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Status Update


The Status Update publication which accompanies the exhibition of the same name is now available.

If you’d like a copy email me at prisonphotography(at)gmail[dot]com. Retailing at $25.

A perfect-bound, 128-page, softcover book featuring the work by Lily Chen, Janet Delaney, Sergio De La Torre, Rian Dundon, Robert Gumpert, Pendarvis Harshaw, Talia Herman, Elizabeth Lo, Laura Morton, Paccarik Orue, Brandon Tauszik, Joseph Rodriguez, Dai Sugano and Sam Wolson.

Introduction by Raj Jayadev, coordinator for Silicon Valley De-Bug and an interview with San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
5.5 x 8.5 inches
ISBN 978-0-692-55576-7
Edition of 1,000 (November 2015)

Designed by the genius Bonnie Briant.

Produced by Catchlight, Status Update curated by Rian Dundon and myself is an exhibition of photography and video about change, chance and inequality in the San Francisco Bay Area. It premiered at SOMArts in San Francisco in November 2015.


Laurence Butet-Roch reflected for Time: Witness the Complex Evolution of the San Francisco Bay Area

California Sunday Magazine gave us a showing: Long Exposure: New Exhibit Captures Residents Experiencing the Boom and Bust of the Bay Area

Mark Murrmann wrote a glowing preview for Mother Jones: These Photos Show the Bay Area You’ll Never See From a Google Bus

Stanford Ethics students got to grips with the show: Adjusting our Focus: the Tech Boom through a Different Lens

Mashable threw down a gallery: Photos Capture Inequality and Change in San Francisco Bay Area

Wired offered great support with Laura Mallonee‘s feature: Capturing the Bay Area’s Diversity — and Rapid Change

Erin Baldassari for the East Bay Express reviewed the show with focus on Oakland-based artists: Beyond Black and White: Nuanced Ways of Documenting the Housing Crisis

Silicon Valley DeBug, with whom we partnered in the show posted for their committed South Bay community and following.

And finally, I was interviewed by Doug Bierend for Vice: ‘Status Update’ Captures the Evolution of the Bay Area


The book’s going to last longer than any of the prints and beyond next years traveling exhibit. Whether it will last as long as the issues that are percolating here in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, we’ll see.

If you’d like a copy email me at prisonphotography(at)gmail[dot]com. Retailing at $25.

In November, I penned a piece for about the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s ban on two books that advocated for prison reform.

This week, friend Matt Kelley brought to my attention that Texas is now banning John Grisham novels. Kelley describes the sophisticated approach of the TDCJ:

The system is fairly arbitrary – prison mailroom staff look for offensive images and make the decision on the spot. Prisoners can appeal to state officials, but it’s tough to argue on behalf of a book you can’t see.

C’mon! Really? Add your name to over 500 petitioners.

Photography in prisons and jails isn’t always edgy nor riven with fraught emotion. Sometimes it can be quite ordinary. In fact, given the utter boredom of most prison facilities it would be good to see a photo essay that communicated effectively vacuous time and psychological space.

…but, I digress. Hetherington, over at the venerable What’s The Jackanory?, indulged in some “shameless self promotion” of his magazine work at North Branch Correctional Institution. Within the Wired article, Prisoners Run Gangs, Plan Escapes and Even Order Hits With Smuggled Cellphones, Hetherington’s images include a cell-tableaux, sniffing dog and bagged phone. I am more interested in the non-published images Hetherington provides in his post; they’re crisp, pared down images of inmate and interior.

Andrew Hetherington for Wired

Andrew Hetherington for Wired

It got me thinking about how the environmental fabric – along with the representation – of American prisons has changed.

When (documentary) photographers first began accessing prisons – Danny Lyon, Conversations with the Dead (1971), Jacob Holdt; Taro Yamasaki, Inside Jackson Prison (1981) – the conditions were poor.  And prisons were only one response to criminal behaviour and social contract.

Even latterly, Ken Light shot the black & white, in-your-face and sweaty Texas Death Row (1994) and in doing so romanticised historicised American prisons as definitively dirty sites of “the other”. By the 1990s, though, the US had implemented long term custodial sentences as the primary “solution” to crime. The phase-out of Federal parole beginning with Reagan and culminating with Clinton bloated the Federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) population, alone, from 40,000 to 200,000.

So two trends intersected: Prison populations swelled resulting in overcrowding and economically efficient facilities were rapidly being built. The mass construction of new warehouses prisons altered the spatial experience of confinement and the nature of interpersonal interaction within. Cell tiers were replaced by AdSeg wings.

The BOP has a reputation for housing the hardened criminal and specialises in high security facilities. Additionally, from the late 1980s states were building their own new high security and supermax prisons. This new penological architecture replaced 40 foot brick walls and watch towers with razor wire and motion sensors.

Prison environments are sparse. Problems with dark corners & damp have been replaced with the psychotrauma of constant fluorescent light. Problems with stashed contraband have been replaced with an absence of surfaces to set down objects. Denim uniforms have been replaced by sweat outfits. The penological management of gangs & group violence has been replaced with the pharmacological management of locked-up basket cases.

One former inmate of the Federal Supermax facility in Florence, Arizona (ADX) has described it as the “Perfection of Isolation.”

Correctional Officer Jose Sandoval inspects one of the more than 2,000 cell phones confiscated from inmates at Calfornia State Prison in Vacaville, California. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Correctional Officer Jose Sandoval inspects one of the more than 2,000 cell phones confiscated from inmates at Calfornia State Prison in Vacaville, California. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Telephoning a way out Isolation

“Cell phones,” says James Gondles, executive director of the American Correctional Association, “are now one of our top security threats.” (Wired, July, 2009)

I posited in the past that cell phones were just one part of the prison economy and their commodity status was in direct reaction to the cost of corporate-managed prison payphone systems – in essence a racket in response to a racket. However. having read the Wired article it is clear how much of a serious security threat cell phones pose to prison authorities.

The majority of tactics for isolation, perfected over the past 30 years by prison administrations, are rendered immediately obsolete,

With a wireless handset, an inmate can slip through walls and locked doors at will and maintain a digital presence in the outside world. Prisoners are using voice calls, text messages, email, and handheld Web browsers to taunt their victims, intimidate witnesses, run gangs, and organize escapes—including at least one incident in Tennessee in which a guard was killed. An Indiana inmate doing 40 years for arson made harassing calls to a 23-year-old woman he’d never met and phoned in bomb threats to the state fair for extra laughs.

So what’s the answer? Debate exists over the value and legality of jamming all signals around prisons but a High School in Spokane, WA proved localised signal-jamming a bad idea when it interfered with the local Sheriff’s radio signals.

We should also bear in mind that ‘The 1934 Communications Act prohibits anyone except the federal government from interfering with radio transmissions, which now include cell calls.’ (Wired)

Criminalize Smuggling but Not Talking

TIME does a good job of breaking down the stats and describing the evolution of the problem. It is obvious that authorities are going to make strategic response to a growing trend but prison authorities must not compromise the already limited opportunities for inmates to talk with friends and family. Close family ties and contact are key to reducing recidivism and giving former prisoners the best means to integrate back into society.

And of course, inmates aren’t the only ones caught up in the illicit trade of cell phones in prisons. One California prison guard admittedly to making over $100,000 in a year through smuggling and selling cell phones!

On that note, I offer you a CDCR sanctioned news VT.

As so very often, the spark of thought was ignited by the Criminal Justice blog.

If an individual and the law don’t agree to the point the individual is imprisoned, one hopes lawful imprisonment changes the individual, right? For the better, right?

Unfortunately, American prisons have proved the opposite of rehabilitative or hopeful of positive change. Recidivism rates in America are between 60% and 68% (depending on the source).

"Prison has changed you, Mom" © 2009 Marshall for the New Yorker

"Prison has changed you, Mom" © 2009 Marshall for the New Yorker

Spurred possibly by the fiscal-driven prisoner releases across the nation, Marshall penciled this pearl.

Some of the best comedy is simultaneously tragedy. The truth is America’s prison archipelago has bruised the lives of the current 2.2 million prison population, the lives of family members AND our lives and communities. Inmates returning to society haven’t been suitably prepared or shown new paths. Change has been for the worse in majority of cases.

I was astonished to read this AlertNet article. It excavates the background to Lovelle Mixon’s massacre in Oakland that killed four people.

I cannot agree with the article’s logic 100%. It would be a sad day if I ever presumed the individual totally powerless and unable to act upon non-violent decisions, but as the author writes:

“Though Mixon’s killing spree is a horrible aberration, his plight as an unemployed ex-felon isn’t. There are tens of thousands like him on America’s streets. In 2007, the National Institute of Justice found that 60 percent of ex-felon offenders remain unemployed a year after their release.”

It is not easy to resist the urge to think of mass-murderous crimes as the singular actions of an individual.

I appreciate Earl Ofari Hutchinson‘s article because it brings together the many invisible and minor trials in life that collectively make daily stress unbearable. I finished the article amazed that there are fewer desperate crimes akin to Mixon’s. An uncomfortable thought.

Again, Hutchinson reminds us that the problems of incarceration, recidivism, education, unemployment and crime are inseparable:

Washington, D.C. is a near textbook example of that. Nearly 3,000 former prisoners are released and return to the district each year. Most fit the standard ex-felon profile. They are poor, with limited education and job skills, and come from broken or dysfunctional homes. Researchers again found that the single biggest factor that pushed them back to the streets, crime, violence and, inevitably, repeat incarceration was their failure to find work.

Q. Why do we warehouse people, break them, and then return them to society in a poorer position to cope?

A. Punitive and immovable laws, collective arrogance & utter denial.

With an estimated 600,000 prisoners either released or due for release in 2009, it’s about time we make a small change in our accomodations – especially given the size of change we expect of former prisoners.


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