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Narratives of abuse leak steadily from our prison systems. All too often, though, the true extent and horror of violence and corruption within remains shrouded or unspoken. And certainly unseen. Frequently, the narratives of abuse are singular incidents deemed extraordinary enough to warrant investigation and perhaps some local news coverage. Frequently, single incidents are described in the media as originating, and limited to, a single institution. The flow of information of, and investigation into, wrongdoing in Florida’s youth prison system is, by comparison, an overwhelming flood of longstanding, coordinated manipulation and orchestrated abuse across multiple facilities.

Recently, The Miami Herald published a years-long investigation into into Florida’s juvenile justice system. Following the death of 17-year-old Elord Revolte, the Herald sourced documents, interviews and surveillance videos that reveal “a disturbing pattern of beatings doled out or ordered by officers”.

The investigation is aptly, and devastatingly, named Fight Club. It’s a sprawling deep-dive not only into the most egregious incidents of scandal but also into the deaths of 12 children in the system since 2000. This is difficult but important reporting.

Officers staged fights for entertainment, for gambling and to exert control. Officers relied on youths deemed stronger to enforce violent hierarchy and to mete out vicious beatings.

“Youthful enforcers are rewarded with sweet pastries from the employee vending machines, a phenomenon known as honey-bunning,” explains the Herald. “Beatings bought for the price of a pastry.”

The Miami Herald found that many of the staff were rejects from the adult prison system, previously fired due to an array of disqualifying behaviours.

“Florida’s youth corrections programs are sprinkled with hundreds of staffers who were jettisoned by the adult prison system or staffs at local jails but welcomed by institutions looking after incarcerated youths. Some had short-lived second-chance stints. Others remain on the job.”

Predators — both men and women — with violent histories were paid to look over society’s vulnerable children.

“Tommy Williams’ arrest for clobbering a severely disabled man he was paid to protect didn’t discourage his prospective employers at the Duval Youth Academy. They hired him,” writes the Herald. “Uriah T. Harris’ rap sheet featured a long string of arrests, including aggravated battery and child neglect. That didn’t deter his future bosses at the Avon Park Youth Academy. Both were hires that would prove regrettable.”

Some officers initiated sex with youthful detainees; they raped minors in their custody. All the while, staff built up a culture of see-nothing and say-nothing denial.

The online presentation of the reporting makes prominent use of acquired CCTV footage. Organised beating after organised beating. It’s shocking to watch. In one video, the youth are ordered to beat another once he enters the room. The staff member then kills the lights to make their ambush harder to deflect.

I’ve pulled some screencaps from the Herald’s designated webpage for the investigation. The sadistic manipulation of children as evidenced in weeks of footage the Herald sifted cannot be boiled down to any number of frames but here, at least, the inset captions give you an idea of the sick practices and abuse carried out by staff and by boys under the coercion of staff.

As revelatory as these CCTV videos are (as compared to the usual opaqueness from which prisons benefit) they are not a total indictment in every circumstance. While the videos paint a brutal picture of routine violence they did not, have not, and will not in every circumstance identify the perpetrator. Such was the case in the death of Elord Revolte. He was beaten by over a dozen prisoners and unprotected by staff at the Miami Dade Juvenile Correctional Center. Five staff were fired, but no prosecution was made. (Read the 66-page DJJ report here.)

The investigation, Fight Club, is incredibly difficult viewing and reading but it is a benchmark of prison reporting. Rarely is abuse from inside detailed so thoroughly and viscerally. Of the many profoundly sad aspects of the reporting are the interviews with parents of children killed or severely injured. No matter what your child has done, you do not expect the state to send him or her home in a body bag.

View Fight Club. It is beyond shocking but it is also imperative journalism.

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When Utah-based photographer Kim Raff was in Key West as an artist-in-residence, last year, she heard about an exotic animal farm in a jail just four miles from the iconic leisure-space Duval Street.

“It’s a pretty remarkable place,” says Raff who popped in to see what was happening on one of the two days each month the farm opens to the public.

“[My work] is not an investigative piece but just an uplifting slice of life inside a jail,” adds Raff.

I think we can be certain that petting zoos don’t hold the answer for the many rehabilitation and decarceration measures we’re needing, but there’s no doubt that for many prisoners, contact with animals bears positive results. Jailhouse cats, seeing-eye dog training programs, Puppies Behind Bars are the obvious examples. I’ve known prisoners to care for, and tame, birds. Jail birds.

There’s not many bright spots on the yard, so to speak, in America’s prison industrial complex and ones like these at the Monroe County Stock Island Detention Center are always well-covered by the media.

Tellingly, the farm is entirely volunteer-run. No taxpayers money goes toward it. So while we can clap Monroe County Sheriff for hosting the program we can as easily wag our finger at the predictably conservative attitudes of lawmen who refuse to help fund a program that has clear benefits for all.

Ultimately, as Raff puts it, here’s an example of a program that is “unconventional, interesting and actually working.”

Read Inside the Florida Jail that Doubles as an Exotic Animal Zoo to get Raff’s full account and see the images large.

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Kim Raff is a documentary and editorial photographer based in Salt Lake City, UT. Connect with Raff on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Linked In and Tumblr.

 SHAREHOLDERS? SLAVEHOLDERS!

Last week, shareholders in the private prison firm GEO group attended the evil corporation’s AGM. The swarm of conniving, money-grabbing devil sperms were shocked to be joined by some protestors. Shareholders thought they’d encounter only other children of satan at the annual horn-sharpening ceremony.

Across the Boca Resort in Florida, the venue for the GEO AGM, the hell-obsessed portfolio-owners struggled repeatedly to engage with the protestors who appeared to have colorful irises and not the green dollar signs to which they were accustomed. Instead of a glassy stare, the protestors could hold lasting eye-contact and emote.

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Some shareholders referred to the protestors as shape-shifters who employed behaviour that suggested confidence, faith, principle, civic duty, anger and nuanced reasoning — all emotions and motives that belonged to a long-lost group known as humanity, but alien to beelzebub’s GEO breed.

If the appearance of the protestors was confusing, it wasn’t a patch on the foreign language they used.

“Opportunities for Black and Brown communities have been intentionally thwarted through intergenerationally maintained oppression. What drives this? The same institution that has fueled this country since its birth—slavery,” says civil rights group Dream Defenders. “Through the proliferation of prisons for profit, the United States is a slaveholder, and private prisons are the cruel overseers who go through extreme means, including documented physical and sexual abuse, lobbying for increased mandatory minimums and fraudulent reporting, to maximize profit.”

Irene, a proud third generation GEO stock holder, mistook some of the protesters in red shirts as valets, at first.

“Then I realized they were trouble makers and just wanted to hurt others with signs. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Something about disadvantaged classes being heard and having a seat at a political forum not manipulated by big money. I dunno, I wasn’t paying attention,” said Irene as she rushed off to make a 4:15 tee-off time.

Okay, seriously now, it didn’t quite go down like that in Florida, last week. It was a 4:25 tee-off! No, no, really seriously. It wasn’t like that; above is just the story I wanted to write. Nothing like that. GEO shareholders are not the kin of lucifer. GEO shareholders are, each, lucifer incarnate. Let’s not dilute responsibility here.

Okay, okay, really, seriously, now.

We live in a society that allows the haves to make cash from the exploitation, hardships and warehousing of the haven-nots. What is wrong with us?

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THE NEED FOR PROTEST

The protest organized by Dream Defenders, Prison Legal News, Grassroots Leadership, SEIU Florida and other groups adopted the slogan to “Expose the Slaveholders” for the protest.

GEO Group is the country’s second-largest for-profit prison operator, reports Nadia Prupis. GEO owns Karnes County Detention Center in Texas, which holds immigrant families and is the site of an ongoing hunger strike by detained mothers, as well as Reeves County Detention Center, currently the subject of a Department of Justice investigation.

Concerning Karnes, a Prison Legal News press release said:

Human Rights Defense Center associate director Alex Friedmann, an activist shareholder who owns a small number of shares of GEO Group stock, attended the meeting. When he asked about recent reports of hunger strikes by immigrant women held at the GEO Group-operated Karnes County Family Detention Center in Texas, he was informed by a GEO executive that there was no hunger strike; rather, it was a “boycott of dining facilities” at the detention facility.

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As state budgets dried up, the private prison industry moved its attentions to Homeland Security $$$ and fought to win new build and operate ICE facilities. Which is weird because I don’t think it was a bevy of Latina mothers who flew those planes into the World Trade Center. GEO currently receives 42% of its revenue from contracts with federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Prisons. In 2013, 67% of all federal criminal convictions were for immigration-related crime.

What’s confusing to me is why the arguments for prison reform have been decoupled from those for fewer immigration prisons. Maybe it’s built into the DNA of the United States that the free folks can only fight for the rights of an oppressed group, if there’s another group in line to abused and brutalized? Why have we got bi-partisan support for criminal justice reform, but nothing close to such consensus about immigration reform? Why are politicians making efforts to reduce the number of people in the broken, expensive, abusive state and county prisons, but we don’t apply that same enlightenment to people who don’t carry a bit of U.S.A. paper?

Kudos to these protestors who are going after the private prison firms. Private prisons are where all the worst shit happens and the protestors know it. Private prisons are where the architecture and economic logic of cages is perfected. GEO and their equally sadist competitor CCA account for less than 10% of prisons in the U.S. but they are the growth sector.

“We know that GEO Group and other private prison companies thrive when they are able to obscure the truth about their business practices and what happens inside of their facilities,” said Kymberlie Quong Charles, Grassroots Leadership’s Director of Criminal Justice Programs.

Politicians have decoupled zealous policing and mass incarceration from ever more draconian treatment of migrants. The ICE archipelago of dentition facilities are the latest additions to the Prison Industrial Complex. Politicians hope we won’t notice. Politicians are congratulating themselves for having a civil discussion about criminal justice but they do so, now, because it is safe ground. Where were they for the past 35 years?

While state legislators tweak corrections budgets, the private prison industry will be throwing migrants into boxes at will.

Don’t think that politicians are going to lead on the private prison issue. They won’t. Look to the activists, with boots on the ground, who know what is happening. Hillary Clinton has hopped on the criminal justice reform bandwagon tapping the issue du jour for her presidential run. That other guy with designs on the White House, the Republican Senator Marco Rubio, loves GEO Group

“While Rubio was leading the House, GEO was awarded a state government contract for a $110 million prison soon after Rubio hired an economic consultant who had been a trustee for a GEO real estate trust,” writes Michael Cohen in The Washington Post. “Over his career, Rubio has received nearly $40,000 in campaign donations from GEO, making him the Senate’s top career recipient of contributions from the company.”

Short story: GEO and CCA are evil. Stakeholders have evil in their blood. Politicians are mostly clueless. Activists are without career or money ties to the issue and will speak truth to power.

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All images: Courtesy of Grassroots Leadership.

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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.

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Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers has got America in a tizzy. It’s entertaining but it’s no classic. Korine is the master of non-linear narrative, or to put it another way at bunching weird stuff together that could go in any order and ends up making a movie. Spring Breakers, his first – and hopefully only – “mainstream” offering follows a straight forward and straight plot; the spiraling of four young girls’ lives into a world of hyper-violence and sexuality.

As many have commented, Spring Breakers isn’t about spring break, but more about capitalism, survival, hedonism and a crime-chic version of the American Dream. A tried and tested cinema recipe if there ever was one. It’s just that in Spring Breakers the gunmen are gunwomen and they’re wearing glow in the dark bikinis.

The perfect reality check is the story of Sheriff Frank McKeithen’s beachfront jail in the city of Panama Beach, Florida (the spring break capital of the world.) Bay County Sheriff McKeithen has been doing the press rounds, this week explaining his temporary and mobile jail. He calls it his “welcome center.”

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It’s a practical solution. The county jail is an hours round-trip from downtown Panama Beach. When you have college kids exploding with excitement, booze and idiocy, it’s good not to have your officers’ in a squad car stuck in traffic.

The mobile unit and holding-pens serve the same functions as the regular jail – booking, fingerprinting and photographing.

McKeithen says spring break in his county can be “chaos.” It cannot be as lawless as Korine’s shoot-em-up version, but if you’re in any doubt as to the bacchanalia, perhaps (in photography at least) Emiliano Granado’s Beach Party shows this youngsters’ holiday tradition in the harshest and most honest light.

I prefer McKeithen’s version to Korine’s. The sheriff knows trouble is coming and makes preparations. Korine’s presentation – requiring unbelievably large and frequent suspensions of disbelief – is impractical.

What McKeithen, Korine, Granado and anyone else who takes a look at spring break, have in common is that the Florida resorts are bubbles in which people shed normative behaviours as quickly as they shed clothes.

It’s a bubble in which bad behaviour might be met with one of McKeithen’s open air cells, or just as easily it might be something one gets away with. Spoiler alert: all four of Korine’s femme fatales walk away scott-free from the bubble.

With repeated reference to escape; some place different; “creating ones own worlds” (James Franco’s character says he comes from out of space);  paradise, Spring Breakers almost ad nauseum drives home the point that the bubble remains apart from the real world. Duh! Richard Brody for The New Yorker notes:

“The four young women are closed units whose sole connection to the wider world is in their deceptive phone calls to family members, a sweetened vision of kids socializing in a constructive way that’s as fake as the values of the parents or grandparents who fall for it.”

So, we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t profess to know what’s going on in the pools and hotels rooms. Sure, and with his anti-heroines walking away unscathed, Korine lets us play along with the fantastic unreality he has so cleverly exaggerated.

Okay, we can walk away now? Despite the sex (there’s lots of boobs) and the self-consciously ludicrous gun fetishism (Franco gives two pistols a blow-job), Spring Breakers is a walk into a harmless silver-screen fantasy-land, right? No. There’s one crucial element of the film that Korine fudges. Big time. Race.

Again, Brody:

“The director’s ultimate spring-break fantasy is a vision of murder camp—and of “black camp”—and he doesn’t make any effort to distinguish the two. The very mainspring of the movie is his stereotypical and reductive view of black life as one of drug dealing and gang violence.”

Once again, depictions of race are skewed. Clumsy at best, irresponsible at worst.

Brody’s observation that the UV light darkens the bikini-clad skin in the crucial climatic scenes of murder and mayhem might be over thinking it, but doesn’t detract from his overall point that while directing is a game, it’s a game poorly played when stuck on “old stories, old images, old stereotypes.”

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TRAILER

The film was quite deifferent to that I had expected from the trailer. A success. Not enough thumping Skrillex dubstep, but some surprisingly good inclusion of Britney Spears (during the most celebratory of the violence montages).

All images: WMBB

Photo: Chip Litherland

I spent all day looking at photography and this was the last thing through my RSS. Exhausted but pissed off, I have to post.

Chip Litherland (@chiplitherland) was on assignment for this story in the New York Times, and shared a few images on his blog. I simply copy & paste the comment I left with Chip here:

The red hues, the spot light (recalling war photography), the drama in general but most of all the solemnity of Jones who poses between the ultimate Hollywood myth and a shooting target – it reeks of a man who’s more obsessed with theatrics & violence than he ever will be with reality.

I expect this was one time you wanted to put down your objective journalist persona and tell him straight he’s a liar, a nutter and a danger to those fooled by his hate.

More of Chip’s images here.

Fair Warning: This will probably be the only post I do about the Islamophobia gripping the vocal minority in America. There’s no point talking about it; it’s hate and those spewing it are dangerous simpletons. My only worry is that TV will continue to bombard people with heady graphics, drastic statement and “passive wonderment” (as Jon Stewart has best described it). At this point, Fox News conjures the wildest conspiracy theories in America.

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