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There were two categories of interviewees I planned to connect with during PPOTR – photographers and prison reformers. I didn’t expect to meet many individuals who satisfied both definitions. Ruth Morgan does.

Morgan became director of Community Works, a restorative justice arts program in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994. Prior to that, she was director of the Jail Arts Program, in the San Francisco County Jail system (1980-1994).

It should be noted that the county jail system is entirely different to the state prison system and operate under separate jurisdictions. County jails hold shorter term inmates.

For three remarkable years, Morgan and her colleague Barbara Yaley had free reign of San Quentin State Prison to interview and photograph the men. In 1979, it was the sympathetic Warden George Sumner who provided Morgan and Yaley access. In 1981, a new Warden at San Quentin abruptly cut-off access.

“I think there were a few reasons [we were successful],” explains Morgan. “Despite the fact I was a young woman, I had a big 2-and-a-quarter camera and a tripod and so they took me seriously. That helped us get the portraits and the stories we did.”

The San Quentin News (Vol. I.II, Issue 11, June, 1982) reported on Morgan and Yaley’s activities. The story Photo-Documentary Team Captures Essence of SQ can be read on page 3 of this PDF version of the newspaper.

Ruth and I talk about how the demographics of prison populations remain the same; her original attraction to the topic; the use of her photographs in the important Toussaint v. McCarthy case (1984) brought by the Prison Law Office against poor conditions in segregation cells of four Northern California prisons; why she never published the photos of men on San Quentin’s Death Row; and the emergence, funding for, and power of restorative justice.

LISTEN TO THE DISCUSSION WITH RUTH MORGAN ON THE PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY PODBEAN PAGE

Ruth Morgan, San Quentin (1979-81)

Discombobulated

Discombobulated

I was delighted to find this collection of “Jail Finds” recently. It is a quiet statement amidst the cacophony of dross we are subject to daily.

The person who documents these notes, scribbles and profundities works for a volunteer library service serving the local Dane County Jail and operated by the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

These are things I find abandoned in books or stuffed on the book cart at the jail where I volunteer. A little context: these come from a county jail, not a state prison – a very important distinction. Most inmates (approx. 75%) are short-term “holds.” They’re there awaiting trial (meaning they couldn’t afford bail); on probation violations; or are federal prisoners being shuffled around the system. About 1/4 are women and 1/3 are minorities. The vast majority stay less than 30 days.

Torture?

"Subject Mukasey, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to Guantanamo style Waterboarding. Then ask them if it is Torture."

Events and Consequences

Events and Consequences

Test

Health Testing Request

List

Childhood and Adulthood

Prison is Wrong

Prison is Wrong

A Mouse is Fast, A Cat is Faster, A Gun is Faster Yet, But i always Miss. That is not True, I AM A GOOD SHOT

The Mouse is Fast, The Cat is Faster, My Gun is Faster Yet, But I Miss a lot. NOT TRUE, I'M A VERY GOOD SHOT

List

Vocabulary

Letter

Letter of pledges, hopes and favours.

What ties these examples and the other 100 or so in the collection is humanity and surprise. Humanity we should hope of all and surprise we should absolutely insist on from all. Some of these scribbles are penitent in the old fashioned ideal, some are reflections of harsh reality.

I wouldn’t argue, that in my mini-curation, I may be biased. I have picked the most appealing and the most redemptive of scripts, but I feel this only goes some small way to redress the imbalance of mainstream media that a) simultaneously condemns and sensationalises criminals and b) cares little for the transgressor once locked away.

Spanish

"God give me serenity to accept the things I cannot change and give me valour to change those I can. And wisdom to recognize the difference. May your will be done and not mine."

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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