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There is a place in the US where two men have been held in solitary confinement for 37 years. It is Angola Prison, Louisiana.

Robert H. King, one of the Angola 3 was released when his wrongful conviction was overturned in 2001. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox remain.

The length of their stays in solitary are due to the seriousness of the crime for which they were charged – the murder of a prison guard. They have always maintained they were framed for the jailhouse murder. Interestingly, in the In The Land Of The Free trailer the correctional officer’s widow doesn’t believe Wallace or Woodfox were the killers.

MENTAL HEALTH IN SOLITARY

For the most visceral and psychological description of solitary confinement upon the mental and physical health of a human read Atul Gawande‘s vital New Yorker article HELLHOLE (March 2009).

Every wondered what effect isolation has on the human psyche?

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.

What a crazy world with inexplicable institutions.

‘IN THE LAND OF THE FREE’ STILLS

Solitary cell

Herman Wallace (left) and Albert Woodfox (right) with Angola prison in the 1970s (background)

Photos from the In The Land Of The Free facebook page.

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Ken Light is a career photojournalist and a professor of photojournalism at Berkeley. If anyone is going to push back against the abuse of photographers rights, it’d be him right?

Well, he did. He won a small but symbolic $558

Last year, Light licensed his image of Cameron Todd Willingham to several media outlets coinciding with The New Yorker‘s exposé of dodgy arson forensics and the probable innocence of Willingham.

Current TV was not one of those he dealt with, yet they displayed Light’s image for a couple of months.

Light avoided federal court because it is costly and long-winded and filed a small-claims suit in San Francisco. PDN explains:

Light had charged other users $375 to $400 to license the Willingham image, but he says he would have charged Current TV $2,000 because of how long they displayed the photo. In his claim, he said the $2,000 fee should be tripled as punishment for damages. He added $500 to cover attorney’s fees, for a total claim of $6,500.

What is interesting here, is Light wonders avoiding the impractical, less-reflexive, federal route could be a better option for photographers:

“Yes, I got much less than I thought I deserved. [But] Maybe if we attacked in small claims courts and won, some of these companies might be more careful,”

I think Light has a good point and proven a repeatable tactic.

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Postscript: In the summer, I did multiple interviews and one of those was with Light about photographing on Texas’ death row. Everyday, I look at that untranscribed audio file and beat myself up that I haven’t published yet. It’s coming … I promise.

Cameron Todd Willingham in his cell on death row, in 1994. He insisted upon his innocence in the deaths of his children and refused an offer to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. © Ken Light.

Read the The New Yorker‘s article Trial by Fire about Cameron Todd Willingham, which asks, “Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?”

Ken Light photographed Willingham fifteen years ago in his death row cell.

Willingham was accused of setting his house alight while his three children slept inside, tried for arson and murder, found guilty and sentenced to death. He always professed his innocence. Willingham was executed on February 17th, 2004. Before and since his execution, evidence supporting his conviction has been brought into question. Eye-witness testimonies conflicted and the fire forensics for the case are considered unreliable.

Recently, I spoke with Ken Light about his Texas Death Row.

The New Yorker only had one photographer to turn to for an image of the incarcerated Willingham. Without Texas Death Row (1994), we would have precious little photographic record of the lives and experiences of Texas’ institutions for the condemned.

If an individual and the law don’t agree to the point the individual is imprisoned, one hopes lawful imprisonment changes the individual, right? For the better, right?

Unfortunately, American prisons have proved the opposite of rehabilitative or hopeful of positive change. Recidivism rates in America are between 60% and 68% (depending on the source).

"Prison has changed you, Mom" © 2009 Marshall for the New Yorker

"Prison has changed you, Mom" © 2009 Marshall for the New Yorker

Spurred possibly by the fiscal-driven prisoner releases across the nation, Marshall penciled this pearl.

Some of the best comedy is simultaneously tragedy. The truth is America’s prison archipelago has bruised the lives of the current 2.2 million prison population, the lives of family members AND our lives and communities. Inmates returning to society haven’t been suitably prepared or shown new paths. Change has been for the worse in majority of cases.

I was astonished to read this AlertNet article. It excavates the background to Lovelle Mixon’s massacre in Oakland that killed four people.

I cannot agree with the article’s logic 100%. It would be a sad day if I ever presumed the individual totally powerless and unable to act upon non-violent decisions, but as the author writes:

“Though Mixon’s killing spree is a horrible aberration, his plight as an unemployed ex-felon isn’t. There are tens of thousands like him on America’s streets. In 2007, the National Institute of Justice found that 60 percent of ex-felon offenders remain unemployed a year after their release.”

It is not easy to resist the urge to think of mass-murderous crimes as the singular actions of an individual.

I appreciate Earl Ofari Hutchinson‘s article because it brings together the many invisible and minor trials in life that collectively make daily stress unbearable. I finished the article amazed that there are fewer desperate crimes akin to Mixon’s. An uncomfortable thought.

Again, Hutchinson reminds us that the problems of incarceration, recidivism, education, unemployment and crime are inseparable:

Washington, D.C. is a near textbook example of that. Nearly 3,000 former prisoners are released and return to the district each year. Most fit the standard ex-felon profile. They are poor, with limited education and job skills, and come from broken or dysfunctional homes. Researchers again found that the single biggest factor that pushed them back to the streets, crime, violence and, inevitably, repeat incarceration was their failure to find work.

Q. Why do we warehouse people, break them, and then return them to society in a poorer position to cope?

A. Punitive and immovable laws, collective arrogance & utter denial.

With an estimated 600,000 prisoners either released or due for release in 2009, it’s about time we make a small change in our accomodations – especially given the size of change we expect of former prisoners.

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