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For my first piece for Timeline, I put a spotlight on a collection of mugshots, rediscovered and researched by artist Shayne Davidson. This adds to a her research of hundreds of antique mugshots depicting shoplifters, grifters, counterfeiters, “a wife murderer”, pickpockets and many more.

Made by the St. Louis Police Department between 1857 and 1867, the archive, held at the Missouri History Museum, comprises the oldest extant examples of mugshots in the U.S. Davidson has compiled many of the portraits into a new e-book Captured and Exposed (More).

Quote:

It’s hard to imagine U.S. law enforcement today without its wealth of tracking and surveillance technologies. From facial recognition to the databases being populated with drivers’ license photos of non-criminal citizens, from police scanners tracking all mobile devices in a five-block radius to lampposts that are listening in, federal investigators and police departments nationwide have never had more tools to capture images, scrape data, and monitor movements of people.

But these “smart” technologies (and the laws that allow their use) have developed only relatively recently, and incrementally. It’s not always been so sophisticated. A hundred and fifty years ago, shortly after the invention of photography, some police departments began making images of convicted criminals.

 

Read the full piece and see more portraits: America’s Oldest Mugshots Show the Naked Faces of the Downtrodden, Criminal and Marginalized

 

 

 

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Last week, I sent this clip over to Brendan Seibel who knows a thing or two about punk, rock and Bay Area discontent.

In return, Brendan sent this clip describing it as “one of those what-the-f#@k moments when San Francisco was cool.”

Just thought you should know.

“I thought it was about the right policies and the right principle. It is really about the money.”

Jeanne Woodford, Former Warden of San Quentin and Former Secretary of the CDC, on the California prison system.

On one occasion in the past, I drew both criticism and praise for an unapologetically emotive tone. In that instance it was on the colliding social issues of Hospitals, Schools & Prisons.

Yesterday, with Beds in Gymnasiums: Prison Guards and Prison Overcrowding in California, I feel I may have ventured into similar territory as per my thoughts on the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). Consider this post a back up and not a back down of my previous sentiments. Consolidation is good for the soul.

So, allow me to describe two important podcasts I listened to yesterday and today and hopefully the dots will join themselves.

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF FOLSOM & CALIFORNIA PRISONS

Folsom Embodies California’s Prison Blues (NPR) traces the decay of the California Department of Corrections from heights I wasn’t even aware of. Apparently, in the late 70s Folsom Prison was the shining light of progressive American prison cultures. All prisoners lived in their own cells, virtually every inmate was enlisted in a program or had a job, and upon release very few of them returned. It was record envied across the US.

Today, over 4,400 men live in the facility designed for 1,800. Folsom is entirely segregated by race. Education, rehabilitation and work programs are down to a few classes with a waiting list of over 1,000. Folsom and California has the worst recidivism rate of any state – over 70% will return to prison within three years.

The real juice of this podcast is the look at the history of this situation: the lobbying millions of the CCPOA, the disguised money, the pandering and the electioneering. Jeanne Woodford, an inspiring and honest inside voice, talks about how the CDC was hamstrung by the CCPOA’s power. Her sentiments are echoed by the Secretary who succeeded her.

LEVEL OF INEQUALITY vs. LEVEL OF AFFLUENCE

For the past twelve months British comic/rabblerouser, Mark Thomas, has made sense of the global recession by interviewing ‘good’ bankers, economists and policy gurus. All of these are available via podcast.

Professor Richard Wilkinson talks about Western nations and their success/failure in providing a good quality of life for their citizens.

The theory backed up by reputable statistics (WHO and others) is that social problems are more acute in countries with the most inequality. Affluence has nothing to do with social harmony. Wide differences in affluence can destroy social harmonies.

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Wilkinson notes in countries such as Japan, Sweden and Finland the richest 20% are 4 times richer than the 20% poorest. In Britain, US and Portugal the richest 20% are 9 times richer than the poorest 20%. In the more inequitable countries depression and mental health problems are more widespread; there is more friction in family life as reflected in the harshness of the unjust society. Wilkinson questions the psychological landscape of western nations and asks, “What sort of society I am growing up in? Will I be fairly treated?”

Inequality is about dominance – not reciprocity – which explains why the harshest sentencing (subjugation) exists in America – the most unequal of societies. Wilkinson goes on to discuss prison systems and how their harshness is in direct correlation with social inequality. IT’S A MUST LISTEN.

On the increase of the prison population in the US, Wilkinson quotes estimates that only 10-20% of the increase is due to increased crime.* The remainder is due to more punitive sentencing.

In possession of this information, we must think about how crime, sentencing and prisons relate to society – YES, PRISONS ARE WITHIN NOT OUTSIDE OF SOCIETY. And that said, I’ll be making a return on this blog to discussion of our exposure to, and consumption of, images of prisons and prisoners.

*Both the UK and the US have been incarcerating more and more people, while crime has been falling.

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Fearful Symmetry

Sorry, more self-promotion. For Cooleh magazine, I rewrote old speculations on the non-existent genre of prison photography. I discuss the visual vocabulary of prison photography and the slipperiness of cliche depending on the experience of the camera operator.

The editor confirmed it for me though: It was the strength of the images by nameless inmates of Remann Hall youth detention facility that carried the story! Fearful Symmetry is part of Cooleh’s 14th issue which takes a story-based, raw and somewhat irreverent angle on crime; politics of crime in jamaica, urban pot growers, secession states, botched 7/11 robberies and interviews with the unheard.

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Credit: Bruce Jackson

NY Times LENS Blog

Here, there and everywhere people are celebrating the New York Times’ LENS Blog as a messianic gift for the photophile. I was therefore happy to see that less than two weeks in LENS is featuring Bruce Jackson’s wide angle documentary work from Arkansas Prison in the early 1970s

Bruce Jackson should be a familiar name as it was he that rescued, scanned and shared the enigmatic Arkansas Prison Mugshot series, Mirrors.

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Found and presented by Bruce Jackson. Arkansas State Prisoner Portrait

June 100 Eyes Issue

Over at 100 Eyes, Andy Levin from insists that “Whatever ones perspective, be it victim, civil rights activist or cop, there is one shared idea – something needs to change.”

The June edition of 100 Eyes, titled, America Behind Bars features the work of Dominic Bracco, Jerome Brunet, Darcy Padilla, Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber – all very talented and committed photographers.

As editor, Andy Levin, concludes, the genre of prison photography (or to be less aggrandizing) simply the practice of photography within sites of incarceration is often a difficult and thankless task;

The photographers who have contributed to “America Behind Bars” have worked against overwhelming odds to bring back powerful images of American prisons. One can’t simply walk into a prison with a camera. This kind of photography requires long negotiations and often a warden who has the vision and concern to allow a photographer into his jail.

Wonderful exposure for the most pressing of social issues in America today.

Darcy Padilla. From AIDS in Prison Series.

Darcy Padilla. From AIDS in Prison Series.

Prison Photography began its project in September 2008 with a celebration of Darcy Padilla’s portrait of former San Quentin Public Communications Officer, Vernell Crittendon.

In February, I was gob-smacked by Jerome Brunet’s Riding Shotgun with Texas Sheriffs.

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