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OPENING REMARKS

I’ve stated it before but not often or forcefully enough: The LGBTQ community nurtures many of the most effective and motivating voices in the fight for prison abolition. LGBTQ people are frequently subject to the harshest and most dehumanizing treatment at the hands of the prison system. It is from this position that activists and formerly incarcerated individuals have mobilized against the prison industrial complex.

In the news, it is the circumstances of transgender people in prison that are most often described and decried. For clear reasons: imagine being held within a male facility when you identify as female. Or in a female facility when you identify as male. Read up on the situations of Marius Mason and Vanessa Gibson. In Pittsburgh, Jules Williams, a transgender woman suffered sexual and physical assault and harassment multiple times while detained at the Allegheny County Jail, a mens facility.

Very, very few prison or jail systems place transgender folx in facilities where they are free of victimization and predation. During her three years of incarceration in the Georgia Department of Corrections, Ashley Diamond was repeatedly assaulted, once after GDC officials placed her in a cell with a known sex offender. Diamond took the radical step to appeal directly to the public via “illegal” YouTube videos from her prison cell made on a contraband smartphone.

Diamond won freedom following a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the conclusion was that the GDC didn’t want to deal with the expense and supposed inconvenience of providing the hormone treatments she’d been on for 17 years prior to her imprisonment. Similarly, in California, Michelle-Lael Norsworthy was freed unexpectedly when her lawsuit for access to healthcare threatened the CDCR with huge medical bills. Shiloh Quine won the right for sexual reassignment surgery, but hers, all too unfortunately, was an exceptional case.

(For an instructive overview of the experience of female trans prisoners, read Kristin Schreier Lyseggen’s book Women of San Quentin: Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons which details the stories of nine women, including Janetta Johnson, Tanesh Watson-Nutall, Daniella Tavake, Diamond, Quine and others.)

While transgender people are winning more and more hard-fought recognition in open society, prisons occupy the other end of the spectrum—closed, rigid systems unable to safely house the majority of prisoners and certainly unprepared and, more often, patently unwilling to recognize prisoners with gender dysphoria and their specific needs. (Trans issues are at the forefront in the military again. The regressive and punitive White House is banning transgender personnel from service. Unsurprisingly, DJ Pee-Tape is largely at odds with much of the military command.) Historically, the marginalization and criminalisation of LGBTQ people has funneled them into the criminal justice system, too. That point needs to be made.

Transgender prisoners are just one group within the LGBTQ community. Lesbians and gays face daily vilification within the criminal justice system. The tactics for resistance of different groups within the LGBTQ community necessarily vary in specific ways, but the enemy is common.

In a push back against the homophobia and transphobia embedded within the criminal justice system we should look to leaders such as CeCe McDonaldDean Spade and Reina Gossett. Their intersectional critique of policing and prisons connects the dots between discriminations of all types. Prejudice and inequality exist within our society; certain groups, including LGBTQ and particularly LGBTQ persons of color, are valued less than others. The root causes for racism, sexism, imperialism, militarism are the same, and those root causes not only emerge out of capitalism but are, in many ways, its foundations. The complete abandonment of LGBTQ persons’ needs in prisons brings into sharp focus the fact that the systems, and our society from which they grow, deem this group more disposable than others.

“Prison abolition means no one is disposable,” says Reina Gossett. Exile is not a solution to the shortcomings of a society; exile allows wider discrimination to perpetuate.

“We should not model what the state’s logic is about who is disposable,” Gossett continues. “Challenging and dismantling structures of violence. [We need] relationships modeled on a different logic, not on the logic of white, heteronormative hegemony.”

Seen through a queer lens, the violence of the prison industrial complex is laid bare. Prisons are sites of waste and sites of survival; sites into which those outside the dominant norm are discarded. True to capitalist, carceral logic, the only economic benefits prisons bring about are for the state, law enforcement unions, corporations and craven politicians. We, the taxpayers, hand over this wealth at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of all those locked up. In the modern U.S., prisons are not about “time out” or rehabilitation; they’re about control in order to instill order. Prisons crush humanity and they assault diversity.

Prison abolition is about identifying structures of violence and working against them; about prefiguring a better world in which you want to live. In reviewing the book Queer (In)Justice (Ed. Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock), journalist and activist Vikki Law notes the authors’ contention that “deep-seated prejudices and fears of queer people cannot be dismantled via hate crime legislation.” Social attitudes are the strongest underpinning to a just society, not the latter-stage adjudications of the law.

“The authors say,” continues Law, “that ‘many of the individuals who engage in such violence are encouraged to do so by mainstream society through promotion of laws, practices, generally accepted prejudices, and religious views,’ and they note that homophobic and transphobic violence generally increases during highly visible, right-wing political attacks.

(For an introduction to community organising toward abolition, read James Kilgore’s recent piece Let’s Imagine a National Organizing Effort to Challenge Mass Incarceration.)

Prison abolition is about pushing back on all the structures that manifest the suspicion, dismissal and abuse of people who counter the white patriarchal status quo. That includes visual structures. That includes, as Critical Resistance states, “the creation of mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant.”

That is why Lorenzo Triburgo’s project Policing Gender is so important. Triburgo, a trans man, is not only advocates for the larger LGBTQ rights at stake, but also makes images that bring the weight of photographic history and analysis of images’ power to bear on his decision-making and design. His is a queer perspective. Policing Gender is enigmatic and beautiful and devastating. Triburgo’s personless portraits point us past what the images are in-and-of-themselves and toward a critique of what images have done in the past in service of, and to damage, LGBTQ-identified people.

I can make no apology for the length of these introductory remarks, because these photographs are built upon years of Triburgo’s conscientious thought, and on decades of queer activism by countless others. Context is important. From here, I’ll let Triburgo himself explain the conceptual underpinnings of Policing Gender and just add how grateful I am for our extended conversation. Scroll down for our Q&A.

 

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): We first met in Portland around 2012 or 13. We published a conversation in 2014. At that time you’d just picked up research for a photographic project on the topic of mass incarceration. You explained then that you’d wanted to do portraits of families, but the warden explained that the visiting room had a program for such portraits. The idea was shelved for a while, as you made Transportraits, but you knew you’d come back to it. Family portraits are very different to these curtains and aerial landscapes. How did you get from there to here?

Lorenzo Triburgo (LT): When I began Policing Gender I collaborated with the queer prison abolition organizations Black & Pink and Beyond These Walls to become pen pals with over 30 LGBTQ-identified prisoners.  I wrote and talked with my pen pals for months and months before deciding on what the project would entail visually.

Keep in mind that I also worked to gain access to various prisons and jails. I was doing my *photographer’s due diligence*. However, after getting inside, I thought, “F##k that. I’m not going to create photographs that could potentially strengthen the association between queer people and criminality.”

I kept obsessively thinking, “I want to make portraits, but not portraits. Portraits, but not portraits.” I was wracking my brain. The reasons were twofold.

First – ethically, as a queer person, feminist, and artist I am particularly sensitive to issues of representation and exploitation. I could have made the portraits but, to what end? How radical can a straightforward portrait really be? Would portraits of queer prisoners bring anything to the world besides an opportunity for viewers to gawp or sate their curiosity and voyeurism?

One of the hellish qualities of prison is the complete lack of privacy. Random administrators, politicians, teachers and students might make visits to a prison and get led on “tours” where they can peer-in on any prisoner through a tiny window and just watch. Did I want to replicate that experience with my camera lens? No.

Furthermore, how would I know for sure that I was getting informed consent from participants? In what world would our exchange be equal? Even more importantly, in what world would the exchange between any prisoner and viewer be equal?!

Secondly, conceptually, I felt my project demanded a complex approach that would embody the depth, pervasiveness, scale and abuses of the U.S. prison system. It needed to be more than a single-layered visual representation; more than a straightforward portrait.

 

 

LT: I started to think about making portraits with no figures.

What if instead of putting my incarcerated pen-pals on display, I go a quieter more contemplative route and conjure a sense of absence? The next step was to figure out what the figureless portraits would look like. I recalled a lecture by Cathy Opie where she cited renaissance portraitist Hans Holbein as a major influence. Holbein and Opie use fabric as a symbol of wealth, power and beauty.

PP: But to different ends.

LT: Yes. Opie appropriates formal aesthetics in order to queer the photographic portrait. I saw that I could use fabric and create connotations of portraiture and, for some of us, make a nod to queering the portrait through the use of form. It felt I’d found an answer to the inevitable imbalance of power between prisoner and viewer that I wanted to avoid perpetuating. Figureless portraits point toward this thorny ethical ground.

While thinking all this through, I was discussing my ideas with activists and researchers including Dr. Susan Starr Sered, co-author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility. Dr. Sered and I had a conversation that solidified my decisions.

PP: On your work’s figurelessness, an editor with whom I spoke recently referred to your work as “withdrawn”. It wasn’t a criticism per se, but I wonder about your reaction to that assessment?

LT: My pen-pals are trans and queer, and young and old, and out and not out, and coming out for the first time, and helping others come out for the first time all behind bars. I wrote and talked with them for months and months before deciding on what the project would entail visually. The decision to exclude people in the images is not ONLY about theoretical distancing from prisons and a challenge to photographic voyeurism. It’s also about anonymity for safety reasons and my pen-pals not always being able to come out without endangering their safety, and about recognizing that prisoners are a protected subgroup and not always able to give knowledgeable consent.

The figurelessness is about the absence of 2.3 million prisoners from society.

It’s difficult to communicate absence through photography but that was a risk I wanted to take. I believe we are at a stage when absence can be just as powerful as presence because there is so much photographic presence.

The work isn’t withdrawn. It’s emotional. It’s meditative. It’s quiet. I’m asking the viewer to take a minute and reflect: on their position in the world, on their assumption that they get to “see” whatever they want to see, and on the people who are missing from our society.

The lighting in these pieces was a meditative process for me. It was a way for me to process what I was learning about from my pen-pals. It’s not a vapid conceptual piece in reaction to the prison system. Each fabric represents a set of circumstances that was told to me by my pen-pals and is therefore named after them — each is a combination of their names.

 

 

PP: And what about the aerial shots?

The aerial images are about surveillance. The construct of imprisonment. The natural contained. Creating these was also an emotional process. I was in the hot air balloon …

PP: Wait! You were in a hot air balloon?!

LT: Ha! Yes. I photographed from a hot air balloon.

Balloons were an early method used by photography in the service of surveillance. During the U.S. Civil War, hot air balloons were used to create the first aerial reconnaissance images. I was looking for a way to undermine the idea of surveillance and to portray a grandiose notion of the ‘natural’. But once I was up there I couldn’t escape the feeling of my social position, the feeling of sadness and anger and unearned privilege and wishing that I could bring my pen-pals up in the air with me. The aerial photographs ultimately reflect these emotions and, metaphorically, the inescapable presence of surveillance.

All of my emotional experiences have a direct correlation to my conceptual interests in photography. It’s how I process the world.

I think about portraiture all the time. I feel the experiences of my various identities and ways I present myself to the world and the way I’m “seen”. I see oppression based on identities and I process that by creating photographs, and in the case of Policing Gender, audio art, too.

Photography is a way for me to make sense of the world and for me to present ideas to the world. These ideas are emotional as much as they are political and theoretical because I feel like I live them. I’ve had someone else’s camera pointed at me because I seemed “interesting” and it feels like crud.

 

 

PP: How are LGBTQ identified  people affected by the prison industrial complex?

LT: Right now there are 1.6 million youth facing houselessness in the U.S. We know that 46% of these youth are LGBTQ identified. Add to that, cities across the U.S. are increasingly passing laws that ostensibly make it illegal to be homeless. Over the last ten years, there’s been a steady increase in the number of cities that have made it is illegal to lay down, sleep, or even sit in public and (in cities like Houston) to share or give food to people. Once queer youth are arrested and detained they are more likely to be sentenced to jail time and serve longer sentences than their non-LGBTQ peers.

We also know that people who have been arrested have a higher chance of returning to jail or prison. So, these youth grow up to be LGBTQ identified adults with a much higher chance of spending time in U.S. prisons. This is especially true for people of color, youth, immigrants, differently abled, and poor people. So, are queer people in prison because they are queer? If we look at the systemic level, rather than a matter of individual choices, the answer is yes.

PP: Which LGBTQ-focused individuals and organisations are working specifically and effectively against mass incarceration?

LT: The book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith is an invaluable resource for just this question. It was published by AK Press soon after I began Policing Gender; this book came to me at exactly the right moment and is an invaluable resource.

Captive Genders includes first person narratives, research, and political analysis with an emphasis on writing from current and former prisoners.

I personally worked most with Black & Pink and Beyond These Walls.

Black & Pink is a grassroots organization that has been working in support of LGBTQ prisoners and towards prison abolition with nationwide chapters for over ten years. Their website is also an incredible resource. Beyond These Walls is Portland-based and is another grassroots prison abolition effort with a focus on supporting queer prisoners.

In the intro of Captive Genders, Stanley writes, “It is also important to highlight that women, trans, and queer people (specifically of color) have done much, if not most, of the anti-PIC organizing in the United States.”

Case in point: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy has been an activist for over 40 years and was the first Staff Organizer at The Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP). TGIJP is based in California and began as a legal project with leadership by formerly incarcerated trans women of color. Miss Major is recently retired from TGIJP but continues to be a badass inspiration to us all. (I recently saw her on the panel for the release of the book Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility at the New Museum).

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, formed by civil rights activist and attorney Dean Spade in 2002, must also be mentioned here. SRLP provides legal aid to low-income trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex people and “is a collective organization founded on understanding that gender self-determination is inextricably intertwined with racial, social, and economic justice.”

 

 

PP: You once expressed an interest in photographing prison guards/correctional officers. Do you still?

LT: No, but I think someone should. The abuse that prisoners face at the hands of correctional officers is abhorrent — and — it is crucial to recognize that the job of correctional officer is basically designed to produce and enable a monstrous abuse of power. If we are to understand the prison industrial complex for what it is – an entire system of oppression upheld in part by the narrative that people of color, poor people, and queer people are dangerous – we also need to recognize systemic/social/economic conditions that lead someone to become an officer and the mental trauma associated with this job.

According to one study (Stack, S.J. & Tsoudis, O. Archives of Suicide Research, 1997) the risk of suicide for correctional officers is 39% higher than their peers in other professions and other studies show increased PTSD, divorce, and substance abuse. (See: Denhof, Michael D., Ph.D and Caterina G. Spinaris, Ph.D., Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, 2013.)

The effects of unchecked power, a career culture that encourages and rewards racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia and corruption that goes all the way up the chain are traumatic. Hello Stanford Prison Experiment!?!

To go out on a limb, and to quote Michelle Alexander , I think of the job of the correctional officer as one manifestation of the many “efforts by the wealthy elite to use race as a wedge. To pit poor whites against poor people of color for the benefit of the ruling elite.”

Alexander continues, “Many people don’t realize that even slavery as an institution—the emergence of an all-Black system of slavery—was to a large extent the result of plantation owners deliberately trying to pit poor whites against poor Blacks. They created an all-Black system of slavery that didn’t benefit whites by much, but at least whites were persuaded that they weren’t slaves and thus were inherently superior to Black folks.” (‘The Struggle for Racial Justice Has a Long Way To Go’, The International Socialist Review, Issue #84, 2012.)

Keep in mind that people who take these jobs are predominantly working class, often with no other viable option for work because other industries have been (systematically) replaced by the prison industry in towns across the U.S. I feel myself holding my breath and my heart racing in anger as I say this.

 

 

PP: You have said repeatedly and in public that you’ll respond to any LGBTQ prisoner who writes to you. Kudos to you. That’s a serious commitment. It must also be quite the emotional experience—good and bad. Tell us about letter writing.

LT: So much here. I don’t know where to start exactly. In previous interviews I ducked the question out of fear of sounding schmaltzy, because it is super emotional and I don’t want to come off sounding all “we are the world” or like, neoliberal humanist or something.

That said, it has been fucking incredible.   

There’s something astonishing about getting to know someone slowly, over time, through written word. How often do we have the opportunity to get to know someone completely from scratch? With no photo to go by, no list of basic likes or dislikes, not knowing their preferred name or gender, or where they are from. I got to know my pen-pals’ handwriting and that is a specific intimacy unlike any other type of exchange.

I never ask my pen-pals why they are in prison. Instead, I ask about what they think are the most pressing needs of LGBTQ prisoners and what they think an artist can do. Very often the response is that a way to share their stories and their truth would be a huge help. In the audio for Policing Gender you hear one of my pen pals say, “At least out there you’ve got cell phones to record this stuff [abuse by officers], in here it’s complete secrecy.”

I’m not interested in “giving voice”—my pen-pals all have voices! But I am interested in giving their voices a platform outside prison.

By not asking about why they were in prison I aim to, at minimum, create a space for my pen-pals to talk to someone who didn’t see them first as a criminal and second as a person. I challenged myself, to be honest, to allow myself to be vulnerable, to share my thoughts, and to allow our conversations to develop without pre-judgements.

We talked about the prison system of course, but we also shared our coming out stories, what it was like during high school, whether our family was religious, our siblings, our parents, their kids. Some of my pen-pals were younger than me and grew up in the “Glee era” while others were baby boomers and couldn’t imagine being accepted as queer when they were younger. One of my pen-pals was really into Shakespeare. I am not. And we would joke about that. 

I love getting to know people and their stories—so it was just wonderful in that regard. I would also simply Google information and send it upon request. It is so easy to take our access to information for granted! I would send variations on photo assignments I give my college students, making them into creative writing or drawing prompts.

There was one person with whom I lost contact and that was devastating. The last I heard of her she had been raped, then left in solitary confinement for 24 hours, then finally taken to a hospital —four hours away—given antibiotics on an empty stomach, then driven back to the prison while handcuffed in the back of a van. If you’ve ever taken antibiotics you know that they are nauseating in the best of circumstances. I don’t like to talk about stories like this too much. They are important but I also don’t want to sensationalize my pen-pals’ suffering.

I wrote with over 30 people on a monthly basis for almost two years. I still write with a small number of people and I continue to pair every incarcerated pen-pal who gets in touch with me with someone to write with on the outside. So far I’ve connected about 40 people with new pen-pals.

 

 

PP: I know you’ve designed a course on gender and photo at SVA, so if it’s not revealing any too much info, can you give us a few important titles and articles from the course reading list?

LT: My course at SVA is a studio/portfolio course where we incorporate queer studies concepts in the development and critique of projects. (The class is offered online through SVA Continuing Education. Therefore, anyone interested in exploring these ideas in their artworks can register). I also developed a graduate level seminar that I teach online for Oregon State University with a focus on representations of gender and sexuality from a feminist perspective.

Here’s a greatest hits list of texts:

  • Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Image, Music, Text. Ed. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 32-51.
  • Blessing, Jennifer. “Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography.” Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1997. 7-38, 67-119.
  • Halberstam, Jack. “Technotopias: Representing Transgender Bodies in Contemporary Art.” In a Queer Time and Place. New York and London: New York University Press, 2005. 97-124.
  • Jhally, Sut. “Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture.” Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. 3rd ed. Eds. Gail Dines, Jean M. (McMahon) Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011. 199-204.
  • Lorber, Judith. “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender.” Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994. 13-36.
  • Mercer, Kobena. “Reading racial fetishism: the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.” Visual Culture: The Reader. Ed. Jessica Evans, Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications, 1999. 435-447.
  • Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures (Language, Discourse, Society). 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 14-30.
  • Rosler, Martha. “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography.)” The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2003. 261-274.
  • Sullivan, Nikki. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: NYU Press, 2003.
  • West, Candace, and Don H Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender & Society Vol. 1, No. 2. (1987): 125-151.

 

 

LT: I also want to give a shout out to these texts that strongly shaped my aesthetic and ethical decisions in Policing Gender:

  • The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Responsibility, Carol Becker.
  • Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 2011. Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
  • Queer (In) Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock.
  • Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith.
  • Are Prisons Obsolete, Angela Davis.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander.
  • Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility, Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk.
  • Punishment and Social Structure, Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer.

PP: Wow, thank you, so generous. So many new texts for me. Have you a resource list of organizations working in solidarity with LGBTQ prisoners?

LT: Absolutely, these are organizations as listed in the book Captive Genders:

All Of Us Or None
1540 Market Street Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102
415.255.7036 [ext 308, 315, 311, 312]
info@allofusornone.org
http://www.allofusornone.org

ACT UP Philadelphia
P.O. Box 22439, Land Title Station, Philadelphia, PA 19110-2439
actupp@critpath.org
http://www.actupphilly.org

Audre Lorde Project
85 South Oxford St., Brooklyn, NY 11217
718.596.0342
http://www.alp.org

Bent Bars Project
P.O. Box 66754, London, WC1A 9BF, United Kingdom
bent.bars.project@gmail.com
http://www.bentbarsproject.org/

Black and Pink<
c/o Community Church of Boston, 545 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116
http://www.blackandpink.org

BreakOUT!<
1600 Oretha C. Haley Blvd., New Orleans, LA 70113
http://www.jpla.org

Critical Resistance
1904 Franklin St, Suite 504, Oakland, CA 94612
510.444.0484
http://www.criticalresistance.org

FIERCE!
437 W. 16th St, Lower Level, New York, NY 10001
646.336.6789
http://www.fiercenyc.org

generationFIVE
P.O. Box 1715, Oakland, CA 94604
510.251.8552
http://www.generationfive.org

Gay Shame
San Francisco, CA
gayshamesf@yahoo.com
http://www.gayshamesf.org

Hearts On A Wire
(for folks incarcerated in PA)
PO Box 36831, Philadelphia, PA 19107
heartsonawire@gmail.com

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
P.O. Box 226, Redmond, WA 98073
484.932.3166
http://www.incite-national.org

Justice Now
1322 Webster Street, Suite 210, Oakland, CA 94612
510.839.7654
http://www.jnow.org

LAGAI—Queer Insurrection
lagai_qi@yahoo.com
http://www.lagai.org

Prison Activist Resource Center
PO Box 70447, Oakland, CA 94612
510.893.4648
http://www.prisonactivist.org

Prisoner Correspondence Project
http://www.prisonercorrespondenceproject.com

Prisoner’s Justice Action Committee
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
pjac_committee@yahoo.com
http://www.pjac.org

Sylvia Rivera Law Project
322 8th Ave, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10001
212.337.8550
http://www.srlp.org

Tranzmission Prison Project
P.O. 1874, Asheville, NC 28802
tranzmissionprisonproject@gmail.com

Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project
342 9th St., Suite 202B, San Francisco, CA 94103
415.252.1444
http://www.tgijp.org

Write to Win Collective
2040 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647
writetowincollective@gmail.com
http://www.writetowin.wordpress.com

PP: Brilliant. Again, thanks so much.

LT: Thank you, Pete.

 

 

 

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Reporting on the prison industrial complex requires many tactics of approach in order to sustain audiences’ attentions and emotions. For all the constant misery, shame and violence the prison systems of America mete out, that relentless mood of defeat cannot dominate the flow of reported stories. Prisons are scary enough without giving people added fatigue and an easy option to turn away from stories heated the same beat-down drum. I guess this applies to all serious issues and is why human interest stories exist in journalism.

Human interest stories are great, but they have their place. Within the prison system are human interest stories ones that journalist find or are they ones fed to them? We’re headed into the weekend here and the sun is up so I don’t want to be a debbie-downer but I want to flag this contested context before celebrating Grant Blankenship’s latest human interest story, Say a Prayer for the Barber.

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Anthony Ponder spent many years in prison in Georgia. He was released on August 18th. Not knowing where to go he spent his first night out asleep in the truck outside his uncle’s house. While he was inside he was the prison barber.

“Population barber. So I’ve got plenty of practice. Unfortunately.”

Anthony wasn’t afforded much help when he got out form the state. But two churches in the town of Macon, GA did; Centenary Church and Vineville United Methodist Church gave him clippers, scissors and a chair and a space to cut hair. Every Sunday morning, Anthony cut the hair of men.

Every Sunday morning, Anthony cut the hair of men who are making the transition, as he did, from prison or jail back into society.

“I was attracted to the story because of its simple reciprocity. A man is given a hand up and he returns the favor,” says Blankenship. “I was not assigned the story, but when I heard about Anthony I jumped on it pretty quickly.”

The full piece, including audio is titled Say a Prayer for the Barber. Recommended.

Anthony’s “shop” is located in Centenary Church which works with a number of men, providing transitional housing and other services. Eric, an organizer at Centenary, asked Anthony if he would like to volunteer but Anthony couldn’t imagine how to without the gear he had had before his incarceration.

“So Mr. Eric, we had a conversation he said he had a way that he could buy all the tools for me if I worked so many times cutting hair he would donate them to me,” recounts Anthony in Blankenship’s story.

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Blankenship a staff audio and visual reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting is at the forefront of highlighting, through images, the issues of incarceration to Georgians.

“Public policy regarding former prisoners is shifting,” says Blankenship, who stresses he no expert on prison issues. “For example, my community of Bibb County, GA recently adopted a ban questions on job applications about felon status in an attempt to make hiring practices more immediately meritocratic.”

At the state level, new programs are slowly being introduced to aid returning citizens’ reintegration into communities and the wider economy. I’ve heard anecdotally, from photographers who’ve worked in Georgia’s prisons, that they’re below par, threatening and without significant programs. Georgia’s prisons are overcrowded. Reentry efforts will have to be redoubled to scale back on the damage done by an out of control system.

“Time will tell how those efforts pan out,” says Blankenship of reentry projects.

The state is making moves toward accountability.

“Though it has yet to be tested, a bill passed this year is touted as making the parole process, and even the granting or denial of clemency for death row inmates, more transparent,” says Blankenship who reported on the vague language of a new death penalty pardons bill here and here. “We are in the midst of a subtle but perceptible cultural shift. That’s the eight mile high view.”

 

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In the mean time, we can hope for the best for Anthony and other men and women rejoining society after long stints away. Thanks to some imaginative thinking on the part of some church leaders, Anthony can connect with others in one of their most difficult moments.

“I want to give him some hope. Like I have. That’s my aim. Give him hope. Let him know there is hope. There’s a better way. If he’s down and depressed and discouraged, let him know there’s a better way.”

It’s an uplifting story, but returning to me opening caution. We must remember that people make it out of prison and stay out in spite of the system not because of it. As heartwarming as Anthony’s story is and as easy it is to connect with his warmth and generosity, we must not be distracted from seeing the larger systemic inequalities at play that.

That said, Blankenship’s cracking images and Anthony Ponder’s words of wisdom are the hook by which we are all snagged. And here we are talking about Georgia’s prisons.

The story was only positive for Blankenship. A joy to work on.

“I am grateful to Anthony for sharing so much with me for no good reason,” says Blankenship. “I’m left wanting the absolute best for him. He’s a kind man.

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Read and listen to Blankenship’s full report Say a Prayer for the Barber.

 

Civl Rights Portfolio (01)-web

Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the passage of The Civil Rights Act, the landmark legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Danny Lyon was the first staff photographer — between 1962 and 1964 — for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lyon would go on to make some of the most important bodies of work about the American condition (The Bikeriders; Conversations With The Dead) and as such his very early work as a very young man is often overlooked.

The Etherton Gallery’s exhibition ‘Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement’ opened on Saturday and shows 50 silver gelatin prints from Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; and Danville, Virginia. We see images of student protests and mobilization against racism,  lunch counter sit-ins, student beatings, tear gassings, the jailing of Martin Luther King Jr., and the unscheduled visit of a young Bob Dylan to SNCC headquarters in Greenwood, Mississippi. Lyon, was harassed, beaten and jailed during his two years as a staff photographer.

SOME THOUGHTS ON AZ

Where better to look back on an era in which society treated people with different coloured skin than in modern day Arizona? The passing of SB1070 in 2010 was a legislative bill that essentially permitted veiled racism and racial profiling. In activism, folks are always on the look out for new allies and for audiences who really need to hear the message. A message of anti-racism message and some historical perspective is vital for residents of Arizona currently. I’m not saying that people of Arizona are inherently racist; I am saying the services and institutions that claim to serve them have procedures that result in racist acts.

There are some fine activists in Arizona (they’ve necessarily and wonderfully organised) and this is particularly true of Tucson and some clever geographer-activist-academics. May Lyon’s photographs play their part in making Arizonans and us angry. Lyon would want nothing more than his show to leave us rageful at our society of inequality.

DETAILS

Etherton Gallery, 135 S. 6th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701 Tel: 520.624.7370. Email: info@ethertongallery.com.

Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement’ runs through March 15, 2014.

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All photos: Danny Lyon © Dektol.wordpress.com. Courtesy of the Etherton Gallery

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Prisoner at the County Farm, making cane syrup, 1966.

The Center for Documentary Studies described Paul Kwilecki (1928-2009) as “perhaps the most important late-twentieth-century photographer you’ve heard little to nothing about.” His work is completely new to me. Thanks to Mark Peter Drolet for the tip.

What I so fascinating about Kwilecki’s photographs is that they focus on the work details to which prisoners were assigned, ranging from 1966 to 1998. I don’t want to get into a debate here about the degree to which the work Kwilecki photographed was rehabilitative – it would be pure speculation. Instead, I’d ask you to muse on the changing nature of the work – cane syrup production; irrigation ditch digging; courthouse janitorial work; brush-clearing; hog butchering; and construction and renovation work, again in the courthouse.

Before the era of mass incarceration it was common for prisons to have their own pasture, cattle, milk parlours, arable land, and year-round crops. The organic foods produced by prisoners were sometimes sold outside the prison, but also almost always consumed by the prisoners themselves. Why is this no longer the case?

In the eighties, when inmate populations soared and with them prison budgets, cost cutting took its grip. Farms and work details only remained if they drew immediate profits (or, were at the very least, not money-losers). The staff costs to supervise self-sustaining food production were not deemed worthwhile. I’m sure arguments about security factored in somewhere too.

Added to this was a philosophy that rehabilitation was a flawed prospect and the only thing to do with prisoners was to “incapacitate them”,  This is why, today, prisons don’t have their own cattle, but they do press license plates.

In short, as the U.S. prison population rocketed to 2.3 million, contracting of services became big business. Prisoners ended up with overcrowded cellblocks, less time in programs, more time in lockdown, sub-standards foods and jobs that supported the production of State essentials such as uniforms, furniture and ironically industrially-manufactured foodstuffs. Prisoners have made products for IBM, Starbucks, Walmart, Microsoft and Dell.

Aside of this brief history of prison labour – and returning to Kwilecki’s photography – what is also refreshing to see is the relaxed and purposeful interactions between prisoners and guards. People might be shocked to see images of prisoners using butchering knives, but on a daily basis, U.S. prisoners are using tools for sophisticated fabrication work. Unfortunately, we often only hear about the use of tools when they are shanks.

One final note. This is the only collection of images I have encountered of prisoners butchering hogs. Unique.

The Center For Documentary Studies at Duke has a 634 image archive of Kwilecki’s work and his life’s papers and contact sheets too. Enjoy discovering Kwilecki’s work as I have. 

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Sheriff Shorty (E.W.) Phillips in front of one of the women’s cells, [circa 1972].

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Prisoners and guard working on dam, 1979.

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Prisoner cleaning court room, 1979 Sept.

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Prisoner with a bush hook cleaning Darsay family cemetery in the southern part of the county, 1983 June.

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Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.

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Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.

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Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.

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Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.

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Butchering hogs, County Farm (prison), 1983 Mar.

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Prisoner at the county farm butchering hogs (prison), 1983 Mar.

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Prisoner at the county farm (prison) butchering hogs, 1983 Mar.

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Prisoner doing construction work, 1998 Apr.

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Prisoners on break from construction work, 1998 Apr.

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Guards, 1998 Apr.

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Prisoner, 1998 July.

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Thanksgiving dinner on courthouse grounds, 1998 Dec.

The dining room. © Mariam Amurvelashvili 

Mariam Amurvelashvili, a Georgian photographer has been documenting lives inside Georgia’s prisons since 2004.

She has not, however, the author of images of beatings and rape that surfaced in the past month, sparked protests among horrified citizens, forced the resignation of Georgia’s senior prison official, and rocked Mikheil Saakashvili’s government.

DOCUMENTARY vs. EXPOSE

I’ve argued in the past that the photo and video footage that changes a system is rarely that made by a documentarian. It is the expose, the surveillance tape, the illicit and leaked images that reveal to wider society the worst acts of closed institutions. Amurvelashvili’s work is interesting, concerned, but it doesn’t have a pointed edge.

This is by no way a criticism; it’s just worth considering how we think about images. I made a similar plea a couple of weeks ago when I asked how we should compare Michal Chelbin’s portraiture with mobile phone camera shots taken by Russian juvenile prisoners.

ABUSE REPLACES ABUSE

Amurvelashvili’s basic position is a simple one – that the deprivation of liberty by imprisonment is the greatest measure by which one man can punish another. I agree with her. Furthermore, the prison should not degrade the prisoner nor violate human rights with poor conditions, inadequate food or abuse of any kind. In 2004, Amurvelashvili reports, a Tbilisi prison held over ten times the prisoners than its design capacity allowed.

When Amurvelashvili began photographing Georgian prisons I expect she thought she was photographing the end of an era. The new prisons of a newly democratic Georgia could cleanse itself of it’s communist past and notorious prison archipelago. Unfortunately, the new super jails have engendered a more-exacted breed of violence.

Journalist Gavin Slade argues the roots to the abuse scandal are the associated policies of zero tolerance and mass incarceration pursued recently in Georgia which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world – 531 prisoners per every 100,000 people.

Problems, summarised here, have long been rife throughout Georgia’s prison system. Beginning in late 2010, reports emerged of physical abuse. Ksani prison was under scrutiny by the Georgian Public Defender’s Office in 2011 for poor treatment of inmates.

Newer facilities such as Ksani prison, says Amurvelashvili, were designed to be sanitary, have adequate healthcare, libraries and family visitation. And yet, last month’s torture scandal within Ksani proves that care for prisoners extends far past concerns about conditions and to the philosophy of leadership and the break-down of discipline among the staff. Ksani was a hell hole.

Listen to this interview with a prisoner who was beaten and electrocuted in Ksani Prison.

Ksani prison. © Mariam Amurvelashvili

If an authority cannot control nor redirect its prison population into productive activities, the prison is likely too large. It is probably overcrowded, too. State authorities need to understand that better conditions in prisons reduces crime. Reduce populations and pursue alternatives to incarceration. And find leaders with moral fibre.

AMURVELASHVILI ELSEWHERE

Bigger images here, and featured portfolios on Georgian Photographers website here.

Conscientious likes Amurvelashvili’s Dukhobors a portrayal of a Christian sect in Georgia/Russia. Fotovisura has a gallery of her photos of animal sacrifice and behind bars.

Prisoner Advocate Elaine Brown on Georgia Prison Strike: “Repression Breeds Resistance”

Elaine Brown appeared on Democracy Now! today. Amy Goodman described the strike as the biggest in American History.

Brown alleged an inmate paid $800 to a prison guard for a cell phone.

Goodman suggested the term cell-phone has realised its true meaning.

‘CELL’ PHONES

Also, for the New York Times, in Inmates in Georgia Prisons Use Contraband Phones to Coordinate Protest, Sarah Wheaton describes how ‘prison protest has entered the wireless age’ and how gang, religious and race divisions were put aside to organise the strike.

Note: The Georgia DoC say they have locked-down the prisons. Not true. The inmates locked themselves down, refusing to leave their cells.

Biggest Prison Strike in American History

Prison strikes are a rarity these days, with prison populations fragmented, disciplined, docile, estranged from society and stripped of tools for political mobilisation.

There’s a growing number of reports coming out of Georgia, where the strike is now into its fourth day. You should read the excellent Prison Law Blog for a summary of communications and developments – Georgia Prisoners Strike for Better Conditions.

As Sara points out:

“Relative to the state’s population, it has an outsize reach. In Georgia, 1 in 13 adults is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole — the highest rate of correctional control in the country. (Nationwide that figure is 1 in 31.) According to the Sentencing Project, over 4% of Georgia adults and almost 10% of African-Americans cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement laws.”

The strike is based on reasonable demands; notably, demands applicable to issues in many state prison systems:

· A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC demands prisoners work for free.

· EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: For the great majority of prisoners, the DOC denies all opportunities for education beyond the GED, despite the benefit to both prisoners and society.

· DECENT HEALTH CARE: In violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, the DOC denies adequate medical care to prisoners, charges excessive fees for the most minimal care and is responsible for extraordinary pain and suffering.

· AN END TO CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS: In further violation of the 8th Amendment, the DOC is responsible for cruel prisoner punishments for minor infractions of rules.

· DECENT LIVING CONDITIONS: Georgia prisoners are confined in over-crowded, substandard conditions, with little heat in winter and oppressive heat in summer.

· NUTRITIONAL MEALS: Vegetables and fruit are in short supply in DOC facilities while starches and fatty foods are plentiful.

· VOCATIONAL AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES: The DOC has stripped its facilities of all opportunities for skills training, self-improvement and proper exercise.

· ACCESS TO FAMILIES: The DOC has disconnected thousands of prisoners from their families by imposing excessive telephone charges and innumerable barriers to visitation.

· JUST PAROLE DECISIONS: The Parole Board capriciously and regularly denies parole to the majority of prisoners despite evidence of eligibility.

Klavdij Sluban and Jim Casper of LensCulture talked about Klavdij’s photography workshops in juvenile prisons across the world.

Klavdij Sluban

Early in the interview, Klavdij discloses his personal sadness that prisons exist. This emotion may be raw but it is not naive; Klavdij is balanced and realistic about what he can achieve with a camera in these specific distopias. He also says in seven words what I established this blog to say “Jails are a world to be discovered.”

He went to the prisons not as photographer, but as a concerned citizen. He realised if he were to go inside it would need to be with some reciprocity … so he took cameras and used them.

In terms of engagement and commitment to a population – the youth prison population of the world – Klavdij Sluban could and should be considered a ‘Concerned Photographer’. He deserves that loaded epithet.

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