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

coppic

Two white cops posing with rifles as they stand over a black man lying on his belly with deer antlers on his head. For years, the image was kept under wraps. The Chicago PD said they wanted to protect the man who wasn’t the cop in the picture! — yeah, the one lying on the floor subjected to humiliation. But it is secret no more.

The Chicago Sun-Times writes, “A Cook County judge has refused to keep secret the shocking image of former Officers Timothy McDermott and Jerome Finnigan kneeling with what the police department says is an unidentified African-American drug suspect.”

“Believed to have been taken in a West Side police station between 1999 and 2003, the Polaroid photo was given to the city by the feds in 2013 and resulted in McDermott, a clout-heavy cop, being fired last year by the police board in a 5-to-4 vote,” the Sun-Times continues.

Finnigan is now serving a 3-and-a-half years in prison for leading a robbery ring and McDermott is currently fighting his dismissal. In McDermott’s case, he should walk away quietly and accept he got off lightly, but clearly he’s not the brightest or most modest of individuals.

You can and should read the full story about how this potent image was the loci of a multi-year backroom political tug of war. The Chicago Sun-Times’ decision to publish it was not taken lightly. In an excellent and long statement made by Jim Kirk, publisher and editor in chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, the knowns and unknowns are laid out so there can be no misunderstanding. Kirk warns against presuming to know everything from this single image. He writes:

Photographs can do a number of things. They can help frame a news story or put it into better context. They can convey details and nuances of a story that might otherwise be lost.

But if we don’t know all the facts surrounding a photograph, some things are left open to interpretation. It is why news organizations are careful in considering the images they run and try as hard as possible to detail what is being displayed.

[…]

It’s an offensive image, so much so that this newspaper had to think long and hard before publishing it today. When two Chicago Police officers pose like hunters with rifles over a black man with deer antlers on his head, a responsible newspaper cannot withhold the image from its readers, especially when you consider that one of the officers, Timothy McDermott, was fired because of the image and is fighting to get his job back.

[…]

There is a lot we don’t know, including most importantly, the name of the suspect. We also don’t know exactly when the Polaroid photo was taken, though it is believed that the image was snapped at a West Side police station sometime between 1999 and 2003. Was the man forced to pose? Was he coerced into wearing those mocking dear antlers? Was he the involuntary victim of a sick joke or, in his own mind, in on the joke? We exhausted all avenues before printing the story. We don’t know and the police say they don’t know either.

This photograph will offend people, as it offends us. We also know it can be a tool to raise the level of constructive discourse to make our city better.

It’s the type of caveat and engagement with an image I’d like to see next to every news photograph, but we know no writer, editor or human has the time for to add that deep contextual treatment to all visual news content.

Fascinating image, unfolding story and analysis from within the industry. A potential case-study for journalism students, I’d suggest.

Minn

Google search for “Minnesota prison”

If the image above is useless, get used to it. The Minnesota Department of Corrections has banned news cameras.

Under a sub-head of ‘Special Access’, the policy, which was introduced in February, reads:

A visit facilitated by the communications unit and lasting one hour in length. The representative of the public news media may bring a recording device (if approved), paper, and a writing utensil. Video and photography cameras are not allowed.

Interviews with prisoners should not be considered special access; they should be considered key to maintaining open access to information and to accountability. Society uses prison to deny prisoners their liberty, not their voice.

Incredibly, this ban is not a response to any embarrassing or damaging event or story. It is, by the DOC’s reasoning, a shift of policy in line with other rules about contraband!

Because cellphones (with cameras) are contraband in prisons, the twisted logic of the prison administration goes that news cameras are also contraband! What?

This is reckless bureaucracy in full swing. The public will lose out by not having a free and unencumbered press on which to rely for impartial information. The biggest losers will be the prisoners who are silenced. In a reasoned OpEd for the Star Tribune, journalist James Eli Schiffer writes:

“My concern about the camera ban goes beyond the implications for my own industry. It means that the nearly 10,000 inmates of Minnesota prisons will recede even further from public view, their faces all but invisible.”

Schiffer points out that a long term project Young & Armed that he and colleagues made in 2012 about youth gun violence, which included dozens of interviews from inside prisons, just would not be possible today.

The Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is outraged.

“The Minnesota DOC is now equating both still and video news cameras with contraband items such as pornography and lighters, which is patently absurd,” says the SPJ Minnesota Pro Chapter. “Other DOC concerns could be dealt with through policies other than a full ban on cameras. We urge the Minnesota DOC to immediately reverse its camera ban.”

Unfortunately, Minnesota Gov. Dayton sees no political advantage in calling out this nonsense policy and has backed his DOC Secretary’s decision. Ugh.

Thanks to Aaron Lavinsky for the tip.

okprison

Yesterday, I listened to Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, describe the “living nightmare” on Mississippi’s death row in 2002. Her words were visceral and painted an image, but of course no images exist.

On that death row, cells had no power. Men languished in “perpetual twilight without enough light to read.” Radios were silent. Summer temperatures soared to a life-threatening 120 degrees fahrenheit. Year-round, mosquitos from the surrounding swamps filled the cell-tiers at dawn and dusk. No toilets worked. The stench was unbearable. Every sense was under constant assault. Prisoners’ shrieks, sobs and babbling filled the air. Suicides and self-harm were routine and the prison officers maintained order with the deployment of pepper spray. The majority of the prisoners had severe mental illness, and of those that arrived in the unit sane, few were lucky to have the strength of mind to remain so.

If an individual treats an animal this way, they’re punished by law and yet in America our law sends people to wallow in such conditions and worse.

Attorney Winter explained that court-orders often provide legal professionals access into prisons that the media has been denied access for years, even decades. Class action litigation alongside advocacy and responsible reporting all contribute to a reliable view of prisons for the tax-paying public. That such deplorable conditions could exist in America in the 21st century surely makes the case for robust and independent monitoring of America’s prisons.

Winter and ACLU only became aware of the abuse after they received letters from dozens of men on death row. As I listened to Winter’s account, I thought back to a day earlier when I’d asked the same audience to consider not only what images they see of prisons, but also the images they do not see.

OKLAHOMA

Right now, Oklahoma is making a case-study of itself. Under the orders of new Dept. of Corrections Director Robert Patton, Oklahoma prisons now allow journalists to enter only with pen and paper. Apparently, the OK DOC has been “slammed” by over a dozen media requests. Slammed!?!? How low is the bar? No cameras or audio recording devices inside Oklahoma prisons.

Unsurprisingly, Patton cites security reasons. Who are we to argue? What do we, the uninformed public know about security? The tone is patronising. A healthy relationship between the press which serves the public and the administrations in control of our tax funded institutions would make me feel safer. This stinks.

The Tulsa World reports that Patton believes that the requirement to search the camera equipment diverts staff resources and time. He also fears images of sensitive security equipment wouldn’t end up in photos or videos.

“It is very staff intensive to process this type of equipment in and out of a facility. More importantly, we need to ensure that any security function not be recorded or filmed in a way that may jeopardize the safety of our facilities,” says DOC spokesman Jerry Massie.

All of this smacks of an institution stretched, stressed and flailing. And indeed it is. The Oklahoma prison system is overcrowded. To add to the pressure, OK has the lowest levels of staffing of any state. Moral is low and pay is lower. Oklahoma has created a tumorous prison machine that does not rehabilitate but just churns up prisoners and staff and spits them out the other side.

No one is doubting Patton’s job is tough, but making adversaries of the press is not any type of solution. If anything he should be using the press more to expose the fractured department and broken lives he’s having to manage.

Unfortunately, some panicked lawmakers in Oklahoma think more private prison contracts are the solution. Private prisons use under-qualified staff, warehouse prisoners for longer, cut corners, and treat humans as commodity. They are based on efficiency models. Trying to make prisons more efficient IS the problem. Patton and Oklahoma’s only solution is to rely on incarceration less. Patton must establish community supervision programs for those prosecuted by law — they are cheaper and more effective.

I urge Patton not to listen to calls for extended privatisation and to put human needs ahead of budget needs. If he doesn’t, he’ll exacerbate the problem and fail the people of Oklahoma to whom he is (theoretically, at least) in service. By banning cameras and story-telling equipment, Patton will only succeed in alienating Oklahomans further.

This Tulsa World editorial hits the nail on the head: “This is no way to treat taxpayers who pony up a half-billion dollars annually to keep their prisons operating.”

FIRST HAND ACCOUNT

If I cannot convince you, perhaps a concerned Oklahoman might? I recently received this email from the loved one of a man imprisoned in Oklahoma.

“I’m aware that a camera inside, in the hands of a loved one, a visitor, is never going to happen. But journalism? Journalism is a must. I recently sent my loved one an article in print. It was about a prizewinning author who is incarcerated for life. The prison mail-guard and the contraband review board withheld that piece. Destroyed it. When I pressed, the reason given was that it contained a photographic image of a prisoner!

Photography is powerful. I imagine what my partner would capture if I could give him a camera — the haunted and defeated look in the eyes, the conditions inside the giant quonset hut housing 66 men in 33 bunk-beds.

Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and one of the highest uses of for-profit prisons. And now no one can take a photo inside? Dangerous stuff.”

This source asked to remain anonymous in order to protect her partner from any punitive response by the DOC.

Image: Seniors Walking Across America.

 

BANNED BOOK S PETITION

Two weeks ago I penned an article about the banning of books in Texas prisons. Attached to the article was a petition to Brad Livingston, Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

If you are opposed to politically motivated censorship, I urge you to sign the petition. Let me remind you that the book was about the conditions of women in American prisons and it was banned for describing the abuses two females had suffered early in life; abuses that had shaped self-destructive behaviour and consequent incarceration. The descriptions were not graphic. The descriptions were essential for discussion of cycles of violence, perpetrators and victims, and hopes for help instead of punishment.

If you need convincing that petition’s have an effect, I point to Change.org’s previous direct action that caused the Virginia Department of Corrections to overturn their ban on the Virginia Books Behind Bars program.

Signing the petition does mean making a profile at Change.org. Profiles are often a barrier to action but I ask that you put on your hurdling shoes in this instance.

Thanks, Pete

UPDATE: ALL PETITIONS

Change.org is so confident of the power of petitions they have set up a platform to deliver the petition tools of national non-profits to the hands of individuals.

“Our bloggers have recently begun using this tool to start petitions in response to news stories and have won close to a dozen campaigns – successfully pressuring companies and federal agencies to change their policies.”

That the Ministry of Justice and Prison Service have embarked on a course of activity in an effort to disrupt my blog only reinforces my view that I was right to intrude on the public. That the MoJ and the HMPS have the brass neck to portray themselves as guardians of the law while traducing it reveals the very underbelly of criminal justice morality that my blog wishes to illustrate.

Ben Gunn, Guardian. Monday September 14th, 2009

There is an interesting debate growing in the UK. Should prisoners be allowed to blog?

bbcprisonblogging

Ben Gunn, who claims to be the only serving UK prisoner who blogs, had a letter to his wife intercepted by the prison governor and told “the content is interesting enough to be published on the internet” and on this ground it was stopped from leaving the prison.

Gunn set up the blog at the end of August. He writes the content and his editor posts it to the web.

Gunn has caused a stir with forthright opinions on politicised victims groups, spineless politicians and poor prison management. These, he argues, are not fallacious rants, but genuine problems of an overly-punitive system and disengaged society.

Furthermore, Gunn argues that despite his original sentence of 10 years, he remains in prison after 30 because he has continuously challenged the prison authorities. At present Gunn is engaged in research towards a PhD, focused upon the role of Human Needs Theory in prison conflicts.

My question “How do we feel about Prison Bloggers?” is largely rhetorical. How we feel about them makes no impingement on their lawful right to write and publish from prison. Let’s be absolutely clear here. Gunn is breaking NO LAW.

The only law that may pertain is that Gunn may receive no compensation for his writing while a ward of the prison service. But this was never the issue at stake. Gunn’s free speech was deliberately quashed by the administration of a system that stood to face criticism through his words.

The official position as summarised by another excellent prison rights blogger John Hirst (The Jailhouse Lawyer):

The Ministry of Justice writes: “There is no specific Prison Service policy on prisoners using or posting blogs, as they do not have direct unregulated access to computers or the internet”. However, the reply goes on to to say that it can be implied from Prison Service order 4411, that a prisoner cannot ask someone else to communicate what the prisoner is not in a position to do himself and which violates the rules. The MoJ has clearly failed to take into account the human right to freedom of expression guaranteed under article 10 of the European convention, and prisoners’ rights to contact the media “on matters of legitimate public interest“.

I agree with many of Gunn’s positions, I don’t appreciate his tone sometimes, but I think he must absolutely exist within the dialogue about British criminal justice. His thoughts as a serving prisoner are of central value to debate and an informed public.

The echoes ring true and far. Gunn’s concerns over misinformation, scare-mongering and codes of silence are as acute (if not moreso) in the US prison industry.

I’ll leave you with Gunn’s view on prevailing distortions to debate and his admirable defiance:

In reducing discussions to trite slogans and vote-grubbing soundbites, we debase ourselves as a collective and as people. I realise that I pose a challenge, but regardless of any efforts expended by the government I am not going away.

_____________________________________________________________

As well as the Guardian sources linked in this article, the BBC picked up on this story and includes a brief but informative audio discussion of the issue.

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Editor’s note: It seems strange that in the UK this quasi-controversial issue has taken a long time to rear its head – after all, Michael Santos has been blogging from US federal prisons at his own Prison Journal and as a guest at Change.org since January 2009.

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