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Screengrab from the Los Angeles Times’ interactive feature Should California execute these 749 death row inmates?
Pursuant to recent posts about California’s potential bellwether ballot vote to repeal the death penalty and about the grouping portraits of men executed by the state of Texas, here’s an important interactive feature from the Los Angeles Times on the 749 prisoners on California’s death row: Should California execute these 749 death row inmates?
Thirteen prisoners have been executed in California since 1978. A tiny figure in contrast to the 728 men and 21 women currently on its death row. With 749 prisoners, California has by far the largest number of capital convictions of any state.
The Los Angeles Times provides a close look at each condemned prisoner and the crimes that put them on death row. Crucially, for me, they’re using photographs (mugshots) of each as the entry point into the cases. This is a deliberate attempt to put a face to the statistics. I wouldn’t say it is humanizing, but it does hammer home the individuality of each prisoner. Even with each prisoner represented by only a small thumbnail, it is a long, long scroll through the portraits. The effect is chilling. There are a lot of lives at stake and they are, effectively, in our hands. The title Should California execute these 749 death row inmates? is a direct challenge to each of us.
As I outlined earlier this week, California has two competing initiatives on its ballot, Prop 66 would expedite executions whereas Prop 62 would repeal the death penalty replacing it with Life Without Parole (LWOP). For me, Prop 62 is not an ideal solution as LWOP is just another form of state-delivered death, yet Prop 62 could be a step in the right direction if future campaigning against LWOP succeeds. And it does get California out of the business of killing its residents.
In light of this vitriolic, shambolic and bilious Presidential campaign, I guess I’m also relieved to see images that are related to criminal justice being used responsibly and without spin. Of course, that’s what we should expect from journalism. The tone of this news treatment of mugshots runs counter corporate circulation of mugshots for personal, financial gain, and the abuse of people in mugshots by public officials. (Thankfully, Maricopa County in Arizona has ceased its ‘Mugshot Of The Day’ public humiliation exercise).
What do you think about the LA Times’ use of these photographs to inform public debate? Do they help California voters decide?
Richard Wayne Jones was convicted and sentenced to death for the February 1986 kidnapping and murder of Tammy Livingston in Hurst, Texas. Photographed on Aug. 2, 2000, executed Aug. 22, 2000 (AP Photo/Brett Coomer)
Rian Dundon, photo editor at Timeline, has pieced together 20 years of Texas Death-Row Portraits, a photo-gallery depicting some of the men executed by the state of Texas since the early eighties. The images are made by a host of photographers down the years working for the Associated Press (AP).
“As the only non-local news organization with a guaranteed seat at every execution, the AP is granted special access to prisoners, and as a result the agency has accumulated an unusual set of portraits made shortly before inmates’ executions,” writes Dundon.
Never intended to be seen in aggregate, Dundon argues that the portraits assume a weight and significance when brought together. Prisons are a time capsule so regardless of who is shooting, the visiting booths, prison issue uniforms, standard spectacles and prisoners’ pallid skin are constants throughout. The lighting is artificial adding to the sense of unnaturalness in which the subject and photographer operate. Dundon makes comparison to lauded photographers of our time.
If art exists here, I’d argue it is not in the individual portraits per se but in Dundon’s grouping. A whole greater than its parts. Looking into the eyes of these condemned men provides a view into the soul of a nation. Here’s a gallery of American vengeance. An album devoted to violence in response to violence.
In spite of the fact I am currently without home, I am deeply connected to the politics of California. When I first came to study in the US, it was in California. When I first came to live in the States, it was in California. Over the past 3 years, I’ve lived in California again. As I travel the States currently, it is with a California drivers license.
More than any of these factors though, California is important because it is a bellwether state. When policy–progressive or otherwise–is enacted in the Golden State, it is often followed by similar policy in other states. Three Strikes Laws are a prime example. One of the first to pass Three Strikes into state law (in 1994), California was also the first to offer voters the chance to repeal many aspects of the overly-punitive sentencing. Which they did in 2012 with Prop 36.
PROPS 62 AND 66
The main issue on this years ballot is the death penalty. There are two ballots that are philosophically and procedurally opposed to one another.
Prop 66 will throw money at the broken system by speeding up the legal process, which might bring about some successful appeals but will more likely send men and women to the chamber at unprecedented rates. Vote NO.
749 people are currently on death row in California. The liberally-minded state is reluctant to execute people and this has resulted in those sentenced to death to swell the cell tiers of inadequate facilities and to be held in a permanent stasis. Of the 13 people executed since 1979, the average stay was more than 17 years on death row. I would assume that the average stay of those currently on death row is slightly less than that. (For a brief history of the death penalty in California, I recommend Judge Arthur L. Alarcon’s Remedies For California’s Death Row Deadlock.)
The choice is clear. The state should not be involved in killing citizens. Vote YES on 62. This is a position held by the widow of a police officer whose murderer is the last person in the state to be sentenced to death.
At this juncture, I’d like to point out the bind in which Californian activists and prisoners find themselves over Prop 62.
If the death penalty is repealed, all those on death row will have their sentences changed to Life Without Parole (LWOP). Among activists, LWOP is referred to as Death By Incarceration. This statement, from California Coalition for Women Prisoners, made by women currently serving LWOP sentences is the most nuanced position I’ve encountered on the 2016 ballot initiatives. I quote at length:
We believe LWOP is racist, classist and ableist, condemns many innocent people to a slow living death, and neither deters violence nor promotes rehabilitation. The majority of people serving LWOP in California’s women’s prisons are survivors of abuse and were sentenced to LWOP as aiders and abettors of their abuser’s acts. We believe that LWOP relies on the intersections of racial terror and gendered violence.
For voters who oppose all forms of death sentences including LWOP, the choice between an initiative that replaces one form of death with another (Prop 62) and an initiative that speeds up executions (Prop 66) is hardly a choice at all. It is morally compromising to vote for Prop 62, which further criminalizes and demonizes our loved ones and creates a false hierarchy between forms of state-sanctioned death. However, we recognize that a decision to vote against Prop 62 is complicated by fear that Prop 66 will win. Ending the death penalty in California could be a powerful symbol for the rest of the country and represent a growing awareness of the injustices and inhumanity of incarceration and the criminal legal system as a whole. Every person who votes will need to make a difficult decision about two very problematic propositions.
We believe that both the death penalty and LWOP should be recognized as unjust and eliminated. One of our LWOP partners in prison, Amber states: “To reassure people that LWOP is a better alternative to death is misleading.” Rather than facing executions, people with LWOP will die a slow death in prison while experiencing institutional discrimination. People with LWOP cannot participate in rehabilitative programs, cannot work jobs that pay more than 8 cents an hour, and will never be reviewed by the parole board. We agree with the Vision for Black Lives policy goal to abolish the death penalty and we believe that true abolition of the death penalty includes abolishing LWOP and all sentencing that deprive people of hope.
When the death penalty was temporarily banned from 1972 to 1976 by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling all people then on death row had their sentences overturned or converted to life [with possibility of parole]. Many of these people successfully paroled and are now contributing to their communities.
That said, Prop 62 doesn’t discount the possibility of future political action against LWOP and its ultimate repeal. And I hope that happens. Therefore, I still say Vote YES on 62
Also on the ballot is a measure, Prop 57 to reduce sentencing for non-violent crimes, put more discretion in the hands of judges for sentencing, and limit the trying of juveniles as adults. No brainer: Vote YES.
Carnell Hunnicutt, Sr. Northern Correctional Institution, Somers, CT. Courtesy Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. Via Solitary Watch.
Today, December 10th, is Human Rights Day. Organised by the United Nations, the day of action is based around the central tenet that “Each one of us, everywhere, at all times is entitled to the full range of human rights. Human rights belong equally to each of us and bind us together as a global community with the same ideals and values.”
The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains several articles which would apply broadly to prisoners and former prisoners in the U.S., but unfortunately remain unrecognized by the U.S. government.”
Specifically, we should be looking at the enforcement of policy and law as they would uphold Articles 4, 8, 9 and 21.
The problems are endless. Executions need to stop — the state shouldn’t be murdering citizens. Mass incarceration, generally, brings with it almost insurmountable problems (overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, predation, sexual and psychological abuse). The prison industrial complex magnifies these problems in poor communities. I’ve noticed a cycle of issues-du-jour that append to critique of American prisons. Most recently, no doubt, the issue of solitary confinement has been widely discussed. Why? Because it is abusive and counter-productive. Moves in the right direction are starting to reign in the rampant use of solitary as a disciplining technique. I wrote about what’s at stake for Daylight Digital last year:
Juan E. Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture, is clear that solitary confinement is torture and permanently damages the mental health of prisoners.
“Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit…whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” said Mendez in front of the UN General Assembly in June 2011. “It is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”
Prisoners lose their minds quickly when deprived of human contact. Identity is socially created, and it is through relationships that individuals understand themselves.
Solitary confinement “undermines your ability to register and regulate emotion,” explained Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in an interview with WIRED. “The appropriateness of what you’re thinking and feeling is difficult to index, because we’re so dependent on contact with others for that feedback. And for some people, it becomes a struggle to maintain sanity.”
Common symptoms resulting from long-term isolation include chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair. In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving and become essentially catatonic.
If a prisoner doesn’t withdraw within him or herself, he or she may resort to aggression. In his study of Pelican Bay SHU prisoners, Haney found that nearly 90 percent had difficulties with irrational anger, compared with just 3 percent of the general US population.
Physician Atul Gawande has compared the permanent psychological impairment described in Haney’s research to that incurred by traumatic brain injury.
For many, calendar days such as these serve to raise brief awareness. Often not much more. In our busy lives it can be hard to stay on top of the ebb and flow of politics, policy and information; it’s tough to hold those in power accountable, especially if day-to-day we’re just trying to get the bare minimum done.
I don’t know what I think of e-petitions as I don’t know how to gauge their efficacy, but I do know it takes seconds to sign one and you can do it after the kids are in bed and the washing up’s drying.
Thanks to Prisoner Activist for this comprehensive list of 22 active petitions against solitary confinement.
ACLU of Arizona: Arizona is Maxed Out! No New Supermax Prison Beds
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC): Stop Abuse of
Amnesty International: US super-maximum security prisons must be opened up for UN scrutiny!
Amnesty International USA: Free Albert Woodfox – End the Injustice. Remove Woodfox from Isolation
Amnesty International USA: Solitary Confinement: US Government Must End This Cruel and Inhumane Practice
Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB): Demand the State of California Stop the Torture
Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR): Honor the Pelican Bay SHU Prisoners’ Demands
Friends Committee on Legislation of California: Stop the abuse of solitary confinement
National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): End Prolonged Solitary Confinement Now
National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): Take Action to End Solitary Confinement of Youth in California
National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): People of Faith Support Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2014
New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC) Says: End Solitary Confinement; No Supermax at Rikers
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition: Support Pelican Bay SHU Prisoners’ Five Core Demands (hunger strike)
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition: Corcoran SHU Prisoners Start Hunger Strike for Decent Healthcare
Roots Action: End prolonged solitary confinement
Sylvia Rivera Law Project: DOCCS, Make Housing Safer for Trans People in New York State Prisons!
The Petition Site: End Child Torture: Stop Holding Our Kids in Solitary Confinement!
The banality of the design is on full display. The windowed room is where lethal chemicals are stored and used. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
In 2006, the State of California approved a plan to construct a new execution chamber at San Quentin Prison. This week, The Avery Review published an article by Raphael Sperry titled Death by Design: An Execution Chamber at San Quentin State Prison which breaks down the budgeting, the politics and the design wrapped up in the contentious project. Not to mention the secrecy surrounding many details. Just as we’ve learnt about supply chains of chemicals for new drug “cocktails” being used by States to murder people, so too Sperry takes an in-depth look at the manufacturers behind the apparatus of death. It’s a wonderful, informed and terrifying breakdown of what we do to deliver “justice.” It’s a lovely foil to my past lyrics on the aqua green aesthetics of murder at San Quentin and it reveals the absurdity of the death penalty, the most vicious and foolishly symbolic of punishments.
“The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility,” writes Sperry. It’s a project all about sight — political oversight, design based upon sight-lines for both executioner and witnesses. Sperry’s insights are chilling and revelatory. Below, I’ve selected the parts that intrigued me most, but you really should head over to The Avery Review to read the piece in full.
CAD Model for San Quentin Lethal Injection Facility. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
DEATH BY DESIGN
Painted sheetrock walls, resilient flooring, vinyl cove base, and fluorescent lighting are used in a thoroughly predictable and pedestrian manner, much like a dentist’s office in a strip mall. The buttresses of the adjacent prison housing block, which a more creative designer might have incorporated, are instead covered by new framing; a storage room is used to occupy one of these irregular alcoves. But there is more to this design than meets the eye. Sometimes the banal is not ordinary.
The all-new facility for lethal injection provides more workspace around the body of the condemned man, an adjacent secure workspace and chemical storage room, and separated viewing areas for the various categories of observers. […] Bureaucratic skullduggery initially led to an unrealistically low project budget of $399,000: just under the $400,000 requirement to request legislative authorization of the project.7 Perhaps some secret executive-branch projects stay secret; in this case the state legislature found out about the project, causing further delays (they weren’t happy about having been hoodwinked) and an eventual approved budget increase to over $850,000. This included the use of inmate labor provided by the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (CDCR) vocational training program.
The general layout of the suite of rooms was borrowed from previously completed projects in other states. Unlike in other states, where death chamber design materials are generally only available when they have been released in response to lawsuits, the final project was presented on a tour that included the federal judge presiding in the case, reporters, and a press release that included output of the CAD model used to design the project (now no longer available). Still, when I made a public request for the identity of the architect(s) and engineer(s) responsible for the project, CDCR would not provide an answer.
The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility. CDCR exercised unusual control of the project budget in order to try to keep the project invisible. Yet a floor plan of the design proposal eventually became part of the court record submitted by CDCR to prove the constitutionality of the new facility, making it permanently available to the public. Newspapers published photos of the competed chamber and ancillary spaces and developed infographics of the layout. Nevertheless, today it is an incredibly difficult space for members of the public to visit unless they are part of the highly specified group of participants in or observers of an execution.
Perhaps in the same spirit, or perhaps because of the general obsession with the control of sight lines in prison environments, visibility within the Lethal Injection Room itself is carefully controlled. Witnessing the death of the condemned man is a central component of the execution ritual, with prescribed access for family members of the condemned man, family members of the victim, prison staff, and witnesses to verify that vengeance has been earned for the aggrieved public. Accordingly, the execution room is something of a fishbowl, surrounded on all sides by windows, including a band of wall-to-wall glazing for the public witness and media viewing room. However, mirrored glass is used along the line where the victim’s family might see the inmate’s family: a line that crosses the body of the condemned man, as the two families are positioned at opposite ends of the room just as they are presumed to be of opposite sympathies regarding the murder. Although it is not uncommon for the family of the victim in capital cases to object to the execution of the perpetrator, either out of a generalized objection to killing or after personal reconciliation, the plan denies the opportunity for this kind of potentially healing contact between families. Just as positions of state-driven authority are fixed in a courtroom, with a jury one level up and the judge above them, the dichotomous relations of innocent and guilty inherent in the finality of the death penalty are fixed around the body of the condemned man.
The death penalty debate, especially in California, now hangs on a tenuous balance between the desire for revenge (an “eye for an eye”) and revulsion at the spectacle of suffering driven by our own blood lust (with a subtext of racism). CDCR—the department charged with conducting executions, and the owner of the chamber in architectural parlance—would clearly prefer to go about its business and has a long history of avoiding public oversight (unsuccessfully in this case), but continuing the death penalty is subject to judgment by a California electorate that is trending toward abolition. Part of the design’s banality (and its low-budget, medical undertones) may be intended to visually deescalate the death penalty debate in order to perpetuate the status quo. But perhaps even the CDCR embodies the same unresolved questions about execution that continue to reverberate in ballot referendums, courtrooms, and public debates. The bland nature of the execution chamber may also indicate a lack of investment in the procedure’s future, a realization that this is no permanent edifice but rather a set of rooms that may be demolished or at least renovated for some other purpose before long.
Raphael Sperry is an architect and green building consultant, President of Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility, and Adjunct Professor at California College of the Arts where he teaches the course “Rights, Power, and Design.” He is writing a book on architecture and human rights.
THE AVERY REVIEW
The Avery Review is a new online journal dedicated to thinking about books, buildings, and other architectural media. It’s aim is to explore the broader implications of a given object of discourse (whether text, film, exhibition, building, project, or urban environment) and to test and expand the reviewer’s own intellectual commitments.
The Lethal Injection Facility is the windowless box adjacent to the older, still functional cell block. The CMU exterior walls predate the interior renovations for the new death chamber.
Injection Room. Window and hose ports to Infusion Control Room at right, mirrored window for victim family viewing in center, public witness / media gallery on extreme left. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
This is the last week you have to catch the ADPSR-created exhibition Sentenced: Architecture & Human Rights at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.
Final Words, launched today, is a sprawling documentary project that focuses on the humanity at center of the death penalty in America. It is the brainchild of photographer Marc Asnin known for his brick of a book Uncle Charlie. Well, this project takes Asnin from the personal to the political, but it is no less massive. Asnin’s got form.
Asnin is asking photographers and non-photographers alike to submit selfies as statements against the death penalty. I’ll get to that in a moment but first the project and the cause.
Final Words is a book and traveling exhibition, featuring the final statements of the 515 prisoners executed by the state of Texas since 1982. Final Words will shape and deliver curricula to American high-schoolers. If we can get the youngest generation talking then perhaps we can engineer a future without the barbaric death penalty?
The project statement explains that more than one person every month for thirty-one years has been executed by the Lone Star State:
Just before the execution is completed, each prisoner is given the opportunity to share their final thoughts. […] It is their words, their final words in this life, that allow the reader to experience the underlining humanity central to the death penalty debate. […] Final Words comprises a part of the legacy that will live on beyond us and it will stand as a testament to the kind of society we were—who our criminals were and how we implemented our idea of justice. Final Words interrogates our presuppositions about the death penalty. […] While this book is a document of death—the death of both the guilty and innocent, the criminals and the victims—it attempts to create a dialogue about life.
All this takes a movement. And money. An IndieGogo campaign will launch in a months time.
The editioned Final Words books will cost a pretty penny. Their sales will help raise money to pump simpler versions of the content and curricula into the bloodstream of the education system.
Each page of the book features a prisoner’s mug shot, their age both at the time of the crime and when they were put to death, a description of the crime for which they stand convicted, and their final words.
Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty
In other efforts to corral some cash, Neverland Publications (cofounded by Asnin) and VII Association are collaborating on Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty, an international photo campaign to call for an end to executions in America. Highflying pixelmakers & imagershakers will submitting alongside us flailing Instagram plebs.
Note that the word “selfie” is used as a verb. I like that. Jury’s out as to how much a collection of selfies can effect entrenched moral politics, but it’s worth a try. Social media does nothing if not surprise regularly. And besides, all this just gets people talking ahead of Final Words‘ big fundraising campaign that ignites in October.
As the 501c3 sponsor of the project, VII Photo has asked all its photographers to participate in the selfie campaign. Get yourself in there too:
1. Make a selfie, save it to your computer.
2a. Upload selfie to http://www.final-words.org
2b. Fill out form (name, age, email address, location, how you heard about Photographers Selfies Against the Death Penalty, your preferred photography genre)
2c. Personalize your statement against the death penalty, by completing the following “I stand against the death penalty because …” in 140 characters or less.
Go on, selfie against the machine!
[Oh, if you’re wondering how and why Asnin and his colleagues have the last statements of 515 men and women, it is because for some reason the state of Texas keeps a public online database of them. Weird, no?!]
The 15th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty takes place in Houston, Texas on Saturday October 25th at 2pm. Details on the exact location in Houston will be announced later.
Diaz’s left arm had an 11-by-7 inch chemical burn from the lethal drugs. By the time the autopsy began, the superficial skin had sloughed off, revealing white subcutaneous skin. (Source: New Republic)
Yesterday, The New Republic published for the first time a set of photographs of a chemically burnt corpse. The body was that of Angel Diaz, a man executed by the state of Florida in December of 2006.
As author of the piece, Ben Crair explains, “The execution team pushed IV catheters straight through the veins in both his arms and into the underlying tissue.”
Diaz sustained horrendous surface and subcutaneous chemical burns.
“As a result,” Crair continues, “Diaz required two full doses of the lethal drugs, and an execution scheduled to take only 10 to 15 minutes lasted 34. It was one of the worst botches since states began using lethal injection in the 1980s, and Jeb Bush, then the governor of Florida, responded with a moratorium on executions.”
The photographs were made by a Florida medical examiner during Diaz’s autopsy. Crair discovered the photographs in the case file of Ian Lightbourne, a Florida death-row prisoner whose lawyers submitted them as evidence that lethal injection poses an unconstitutional risk of cruel and unusual punishment. While the details of Diaz’s botched execution have been known since 2006, this is the first time visual evidence of the injuries sustained from the lethal injection has been presented publicly.
I’d like to tell you that such images are anomalous, but sadly that is not the case.
I, myself, have seen a set of images of a burnt corpse post execution. The victim in that case was executed in the electric chair. Similarly, in that case, the images were in the possession of a lawyer (who had acquired them through family of the executed) and used in court in argument against the electric chair as cruel and unusual punishment.*1
May I suggest that the photographs of Angel Diaz’ corpse, and all those images like them, be accessioned into the Library of Congress?
If the Library of Congress’ mandate is to preserve those things that are central to American culture; central to the American conscience, dear to this nation’s body politic and truly reflective of our culture, then I hold there is no better collection of images than these.
Between 1890 and 2010, the U.S. has executed 8,776 people. Of those, Austin Sarat, author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty says 276 went wrong in some way. Of all the methods used, lethal injection had the highest rate of botched executions — about 7%.
Photographs of a botched execution are as American as apple pie.
Whether an execution is considered officially “botched” or not, the torture imposed on a body in the minutes before death is unconscionable. Crair pursued the story and the publication of the images, rightly so, in the aftermath of the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.
“The execution team struggled for 51 minutes to find a vein for IV access,” writes Crair, “eventually aiming for the femoral vein deep in Lockett’s groin. Something went wrong: Oklahoma first said the vein had “blown,” then “exploded,” and eventually just “collapsed,” all of which would be unusual for the thick femoral vein if an IV had been inserted correctly. Whatever it was, the drugs saturated the surrounding tissue rather than flowing into his bloodstream. The director of corrections called off the execution, at which point the lethal injection became a life-saving operation. But it was too late for Lockett. Ten minutes later, and a full hour-and-forty-seven minutes after Lockett entered the death chamber, a doctor pronounced him dead.”
CLOSING THE BLINDS
The single detail about the Oklahoma debacle that really stuck in my mind was the state’s decision — upon realising the execution was being botched — to drop the blinds.
The gallery of spectators including press, victim’s family and prisoner’s family lost their privileged view.
In that instance when the blinds dropped, the scene switched from that of official, public enactment of justice to the messy, sick, complicit torture of a human. In that instance, the barbarity of the state revealed itself fully. And the state was ashamed. The public were no longer allowed to see.
The notion — indeed the internal logic of the state — that viewing one type of execution is acceptable and another is not is astounding. By virtue of its actions during Lockett’s botched execution, the state has distinguished between what types of torture (execution) it is acceptable to see. Quick, quiet, seemingly painless = good. Noisy, drawn out, demonstratively torturous = not good.
The distinctions are petty. All executions are cruel and unusual.
At this point, I can only presume those who still support the death penalty are those who subscribe to some pathological eye-for-an-eye illogic. Wake up! The state shouldn’t be involved in murdering people. Especially when we have seen 1 in 10 people locked up for life or on death row for capital offenses later exonerated due to DNA evidence or prosecutorial misconduct. The state shouldn’t be involved in murdering innocent people.
*1 People are under the misconception that the electric chair zaps a person and kills them instantly. This is not the case. Electricity takes the paths of least resistance which is outside of the body. Therefore, tens of thousands of volts serve only to burn the points at which they are attached, namely the lower leg and the skull. Death by electric chair is in fact just boiling the victims brain for 7 seconds. Boiling the brain alive.
Parting Words was just featured on the Huffington Post, for which I wrote a few hundred words. That didn’t seem enough, so I asked Amy some questions about the project to gain a fuller picture.
Prison Photography (PP): You made Black is the Day, Black is the Night (BITDBITN). Now Parting Words. Both are about the harshest imprisonments and sentences in America. Do overlaps between the projects exist? Are the overlaps visible? If so, is the overlap in your personal politics, in the project, or in both?
Amy Elkins (AE): I started the two projects in 2009 and am still wrapping up final details with each. Black is the Day, Black is the Night came first. Through the execution of the first man I wrote with for that project, I stumbled into Parting Words.
Parting Words has taken me a few years to complete and, even now, it remains a work in progress — currently the project has 506 images but it is updated yearly, growing with each execution.
The research behind it all, especially while writing to men on death row (two of which were executed during our time of correspondence) made reading and pulling quotes from the roster of those who had been executed in the state of Texas a dark, taxing experience. Not only was I reading through all of their statements, but detouring into description after description of violent crimes that land one on death row. Honestly, it felt too heavy at times.
PP: What was the impulse then?
AE: I was intrigued that the state of Texas documented and kept such a tidy online archive for anyone to explore. As a photographer (like many, doubling as a voyeur) I already had my own connection to the subject matter through BITDBITN, and I suppose I allowed my obsessive side to surface in order to create a visual archive. It was an important story to tell.
PP: What are your thoughts on American prisons and the criminal justice system?
AE: Over several years of correspondence with five men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who went in as juveniles, I have learned a great deal from the inside about what it is like to exist in the conditions of maximum security and death row units; what those units provide; and what they deny.
A system that uses long-term solitary confinement and capital punishment is broken. Housing someone in infinite isolation has been proven to be hugely damaging to one’s psychological and physical state. This type of isolation breeds behavioral and emotional imbalances that are bound to cause most to remain in a perpetual state of anxiety, depression and anger. Which means they are set up for failure. There is absolutely no way to rehabilitate in such conditions. But clearly rehabilitation isn’t what they have in mind.
I have written with one man in particular who has served 20 years in solitary confinement as part of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence for a non-murder related crime he committed aged 16. He has written about going years talking through concrete walls without ever seeing the men he holds daily conversations with. He spends nearly 23 hours a day in a small cell by himself and when he is let out, he is shackled and permitted to exercise in a slightly larger room by himself for an hour. How he’s gone 20 years in these conditions and not gone completely mad is mind blowing.
That said, most men that I wrote with serving death row sentences were in fairly similar conditions, some having served onward of 16 years in solitary confinement while waiting for their execution. Two of the men I have written with have been executed and through the experience of writing letters to them and in some cases reaching out to family members leading up to such events, I have seen how capital punishment seems to create a continuous cycle of violence, pain and loss within our society. It leaves not one open wound, but several. If there’s closure for anyone, it’s temporary. And unfortunately the loss that the victims family originally endured remains. But now there is a new set of mourners in the mix. The system seems so incredibly flawed and barbaric.
PP: Do archives for last words exist for those killed in other states?
AE: I have yet to come across an archive as in-depth and publicly accessible as the one compiled by the state of Texas.
PP: Are you afraid of death?
AE: I think I’m more afraid of the physical pain associated with dying.
PP: Where do we go when our time is up?
AE: Sounds cheesy, but I think we stick around and linger in some capacity with those who love us the most.
PP: Given the images “read” very differently if the viewer is close or far away, what’s the ideal size for these works?
AE: Ideally I would like to show these images on a smaller scale but include all of them. This forces an intimacy that I want, where the viewer has to get close to each image in order to experience the depth of the project.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
AE: In both projects, I always remained neutral. I refrained from projecting my own feelings into whether I felt those I worked with or made work about were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. Making BITDBITN, I was more interested in hearing stories from those within prison systems in America, about the psychological state they might be in while in such conditions, while potentially facing their own death. I was interested in discussing with them what it was like to be removed from the world most of us take for granted, to lose memory by being removed from the source of memory, to not always have a strong sense of self-identity. I felt I hadn’t enough information to warrant my own judgment, and so, if I had projected any, neither project would have manifested.
PP: Thanks, Amy.
AE: Thank you, Pete.
In December 2013, Daylight Digital published a presentation of Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night with an accompanying essay by yours truly. The 1,500 words were built upon a conversation Elkins and I began in late 2011.