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If the picture above looks familiar, it might be because you’ve seen press shots of Alcatraz’s blockbuster Ai Weiwei show At Large. Above is a production still from a lesser-known art intervention on Alcatraz; it shows the filming of Well Contested Sites, a choreographed performance for film made by former prisoners.

Before the Weiwei’s dragon a hall’s-worth of (brilliant) lego portraits, the “gallery” spaces of Alcatraz were host to Well Contested Sites a 13-minute dance and theater collaboration between a group of men who were previously incarcerated, performing artists from the Bay Area, choreographer Amie Dowling and film maker Austin Forbord.

The performance and film draw on the experiences and physical memories, or memories of the physical.

“Using a metaphorical, movement-based aesthetic, the film explores the effect of incarceration on individuals and suggests that the imagination can thrive even while the body is behind bars,” says the makers.


I know next to nothing about dance, but I was moved to write about Well Contested Sites because it achieves several things, responsibly and simultaneously. Firstly, the sound production and the performances are expertly crafted. The thump of bodies and body parts against the confines of the prison and cells is effective and sometimes nauseous in its sickening repeat. Very powerful.

The clap, the slap, the thok. These are visceral sounds that rattle your chest. Listen to the opening credits of any “gritty” TV show intro (Deadwood, True Detective, Rectify, and many more) from the past decade and you’ll hear these same morose and punching drums and woodblocks. They’re designed to drill you into your seat; they create instant alert and a readiness for drama. It’s just a blessing that Well Contested Sites delivers respite with quieter closure. Interestingly Sister Gertrude Morgan’s folk songs are introduced and they have the same cantor and percussion, but nothing like the earlier oppressive audio.


Secondly, this is a form of art therapy for the formerly incarcerated. Well Contested Sites represents the highest production that Amie Dowling and her team have brought to a project but they are, regularly, delivering dance and theater classes in San Quentin State Prison and the San Francisco county jail system. What begins inside can continue outside.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly,  Well Contested Sites goes beyond a one-off performance. This is the anchor to discussions about mass incarceration and arts role in bettering the lives of men and women inside. The performers and makers have travelled the country (see the Facebook page). It is the starting point for discussion led, in some cases, by formerly incarcerated individuals to educate the public. Now there’s many projects that attempt and achieve that but some are more successful than others. The most successful projects are those that grip audiences attentions by confounding expectations, by showing them something truly different.

banks & luke

Like I said, I don;t know a lot about dance, but I know a fair bit about prisons and it’s a rare and special thing to craft a professional performance as that we see in Well Contested Sites.

I asked Amie recently to share the new projects she was working on and she sent over Peter Merts‘ photos of a November 2015 performance of Faultline, by the Artistic Ensemble at San Quentin Prison.The Artistic Ensemble is a rigorous, creative group that explores personal narratives and their experiences with systemic forces of poverty, violence, power, and incarceration.

Current Artistic Ensemble members include: Adnan Khan, Anouthinh “Choy” Pangthong, Antwan “Banks” William, Belize Villafranco, Chris Marshall, Sr., Eric Lowery AKA Mike Lowery, Gary Harrell, Gino Sevacos, Ira Perry, Julian Glenn Padgett (Luke), Juancito, Lawrence Pela, Le’Mar “Maverick” Harrison, Maurice “Reese” Reed, Neiland Franks, Nythell “Nate” Collins, Richie Morris, Rodney (RC) Capell, Rauch Draper, Upumoni S. Ama, Sebastian Alvarez, Amie Dowling and Freddy Gutierrez.

It seems to me that these photos confound expectations; they open up new possibilities for how we envision prisoners. The physical contact involved in choreographed movement is coordinated, mutual and supportive. This type of organisation of bodies in space in this prison chapel doubling as stage demonstrates the vulnerability, the bonds and the daring of men who contemporary society has all but condemned to cruel and unusual existence. But here they are, showing up and announcing themselves. And here’s me, respecting that greatly.

I need to go and learn more about dance. Perhaps the folks at Well Contested Sites can help me with that?

choi leap #1








Bernie Ledesma, 2008

Prisoners of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre dance the Rico Mambo. Photo Credit: Bernie Ledesma, 2008

UPDATE 10.05.12: They just did Gangham Sytle

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My general endeavour with Prison Photography is to ask readers to assess the visual culture surrounding prisons and prison populations more critically. The videos and photos in which prisoners present themselves beyond all stereotypes are important. The back story is revelatory too.

The routines are the result of a new approach to rehabilitation in Philippine prisons (8 facilities at last count) beginning at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC). The program was initiated by Byron Garcia the brother of Cebu Governor (Warden) Gwendolyn Garcia. Ms. Garcia was the first female warden at Cebu, which leaves me wondering if the novel dance program is the result of progressive governorship or just an accident of uncomplicated nepotism.

Byron Garcia introduced an exercise program where the prisoners marched in unison, starting out with marching to the beat of a drum, but moved on to dancing to pop music; he began with one of his favourite songs,  Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) by Pink Floyd. Early on, Garcia selected camp hits In The Navy and Y.M.C.A. by The Village People for the program.

All of this is well known to webnerds who follow the biggest viral videos. Thriller has had over 50 million views.

The list continues – MC Hammer’s Can’t Touch This, Laura Brannigan’s Gloria, Bonnie Tyler’s I Need a Hero, Van Halen’s Jump, and Queen’s Radio Ga Ga. The dancing inmates of CPDRC are self-proclaimed “World Entertainers” now and have been featured on pretty much every major global news source. Here’s the BBC’s article.

The routines are endearing to the point that one’s will to know the perhaps-less-than-shiny-happy-reality behind the dancing program is shoved to the back of the mind.

Predictably, as with all things related to penology it is not quite as simple as clapping inmates dancing together, forgetting their rivalries and jigging toward reform.

The dance program is compulsory. “The British Channel 4 Documentary Murderers on the Dancefloor broadcast in January 2008 portrayed life in the prison. The program showed various inmates praising Byron Garcia, the founder of the initiative – many of whom had tattoos praising Mr Garcia. However, it also featured an anonymous ex-inmate who claimed Mr Garcia employs certain prisoners to beat prisoners who refuse to dance. Garcia was filmed in the documentary holding an American M4 Carbine, saying, “This is an M16 M4 rifle, and it can make people dance”, before aiming the gun at the cameraman. This statement was acknowledged as a joke by the narrator. His Youtube account states any accusation that any form of abuse goes on as part of the program is false, and the program serves the purpose of reforming the inmates.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Prisoners at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre form a cross shape. Photo Credit Bernie Ledesma, 2008

Prisoners at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre form a cross shape. Photo Credit Bernie Ledesma, 2008

Garcia maintains that prisoners dance in honour of Peace Advocates, their Catholic Archbishop and against dissenters of the church. I find it hard to believe that all 1,500+ prisoners dance to voice the exact same political or religious opinion. There is certainly coercion at work here, but I think it is that of forced empty comment than of physical torture for those who abstain.

The show is put on monthly and the gantry around the yard is full of fans; likely family and friends but also genuine admirers. I heard of one spectator’s description of goose-bumps each time she watches a new routine. I can’t go that far but I must admit that the exercise, diversion, surface camaraderie and sincere adulation the prisoners enjoy must be extremely positive. It is worth noting that male and female inmates dance together. Could you really expect to see co-ed dance therapy in any US prison?


Read Marco Bohr’s The Story Behind the Dancing Inmates for a 2011 critique of CEBU and some images of the collapse of the shocking regime prior to Garcia’s arrival.

For the best still photography of CPDRC inmates in action go to Bernie Ledesma’s Flickr Set or his JPG Magazine “Jailhouse Rock” Feature.


All of this, while focusing on the policies of progressive prison authorities distracts us from the ongoing heinous conditions in Philippine prisons, the detention of children alongside dangerous adults and the ongoing abuse of those minors.


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