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This time last year Laura Sullivan for NPR reported on the US broken Bail Bond System. I celebrated her work and later, upon it’s resurfacing called Sullivan “An American Hero

NPR contacted me recently to let me know Sullivan’s series won an Excellence in Broadcast Journalism Award.


From NPR:

NPR News is being honored with a 2010 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton Award for excellence in broadcast journalism for a three-part investigative series revealing deep and costly flaws in the U.S. justice system’s bail bond process, it was announced today. Reported by NPR Correspondent Laura Sullivan and edited by Senior National Editor Steven Drummond, “Bonding for Profit” exposed deep inequities in the treatment of rich and poor defendants, how the bail industry is vested in maintaining those inequities and the surprising cost to taxpayers. The series aired on the NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered and Morning Edition, and is available online at

After months-long research into the perpetual and expensive overcrowding problem in U.S. prisons, Sullivan discovered that the bond system may be a major factor in keeping jails stuffed. “Bonding for Profit” focused on the dilemma of more than a half million petty, nonviolent offenders stuck in jail for months due to the simple reason of not being able to make bail – which is sometimes as little as $50 – at a $9 billion a year cost to taxpayers. In three reports, Sullivan revealed how stark options often force inmates to take prosecutor deals in exchange for early release, and how the bondsman lobby fights pretrial release programs proven to save millions of dollars.

The “Bonding For Profit” series produced emotional feedback from listeners, and has been cited by The Justice Department, the American Bar Association and lawmakers in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida in initiatives to examine current bail practices. The Awards Jury also praised Sullivan’s writing, saying it “crackles with insight and storytelling based on hard facts.”

The duPont-Columbia Awards will be presented at a ceremony on January 20 at Columbia University in New York. Accepting the awards on behalf of the organization are Laura Sullivan and Steve Drummond. Information about all of the winners announced this year is available at:

The Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards honoring overall excellence in broadcast journalism were established in 1942 by Jessie Ball duPont in memory of her late husband. Administered since 1968 by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, the awards are considered the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, which the Journalism School also administers.

“Prison companies had a plan — a new business model to lock up illegal immigrants. And the plan became Arizona’s immigration law.”

Remember AZ SB1070? Laura Sullivan shows us the greedy plotting behind it.

In the first of two reports, Sullivan exposes the murky connections between Arizona’s legislators and the private prison companies, and how they manufactured a legal landscape to profit form locking up immigrants.

Basically, there is a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council. Insiders call it ALEC. It is “a membership organization of state legislators and powerful corporations and associations, such as the tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., ExxonMobil and the National Rifle Association. Another member is the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America — the largest private prison company in the country.”

In December 2009, ALEC convened in Washington D.C. and in cahoots with Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, wrote a piece of model legislation that four months later was adopted almost unmodified as an Arizona SB1070.

“As soon as Pearce’s bill hit the Arizona statehouse floor in January, there were signs of ALEC’s influence. Thirty-six co-sponsors jumped on, a number almost unheard of in the capitol.  According to records obtained by NPR, two-thirds of them either went to that December meeting or are ALEC members.”

“That same week, the Corrections Corporation of America hired a powerful new lobbyist to work the capitol. […] At the state Capitol, campaign donations started to appear.”

“Thirty of the 36 co-sponsors received donations over the next six months, from prison lobbyists or prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America, Management and Training Corporation and The Geo Group.”

An absolute scandal.


I have celebrated Sullivan’s reporting before.

Her three-parter on the inequalities and injustices of the bail system is heroic:

Part One: Bail Burden Keeps U.S. Jails Stuffed With Inmates
Part Two: Inmates Who Can’t Make Bail Face Stark Options
Part Three: Bondsman Lobby Targets Pretrial Release Programs


Reporting such as Sullivan’s is, in simple terms, essential. Which brings the illogic and limelight-obsessions of these idiots’ calling for the defunding of NPR into sharp focus.

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on Deborah Luster’s work One Big Self, I encourage you to listen to her speak about the project with The Kitchen Sisters. The interview, part of The Hidden World of Girls series focuses on Luster’s self rehabilitation through photography, the relationships she developed with female prisoners and the direct benefits the portraits brought to the incarcerated women.

Rendition. Photographer Unknown

Last week, Eliza Gregory at PhotoPhilanthropy got knee-deep in speculations about prison photography.

Eliza was spurred by NPR’s On the Media which “did a story about a series of images that the International Committee of the Red Cross made of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The ICRC made pictures of the prisoners to send to their families, and allowed each prisoner to choose which particular image would be sent. Naturally, the images the prisoners collaborated in making are very different from the images we’ve seen of them in the news.”

Eliza contacted me and asked me to leave some comments.

I rounded off my comments with a question I think is very important: Could an American photographer complete a project with the access, familiarity and story-telling-verve as Mikhael Subotzky did in South Africa for his project Die Vier Hoeke?

Not wanting to funnel my diatribe down just one web avenue, I copy my comments here …


I’d like to talk about two issues that you point to in your post. First, the general absence of prison imagery in contemporary media and secondly the urge to judge the subjects of the imagery that does crop up.

I doubt highly that Guantanamo would’ve been closed if more photographs had come out of there. While there is no question visuals out of Gitmo were controlled stringently, the MoD had proven itself impermeable to even the most reasonable requests by human rights advocates and legal watchdogs.

The point you make about smiling detainees instantly changing ones perception could be applied to all prison populations. Phillippe Bazin, Luigi Gariglio and Dread Scott have each used straight portraiture to cause audiences think about the individual character of prisoners.

I recommend books by Douglas Hall Kent, Morrie Camhi, Bruce Jackson, Jane Evelyn Atwood and Ken Light. I recommend work by Carl de Keyzer, Joseph Rodriguez, Steve Liss and Andrew Lichtenstein for imagery of prisons beyond the press shots of tiered-cells and orange jump-suits.

More than any of these though I recommend photography of self-representation. I have speculated on it before, and it has been done by Deborah Luster in Louisiana, and by the inmates of Medellin prison, Bogota, Colombia.

All of these photographic interventions are inspiring but barely make it into the mindshare of media consumers. I believe the unforgiven monster who deserves no thought is the predominant version of “the prisoner” in the minds of most Americans and many others in the Western world.

Of course, the invisibility of prisons is a collective tactic. We are molly-coddled by zealous enforcement agencies to whom we’ve outsourced management of transgressors. We have no interest in dealing with the difficult issues surrounding mistakes, mental health, inequalities and human frailty … this is where the “lock ’em up” mentality comes from.

Prisons and prisoners are not scary places because they are threatening and violent, they are scary places because they are wasteful, boring, soul-sapping warehouses. This is the document we never see. America’s prisons are a human-rights abuse.

Photography will play its part, but it’ll take a monumental cultural and media shift to change sentencing and prison policies in the West.

In the meantime, It’d be interesting to see if a long-term project similar to Mikhael Subotzky’s could ever be completed in an American prison?

© Mikhael Subotzky, from the 'Die Vier Hoeke' series.

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).

Across the street from the county jail in Lubbock, Texas, is a row of one-story offices housing Lubbock's bond companies. There are about a dozen bail bond companies in this city of 250,000. © Katie Hayes for NPR


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).

Leslie Chew, in Lubbock County Jail for theft, said his $3,500 bail was "like a million dollars to me." © Laura Sullivan for NPR

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!


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.


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.


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.



Part One: Bail Burden Keeps U.S. Jails Stuffed With Inmates
Part Two: Inmates Who Can’t Make Bail Face Stark Options
Part Three: Bondsman Lobby Targets Pretrial Release Programs

All brought to you by Laura Sullivan

Thanks to Jim Johnson for alerting me on this.

I am late on this one, but I thought it so important that it worth a quick post.

Last month, Amy Stein posted Bedlam Exposed. Amy put up some disturbing images by Charlie Lord. He was one of several conscientious objectors who worked at Philadelphia State Hospital, Byberry, PA in lieu of military service.

Listen to Charlie Lord talk about his experience at the Philadelphia State Hospital.

Prison Photography has long determined that there is little difference between prisons and asylums. Asylums have been referred to as sanitariums and as hospitals, but it is necessary to take a quick leap past the label and view the level of care (and security) as well as the agency of those committed.

In photographic evidences we can look to the work of Jenn Ackerman (a prison functioning as a mental health unit) and Eugene Richards (a mental health unit functioning as a prison). These thoughts are just to sow the seeds and the [in]distinctions between prisons and mental health facilities will be something I’ll return to over the coming year.

Ackerman’s Trapped:

Richards’ Procession of Them:

One glaring omission from Prison Photography is ICE detention centres and the prisons specifically designed for immigrants. Apart from the public stunts of Sheriff Arpaio (here and here) I have not featured any photography of immigrant detention or prisons.

This is partly because immigration policy and deportation infrastructures aren’t an area I know much about, but mainly because immigrant jails and prisons are the most invisible of all prisons in America. The media simply cannot get access like they can into state and county sites of incarceration.

As a course of policy, ICE detention sites are kept hidden. Allow me to push back against that a little:

Map courtesy of Global Detention Project.
More resources at the Detention Watch Network

In an attempt to redress this dearth of immigration coverage on Prison Photography, I point you in the direction of Tom Barry’s interview on Fresh Air yesterday. Thanks to Bob for the tip-off.

Here’s some things I learnt:

– Over the past five years immigrant imprisonment has increased 400%
– The policy of immediate deportation for illegal immigrants was replaced by imprisonment and deportation; a deliberate tactic intended to punish and deter future attempts to cross the US border illegally.
– Legal definitions of crime have broadened since 1996. Couple this with a syncopation of agency databases means constant threats of stop, search, detention and deportation of immigrants (both legal and illegal) now exist that did not 5 years ago.
– In this new era distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants have shrunk.
– Legal immigrants are subject to “a separate penal system”.
– 30% of deportees to Mexico don’t speak Spanish.
– The 11 border prisons are intentionally remote and located in economically depressed towns along the US/Mexico border.
– Immigrant prisons have a structure of financing and ownership that is unique. Tom Barry calls it “The Public/Private Prison Complex”, in which tax dollars and private corporations mix and match the funding. In many instances, administrators could not actually state who owned the facilities. This results in diluted accountability.
– The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Geo group are the two largest private prison companies involved in immigrant detention.
– Privatised prisons were once a rarity in America. CCA and Geo got their start under Reagan winning contracts to house immigrants.
– CCA and Geo have enjoyed record profits over the past 8 years. 45% of their income derives from from state and federal contracts outsourcing immigrant detention.
– The perversely named ‘Operation Reservation Guaranteed’ means that detainees will always be sent to a bed/cell even if it is on the other side of the country. The transportation costs are met by the tax-payer.
– Wackenhut, an arm of Geo group, is the sub-contractor for these long, expensive and unnecessary transportations.
– It is common that detainees are moved without warning or reason. It is common that detainees cannot be located by the private prison companies for long periods.
– And much, much more. Listen, I highly recommend.

Tom Barry covers border security and immigration issues as the Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for International Policy. He has written several books, including The Great Divide and Zapata’s Revenge.

Tom just published A Death in Texas a piece for the Boston Review about a riot at an ICE prison in Texas. The riot was an “act of solidarity” by the detained population following the death of a young prisoner.

Tom maintains the Border Lines blog for the TransBorder Project is a project of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City and the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC..


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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