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obama el reno prison

We’ve seen Obama in a cell block before (no not those photoshop hack jobs by wingnut-conspiracy-theorists) but photos of Obama and the First Family, in 2013, touring Robben Island, the prison in which Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were held during South Africa’s regime of Apartheid. (BTW, Robben Island was, apparently, “a paradise by comparison” to modern U.S. prisons.)

One expects to see empty cells in photos of visitors–presidents included–to defunct prisons such as Robben Island. But one might not expect to see a quiet, vacant cellblock inside a functioning, policed, inhabited, tax-funded prison. I did not. Yet, that is what we have. The government at work is not in evidence here.

But then again, this is the first time a sitting president has visited a prison, so there is no precedent. POTUS’ handlers made their own rules at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. To get an idea how lonely and echoey an experience it was, consider these two images made by White House Chief photographer Pete Souza. Both [one & two] were posted to Twitter.


© Pete Souza / White House

None of the other images from Obama’s visit that I’ve seen have the vantage point of the second story mezzanine. Was Souza was the only one with the privilege of this overview? That Souza patrolled the gantry, looking down upon bodies milling below, was not happenstance. It made for more riveting pictures.

Michael Shaw over at BagNewsNotes approves of Souza’s up-above-angle arguing that it puts Obama “both in the belly of the beast, and also squarely facing the larger institutional problem.”


© Pete Souza / White House

Souza’s images are in contrast to the rest of the press pack who took shots, from a fixed position, at the end of the cellblock, with a long lens, during Obama’s brief walkabout.

During his 5-minute outline White House philosophy/policy to the press (transcript here), a couple of photographers (Saul Loeb and Doug Mills), got down on their haunches and shot images from knee-level looking upward toward POTUS (see below). These images elevate Obama, resizing him, and recasting him back into his more usual role as a leader in control; as a person in a position to rectify decades of failed policy and to reverse mass incarceration.
obama el reno prison

© Getty Images

Shaw also notes that these images of a controlled Obama might reflect a significant enough change in policy that this is a teachable moment — that this is Obama instructing the nation he leads. This is Obama as educator and reasoned orator it is argued. I can’t quite get to that conclusion, for I’m still wrapped up on the fact that Obama and his prison-guard-tour-guide Ronald Warlick are dressed in virtually identical garb!

obama el reno prison
President Barack Obama, alongside Ronald Warlick (L), a correctional officer, tours a cell block at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. © Getty

The matching uniforms might be an unfortunate visual turn for POTUS. But then again, if the shoe fits. Obama remains a law and order man. Sure, the White House is capitalising on widespread public and bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, but the president remains walking a fine line. He calls for the absolute necessary application of common sense but he does so in a way that doesn’t alarm opponents who are ready to pounce.

For example, Obama emphasised his support of correctional staff, “I want to give a special shout-out to our prison guards. They’ve got a really tough job, and most of them are doing it in exemplary fashion.” No president can alienate law enforcement so Obama’s words are no surprise. But given how vocal and momentum-winning the Black Lives Matter movement is, and given that many communities subject to over-zealous and murderous policing make no distinction between street cops and prison guards, it gets pretty uncomfortable.

On the other hand, much of America is still unversed in the racist and classist underpinnings of the prison industrial complex and will need time to take in Obama’s message. Why do you think he is hanging his every speech on the “5% of the world’s pop; 25% of the prison pop” stat? It’s a simple, shocking stat. It points the finger, but at all of us and none of us; it is a stat that calls out the problem without calling out those who created it. Sure, in front of a Philly NAACP crowd, Obama can get into more specifics and mention slavery but that won’t be the middle-ground message that the  White House will adopt between now and January 2017.

obama el reno prison
President Obama speaks to reporters during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. © Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Obama may have just pardoned 46 people who were serving long sentences for drug related offences but that was a safe symbolic gesture that indicated the White House’s awareness of the issue without pissing too many people off. But really, what is 46 as a percentage of 2.3 million?

Furthermore, Obama’s persistent argument is that locking up drug users and low levels dealers for decades is foolish. A news report I saw today said there might be 2,500 people serving 20 years or more for non-violent drug offenses. Again, what percentage is 2,500 of 2.3 million?

We should recognise Obama for getting to the starting line but he still has a marathon to run.

obama el reno prison
President Obama toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on Thursday and met with six inmates. © Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Images

Another thing that bothers me about the “safe” rhetoric about emancipating non-violent, low level drug offenders, is that it immediately divides America’s massive prison population — it assumes there are those who deserve some help in the face of an admittedly failed, brutalising system and it leaves the rest for no help within the failed, brutalising system.

Reformers are playing with definitions, shifting policitcal lines and seeing what lands. We’ll soon rest upon a point where those one side of the line receive some relief, but the great number of prisoners the other side of it get none. We are, arguably, doing nothing to disassemble the system and to redirect public funds toward more sweeping programs promoting social equality (yes, that’s schools, social entrepreneurship programs, prenatal healthcare, food programs).

Just because a person is convicted of a violent crime doesn’t mean they are a violent person. And just because someone has been violent once doesn’t mean they’ll be violent again. A wife who murders her husband after decades of abuse is an easy to understand example of this.

Making policy based upon legal definitions drawn up under a system that has violated citizens for decades is wrongheaded. Making arguments for violent offenders, too, is probably a step too far for most Americans to stomach but here again we find a measure by which “free” people and those subject to prisons and jails see the criminal justice issue so massively differently, still.

“I know Obama can’t fix everything, but I really hope his sole focus isn’t just on helping drug offenders,” said Nathan Mikulak, a former federal prisoner convicted of a gun offense and tagged in the federal system as an Armed Career Criminal (ACC) a system parts of which the SCOTUS just ruled unconstitutional.

obama el reno prison
President Obama toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on Thursday. © Doug Mills/The New York Times

The more I look at these images the odder they become. They mimic the press photos we’ve seen of shareholders and politicians touring schools or hospitals or factories or prisons (!) before they go online. Look at that shiny floor! Look at that fresh paint! Look at how the locks work!

These images might become iconic for the wrong reasons. This historic visit was reduced to a rapid press photo op. It’s the ultimate sanitised facility tour in the well-known genre that is the “Politician Prison Tour.”

I’ve been in a prison a week after politicians tour and heard the prisoners describe how the place was cleaned up beforehand. Obama’s tour of one of the “outstanding institutions” in the system — albeit cleaned out — is an unusual case of the Politician Prison Tour genre because it was played out for the cameras and because the whole nation was watching.

In giving politicians the benefit of the doubt, I could argue that they simply have not known what has gone on in the nation’s prisons and can be forgiven for doing virtually nothing for so long. Tours have not helped to inform them. Let’s hope that’s not the case here with our president.

obama el reno prison
US President Barack Obama, Charles Samuels, right, Bureau of Prisons Director, and Ronald Warlick, left, a correctional officer, looks at a prison cell as he tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, July 16, 2015, in El Reno, Oklahoma. © AFP/Getty Images

I presume Obama’s handlers didn’t make a photograph of him looking inside an empty cell because it’d undermine the “bravery” of the gesture to visit a prison … conveniently vacated of its prisoners.

The secret service knew it would be impossible to secure a cellblock full of convicts. Ironically, a prison provides levels of control over citizens that the secret service can only dream of as compared to manning presidential appearances in public! In a prison every single person undergoes the scrutiny, searches and discipline of a space designed for monitoring! And yet, the danger for the leader of the free world to wander amid a functioning cellblock with prisoners was surely too great.

Imagine, the PR nightmare should, on the slimmest of slim possibilities, a prison riot break out around the president and his entourage? Now you understand why we have these images.

obama el reno prison
President Barack Obama looks inside a cell alongside correctional officerRonald Warlick (front) and Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels

Obama did meet with six prisoners and VICE + HBO made some video of the meeting for a forthcoming documentary. When it is published, that footage might assuage this continued, discomfiting knowledge. That’s the knowledge that neither Obama or we have seen prison yet. We saw a photo op in a building in a prison compound.

Well, well, well. All sorts of commentary on the importance of photographs surrounding the assassination of Osama bin Laden and President Obama’s announcement in the East Room with reenactment of his speech for the still cameras.

From the White House Situation Room (now with added memes) and Reuters’ bloody gallery (WARNING: Graphic images of corpses) to whether we deserve or need to see bin Laden’s bullet-riddled head. Then there’s Senator Scott Brown’s faux-pas over a hoax photograph. Not to mention the reported different versions of the actual event.

For all the best articles click on the links over on Raw File Blog’s twitter feed, where I’ve been compiling them all day.

There’s still one photo – to be precise its caption – that is bothering me. And it’s this one:

White House photographer, Pete Souza, captioned the image thus: “President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.”

Except everywhere I’ve seen it used, the inference is that the White House team are watching a live feed of the raid on bin Laden’s compound.

They might be, but I want a SOURCE.

It seems to me this image may have been interpreted as one thing at an early stage and because it the narrative tied to the body language is so seductive, no-one has chosen to question it.

I think the reading of the image is massively altered depending on whether you think they’re watching murders in progress or whether they are, for example, waiting nervously for the screen to boot up.

Ryan Singel for’s Epicenter blog went as far to say the White House “officials watching what one presumes is the livestream of the Navy Seal raid on Osama’s hideout in Pakistan.

For all the hullabaloo about this image, no-one is actually sure about what is on THAT screen.

So, does anyone have a solid source saying that they are viewing a live feed of the operation?

Chris Jordan was low on my list of priorities but this timely post by Mike Kelley at (a blog as impressive for its readers’ comments as it is for the straight forward presentation of Jordan’s work) compelled me to bump it up and champion the depressingly and unfathomable figures that arise when one simply runs the numbers.

Chris Jordan. Depicts 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, equal to the number of Americans incarcerated in 2005. The U.S. has the largest prison population of any country in the world.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. 10x23 feet in six vertical panels. Depicts 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, equal to the number of Americans incarcerated in 2005. The U.S. has the largest prison population of any country in the world.

In reading’s straight forward commentary on America’s broken criminal justice system, I signed up for and read a few of their older posts. In doing so I was presented with the catalyst to comment on Obama’s momentous inauguration without repeating the media-lovefest that has surrounded the 44th’s swearing in. This post will cover Jordan’s astounding artwork, Obama’s astounding tasks-at-hand and where they politically overlap.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. Partial zoom.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. Partial zoom.

Chris Jordan has spent his time making larger and larger photographic constructions to communicate the scale at which American society wastes its resources, its environmental future and its grasp on logic. In his effort to catalogue the linear and thoughtless waste of the US, he has progressed from crushed automobiles, to cell phone chargers, to polystyrene cups to American prisoners.

Jordan is a bright guy, now consumed by his photography (which to be quite frank is eco-hip and brilliantly executed). He talks passionately about a sea-change in our cultural consumption. He specialises in highlighting “the behaviours that we all engage in unconsciously on a collective level … the actions we are in denial about and the ones that operate below our daily awareness … like when you’re mean to you wife because you’re mad about something else or when you drink too much at a party because you’re nervous.” Jordan is no prophet, he just sees the necessary u-turn we must all make in our habits and thoughts to move toward sustainable existence.

Prison Uniforms, 2007. 10x23 feet in six vertical panels. Detail at half actual size.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. 10x23 feet in six vertical panels. Detail at half actual size.

I like to think the strength of Jordan’s visual framework that deals with soda cans to the landfill as it does with prisoners to the cell blocks is deliberate. As hard as it is to acknowledge, the majority of Americans have turned their back on a seven-figure-minority as if it were worth no more thought than discarded packaging. Mass imprisonment is the result of widespread apathy, denial and unpinnable responsibility. How unconscionable is this situation? We are all responsible. Barack Obama talked very little about criminal justice and prison policy during his electioneering. This is not surprising as helping the invisible incarcerated masses is on the electorate’s mind as much as the whereabouts of their last twinkie wrapper. But, Obama also made it very clear that this was the time for personal responsibility and accountability.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. Installed at the Von Lintel Gallery, NY, June 2007.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. Installed at the Von Lintel Gallery, NY, June 2007.

So after a week of photography gallery after gallery, the militarised eye vs. the personal touch, Gigapan-assisted user-generated snooping, faux controversy, minor mishaps, cult worship, sentimental clap-trap, unending debate, media catfights, nerdcore details, celeb fluff and even UFO’s isn’t it time we adopt the same realism that Obama trusted in for his inaugural speech?

A wonderful article from the Wall Street Journal lays out the realism and “the audacity of hope behind bars”. (Via Angola prisoner, Mr. Dennis served up some REALISM: “He’s got his hands full: Two wars, the economy is going in the tank and the health-care costs are skyrocketing – I’d be surprised if he has time to brush his teeth in the next four years.” While another prisoner took care of the HOPE: “If the men here can have hope, then why can’t the rest of the country?”

Prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary ("Angola") were given the day off to watch Barack Obama inaugurated as America's 44th president.

Prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary ("Angola") were given the day off to watch Barack Obama inaugurated as America's 44th president.

So how does this all connect? Jordan and Obama share the same call to think, with serious intent, about the things invisible to us. Both call us to consider the reality of our society and accept our shared responsibility for its faults, weaknesses and injustices. Both men challenge conventional wisdom; the logic that just because we didn’t turn the key nor bring down the gavel, we are not complicit – by our silence – in America’s mass incarceration.

What can you do? You can start by signing this petition immediately and by using web2.0 to access Obama’s administration as his team reached you during the election.

If you’d like to know more about Chris Jordan you could do worse than starting with this interview, this interview and this interview.


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