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‘OPERATION JURASSIC’ BY PABLO AND ROXANA ALLISON

Brother and sister Pablo and Roxana Allison were separated for five-and-a-half months from late 2012 through spring of 2013. Pablo was locked up in London for criminal damage after being prosecuted for graffiti writing on trains. Pablo was one of several defendants sentenced as a result of Operation Jurassic, one the UK’s largest cases brought against artists using train carriages as their canvas. Since, the siblings have worked on putting together a visual record of the time and their emotions. The resulting book Operation Jurassic, published by Pavement Studios, just hit the stands. I wrote an introductory essay which I am pleased to republish here.

Scroll on!

 

 

A WARM THREAD

This book is a thread. A warm thread spun by two siblings during one’s incarceration. These images, conceived during months of separation and crafted during more months of house arrest, emerge from the worry and dislocation imprisonment brings. Born of necessity, these images are what Pablo and Roxana Allison did, dreamt up and fabricated; emotional twine that kept them sane and connected both.

As one in a cohort of graf-writers targeted by Operation Jurassic and done on charges of conspiracy and criminal damage, Pablo saw his conviction coming. It was likely he’d get a custodial sentence. Prior to the trial, he and Roxana decided that images could graft the space between them. He’d draw and describe scenes inside prison while she’d document her isolation at home. They’d plan photo-shoots for when he got out to capture what he couldn’t while inside. For painting trains, Pablo was locked up in November 2012. Roxana, while not entirely sympathetic toward his graffiti at that time, was horrified that he’d get sent down for his art. Together they resolved to come through it with a visual record. He served 5-and-a-half months in Wormwood Scrubs and HMP Brixton followed by one year, at home, under curfew with an electronic monitor strapped to his ankle.

 

 

This book is woven through with detachment. Doleful figures cut lonesome shapes—veiled, obscured, there but barely there. Sometimes only a shadow. Interior details and still-lives serve as descriptors of halted lives. Scratched through with twilight, bisected by lines and tree limbs, these photographs edge toward a shared emotional territory, but they’re only placeholders of time lost. In that way, they double as evidence of Pablo and Roxana’s defiance. From a position of near zero control, they intended to shape an outcome. These images establish their testimony in spite of, and in challenge to, the court proceedings, prosecution arguments and criminal narratives of British Transport Police (BTP) and the presiding judge. A warm, human thread of struggle spun from the dehumanising reaches of prison and house arrest.

 

 

Initiated in 2003, Operation Jurassic was one the largest prosecution cases ever brought against graffiti artists in the United Kingdom. Pablo and nine others were arrested in 2010. Pablo was one of five who consequently, in November 2012, faced trial for criminal acts perpetrated between 2005 and 2009. At the outset, the prosecution detailed upward of $10 million in damaged infrastructure but at trial only made a case for $1 million worth.

Potential punishments for graffiti-related crime in the UK is high. The BTP “Graffiti Squad” went after eight members of the DPM crew with Operation Shuttle, and in 2008 secured jail sentences of 12 to 24 months for all. In terms of the cost of the operation (£1 million to the taxpayer) and convictions (imprisonment), Shuttle set precedents of which Pablo and his cohorts later bore the brunt. All for putting some paint on some surfaces.

Led by Detective Constable Colin Saysell, the BTP Graffiti Squad went to war on graf-writers. During his 30-years as a copper, Saysell has helped convict 300 artists. Including Pablo. But his exacting approach is out of step with the British public who laud mainstreamed graffiti artists such as Banksy and Ben Eine. (Famously, in 2010, David Cameron gave Barack Obama a Ben Eine piece as a diplomatic gift.) Compared with law enforcement agencies abroad that don’t imprison graffiti artists, Saysell is an extremist.

Furthermore, compared to public education and youth outreach, Saysell’s hardline stance is bizarrely contradictory; murals and tags are used as an art-medium with which to engage city-kids’ creativity. A charity once took a double-decker bus into Wormwood Scrubs where members of the DPM crew painted it! Roxana wasn’t the only one staggered by Pablo’s imprisonment. Guards and prisoners alike couldn’t believe that, for making art, he was banged up alongside men who had murdered and maimed.

 

 

“Have you met any killers yet?” asks Antonio Olmos, photographer and mentor, in a letter to Pablo. “Anyone interesting like a member of Al Qaida or a dress designer? I imagine a lot of creative people are in prison…” On the inside, Pablo’s monochromatic, A4-sized sketches and notes are a far cry from his hulking, clacking train-car surfaces on the outside, where he would stalk yards for days in preparation for a night of painting.

Once inside, Pablo experienced a shift in his creativity. He felt his mind slow and the down-tempo pace worked because apart from writing and drawing he had little else to do. Time was spent on mailed offerings to friends and family. It’s almost too obvious to state that letters are lifelines for prisoners, but this book is built on the insistence of connections maintained, feelings felt and testimony spoken.

 

 

In this book, time and space are deliberately confused. Pablo is behind bars and then half-submerged in the Pacific Ocean. A prison sits in mid-winter and then, pages later, peeks from behind the full foliage of mid-summer. Some images reconstruct the confines of cell. Another the view from the back of a “sweat-box” custody van—a photograph that could never be made. Pictures of held hands and tired glances might be from before sentencing, or from the visiting room, or made during post-release house arrest. We have entered a chronological fog that mirrors the emotional fog endured by Pablo, Roxana and their family.

 

 

Photos of actual prison cells exist too, but how can that be? Pablo did have a camera in Wormwood Scrubs but not during his time as prisoner. In 2005, at the request of a local council member, a teacher from Hackney Community College asked Pablo and fellow students to visit the famous prison and make images for Prison Me, No Way!, a deterrent program designed to show young people crime’s causes and penalties. (Ironically, the British Transport Police is a partner of Prison Me, No Way!) Pablo kept those images, but never imagined he’d revisit the canteen, cells and tiers as an inmate. In these pages, site and sights (spaces and time) loop back on one another; exile has its own haunting feedback.

 

 

The pages of Operation Jurassic seem drained of blood. Understandably so. Roxana and Pablo’s lives were gutted to a great degree. Photographs flatten the world. Two dimensions tend to fail the fullness of life. Frustrated acceptance and silent screams run through these images. In some ways it is remarkable that Pablo and Roxana even wanted to return to their anemic limbo, let alone depict it.

These photos, legal documents, letters, emails, drawings and diary extracts bottle the soup of inconvenient memories that Pablo and Roxana cannot leave behind, nor that they want extinguished. From raw emotion and these memories, they grew. Despite the grey spectre of institutional control and despite the slowed pulse of the carceral clock, this book is Pablo and Roxana back in control. It is a warm thread. It is a gift too. Imagination and pictures, letters and sketches were what they had. Now, it is what we have.

 

 

Operation Jurassic

Pack includes:

100 page A5 Hardcover Book
36 page Staple-bound Zine
A3 Double-sided folded Poster

1st Edition of 100 copies. All books hand finished.

Buy here.

Follow Pablo on Instagram and Roxana on Instagram. Take a peek at Pavement Studios‘ website and peep them on Tumblr and Instah too.

 

 

 

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How can images tell the story of mass incarceration when the imprisoned don’t have control over their own representation? This is the question Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood asks as editor of the latest Aperture (Spring 2018).

Prison Nation” can be ordered online today and hits the news-stands next week. Devoted to prison imagery and discussion of mass incarceration, the issue presents a slew of works across contrasting genres — landmark documentary by Bruce JacksonJoseph Rodriguez and Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick; luscious and uncanny portraits by Jack Lueders-Booth, Deborah Luster and Jamel Shabazz; insider images from Nigel PoorLorenzo Steele, Jr. and Jesse Krimes; and contemporary works by Sable Elyse Smith, Emily Kinni, Zora Murff, Lucas Foglia and Stephen Tourlentes.

Equally exciting is the banger roster of thinkers contributing essays, intros and conversations — including Mabel O. Wilson, Shawn Michelle Smith, Christie Thompson, Jordan Kisner, Zachary Lazar, Rebecca Bengal, Brian WallisJessica Lynne, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ruby Tapia, Zarinah Shabazz, Brian Stevenson, Sarah LewisHank Willis Thomas and Virginia Grise.

I have an essay ‘Prison Index’ included which looks back on almost a decade of this Prison Photography website–how it began, what it has done and what it has become. I highlight a dozen-or-so photographers’ works that are not represented by features in the issue itself. I wonder how PP functions as an archive and what role it serves for public memory and knowledge.

MATCHING QUALITY CONTENT WITH QUALITY DESIGN

I’ve known for years that Prison Photography requires a design overhaul. This past week, I’ve moved forward with plans for that. It goes without saying that the almost-daily blogging routine of 2008 with which Prison Photography began has morphed into a slower publishing schedule. There’s a plethora of great material on this website but a lot of it is buried in the blog-scroll format. My intention is to redesign PP as more of an “occasionally-updated archive” whereby the insightful interviews from years past are drawn up to the surface.

It’s time to make this *database* of research more legible and searchable. Clearly, as this Aperture issue demonstrates, the niche genre of prison photographs is vast and it demands a more user-friendly interface for this website. I’m proud to be included in “Prison Nation” but know it’s a timely prod to develop Prison Photography’s design and serve the still-crucial discussions.

 

 

Get your copy of Aperture, Issue 230 “Prison Nation” here.

Thanks to the staff at Aperture, especially Brendan Wattenberg and Michael Famighetti for ushering and editing the piece through.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Scroll on for our Q&A.

 

Q & A

Why should people care about prisons?

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

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

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

Decarceration should be everybody’s business.

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What is the public opinion in Canada toward prisons?

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were the most surprising testimonies you heard?

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

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

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

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

And new information that stuck with you?

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Cindy.

Thank you, Pete.

 

 

All images: Cindy Blažević

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trump rages on about a broken America. America is raging about a broken Trump. Among the many memes and earworms the Whinger-In-Chief has provided, “American Carnage” is the one that sticks, for me. As long as Trump can convince his base that other people, other milieus and other communities are in carnage, his base will happily cede logic and allow the White House to enact its politics of division. As soon as Trump bellowed “American carnage” during his inauguration speech, the foreboding inevitability of a belligerent, smarting, testy, bickering presidency came to bear. Do images of social blight carry a different message under a fascistic executive?

Of his series Slow Blink, Open Mouth, Jordan Baumgarten says, With apparent lawlessness, chaos is inevitable. The world comes alive with bits of magic, bits of darkness, and the inability to discern which is which. In this world, private moments are public, animals and humans roam free, fueled by id, and always, somewhere, there is a fire burning.

 

While Slow Blink, Open Mouth is difficult for its content alone, it is also difficult because it might provide the ammunition for both sides of the political battle of rhetoric, fought from distance, over the health and feasibility of the nation. In We Look At The Same Photos, We See Different Things, published on Vantage, I investigate the difficulty inherent to images, in the Trump era, of addiction and social stress.

To quote:

When I view these images I think of failed manufacturing, job loss, modern alienation, big pharma pushing painkillers, crimes of need, and cycles of profit and predation that cannot, will not, be broken by the will power of addicts alone. I see the result of decades of inadequate public education, mental and medical health care and viable addiction treatment. I see the legacy of the failed War On Drugs, mass incarceration, and policy and policing that has criminalised poverty. I see the cracks in society through which individuals have fallen and I know the cracks used to be smaller, and fewer and farther between.

I do not discount, however, the fact that others may see a society that’s lost its way; a society that fell from grace decades ago and needs a short, sharp reset. I know viewers might reason they have nothing in common with Baumgarten’s subject(s) and are moved to do nothing but judge. Trump has fueled the aggressive judgement of others. Perversely, though he hasn’t done this by avoiding the topics of poverty and addiction. Instead, he’s pointed (from distance) to problems in inner-city America (Chicago being his preferred bogeyman) and yelled about carnage, wastelands and the opioid epidemic. Trump is correct in identifying the opioid epidemic as specific to our times, but he’s more invested in stoking dangerous rhetoric about *dangerous* cities than he is listening to, or implementing, nuanced policy and social care solutions.

 

 

Read and see more: We Look At The Same Photos, We See Different Things

Slow Blink Open Mouth will be published as a book by GOST. Please consider buying a print from the series to help support the production costs.

Follow Jordan Baumgarten on Tumblr and Instagram.

 

 

Mesro Coles-El, Indian Pow Wow — 6.12.76, 2013. Courtesy of Nigel Poor and the San Quentin Prison Archive Project

Next week, I’ll be in Bristol with Gemma-Rose Turnbull leading the discussion Photography As A Social Practice. Together we’ll look at  socially engaged art production of contemporary photographers including Phoebe Davis, Nigel Poor and the San Quentin Archive Project (above), Mark Strandquist, Anthony Luvera and others.

Thanks to IC Visual Lab for inviting us down and to Arnolfini for hosting. Gemma is pro: she’s currently co-authoring a pioneering Masters program in Photography with a focus on collaborative practice at Coventry University. We both appreciate image-makers who surrender some control in the image-making process over to others in order to discover new relationships, possibilities, empowerments and photographs. For the talk, Gemma will focus on standout projects that have successfully applied participatory design. Then I will look at the handful of projects that have attempted the same while dealing with the issue of mass incarceration.

As we say in the blurb:

“Socially engaged photographers deal with questions around justice and representation, thereby often discussing practical and historic conventions of photography. Striving to stimulate political and social change, practitioners often document recent societal happenings with compassionate observation.”

We think it’s important territory to tread.

Gemma, I and five others are the PaaSP (Photography As A Social Practice) collective, a loose group that seeks space for discussions on contemporary photography, addressing topics such as ethics and power dynamics. We like to champion practitioners who are good people, good stewards and good image-makers.

In or near Bristol?

7pm. Thursday 18th May 2017

£6/4 CONCESSIONS. Free to ICVL Members

Dark Studio, 2nd floor, Arnolfini

BUY TICKETS

 

 

 

 

loneliness-2

 

Whether the timing was deliberate or accidental, I like that an interview with me about loneliness was published on Valentines Day.

The new website This On That interviews photo people about non-photo things. I was quizzed about solitude, forced isolation, the PCT and other things. Thanks to Barney and Matt for the questions. Here’s my answer to the ninth question of thirteen:

Who is/was the loneliest person you met doing your prisons project? Can anything be done to help him/her?

Not for me to say. Prisons are toxic and they degrade the spirit of any one who is inside.

That said, I’ve met some incredibly lonely people who are locked up but they know they only have themselves to rely on and in spite of the system, hold it together and do immense good. I’ve seen prisoners mentor, educate and counsel other prisoners. They do so because they feel and live the isolation. Incredibly, they can contain that struggle and frustration and turn it into something powerful and good and community-building. I’m thinking here of prisoners who teach remedial math, Spanish, life skills and coping strategies to other, usually younger, prisoners.

Read the full interview here. I’m the second interview. Missy Prince is the first. She talks about gardening. Follow This On That on Instah and Tumblr.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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