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Xavier Randolph dances with his father Frank Randolph during a Hope House summer camp program for youth with imprison fathers at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD.

RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.

Raymond Thompson Jr. is a photographer, video journalist, educator and father.

In his Justice Undone Project, Thompson Jr. documents the leaching and negative effects of mass incarceration. He shows us how the poor are criminalised by society and kept down. He’s trying to get past stereotypes of Black America and does so by photographing the families and the communities outside of prison. So far, chapters of Justice Undone include A Dream Denied and The Browns.

Prisons touch nearly everyone in America’s poorest communities. One person’s imprisonment effects many others’ lives. The knock-on effects are profound. Locked up, exiled parents can mean extended family members are the primary care givers. Young children can lack a mother or a father or both for long periods. A child’s emotional and social development can be hampered and the incarceration of a parent vastly increases a child’s chances of being locked up later in life. The cycle continues.

In film, print and photography, America has a history of demonising young black men. In response, Thompson Jr. works to image all generations and races from America’s lower classes in an attempt to build empathy in his audience. So far, Thompson Jr.’s work has focused on African American communities but soon he is to venture into poor white communities in the Midwest, and to demonstrate that our broken criminal justice policies impact the poor. Prisons are a class issue just as much as they are a race issue.

The closer you look at the prison industrial complex, the better you understand society. Thompson Jr. is holding up a mirror in which we are all reflected. He was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about his photography.

[Click on any image to view it larger]

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): It seems your work on issues surrounding community, the war on drugs and incarceration is an ongoing endeavour. Is this the case? If so, tell us what you’re up to and what you’re working on now.

Raymond Thompson Jr. (RTJ): My project Justice Undone started as my master thesis while I was in graduate school in Austin, Texas. I originally intended only to do a story about the long term effects of incarceration on families and communities in East Austin, which is a predominantly African American and Latino part of the city.  After I received a grant from the Alexia Foundation to continue the project, I expanded the project to Washington D.C and New Orleans.

In the 18 months since then, my wife and I  had our first child and I took a job working as a video producer for West Virginia University. So, most of the last 18 months have been consumed with adjusting to life as a parent. The sleep deprived nights are decreasing. So, I’m slowly moving into the next stage of this project.

Even though I have never been incarcerated and my immediate family has not been directly affected by mass incarceration, I still feel a deep connection to the issue. I saw myself in the faces of the men, women and children navigating the prison system. Now with the birth of my son, I feel it is even more important.

There are several story angles in my project that still need covering. I’m currently in the process of researching and planning local Justice Undone stories for trip this fall and a trip to the midwest in the early spring. I’m currently based in West Virginia, which offers a chance to approach this work from beyond the lens of race and move it more towards class.

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A boy stares though a window during a Friends and Family of Incarcerated People (FFOIP) car wash fundraiser in Southeast Washington, D.C. Friends and Family of Incarcerated People, a non-profit based in Washington D.C., offers a summer camp for children of incarcerated parents and other children whose parents are absent.

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Members of ‘Mix Emotion’ go-go band pray before a performance at a community gardening event in the Lincoln Heights area of Northeast Washington D.C. Lincoln Heights is a crime plagued area and has a large number of low-income residents.

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Several D.C. teenagers relax and socialize during the Friends and Families of Incarcerate People annual retreat in outside Charlottesville, VA. The goal of the retreat is to give youth a chance to experience life outside of their depressed D.C. neighborhoods.

WVU Men's Basketball

A child looks at a car that had been broken into the night before a Friends and Family of Incarcerated People (FFOIP) summer camp in Southeast Washington, D.C.

PP: When and how did you move toward your current political conscience?

RTJ: In the 1990s, I was a teenager living in the suburbs of Virginia outside of Washington D.C. I watched the War on Drugs rage on my television screen. It was in these moments that I started to feel something was wrong. But I was not equipped with the knowledge or maturity to understand what I was seeing.  On my television screen, I watched images of black men and boys dead or being led away in handcuffs. These visual images negatively affected how I felt about myself and other African Americans. Part of the reason for working on Justice Undone is to heal myself and to start to reclaim the visual history of African Americans in the United States.

My political awareness stemmed from my undergraduate studies. I was an American Studies major with a concentration in human rights. In my course work, which spans from American literature and history to sociology, I learned to recognize the complex weave of racial, economic, and  political threads that form the social blanket of America. But, what really set me on this path was a senior seminar on the American Prison Industrial Complex. That class expanded my thinking on the subject, which later became my intellectual basis for the project.

PP: How did you decide on strategies to talk about these issues with your photography?

RTJ: There have been so many images about prisons and about the War on Drugs. A lot of the pictures work to reinforce stereotypes about minorities as “The Other.” In the first part of this project, I focused on children and families left behind in mass incarceration’s wake. I felt I had to avoid images of black men in the beginning because I did not want viewers from outside of these communities to immediately write the project off. I needed those viewers to move beyond the stereotypes and to have a empathetic reaction, without relying too heavily on people being portrayed as victims.  In the next stages, I will focus more on the men, who are actually directly affected by prison.

Many of the great documentary photographers of the past three decades have produced work that is great but also problematic because they reinforce stereotypical images of urban black life. One of those photography books I have on my bookshelves in Eugene Richard’s Cocaine Blue, Cocaine True. It is an important work, but if you don’t dive into Richard’s words that were published along with the images you can come away with a skewed meaning. It is this decontextualization that worries me.

My strategy to combat this decontextualization is to create images of black life that focuses on the everyday. By searching for images that show African Americans in the mundane ritual of daily life, I hope that people not directly affected by mass incarceration will be able to see themselves in the pictures the way I do, as an antidote to years of self-hate and willful ignorance.

WVU Men's Basketball

The Booker T. Washington Public Housing complex, in Austin, Texas, is plagued by a revolving door of single-parent households and incarceration.

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Nicholas Brown, 19, speaks with his girlfriend before leaving. He has a stained relationship with his mother Vicky who has spent the majority of his childhood away in prison and drug treatment institutions.

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Marquis, 18, BB and Leroy Brown hangout on the front porch of Beverly Brown’s house in Austin.

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Tyler Pippillion works on a math puzzle during a skills class at the African American Men and Boys Harvest Foundation, a non-profit in Austin, TX that works with at-risk minority youth.

PP: What are the main points you want to communicate in your work?

RTJ: The first thing I hope my audience gain from this project is that U.S. laws have been unequally enforced in poor minority communities. Second, I wanted to make understood that the  large numbers of men and women cycling in and out of prison has an immeasurably negative effect on their communities. Finally, I want the audience to realize that the impact of incarceration is falling on small geographic areas within cities, because a large portion of these men and women are being taken from identified communities.

PP: Can you explain the title ‘Justice Undone’?

RTJ: I think that justice and fairness are central to the American ideology. If you follow the rules you will be rewarded. If you break them then you will be punished. For African Americans, The Civil Rights Act of 1964,  was “justice” for generations of discrimination and abuse. But, the gains of the 1960’s were essentially rolled back by the War on Drugs, the tough-on-crime movement, three strikes laws, and drug sentencing laws, which unfairly fell on the shoulders of African American communities.

So the title is meant to reflect the havoc of three decades of drug policies and the resulting explosion of the U.S. prison population that has played a big role on the agency and self esteem of African Americans in the United States.

I wanted the title to reflect critically on the U.S. justice system, which has failed to protect its most vulnerable members. While I was writing and reporting for my masters thesis, I was inspired by the hip-hop song Tip The Scale from the Roots’ album Undun.

Lot of niggas go to prison
How many come out Malcolm X?
I know I’m not
Shit, can’t even talk about the rest
Famous last words: “You under arrest”
Will I get popped tonight? It’s anybody’s guess
I guess a nigga need to stay cunning
I guess when the cops comin’ need to start runnin’
I won’t make the same mistakes from my last run in
You either done doing crime now or you done in
I got a brother on the run and one in
Wrote me a letter, he said when you comin’
Shit man, I thought the goal’s to stay out
Back against the wall, then shoot your way out
Gettin’ money’s a style that never plays out
‘Til you end up boxin’ your stash, money’s paid out
The scales of justice ain’t equally weighed out
Only two ways out, digging tunnels or digging graves out

Through the lyrics of this song, I felt the frustration of many black men who have limited choices, but still must navigate the challenges of being a black male in the United States.

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A boys listen to instructions on keeping a proper boxing guard during a rally to protest the shooting death of Almeded Bradley by an Austin Police Officer.

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Boys play a game of basketball in the Booker T. Washington public housing complex, Austin, Texas.

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Teenage boys play basketball at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention facility in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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Chelsea Shorts set up a studio in a shed in the backyard of her east Austin home. She uses the space to make clothes, draw and paint. The shed is a refuge from the crowded house that she shares with her parents, grandparents, cousins and one sibling. Chelsea biological father was incarcerated for most of her life.

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Beverly Brown covers her eyes as she rest in her living room. Members of three different generation of her family have been incarcerated or had problems with drug addiction.

PP: Is there an easy way to describe the massive effect harsher sentencing and imprisonment has had on communities you’ve documented. How, in other words, do we put it into words?

RTJ:There is no simple way to discuss the topic because it is so complex.

A lot has been put in words, but I don’t know if we have reached the same level of understanding in the visual. Part of my goal is to reimagine the image of African Americans in Americans’ visual memory. These days there is always public outcry at any sort of overt racial discrimination in words, written or verbal. There is a bit of a lag in the public’s response to visual stereotypes of minorities. Responding to these stereotypes and creating what bell hooks, calls the “oppositional black aesthetic,” is a way that image makers can help challenge mainstream biases.

PP: What can we do as audiences to photography and as citizens to improve the situation?

RTJ: The next time they see a newspaper article or a television news report about a drug arrest or a drug sentencing I hope they start a conversation with a friend of family member about what is happening in their name as taxpayers. I want people to see beyond the individual situation and start to see the overarching pattern of crime, punishment, drugs, and incarceration in America.

PP: How do you describe photography’s role in relation to social justice?

RTJ: I don’t know if social justice can happen in a visual vacuum.

Photography’s first purpose is to pass information about an issue to an audience. Its second purpose is to move the social conversation past exposition. There are details in the everyday that offer unique paths to understanding.

PP: And empathy.

RTJ: From the expression of someone’s eyes, to the color of a summer dress, to the chaos of a kitchen before serving Thanksgiving dinner. It is in those common areas that we as human beings find ways to related to each other. Photography as a quasi universal medium is perfectly suited for this task.

PP: Thanks, Raymond. And thank you for your work and conscience.

RTJ: Thank you, Pete.

Chelsea Shorts walks along the railroad tracks near her home in East Austin.

Chelsea Shorts walks alone railroad tracks in Austin, Texas. Shorts father was incarcerated for most of her life.

BIOGRAPHY

Raymond Thompson Jr. is a freelance photographer and multimedia producer based in Morgantown, WV. He currently works as a Multimedia Producer at West Virginia University. He received his Masters degree from the University of Texas at Austin in journalism and graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a BA is American Studies. He has worked as a multimedia photojournalist for the Door County Advocate, the Times of Northwest Indiana, the Kane County Chronicle, Times Community Newspapers and the Washington Times.

You can follow his activities on his blog, on the Twitter and on Instagram.

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Children’s graffiti covers the walls of a cell at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention center in New Orleans, LA. The center serves as the pre-trial detention for youths charge with committing a delinquent offense.

Time is of the essence today, so why not a quick look at a mugshot archive?

All these images are from HIDDEN FROM HISTORY. UNKNOWN NEW ORLEANIANS:

“The people grouped here may have had nothing in common except that their lives intersected with the municipality at least once. This exhibit brings them together in part to show how the city classified them. The documents and photographs here are therefore not representative of those New Orleanians who lived their lives quietly and within the law; they are necessarily skewed toward those who erred or strayed, who got caught or got in trouble, or, conversely, those who actively sought assistance from the city.”

The images were selected from the Louisiana Division/City Archives. My favourites here are those photographs in which intriguing, strong(?) communication persists.

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The exhibit was curated by Emily Epstein Landau and funded in part by the Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (1999), a program of the Social Science Research Council, with funding from the Ford Foundation. Dr. Landau received her doctorate from Yale University in 2005. Her dissertation, “Spectacular Wickedness”: New Orleans, Prostitution, and the Politics of Sex, 1897-1917, is a history of Storyville, the famous red-light district. She will be teaching New Orleans history this Spring, as a visiting lecturer at the University of Maryland, College Park. She lives in Washington, DC.

In October, I posted an image of Orleans Parish Prison inmates guarded on a New Orleans Bridge following a problematic evacuation. It was within a meandering article charting a chain of discoveries beginning with Arnold Genthe and ending with Pay-As-You-Stay jails in Los Angeles.

My conclusion then remains the same now: Katrina dealt with the poor in the same way a American society and markets have for the past 30 years; it picked them up, took them wherever it was heading on its disastrous path and spewed them out the back with nothing … and likely closer to death.

O.P.P. Inmates guarded on New Orleans overpass following Hurricane Katrina

O.P.P. Inmates guarded on New Orleans overpass following Hurricane Katrina. Credit: David A. Phillip/AP

In February, an assistant producer working on David Simon’s new project Treme got in touch with me to source the above image. (So, expect some Orleans Parish Prison related plot line!)

In response, I spent hours trying to hunt down my original source. FAIL. I found other images like it belonging to David A Phillip/A.P. and so, it is he I credit. I am 99% certain.

I have talked before about prisoners as waste, and this image is a convergence on that thought. Both people and trash have been herded into their corner; trash checked by freeway wall and current, people by armed guard.

This image bristled for some time during which I read reports on rivers full of trash and Charles Moore’s TEDtalk about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Then, add hero David Simon telling Bill Moyers that the reason America has never solved the chronic poverty in cities because America’s economy (no longer manufacturing based) does not need 10-15% of it’s population and labour pool. America has turned people into excess.

It begins to get depressing and heavy.

© Megan Martin 2009 www.meganmartinphoto.com

© Megan Martin 2009 http://www.meganmartinphoto.com

Add to this the fact I f*#kin’ hate those stupid-pearlescent-pearly-plastic-pearls-destined-to-choke-a-fish and it was all starting to get back to a dirty, sad, wasted and wasteful place.

Collapse.

I’ve never been to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Large celebrations unnerve me and the party – as legendary as it is – remains on my “to avoid list”.

I searched for the image that had bedded like sediment at the foot of my brain stem. Any trash image of the Mardi Gras aftermath was to serve the purpose, but when Flickr presented Megan Martin’s photo it was like string of predetermined conscience came home to fester.

The compositional mirror of these two images just polished my obsession with the unsustainability of most things. Processes have products and by-products. By-products are shipped to Asia to pollute its children or trampled into our unsustainable soils.

Louisiana has the largest number of prisoners per capita in the United States. Fiscally, Louisiana prisons must be feeling the pinch as much as any other state?

It appears a society’s self-made problems – when they  are big – won’t even be washed away by a 100year storm. Let’s stop filling prisons like we fill landfill. Prisoners and their rights cannot be ignored. Prisons are unsustainable.

For a full account of the disastrous evacuation of New Orleans prisoners during Katrina watch Prisoners of Katrina by the BBC.

See Megan Martin’s photos here.

On a recent search of the Harry Ransom Center photographic archive at the University of Texas, Austin (an incredible collection) I came across this image by Arnold Genthe.

Arnold Genthe, Slave Prison (Calabozo), New Orleans, circa 1920-1926

Arnold Genthe, Slave Prison (Calabozo), New Orleans, circa 1920-1926

Genthe is a widely respected practitioner of early photography, and (besides some notable exceptions) made it all the way out west before many others. Historians thank Genthe for having enough curiosity in the Chinese immigrants of San Francisco to photograph their community before the 1906 earthquake and resultant fire razed large swathes of the city. His are the only images of Chinatown from that time period.

Genthe’s Slave Prison, (Calabozo), New Orleans is, in all honesty, not an image that interests me very much. Without the caption I would not have known that this negative depicted a site of incarceration. It is reminiscent of Fox Talbot’s The Open Door; both images are mundane, both photographers pointed their lens at doors. One inconsequential but observable difference is that Genthe’s door is closed – which is, at least, consistent with the subject.

Henry William Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844

The Library of Congress record states that Genthe photographed the Calabozo between 1920 and 1926, and yet, in a reliable source I uncovered during a brief internet foray, it is stated the Calabozo was demolished in 1837. There are two likely explanations. One, Genthe was photographing another city jail and wrongly identified it as the Calabozo; or, two, Genthe set his camera up in the courtyard of the building that stood on the former site of the Calabozo (in which case the courtyard may have been original). There is uncertainty here that needs to be cleared up, but I don’t intend, here, to pursue the correct subject-hence-caption for Genthe’s sleepy image.

Despite the image’s astonishing banality, I was intrigued by the flawed description and I sensed an opportunity to sate my thirst for amateurish detective work. Furthermore, the fact remains it is an image of a prison; I was compelled to give it a second glance. I reasoned that a slave prison in a city that had operated under three different flags throughout the late 18th and early 19th century would have some intriguing history. The first questions that sprang to mind were: Do any other images of this same building exist? Do images of modern New Orleans’ prisons or jails exist that could provide interesting juxtaposition? I read and viewed whichever resources presented themselves readily.

Of the many passages that hooked me was this description from Louisiana: A Guide to the State (1947). It describes the conditions of the Calabozo.

An investigation in 1818 of the old Spanish Calabozo in New Orleans found the convicts “not provided for as humanity would dictate since many were destitute of clothing and others were almost destroyed by vermin.” Debtors were confined with the blackest of criminals. Entrance and exit fees as well as board and lodging payments were required of the prisoners. In 1861 a debtor was free after 90 days imprisonment, provided his keep for the interim had been paid.

Obviously, in the early 19th century matters of care while in detention & exit privileges were more easily negotiated by those with ready cash. A crude inequality that no longer remains, right? Possibly not. As I read this historical passage, I was also mousing over a slew of stories from modern newspapers that reported contemporary incidents of neglectful custodianship of men by state authorities.

The abandonment of prisoners in New Orlean’s jails during Hurricane Katrina is in no way more shocking than the early 19th century account. Within my web browser two centuries dissolved. Neglect, as the lowest common denominator, collapsed time. Men penning other men as animals showed itself ugly and unfortunate. The shortcomings of the system, the inflexibility of the system and the neglect within the system were revealed in New Orleans following Katrina in August 2005 as existed in 1818.

O.P.P. Inmates guarded on New Orleans overpass

O.P.P. Inmates guarded on New Orleans overpass © AP

The BBC This World documentary Prisoners of Katrina details the week of fear, panic, riots and evacuation at Orleans Parish Prison. When Sheriff Gusman’s initial plan to retain the prisoners at O.P.P. through the duration of the storm proved to be a disastrous decision, a tactical team from Angola Prison bailed Gusman out. Over 7,000 inmates were herded out (via an engulfed freeway overpass) and relocated to 42 facilities over a period of four dehydrated, sun-scorched, unsanitary days. Accounts conflict as to whether any inmates died, but eye witness testimonies have reported floating corpses in the halls of O.P.P. during evacuation.

Still today, the Louisiana justice system has not recovered. It is in total disarray. Prior to Katrina O.P.P. held a variety of inmates including lifers, violent offenders, short stay non-violent offenders and (the most unfortunate group) those awaiting trial for offenses yet unproven. These inmates are now indistinguishable from one another because their case histories were lost in the hurricane. They are all just “in the system”.

It is contended that half of the evacuated prisoners have never been to trial. Hundreds of inmates were arrested for minor offenses, traffic fines, jay-walking and sleeping on the sidewalk. Hundreds of the prisoners do not know why they were arrested, and the system can’t tell them either. But neither can the system cannot exonerate them. Unconvicted men are now warehoused while the system tries to decide what the charge is for each inmate. Public defenders are leaving their positions in droves after seeing their caseloads increase by six, seven, even eight hundred percent.

Michael Democker, An inmate sleeps in his cell in the 10th floor psychiatric section of Orleans Parish Prison, 2008

Michael Democker, An inmate sleeps in his cell in the 10th floor psychiatric section of Orleans Parish Prison, 2008

Judge Calvin Johnson states that Katrina “blew the system apart” and they now cannot cope with the backlog of over 6,000 cases. To make matters worse still, the basement which stored the majority of files and forensic evidence was flooded destroying any hopes to rule on individual cases in a timely manner.

Three years on this is still a system in crisis. O.P.P. has been repopulated and inmates suffer doubly – firstly as victims of a system in deadlock and secondly as victims to the decrepitude of the O.P.P after the ravages of flood and riot. Unsurprisingly, those that suffer most are the poor minorities. Efforts to glean facts for a fuller story by interviewing outgoing inmates continue.

In Spring of 2008, the Times Picayune reported once more on the desperate need to overhaul the newly populated Orleans Parish Prison. When a hundred year storm converges with poor catastrophe-contingency-planning, it is those that have no means and no voice who are left to suffer longest. In the scramble to get cases heard, those without resources are shunted to the bottom of the pile. Not only are the poor and the minority populations suffering, but also the mentally ill. The stretched system has until recently only had lock up as a resort to deal with inmates with mental health care needs. The majority of the men in O.P.P. are poor and black and many of them are in the O.P.P for minor unproven offenses.

Where does all this lead? How does this relate to photography? The image above from O.P.P left a pit in my stomach. The pit lingered, long. I could not fathom why. Later, I remembered an image I had viewed the previous year. The two photographs had the same components; the orange jumpsuit, the seemingly unaware subject in the orange jumpsuit, the subject positioned as a motif of solitude, and (most oppressively) the downward angle of view as seen through the cell door window.

Monica Almeida, Nicole Brockett is serving her sentence for drunken driving in a pay-to-stay cell at the jail in Santa Ana, 2007

Monica Almeida, Nicole Brockett is serving her sentence for drunken driving in a pay-to-stay cell at the jail in Santa Ana, 2007

But look closer and one identifies small comforts – linen, spare linen, spare prison-threads, reading and writing material, food being saved for later. Nicole Brockett had committed a proven traffic offence. She was fortunate to be tried in Orange County and so have the option of incarceration with frills. Santa Ana Jail at $82 a day is not the most luxurious of the Californian “Pay-as-you-Stay” lock-ups. At Fullerton you can take your cell phone. Montebello and Seal Beach Jails allow iPods.

The New York Times did a great job of illustrating the cushty cells as elite privilege.

For offenders whose crimes are usually relatively minor (carjackers should not bother) and whose bank accounts remain lofty, a dozen or so city jails across the state offer pay-to-stay upgrades. Theirs are a clean, quiet, if not exactly recherché alternative to the standard county jails, where the walls are bars, the fellow inmates are hardened and privileges are few. Many of the self-pay jails operate like secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world.

The realities of these dozen or so city jails are a far cry from those at O.P.P. How is it the US criminal system fosters such inequality? How have tenets of consumerism and favouritism crept into state systems intended to administer lawful punishment? What clearer message do these two contrasting stories offer than to point out that there is no equality in our current justice system. Those that pay, just as 200 years ago, receive preferential treatment. In a country where race and class are indivisible, those not in a position to pay for cell-upgrades are more likely to be people of colour. How low have our standards dropped to allow bare-faced state authority to operate penal systems with buy-in/opt out clauses on comfort and cell-mates? How many more social institutions do we want to hand over to the amorality of supply/demand economics?

I was going to suggest that things haven’t changed in 200 years, but they have in fact gotten worse. When trangressors of the early 19th century were locked up they received the same treatment regardless of class or race. Now segregation can occur at the will (and wallet) of the inmate. The inmate can buy the comfort of their own cell and avoid the dangerous inconveniences of “hardened inmates”. By “hardened inmates”  the New York Times is by definition referencing the typical inmate of the California penal system, which is to say a minority male or female, which is in the parlence of 1818, “the blackest of criminals”. It would seem discrimination between the races has always existed … the difference being that now the penal systems afford privileged prisoners the opportunity to act upon those discriminations.

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