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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.
Earlier this month, in Portland, Oregon, a coalition led by immigrants and refugees, successfully campaigned to see the city cut its ties with prison profiteer Wells Fargo. At the same time, in Los Angeles, Black students moved California State University Los Angeles (CSULA) to divest from private prisons and reinvest in services for Black students.
These victories follow on the heels of the divestment by a $25M endowment fund from the University of California and Columbia University’s decision to divest fully from prisons.
These victories demonstrate the sweeping effect that committed and targeted activism can have. Dismantling the prison industrial complex requires paradigmatic shifts, brave thinking, millions of small + incremental fixes as well as massive, infrastructural disassemblage. These divestment victories are such disassemblage, and they show that committed individuals can pressure institutions and civic authorities to enact transparency and moral judgement when it comes to invested monies, endowments and assets.
These victories feel like, if you will, a bright spot on the yard. Moments of illumination.
I’ve watched with great admiration as the divestment movement has grown in the past few years. A lion’s share of the good work has been done by Enlace, an alliance of low-wage workers, unions, and community organizations in Mexico and the U.S. Enlace’s interest began with the growth of privatized immigrant detention facilities (Under the rubric of homeland security, Federal laws have changed, and the detention of people without papers has grown exponentially.)
But of course, the capitalism and social fear that gives rise to ICE prisons, has the same roots as that which gave rise to the tumorous growth of state and federal prisons over the past four decades. Of all the factors that drive the growth of the prison industrial complex, money is the most pernicious and, perhaps, the most invisible. Enlace targets the cycle, intends to interrupt the flow of finance and influence.
Photo: Pete Shaw
Currently Enlace has offices in Portland, OR; New York, NY; and Los Angeles, CA. The organization has identified key targets within the cycle of exchanged goods, ideas and policy. From the Enlace website:
Two publicly-traded companies dominate the private prison market in the U.S.: Corrections Corp of America (CCA) and GEO Group (GEO). CCA and GEO are notorious for abusing inmates, understaffing, and committing fraud at their for-profit prisons and detention centers. Both lobby the government for contracts and for policies that promote mass incarceration and immigration enforcement. In 2012 alone, they netted $3 billion of our taxes and spent over $1.8 million on lobbying and campaign contributions.
Million Shares Club
33 major investors own nearly all CCA and GEO stock. Each of these 33 investors owns over 1 million shares of private prison stock, so they have a huge stake in the growth and success of the prison industrial complex. With the financial and political support of the Million Shares Club, CCA and GEO are able to successfully lobby for policies that increase government demand for private prison, like “tough on crime” laws and criminalizing immigrants. We must sever the financial ties that allow shareholders to cash in on the incarceration of immigrants and people of color.
Most of us are invested in private prisons–our universities, cities and faith institutions are invested with the Million Shares Club, which has no portfolio screen preventing the investment of our money in for-profit prisons. Some states, universities, cities and pension funds are even directly invested in CCA and GEO. It is unconscionable that our local institutions are using their investments–our money–to profit from and promote mass incarceration and immigration enforcement. We call on our local institutions to divest!
Federal politicians have the power to stop private prisons. Members of the Budget and Appropriations committees have the most power to cut off funding for wasteful contracts with CCA and GEO, and for inhumane immigration enforcement policies. Unfortunately, many politicians take lobbying and campaign contributions from GEO and CCA. Others have assets in the Million Shares Club. Many politicians have both. We’re working to make private prisons a toxic liability, financially and politically.
Activism to stymie the ease with which corporations and politicians can exploit economically and socially disadvantaged communities is thrilling.
There are many stories of prisoners’ resourcefulness and creative spirit. There’s lots of tales of redemption through art, or something akin to it. The grandly titled Prison Da Vinci is one of the better produced tellings of this type of story arc.
Filmmaker Zach Sebastian relies heavily on the subject Chris Wilson’s words and phrasing. The viewer is quickly told why a British guy was locked up in San Quentin so that we’re accelerated to the important details of how and why he made paintings made of candy.
I was surprised–but happily relieved–that Wilson was able to exist in San Quentin outside of the gang culture. He encounters philosophy for the first time and met a lot of good people, he says. And he made art.
(The Prison Da Vinci film recalls to mind the work of Donny Johnson, a man convicted of second degree murder who paints postcards with colours leached from M&Ms in his Pelican Bay State Prison solitary confinement cell for the past decade-or-more. In 2006, Johnson had a show in Mexico.)
Whilst Wilson–the artist–prevails, his existences is not far from hell. What’s missing from Prison Da Vinci is a fuller picture of the depravity Wilson experienced inside the California prison system … but that’s too big for a 4-minute short and would take us off the topic of art. We know from his book Horse Latitudes that Wilson had a torrid time of it.
Spread from Horse Latitudes (Sorika) by Chris Wilson.
Here’s the lowdown on Horse Latitudes on Self Publish Be Happy.
What’s fascinating to me about the book is that it uses descriptions of “photographs” to anchor several scenes. Wilson describes regularly things he witnessed to put us in the picture–both when he was out on the streets living life as a junkie and later when he’s inside the nick. For example:
Foreground, a young man shirtless, tattooed, faces a mirror with his teeth bared, metal wires are entwined through his teeth to clamp his jaws together, in his right hand, which is raised to his mouth, he holds a red-handled pair of wire-cutters.
It’s dark, foreboding and inescapbaly bleak. Wilson has been called ‘The Nietzsche of Narcotics‘.
I was left to wonder how Wilson has even survived. Horse Latitudes is a short, violent and unapologetic read. Get it if you can.
The book differs massively in tone from Prison Da Vinci and that’s okay. Wilson has established himself as a successful artist and is not cagey about his tortured past. We know people change and we know identity isn’t fixed. We know people are more than their worst behaviours. Prison Da Vinci does its bit to celebrate Wilson’s post-prison and drug-free life. It’s one story of his storied life. Wilson got beyond incarceration’s grip. Art played its part. But painting with Skittles wasn’t even the half of it.