cell, the guard demanded information on how he got the pictures. When Angelo pointed out the fabricators’ subtle discrepancies in the cell recreation and explained a little about the exhibition, the guard’s anger quickly turned to wonder and amusement.”
Angelo, you mined your memory, you humbly shared your knowledge, you made drawings that confounded expectations and shifted minds. You never wanted fame or fortune. You made a thing that will last. RIP.
Screengrab from the header of the PDF of Day 3 (third installment) of the Complicity Cleanse
BETTER AT SMARTPHONE
There’s a bunch of things you can do to begin 2017 as less of a slave to your screens and phones. Lots of benefits to be had. You can ignore Tangerine-in-Chief-Twitter bile and be a better person! And I can take my own advice.
It does seem like a lot of us freaking out about our Internet diet.
“On average we spend 6 hours a day on our mobile phones. That means for everyone who only spends 2 hours a day on their phone, someone else is spending 10 hours,” writes Rik Arron. “Since the invention of email and then the rapid growth and use of mobile devices and social media – stress/anxiety/depression related work days lost has increased year upon year at an alarming rate, now costing US industry $300 billion a year.”
Marcus Gilroy-Ware says we use our smartphones for ONLY three hours day, but that doesn’t get us off the hook, because …
“From worrying reports of smartphone addiction,” writes Gilroy-Ware, “to the identification of smartphone faux-pas such as “phubbing”, [snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention] to the news that seven in 10 Americans have used a smartphone behind the wheel and one in 10 people check their phone during sex, the belief that smartphones are harmless is increasingly untenable.
During sex?! What the the is wrong with people?
Do social media messagings, in aggregate, create your worldview? Does your smartphone function as an extension of your body? What are your happiness levels?
Seems to me we’ve got some choices.
- We can all throw our devices off the roof and go farmstead. (Not going to happen).
- We can accept our cyborg selves and just try to be the best digital slaves we can. Embrace being numb. (More likely to happen for some).
- We can carefully administer our relationship to technology. (Probably the most realistic, and at least there’s an ongoing conversation).
Option 3 also provides the hope that we can leverage technology to our own advantage instead of just handing over our social graph for Silicon Valley to make money on … and the governments to snoop on … and the corporations to purchase … and the hackers to compromise.
Option 3 allows us the possibility to actively shape our diet of screen-fed-info. May I recommend therefore, at the start of 2017, The Complicity Cleanse.
Between now and the Jan 21st Women’s March on Washington, the Complicity Cleanse delivers daily bites of strategies, words, podcasts and exercises to reminder us of our own power. These are things you consider on your own in quiet, or activities you sit down for with one or five of your closest mates.
It’s a toolkit to being present with our world and it challenges. Some might scoff at the idea that we can fight police brutality and prisons by thinking and talking. But what else leads to consciousness? What else precedes the fight? What other process arrives at the best strategies?
Put together by a collective of social justice folks, The Complicity Cleanse can help you divest from the structures of oppression. High quality, recent resources in the realms of environmental protection, feminism, anti-corruption, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, community empowerment, anti-Islamophobia, the opposite to sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Sometimes it is profound information disguised as digestible affirmation. It’s a collection of 101 syllabi that posh college students pat tens of thousands for. It’s delivered right to your inbox.
One more thing, it’s for everyone! A lot of people get scared because they think lefties and radicals are militant. Some are, which is okay. Most are passionate, which is power. All are loving, which is important if social justice is to spread among peoples’ hearts. If the system is broken, show that it is broken. If we’re all worse off, then demonstrate that. If you’re argument is closer to truth then it’s merely a case of lovingly and consistently letting others in. Lots of political speak, unfortunately, gets heated and shouty. I like the humour and self-positioning of the Complicity Cleanse folks. I republish their call for involvement below.
WHO IS THE COMPLICITY CLEANSE FOR?
Anyone surprised by the election outcome. Really this was made for you. If you were surprised, or didn’t think that it was possible that a celebrity bully, openly endorsed by the KKK, with zero political experience, who grabs pussy whenever he feels entitled to it, could be elected by the people (Electoral College Scam) of the United States, forgive yourselves and in the space of forgiveness make room to learn a little more, change a little more, do a lot more.
You voted for this guy. No shame. We know you are just “fiscally conservative”. If you voted for this guy but somewhere in your heart there is a soft space for groups maligned by his campaign–this is for you… and the future of your tax returns, congrats.
People who know who this is. If you are already involved in social justice movements, but you were caught off-guard by this election victory–this cleanse is for you.
Answer: Audre Lorde, if you didn’t know that–this Cleanse is for you.
People Of Color. First thank you for everything you and your ancestors have contributed to this country in spite of every violent hurdle thrown at, against, towards, and literally through you. The Complicity Cleanse is also for you. There is so much we need to share with each other– and this cleanse was written by a diverse group of human doings who believe that to be the case- we tried to be as inclusive as possible, if we fucked up– its an oversight, let us know. We all need to do better.
Uhm, yep definitely for you.
Neoliberals/Millenials/Academics, you are in all the other boxes, but we know you like to be acknowledged individually–look if you have a lot of overly academic language around racism, and heterosexism there’s probably a little emotion that could be tapped into–and possibly a little more grasping of classism, so sign up, tweet, post, share, IG, IM, FB, IDK, LOL.
Modern Day Yogis. Yep, you. You’re doin’ good, and you look good too– now do more. The ancient Rishis didn’t risk their lives to develop this practice just so you look better with a shirt off– this practice was designed to make you feel better, so you do more. Why build such a beautiful big ship if its just gonna be docked all day in breathable pants, take that thing into the turbulent seas. You know how to be productively uncomfortable, now channel that training to the betterment of others. Namaste.
Basically we all could benefit from time spent with each other, time spent learning with and about each other–simply less time spent thinking about ourselves. This cleanse is most effective when done in groups or unexpected partnerships so we become more accountable to each other–all of us together, even the non humans. So we remember that ultimately we belong to each other, so we remember we are most effective together.
Three years ago, I spoke with photographer and filmmaker Karen Ruckman about her work as a photography teacher in Lorton Correctional Facility, an infamous prison in Virginia used to house men from Washington D.C. until it was shuttered in 2001. At that time, Ruckman was in the midst of producing a documentary film about the photo program. Well, now the film is complete. It has toured in the past few months, but can travel further and into the future.
From the working title InsideOut, the film is now being distributed as In Lorton’s Darkroom. Early reception has been extremely positive with screenings in Washington DC and Chicago at the Injustice For All Film Festival. Now the hard work is done, Ruckman and her team is keen to get the documentary seen. Are you a supporter? Would you like to do a screening? Get in touch with Ruckman and discuss possibilities.
This photo project was extremely rare and as far as I know the last program of its kind in an adult mens prison in the United States. The film depicts what we have missed in the past couple of decades. Despite this, the film radiates hope and shows us the bright spots on the yard. It fires the imagination.
In spite of the fact I am currently without home, I am deeply connected to the politics of California. When I first came to study in the US, it was in California. When I first came to live in the States, it was in California. Over the past 3 years, I’ve lived in California again. As I travel the States currently, it is with a California drivers license.
More than any of these factors though, California is important because it is a bellwether state. When policy–progressive or otherwise–is enacted in the Golden State, it is often followed by similar policy in other states. Three Strikes Laws are a prime example. One of the first to pass Three Strikes into state law (in 1994), California was also the first to offer voters the chance to repeal many aspects of the overly-punitive sentencing. Which they did in 2012 with Prop 36.
PROPS 62 AND 66
The main issue on this years ballot is the death penalty. There are two ballots that are philosophically and procedurally opposed to one another.
Prop 66 will throw money at the broken system by speeding up the legal process, which might bring about some successful appeals but will more likely send men and women to the chamber at unprecedented rates. Vote NO.
749 people are currently on death row in California. The liberally-minded state is reluctant to execute people and this has resulted in those sentenced to death to swell the cell tiers of inadequate facilities and to be held in a permanent stasis. Of the 13 people executed since 1979, the average stay was more than 17 years on death row. I would assume that the average stay of those currently on death row is slightly less than that. (For a brief history of the death penalty in California, I recommend Judge Arthur L. Alarcon’s Remedies For California’s Death Row Deadlock.)
The choice is clear. The state should not be involved in killing citizens. Vote YES on 62. This is a position held by the widow of a police officer whose murderer is the last person in the state to be sentenced to death.
At this juncture, I’d like to point out the bind in which Californian activists and prisoners find themselves over Prop 62.
If the death penalty is repealed, all those on death row will have their sentences changed to Life Without Parole (LWOP). Among activists, LWOP is referred to as Death By Incarceration. This statement, from California Coalition for Women Prisoners, made by women currently serving LWOP sentences is the most nuanced position I’ve encountered on the 2016 ballot initiatives. I quote at length:
We believe LWOP is racist, classist and ableist, condemns many innocent people to a slow living death, and neither deters violence nor promotes rehabilitation. The majority of people serving LWOP in California’s women’s prisons are survivors of abuse and were sentenced to LWOP as aiders and abettors of their abuser’s acts. We believe that LWOP relies on the intersections of racial terror and gendered violence.
For voters who oppose all forms of death sentences including LWOP, the choice between an initiative that replaces one form of death with another (Prop 62) and an initiative that speeds up executions (Prop 66) is hardly a choice at all. It is morally compromising to vote for Prop 62, which further criminalizes and demonizes our loved ones and creates a false hierarchy between forms of state-sanctioned death. However, we recognize that a decision to vote against Prop 62 is complicated by fear that Prop 66 will win. Ending the death penalty in California could be a powerful symbol for the rest of the country and represent a growing awareness of the injustices and inhumanity of incarceration and the criminal legal system as a whole. Every person who votes will need to make a difficult decision about two very problematic propositions.
We believe that both the death penalty and LWOP should be recognized as unjust and eliminated. One of our LWOP partners in prison, Amber states: “To reassure people that LWOP is a better alternative to death is misleading.” Rather than facing executions, people with LWOP will die a slow death in prison while experiencing institutional discrimination. People with LWOP cannot participate in rehabilitative programs, cannot work jobs that pay more than 8 cents an hour, and will never be reviewed by the parole board. We agree with the Vision for Black Lives policy goal to abolish the death penalty and we believe that true abolition of the death penalty includes abolishing LWOP and all sentencing that deprive people of hope.
When the death penalty was temporarily banned from 1972 to 1976 by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling all people then on death row had their sentences overturned or converted to life [with possibility of parole]. Many of these people successfully paroled and are now contributing to their communities.
That said, Prop 62 doesn’t discount the possibility of future political action against LWOP and its ultimate repeal. And I hope that happens. Therefore, I still say Vote YES on 62
Also on the ballot is a measure, Prop 57 to reduce sentencing for non-violent crimes, put more discretion in the hands of judges for sentencing, and limit the trying of juveniles as adults. No brainer: Vote YES.
I can’t go to this but everyone in the Bay Area should.
Fighting Mass Incarceration: Strategies for Transformation
277 Cory Hall (off Hearst Ave) UC Berkeley
April 12, 2016
Discussion led by James Kilgore
With the sudden trendiness of opposing mass incarceration, Dr. James Kilgore will critically examine the idea that bipartisan unity and legislative change hold the key to transforming the criminal justice system. Dr. Kilgore will outline how his book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of our Time, and what it aims to achieve as well as discuss the potentials/pitfalls of the present moment in the struggle to end mass incarceration.
Kilgore argues that the key to this issue is to build a large social movement led by those who have been critically impacted by mass incarceration. It is a movement that makes alliances with those fighting other key struggles of our time (climate justice, gender justice, economic justice, etc.) and creates a collective alternative.
Topics will range from building out from the New Jim Crow analysis in relation to race, class and gender, examining political processes like reparations and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions as processes for transforming the criminal legal system and how we collectively imagine alternatives while fighting for important reforms.
Dr. James Kilgore is an activist, educator, and writer based at the University of Illinois. His most recent book is Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time. He is also the author of three novels, all which he drafted during his six and a half years in federal and state prisons in California.
Tuesday, April 12, 2016. 3:30pm-5:00pm
There’s a massive prison labor protest in the offing.
If plans go according to plan, a coordinated and rolling series of shut downs will begin September in prisons across the United States.
Prisoners are staging the walk out to protest “wages” as low as 20cents/hour. Even well paid prison jobs rarely pay more than a dollar an hour, before deductions. (The top earners in the Federal Prison Industries and UNICOR earn $1.15/hour, before deductions).
Supporters of the strike are arguing that prison labor is modern day slavery. I can’t argue with that. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, also maintains a legal exception for continued slavery in prisons. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of prisoners work in prison factories and the like. 21,000 alone work in the Federal system.
WHY DON’T WE SEE PRISON LABOR?
There are many grievances prisoners have with their detention. If outside society humors any of them, it usually humors calls for safe and sanitary conditions. Rarely, do you find outsiders calling for fair and equitable pay for the 40 hour weeks (or more) that prisoners work for pennies on the dollar. We make calls for secure and clean conditions because we’d not want to suffer squalor. Why then can we not make calls for the abolishment of legal slavery in the form of prison labor? Perhaps because we can imagine the smell of a putrid cell tier, but we cannot picture what prison work looks like?
Well, prisoners do everything from stuff mattresses to refurbish wheelchairs; make school dinners to shape Wendy’s and McDonald’s beef patties; stitch Victoria’s Secret panties to manufacture US military uniforms. Prisoners work as outsourced and subcontracted labor for corporations such as Boeing, Whole Foods, Walmart, Starbucks and Verizon. Prisoners man call centers for any number of private companies.
Prisoners work as operators at a call center in Snake River Correctional Institution. Perry Johnson Inc., a south Michigan based consulting firm has employed SRCI prisoners for over a decade. Little has been published online about the SRCI call center in recent years. Here’s a 2004 article about it.
Prisoners organizing the strike are not making demands or requests in the usual sense. They are calling each other to action in the hope that coordinated refusal to work will cause the prison industrial complex to creak so significantly that the nation will notice.
If critical mass is achieved, creaks and cracks will occur. A significant portion of America’s prison systems are built upon the cost savings, management philosophies and bottom line economics permitted by prison labor.
The planned action is essentially a good old strike, but of course, the repercussions for prisoners could be much more severe than the average worker: lockdown, solitary confinement and/or infraction charges that might jeopardize future parole.
WHY SEPTEMBER 9TH?
On Sept. 9th, 1971, prisoners shut down and took over Attica, New York’s most notorious prison. A total of 43 people were killed in the Attica prison riots—one of the darkest chapters in American penal history.
RECENT PRISON PROTESTS
Prisoners and their supporters can take heart and inspiration from prison strikes in recent years. The most well known would be the Prisoners Hunger Strike in California (2011-2013). The Free Alabama Movement in 2014 work stoppage garnered much attention. As did the 2010 Georgia Prison Strike. Hunger strikes at Ohio State Penitentiary, Menard Correctional in Illinois and at Red Onion Prison in Virginia flew under the radar of mainstream press. In December, women prisoners at Yuba County Jail in California joined a hunger strike in solidarity with women held in immigrant detention centers in California, Colorado and Texas.
Some actions have already kicked off in Texas.
There are many threads to the argument against prison labor, but none is better than outsiders making the leap to demand an end to exploitation that they would not tolerate for themselves or their loved ones. Remember, work programs and industries often operate in replacement of legitimate education and rehabilitation services.
Learn more at the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.
Download the 2016 National Prison Strike pamphlet here.
UPDATE: You can get stickers these ways
SUBTLE, VIOLENT OMISSIONS
The ability to ignore the human rights abuse that is mass incarceration is built upon millions of small omissions, denials, and blind eyes turned. A group of students and faculty from Parsons The New School are pointing out to fellow New Yorkers one such omission.
Rikers Island, New York city’s main lock-up, is an institution beset by problems–including but not limited to environmental hazards, beatings by guards, juvenile solitary, predation, inadequate healthcare, suicide, abominable pre-trial conditions and more. On any given day it holds. Consensus is building that it is a jail that cannot be reformed and must be closed.
Ignominiously, Rikers Island jail is iconic. In a strange and depressing way, it represents NYC. Other icons for the Big Apple invariably include other structures: Empire State Building, The New York Public Library, Rockefeller Building, Statue of Liberty, The Metropolitan Museum.
The system and graphics that connect NYC’s important sites and buildings is the MTA subway map. Again, no less iconic. The subway map is ubiquitous; it is a powerful dictate of information. The subway map shapes knowledge.
The MTA and Rikers Island have a complicated relationship. Over the years the massive jailing complex has fallen on and off the subway map. An erratic absence, today Rikers Island is labeled on station maps but not inside trains, on digital versions but not in digital kiosks. #SeeRikers stickers are a simple way to acknowledge this erasure.
Whether an accidental oversight or an intentional omission – we believe it’s important to recognize a place that confines nearly 10,000 people each day and effects the lives of many more New Yorkers. So as you make your way across the city – on your morning commute or evening transfer – please help us put Rikers back on the map.
STICK RIKERS BACK ON THE MAP
You, me, anyone can be part of a rapid, insurgent and widespread correction. Acosta de la Peña, Sánchez and Volf have developed a sticker that riffs on the MTA “You Are Here” arrow. The sticker de-centers the map.
“Whereas the MTA’s label serves as an individual way-finding tool, ours signals a collective void,” say Acosta de la Peña, Sánchez and Volf.
FEEL THE BERN
Stickers will be passed out during the Bernie Sanders Rally at Washington Square Park on Wednesday, April 13th
Stickers will be handed out at the #CLOSErikers rally at City Hall.
THREE WAYS TO GET STICKERS
1. If you are a New York organization working on criminal justice reform email info[at]itsamademademademadeworld[dot]com and stickers can be delivered.
2. If you are an individual, visit the States of Incarceration Exhibition at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (66 Fifth Avenue at 13th Street, New York, NY) now through April 24th.