You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Attica’ tag.

 

Artist-filmmaker Nirit Peled and director Sara Kolster have produced A Temporary Contact, a real time series of text messages and short videos delivered via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, that allows users to join family members as they journey from New York city to upstate prisons and back.

Over 30-hours, beginning at 10pm the evening after you sign up, you’ll receive at first few texts and then consistent volley of 22 short videos. The main protagonist is Amanda, a 20-year-old from Brooklyn who is visiting her brother, but other women speak to the camera and relay their experiences. Most videos are 45 seconds long and shot from the aisle of the bus. Gas station and restroom breaks are a relief for all. Audio is overlaid the blurred land at 60mph. I include a few screencaps for the purposes of this commentary.

 

 

As we know, the majority of new prison construction in the past 30 years has occurred in rural America and in post-industrial towns. The “logic” was to replace the dead agriculture and manufacturing jobs with prison jobs. However, the small (and ever-decreasing) benefits that may have been brought to struggling, job-scarce populations are eclipsed by the hardships wrought upon prisoners and their distant friends and families. A Temporary Contact takes us on the weekend journey that family–mostly women and children–make; a journey essential for keeping family ties. Bear in mind that, for incarcerated persons, maintaining close relations with loved ones is the most important factor in helping them stay out the system after release.

New York state, as with other large states such as California, Texas and Illinois, is one of the worst offenders in siting prisons hundreds of miles from the communities from which prisoners are extracted. A Temporary Contact offers users a moment inside the collateral damage done by this particular extended and prohibitively expensive travel.

Some thoughts on the title: Temporary contact is fleeting, it’s real but not sustained. The title simultaneously recognises the intermittent opportunities that family have to make in-person visits (those with financial means and time, might make the journey as often as twice a month), but also points to our passing point of contact with a time-consuming (and likely foreign) travel-commitment which prisoners’ loved ones regularly and necessarily sign up for.

Despite the journey’s substantial 30-hour timeframe, it’s one that is largely self-contained and not seen … except for maybe the lines of people waiting for pick up at 34th street or Columbus Circle in NYC late on a Friday or Saturday evening. (For an in-depth photo essay on prison buses, please see Jacobia Dahm’s work; read the interview she and I did; and then read this follow-up conversation Dahm had with Candis Cumberbatch-Overton, who Dahm photographed as she visited her husband John.)

There are many revealing moments in A Temporary Contact and it’d be foolhardy to describe them; you should just sign up for the messages toy our own smartphone. The presence of time–and time seen–is part of the art’s structure! That said, I thought it instructive that immediately following their departure from the prisons, the women shared photos of their loved ones and talked about the costs to have the portraits made.

“The only thing we take out the visits,” says Amanda, “are the pictures.”

 

 

The women compare costs of a single Instax picture. In one prison it is $2 per photo. In another it is $4. They talk about physical changes, new facial hair, how they all appear in one another’s photos. They laugh and gripe about the quality of the murals in front of which they must stand for the portraits.

Visitors are allowed to have five pictures made on each visit. Despite the huge expense (relative to single prints in free society) the women tend to get five. Max out on memories. Optimise the presence of their loved one in the world. A photo is a thin slice of time, but it is a substantial presence in the free world of someone who is behind bars in a limbo-state of social death.

 

 

It seems that every photography conference these days is talking about getting beyond the frame, and using new technologies and digital platforms to tell stories. Peled and Kolster propose a model that delivers important, compelling content with direct efficiency. The bar for access is as low as it gets; who doesn’t have WhatsApp or Facebook on their phones at this point? The temporal quality of the project is key. The success of A Temporary Contact rests on the fact that, every one or two hours, users are prodded with gentle reminders of other’s devotion to time … time spent in love and support of prisoners.

I wholly recommend A Temporary Contact. I learnt new things, I think you will too.

A Temporary Contact was developed within the framework of the veryveryshort competition, a NFB and ARTE co-production in collaboration of IDFA Doclab. Very very short is a collection of 10 interactive projects for smartphones, exploring the theme of mobility through very, very short experiences – all under 60 seconds.

Credits
Creators: Nirit Peled & Sara Kolster
Camera: Aafke Beernink
Editor: Wietse de Swart
Additional editing: Paul Delput
Sound mix: Sander den Broeder
Color: Maurik de Ridder
Developer: Martijn Eerens
Scripting: Wireless Services
Music: Amit Gur & Itai Weissman
Cast: Amanda, Diamond, Gina, Latoya and Stephany
Research help: Ilja Willems, Five Mualimm-ak, Ray Simmons
Special thanks: Katie Turinski, Junior from Flambouyant Transportation Inc., Het Raam, Hortense Lauras

 

 

Advertisements

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-39

Every Friday Evening, in New York City, Women and Children Board Buses Headed for Upstate Prisons

Photographer Jacobia Dahm Rode Too and Documented, Through the Night, the Distances Families Will Go to See Their Incarcerated Loved Ones

_____________________

There are various ways to depict the family ties that are put under intense strain when a loved one is imprisoned. Photographers have focused on sibling love; artists have focused on family portraits, and documentarians have tracked the impact of mass incarceration across multiple generations. Often, the daily trials of family with loved ones inside are invisible, unphotographable, psychological and persistent—they are open ended and not really very easy to visualise.

One of the many strengths of Jacobia Dahm’s project In Transit: The Prison Buses is that it very literally describes a time (every weekend), a duration (8 or 10 hour bus ride), a beginning and an end, and a purpose (to get inside a prison visiting room). In Transit: The Prison Buses is a literal example of a photographer taking us there. Dahm took six weekend trips between February and May 2014.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-14

Dahm’s method is so simple it is surprising no other documentary photographer (I can think of) has told the same story this way. Dahm told me recently, that since the New York Times featured In Transit: The Prison Buses in November 2014, the interest and gratitude has been non-stop. I echo those sentiments of appreciation. Dahm describes a poignant set of circumstances with utmost respect. It is not easy to travel great distances at relatively large cost repeatedly, but families do. As a result, they take care of the emotional health of their loved ones — who, don’t forget are our prisoners — and society is a safer place because of it.

“Honestly, I don’t know why they place them so far away,” says one of Dahm’s subjects in an accompanying short film.

The women on these buses—and they are mostly women—are heroes.

I wanted to ask  Jacobia how she went about finding the story and photographing the project.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-13

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-25

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-75

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-22

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-43

Prison Photography (PP): Where did the idea come from?

Jacobia Dahm (JD): In the fall of 2013, I began studying Documentary Photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. When the time came to choose a long-term project, I realized I had been captivated for a long time by the criminal justice system here in the U.S., where I had lived for the past decade. Frequently the severity of the sentences did not seem to make any sense, and the verdicts seemed to lack compassion and an understanding of the structural disadvantages that poor people — who make up the majority of prisoners— face. In short, sentencing did not seem to take human nature into account.

My sense of justice was disturbed by all of this. I was shaken when Trayvon Martin was killed and his killer walked free. Or when shortly after, Marissa Alexander, a woman who had just given birth, was given a 20-year sentence for sending a warning shot into the roof of the garage when cornered by her former abusive partner. Her sentence has since been reduced dramatically. But it’s complex: Where does a society’s urge to punish rather than help and rehabilitate come from? In both cases there was a loud public outcry. What’s remarkable is that there are frequent public outcries against the US justice system, because the system simply does not feel just. So I decided to do some work in this area.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-40

JD: But how do you even begin to photograph injustice?

My original plan was to take on one of the most worrisome aspects of US criminal justice: I wanted to photograph the families of people who were incarcerated for life without parole for non-violent offenses. But New York State does not incarcerate in that category and, as I had classes to attend, travel to further locations would have meant trickier access and less time with the subjects.

In conversation with one of my teachers Andrew Lichtenstein, who had done a good amount of work on prisons, he mentioned the weekend buses that take visitors to the prisons upstate. And once I had that image in my head — of a child on these buses that ride all night to the farthest points of New York State to see their incarcerated parent — I wanted to go and find that image.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-57

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-58

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-60

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-56

PP: How much preparation did you need to do? Or did you just turn up to the terminus?

JD: I researched the bus companies beforehand, some of them are not easy to find or call. And I had to find out which company went where. I also looked into the surroundings of each prison beforehand. I knew I would not be able to go into prison and knew most of them are in the middle of nowhere, so I had to make sure — especially since it was in the midst of freezing winter — that I would be within walking distance of some sort of town that had a cafe.

The first time I went upstate, it was on a private minivan. I had just finished reading Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s amazing non-fiction book, Random Family that narrated life over a decade in the 1980s and 90s in the South Bronx. The characters in the book travel with a company called “Prison Gap” which is one of the oldest companies running visitor transportation in New York City, and so I felt they were the real deal and decided to use them on my first trip upstate.

It was a freezing February night in 2014 and we gathered in a Citibank branch south of Columbus Circle for two hours before the minivans appeared. Many people came in to use the ATMs and some looked at us wonderingly, but no-one would have known that these people were about to visit prisons. What they would have seen is a mostly African-American crowd, mostly women, waiting for something.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-32

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-17

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-49

PP: I see Attica in your photos, did you just photo one route or many?

JD: The bus I ended up focusing on — because riding on the same bus would allow me to get to know passengers better — went to six different prisons in the Northwest of New York State: Groveland, Livingston, Attica, Wyoming, Albion and Orleans. Most buses and mini vans ride to a number of prisons, that way they always have a full bus because they serve a wider demographic.

I wanted to be on a bus that went to Albion, the largest women’s prison in NY State, because my assumption was, that female prisoners get more visits from their children, simply because the bond is almost always the most crucial one. But I was wrong, because as it turns out, women have fewer visitors, and for a number of reasons: Women tend to act as the social glue and make sure visits happen. And so when they’re the ones who are incarcerated, not everyone around them takes over or can take over the same way. Some dads are absent and if the children are raised by the grandmother, that trip will be very difficult to make for an elderly person.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-24

PP: What were the reactions of the families to your presence, and to your camera?

JD: The time I traveled upstate I was squeezed into the back of a white mini van, the only white person traveling up and the only one with a camera strapped around her neck. We drove all night and barely talked. It felt otherworldly thinking we are now driving to the Canadian border, but I forced myself to take at least a few pictures through the frozen window and of hands etc. Later the next morning we were moved to a larger bus and that bus was the one I rode on for the next five rides between February and May.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-67

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-5

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-10

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-9

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-52

JD: The first one or two times I took the trip, I did not take many pictures on the bus and I photographed the towns instead. I could quickly tell there was a sense of shame involved in having family in prison, and people where uncomfortable being photographed, which I understand. People had to get used to me first an understand what I was doing. So I did what you do when you are in that situation: I introduced myself to people, I took some pictures and brought them a print next time.

Once they had seen me on the bus more than once they were starting to be intrigued. I also told them that I too was a parent and could not imagine having to bring my children on such a long and difficult journey, and that I was sorry this was the case for them. I think it was rare for many of these women to encounter any kind of compassion from others, and it might have helped them to open up to me.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-36

PP: You describe the journeys as emotional, tiresome, grueling.

JD: You’re on the bus all night without getting much sleep. The expectations of the visits can be tense, because the mood of your entire relationship for the next week is depending on a few hours. But the journey has also been expensive and most likely exhausted all your funds for the week. During the visit you will be watched closely by the correctional officers, some of them might be rude to you. And if you bring your kids that aspect might be particularly difficult because you’re in no position to stand your ground.

You worry and hope your kids sleep well because you want them to be in good shape for the visit. I knew a grandmother who slept on the floor so her grandson could get the sleep he needed.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-16

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-101

JD: Another one of the moms I knew was not allowed to bring her three kids to Attica because Attica only allows for three people to visit. The child that was left at home with a babysitter or family member was upset and that puts stress on the entire family.

PP: Why are New York State’s prison so far upstate?

JD: New York has around 70 state prisons, and many of them are in rural, post-industrial or post-agricultural areas. You could not get to some of these towns with public transport if you wanted to. The prisons have been economic favors to depressed rural areas that have little else to offer in terms of jobs, but not factored in is how these favors tear families apart and further widen the distance between children and their incarcerated parents.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-26

PP: Do other states have similar geographic distances between communities and prisons?

JD: I am only beginning to understand what the system looks like in other states, but I believe people have to travel far in most states, as there seems to be no policy on the part of Departments of Corrections to place prisoners in proximity to their families.

In California for example, most prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison come from Los Angeles, and that prison is a 12-hour ride away. In Washington D.C. it seems a large part of the prisoners are placed federally, rather than within state, so the distances can be even larger. And with distance come increased travel costs that poorer families have a very hard time covering with regularity.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-73

JD: Considering that family ties are crucial in maintaining mental health and key in helping the prisoners regain their footing when they are out, it is a cruel oversight not to place people closer to those that are part of the rehabilitation process. Statistics tell us that the majority or prisoners have minor children.

PP: What can photography achieve in the face of such a massive prison system?

JD: I think at the very least pictures of an experience we know nothing about can create awareness, and at best it can move people to develop a compassion that can move them to act. I think a photograph can give you a sense of how something feels. Seeing is a sense of knowing, and it’s easy not to care if you don’t know.

In the face of the U.S. incarceration system — a system that seems to be concealed from most people’s sight but at the same time permeates so many aspects of the American life and landscape—it feels particularly important to me that photography plays the role of a witness.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-20

A rest stop at night in Pennsylvania. April 26, 2014.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-82

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-66

PP: How do you want your images to be understood?

JD: I think my images highlight a difficult journey that many people know nothing about.

The focus of the journey, and of my photographs, is on the people that connect the inside of a prison to the outside world: the families.

It might be that by seeing how an entire family’s life is altered people seeing those images and beginning to understand something about how incarceration affects not just the person on the inside, they are maybe capable of a compassion they don’t usually afford for prisoners themselves.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-30

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-31

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-34

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-91

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-92

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-68

PP: How do you want your images to be used?

JD: It’s hard to say because I believe an artist’s intention has limits when it comes to how the work is used.

I want people to put themselves in the families’ shoes. I want these images to help people begin to imagine what the secondary effects of incarceration are and how they could be softened. 10 million children in the US have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives, and that is not a good start in life for a very large number of the most vulnerable population.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-54

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-84

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-21

BIOGRAPHY

Jacobia Dahm (born Frankfurt, Germany) is a documentary storyteller and portrait photographer based in New York and Berlin. She graduated from the International Center of Photography in 2014, where she was a Lisette Model Scholar and received the Rita K. Hillman Award for Excellence. Dahm’s photography and video has been recognized with awards from Rangefinder and the International Photography Awards. Her work has been published by Makeshift Magazine, The New York Times, Shift Book, AIAP and Prison Photography. Her key interest is documenting issues of social justice.

201411_Jacobia Dahm_Prison Bus-103

UrTHh5A

THE VISUAL CULTURE OF PRISON RESISTANCE

Liz Pelly‘s conversation with Josh MacPhee in The Media is a wonderful read. It coincided with MacPhee and his cohort’s incredible exhibition of prisoner made protest materials going all the way back to the early seventies.

MacPhee urges us to dismantle the idea that prisons are separate from outside society. Crucially, he’s not making, in the first instance, a moral point about how we’re all the same, prisoners and all. MacPhee makes an observation of the structural characteristics of the prison system.

“It’s getting harder and harder to hold up the pretense that prison is somehow distinct from the rest of society,” says MacPhee. “When there’s this many people going in and out all of the time, there’s no way that our lives out here don’t leak into there, and that their lives in there don’t leak out into the rest of society. The idea that these are completely separate realms needs to be dismantled.”

Of course, once the structural facts of the system are revealed, the moral point that we are all one-and-the-same, prisoners and all, is indisputable.

I contacted Pelly and asked if I could republish the conversation. It originally appeared as Inside/Out: On Prison Justice, Art of the Incarcerated, and Interference Archive’s New Show in Issue #44 of The Media (October 10, 2014). It is a privilege to feature Pelly and MacPhee’s interview in full here on the blog.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

Between September 11th and November 16, 2014, Interference Archive exhibited, Self-Determination Inside/Out: Prison Movements Reshaping Society a look back at the visual and material culture of prisoner-led political movements.

Organized by Molly Fair, Josh MacPhee, Anika Paris, Laura Whitehorn, and Ryan Wong, Self-Determination Inside/Out includes sections on the work of incarcerated AIDS educators, the experiences of women and queer prisoners, prison and control unit prisons. The exhibition features prison newsletters, pamphlets, video and audio interviews, prints, photography (!!!) and magazine covers — starting with materials created during the 1971 Attica Rebellion, a massive prisoner uprising in upstate New York, and concluding with work made by current political prisoners, the show highlights moments of self-organization within the prison industrial complex.

You can buy a booklet and a poster for the exhibition.

Interference Archive is a volunteer-run archive in Gowanus, Brooklyn, dedicated to preserving cultural ephemera related to social movements.

12NRgDj

Inside/Out: On Prison Justice, Art of the Incarcerated, and Interference Archive’s New Show

Liz Pelly (LP): What initially inspired the creation of Interference Archive, which mostly houses ephemeral material like posters, t-shirts, and newsletters?

Josh MacPhee (JM): For the different people involved, there are different answers of course. For me, I grew up making this stuff through DIY music, cultural stuff, politics. Through the act of doing, I started collecting it. Flyers, t-shirts, buttons, the ephemera that gets produced by people who are organizing. It was a combination of wanting to understand the history of what I was doing and then at the same time, I was getting really interested in this idea of how people make art and culture in the context of trying to their lives. It’s distinct from art that’s produced purely in the realm of self expression, and the art that tends circulate within the contemporary art world.

This kind of material gets lost. It’s often not clearly authored. Institutions that deal with art don’t quite know what to do with it. Since it’s so political, places like history museums don’t know what to do with it either. It sort of falls through the cracks. But we can see during times like Occupy, or Tahrir Square in Egypt, or with the Maidan in the Ukraine, that this is the stuff of life, [created] when transformation starts to happen. When people have their arms shoulder deep into the constructions of representations of a new world, and the way they want things to be articulated.

For me, doing an archive was a way to say, “just because these moments come and go, and movements have ebbs and flows, doesn’t mean that once the peak has been reached that this material isn’t still valuable to us, to where we’ve come from and therefore where we are going.”

LP: That said, how do you think this sort of exhibit in particular shines light on the experiences of prisoners?

JM: There were five of us who organized this exhibition, and most of us have been engaged with issues around prisons in different ways, whether having been formerly incarcerated, or working with prison activism programs. As far as I know, nothing like this has ever been done before.

We live in a moment where over two million people are in prison. It’s getting harder and harder to hold up the pretense that prison is somehow distinct from the rest of society. When there’s this many people going in and out all of the time, there’s no way that our lives out here don’t leak into there, and that their lives in there don’t leak out into the rest of society. The idea that these are completely separate realms needs to be dismantled.

We thought it was important to marshal primary source material to show that people aren’t just objects of repression or study or someone else’s activism. But they have done immense amounts of organizing inside themselves. Often times that organizing takes place at the same time, or sometimes even ahead of, what people were doing on the outside. Some of the focus we have on organizing around AIDS and AIDS education in prison was really fascinating and important because it shows how people that had the least access to medical care were doing in some cases the most organizing in order to try to deal with a problem that at the time the government was not even acknowledging existed.

16dnvdc

LP: Can you tell me more about your own experiences with prison reform activism?

JM: I first learned about how the prison system functions in the early 1990s. It just sort of blew my mind that there was a whole world of people who largely because of race and class were basically being warehoused. And that, at the time, it was completely absent from the radar of public In the 90s, the only thing discussed in relationship to prisons and criminal justice was this sort of “tough on crime” thing. There was no acknowledgment that a massive increase of the prison population going on, and that it wasn’t actually working. And that the system that decided who went in and out was so manifestly unjust, random often.

That sent me on a path of doing organizing around prison issues. I started in Ohio, and then did some work in Colorado, and then in Chicago. A lot of the organizing I did was around Control Unit Prisons, basically trying to stop solitary confinement. [Organizing around] these men and women who were spending twenty-three-and-a-half or twenty-four hours a day alone in their cells, and the psychological damage that causes and how it basically goes against international conventions of torture, yet it’s completely commonplace in this country.

2W7RVYR

LP: Over the past year, there has been lot of in the news about the racist criminal justice system. It’s an apt time for Self-Determination Inside/Out: Prison Movements Reshaping Society. But obviously there is a lot of history of racism in the criminal justice system that this brings to light. Were you inspired to put this together because of recent events, or has this exhibit been in the works longer?

JM: We worked on the exhibition for 6 months. As a space, as an institution, one of our goals is to take this material that’s perceived as marginal and present it in ways that will allow it to be in its own context, but also to actually show that it’s not marginal. Our primary audience is not people who already necessarily agree with everything that would be in this exhibition. We are conscious of, and trying to take advantage of, a moment.

The question becomes, how do we push [the discussion] farther? If we say mass incarceration is not okay, at what point is incarceration okay? If 2 million people in cages is not acceptable, is 1.9 million people in acceptable? Or 1.8? Once you start asking those questions it opens up the space to say, “this whole system is just absolutely corrupt.”

Mass incarceration accomplishes a number of things, none of which are its stated goals. It accomplishes deeply suppressing working class communities of color. That’s never been articulated as what the prison system is supposed to do. It’s just clear that that’s what it does. It clearly is completely ineffectual at actually dealing with crime.

LP: What are some underreported sides to the prison industrial complex that you hope this exhibit brings to light?

JM: The fastest growing portion of the prison population for years now has been women.

Increasingly there is a real gendered aspect of being able to look at how the criminal justice system works. Increasingly it’s used to enforce gender binaries. It’s a brutal system for queer and trans people that get sucked up into it. People are doing a lot of organizing around it now, but until recently, it was assumed if you were gender non-conforming, they have to choose where to put you, and then once they chose a men or a women’s prison, then almost immediately you’d get sent to solitary confinement. You’d do your sentence out in solitary confinement, in complete isolation, because the system is not prepared to deal with gender non-conformity. You are being punished because your very existence challenges the bureaucratic way the system works.

It’s really clear that women who refuse to be abused, who fight back against abusers, almost always get pulled into the criminal justice system. So we have things like Trayvon Martin being shot, and Zimmerman getting off. But any woman that stops an attack from an abuser is inevitably going to do time because that’s just absolutely taboo.

yENhTvP

LP: What were the biggest challenges to getting this exhibit together?

JM: Each exhibition has unique challenges and obstacles, and then there are ones that are sort of similar across the board. For this exhibition, was just that cultural material produced by incarcerated people is hard to access. A lot of it is made in prison and then just never leaves prison.

In general, one of the challenges for all of the exhibitions, is that unless we do something that’s very focused, inevitably there’s so much stuff it’s hard to know when to say “okay we’ve got enough” or to know when to draw the lines. It’s hard to know when to accept that you’re never going to have all of the stuff that you wish you could, that you’re never going to be able to tell the whole story, that maybe even the idea that you’re going to tell some sort of master narrative is questionable in its own right.

When you’re representing things that are so deeply underrepresented, people get attached to wanting their part of the story told, because it’s been marginal or silenced for so long. It makes it really hard to make those choices, because you don’t want anyone else to continue to feel [that way].

We are collecting material from movements that are marginal. Even though they often have extremely deep impacts, rarely is that impact known or visible when they’re most active. It’s kind of like an extra kick in the face when your ideas become commonplace 10 or 20 years later and you’re still written out of the history even though you’re the ones who came up with the ideas.

LP: What do you hope, in general, visitors learn from Self-Determination: Inside/Out?

JM: On the one hand, I hope this contributes to a shift [towards] the idea that prisons are maybe not the answer to the problems that they claim to be. And that locking people in cages is not actually accomplishing what we’re being told it is.

On another level, that incarcerated people are not just objects. They’re loved ones and family members and neighbors and community members. The thing that primarily defines someone as a human being is not whether or not they’re in prison. That people that happen to find themselves in prison, many for reasons that are and then also at the same time many for doing reprehensible things, doesn’t make them not human. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the same desires, life goals, and relationships that everyone else has. And as such, the way that they conceive themselves and their world is part of, needs to be part of, any movement for social transformation.

Kw4cZxt

THE PEOPLE

The Interference Archive is a collection of posters, flyers, publications, photographs, books, t-shirts, buttons, moving images, audio recordings, and other materials, made by participants of social movements throughout past decades. It is an archive “from below” — collectively run space, powered by people, and with open stacks accessible to all. The Interference Archive explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements. It provides public exhibitions, a study and social center, talks, screenings, publications, workshops, and an online presence, with an aim to preserve and honor histories and material culture that are often marginalized in mainstream institutions. It is at 131 8th Street, #4
, Brooklyn, NY 11215
 (2 blocks from F/G/R trains at 4th Ave/9th Street).

Josh MacPhee is an artist, curator and activist living in Brooklyn, NY. MacPhee is one of the founder of the Just Seeds Artists’ Cooperative, which organizes, creates and distributes radical art. MacPhee is the author of Stencil Pirates: A Global Study of the Street Stencil, which is dedicated to stencil street art. He co-edited Realizing the Impossible: Art Against AuthorityReproduce and Revolt and the upcoming Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today. In 2001 he co-organized the Department of Space and Land Reclamation in Chicago with Emily Forman and Nato Thompson. In 2008 he co-curated the exhibition Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960’s to Now with Dara Greenwald.

Liz Pelly is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. I lives and works at the all-ages collectively-run art space The Silent Barn, where she books (and sometimes plays) shows. She and her friends run the ad-free bi-weekly online newspaper The Media.

The Media is a webpaper covering alternative arts, culture, music, news, and grassroots activism. With contributors often embedded in the communities they cover, The Media aims to bridge the gap between underground presses and mainstream media. Crucially, it is AD-FREE and simply designed. “At a moment marked by short attention spans, decentralized click-bait articles, and newspapers in flux, rethinking the aesthetics of our news websites feels just as crucial as re-imagining their content,” says The Media. “We want our content to resonate on its own merit, free of frivolity and flash, and grounded by a homepage that’s striking in its radical simplicity.”

2

Photo: Bob Schutz. Inmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity, Sept. 1971, during the Attica uprising, which took the lives of 43 people.

Last week marked the 43rd anniversary of the historic Attica Rebellion. In conjunction with the anniversary, Critical Resistance New York City (CRNYC) has launched the Attica Interview Project, to support prison closure organizing in New York. CRNYC is looking for people with personal archives stories and will collect and facilitate oral history, video and audio recordings, and still images.

CRNYC’s documentation is grounded in a philosophy of self-representation.

“People who participate determine how and when they are photographed and recorded,” says a CRNYC statement. “We strive to represent interview participants not as victims, but as agents of social change struggling individually and collectively to improve their lives and conditions.”

ATTICA INTERVIEW PROJECT

Bryan Welton, a member with Critical Resistance New York City wrote:

At the time of the rebellion, the US prison population was less than 200,000. On the fourth day of the prisoner-led takeover of Attica, September 13th, 1971, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller deployed New York State Troopers to set murderous siege on the prison. A campaign of sustained terror and repression to restore the power of guards and administrators at Attica followed. The systematic attack against the gains won by struggles inside and outside prison walls, which nourished the spirit of revolt in Attica and the broader prisoner movement of the period, parallels the rise of the prison industrial complex to where we stand today. Few people then imagined that the imprisoned population in the US would explode to 2.4 million.

The Attica Rebellion developed not only in response to conditions of dehumanizing racism and violence in the prison, but was strengthened by the confluence of imprisoned revolutionaries from Black liberation, Native and Puerto Rican anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist movements. The demands articulated by the Attica Liberation Faction unleashed an abolitionist imagination that continues to propel prisoner-led struggles up to today. Through oral history, the project seeks to document the legacy of repression, survival and resistance at Attica, while using material to shape a broader narrative about the PIC and abolition and fuel ongoing demands to close Attica.

Supported by sentencing reforms won through organized opposition to the Rockefeller Drug Laws and fights over deadly conditions in New York prisons and jails, prison populations in New York have decreased by 15,000 people since 2000. This decrease combined with the costs of maintaining staffing and infrastructure for empty prisons moved Governor Andrew Cuomo to close nine prisons in four years, with four more closures projected within the year. Although dispersed across the state and including both men’s and women’s prisons, what is common among these closure targets is their classification as minimum or medium security prisons holding people convicted of low-level drug offenses and “nonviolent crimes.” As we seize on any and all opportunities for prison closures, we understand the threat of cementing the “worst of the worst” classification for people held in maximum security, supermax and solitary confinement units and how the deepening of that logic enables the disappearance, dehumanization, torture and death of people in prisons everywhere. This criminalization is being amplified as prison-dependent economies, from the political representatives of prison towns to the 26,000 member guards’ unions (NYSCOPBA), desperately mobilize against decarceration and prison closures.

The stories of resistance, resilience, and struggle coming from the survivors of Attica and prisons across the country can offer not only a reminder of the history in which our movement is rooted, but a signal fire of which direction we should head. In the words of Attica Brother, LD Barkley, “The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those that are oppressed.”

CONTACT

To get involved contact:

Critical Resistance New York City
212.203.0512
PO Box 2282
New York NY 10163
Email: crnyc@criticalresistance.org

19

Attica Riot Documents

Photo: AP. Prisoners of Attica state prison, right, negotiate with state prisons Commissioner Russell Oswald, lower left, at the facility in Attica, N.Y., where prisoners had taken control of the maximum-security prison in rural western New York. Sept. 10, 1971.

1

THE NEED

Such a careful approach and revisiting of Attica’s history is timely and essential. An accurate version — and not the official state version — must be established. Following Attica, there were a number of inquiries (for example, Cornell Capa’s photographic survey of the facility here and here), however, not all inquiries met or served public need. Suspicions of a cover up of excessive violence and extrajudicial murder during the retaking of the prison have been constant.

The second and third parts of the Meyer Report (1975), an investigation of a commission headed by New York State Supreme Court JusticeBernard Meyer, were sealed and never released to the public.

The Democrat & Chronicle reports:

The focused on claims of a cover-up of crimes committed by police who seized control of the prison with a deadly fusillade of gunfire. Those allegations came from Assistant Attorney General Malcolm Bell, who had been part of an investigation into fatal shootings and other possible crimes committed during the retaking.

Wikipedia, quoted civil rights documentary Eyes On The Prize, triangulates the claims:

Elliot L.D. Barkley, was a strong force during the negotiations, speaking with great articulation to the inmates, the camera crews, and outsiders at home. Barkley was killed during the recapturing of the prison. Assemblyman Arthur Eve testified that Barkley was alive after the prisoners had surrendered and the state regained control; another inmate stated that the officers searched him out, yelling for Barkley, and shot him in the back.

It is believed parts two and three of the Meyer Report detail grand jury testimony given during an investigation into the riot and retaking. Late last year, a New York judge ruled the documents could be opened. It came at a request of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The majority of people are in support of the move, understandably given the length of time since the murders. The state troopers are opposed.

It’s high time the people had access to the same information the state has had for nearly four decades. Only then can we confirm or dismiss a state cover-up and the protection of law enforcement individuals and those from whom they took orders, namely then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

9

Photo: Goran Hugo Olsson. Source.

18

Bobby Seale, 11 Sept 1971. Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther movement, was brought in at one point during the rebellion to help with negotiations.

16

A prisoners’ make-shift hospital during the rebellion.

Source: Salon, Empire State disgrace: The dark, secret history of the Attica Prison tragedy

7

Law enforcement, civilians and press cover their nostrils from the airborne teargas following the state’s storming of Attica Prison, Sept. 13th, 1971.

5

17

Photo: John Shearer. Law enforcement escort a prisoner out of Attica following the storming of the facility.  (Source)

14

This gruesome photo is one of several of murdered corpses included on this webpage. The images are uncredited, so I cannot verify there veracity. I’ve not seen them elsewhere. The boots, railings and sunken yard look consistent with Attica.

6

15

Prisoners are regimented following the state’s retaking of control of Attica Prison. (I have no idea when the trench was dug, by whom or for what purpose).

8

4

An injured prisoner is assisted out of D-Yard, following the state’s teargassing and assault upon the prisoners.

12

The aftermath.

13

Clean up.

RESOURCES

There’s so much out there online for you to dig into, so I humbly recommend these starting points:

Attica Uprising 101, is the best brief description of the events those 5 days in September 1971.

Forgotten Survivors of Attica, a group of guards and prisoners’ families alike who are in search of transparency and believe there was a state cover up.

Project Attica, a recent project with school children to teach them about racial politics, oral histories and Black America using Attica as a prism through which to do so.

Attica Rebellion Film Collection

Here is one of the better collection of images online in a single place.

Finally, I’d like to know if these photographs of prisoners’ corpses can be verified as being from Attica on the 13th, September, 1971. They are presented as images of those killed as a result of the state assault on the prison.

In 1972, Joshua Freiwald was commissioned by San Francisco architecture firm Kaplan & McLaughlin to photograph the spaces within Clinton Correctional Facility in the town of Dannemora, NY.

In the wake of the Attica uprising in September of 1971, the New York Department of Corrections commissioned Kaplan & McLaughlin to asses the prison’s design as it related to the safety of the prison, staff and inmates. The NYDoC wanted to avoid another rebellion.

The most astounding sight within Dannemora was the terrace of “courts” sandwiched between the exterior wall and the prison yard. It is thought the courts began as garden plots in the late twenties or early thirties, although there is no official mention of their existence until the 1950s.

Simply, the most remarkable example of a prisoner-made environment I have ever come across.

The courts were the focus of Ron Roizen’s 55 page report to the NYDoC on the situation at Clinton Correctional Facility. Sociologist Roizen, also hired by Kaplan & McLaughlin, conducted interviews with inmates over a period of five days:

“Inmates waited months, sometimes even years, to gain this privilege. The groups would gather during yard time to shoot the breeze, cook, eat, smoke, and generally ‘get away from’ the rigors and boredom of prison life.”

In the same five days, Freiwald took hundreds of photographs at Dannemora. Eight of those negatives were scanned earlier this month and are published online here for the first time.

“Since I’d taken these photographs, I’ve come to realize that these are something quite extraordinary in my own medium, and represent for me a moment in time when I did something important. I can’t say for sure why they’re important, or how they’re important, but I know they’re important,” says Freiwald.

Freiwald and I discuss the social self-organisation of the inmates around the courts, his experiences photographing, the air “thick” with tension and surveillance, the spectre of evil, and how structures like the courts simply do not exist in modern prisons.

LISTEN TO OUR DISCUSSION ON THE PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY PODBEAN PAGE

All images © Joshua Freiwald

All images © Joshua Freiwald

Poster created by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) advocating support of prison rebellions, and the abolishment of alleged racist prison terror. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

The most famous prison rebellion in American history began in the early hours of September 9th, 1971.

I’ve written about the Attica Prison Uprising before, mainly in relation to Cornell Capa’s involvement in the general politics of prisons and his testimony during the inquiry that followed the riot.

I wanted to share an image of this poster and ask you if you can imagine this type of visual being used today. It wouldn’t happen. Universities are less and less incubators for radical action; prison issues are rarely incorporated into overarching critiques of capitalism; and, sad to say, solidarity and Socialist motifs are derided in today’s media culture of garish graphics, breasts, comments of misdirection and ridiculous 24-hr coverage.

Not wanting to end on a down note, these groups are working against our society of excessive, blaring infotainment. Check them out.

In photography Cornell Capa has huge renown. In prisons, Attica has a huge renown. It is therefore, expected that I’d transcribe Capa’s testimony to the McKay Commission (New York State Special Commission on Attica) Hearings.

After the text I shall offer my opinion.

TEXT

Cornell Capa: I was asked eventually by Arthur [Liman, Counsel] if I would want to look at Attica for the reasons that he mentioned, that photography and a photographer may have something to contribute …

As a human being and a photographer, my personal and professional and civic feeling was to look into it and – as my professional life is involved in understanding human condition – try to perceive what it is all about.

I think photography can serve a most useful role in an investigation and that’s exactly what I consented to do.

I [have] submitted 26 photographs which I will be showing to the commission and I have submitted equally a very short written statement and captions for the photographs.

I would like to really just read my written statement and following that as the photographs go by, I will do the captioning job for them.

At Attica: A Photographic Report.

Recently I spent three days at Attica, having been asked by the McKay commission to take a look at the institution and bring back my visual report.

During the visits to Attica I was, at all times, accompanied by a correction officer and a member of the Commission staff; all persons recognizable in these photographs consented to be photographed.

My photographs and their captions constitute my report for the commission. There is just a little more to add.

A feeling of nervous expectation seems to pervade Attica. Everybody is waiting the result of the work of the Commission’s investigations on the causes of the explosion which occurred there six months ago, and their recommendations for the future avoidance of such a tragedy in the future. Both sides, inmates and guards expect some new things to evolve from the findings – some kind of miracle which will transform the institution into a place where the Biblical lion and lamb will better live together peacefully.

The only hitch: each side has its very own view of the meaning of peaceful and better coexistence, and how to achieve it.

From the outside, Attica situated in the rolling farmland in western New York, has a Disneyland-like appearance, especially at night.

Attica’s inmates are all locked in their cells from approximately 5pm until 7am the next morning. Officers on the night shift make lonely rounds checking the count six times a night.

All movement in Attica is limited by locks. At night the duty officer must carry with him all the keys he will need on his nightly round of inspection

Confined to their 4 x 9 cells, inmates may talk to one another across the cellblocks and play music instruments until 8pm.

Locked in a cell a mirror is an inmates eyes to the rest of his gallery, and whenever something happens, the mirrors appear as if on cue.

After 8pm talking and noise  are not permitted. There is little to do until lights out at 11pm except read, write letters or listen to one of the three channels of the prison radio which plays music, sports and the audio portion of TV shows.

In E Block, Attica’s medium security prison with the maximum-security walls, a small group of inmates in special programs are permitted to remain at night in the blocks day room to watch television, play cards or talk.

Corrections officers on the day shift leave homes in the town of Attica and surrounding communities and report for roll calls at 7am, 9.20am, 3pm and 11pm to receive their assignments.

These are the guns and smoke parts etc, what [sic] they keep  in the armory for emergency use only.

These are the keys, which they use, the whole system is based on keys. This is just a very small selection of all the keys that open all the doors in Attica

On signal the cells open and inmates in each company line up in two’s to be escorted down one of the endless corridors to the mess hall for breakfast

In his daily movements throughout the institution, an inmate must pass through several times through ‘Times Square’ where the corridors leading from the four main cell blocks converge and gates point in four directions.

Many inmates spend up to five hours a day working in one of the prison industries, the largest of which is a large metal shop, where inmates build steel cabinets and office furniture for state institutions.

For a few hours each day, inmates are allowed to go into their cellblock’s yard for outdoor recreation

The sports facilities, always limited, have been even more curtailed since September. For most inmates the yard means walking around and around or standing around.

The only opportunity for most inmates to watch TV is outside in the yard. Due to the winter climate and the meager daytime TV schedules, few are interested.

While some are out in the yard, others return to their cellblocks. In some areas there are improvised meeting rooms where a few inmates can pursue simple hobbies and handicrafts.

For the rest it is back to the cells to pass the hours until supper. The site of disembodied hands outside the bars playing cards is not unusual here.

Some play chess but the opponent remains unseen.

There is so much idle time; one of the most common activities is preparing legal paper for appeals and writs.

9.30 to 3.30 every day are visiting hours. Those inmates whose families live nearby or who can afford the long journey to Attica may receive a visit. Visits take place in a large room, under the watch of officers and a wire screen separates the inmates from his visitor.

An inmate’s personal touch, often his own creation, is the difference between one cell and another.

One of the statewide changes since the riot is the creation of inmate liaison committees at each institution.

The committee at Attica was elected last month, has adopted a constitution and has begun the task of drawing up projected reforms.

Although life at Attica is again becoming routine, grim reminders of what happened there are everywhere.

This is the round State Shop in damaged condition beyond repair.

Two of the cells blocks were destroyed beyond repair and are still unoccupied. D Block yard on which the eyes of the world were focused for four days last September is deserted now. The trench is filled in but remains visible like a scar reminding one of the great illness which fell upon Attica seven months ago.

[END]

_____________________________________________________

Capa’s review is a rather bland description of everyday life in the prison. This comes as quite a disappointment; I had expected a rousing polemic against the unsuitable conditions of mammoth prisons and their effect on the will of man.

These words seem particularly tame when one considers the magnitude, violence and precendence Attica has in the history of prison resistance. The words are detached from the extremely graphic photographs [WARNING] documenting the riot and its bloody remnants. Capa’s words are the epitome of obsolescence.

Attica was a disaster.

On Sept. 13, [1972] in upstate New York, a four-day standoff at the Attica Correctional Facility ended when 500 state troopers attacked the prison compound, firing 2,200 bullets in nine minutes. The raid killed 29 inmates and 10 guards held as hostages, while wounding at least 86 other people. The orders came from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Capa’s words fall short of the strength needed to describe the institution six months on from disaster.

I encourage you all to browse Attica Revisited an encyclopaedic resource of official papers, oral history video and photography.

Book Cover

Cornell Capa, to some extent, lived in the shadow of his older brother Robert. I guess, it is easy for complacent men to adore the still and fallen martyr than to keep apace with a passionate and piqued practitioner. Cornell’s and Robert’s legends are one; Cornell ceaselessly fought his brother’s corner authenticity debate surrounding The Falling Soldier.

Cornell’s indebtedness to his brother was fateful and self-imposed:

“From that day,” Mr. Capa said about his brother’s death, “I was haunted by the question of what happens to the work a photographer leaves behind, by how to make the work stay alive.”

Disappointingly, it is only in extended surveys of Cornell Capa’s career that mention of his fifties photojournalism in Central and Southern America arises. Otherwise, Cornell is celebrated for his political journalism and particularly his campaign coverage of Adlai E. Stevenson, Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Cornell’s photographs from Latin America are often neglected, even demoted.

RobertKennedy

NYC19480

The Kennedys were the foci of American progressive attitudes, and so, in the sixties, Cornell documented the concerned politician. Cornell was (not in a negative way) passive and the sixties were not formative. It was in the fifties that he actively worked to define the persona, the ideal: ‘The Concerned Photographer’.

Family Planning Honduras

Tractor

Cornell’s work in Latin America:

Beginning in 1953, Capa traveled regularly to Central and South America. He focused extensively on the explosive politics of the region, particularly issues such as elections, free speech, foreign investments, and workers’ rights. His first trip was to Guatemala for Life. Capa photographed banana workers and peasants, and the complicated relationship and struggle for power between the local leftist leaders, President Jacobo Arbenz and the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company. In his most dynamic news story, he covered the collapse and fiery aftermath of the regime of dictator Juan Peron in Argentina in 1955. A year later he photographed in Nicaragua following the assassination of dictator Anastasio Somoza.

In 1956, he was sent to Ecuador by Life to cover the brutal murder of five Christian missionaries. This was to be a life changing experience. Typical of the way Capa was to engage with his subjects over many years, rather than taking the photographs and leaving the scene, he continued to photograph the story over time. In particular, he focused on one of the widows, Betty Elliot, and her extraordinary, understanding relationship with the Indians with whom she and her young daughter lived for several years, as she pursued her missionary work and research into the native language and customs.

In 1956, Cornell was in Nicaragua reporting on the assassination of President Anastasio Somoza García. Somoza was shot by a young Nicaraguan poet; the murder only disrupting slightly the Somoza dynasty that lasted until the revolution of 1979 (that’s where Susan Meiselas picks up).

In the aftermath of the assassination over 1,000 “dissidents” were rounded up. The murder was used as an excuse and means to suppress many, despite the act being that of one man.

capa_cornell_life_011

Nicaragua Prison

I have no knowledge of what happened to these men after Cornell photographed them and I am sure you haven’t the patience for speculative-art-historio-speak.

I do wonder … if having witnessed revolution, early democracies, military juntas, coups, communism, social movements, grand narratives and oppression in various forms, if Cornell picked his subjects with discernment back in the United States.

As early as 1954 Cornell was working on a story for Life about the education of developmentally disabled children and young adults. Up and to that point in time, the subject had been regarded by most American magazines as taboo. The feature was a breakthrough.

In 1966, in memorial to his brother, Robert, and out of his “professed growing anxiety about the diminishing relevance of photojournalism in light of the increasing presence of film footage on television news” Cornell founded the Fund for Concerned Photography. In 1974, this ideal found a bricks and mortar home on 5th Ave & 94th Street in New York: The International Center for Photography.

Attica Chess

This institutional limbo that eventually gave rise to one of the world’s most important photography organisations was not a quiet period for Cornell. In 1972, he was commissioned to Attica, NY, to document visually the conditions of the prison. Capa presented his evidence to the McKay report (PDF, Part 1, pages 8-14) the body investigating the cause of the unrest. Cornell narrates his personal observations while showing his photographs to the commission.

Moving Prisoners, Attica

Yard, Attica

At a time when, the photojournalist community seems to have crises of confidence and purpose at an alarming rate, it would be wise to embrace his spirit in full recognition his slow accumulation of remarkable accomplishments.

Rest In Peace, Cornell.

Coffin

PHOTO CREDITS.
Robert F. Kennedy campaigning in Elmira, New York, September 1964. Accession#: CI.9685
New York City. 1960. Senator John F. KENNEDY and his wife, Jackie, campaigning for the presidency. NYC19480 (CAC1960014 W00020/XX). Copyright Cornell Capa C/Magnum Photos
Three men pushing John Deere machine, Honduras, 1970-73. Accession#: CI.3746
Watching family planning instructional film at Las Crucitas clinic, Tegucigalpa, Honduras], 1970-73. Accession#: CI.8544
Political dissidents arrested after the assassination of Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, Managua, Nicaragua, September 1956. The LIFE Magazine Collection. Accession#: 2009.20.13
NICARAGUA. Managua. 1956. Some of the one thousand political dissidents who were arrested after the assassination of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. NYC19539 (CAC1956012 W00004/09). Copyright Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos
Prisoners escorted from one area to another, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972 (printed 2008). Accession#: CI.9693
Two men walking around prison courtyard, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972. Accession#: CI.9689
Inmates playing chess from prison cells, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972. Accession#: CI.9688
Man on scooter carrying coffin, northeastern Brazil, 1962. Accession#: CI.8921

All photos courtesy of The Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive, Promised Gift of Cornell Capa, International Center of Photography. (Except for ‘The Concerned Photographer’ book cover; the Jack Kennedy photograph; & the second Nicaragua prison photograph.)


EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories