You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Visual Feeds’ category.

If the picture above looks familiar, it might be because you’ve seen press shots of Alcatraz’s blockbuster Ai Weiwei show At Large. Above is a production still from a lesser-known art intervention on Alcatraz; it shows the filming of Well Contested Sites, a choreographed performance for film made by former prisoners.

Before the Weiwei’s dragon a hall’s-worth of (brilliant) lego portraits, the “gallery” spaces of Alcatraz were host to Well Contested Sites a 13-minute dance and theater collaboration between a group of men who were previously incarcerated, performing artists from the Bay Area, choreographer Amie Dowling and film maker Austin Forbord.

The performance and film draw on the experiences and physical memories, or memories of the physical.

“Using a metaphorical, movement-based aesthetic, the film explores the effect of incarceration on individuals and suggests that the imagination can thrive even while the body is behind bars,” says the makers.


I know next to nothing about dance, but I was moved to write about Well Contested Sites because it achieves several things, responsibly and simultaneously. Firstly, the sound production and the performances are expertly crafted. The thump of bodies and body parts against the confines of the prison and cells is effective and sometimes nauseous in its sickening repeat. Very powerful.

The clap, the slap, the thok. These are visceral sounds that rattle your chest. Listen to the opening credits of any “gritty” TV show intro (Deadwood, True Detective, Rectify, and many more) from the past decade and you’ll hear these same morose and punching drums and woodblocks. They’re designed to drill you into your seat; they create instant alert and a readiness for drama. It’s just a blessing that Well Contested Sites delivers respite with quieter closure. Interestingly Sister Gertrude Morgan’s folk songs are introduced and they have the same cantor and percussion, but nothing like the earlier oppressive audio.


Secondly, this is a form of art therapy for the formerly incarcerated. Well Contested Sites represents the highest production that Amie Dowling and her team have brought to a project but they are, regularly, delivering dance and theater classes in San Quentin State Prison and the San Francisco county jail system. What begins inside can continue outside.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly,  Well Contested Sites goes beyond a one-off performance. This is the anchor to discussions about mass incarceration and arts role in bettering the lives of men and women inside. The performers and makers have travelled the country (see the Facebook page). It is the starting point for discussion led, in some cases, by formerly incarcerated individuals to educate the public. Now there’s many projects that attempt and achieve that but some are more successful than others. The most successful projects are those that grip audiences attentions by confounding expectations, by showing them something truly different.

banks & luke

Like I said, I don;t know a lot about dance, but I know a fair bit about prisons and it’s a rare and special thing to craft a professional performance as that we see in Well Contested Sites.

I asked Amie recently to share the new projects she was working on and she sent over Peter Merts‘ photos of a November 2015 performance of Faultline, by the Artistic Ensemble at San Quentin Prison.The Artistic Ensemble is a rigorous, creative group that explores personal narratives and their experiences with systemic forces of poverty, violence, power, and incarceration.

Current Artistic Ensemble members include: Adnan Khan, Anouthinh “Choy” Pangthong, Antwan “Banks” William, Belize Villafranco, Chris Marshall, Sr., Eric Lowery AKA Mike Lowery, Gary Harrell, Gino Sevacos, Ira Perry, Julian Glenn Padgett (Luke), Juancito, Lawrence Pela, Le’Mar “Maverick” Harrison, Maurice “Reese” Reed, Neiland Franks, Nythell “Nate” Collins, Richie Morris, Rodney (RC) Capell, Rauch Draper, Upumoni S. Ama, Sebastian Alvarez, Amie Dowling and Freddy Gutierrez.

It seems to me that these photos confound expectations; they open up new possibilities for how we envision prisoners. The physical contact involved in choreographed movement is coordinated, mutual and supportive. This type of organisation of bodies in space in this prison chapel doubling as stage demonstrates the vulnerability, the bonds and the daring of men who contemporary society has all but condemned to cruel and unusual existence. But here they are, showing up and announcing themselves. And here’s me, respecting that greatly.

I need to go and learn more about dance. Perhaps the folks at Well Contested Sites can help me with that?

choi leap #1








Interactive Tool Reveals Counties, Not Cities, Lock Up the Highest Proportions Of People

We’ve known for a long time that state prisons have been built more often in rural areas than in urban areas; that prisons have been job creators in post-industrial America. We also have known that county jails have been built and expanded, too in the era of mass incarceration.

What we have not known, until now, is that county jails in rural areas have been doing much of the heavy lifting in terms of warehousing America’s prisoners.

The distinction between state prisons and county jail is important. When the state sentences someone they are free to ship them anywhere in the state. But when a county sentences someone, or a state sentence is two years or less, the time is served in the county in which the offense occurred. So, one would expect that incarceration rates across counties would be fairly uniform. Also, if the stereotype of the more dangerous urban milieu is to be upheld, we might expect higher rates of incarceration in urban counties. Not so.

A remarkable study by the Vera Institute In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails, reveals that incarceration has grown the most outside of the largest counties and the largest cities.

“While the largest jails—such as those in NYC, LA, and Cook County, often draw the most attention and are the ones most often discussed by policymakers and the media, Vera found that these jails have not grown the most, nor are they among the ones with the highest incarceration rates,” explains Vera Institute.”

Instead, mid-sized and small counties have largely driven growth. Generally, jail populations growing faster than prison populations. 

Overall, there has been more than a four-fold increase in the number of people held in jail, from 157,000 to 690,000, since 1970.

“Large counties [jail rates] grew by 2.8 times, while mid-sized counties more than quadrupled, and small counties experienced almost a seven-fold increase,” reports the Vera Institute.



In addition to the surprising results of the report is the way in which Vera Institute has rolled out the findings. They’ve launched an interactive tool.

In the video at the top of this post, Vera Researcher Christian Henrichson discusses the Incarceration Trends tool.

We’ve known for a some years that the data for open and manipulable interactives has been available, but verifying the data, filling in the absent data (which happens a lot through different jurisdictions) and then standardising the data for a software program to convert it to user friendly format takes a lot of time, some cash and a good amount of skills. Vera Institute’s work here should propel us forward.

I contend that data visualisation is as essential, if not more so than photography in terms of informing citizens about the prison industrial complex.

In journalism, Gabriel Dance, at the Marshall Project, is making strides in presenting data for the public, for example Next One To Die. In advocacy, the Prison Policy Initiative has done much in wrangling data on county, state, federal, ICE and private facilities. In art, Josh Begley’s Prison Map and Paul Rucker’s Proliferation have both tried to present the terrifying growth of the PIC in ways that engage gallery goers and screen viewers alike. (It should be noted both Rucker’s work are based on the PPI data.) I’m certain there are other practitioners in these fields and more trying to present data and imagery in engaging ways for us out here.


Within the surprising city/county upturn of conventional wisdom, are these two disturbing trends:

  • African Americans make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population. African Americans have the highest incarceration rates, particularly in mid-sized and small counties.
  • Female incarceration rates have skyrocketed, and are highest in the smallest counties. Since 1970, there has been more than a 14-fold increase in the number of women held in jail, from fewer than 8,000 women in 1970 to 110,000 women in 2014.


Essential to criminal justice reform efforts is reliable information. The Vera’s Incarceration Trends tool provides easy comparisons on incarceration data for counties nationwide.

I anticipate this new tool will prepare the public, inform legislators and arm activists. As Henrichson encourages, go check out what’s happening in your county

Read the report in full In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails. Check out the accompanying fact sheet, and visit to research yourself.

More coverage: Who is Putting the Most People in Jail? Not New York, Chicago, or LA. (The Marshall Project)

Status Update


Hey y’all, the Status Update publication is now on sale.

$$$ 25 $$$ Buy Status Update Now $$$ 25 $$$

A perfect-bound, 128-page, softcover book featuring the work by Lily Chen, Janet Delaney, Sergio De La Torre, Rian Dundon, Robert Gumpert, Pendarvis Harshaw, Talia Herman, Elizabeth Lo, Laura Morton, Paccarik Orue, Brandon Tauszik, Joseph Rodriguez, Dai Sugano and Sam Wolson.

Introduction by Raj Jayadev, coordinator for Silicon Valley De-Bug and an interview with San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
5.5 x 8.5 inches
ISBN 978-0-692-55576-7
Edition of 1,000 (November 2015)

Designed by the genius Bonnie Briant.

$$$ 25 $$$ Buy Status Update Now $$$ 25 $$$

Produced by Catchlight, Status Update curated by Rian Dundon and myself is an exhibition of photography and video about change, chance and inequality in the San Francisco Bay Area. It premiered at SOMArts in San Francisco in November 2015 and will travel throughout the SF Bay Area throughout 2016.


So far, so good. The show got some great coverage.

Laurence Butet-Roch reflected for Time: Witness the Complex Evolution of the San Francisco Bay Area

California Sunday Magazine gave us a showing: Long Exposure: New Exhibit Captures Residents Experiencing the Boom and Bust of the Bay Area

Mark Murrmann wrote a glowing preview for Mother Jones: These Photos Show the Bay Area You’ll Never See From a Google Bus

Stanford Ethics students got to grips with the show: Adjusting our Focus: the Tech Boom through a Different Lens

Mashable threw down a gallery: Photos Capture Inequality and Change in San Francisco Bay Area

Wired offered great support with Laura Mallonee‘s feature: Capturing the Bay Area’s Diversity — and Rapid Change

Erin Baldassari for the East Bay Express reviewed the show with focus on Oakland-based artists: Beyond Black and White: Nuanced Ways of Documenting the Housing Crisis

Silicon Valley DeBug, with whom we partnered in the show posted for their committed South Bay community and following.

And finally, I was interviewed by Doug Bierend for Vice: ‘Status Update’ Captures the Evolution of the Bay Area


The book’s going to last longer than any of the prints and beyond next years traveling exhibit. Whether it will last as long as the issues that are percolating here in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, we’ll see …

$$$ 25 $$$ Buy Status Update Now $$$ 25 $$$



Earlier this year, Zora Murff contacted me and asked if would write some words for his debut book Corrections. Of course, I jumped at the chance. I’m a huge fan of the work. I interviewed Murff at length in January 2014 and I wrote about Corrections for the Marshall Project in December 2014.

Corrections is a collection of images made by Murff made between 2012 and 2015, while he worked as a Tracker for Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Interspersed with his portraits of teens and still life studies of monitoring equipment are anonymised mugshots.

Today, the book was made available for pre-order. Books ship December 7th.


Throughout Corrections, Murff is investigating the psychology, the coercion and the effects/costs/benefits of control. We’re dealt a teasing glimpse of how electronic monitoring works for the state and niggles against presumed natural freedoms. These frictions play out against the hormonal whirl of teenagers trying to find their place in the world.


“By reconsidering the role that I played in the lives of the kids I worked with, I began to acknowledge the burden that comes with tasking young men and women with continued complicity,” writes Murff. “My stance as a consequence kept our relationships in a state of flux ranging from stable to tenuous – a constant motion mirroring the discord that develops between the system’s intentions and outcomes. Through employing ideas of anonymity, voyeurism, and introspection, Corrections is an examination of youth experience in the system, the role images play in defining someone who is deemed a criminal, and how the concepts of privacy and control may affect their future.”


Murff provided services to youths who were convicted of crimes and were monitored while on probation.

“Juveniles in my charge were asked to comply with services which may include: electronic monitoring, therapies, drug screening, and community service; it is my responsibility to have continual contact with them to ensure these expectations are met,” he says.

Electronic Monitoring (EM) is becoming more and more common. EM is characterised–by its supporters–as a more humane, less forceful and cheaper alternative to incarceration. However, it’s use and long-term effects (especially for children) have been the subject of relatively little study or public attention.


“These services, which allow juveniles to stay in their homes, show a higher rate of success than strict incarceration. Although community-based services are built to foster a collaborative relationship between juveniles and service providers, attaining the actualization of teamwork becomes problematic when juveniles feel that they have done nothing wrong, are victims of circumstance, or do not fully understand why they have committed a crime,” says Murff.

My essay/introduction focuses on the business practices, markets and language behind the electronic monitoring industry and how this boom sector of criminal justice may or may not be the panacea law enforcement hopes for.

“The system has been put in place to provide rehabilitation, but it is far from being a straightforward process,” writes Murff. “Many influences outside of the youths’ control such as education, socioeconomic status, and race all play a role in whether or not a youth reoffends — all of these factors possessing the propensity to lead them to extended periods of incarceration in the juvenile system or to involvement with the criminal justice system as an adult.”


I’ll share my full essay (with Murff’s photos) in the new year, but at this moment I urge you to order a copy.

Murff and his publisher Ain’t Bad have manufactured a beautiful object about a crucially current and unexamined topic of criminal justice.



Zora J Murff is an MFA student in Studio Art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Zora attended the University of Iowa where he studied Photography and holds a BS in Psychology from Iowa State University. His work has appeared in The British Journal of Photography, WIRED, VICE Magazine and PDN’s Emerging Photographer Magazine. Zora was named a LensCulture 2015 Top 50 Emerging Talent, a 2014 Photolucida Critical Mass finalist, and is part of the Midwest Photographers Project through the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Zora is a member of Strange Fire Collective with Jess T. Dugan, Hamidah Glasgow, and Rafael Soldi.



Title: Corrections, 2015
Introduction: Pete Brook, Prison Photography
Size: 9.75 x 7.75 in
Page Count: 80 pages, 40 images
Publisher: Aint-Bad Editions
Edition Size: 450, signed and numbered
Print: 8×10 signed and numbered edition of 50
ISBN: 978-1-944005-01-6

Start shipping on December 7th. Pre-order now.


Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Portraits of Purpose series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.


Of course, I’m being provocative, but the rise and rise of prison criticism and reflection (and commodification) in the cultural sphere bears consideration.

Here is not an exhaustive list but a few examples — Life After Death and Elsewhere, curated by Robin Paris and Tom Williams at apexart; To Shoot A Kite curated by Yaelle Amir at the CUE Foundation; Voices Of Incarceration at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles; Try Youth As Youth curated by Meg Noe at David Weinberg in Chicago; Site Unseen: Incarceration curated by Sheila Pinkel; The Cell and the Sanctuary put on by the William James Association in Santa Cruz, CA; and my own Prison Obscura.

This weekend, Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives will end its 10-week run at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art at Chaffey College in Southern California. Inside/Outside is a relatively large survey of prisoner art, prison photography and visual activism that brings together the work of Sandow Birk, Camilo Cruz, Amy Elkins, Alyse Emdur, Ashley Hunt, Spencer Lowell, Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), Jason Metcalf, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Kristen S. WilkinsSteve Shoffner, the Counter Narrative Society and students at the California Institute for Women.

It’s a great exhibition.

As many of the names in Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives are familiar, I felt a review by me would be redundant; it’d be dominated by applause to the committed artists I see as asking the right questions … because they’re the questions I’ve ask too.

Instead, I wanted to focus on the recent uptick in fine art exhibitions orbiting the issues of prisons.

Rebecca Trawick, Director of the Wignall Museum and co-curator of Inside/Outside and I were in touch a while before I realised that this should be what we should discuss. And how the cultural production of art around, and about, the prison industrial complex propels, inspires, derails (and much else besides) dialogue about mass incarceration in America.

Kindly, Trawick and her co-curator, Misty Burruel, Associate Professor of Art at Chaffey College accepted my invite to answer some questions. The Q&A is peppered with artworks from Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives.

Scroll down for our discussion.

Cruz, Camilo

Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Theater of Souls series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Why did you make this exhibition?

Rebecca Trawick (RT): Incarceration was an issue that I kept returning to in my research.

As a curator, I’m specifically interested in shedding light on important but difficult social issues through the lens of contemporary art. I love how artists can take an unwieldly topic and consider it thoughtfully, often personally, and in really compelling ways that allow the viewer a chance at transformation, or expansion of, thought and perspective.

Because we work at an institution of higher education, these exhibitions become a safe space to start difficult discussions about issues such as incarceration, and they become a tool to educate and inform. This kind of exhibition (if done well) can demonstrate the value of art to transform ideas, minds, and communities.

Misty Burruel (MB): Because it was a challenge. On the heels of a number of incarceration exhibitions in southern California that focused on works by incarcerated artists and artists confronting the criminal justice system, it was appropriate to look at it through the lens of education.

We are confronted daily with students that have either been incarcerated or have family who are incarcerated. It was time to have difficult discussions about the role of education in the penal system, our responsibility as citizens to each other, and how parolees reintegrate into yet another system.

Spencer Lowell, La Palma prison, Arizona

PP: Is incarceration a “hot topic” right now? Why?

RT: As Misty and I mention in our remarks in the printed takeaway, we seem to be experiencing a unique convergence of policy discussions in the US as well as popular culture interests, so we feel like the conversation is already happening in certain circles.

We hope our exhibition helps to expand the discussion and dig a little deeper into some of the topics looked at in contemporary documentary (think the recent Vice episode, Fixing the System, in which President Obama – the first sitting US President to do so – visited a federal prison) to the popularity of Orange is the New Black.

MB: Jenji Kohan’s, Orange is the New Black, portrayal of incarcerated women created a splash on Netflix and revealed through mass media the complexities of a system within a system. The women were all too real and relatable. We live in the Inland Empire and have two prisons at our footstep.

PP: California Institute for Men and  California Institute for Women.

Jason Metcalf, Cheeseburger, French Fries, Iced Tea (Dwight Adanandus), 2013, archival pigment print, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

PP: Is Inside/Outside about incarceration or is it about the representation of incarceration?

RT: The exhibition is about the many issues surrounding incarceration that we hope our viewers will consider more deeply after viewing the work on view. Issues include the value of rehabilitation behind bars; juveniles in justice; death penalty, segregation, prison labor, and isolation as systems of control, among others.

PP: How did you select the artists?

RT: The Wignall Museum mainly draws from Southern California for practical reasons–funding limits us to local pickups mainly. In some cases (Kristin S. Wilkins, for example) agreed to ship the work to us so we were able to include her. We’re often limited regionally, which explains the SoCal bias. We would have loved to include works outside our region, if possible. (see next question for a list of some we would have included if possible.) The one thing I remind myself is that we’re not trying to be essentialist in what we portray or explore, but rather offer some really amazing work to assist us in digging a little deeper into the state of incarceration today.

MB: We are in a human warehousing gridlock. The works collectively focus on how the system of control does not discriminate (women, men, and youth detention).

Kristen S. Wilkins, Untitled #10. From the  series ‘Supplication’ (2009-2014) “Grand Ave. by Shiloh (Cemetery). Left side of water fountain. Has colorful wreath with flowers. It is where my son is @. He is the best thing that happened to me in my life. He was my world.”

PP: Were there any artists or works out there that you’d wanted in the show but couldn’t for whatever reason?

RT: Yes! Many. The list includes Deborah Luster, Dread Scott, Jackie Sumell’s The House That Herman Built, and Julie Green’s Last Supper installation all immediately come to mind. There were many others, but those three stand out for me.

MB: We wanted to have more guest speakers, but funding always seems to be a hurdle. We can certainly look at the issue, but we really wanted to talk about it.

PP: Really? From the outside that you had a phenomenal amount of programming. I applaud you. How important was programing around the exhibition?

RT: Programming is critical. Because we’re limited in many ways in terms of what we can show – due to spatial and fiscal restrictions – programming allows us to bring in experts in the field to further contextualize and expand the themes of the exhibition. It also allows community engagement and for other voices to join in the conversation, often in a public forum. That ability can’t be underestimated, I think.

MB: When the discussing an exhibition about incarceration we were most focused on programming. Rebecca and I are collaborative by nature and we were able to find others who were very interested in asking difficult questions within their own disciplines (Sociology, Philosophy, Correctional Science, Administration of Justice).

pinkel, sheila

© Sheila Pinkel

PP: I’ve been asked a number of times “Who are you (a white, cis-gender, male, college graduate) to speak to these issues?” Every time by a highschooler — God, I love them. Were you ever challenged over your role and/or position while putting Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives together?

RT: As a curator at an institution situated on the campus of a Community College I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to explore a wide array of topics in our exhibitions and to look from a place of diversity – diversity of media, content, viewpoint, race, ethnicity, etc. – and through the lens of contemporary art, but it is critical that we do so in a way that is thoughtful and multifaceted.

Philosophically we try to schedule our exhibitions and programs in a way that expand outside of our own limited perspectives. We also try to use multiple guest voices – guest curators, guest speakers, etc. to expand the discourse around an exhibition. But the long and the short of it is, I try to always be conscious of my privilege and to present diverse voices. That said, my own experience/perspective was never called into question during the exhibition planning or implementation phase.

MB: The college has wholeheartedly embraced the exhibition and its programming.

Amy Elkins. 26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was), 2011. Portrait of a man twenty-six years into his death row sentence where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

You’ve said the response so far has been positive. More than other Wignall shows? More among the student body, or beyond? How do you measure response/success?

RT: This exhibition definitely has seemed to link to something that is personal and relatable for many of our students, faculty and community visitors, evident by the verbal responses and reactions we’ve seen in the galleries. We’ve held a number of panel discussions, engagement activities, a film screening, and dozens of tours. Unequivocally, discussions always seem to lead to the personal and comments suggest that the ability to discuss a somewhat taboo topic has been relevant.

MB: This work is incredibly personal and relevant to the Inland Empire.


PP: Can you see the successes and failures of the show already? Or is it too soon for that type of assessment?

RT: Success can be measured in qualitative and quantitative ways … (as of course, can failure). Due to the high level of programming, and the sheer number of student tours we’ve conducted, we can see an increased level of engagement. Our visitor numbers are up, the number of students speaking up during tours has increased a great deal, and the unsolicited feedback from students/faculty/staff we’re getting has been remarkable.

We also ask all students who visit us as part of a tour to fill out a short survey. Results won’t be tabulated until the close of the exhibition, but I feel the results will mirror the anecdotal evidence we’re seeing. As a curator, however, I’m always thinking about what we can improve upon – from the curatorial practice, to layout and installation, to printed collateral and programming…reflection is key.

MB: I think the museum does an amazing job of allowing artists to ask difficult questions and explore relevant social and political issues.


The Wignall Museum hosted workshops and discussion led by Mabel Negrete and the Counter Narratives Society.

PP: Anything you’d like to add?

RT: We hope that Inside/Outside and the many other excellent exhibitions and artists looking at incarceration with a critical perspective will encourage the questioning of the system as it is, and that it might even encourage engagement in our communities in ways that can make real change in the world.

Follow the Wignall Museum at Chaffey College on Facebook and Twitter.


I’ve praised Participatory Defense before. It’s a community-based approach to criminal-defense that wraps a wider story and longer narrative arcs around a defendant. Friends and family work with public defenders to bring more to the case and to the court.

Participatory Defense was pioneered by Silicon Valley DeBug. It is carried out by the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP). Listen to Raj Jayadev speak here for 5-minutes about Participatory Defense‘s positive effects.

Jayadev recounts the story of Carnell who was facing a 5-year term for a low level drug offense. He said he was afraid of missing his daughters lives, of not being their for them. The  gave Carnell a camera and he documented his life, taking his girls to school, to volleyball practice, making them meals at home.

The photographs were presented in court and instead of a custodial sentence, Carnell received a 6-month out patient drug treatment program, the help he’d sought all along!

So far, ACJP has helped divert clients from a cumulative 1,862 years of incarceration.

Unbelievable. Commendable.

via the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project



The Prison Rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola Prison) is a controversial event. Is it an opportunity for the prisoners to be more than invisible bodies and maligned felons, or is is gladiatorial and the worst of capitalist exploitation? I veer toward the latter but I’m not inclined to yell too loudly at those that err toward the former. Indeed, as Lee Cowan find out for CBS, even prisoners hold conflicting views.

I’m posting this here because I think in 8-minutes Cowan is about as fair as fair can be on this topic.


Articles on Prison Photography about Angola, the prison I contend is the most photographed in the United States.

My own visit: The Visual Culture of Angola Prison

photo-21 copy

Set photo, from the filming of Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility. © ERNEST

In the northern reaches of Portland Oregon, in the quieter quarters of the St. John’s neighbourhood, sleeps a beast. Wapato Jail was built for $58 million but never opened. It has sat vacant since 2004. It has been used as a film set. They tried to sell it. At one point, the City of Portland put out an open call for alternative uses proposals. Some suggested it could be used as a garden and rehabilitation center. Others suggested it could be used to house Bush, Cheney and other war criminals.

Wapato has costs the tax payer $300,000 per year (a conservative estimate) to just keep the thing offline. One long expensive joke. Systems normal but never operational.

WapatoSysNormal copy

WildlifeVideoStill copy

Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

WapatoMapAngle copy

Screengrab of a Google Maps angled, aerial view of Wapato Jail, looking northwest.


When the arts organisation c3:initiative moved into St. John’s in 2014 it didn’t take them long to turn its focus to the empty jail. c3:initiative sponsored artist collective ERNEST as artists-in-residence. ERNEST have produced a multi-medium art installation, film, a book and public programs.

Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility probes the many concerns that the vacant jail suggests: breakdowns in democracy, prevailing power structures,” reads the exhibition statement.

During ERNEST’s early research they discovered that coyotes had dug under many fences. Video footage shows that they will scale fences too to cross and inhabit the lush ground within the jail perimeter. These wily mammals, that have roamed the area far longer than the jail has stood, have found a way to ignore the unwelcome interruption of a hard and fast boondoggle. Coyotes continue their evolved routine and instead of fighting the jail just orient themselves around it. Ultimately, they operate to ignore the jail’s presence and minimise it’s impact on their rhythms.

Is the coyote a good metaphor? Might we find new solutions to old problems if we approach prisons, jails and social ills with a similar low-key pragmatism. Prisons might be the problem but so to might our strategies of opposition?

“Acting as a conjuror of sorts, the character of Coyote leads the video component of Demos, transforming the specific architecture, history and politics of Wapato Jail into a platform for conversation and collaboration,” says the press release.

While ERNEST are allied to prison reform and abolition arguments, their work doesn’t necessary look like the typically political and didactic protest-imagery. Bringing the subtlety of fine art to a brutish topic such as the abusive prison industrial complex is intriguing. I don’t know what to expect truthfully, which is why I am in Portland right now for tomorrow’s opening.


Friday, September 18, 6:30-9:30pm
At c3:initiative, 7326 N. Chicago Avenue, Portland 97203.

Visitors are invited to join c3:initiative and the artists from ERNEST in marking the opening of Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility. Complimentary drinks and light refreshments will be served.

WapatoCoyoteEye copy

A graphic by ERNEST from an early conceptualisation stages of the project Demos.

KitchenVideoStill copy

Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

CoyoteStampedeVideoStill copy

Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST


The project’s title takes its meaning from various interpretations of the word “demos”. The Greek word “demos” (pronounced “day-moss”), refers to the “village” or “people.” In English, “demo”, is used as a shorthand for “demonstration”, as reference to the “demo mix-tape”, or as the vernacular for “demolition”. ERNEST thus uses “demos” to refer to its interest in keeping their methods experimental and provisional, while creating opportunities for local participatory engagement.


The book, published by Container Corps, includes a collection of essays, artworks, research and primary documents. I have an essay in there about sketches made in solitary by a man named Ernest Jerome DeFrance.

The book’s contents are both specific to Wapato Correctional Facility, and related to general issues of incarceration, participatory citizenship, and the role of art in social justice and storytelling.


I’ll also be in the room for an open roundtable conversation — a broadened investigation of themes relating to the empty jail facility, both locally and nationally.

Saturday, September 19, 2015, 11am-1pm. Followed by a 12-1pm community meal and conversation.

I look forward to hearing from panelists:

Emanuel Price is the Founder and current Executive Director of Second Chances Are For Everyone in Portland, OR. S.C.A.F.E. works to reduce the rate of recidivism by providing support services to promote employment, empowerment, and community engagement for men in transition because Second Chances are for Everyone. Price is currently leading the organization in developing key programs and resources that will help reduce criminals going back into destructive lifestyles after being released from jail or prison. More information about Price is available here.

Melissa Salazar is a May 2015 graduate of Pacific Northwest College of Art, where she studied Communication Design. Melissa has recently become involved in activist work focusing primarily on incarceration of black and brown individuals. She has been influenced by events in her own life and seeks to bring awareness to an invisible society behind bars.

Yaelle Amir is a curator, writer and researcher who currently holds the position of Curator at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, OR. Her writing and curatorial projects focus primarily on artists whose practices supplement the initiatives of existing social movements, rendering themes within those struggles in ways that both interrogate and promote these issues to a wider audience. She has curated exhibitions at Artists Space, CUE Art Foundation, Center for Book Arts, ISE Cultural Foundation, The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Marginal Utility, and the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, among others. Her writing has appeared in numerous art publications includingArt in America, ArtLies, ArtSlant, ArtUS, Beautiful/Decay, and Sculpture Magazine. She has also worked at major art institutions, such as the International Center of Photography, the Museum of Modern Art, and NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts.

WapatoExercise copy

Members of ERNEST tour the gymnasium in the empty Wapato Jail, Portland, OR.

BedCountingDormStill copy

Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

WapatoBeds copy

Photo taken in Wapato Jail, Portland, OR as part of ERNEST’s early research.

HallwayVideoStill copy

Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST


Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility
A project by ERNEST
September 18–November 22, 2015
Gallery Hours: Fri–Sun, noon–5pm at c3:initiative, 7326 N. Chicago Avenue, Portland 97203.


Reading Group: The New Jim Crow – Wednesdays, October 7, 14, 21, 7:00-8:30pm
Stories in Movement – Saturday, November 7, 5:00pm
No Thank You Democracy, The politics of non-participation, by Ariana Jacob – Sunday, November 22, 4:30pm.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories