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What to do with a defunct prison? Demolish? Renovate into a hotel or apartments. Create a museum or arts centre? The response and reuse of prisons depends largely on economics but also on whether a society has written and agreed on a narrative and the place of the prison in relation to the state and body politic.

For example, Robben Island is an obvious memorial to anti-Apartheid campaigners and their unjust imprisonment; a rejection of state-sanctioned racism. Similarly, Tuol Sleng in Cambodia is a Genocide Museum honouring the victims of the Khmer Rouge. While Alcatraz does include information about the American Indian Movement and the Indian Occupation of the island in 1969-71, the narrative is mostly a distant historical view of “The Rock” in which tourists can get macabre and creeped out, safely.

Now closed, Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, doesn’t have an agreed history, yet. It cannot be so easily be packaged for a public, or narrative. Opened in 1835, Kingston Pen established the basis of Canada’s prison philosophy; the architectural embodiment of prison as a legal structure in accordance with British rule and colonial prerogatives. It was a place for carceral not corporal punishment—100 months instead of 100 licks of the paddle.

Until its closure in 2013, Kingston Pen was one of the longest continuous operating prisons in the world. It was shuttered due to rising maintenance costs and documented human rights violations. In its 160 years, Kingston Pen served up hardship and oppression. Not least, as in all Western societies, for minority groups and indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples make up less than four percent of the Canadian population, yet they account for the largest demographic of prisoners.

Into the awaiting “space” of cultural definition and narrative framing of Kingston Pen, enter Through a Penal System, Darkly (2013 – 2015), a raking, bamboozling, photo-based survey of the prison by artist Cindy Blažević and partners. Onto a general history of the institution, Blažević knits oral histories of current and past corrections administrators, legal experts, staff and prisoners. Audio clips, maps, photo-documentation and photo-composites bring the past to this very moment and foreground prison abolition arguments.

 

An illustration of a Plains-style teepee is superimposed onto a photo of a small, enclosed prison yard – a place where Indigenous cultural practices would often take place. The actual teepee was packed away, as part of the decommissioning process, before Blažević had a chance to photograph it.

 

For some, the closure of Kingston Pen, as with many iconic prisons, might serve as an excuse to draw a line and refrain from examining history, but Through a Penal System, Darkly encourages us to do the opposite and leap right back into our immediate history; to face the many shortcomings of incarceration.

In an excellent read of Blažević’s work, Ellyn Walker delineates the way, familial, racial and social-control dynamics persist in society, through the prison, and because of the prison.

“One must consider deeply the ways in which justice and compassion go hand-in-hand, in particular, in spaces of extreme vulnerability and oppression, such as the prison,” writes Walker, who quotes Dr. Angela Y. Davis as she urges us to look toward contested sites: “The prison is one of the most important features of our image environment,” said Davis.

“[The prison] reveals the imperative for reimagining how we both understand and practice justice,” adds Walker. That’s why Through a Penal System, Darkly is such a landmark work of art and research. Comprehensive and content-rich, Through a Penal System, Darkly has been presented as an exhibition and lives online as a multi-pronged inquiry. Working with law students, Blažević made the project while the inaugural artist-in-residence (2013-14) at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto.

Energised by the way in which she pushed passed the mere static image and committed political and complex readings of the prison, I pressed Blažević with some questions on the kernels, goals and outcomes of the project. I can only provide a smattering of the hundreds of photograph Blažević made and as the audio and context for the photos is so key, I encourage you all to visit the Through a Penal System, Darkly website and spend some time.

 

 

Some of the surprising colours in Blažević’s images are reminiscent of William Eggleston’s photography. Somehow the electrical switch boxes, mail-drops, wall paintings, signage and the vernacular touches make for the most engaging photos. The deadpan images of children’s play structures and lawn chairs speak to the normalisation of prison operations. Janitorial, medical and infrastructural observations reveal the comprehensiveness of resources and operations. The exterior shots seem mostly to be establishing shots and hold the least interest, but I suspect Blažević is aware of this. Still, she was there to photograph as much as possible, almost forensically while her access lasted. There are other comparisons to be made between Through a Penal System, Darkly and other photographers work, and Blažević and I talk about them in the Q&A below.

While Through a Penal System, Darkly undoubtedly required a massive amount of work, significant institutional support, the buy-in of co-makers, and others’ skillsets, I think it is a project that is instructive about how professionals working with media can explode the issue of prisons and other controversial, historically-rich sites.

Scroll on for our Q&A.

 

Q & A

Why should people care about prisons?

This Angela Davis quote really nails it: “There is reluctance to face the realities hidden within [prisons], a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings.”

That, in a nutshell, is why people should care. We’re naïve to think that prisons and criminal justice happen in a bubble that has nothing to do with the configuration of all of society.

Prisons are very much a reflection of our deepest, seemingly unsolvable social problems. This project looked at the many ways that prisons obscure our individual and collective responsibilities of taking seriously the ongoing problems of our society, particularly those produced by racism, colonialism, patriarchy and global capitalism. Kim Pate, one of the contributors to my project, at the time Director of the Elizabeth Fry Societies and currently a Canadian senator, spoke about prison being the only system that couldn’t say no. In other words, when the health care system and the legal aid system and the welfare system are unable to help you, because of successive budget cuts, the prison will be there for you.

Decarceration should be everybody’s business.

The relatability of the project was important to me, which is why the exhibition that accompanied the website was a massive photograph mounted on the exterior of the law school, accessible to all passers-by and not exclusively to law students or gallery goers, and linked to the website. I want everyone to care.

 

 

Where did your interest in prisons begin? Generally, or with Kingston specifically?

Who doesn’t have a natural fascination with prisons? With what it means to lose one’s freedom?

As a visual artist, I have a specific interest in spaces and how they define us, as individuals and as a society. I majored in International Relations and minored in political science, so the interest has always been there, simmering away in the background, as a backdrop to many of the subjects I’ve explored over the years, academically and artistically.

Kingston Penitentiary, whose interior architecture had never been photographed in any systematic way, holds a deep fascination with the Canadian public. So when I heard it would close, I thought, let me try to get in there. And I did.

What started as a project to photograph 19th century experiments in prison architecture no longer acceptable to our current ideas of incarceration, turned into a massive photographic and audio compendium of issues and thoughts expressed and experienced about the Canadian justice system, all through the lens of Kingston Penitentiary.

At its root, I think Through a Penal System, Darkly is a project about fairness, about what is actually fair when it comes to punishment. Working on it has given me pause to appreciate how fundamental our preoccupation with justice is. I have three children and it is really incredible how fairness and a sense of justness is prevalent even at an extremely early age. One could dismiss this as philosophical waxing, but the basic ubiquity of it is undeniable.

 

 

What is the public opinion in Canada toward prisons?

An apathy arising from the false comfort that America has a problem with over-incarceration and that, because we’re not America, we don’t. Canadians see themselves as social progressives, as we are on many fronts. This seemed to stop at prisons under the previous, Conservative government. Even though statistics showed crime rates have been dropping for decades, the Harper Conservative government took a “tough on crime” approach: more prisons, longer sentences, mandatory minimums, and eliminating discretion for courts. Under the current Liberal government, whatever its shortcomings, the Supreme Court has ruled that many of the anti-crime laws enacted by the Harper government were unconstitutional. These actions have a role in shaping public opinion, tangentially.

Just the other day our national broadcaster, CBC, aired a story about the “shock and dismay” of parents and area residents to news that a halfway house for federal penitentiary inmates would open beside a Toronto Catholic elementary school. It’s telling. It’s sad that media perpetuates many of the black-and-white, negative, populist stereotypes surrounding criminal justice.

Honestly, I think most people don’t have a clue about what happens inside prison. A few days into my project I realised I didn’t either, not really. For example, I hadn’t given any thought to the reality that when one is sentenced to prison the term of their removal from freedom is supposed to be the punishment itself, but, actually, prisoners experience layer after layer of additional punishments and micro-aggressions—from withholding mail to arbitrary corporal punishment. Why would a former inmate have to endure continued punishment, say, in the form of community isolation, while finishing the terms of his or her sentence in a halfway house?

 

 

Why did you decide to lay out the information as you did in this wide-ranging, chapter-esque history of Kingston Prison?

The reality of incarceration is not simple or easily summarised, so how could depicting that reality be any less complex? I wanted to create a legal and historical context for the photographs. There are many chapters to the story of this prison, so many ways of thinking about incarceration and concepts of justice. I had real difficulty editing down the many stories and perspectives I encountered while fitting them into the parameters of the residency. And that is why the project sits at such a busy intersection of art, photographic documentation, social justice, cultural anthropology, legal theory, historical research and oral storytelling.

At heart is the realisation that every photograph I took has long tendrils of political, legal and social reality trailing beneath it. That’s not just a fenced-in yard or a sad-looking metal door you’re looking at, that’s the consequence of a policy that was drawn up, discussed, implemented and is a plan for how to go about “correcting” behaviour, how to set a moral balance right.

At its simplest, the project maps out—literally and conceptually—the relationship of the architecture to its previous inhabitants. It’s a political, legal and historical choose-your-own adventure.

Were the experts and others you interviewed keen to talk? It seems a decommissioned facility gives more license to be honest about the criminal justice system? Would you agree?

Ha! I had great difficulty getting access. I had to leverage my grant from the Canada Council for the Arts (a federal body) to get permission from the Commissioner of the Corrections Services Canada to enter the facility.

The experts were, indeed, keen to talk, but the Department of Justice was not so keen to let their employees do so. On the morning of a scheduled interview with two CSC employees, the DoJ intercepted, postponing it until my questions had been screened. Initially, I was surprised. However, the CSC, already cautious and unforthcoming, became perceptively more so following the 2007 suicide of Ashley Smith while in detention and especially when a 2013 inquest ruled her death a homicide. My interviews and inquiries took place in the months following this ruling, when the CSC was under greater scrutiny for its treatment of prisoners, especially the mentally ill. I don’t think an artist is particularly threatening, though an artist paired with a law school might be, I suppose.

What were the most surprising testimonies you heard?

The syndicated prison radio show really hit me. The tongue-in-cheek songs and skits paint a very different picture from the kind of controlled environment, detached from its surrounding community, that we’ve come to associate with a federal penitentiary.

The emotional account given by Margaret Beare of the breakdown in humaneness that happens inside total institutions.

Kim Pate, who is now a Senator, talking about what the replacement of old-fashioned metal keys with electronic buttons (to open cell doors) means for the mental health of prisoners.

How extremely poorly correctional officers are educated in mental health intervention, not to mention how much the officers themselves struggle in this regard, with PTSD at post-Vietnam War levels.

And new information that stuck with you?

The bricks and mortar architecture dictating how we imprison, how we punish/correct long after our ideologies and laws change. The implication being that a more progressive approach to justice would be curtailed by the expensive assemblage of bricks that themselves were the result of the imperfect plans and fads of the day.

 

 

 

Who did you work with on Through a Penal System, Darkly?

The photography was made possible thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. What followed—the contextualization of the photographs, the website – was the result of an artist residency at the Osgoode Hall Law School, an unusual intersection of disciplines that was the brainchild of the school’s forward-thinking Dean, Lorne Sossin.

The focus of the residency was to research and create a legal and historical context for the photographs I had taken—which was accomplished through collaboration with seven upper-year law students who elected to take my Directed Reading course.

Through research, discussions and interviews with the various stakeholders, the students and I explored the ideals of the criminal justice system—past, present and future. Ultimately, the photographs and accompanying stories, essays, historical anecdotes tell us something about Kingston Penitentiary. However, they also invite us to ruminate on the bigger picture—that is, on the evolving structure of the penal system, on society’s changing understanding of the role of prison, and on the role played by the many people who have a willing or unwilling stake in the criminal justice and penal systems. The breadth and scope of the interviews and essays are owed mostly to them.

The work for me sits somewhere between Donovan Wylie’s work on the decommissioned Long Kesh Prison, Northern Ireland, Geoffrey James’ work on Kingston and perhaps even the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History.

I love Donovan Wylie’s comment about “applying a [photographic] system to a [prison] system”. I can relate to it. Wylie’s Maze series is one of my favourites. Those curtains! I couldn’t help but have him in the back of my mind when I was arranging my project.

It wasn’t until Geoffrey James published his book that I had any idea he, too, had photographed the prison. We don’t run in similar circles. He had such great access! My access was minimum and given grudgingly by the Head of the Correctional Service Canada.

I like thinking that my project aligns with the work of Tings Chak, which strives to be more experiential than the more straight-forward documentarian photographs of, say, Geoffrey James. Her graphic novel, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, explores the role and ethics of architectural design and representation in mass incarceration, and is pretty amazing.

Another artist who is documenting from an interesting angle is Brett Story, who just finished her PhD in geography at University of Toronto and made a film The Prison In Twelve Landscapes about the influence of prisons on public systems, cities and economics.

It’s a gorgeous, harrowing film. I thought it was one of the best films of 2016.

I’d like to see more multimedia in-depth photo-based pieces like Through a Penal System, Darkly. It seems the skills to code all this might beyond most people? Am I right, or am I just a luddite? Could Through a Penal System, Darkly be used as a template for other projects?

Thank you! You’re no luddite—the coding was beyond me and so would have been the cost of hiring a programmer without institutional support. I am grateful to Osgoode Hall Law School for generously providing the resources (developers, hosting, etc) to bring to life the idea in my head. I would love to use it as a template for future projects.

These types of projects are expensive and there is some risk. Another major project (also map-based) that I worked on 2007-2010 across seven Balkan countries with multiple arts organisations and which was funded by major European institutions went offline in 2015 because Google stopped supporting the web-based map platform on which the entire site was built. And, poof!, the work no longer exists. The cost of rebuilding it is too high and the momentum to search for support has passed. In-depth multimedia web projects are tricky things.

 

 

How and where do you want the work to sit? What do you hope it will do?

I hope the work sparks reaction and thought. It would be great if my own small contribution could inspire a change in the direction and tone of the conversation around decarceration.

I would love the opportunity to re-mount the exhibition publicly elsewhere.

I hope the website will continue to be used as a resource at Osgoode Hall Law School. It’s currently being used by high school students via the Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) program, an innovative collaborative academic and extracurricular education program aimed at supporting, guiding and motivating high school students who face challenges in engaging successfully with school and accessing postsecondary education, which is wonderful.

Thanks, Cindy.

Thank you, Pete.

 

 

All images: Cindy Blažević

 

 

 

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