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Still from video of a TDCJ officer firing a tear gas canister at a group of prisoners from just several metres. Source: ABC

If you’re in any doubt about either the power of images or the vindictiveness of prison authorities then consider this story.

Elderick Brass, a former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) officer leaked a video in May 2015 that showed a Lychner State Jail guard firing a tear gas canister into the chest of a prisoner. The video appeared in an ABC report in August 2015.

Indicted by a grand jury in December, Brass is due to appear in court February for “misuse of official information.” The law states he could face between 2 and 10 years if found guilty.

WHY THE PUBLIC EXPOSURE?

TDCJ has already admitted the improper use of the tear gas gun, but it has not sanctioned the trigger happy guard, let alone terminate his employment. Not wanting to cause itself problems, I presume, the TDCJ is hoping the matter will be forgotten and the retraining of staff it says it has done since will prevent a repeat event. Usually, the authorities want stuff like this to go away as quietly and as quickly as possible; for it to get out and off the news. One wonders then what the prosecution of Brass does? It certainly brings the video back to public attention.

Assuming that the TDCJ are willing to tolerate the scrutiny afresh, one must conclude that they really want a prosecution for the purposes of intimidating whistle-blowers and putting staff back under the order of command. They’re bringing the boot down especially to quash internal leaks of misconduct and injustice. They’re accommodating the continued circulation of this video in order to preclude the future circulation of others.

Worth noting is that the video on ABC includes only the incident and the moments leading immediately up to it. There is a longer video depicting the before and after and giving more context to the altercation between prisoners that gave rise to this nervy cop’s point-blank violence. Get the full context of the video and the TDCJ response in the ABC August 2015 report.

NEW VISUAL PARADIGM

Between whistle-blowers, FOIA requests, court materials, leaked CCTV and contraband cellphone vids there is a wealth of visual material emerging from the Prison Industrial Complex that describes the system very differently to the descriptions of professional photographers.

Whether the video and images are amateur, operational or prisoner-made they tend to share a grain and a noise. Characterised by awkward angles, low resolution, ambient cacophony and muted tones, prisoners’ illegal vids resemble surveillance footage. Prisons and jails give rise to horrific conditions and in some ways all the images and videos in what I’m referring to as a new visual paradigm are horrifying too. Often, if a video comes to our attention it is due to the violence or injustice it includes.

Even within images and videos in which abuse is not explicit, our eyes are being trained on the aesthetics and, crucially, the psychological and existential threat of incarceration. I’m thinking this through as I write.

I’ve not put into words fully, yet, what the emergence of this distinctly new type of visual evidence means. I expect it’ll function in the courts and for journalism as it always has; to construct, confirm and dispute narrative. And so, I guess, I am more interested in what it means for us as citizens.

Are we aware that more and more of the visual representations of US prisons and jails are shifting toward raw, unpolished feeds captured by wall-mounted cameras, body cams and illicit phone-cameras?

As we are exposed to this new type of imagery do we process it with the narrative its given to us through news and Internet alongside ads and comment boards? Do we take empathetic leaps to imagine all experiences within the scenes of abuse played out on our screens? Do we appreciate that events in one prison, at any moment, may be repeating in hundreds of the other 6,000+ locked facilities in the U.S.?

Visuals are one of the key ways outside-citizens learn about prisons. They are a key tool with which authorities–and increasingly prisoners–tweak their narratives for public consumption. Being a engaged citizen means to approach this new paradigm armed with information, skepticism and visual literacy.

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Golf Five Zero watchtower. Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Northern Ireland, UK.  © Jonathan Olley.

Last month, I had a jolly nice chat with a jolly nice chap about what all this means at Prison Photography. Where’s this open journal taking me?

I said if I took this whole thing to the academy, it could be as simple as a historic survey: The Uses of Photography to Represent, Control and Surveil Prison, Prisoners and Publics in the United States (1945 – 2010).

I was encouraged to ditch the historical view and engage the modern. Ask myself, why should anyone care about prisons? Only a small minority care now and that status quo has remained for many reasons tied up in the antagonisms of capitalism. Would a historical survey change minds and attitudes or just lay out on paper the distinctions most people have already made between themselves and those in prison?

Perhaps people would care more if the abuse of human rights that exists within the criminal justice system of America were shown to impinge on everyone, not only on those caught in its cogs?*

What if we consider the methods and philosophies of management used by prisons and identify where they overlap with management of citizens in the “free” society. Think corporate parks, protest policing, anti-photography laws, stop and search, street surveillance, wire taps, CCTV.

My contention has always been that there was no moral division or severance of social contract over and through prison walls. For me it’s never been us & them; it is us & others among us put in a particular institution we call prison.

But, now I am seeing also, there is an ever decreasing division of tactics either side of prison walls. Strategies of management and technologies of discipline perfected in prisons have crept into daily routine.

What has this emphasis on containment and of monitoring – at the expense of education and social justice – done to our society and to our expectations of society?

SURVEILLANCE/CCTV IN PHOTOGRAPHY

And now for the tie in with photography…

Thinking about surveillance, obviously we have the big show at Tate from this Summer, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera with its devoted section to CCTV. (Jonathan Olley‘s work from Northern Ireland is the standout.)

But I always think back to Tom Wichelow‘s series Whitehawk CCTV (1999), possibly because he insists it is not a criticism of CCTV just a look at the politicisation of the human subject viewed through its lens.

Most remarkable in the series is the trio of images of the tragic site of a murder. They reveal to us that looking and bearing witness can be an act of respect as much as that of curiosity as much as an act of control. We are all compelled to look, but some observers are recording the feed and have a disciplinary apparatus to back it up.

Untitled (CCTV footage). Young family visits murder site. Brighton 1999. © Tom Wichelow

Untitled. Friends of murdered boy visit the site. Brighton 1999. © Tom Wichelow

Untitled. Resident reveals murder site outside her bungalow window. Brighton 1999. © Tom Wichelow

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*There’s a simple argument that we all suffer because our tax dollars support a broken system that makes us no safer.

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