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Solidarity with CA prisoners poster 2

Prisoners in California will no longer be kept in windowless boxes indefinitely. That improves the lives of 3,000 people. It also brings California into line with the practices of virtually all other states. This is landmark.

Many groups were involved in the support of the plaintiffs in the class action suit. Legal Services for Prisoners with Children put out a press release. Below I copy the press release of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group.


OAKLAND — Today, California prisoners locked in isolation achieved a groundbreaking legal victory in their ongoing struggle against the use of solitary confinement. A settlement was reached in the federal class action suit Ashker v. Brown, originally filed in 2012, effectively ending indefinite long-term solitary confinement, and greatly limiting the prison administration’s ability to use the practice, widely seen as a form of torture. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of prisoners held in Pelican Bay State Prison’s infamous Security Housing Units (SHU) for more than 10 years, where they spend 23 hours a day or more in their cells with little to no access to family visits, outdoor time, or any kind of programming.

“From the historic prisoner-led hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, to the work of families, loved ones, and advocate, this settlement is a direct result of our grassroots organizing, both inside and outside prison walls,” said Dolores Canales of California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC), and mother of a prisoner in Pelican Bay. “This legal victory is huge, but is not the end of our fight – it will only make the struggle against solitary and imprisonment everywhere stronger.” The 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes gained widespread international attention that for the first time in recent years put solitary confinement under mainstream scrutiny.

Hunger-Strike-suspension-1st-anniversary-Mosswood-Park-Amphitheater-Oakland-090614-by-Lucas-Guilkey-web 4

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) coalition members commemorating the first anniversary of the 2013 hunger strike suspension.

Currently, many prisoners are in solitary because of their “status” – having been associated with political ideologies or gang affiliation. However, this settlement does away with the status-based system, leaving solitary as an option only in cases of serious behavioral rule violations. Furthermore, the settlement limits the amount of time a prisoner may be held in solitary, and sets a two year Step-Down Program for the release of current solitary prisoners into the prison general population.

It is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners will be released from SHU within one year of this settlement. A higher security general population unit will be created for a small number of cases where people have been in SHU for more than 10 years and have a recent serious rule violation.

“Despite the repeated attempts by the prison regime to break the prisoners’ strength, they have remained unified in this fight,” said Marie Levin of CFASC and sister of a prisoner representative named in the lawsuit. “The Agreement to End Hostilities and the unity of the prisoners are crucial to this victory, and will continue to play a significant role in their ongoing struggle.” The Agreement to End Hostilities is an historic document put out by prisoner representatives in Pelican Bay in 2012 calling on all prisoners to build unity and cease hostilities between racial groups.


Drawn by Michael D. Russell, Pelican Bay SHU

Prisoner representatives and their legal counsel will regularly meet with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials as well as with Federal Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas, who is tasked with overseeing the reforms, to insure that the settlement terms are being implemented.

“Without the hunger strikes and without the Agreement to End Hostilities to bring California’s prisoners together and commit to risking their lives— by being willing to die for their cause by starving for 60 days, we would not have this settlement today,” said Anne Weills of Siegel and Yee, co-counsel in the case. “It will improve the living conditions for thousands of men and women and no longer have them languishing for decades in the hole at Pelican Bay.”

“This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters,” said the prisoners represented in the settlement in a joint statement. “We celebrate this victory while at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle.”

Dare to Struggle_Carlos Ramirez_Pelican Bay

Drawn by Carlos Ramirez while in Pelican Bay SHU

Legal co-counsel in the case includes California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, Chistensen O’Connor Johnson Kindness PLLC, and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone. The lead counsel is the Center for Constitutional Rights. The judge in the case is Judge Claudia Wilken in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

A rally and press conference are set for 12pm in front of the Elihu M Harris State Building in Oakland, which will be livestreamed at

The settlement can be read on CCR’s website, along with a summary. CCR has also put up downloadable clips of the plaintiffs’ depositions here.


By Chris Garcia, drawn while in Pelican Bay SHU.


Joseph Harmon spent eight years in solitary at Pelican Bay State Prison in California. He is now a preacher, but still feels the need to withdraw. Credit Max Whittaker for The New York Times

I’ve spent a good amount of time over the past few weeks putting final touches to an essay for a forthcoming exhibition/project/programming by ERNEST Collective at c:3Initiative in Portland Oregon, in September.

The essay is about the sketches of a man who was held in solitary confinement for extended periods in the California prison system. Within it, I quote Dr. Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, a couple of times. His latest research was featured in the New York Times this week:

Most studies have focused on laboratory volunteers or prison inmates who have been isolated for relatively short periods. Dr. Haney’s interviews offer the first systematic look at inmates isolated from normal human contact for much of their adult lives and the profound losses that such confinement appears to produce.

The interviews, conducted over the last two years as part of a lawsuit over prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, have not yet been written up as a formal study or reviewed by other researchers. But Dr. Haney’s work provides a vivid portrait of men so severely isolated that, to use Dr. Haney’s term, they have undergone a “social death.”


Dr. Haney interviewed 56 prisoners who had spent 10 to 28 years in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit, or S.H.U., including seven men he had interviewed in 1993, eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit and 41 randomly selected inmates. For comparison, he also interviewed 25 maximum-security inmates who were not in solitary.

It’s a very important read and a good primer for those who are not up to speed on the torture in our supermax prisons. Make no bones about it solitary IS torture.

The best part of the article, for me, was not the words, the well researched links, the historical context or even the portraits by Max Whitaker, it was the embedded 4min, 41sec video of prisoners speaking about their decades in solitary.


The final interviewee breaks down in tears and barely gets the words, “No human should live like this.” “Just give me a death sentence.”

Another prisoner, the article notes, said that the hour he had spent in Haney’s interview was “the most I’ve talked in years.”

Read: Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life

If you are in Portland, Ore. this autumn may I recommend you pay a visit to ERNEST’s show Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, and particularly the opening on Friday September 18th.


Today, Daylight Digital published a presentation (online and iPad App) of Amy Elkin‘s project Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night.

Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night (BITDBITN) is a collection of images, texts, letters, objects, quotes and ephemeral queries borne of Amy’s correspondence with men on death row and in solitary confinement. It is a project I know well having interviewed Amy about it in 2011 and curated it into the exhibition Cruel and Unusual in 2012. I’ve keenly followed the development of BITDBITN. In some cases, Amy and I bounced ideas back-and-forth about it when we lived in the same town. Amy and I are close friends and she once invited me to guest curate at Women In Photography. When Daylight asked me to write an essay to accompany the images and audio it was a no-brainer.

BITDBITN is about execution, time on death row, solitary confinement, sensory deprivation. It is also about the most invisible parts of America’s prison industrial complex. Amy grew up in California, the state that was first to operate a specialised solitary confinement facility at Pelican Bay State Prison. This past summer, as I was writing the piece, the California Prisoner Hunger Strike in protest of conditions in Pelican Bay and other SHU, IMU and solitary facilities was in full swing.

Amy’s work is our entry into this highly contested political territory; a territory that remains, for all intents and purposes, hidden. It is hidden because solitary makes people insane and is psychological torture.

Daylight Digital’s presentation includes the words of Freddy (spoken by Rafael Ramirez) who was sent to prison as a 13 year-old, has spent the last 20+ years of his life in solitary confinement, and with whom Elkins corresponded for four years.

I’m proud to have been invited to join this multimedia collaboration. See the images, listen to the testimony, read the words.


Marie Levin holds a photo of her brother, Ronnie Dewberry, taken at San Quentin State Prison in 1988. Until recently, it was the last photograph he’d had taken. Photo credit: Adithya Sambamurthy/The Center for Investigative Reporting


We are now into the second week of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike. It is difficult to get firm figures on the number of participating prisoners. The Los Angeles Times reports 30,000; CNN reports 12,000 and Yahoo reports 7,000+.

I’m inclined to trust the figures sourced by Solitary Watch:

The hunger strike began on July 8th with participation of approximately 30,000 people in two-thirds of California’s prisons, as well as several out-of-state facilities holding California prisoners. In the first days of the hunger strike, approximately 3,200 others also refused to attend work or education classes as a form of protest in support of the hunger strike. As of Sunday, there are an estimated 4,487 still on hunger strike.

Still, formidable numbers.


Last week, in conjunction with the initiation of the mass peaceful protect, Michael Montgomery for the Center for Investigative Reporting published an excellent article California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities about the ban on portrait photographs of prisoners held in solitary confinement.

Accompanying the article is the interactive Solitary Lives feature and a Flickr gallery.

The ban resulted from a tension between what a photograph meant or could mean.

For families, a photograph is a tangible connection to their loved one behind bars, but for staff of the four maximum security prisons that upheld the ban, photographs were potential calling cards — circulated by prison gang leaders — both to advise other members that they’re still in charge and to pass on orders.

The ban was lifted in 2011, following the last California prison hunger strike. Montgomery quotes Sean Kernan, the former Under-Secretary of the CDCR

“I think we were wrong, and I think (that) to this day,” he said. “How right is it to have an offender who is behaving … (and) to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years?” Kernan directed prison staff to ease the restrictions for inmates who were free of any disciplinary violations.

The ban in the four Californian prisons was extraordinary.

“I have never heard of any other prison system or individual prison in America imposing a long-term ban of this kind,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

As I have stated frequently on Prison Photography, prison (visiting-room) portraiture is one of the most prevalent types of American vernacular photography.

Until artists such as Alyse Emdur and David Adler began to draw focus to this disparate, decentralised, emotion-laden, and high-stake vernacular sub-genre, prison portraits were kept in wallets, on mantles and in side tables. There’s tens of millions of them out there.

And yet, for over 20 years, thousands of men in California were not allowed images of themselves. The additional ban of mirrors in solitary units meant that many men often did not see images of themselves for years on end. Again, to quote Montgomery’s article:

“I have asked my husband, ‘Do you even know what you look like?’ And he says, ‘Kind of, sort of,’ ” said Irene Huerta, whose husband, Gabriel, 54, has been detained at Pelican Bay for 23 years.


In the free world, photographs are ubiquitous, easily created, shared and possessed. The fact that these seemingly innocuous objects were caught in the tussle of control between prison authorities and prisoners is astonishing, and speaks to the power struggle (real and imagined) between the kept and the keepers.

Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said easing the restrictions on prisoner photographs raised no major security concerns, so long as inmates had to earn them. “It’s not as if there’s been an epidemic of inmate photos on the street,” he said.

I am not sure how Rushford would measure this, or even it would significantly alter the lives of prisoners, specifically now during the hunger strike, and especially now when proven or alleged gang affiliations have been put aside by prisoners in solidarity for improved conditions for all.

In light of recent art market fetishism, it would seem the primary reason anyone would want to gather prison portraits would be to repeat Harper’s Books’ $45,000 hustle and cash in on the images?

As for the families (following the ban lift) the value of newly acquired images is not in any doubt:

Seeing an image of their incarcerated relative for the first time in years has sparked renewed hope and revived dormant family connections. For others, the photographs are a shocking reminder of the length of time some inmates have been held in isolation.


Michael Montgomery’s California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities

Interactive Solitary Lives feature.


I cannot emphasize enough how important the website Solitary Watch is as a resource. Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and their team of reporters produce high quality journalism — not only for their website but for other news outlets including The Guardian, Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation.

Solitary Watch is an independent media and advocacy project, funded by grants and donations. It is a project of the Community Futures Collective, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. You can support the project here.

I don’t hesitate to say that Solitary Watch has driven much of the critical and visible public discourse about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails.

As Solitary Watch describes, “Solitary confinement is one of the nation’s most pressing domestic human rights issues — and also one of the most invisible,” which is why I have a vested interest in their work; we’re each interested in making solitary and other egregious aspects of the U.S. prison system more visible.

Photo: Roger May. (Source)

You’d think after 26 months in an Iranian prison, Shane Bauer would not be interested in seeing the inside of another cell. Think again. As I’ve noted before, Bauer is a journalist with human rights at the core of his stories.

Since his return to the U.S. he has been increasingly involved in describing the real problem we have with our approach to corrections. From Bauer’s Mother Jones feature piece:

I’ve been corresponding with at least 20 inmates in SHUs around California as part of an investigation into why and how people end up here. While at Pelican Bay, I’m not allowed to see or speak to any of them. Since 1996, California law has given prison authorities full control of which inmates journalists can interview. The only one I’m permitted to speak to is the same person the New York Times was allowed to interview months before. He is getting out of the SHU because he informed on other prisoners. In fact, this SHU pod—the only one I am allowed to see—is populated entirely by prison informants. I ask repeatedly why I’m not allowed to visit another pod or speak to other SHU inmates. Eventually, Acosta snaps: “You’re just not.”

Bauer excavates the policy and the logic, if you can call it that, used by the CDCR in their categorisation of prisoners and how those policies lands individuals in solitary. Pelican Bay State Prison, the oldest state-built Supermax, is Kafkaesque in its imprisonment of prisoners classified as gang affiliated. Bauer describes the *evidence* used by the CDCR in its case tying Dietrich Pennington to gang activity.

In Pennington’s file, the “direct link” is his possession of an article published in the San Francisco Bay View, an African American newspaper with a circulation of around 15,000. The paper is approved for distribution in California prisons, and Pennington’s right to receive it is protected under state law. In the op-ed style article he had in his cell, titled “Guards confiscate ‘revolutionary’ materials at Pelican Bay,” a validated member of the Black Guerilla Family prison gang complains about the seizure of literature and pictures from his cell and accuses the prison of pursuing “racist policy.” In Pennington’s validation documents, the gang investigator contends that, by naming the confiscated materials, the author “communicates to associates of the BGF…as to which material needs to be studied.” No one alleges that Pennington ever attempted to contact the author. It is enough that he possessed the article.

Getting out is a Catch-22 that is best described by Bauer than I.

For the longest time, there was a media blackout in California prisons and very few journalists got in to the SHU. I have heard from a few reporters and photographers this year who have visited Pelican Bay’s SHU but on a very tightly controlled media tour. Ultimately, Bauer wants to decode what purposes are served by solitary confinement. The CDCR argues it keeps prison violence down, but …

Prison violence fluctuates for myriad reasons, among them overcrowding, gang politics, and prison conditions. It’s impossible to say for certain what role SHUs play; what is clear is that in states that have reduced solitary confinement — Colorado, Maine, and Mississippi — violence has not increased. […] Since Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman released 75 percent of inmates from solitary in the mid-2000s, violence has dropped 50 percent. CDCR officials claim California is different because the gang problem is worse here, though they don’t have data to confirm this.

Bauer goes on to compare the correspondences he received as a prisoner with the letters he receives from Californian prisoners during his investigation. He describes the extreme psychological stress of solitary confinement and possibility of less labyrinthine regulation of SHUs with forthcoming CDCR policy changes (which may or may not transpire.)

He also offers readers to chance to contact the prisoners in the article.

Recommended read.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – – – –

UPDATED: Oct 23rd, 2012

See Shane Bauer’s two-part conversation with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now – one and two – and his support for California Hunger Strikers alongside Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal in Oakland, Oct, 2011.

3 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (river)

It may have been her family member sucked into the U.S. prison system or it might be Amy Elkins‘ curiosity about the darker undercurrents of humanity that led her to pick up a pen and write to Americans on death row and serving life without parole.

Four years ago, Amy opened up communication channels with seven prisoners. “My original fascination was with the idea of being pulled away from society and how that affects people; how it affects memories,” said Amy during a sun-drenched interview in the garden of a Portland coffee shop.

“The whole project has been about searching,” says Amy. “I searched out these men on the internet, then I had to search my motives as to why I write these.” Later, Amy searched news clips and court transcripts to piece together the stories of the persons to whom she’d reached out.

26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was). Portrait of a man having thus far served 26 years in prison (18 of which were out of a deathrow sentence), where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

13 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (river)

Unlike the fates of her condemned correspondents, Amy’s project Black is the Day, Black is the Night has no prescribed end-point.

As she has got know her pen-pals, collaborations have developed; common cell-house objects constructed, photographed and bought; portraits made from the last words of the executed; obscured quotes from the poems of her pen-pal friends; pixelated portraits of dead men walking, whose stories are dominated by the narratives of courts and institutions. Black is the Day, Black is the Night contributes new chapters … in some cases they might ultimately double as eulogies.

Of most interest to Prison Photography are Elkins’ composite landscapes. The catalyst for each is the description of a memory by one of Amy’s pen-pals – childhoods spent under cloudless skies, a born-again fascination with baptism rivers of the South, and wide open desert. Inmates had no access to images and Amy had only access to these scenes through their words. If reality exists for them or us, it’s a feeble reconstruction several steps removed. Searching again, this time through Google images.

To create the distorted landscapes and pixelated portraits, Amy uses a couple of mathematical formulas driven through photoshop. The numbers involved in each formula relate to the age of the pen-pal and the numbers of years they’ve been incarcerated. Amy wants to keep the algorithm under her hat, but it appears the longer they’ve been locked-up the more vague the visages become.

13/32 (Not the Man I Once Was)

12 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (Dying Wish Retama Tree)

14 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (Dying Wish Retama Tree)

Currently, there are approximately 1,500 American citizens on death row.

“To be honest I’d never considered that this country has such a huge population of people on death row,” says Amy.

She began her research by signing up to one of the many online prison pen-pal services. The prisoners are categorized; one option ‘DEATH ROW INMATES’. “I clicked it and it was 50 pages; a sea of faces looking back at me. […] to click on one button and get hundreds of people looking for contact with the outside world. […] it’s difficult to describe. Nerve-racking and unnerving?”

Simultaneously engrossed and “freaked out”, Amy was conscientious in how she progressed. “It was never a photo project! I was just writing. I wrote with them for a year before I did anything with it. […] Part of that had to do with creating my own comfort levels,” explains Amy. “I deliberately contacted people who’d been in for 13 years or more. I didn’t want to write with someone who was angry. I wanted to be in touch with people who were at some sort of peace with the situation, who could look back and have some perspective.”

Of her seven original corespondents, three remain.

One was executed. The letters stopped coming and the news was confirmed through internet news stories. “No one went to his execution – no one from his family, no one from the victim’s family. He was poverty stricken. There was doubt in his case. He very well could not have done any of the things he was accused of. Every letter he wrote said ‘I am innocent’.”

Another pen-pal was released after serving 15 years, “He never contacted me [post-release]. He’s getting on with life. I hope he’s doing well,” says Amy.

A third pen-pal in Nevada wrote to explain that he was working on a novel and had developed a romantic writing relationship with another woman. He broke it off. “I was fascinated by that. It’s weird to be out here free and have them in there with relatively nothing and see them decide not to write. I respect that. They have so little, but they are careful about their time,” says Amy.

Amy’s pen-pal at San Quentin is erratic in his letters, writing after long periods of silence and often emerging from one [mental health] crisis or another. Amy has never felt that they’ve been able to develop a sustained relationship.

Her pen-pal in Mississippi writes on the 10th of every month but his letters are shorter now as he presses his last remaining options for appeal against execution. “From his letters he’s describing that it’ll be up before the year is out,” sighs Amy.

The sixth is in Georgia.

17/35 (Not the Man I Once Was) Portrait of a man having thus far served 17 years out of a deathrow sentence, where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

7 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (forest)

9 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (forest)

The most sharing, personal and colorful letters are from a lifer in the renowned Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. Pelican Bay was America’s first SuperMax and currently the focus of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike. Of all her pen-pals, Amy can predict most this man’s future “The guy in Pelican Bay is going nowhere.”

On any given day in the U.S., there are 20,000 people held in solitary confinement.

“In California, solitary is a 6’x9′ cell with no windows and a steel door. I don’t think anyone would do well in that situation. People are extracted [from general population] and placed into these cells already upset and then they left to themselves. I don’t think prisoners are going to read the bible 30 times and then be okay,” speculates Amy, “I go stir crazy if I’m in my house for a day without going outside.”

Amy describes the Pelican Bay prisoner’s letters of unusual “formal British” tone. Unusual because he is originally from Tijuana, Mexico. “He must have been reading a lot of books?” wonders Amy.

“His first letter was 15 pages long and he said, very poetically, that he sits in his cell 23 hours a day. Once a day, he is shackled, walked down a corridor, on his own, and let into a concrete pen with 25 foot walls and a metal grate over it. He doesn’t describe it like ‘this is all I have, I can’t stand it here.’ He says he has 60 minutes of freedom, where he just gazes up at the sky; the only aspect of the outside world he can have. And even still, he watches the sky through a metal grate so it is not a pure version of open sky.”

Amy put out an open call for people to send her pictures of the sky. “I started making composites and sent them to him,” says Amy. “He didn’t understand the computer or photoshop. He hung them all up in his cell and wrote me back about how excited he felt being surrounded by skies. That was the first person I made something for and got feedback on. It felt like a collaboration. I started pulling images from other people’s letters. Other guys shared things about past experience, in some case decades prior. I’d repeat the process, make composites and send them.”

The prisoner at Pelican Bay has been in prison for 21 years, in solitary for 16 years. He has experienced another of Amy’s intrigues – juvenile offenders sentenced as adults.

“He went to Juvie, and he’s had no break in his incarceration,” says Amy.

“His mugshot was of him as a 13 year old boy. His profile read ’34 year old man, Pelican Bay State Prison’. But that was the last photo taken of him in the system. I’ve never been politically driven or hugely into criminal law. I’m just a portrait photographer interested in psychology and cultural anthropology. There is something about someone in that level of isolation, I just wanted to reach out. If that makes any sense.”

15/30 (Not the Man I Once Was)

4 Years Out of a Deathrow Sentence (ocean). A penpal 26 years into his sentence in a landlocked prison, described an early childhood memory that haunted him, of walking further and further into the ocean during low tide until the sudden depth and darkness before him overcame him with fear.

26 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (ocean)

Questions of whether or not Amy’s project in some way exploits these men have been floated before. She worked on the Black is the Day, Black is the Night “obsessively” during her Lightwork residency earlier this year.

“During my exit interview, the director expressed concern. How could I be this person in the world, who is fortunate enough to live a nice life, have a gallery, have nice things and focus on these individuals? He wanted to make sure I was ready for those types of questions. But, those question could be asked of all documentary work. It’s not about that; it is about getting the stories out in the world and having people think. I don’t know what people have in their minds [about me]. I’m not some “privileged girl” writing to “savage men”. No. I didn’t come in the project with any type of judgement. I like that I can talk about their stories in a way that’s not conventional. I think it’s correct that we can write; be trusting and share. […] I always write them back and I’m pretty open about my life as well.”

And the pen-pals reactions? “I don’t know if it’s that they’re bored or genuinely fascinated, but they’ve always expressed that they find it intriguing,” says Amy. “They’ve been sought out and they’re being interacted with. I’m not a housewife or someone for a church reaching out in those ways. I am their age and I’m reaching out with mail that’s perhaps a little more interesting than the average.”


To date, Amy has never profited from the project, but if – in the future – someone wanted to pay $10,000 for a landscape? “I’d sell. I’d send them the money. I have sent money to my pen-pals in the past. I have become friends with these men.”

The title, Black is the Day, Black is the Night, derives from a quote in a poem Amy received. “It spoke about that environment so well. The idea of being pulled away from anything. Experiencing no variance. Everything is the same; everything is dark. The poem is mind-blowing. Better for him to describe the situation than me.”

As the afternoon sun waned, and Amy and I squinted at the sky, that much was obvious.

All images © Amy Elkins

© Richard Ross

Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California is one of the most oppressive regimes of the U.S. prison system. It was designed to control and isolate the growing gang affiliations within California prisons following the CDCR’s massive expansion throughout the 1980s. It opened in 1989 and established THE model for maximum security prisons in states across the U.S.

Pelican Bay Prison specialises in solitary confinement. When photographer Richard Ross documented prisons as part of his Architecture of Authority project he went to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Pelican Bay.

The most segregated inmates spend 22 and half hours in a cell barely larger then your bedrooms or bathrooms. For the other 1 and a half hours they occupy a concrete pen for “exercise.”

Pelican Bay is notorious for it’s history of violence and despair. It is also, according to Christian Parenti, a boon for small town economics.

It is a god-forsaken hole.

The most isolated prisoners have put together a strike plan. Yes, they have demands, but more than that they want to make a point about the inhumane and invisible conditions they inhabit. Yes, many of them have committed heinous crimes but cooping them up like dogs serves only to increase tension, anger and danger.


From California Prison Focus

Prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison have called for an indefinite hunger strike as of July 1, 2011 to protest the cruel and inhumane conditions of their imprisonment.  The hunger strike was organized by prisoners in an unusual show of racial unity.  The prisoners developed five core demands

California Prison Focus supports these prisoners and their very reasonable demands, and calls on Governor Jerry Brown, CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate, and Pelican Bay State Prison Warden Greg Lewis to implement these changes.  California Prison Focus has also joined “Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity,” a coalition of grassroots human rights activist groups in the Bay Area supporting the demands of the prisoners participating in the hunger strike.

Briefly the five core demands of the prisoners are:

1. Eliminate group punishments.  Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race.  This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh. 

2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.

3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement.
  This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.”  Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up.  Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years. 

4. Provide adequate food.  Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations.  There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.

5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.  The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…”  Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves.  Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.)  All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).

The Pelican Bay hunger strikers have support form the other SuperMax in California Corcoran Bay Prison.

More here and here and here.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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