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The Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville held the first open house for family and friends of inmates on Christmas Eve, 1977. The warden, Donald Bordenkircher and staff worked with the inmates to improve morale and make repairs to the facility. The event was successful and it was continued through 1984. © Jay Mather
2016 has been a very different year. I staved off some early-to-mid-career wobbles by taking a long walk and then stepped back into society just in time for the United States to descend into its own special horror show.
I was in Phoenix the night the satsuma-catastrophe won the electoral college vote. The clerk at the gas station voted for Trump. She told me her brother had served in the US military for 13 years, serving four tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. She had heard that Russia would initiate WW3 if Clinton was elected president. She believed Trump had good relations with Putin and so she voted for him so her brother wouldn’t be killed. The premise, the abandonment of logic, the separation I felt from her, her certainty, my certainty … they were all just really depressing. We were so far outside of reality nothing seemed solid or reliable, not a nod, not a discussion. Not there, not then, as the Michigan returns came in.
I don’t know what to say about 2016. Half of the US + 2.8 million know it was a catastrophe. The remainder are gonna figure out the catastrophe over the next four years.
The day after the election I said:
“History’s greatest leaders tend not to be elected politicians; they are most often people working in communities for the protection of their rights, the advancement of compassion, the resistance to gross concentrations of power and toward common sense. Trump is an ass-hat. We’ll see how bearable or utterly toxic things become in the next few months. All the while remember your own agency and don’t underestimate your own power.”
That still holds.
I’ll continue doing what I do, which is to write about the images and contexts which speak to the great injustices and abuses that occur daily in America’s prison industrial complex. I wish you calm, breathing, nourishing food this holiday season. I wish you strength, creativity and community in 2017 to take on, and thrive in, this confounding, challenging, bizarre world.
I’m spending the first half of 2017 in England. I’ll be back in the US to join the show in June. Love to you, be good, be smiling. Champion others and volunteer your time and resources so that you may be closer to your neighbours.
A note on the image: I was pleased to discover Jay Mather‘s series Christmas In Prison which documents a family day at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville on Christmas Eve, 1977. It depicts a moment when prison administrations were willing to make efforts to accommodate the emotional needs of prisoners. It’s strangely old-school; the dinner is held in the massive stone cellblock. Family events these days are in visiting rooms or other communal spaces. Mather’s pictures seem so unlikely when set against modern day’s sterile, cinder block rooms that function to control visitors and prisoners. See Mather’s full 62-image series here.
Happy New Year.
I hope you’ve all had lovely holiday seasons and been provided with time to reflect on the good, to recognise the less-good, and to meet 2015 with strategies to promote the former and reduce the latter. That’s what I intend to do. We’ve an overwhelming amount of information to consume online, so my only resolution is to be efficient with my words, clear in thought, and to respect your time and mine. That means no faffing around; no dillydallying on photography that serves only ego and/or market; no reticence; and only honesty about the world in which we live. Prison Photography might be a modest platform, but it’s everything I have. [Thumbs up emoji].
This year I promise to deal readily and energetically with imagery upon which crucial political realities rest. I’ll only discuss aesthetics if they point toward necessary discussions of citizenship and inequality in society, and if they reveal characteristics of our prison industrial complex.
So let me start as I mean to go on …
This story about a county sheriff delivering Christmas gifts to jail prisoners hit my radar a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a story that reminds us of our need to be diligent in the face of fluff-pieces, staged photo-ops and lazy journalism.
Here’s a story that reminds us of the uncritical eye that dominates media coverage of prisons and prisoners.
Here’s a story that reveals its true self through images. All we have to do is look. Look closely.
In the above photo, consider the prisoner in the green (far left) looking confusedly toward the camera, and us. What about the other prisoner in green (just to the left of Sheriif Santa in the photo) who peers to his left at the photographer stalking the edge of the group. How about the man in the centre with his head in his hands. Is he laughing out of embarrassment or is he hiding his face from the media cameras? Please, take your pick from any of the other prisoners with sideways glances, folded arms, smirks and obedient positioning which says that they know — and so should we — that they’ve been trotted out for a media photo op.
In the Santa outfit is Sheriff Wayne Anderson of Sullivan County, TN. Over a period of three hours, Anderson visits all 560 prisoners in his jail. The scene above, it would seem, is public show of gifting to a dozen or so privileged prisoners. This is a scene for the invited news teams. Prisoners with backs against a wall. News personnel buzzing around them.
This is cringeworthy stuff.
In the bags are soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo and snacks. The gifts are provided by the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry. The Ministry has routinely provided useful small items to jail prisoners at Christmas down the years. Excellent. All for it.
Sheriff Anderson began dressing up as a benevolent Father at Christmas seven years ago. He and the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry work it out just fine.
Frankly, this whole thing is weird. Anderson might be well-meaning but this sort of God-infused pantomime serves he and the ministry more than it does the prisoners. Sure, toiletries are very welcome gifts in an institution where scarcity reigns, but the charity needn’t be played out for the cameras.
Anderson is decking his jail’s halls with bells and folly.
This set of photos oozes awkwardness and stage-set best behaviour. The Santa myth plays centrally here. American prisons and jails already do a great job of infantilizing their populations, and we don’t need a festive version.
Maybe there’s more fundamental issues to attend to at Sullivan County Jail? Say, reasonable conditions of confinement?
In September, Sheriff Anderson and County Mayor Richard Venable had to stand before Tennessee Corrections Institute board committee to explain what they were going to do about persistent overcrowding in Sullivan County Jail.
I want to see the cells for the 500+ other prisoners, not the be-striped docile prisoners chosen because they can presumably behave in front of the cameras.
If overcrowding and underfunding that stretches back years is the reality at Sullivan County Jail, why are we being spoon fed an yuletide act-out of child’s play?
For me, these photos present a scene quite different to that described in the local Tennessee “news” pieces they accompany.
Tricities.com quotes Anderson: “[Prisoners] look forward to this every year. If I walk through the jail the week before I do this, they want to know when Santa is going to be here. They get excited about it.” WATE.com adds that prisoners “showed their Christmas spirit by singing along to Christmas carols.”
Prisoners already suffer indignities. It is not surprising that they’d stand and sing (what choice do they actually have?) for some free swag, especially that which improves their daily lives.
Anderson is free to have his take on the afternoon’s events, but it’d be nice to see a prisoner quoted in the media coverage too.
It might seem strange to protest so much at a bunch of poor photographs (in case you’re wondering, the aspect ratios are corrupted in the original publication by WATE) but just because the criticism is easy, or obvious, doesn’t mean that it is not needed. Local news stations feed our homes with information daily. They are powerful agents and require watchdogs as much as national cable outlets. There are prison/media collusions occurring everyday to peddle this type of chintzy reporting.
Ironically, these cheap and ill-considered photographs emerge from the ned to illustrate slipshod journalism while also revealing the process of the reporting itself. Without these photographs, I would have no jumping off point for my criticism.
In 2015, I hope to keep a keen critical eye and to not let up on image-makers who circulate photos under false pretenses or over misleading captions. Enough of these types of misguided and cycnical PR-stunts aimed at papering the cracks of broken prison systems.
Charity doesn’t need an audience. And prison administrations don’t need any more reason for me to doubt their operations.
Merry Holidays. There’s an angle of fun for everyone this time of year. Even atheists can crack a smile.
For the past couple of Christmases, I’ve posted my favourite selection of slightly-off yuletide related images from the bowels of the internet (2011 and 2012, if you’re interested). I couldn’t repeat that a third year running so I went in search of the foolish, the brilliant, the inspired and the irreverent in the world of music.
There’s a ridiculous amount of bonkers songs and mixes out there. This list is the opposite of definitive.
Let’s start with a couple of messages.
Iggy Pop thinks of you from his lovely, lonely festive luxury.
Nirvana love Christmas … and Ru Paul.
The Sonics are less fond of Christmas.
Sticking it to Fox News. Santa is black.
“Kids, just leave cookies, save the joint. ” Apparently, santa doesn’t deliver presents if he’s high.
Please don’t fight this yuletide.
Ah, the joy of getting.
This is Cyndi Lauper’s worst song.
Iron Maiden bring it. “You’ll be rocking, in your stocking.”
But not as much as No Doubt, a band that have threatened to be a bit daring and maybe good. Here they absolutely are. Oi!
RUN DMC “An ill reindeer.”
And another classic from RUN DMC. “Give up the dough on Christmas, yo. […] Fight poverty, give to the needy; don’t be a grinch, don’t be greedy.”
Tom Waits. Enough said.
Bing and Bowie, of course.
One for the lonely hearts. #sexytime
Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer by Elmo & Patsy.
Sweet-Tee: “Snow is fallin’, Relatives callin’; it’s Christmas. Have a ballin'”
Santa Claus, Go Straight To The Ghetto, by James Brown, from his Funky Christmas album.
Same song title. Very different song. Snoopy Doopy Dogg-Dogg performs with Daz Dillinger, Nate Dogg, Bad Azz, and Tray Dee.
From the 1996 release Christmas on Death Row.
One of Steve Coogan’s more short-lived characters, Tony Ferrino: “Bigamy at Christmas, what should I do? Spend it with the family? I cam’t I’ve got two.”
Dana Dane Is Coming To Town
This parody of Sabbath’s Iron Man is so good Ozzy Osborne makes a cameo at the end of the video to fire a rifle at the TV.
John Denver inhabits a small child’s body and begs you not to drink and drive.
Beyonce and friends singing about material goods.
But I guess demanding goes decades back. Here a 10-year-old demands a large mammal. “Only a hippopotamus will do.”
You can’t go wrong with Patti Smith.
Silent Night Skank. Fantastic.
If Reggae Christmas is your thing, check out this list of over 200 tunes from Rasta Claus!
All I want for Christmas is more weird images.
Twelve months ago, I posted To You, Happy Christmas, From Google Image Search. I guess now that I’m revisiting the format, it’s now a holiday tradition? I don’t know if this years selection tops last. I’ll let you be the judges.
Merry seasonal cheer to one and all.