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If you happen upon a copy of the latest issue of Aperture The Sao Paolo Issue (215), you will find — on p.14 — 200 words by yours truly about evidentiary imagery. As part of Aperture’s ongoing What Matters Now? series, I wrote:

In May 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld an order to cut the prison population in California, on the grounds that overcrowding resulted in inadequate health care conditions and preventable deaths.

The majority ruling for the case, Brown v. Plata, was penned by Justice Kennedy who took the unorthodox step of including in the appendix three photographs of prison conditions. Perhaps, in this case, the facts really needed to be seen in order to be believed?

The three images represented a cache of hundreds of low-resolution, anonymous, poorly lit photographs used in the initial filings and ongoing compliance stages of Brown v. Plata. Their inclusion spurned widespread consternation among some law boffins who believed that photographs are too emotive and too imprecise, and have no place in high-profile legal cases. I wonder at what point did the legal community decide written and oral evidence was more legitimate than visual evidence?

For too long there has been an arrogance among photography traditionalists that a professionally-made documentary image can change the world. If we are to truly identify images that change society, then we’d be better looking to legal briefs and not newspaper front pages. The images made by prison officials and legal teams that were used in Brown v Plata changed the daily living conditions of 165,000 men and women.


Hundreds of images from Brown vs Plata are part of the exhibition Prison Obscura.

The San Francisco based law firm Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld that represented the prisoners (plaintiffs) have made available materials from the trial online, including many photos.

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P-338 SVSP-13 Dry Cages or Holding Cells for People Waiting for MHCB

Left: According to photographer D.K. Langford, this is the Texas vehicle inspection sticker designed from his photograph. Right: This photograph is exhibit A in Langford’s suit vs. the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. (Source)

At last. I’ve been waiting for one of these legal disputes to have a prison angle! From the My San Antonio News:

“A photographer is suing the state over roughly 4.5 million vehicle inspection stickers that appear to incorporate, without his authorization, an image of a saddle-toting cowboy he created in 1984. Plaintiff David K. Langford wants the court to block the Department of Public Safety from further use or issuance of the stickers, the design of which he says is based on his copyrighted photo, Days End 2.”

“The stickers were produced by state prison inmates under a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) contract with the DPS. […] The suit says Langford’s photo was illegally appropriated by an inmate who scanned it from a copy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine in 1998.” [My bolding.]

Langford, the photographer, seems quite tenacious here. He argues simply that the State of Texas should be more careful about how it sources its images.

I want to avoid the lazy joke about a prisoner “stealing”. It’s just a shame that when prisoners working for the Texas Correctional Industries which is, for some, a form of modern slave labor (I withhold comment), the products of their work are at the centre of a substantial lawsuit.

This story was brought to my attention by Bob, who says, “I guess Texas is always full of unintended ironies.”

The TDCJ refused to comment, and of course there’s no response from the prisoner. I would want to hear from the prison-artist who originally ripped Langford’s image. He ended up producing a nice piece of graphic design!

With 4.5 million stickers in circulation, the prisoner has quite the visible profile. There’s more of a story here. Texas journalists! Get on it.

Louisiana has the highest rates of incarceration of minors of any state in the country. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate per capita of any state in the country.

It has now become the first state to sue its own death row inmates:

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections last Friday sued every inmate on death row, in an effort to block any one of them from challenging the state’s lethal injection procedures. Each of the 84 prisoners in the “death house” at Angola State Penitentiary was personally served papers in the suit, said Nick Trenticosta, who has represented numerous clients on Angola’s death row.

Trenticosta, who is also director of the non-profit Center for Equal Justice in New Orleans, knows of no other instance in which a state sued its death row inmates en masse over legal questions relating to their execution. “I’ve been hanging around death penalty cases for 25 years,” Trenticosta said in a phone interview this morning, “and I have never seen anything like this.”

via Solitary Watch.

The absurdity of this gesture is fitting for a policy that only ensures time and resources are wasted on arguing the merits for and against killing people for symbolic purposes.

Get beyond the obvious – that is that the state shouldn’t be involved in de-existing people – it seems the main conclusion to be drawn is that hundreds if not thousands of jobs rely on the self-indulged death-industry toying with the fate of death-rowers for decades.

It seems to me that victims, victims’ families and those sentenced become a secondary concern; an infrastructure of legal jousting imposes itself, acquires its own logic and fights it out because that what the cogs demand. The results are laughably tragic deadlocks and bizarre gestures such as that of suing convicted individuals who are virtually powerless anyway.

My solution would not be to limit the legal avenues of appeal following conviction, it would be to abolish the death penalty as a sentencing option.

Just as the state should not be involved in killing people, it should not be involved in the retaliatory-posturing concerning the killing of people.


Previously on Prison Photography: There is a lot of inequalities within Louisiana’s criminal [in]justice system, that I have touched upon here, here and here. There’s also chinks of light in an unforgiving system such as radio and football programs at Angola.


Three months ago, I wrote about Silja Talvi‘s excellent book Women Behind Bars.

It turns out the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also noticed it. They banned it – along with another book, Perpetual Prison Machine by Joel Dyer. Both books are distributed by Prison Legal News – a phenomenal non-profit based here in Seattle that educates America’s incarcerated class on its human and legal rights.

Prison Legal News has launched a lawsuit against staff and senior officials of the TDCJ. Money is not as issue here, principle is. “PLN is seeking compensatory, punitive and nominal damages plus declaratory and injunctive relief for violation of its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as attorney fees and costs.”

“It is a sad commentary when government officials censor books sent to prisoners – particularly books that deal with prisoners’ rights and conditions in our nation’s prisons,” stated PLN editor Paul Wright. “Apparently, the TDCJ prefers that prisoners remain uninformed about issues that directly affect them. We believe this is a poor rationale for censorship.”


Visit and read my brief article.

Download the full PLN lawsuit (PDF).

Sign the petition to the TDCJ for reversal of their censorship policy.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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