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Screengrab from the VICE webpage livestreaming James Burns’ 30 days in La Paz County Jail, Parker, AZ. Captured 02.01.2017
VICE reporter James Burns is spending 30 days in solitary confinement in La Paz County Jail in Parker, Arizona. You can watch any time. He’s into his third week. Why? Good question. Burns has many a good answer. He explains:
Unlike most of the rest of the planet, America embraces this practice at almost every level of the system—local jails, state and federal prisons, mental health facilities, you name it. By most estimates, solitary ensnares 65,000 to 100,000 people at any given time in the United States. Just this past month, a study from Yale Law School carried out in coordination with the heads of state prisons across America suggested nearly 6,000 of them have been in solitary for three years or longer. And like most layers of the American criminal justice system, solitary disproportionately impacts people of color.
It’d be one thing if this practice of confining people in cramped, isolated cells worked—if all the loneliness and human misery had a point. But report after report (and study after study) suggests solitary brutalizes the incarcerated and in some cases may even make them more likely to hurt others when they get out.
I’ve just watched 15-minutes. My immediate response was one of anxiety. Usually when I view a screen it’s with interest in a narrative (documentary film), or for clear information (news broadcast), or for the development of script and fictional character (TV), or the footage is reflexive of itself as a medium (video art), or it’s a quick, cheap laugh (cat GIFs). In other words, there’s always something happening, or about to happen. Or there’s mystery, tension or story arc; something’s coming up and something will change. The livestream puts me on edge because there’s no obvious movement in it, for it. We see everything in Burns’ world and at his disposal and it’s almost nothing. The footage not only holds no change, it inhabits the near-complete absence of any potential for change.
If the cell was to erupt in action, it’d likely be in a moment of Burns’ crisis or breakdown. Watching, I find myself simultaneously tormented by the lack of action but also fearful of anything extreme (because it’ll be very negative) actually happening. If Burns can last the 30 days and the “program” runs its full course I hope Burns can quietly survive.
I wasn’t convinced about the 30-day livestream as a form when VICE launched it on the 14th December, but having spent an hour with it I am greatly intrigued. (As I type have the feed playing in another browser tab, and the audio of Burns pacing his cell passing an orange from one hand to the other)
This isn’t active reporting but it is a full 30-day long report. It isn’t time-based art, but it is without doubt performative and requires investment by, and presence from, the audience. The slow-pace and anti-narrative are very effecting.
We cannot ignore the full cooperation of the jail administration though. Lieutenant Curt Bagby explains La Paz Sheriff departments motives:
“Having cameras in our facility showing any part of the process is an easy thing for us to agree to because we take great care to follow the rules set forth for us by the Arizona guidelines on dealing with our incarcerated population. We are happy to show the general public the way we operate as we have nothing to hide. We understand VICE wanted to highlight the practice of solitary confinement, and we are willing to show how it is done here.”
I and many other activists could list countless prisons and jails in which a month-long live web-feed of a cell would not be considered or carried out. Merely the noise from a disturbance on the tier would be enough to put of most administrations. I don’t know the configuration of other cells and corridors in the pod or the block Burns is in, but I have heard noises from beyond his cell suggesting that a large disturbance would be clearly audible. I take Bagby at his word and I speculate he derives confidence from a belief or measurement that La Paz County Jail is less volatile than other facilities.
After years of conjecture about prison and jail administrators’ attitudes toward cameras, I’m interested to read Bagby’s statement on cameras relationship to transparency and management. It also is a clear indicator that no external factor will dictate the outcome of this experiment. Only mental stress upon Burns will end the confinement prematurely. We wait either for nothing or for total disaster. By occupying this box (at considerable risk to himself) Burns embodies the fact that confining others to solitary results either in absolutely nothing or in the complete destruction of the spirit.
“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.
Interactive Tool Reveals Counties, Not Cities, Lock Up the Highest Proportions Of People
We’ve known for a long time that state prisons have been built more often in rural areas than in urban areas; that prisons have been job creators in post-industrial America. We also have known that county jails have been built and expanded, too in the era of mass incarceration.
What we have not known, until now, is that county jails in rural areas have been doing much of the heavy lifting in terms of warehousing America’s prisoners.
The distinction between state prisons and county jail is important. When the state sentences someone they are free to ship them anywhere in the state. But when a county sentences someone, or a state sentence is two years or less, the time is served in the county in which the offense occurred. So, one would expect that incarceration rates across counties would be fairly uniform. Also, if the stereotype of the more dangerous urban milieu is to be upheld, we might expect higher rates of incarceration in urban counties. Not so.
A remarkable study by the Vera Institute In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails, reveals that incarceration has grown the most outside of the largest counties and the largest cities.
“While the largest jails—such as those in NYC, LA, and Cook County, often draw the most attention and are the ones most often discussed by policymakers and the media, Vera found that these jails have not grown the most, nor are they among the ones with the highest incarceration rates,” explains Vera Institute.”
Instead, mid-sized and small counties have largely driven growth. Generally, jail populations growing faster than prison populations.
Overall, there has been more than a four-fold increase in the number of people held in jail, from 157,000 to 690,000, since 1970.
“Large counties [jail rates] grew by 2.8 times, while mid-sized counties more than quadrupled, and small counties experienced almost a seven-fold increase,” reports the Vera Institute.
A VISUALISATION TOOL FOR US ALL
In addition to the surprising results of the report is the way in which Vera Institute has rolled out the findings. They’ve launched an interactive tool.
In the video at the top of this post, Vera Researcher Christian Henrichson discusses the Incarceration Trends tool.
We’ve known for a some years that the data for open and manipulable interactives has been available, but verifying the data, filling in the absent data (which happens a lot through different jurisdictions) and then standardising the data for a software program to convert it to user friendly format takes a lot of time, some cash and a good amount of skills. Vera Institute’s work here should propel us forward.
I contend that data visualisation is as essential, if not more so than photography in terms of informing citizens about the prison industrial complex.
In journalism, Gabriel Dance, at the Marshall Project, is making strides in presenting data for the public, for example Next One To Die. In advocacy, the Prison Policy Initiative has done much in wrangling data on county, state, federal, ICE and private facilities. In art, Josh Begley’s Prison Map and Paul Rucker’s Proliferation have both tried to present the terrifying growth of the PIC in ways that engage gallery goers and screen viewers alike. (It should be noted both Rucker’s work are based on the PPI data.) I’m certain there are other practitioners in these fields and more trying to present data and imagery in engaging ways for us out here.
OTHER VERA INSTITUTE FINDINGS
Within the surprising city/county upturn of conventional wisdom, are these two disturbing trends:
- African Americans make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population. African Americans have the highest incarceration rates, particularly in mid-sized and small counties.
- Female incarceration rates have skyrocketed, and are highest in the smallest counties. Since 1970, there has been more than a 14-fold increase in the number of women held in jail, from fewer than 8,000 women in 1970 to 110,000 women in 2014.
DATA HAS THE RIGHT TO PEOPLE
Essential to criminal justice reform efforts is reliable information. The Vera’s Incarceration Trends tool provides easy comparisons on incarceration data for counties nationwide.
I anticipate this new tool will prepare the public, inform legislators and arm activists. As Henrichson encourages, go check out what’s happening in your county
Read the report in full In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails. Check out the accompanying fact sheet, and visit trends.vera.org to research yourself.
More coverage: Who is Putting the Most People in Jail? Not New York, Chicago, or LA. (The Marshall Project)
Screengrab from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s webcam of jail construction.
I always say that I’m open to looking at all types of prison imagery, so I guess I’m obliged to mention the 24-hour coverage of a prison that does not yet exist. (It’s a first for Prison Photography.)
The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department in California has set up a webcam to track construction of the county’s new jail. Why? Maybe the Sheriff was buoyed by the popularity of Panda Cam at the San Diego Zoo, Condor Cam in California, or Portland’s Osprey Cam?
The live feed is “an innovative and exciting way to involve the public,” said Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Rebecca Rosenblatt said.
Slated for a 2015 opening, tax payers can watch the construction of Maple Street Correctional Center in Redwood City. I suppose if you’re forking out $165 million for a jail, you want to see your money being spent?
The truth is this webcam is pitiful reminder of California’s budget woes and political battles over prison management and spending.
There’s an argument that a new jail is necessary due to California’s ongoing “Realignment” — a court-mandated program whereby state prisoners are being transferred to county jails in order to comply with federal orders to reduce the state prison system by approximately 32,000 prisoners.
That decision came about after a decade long legal battle — that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States — ruled that the overcrowding in the California state prison system led to inadequate physical and mental health care and an estimated one preventable death every 10 days. As a result the prison system was deemed “cruel and unusual” in its punishment and is in violation of every single California prisoner’s constitutional rights.
Unfortunately, Governor Brown refused to look at strategic release programs for non-violent offenders, at compassionate release for elderly and terminally ill prisoners or at drug treatment programs to ease overcrowding. Instead, Brown raided the state’s budget surplus — to the tune of $315 million — and will start paying private prison corporations to warehouse prisoners.
Money pouring into new jail construction. The indubitable Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) report:
“In addition to AB109 realignment money, Sacramento has offered two funding streams that encourage county jail expansion and has refused to offer incentives for thoughtful decarceration. AB 900 authorized $1.2 billion in lease revenue bonds for the construction or expansion of jails, and SB 1022 authorized $500 million for jail expansion. If realignment is to be successful, the state must support counties to reduce their jail populations, rather than making plans to grow them.”
In time, the San Mateo Sheriff’s Office plans to release a time-lapse video of the creation of the 280,000-square-foot jail grow from start to finish.
via the usually useless SF Examiner
Found photo of an unknown prison cell.
The DVAFOTO interview opens with my account of my arrest and 9 hours in jail in late 2011. The HBM podcast is about a workshop I delivered in Sing Sing State Prison, New York.
It may be ironic that I’d get locked-up during a research trip that is questioning incarceration, but it’s not funny and it’s no badge of honour. My actions were foolhardy and the police officer’s actions were over-zealous.
I’ve been thinking beyond what I think about the experience (It was stupid, bureaucratic and inconvenient), and more about how I think of the experience (What insight did I gain? What interactions did I have? Who did I meet?)
Inside the release-tank were about 15 men. They were there for different reasons. One young man faced a significant bail amount for a significant possession offense while another was brought in for cycling drunk in the wrong direction of the cycle path on a quiet road. Some men were in for DUI’s and in some cases not their first DUI. Two or three slept through the hours. Others were quiet and some told stories. The younger ones were more talkative and boastful. Several tried using the phone but only one succeeded. When they found out I was in for peeing on a tree and not answering questions they thought it was lame. Lame offense, lame arrest.
A tray of peanut butter sandwiches was brought in, but not enough. Some jumped on them, others weren’t interested. I think one person got two sandwiches.
Of the men with DUIs, I had little sympathy. They didn’t seem to acknowledge that their actions were potentially lethal. For a couple of them, cash-fines, points on their licenses and driving bans didn’t seem to be much deterrent.
A few men seemed contrite. Others seemed beaten down with either addiction or repeated arrogance.
I had huge sympathy for the drunk cyclist. Maybe in this fifties. Grey hair. He thought he was getting out until the administration realised he was a parolee. The bike-ride proved a violation and he was to be automatically rearrested and jailed for a fixed term. He had a job and children. Because of a night of excess, he was to lose those things again. Sure, his behaviour could have been better, but I think the authority’s response was of excess.
I didn’t ask what they did and they didn’t ask me. It was a small space. It was very dirty but not quite filthy. We only moved our place when others left and they did so in groups of 3 and 4 throughout the hours.
Part of me wishes I’d taken the opportunity to ask some questions, tap some opinions (I may have met a great conversationalist who’d improve my thinking as much as I hoped I might improve his). The other part of me knows only an intrusive nerd would be ask out-of-the-blue questions about personal circumstance and attitudes; especially in a temporarily-occupied cell at an unpredictable time.
Two weeks later: No court appearance. No charges brought.
Why is this relevant? The arrest and dismissal of charges — actually, the incomplete documentation of the arrest and dismissal — almost jeopardised my visit to Sing Sing to carry out a workshop with attentive, challenging, respectful and curious students of the education program there.
An arrest will always feature on a record, whether or not a conviction is brought, so-told me a law enforcement employee over the phone. New York Dept. Of Corrections which administers Sing Sing knew I’d been arrested but the information ceased there. I had to scramble for paperwork (that had not been given to me) to prove I had no criminal record. I wonder how much inefficiency and potential mistakes contribute to unfair and/or heightened levels of control. Frustration must be infinite in the prison industrial complex.
All in all, I’m glad I was able to teach and learn in Sing Sing and doubly happy that Jeff Emtman was able to craft a fine podcast splicing together audio of prisoners speaking, myself speaking, music and sound. Jeff conceived of the podcast titled The Other One Percent, to broadly challenge listeners to think about prisons and solutions.
The class, as a whole, discussed many images but specifically in the HBM audio, Robert Rose, Dennis Martinez, Deshawn Smalls and Jermaine Archer talk about these six images.
The first image mentioned is the one below by Brian Moss …
“Fear, I think people would think fear,” says Sing Sing prisoner, Robert Rose. “They can’t see what goes on in here, just as we can’t see much of what goes on out there.”
… then the three below by Alyse Emdur …
“Something needs to be said about the families who also do time. They are part of the narrative of mass incarceration, but they’re not talked about. They end up carrying the burden,” says Deshawn Smalls, Sing Sing prisoner.
… and finally, the two images below by Richard Ross of juvenile facilities.
Sing Sing prisoner, Jeremy says, “You may have a man who refused [to adhere to regulations] and this is him in this picture. You probably won’t see the man at first, but he is there.”
HERE BE MONSTERS (HBM) is a podcast audio series about fear and the unknown, by Jeff Emtman, a 2012 Soundcloud Community Fellow.
HBM has previously covered Juggalo culture; placenta medicine; train-hopping; the disillusion and resignation of a favored NPR correspondent; a children’s book about a hallucinogenic trip; and the mind-made images created by the human brain when the body and the eyes experience total darkness – a condition known as ‘Prisoners Cinema.’
I like what Jeff is doing. I’m happy to share my experiences with him.
If you’re still interested in what I’m up to, I cover my immediate plans in the DVAFOTO interview. We also talk about what bloggers can do and do do.
The Other One Percent (Here Be Monsters podcast)
Interview: Pete Brook On The Road (DVAFOTO)
There are prisons and there are jails. The two differ.
Prisons are where sentenced offenders get sent after trial, and they are run by the state.
Jails are where offenders go before trial, and they are run by the county. All offenders, at least for a short while, will go to jail and get booked. If they can post bail they’re out until court date. If they can’t afford it, they remain until their day in court … which can sometimes be many, many months. (It should be said, some short-term sentences are served in local jails).
THE BAIL BOND INDUSTRY
Last week, Laura Sullivan‘s sterling three-part report on the US’ broken bail system ran on NPR. Sullivan writes it LARGE: Money rules; the bond system is simple market capitalism. It favours the rich and punishes the poor.
Research shows that those who post bail serve less time post-trial. This is for many reasons, but mainly because once released, the accused can prove to the court (between arrest and trial) that they can stay straight; hold down a job; and publicly respond to their transgression in a socially-agreeable manner, in other words, attempt whatever is necessary to please the court.
However, there are half-a-million people locked-up in US jails either waiting or unable to pay bail. This is more criminal than any act these half-a-million may have committed. REMEMBER: Bail is not granted to violent or dangerous suspects, and the majority of those jailed are non-violent criminals usually for a small-victimless crimes (minor traffic infraction, petty theft).
Amounts differ to post bail differ, sometimes being as low as $50 (that’s a $10 down-payment to a bondsmen on a $500 bail).
The result is that cases such as Leslie Chew’s cost the tax payer over $7,000 for 185 days of incarceration … all because he couldn’t afford the $350 down-payment for bail. His crime? Stealing $120 worth of blankets because he was suffering the cold sleeping in the back of his station wagon.
Chew is typical of many stuck in the system. But the system has alternatives. Offenders could be released on trust (a practice that used to be common) and expected to show up for court OR they could be part of pre-trial release programs using probation officers and tagging technology.
Pre-tirla release programs cost only between $2-$7/day. Compare that to $38-$115/day to house an inmate. Statistics have shown pre-trial release programs effective and offenders show up for court as regularly as those on bail.
In total the broken bail bond system costs US tax-payers $9billion/year!
WHY DOES A BROKEN SYSTEM PERSIST? WHAT ABOUT THE ALTERNATIVES?
NPR describes, ‘Ken Herzog, manager of Trammel’s Lubbock Bail Bond for over 25 years, sees an average of six people a day who need to be bonded out of jail. His bonding company currently has between 2,500 and 3,000 active accounts.’ Because they cannot secure new accounts, the bail bond industry sees pre-trial release programs as direct completion. Bail-bondsmen have organised strong lobbying groups in counties where alternative pre-trial release programs were in use.
As an example, Sullivan points to Broward County, Florida:
Bail bonding became political in Broward [and] sent shock waves through pretrial programs across the country. Here in Broward, bondsmen pushed hard for a new county ordinance that now limits the pretrial program. Now industry experts say powerful bail lobbying groups have begun using Broward as a road map of how to squash similar programs elsewhere, even though public records show the programs have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.
This gutting was all the more catastrophic because the pre-trial release program was so successful. It alleviated jail overcrowding that was deemed by a judge as unconstitutional.
Instead of building a new $70 million jail as they had proposed, county commissioners voted to expand pre-trial release, letting more inmates out on supervised release. Within a year, the jail population plunged, so much so that the sheriff closed an entire wing. It saved taxpayers $20 million a year.
And, according to court records, the defendants were still showing up for court.
“DON’T PISS ON ME AND TELL ME IT’S RAINING”
The Broward ordinance passed and, in so doing, slashed the number of defendants eligible for the pre-trial release program by hundreds.
Who, they wondered, could possibly be against a demonstrably successful program? Follow the money:
In Broward County, 135 bail bondsmen amassed and hired a lobbyist, Rob Book:
“To be perfectly arrogant about it, I’m considered if not the best, [then] one of the best in the state,” says Book. He has been lobbying for bondsmen in Florida for more than a decade.
According to campaign records, Book and the rest of Broward’s bondsmen spread almost $23,000 across the council in the year before the bill was passed. Fifteen bondsmen cut checks worth more than $5,000 to commissioner and now-county Mayor Ken Keechl just five days before the vote.
EDITORIAL: THE UNITED STATES OF CORRUPTION
Sometimes, I am carefully worded. I work with prisoners, correctional officers, DoC administrative staff and activists weekly – I must be diplomatic.
But I have no care for the bail-bond business nor the corrupt bondsmen and bought politicians of Broward County, Florida.
Their system is self-serving. It does nothing to protect NOR serve. It is overly punitive. The bondsmen are hacks and the politicians they bought are contemptible.
I hope that the backhanded decision-making in Broward is not typical, but I fear it is not isolated. Selfish, zealous systems such as those Laura Sullivan exposed are ruled by revenge, fear-emotion and profit.
The bail-bond system of America is on this evidence devoid of progressive policy. And, when a small light of common sense policy rears its head based on solid figures and a reduced bottom-line, still well-heeled and big-footed buffoons can kick it all to shit.
THE FULL ROSTER
All brought to you by Laura Sullivan
Thanks to Jim Johnson for alerting me on this.
Lewis Payne, seated and manacled, at the Washington Navy Yard about the time of his 21st birthday in April 1865, three months before he was hanged as one of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Photograph by Alexander Gardner, probably taken aboard the ironclad U.S.S. Montauk or Saugus.
Quick post & a request. We all know about the relentless Shorpy and the site’s daily dose of long gone photo ephemera. It is indeed a treat.
Today, two images from the 1920s went up. Shorpy’s keen to focus on the visual narratives that arrest the attention. Consider it a human interest archive if you will. It is my guess is he/she/it chose these two photographs relating to crime and punishment because they deal with women and children. If there is still one thing true today as was back then, these two groups are distinguished from, sometimes condescended to, and likely protected and abused in equal measure by, prevailing patriarchies.
Washington, D.C., circa 1920. “Jail, Women’s School.” Alternate title: “Complete this sentence.” National Photo Co. Collection glass negative.
Washington, D.C., circa 1922. “House of Detention, Ohio Avenue N.W.” Equipped with a nice playground. National Photo Company glass negative.
These came at an opportune moment because I’ve been wondering what to do with the following four images from the American Civil War. It is not an area I am well read up on. I guess the make-shift nature of jails and prisons in the vicinity of battlefields and front lines attests to the constant flux and shroud of unpredictability across a bloodied young nation.
Prison Photography blog is often concerned with inflexibility and pursuant damage it can cause as applied to institutions. But the modern prison is merely a permanent abstraction of earlier jails. ‘Transitory’ sites of incarceration, especially in times of war, are even more contested as sites than the Supermax prisons of the 21st century.
It’s got me thinking how Castle Thunder and Belle Isle relate to the the GWOT prisons – namely the early incarnation of Abu Ghraib prison, Bagram Airbase and other as yet unknown ‘Black Sites’ of detention and interrogation.
Richmond, 1865. “Castle Thunder, Cary Street. Converted tobacco warehouse for political prisoners.” Main Eastern theater of war, fallen Richmond, April-June 1865. Wet plate glass negative, photographer unknown.
Spring 1865. Belle Isle railroad bridge from the south bank of the James River after the fall of Richmond. Glass plate negative from the Civil War collection compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge.
One of the first Confederate prison camps. Opened after the First Battle of Bull Run and held Union Army NCO’s and enlisted men. There were no barracks constructed, the only shelters were tents. Intended to hold only 3,000 but numbers grew to double that and led to many prisoners being shipped further south to other camps, most infamously Andersonville.
And finally, this site is described as a “slave pen”. This document of slave incarceration is gut-thumping and, however agonising the means, justifies the Civil War and its righteous ends.
Request: I am keen to know more about prisons and jails of the Civil War era. If you’ve any resources I should absolutely be aware of please drop me a note. Thanks
Built in 1812 as a residence for General Andrew Young, this was the office building of the former interstate slave trading complex which stood on the site from 1828 to 1861. By 1835 Franklin and Armfield controlled nearly half the coastal slave trade from Virginia and Maryland to New Orleans. In 1846 the property was sold to a Franklin and Armfield agent, George Kephart, whose business became “the chief slave-dealing firm in [Virginia] and perhaps anywhere along the border between the Free and Slave States.” After 1858, the slave pen was known as Price, Birch, and Co., and their sign can be seen in a Civil War era photograph. The business was appalling to many, especially to active abolitionists in Alexandria, where the large Quaker population contributed to a general distaste for slavery. Several abolitionists’ accounts survive which describe the slave pen and the conditions encountered therein. Male slaves were located in a yard to the west, while women and children were kept in a yard to the east, separated by a passage and a strong grated door of iron. The complex served as a Civil War prison from 1861 to 1865, and housed the Alexandria Hospital from 1878 to 1885.