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On a recent search of the Harry Ransom Center photographic archive at the University of Texas, Austin (an incredible collection) I came across this image by Arnold Genthe.

Arnold Genthe, Slave Prison (Calabozo), New Orleans, circa 1920-1926

Arnold Genthe, Slave Prison (Calabozo), New Orleans, circa 1920-1926

Genthe is a widely respected practitioner of early photography, and (besides some notable exceptions) made it all the way out west before many others. Historians thank Genthe for having enough curiosity in the Chinese immigrants of San Francisco to photograph their community before the 1906 earthquake and resultant fire razed large swathes of the city. His are the only images of Chinatown from that time period.

Genthe’s Slave Prison, (Calabozo), New Orleans is, in all honesty, not an image that interests me very much. Without the caption I would not have known that this negative depicted a site of incarceration. It is reminiscent of Fox Talbot’s The Open Door; both images are mundane, both photographers pointed their lens at doors. One inconsequential but observable difference is that Genthe’s door is closed – which is, at least, consistent with the subject.

Henry William Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844

The Library of Congress record states that Genthe photographed the Calabozo between 1920 and 1926, and yet, in a reliable source I uncovered during a brief internet foray, it is stated the Calabozo was demolished in 1837. There are two likely explanations. One, Genthe was photographing another city jail and wrongly identified it as the Calabozo; or, two, Genthe set his camera up in the courtyard of the building that stood on the former site of the Calabozo (in which case the courtyard may have been original). There is uncertainty here that needs to be cleared up, but I don’t intend, here, to pursue the correct subject-hence-caption for Genthe’s sleepy image.

Despite the image’s astonishing banality, I was intrigued by the flawed description and I sensed an opportunity to sate my thirst for amateurish detective work. Furthermore, the fact remains it is an image of a prison; I was compelled to give it a second glance. I reasoned that a slave prison in a city that had operated under three different flags throughout the late 18th and early 19th century would have some intriguing history. The first questions that sprang to mind were: Do any other images of this same building exist? Do images of modern New Orleans’ prisons or jails exist that could provide interesting juxtaposition? I read and viewed whichever resources presented themselves readily.

Of the many passages that hooked me was this description from Louisiana: A Guide to the State (1947). It describes the conditions of the Calabozo.

An investigation in 1818 of the old Spanish Calabozo in New Orleans found the convicts “not provided for as humanity would dictate since many were destitute of clothing and others were almost destroyed by vermin.” Debtors were confined with the blackest of criminals. Entrance and exit fees as well as board and lodging payments were required of the prisoners. In 1861 a debtor was free after 90 days imprisonment, provided his keep for the interim had been paid.

Obviously, in the early 19th century matters of care while in detention & exit privileges were more easily negotiated by those with ready cash. A crude inequality that no longer remains, right? Possibly not. As I read this historical passage, I was also mousing over a slew of stories from modern newspapers that reported contemporary incidents of neglectful custodianship of men by state authorities.

The abandonment of prisoners in New Orlean’s jails during Hurricane Katrina is in no way more shocking than the early 19th century account. Within my web browser two centuries dissolved. Neglect, as the lowest common denominator, collapsed time. Men penning other men as animals showed itself ugly and unfortunate. The shortcomings of the system, the inflexibility of the system and the neglect within the system were revealed in New Orleans following Katrina in August 2005 as existed in 1818.

O.P.P. Inmates guarded on New Orleans overpass

O.P.P. Inmates guarded on New Orleans overpass © AP

The BBC This World documentary Prisoners of Katrina details the week of fear, panic, riots and evacuation at Orleans Parish Prison. When Sheriff Gusman’s initial plan to retain the prisoners at O.P.P. through the duration of the storm proved to be a disastrous decision, a tactical team from Angola Prison bailed Gusman out. Over 7,000 inmates were herded out (via an engulfed freeway overpass) and relocated to 42 facilities over a period of four dehydrated, sun-scorched, unsanitary days. Accounts conflict as to whether any inmates died, but eye witness testimonies have reported floating corpses in the halls of O.P.P. during evacuation.

Still today, the Louisiana justice system has not recovered. It is in total disarray. Prior to Katrina O.P.P. held a variety of inmates including lifers, violent offenders, short stay non-violent offenders and (the most unfortunate group) those awaiting trial for offenses yet unproven. These inmates are now indistinguishable from one another because their case histories were lost in the hurricane. They are all just “in the system”.

It is contended that half of the evacuated prisoners have never been to trial. Hundreds of inmates were arrested for minor offenses, traffic fines, jay-walking and sleeping on the sidewalk. Hundreds of the prisoners do not know why they were arrested, and the system can’t tell them either. But neither can the system cannot exonerate them. Unconvicted men are now warehoused while the system tries to decide what the charge is for each inmate. Public defenders are leaving their positions in droves after seeing their caseloads increase by six, seven, even eight hundred percent.

Michael Democker, An inmate sleeps in his cell in the 10th floor psychiatric section of Orleans Parish Prison, 2008

Michael Democker, An inmate sleeps in his cell in the 10th floor psychiatric section of Orleans Parish Prison, 2008

Judge Calvin Johnson states that Katrina “blew the system apart” and they now cannot cope with the backlog of over 6,000 cases. To make matters worse still, the basement which stored the majority of files and forensic evidence was flooded destroying any hopes to rule on individual cases in a timely manner.

Three years on this is still a system in crisis. O.P.P. has been repopulated and inmates suffer doubly – firstly as victims of a system in deadlock and secondly as victims to the decrepitude of the O.P.P after the ravages of flood and riot. Unsurprisingly, those that suffer most are the poor minorities. Efforts to glean facts for a fuller story by interviewing outgoing inmates continue.

In Spring of 2008, the Times Picayune reported once more on the desperate need to overhaul the newly populated Orleans Parish Prison. When a hundred year storm converges with poor catastrophe-contingency-planning, it is those that have no means and no voice who are left to suffer longest. In the scramble to get cases heard, those without resources are shunted to the bottom of the pile. Not only are the poor and the minority populations suffering, but also the mentally ill. The stretched system has until recently only had lock up as a resort to deal with inmates with mental health care needs. The majority of the men in O.P.P. are poor and black and many of them are in the O.P.P for minor unproven offenses.

Where does all this lead? How does this relate to photography? The image above from O.P.P left a pit in my stomach. The pit lingered, long. I could not fathom why. Later, I remembered an image I had viewed the previous year. The two photographs had the same components; the orange jumpsuit, the seemingly unaware subject in the orange jumpsuit, the subject positioned as a motif of solitude, and (most oppressively) the downward angle of view as seen through the cell door window.

Monica Almeida, Nicole Brockett is serving her sentence for drunken driving in a pay-to-stay cell at the jail in Santa Ana, 2007

Monica Almeida, Nicole Brockett is serving her sentence for drunken driving in a pay-to-stay cell at the jail in Santa Ana, 2007

But look closer and one identifies small comforts – linen, spare linen, spare prison-threads, reading and writing material, food being saved for later. Nicole Brockett had committed a proven traffic offence. She was fortunate to be tried in Orange County and so have the option of incarceration with frills. Santa Ana Jail at $82 a day is not the most luxurious of the Californian “Pay-as-you-Stay” lock-ups. At Fullerton you can take your cell phone. Montebello and Seal Beach Jails allow iPods.

The New York Times did a great job of illustrating the cushty cells as elite privilege.

For offenders whose crimes are usually relatively minor (carjackers should not bother) and whose bank accounts remain lofty, a dozen or so city jails across the state offer pay-to-stay upgrades. Theirs are a clean, quiet, if not exactly recherché alternative to the standard county jails, where the walls are bars, the fellow inmates are hardened and privileges are few. Many of the self-pay jails operate like secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world.

The realities of these dozen or so city jails are a far cry from those at O.P.P. How is it the US criminal system fosters such inequality? How have tenets of consumerism and favouritism crept into state systems intended to administer lawful punishment? What clearer message do these two contrasting stories offer than to point out that there is no equality in our current justice system. Those that pay, just as 200 years ago, receive preferential treatment. In a country where race and class are indivisible, those not in a position to pay for cell-upgrades are more likely to be people of colour. How low have our standards dropped to allow bare-faced state authority to operate penal systems with buy-in/opt out clauses on comfort and cell-mates? How many more social institutions do we want to hand over to the amorality of supply/demand economics?

I was going to suggest that things haven’t changed in 200 years, but they have in fact gotten worse. When trangressors of the early 19th century were locked up they received the same treatment regardless of class or race. Now segregation can occur at the will (and wallet) of the inmate. The inmate can buy the comfort of their own cell and avoid the dangerous inconveniences of “hardened inmates”. By “hardened inmates”  the New York Times is by definition referencing the typical inmate of the California penal system, which is to say a minority male or female, which is in the parlence of 1818, “the blackest of criminals”. It would seem discrimination between the races has always existed … the difference being that now the penal systems afford privileged prisoners the opportunity to act upon those discriminations.


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