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A prisoner at the Estrella Jail, Phoenix, Arizona makes a face before he is photographed. © Scott Houston

Friend of the blog, Scott Houston, has a spangly new website featuring not one but four portfolios of his work from Maricopa County, “Tent City” and the show that is Sheriff Arpaio’s chain gangs.

Scott is a New York resident and like most with a camera got out to photograph the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. He sent me some images. I’ve had my own thoughts on the photo coverage of Sandy, so I’ve tried to select an edit here that shows some things other photographs have not – namely Con Ed workers, different-enough compositions and laughter (click any image to see it larger.)




Inmates line up for work early in the morning at Estrella jail. © Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Yesterday, the Guardian ran a gallery of Jim Lo Scalzo‘s photographs of a female chain-gang in Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona.

To people who are unfamiliar with the chain-gangs, established by the controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio (the self-titled “Toughest Sheriff in America”), Lo Scalzo’s images may be a shock. Certainly, they are fascinating.

Unfortunately, this is not an example of a photographer gaining exclusive access to an invisible institution. To the contrary, inmates of the Maricopa County Jails are arguably the most frequently photographed prisoners in the United States. Approach Lo Scalzo’s work with caution.

Jon Lowenstein photographed the female chain-gangs in March, 2012 and Scott Houston photographed the all-female chain-gang when it was first established almost a decade ago.* These are only three photographers of hundreds who have visited Tent City, Estrella Jail and followed chain gangs out on to the streets.

The Guardian writes in it’s brief introduction, “Many women volunteer for the duty, looking to break the monotony of jail life.” That might be true, but it is also the message peddled by the Sheriff’s office and it also stops short of asking why these women have been ushered into the jail system. I should say at this point, these are women on short sentences locked for non-serious, probably non-violent offenses, likely drug use, prostitution, petty theft. If I may generalise, they are a nuisance more than they are a danger. They are victims as much as they are victimisers.

What must to do with Lo Scalzo’s photographs – and with others like his – is appreciate how they were made; more specifically we must appreciate the pantomime that is put on display for the public and put on for the photographer.

I have spoken to many photographers who have described how Arpaio directs a “media circus.” I have written before about his press-staged march of immigrant detainees through the streets of Phoenix. He dresses citizens serving time and non-citizens awaiting immigration hearings in the same pink underwear and striped jumpsuits.

Let’s not deny that Sheriff Arpaio is on message, dominates message and understands visual symbols and the power of the image probably as well, if not better, as any of us who make, discuss and revel in photography.

There is certainly a lot more to be teased out about Arpaio’s near 20 years in office and his media savvy, but now I’d like to turn our attentions away from photography and towards a socially-engaged art project of admirable sincerity and complexity which might teach us more about Maricopa County than photographs alone.

Throughout 2011, Assistant Professor of Multimedia Gregory Sale at Arizona State University (ASU), carried forth It’s Not All Black & White a program of talks, installation and interventions at the ASU Art Museum.

It’s Not All Black & White intended to give “voice to the multiple constituents who are involved with the corrections, incarceration and the criminal justice systems.” To establish a discussion around the highly contested issues in a divided community, Sale and his team had to rely upon the trust and input of museum curators, university faculty, students, sheriff’s deputies, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, family of the incarcerated and so on and so forth. It is quite remarkable that under the same banner, Sale was able to invite Angela Davis to talk and in another event invite Sheriff Arpaio to a discussion on aesthetics.

Round table discussion at ASU Museum. Joe Arpaio on the right.

Incarcerated men were brought onto university grounds to paint the stripes in the ASU museum, Skype dance workshops were done to connect incarcerated mothers and daughters; the museum space was repeatedly given over to engagement instead of objects.

At the fantastic Open Engagement Conference, I shared a panel with Gregory. He said that for so long Sheriff Arpaio had controlled how people think of stripes and think of criminality in their community.

Gregory said one thing that really stayed with me. He said that for a brief period while It’s Not All Black & White was in the museum and the programmes went on, he was able to wrestle that control away from Arpaio and open a discussion that focused not on the blacks and the whites, but on the grey areas. In those grey areas are hard decisions and hard emotions. But, also in those grey areas, are solutions to transgression in our society that might look to root causes and solutions that engender hope and spirit-building instead of humiliation and penalty.

When we look at Lo Scalzo, Lowenstein, Houston and the works of countless others from Maricopa County we need to bear in mind the stripes and the spectacle of the chain gang is deliberate. Are the photographs showing us only the black and white of the stripes or are the photographs introducing us to meditate on the grey areas? I suspect they do mostly the former.

*Lowenstein had photographed immigrant detainees in Maricopa County’s ‘Tent City’ a few years ago. I included both Lowenstein and Houston’s work in Cruel and Unusual.

I came across this image on a ‘free media web hosting site’ where I lazily put in the term “Prison” to the search. I am unwilling to name the site as I do not wish you to suffer the same banner ads and unedited content.


Women prisoners working on road, Tanzania. circa 1901. Source: Unknown

The search returned the usual images of pets in crates (1st-person caption optional), macro-shots of rusting locks and/or bars, stock images of barb wire, and photos from Eastern State Penitentiary (which does many photography workshops). There were three images that were worth a second glance – the other two being images WWII prisoners of war.

Despite having no means to confirm its authenticity or the accuracy of the caption, I thought the image worthy of a quick reflection. The image is contrary to the usual representation of incarcerated peoples – the era; the gender of the subjects; the continent; the anonymity of the photographer. De facto, this becomes a visual source in its most naive understanding; all we have to go on are the women depicted. The photograph wriggles away from all the contextual information one needs to assess its political purpose.

The responses of the women to the camera (pride, defiance, awkwardness, subjection – and even laughter from a lady in the background) compel me to presume nothing of this picture. I question the authority to which they are subject, I question the legitimacy of the charge by which they are held prisoner, I certainly can’t reconcile hard labour with a mode of justice for grown women. This is a depiction of slavery more than it is of criminal justice.

If the date in the caption is accurate, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) was under German rule. “Tanzania as it exists today consists of the union of what was once Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar. Formerly a German colony from the 1880s through 1919, the post-World War I accords and the League of Nations charter designated the area a British Mandate (except for a small area in the northwest, which was ceded to Belgium and later became Rwanda and Burundi). British rule came to an end and Tanganyika became officially independent in 1961.”

I rarely harp on about “the power of photography” because it is a subjective assessment, but I will vouch for that personal reaction to imagery that can stop you in your tracks and get you thinking.

Wild thanks to Brendan over at Anxiety Neurosis for publishing on the world wide web my recent heartfelt plea to close friends. My words are now world wide … and webby. Seriously, I’d encourage you to read his analysis as he said, with some degree of wit and intelligence, what I had relied on the New York Times Opinion Page to say for me.

David Alan Harvey, Title Unknown, from Living Proof 1 series

David Alan Harvey, Title Unknown, from Living Proof 1 series

I’d advise that you don’t read on after Brendan’s discussion of the propositions regarding criminal justice, as the tone changes to one of outrage and profanity. Do, however, consider Brendan’s intriguing solution to our failed social experiment and financial black hole we know as the prison-industrial-complex.

My daydreams might seem a little strange to you. I envision a system of work-camps spread throughout California. Low-level offenders (obviously non-violent) would be siphoned away from the concrete and steel onto various prison farms. They would become, possibly for the first time, acquainted with the world of plants, dirt, sky. They would be required to till the soil, sow the seed, reap the harvest and above all else participate in a cycle of life greater than their own. The crops (organic, obviously) would be distributed throughout state agencies providing food for the convicts, prisons, schools and state hospitals. Imagine school-children eating something that hadn’t be processed and purchased from a profit-driven third party with no regard for the kids’ health or well-being. At night the inmates of my farms would take various classes both academic and trade-oriented. They could see therapists, take workshops or paint the distant mountains in watercolor. Whatever they need to show them something outside of the life they’ve known. They would have free range of the property in question, requiring a couple fences and a small staff of guards. Where are they going to run to?

Knowing Brendan as I do, he hides here a vulnerable idealism that we would all like to embrace but the bottom-line mentality of modern life has disappointed us too often. We keep our arms folded. Brendan’s main points are uncontestable though – remove non-violent offenders from prisons; engage them in more than wall-staring for 23 hours a day; provide meaningful, even plentiful, opportunities for rehabilitation, education and therapy. Unfortunately, all this costs money and when CDCR struggles to cover the cost of inhumane lock-up the chance of seeing an individual-oriented rehabilitation is less than zero.

Work-camps do exist in California and they specialise in training for fire-abatement. This is a far cry from Brendan’s organic farming initiative, but probably skills in bio-diverse agriculture are as handy as skills in fire suppression. As we continue to burn fossil fuels and globally-warm our summers, growing local crops and putting pay to the 3,000 mile caesar salad, will be as relevant as beating annual forest fires.

Photographer Unknown

Photographer Unknown

But if we are talking about productive inmates it is worth noting that the CDCR runs the Prison Industry Authority paying inmates anywhere between 30 cents and 95 cents before deductions. This is a body that provides state departments with furniture, uniforms and California drivers with their license plates. Many have described this system as “Modern Day Slave Labor”. If it seems that way, it’s because it is.

CDCR runs the PIA because the state profits from it. Engaging the inmate in daily activity is essential, but we should try to move away from repetitive factory production, or at the very least break it up with other outlets of energy (and ideally even creativity). What other administered programs could occupy inmates’ time? We must consider here programs that do not turn an immediate product or profit – but secure long term savings for society as the inmate is provided with skills and self esteem. The PIA uses 5,900 CDCR inmates. What do the remaining 312,511 men, women and children under CDCR jurisdiction do?

These are general questions (and admittedly subjective gripes) for which there are no correct answers. Nevertheless, with so many systemic problems we should only focus on the problems we can affect and the most timely problems of the CDCR. Californians’ priorities now must be to prevent the motion to change the criminal-justice system into a “victim-vengeance system” (Prop. 9) and the motion to broaden the state’s definition of crime, subjecting thousands more citizens to the abuses of a failed system (Prop. 6).

In the meantime, we can all focus on the watercolour opportunities available to inmates at Wasco State Prison.

Wasco State Prison's new solar field

Wasco State Prison's new solar field

Note on Images: David Alan Harvey’s image here is included purely for aesthetic reasons. The author confesses no background knowledge of the image, only an intrigue in the juxtaposition between uniform-pressed youth and caricatured-inmates subjected to the humility of stripes and trucker hats. Even if these young men grew up and/or went to the same schools together, there is no relationship between them now. All this is neatly summarised by the wielding of the gun. The guard pays attention to the camera almost unaware of his responsibilities over his shoulder. The rifle makes the guard’s close personal observation of inmates unnecessary; the guard has a back-up. With the use of weaponry, any misdemeanour can be remedied/snuffed out within an instant.

I do not know David Alan Harvey’s views on the prison industrial complex. If I ever acquire that knowledge I will be sure to share it. As well as his website he also has a solid blog.

Disclaimer: This post, while making use of photographic imagery is a non-objective commentary. It has more to do with the author’s politic than an academic look at the photographic medium.


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