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This year marks 200 years since Auburn Prison went in to operation. Joe Librandi-Cowan grew up in the shadow of massive maximum-security prison in upstate New York. Over the past three years, Librandi-Cowan has been photographing the neighborhoods around the prison (now called Auburn Correctional Facility), has been meeting locals, diving into archives and exhibiting the work within the region. His main body of work is The Auburn System, titled after the Auburn System of prison management that added hard labour to the Philadelphia System of solitary, penitence and prayer. His photobook Songs of a Silent Wall brings together archive images of American prisons.
Librandi-Cowan has contempt for the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) in the United States and the manner in which its decentralized and embedded nature allows for its silent persistence. His work mounts a narrative that writes Auburn into the early chapters of the development of the PIC. It’s not a narrative closely examined by others in his hometown. Shaping and presenting the work has not been without its challenges.
It is Librandi-Cowan’s negotiations between critiquing the system and maintaining empathy for ordinary people who work in it–who are also swallowed by it–that fascinate me. Not least, because other image-makers focused on prisons are dealing with similarly delicate negotiations.
I’m grateful to Librandi-Cowan for making time to answer my questions.
Scroll on for our Q&A.
PP: How did your work on Auburn Prison come about? Is it still ongoing?
JLC: The project formed into the focus of my undergraduate studies and eventually into my thesis work. The project is ongoing. The work requires a slow, long-term approach. While Auburn is my hometown, I still struggle to understand and represent it visually. My relationship to Auburn, much like the town’s relationship to the prison industry, is complex. I critique and question the history of an institution that has almost always supported the community. The fact that I am a member of the community, forces me to move slowly and carefully.
The history takes a while to sift through, the relationships I make with fellow Auburnians take a while to forge, and figuring out how to represent and combat the prison industrial complex isn’t something that is simple to figure out.
PP: When did you first start thinking of the prison as a topic for your art and inquiry?
JLC: The prison sits in the middle of the city. Many members of local families, generations deep, have been employed by the prison industry. Growing up, I was vaguely aware that some of my family had worked in the prison, but I never gave the prison – which was down the street from where I lived, always in view – much of a thought.
I knew little bits about the prison’s history – that it was one of the oldest prisons in New York State, and that it was the first place to host an execution by electrocution – but the prison, and ideas related to imprisonment, were seldom discussed or explained. I never questioned or understood the prison beyond it being a place for employment.
It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t necessarily normal to have a prison down the street or to have a family member or neighbor that worked inside a prison.
JLC: As I got older, I began to learn more about the prison system, mass incarceration, the economics involved and I began to realize that the prison had a much larger influence on my community than I had initially thought or understood. I began making images to make sense of the complicated role the prison has had with my hometown, with history, and with myself as a young person living in the town. I began photographing in an attempt to make sense of the prison system from the lens of a prison host community, but immediately I realized that it further pushed me to question it.
PP: Where have you presented this work?
JLC: I have presented this at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art, which is Auburn’s local history museum. I have also shown selections of the work at LightWork in Syracuse, NY, and I recently opened a show at SUNY Onondaga.
PP: When you showed it in Auburn itself how was it received?
JLC: Reactions varied – it was positive, negative, and also a bit static/unresponsive. Much of the feedback I received were initial aesthetic responses, and not feedback on the conceptual aspects or questions the work asked.
The prison is a top employer within the community, so people are seemingly reluctant to critique or question the role of the prison, its historical implications, or what the hosting of a prison means for a community.
While showing the work in Auburn, I made it clear within my presentation that I was questioning Auburn’s role within the prison industrial complex – past and present – and that I was interested in finding a way within our community to talk about the increasing problem of mass incarceration within the United States.
JLC: I found this information to be much more difficult to present and discuss within Auburn because so many within my community are directly involved with the correctional system. It was incredibly difficult to find ways to talk about what the work questions without the perception that I was criticizing the generations of people within my community who work or have worked at the prison. Finding productive ways to critically engage, discuss, and question the livelihood of many in my community has been very difficult.
In turn, the response to the work often ends up being extremely limited. Employee contracts won’t allow for correctional officers to discuss some of these issues with me, nor they do not want to talk ill of their work. Many people within my community have a difficult time reasoning with my questioning of the prison system; their relationships to it are complex, deep, and difficult to reckon with.
While many may generally agree that the prison system doesn’t function properly or fairly, Auburn’s relationship to its prison doesn’t seem to allow for a communal discussion on the matter.
PP: You suggested to me in an email that your worry over local reactions have effected the way you edit and present?
JLC: I wouldn’t say that I’ve necessarily changed the work, but I often worry that the project, and that the directness of my stance on the prison industry, may do damage to my community – especially when presented internally. Auburn has bore witness to much trauma. It has direct and early links to the Prison Industrial Complex, the electric chair, and to correctional practices that have helped shaped modern day incarceration. Condensing and presenting that information to the community almost produces and perpetuates this trauma. While it’s not the community’s direct fault, my questioning of these practices and histories has the potential to produce the feeling that the community itself is to blame.
While it is important to combat mass incarceration and the toxic attitudes that prison work can breed, I believe it’s also important to realize and remember that prisons have direct effects on the people who work within them and on the communities that host them.
To me, the ability of many within my community to navigate between the daily entrapment of prison walls and civilian life, begins to raise many questions about how traumas and toxic attitudes are transferred and perpetuated within my community and within society in general.
JLC: Prisons not only affect incarcerated individuals – they affect those who staff the prisons, the people close to those staff too. They affect towns that host prisons and communities from which members are extracted to then be incarcerated.
Prisons shape, and are shaped, by local and regional economies connected to the prison industry, and attitudes towards race – the list goes on. I’m trying to show that the web of the prison industrial complex, while much closer to my hometown than others, is something, often almost invisible, that is local to almost every American.
While I doubt many would pick prison work as their first employment opportunity, it is one of the only financially stable options within the Auburn area. Attacking the industry that financially provides for many within the community doesn’t seem to be the best way to have these conversations or to figure out alternatives or answers to the prison.
As I continue this project, I am attempting to find ways to properly and effectively critique mass incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex without alienating or further damaging my subjects – whether they be community members, correctional officers, or incarcerated individuals, or returning citizens.
PP: What is gained and what is lost by such slow and reflexive approach?
JLC: Being cautious and thoughtful about how the work may impact the actual people that the work represents will only help further the project and its possible impacts.
Much of the contemporary work on prisons deals with incarcerated individuals, however, I’m becoming increasingly interested in figuring out how conversations and representations of others within the prison industrial complex can impact and change our discussions on mass incarceration. Maybe if it can be shown that mass incarceration negativity effects all within the equation, different sources of change may occur?
I believe The Auburn System functions well outside of Auburn because distance from the work allows for a more general discussion around mass incarceration. But showing the work within Auburn has made me rethink how it should function within the town.
PP: Thanks, Joe
JLC: Thank you, Pete
Later today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the nominations for the 2017 Oscars. Ava DuVernay’s doc 13th is on the longlist and tipped to make the shortlist for Best Documentary*. 13th has, deservedly, got a lot of praise since its release in October, but there’s another documentary about the Prison Industrial Complex that came out in 2016 that I’d like to champion here.
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes, directed by Brett Story, is a film that, in many ways, retools the documentary format. It is a film about prison without ever going inside one (although the film closes with a monumental, slow-motion approach to the car-park of the citadel-like Attica Prison). It’s not up for a gong, which is a shame because everyone can benefit from its radical politics and creative verve.
Forcefully, The Prison In Twelve Landscapes rejects the common format of prison documentaries. You know, meet a character; set the broader context of incarceration; chart the character’s life; establish a moment in which fortunes changed for the worst; define the injustice; imagine a different future for the main character and possibly thousands or millions of others locked up for whom she/he serves as representative.
“I’ve watched a lot of prison films, documentaries and non-doc’s, and they kind of all take the same shape,” Story told Guernica recently. “You go inside a prison, you point the camera at a black man in a cell and the narrative, especially if it is a progressive or liberal film, will expose what’s going on. You expose the violence, you expose the injustice of this person’s incarceration, or you tell a redemption story, or transformation or an innocence story. It seemed to me that these narratives have their place, but there are limitations to them.”
In her deliberate refusal of orthodoxy, Story comes up with a structure that leaps across geographies, communities and themes: an unnamed female prisoner talks about fighting fire in Marin County with the California Department of Corrections (she is proud of the work but knows she won’t be a fire-fighter after release because of her conviction); a resident of a post-coal Kentucky town thankful for “recession proof” prison jobs; poor Missouri residents kept down by over-policing and rampant ticketing; an overly eager spokesperson for Quicken Loans who has drunk the corporate-Koolaid and extols the virtues of wholesale regeneration, rising rents and private security firms in downtown Detroit; an entrepreneur who negotiates the byzantine NYDOC mailroom rules so prisoners’ loved ones don’t have to.
The twelve vignettes are tied together by a looming music score and studies of smoke, steam and clouds. We’re all under the same sky, we all breathe the same air. Huge credit to Director of Photography Maya Bankovic and Editor Avrïl Jacobson too.
This film manifests the visuals for abolition activism. Prisons are all around us. They emerge from capitalist logic and conform to economic and geographic structures that are both produced by, and the producer of, racism, classicism, social immobility and chauvinism. Prisons are not about solving crime; they are a punishment of people outside white hetero-normativity. Prisons brutalise marginalized communities by further excluding them from opportunity and thereby delegitimizing them; prisons allow for existent power to confirm its prejudices and further its abuses.
Again from Story’s interview with Guernica (which I can’t recommend highly enough) she explains how a narrative knitted through seemingly disparate, seemingly ordinary places reflects the pervasiveness of the problem and also the near invisibility of its (most obvious) infrastructure, the prison building itself.
“I was very cognizant of how difficult it is at this moment to get inside prisons. There are more prisons than ever before, but they are further away and more locked down than ever before. So, I was really interested in the psychic distance created by that geographic distance, and the way in which prisons are spaces of disappearance but also spaces of massive infrastructures, as buildings that hold lots of people, but they’re also disappeared in the landscape.”
Furthermore, on the limits of criminal justice reform conversations, and how those conversations cannot be separate from critiques of economic inequality and labour rights, Story says:
“So long as we are confined to thinking about [prison reform talk] just as a problem of imprisoning the wrong people or punishing people too much, then we don’t actually get at the fundamental relationships that have created the prison build up in the first place. In terms of people on the right and the neoliberal democrats as well, who are all about championing prison reform like the Koch brothers, well they are the biggest union busters in this country.”
“We can’t think about prisons and the problem of mass incarceration outside of the problem of labor. There’s a direct correlation between the stagnation of workers, wages, structural unemployment, especially for African Americans, and union busting. This sort of neoliberalism from the 1970’s onwards maps intimately alongside the rise of the carceral state. In some ways, I want to say who cares if the Koch brothers want to say we’ve locked up too many people and we want to put some money into prison reform. But, let’s not get too excited about that because at the same time they are still undermining worker power and undermining good jobs and good wages at every turn. There’s too close of a relationship between workers and the problem of unemployment, the problem of poverty and mass incarceration in this country.”
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes has already won a raft of accolades including a nomination for Best Feature Length Documentary at the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Paste had it as one of their best documentaries of 2016. In a glowing review, The New York Times said soberly, “What we see is no less than the draining of hope from one group of citizens to benefit another.” Cinema Politica had it as one of their best political documentaries of the year. It is a film that is impeccably crafted and one that credits its audience with intelligence. It treats the complex issue of mass incarceration in a complex way.
Some of the most infuriating scenes are those from Ferguson, Missouri. Story went there one year after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. Story met citizens like Sherie (above) who faced either a $175 fine or jail. What for? For not securing a trash-can lid. Derrick (below) talks of continual harassment, arrest and fines.
“These communities are over-policed,” explains Story, “because the revenue model is generated based primarily on police fining people of color, mostly poor people for incidental violations like traffic violations. So there is already an existing infrastructure that floods these communities with police, and this is part of the story that gave rise to this murder.”
DuVernay’s 13th, and Story’s The Prison In Twelve Landscapes are two quite different films, yet they complement one another and support the arguments of the other. (I wonder what the effect of 12 Landscapes would’ve been had it had the worldwide Netflix distribution that 13th enjoyed?)
13th walks the viewer through a literal historical narrative by means of stats, facts and talking heads. DuVernay illuminates the racist underpinnings to criminal justice and execution of law, drawing the line from slavery, to abolition, to the 13th Amendment, to convict leasing, to Jim Crow, to modern day prisons. DuVernay wants to confront us with the blatant injustice of it all; Story wants to shock us with our complicity in it all.
The two films can be understood as the feedback of one other. DuVernay shows us the injustices of the past, but Story shows us how difficult they are to untangle from the present. We’re caught in a destructive loop. Without a significant reordering of society we are destined to continue the abuse and wastage inherent to mass imprisonment.
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes is a landmark achievement in documentary making. “It’s rare that a film this outraged is also this calm,” said Village Voice. It is a film that is true and true to its form. It is creepy, troubling and near; it is a prism on our society that should deeply unsettle us. It is the best film of 2016 not to win an Oscar.
This is great –> Story’s Five Book Plan: Carceral Geography.
Peep my 2013 article The 20 Best American Prison Documentaries.
Story’s Guernica interview on the whys, whats and hows of her work.
* If 13th is shortlisted, I hope it wins as that could only benefit the ongoing awareness about the racist, classist and abusive functioning of prisons and sentencing. Honestly though, I don’t think 13th will win. It uses a formula template of chronological narrative. 13th is a very important film but it doesn’t experiment enough with the documentary form itself. I think Cameraperson will win.
** Update: 14:00 GMT. Cameraperson wasn’t shortlisted, so my prediction withers. Fire At Sea (Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo); I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck); Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman); O.J.: Made In America (Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow); and 13th (Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick and Howard Barish) were shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature.
I was interviewed by ACLU recently: Prisons Are Man-Made … They Can Be Unmade.
The Q&A focuses around the exhibition Prison Obscura and you’ll notice a return to many of my favourite talking points. Still, the work never ends, and I know that ACLU will push out — to an expanded audience — my argument that we should all be more active and conscientious consumers of prison imagery. My thanks to Matthew Harwood for the questions.
There’s a brouhaha brewing in San Francisco. The Armory — home to legendary controversial fetish porn empire Kink.com — is to host an event to coincide with San Francisco Pride. The WE Party Prison Of Love is being billed as THE BIGGEST PRIDE PARTY … EVER.
The predictable format for the prison-themed discoteque includes chains, shackles, a dungeon, and likely a whole lot of improv domination roll play. The majority of the 3,000-strong crowd is expected to be gay men.
As a cisgender straight male, I tend not to have any opinions on gay culture worthy of public proclamation. But, a prison-themed rave does seem a little tacky, though. For San Francisco’s trans-community, the Prison Of Love Party is far worse than tacky; it is an affront and a politically-clueless venture.
The Transgender Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project in San Francisco, in an open letter to San Francisco Pride at the Armory, points out that the prison industrial complex abuses transgendered people strategically and disproportionally.
The primary signatory is Miss Major, one of this years SF Pride Grand Marshals.
This year at least three SF Pride grand marshals are trans women who have been directly affected by the Prison Industrial Complex. Chelsea Manning is currently incarcerated, Miss Major is previously incarcerated and was politicized at Attica just after the 1971 uprising, and Jewlyes Gutierrez was arrested for defending herself from bullies in her high school.
The prison industrial complex and the incarceration of generations of people of color, gender variant, trans people, and queer people is not a sexy trope to throw a play party around. It’s not that we don’t love sex, sex parties, sex workers, and kink. It’s that we love it as much as we love justice, and are appalled by the casual use of the Prison Industrial Complex, which destroys the lives of millions of people and kills thousands every year, as a party theme.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In our own LGBTQI communities, incarceration and significant abuses perpetrated by the Prison Industrial Complex constitutes no less than a crisis. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly 1 in 6 transgender people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. Among Black transgender people, 47% have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. These rates overwhelmingly reflect the experiences of transgender women and especially trans women of color, who are housed in men’s prisons and face catastrophic rates of physical abuse, psychological terror, rape and sexual assault, and death. According to Just Detention International, 67% of LGBT prisoners reported being assaulted while in prison.
Not only is our queer community being harmed, the War on Drugs and the increasing privatization of prisons has created a phenomenon of mass incarceration of young Black and Latino men, and increasingly women too, which has economically, socially, and politically devastated these communities.
We are not interested in yucking anyone’s yum or shaming anyone who has fantasies or fetishes about ideas of this real-life violence. We are not interested in censorship or policing anyone’s sex life. We are interested in public space and party themes that get us closer to liberation from systemic and administrative violence and do not recreate a culture that normalizes or continues our oppression. Our push back is about navigating the legal and extra-legal targeting and criminalization of our communities.
At a time when public discussion and media finally has an eye toward the daily systemic violence against trans and queer people, your party theme and promotions are especially harmful and trivializing.
As individuals and organizations committed to justice and equality for LGBTQI peoples, we are working to end violence in our communities, and particularly at the hands of law enforcement, jails, detention centers and prisons. We’ve been doing this for years, and we’ll be supporting our brothers, sisters and siblings behind prison walls while you’re hosting a sex and dance event on Pride weekend that trivializes themes of incarceration and abuse as a good time.
We’re calling on you to understand how important these issues are to every member of our community, even if you’ve had the good fortune to not be hyper-visible and profiled by police, locked up, and then trapped in a cycle of institutional violence perpetrated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, ICE, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
We’re calling on you to immediately change the theme of your party, and not use themes of arrest and incarceration, correctional officers beating inmates, solitary confinement, prison yards, or suggestions of prison rape in promoting your event.
As a step towards accountability and redress we’re also calling on you to donate a portion of the proceeds of your party to the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, El/La Para TransLatinas, and Communities United Against Violence, all organizations that are dedicated to ending police, prison, and systemic violence against trans and queer people in the Bay Area and beyond.
Miss Major, SF Pride Grand Marshal/Director of Transgender Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project
San Francisco Trans March, SF Pride Community Grand Marshal
Janet Mock, SF Pride Celebrity Grand Marshal/Author of “Redefining Realness”
Transgender Gender Varian Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP)
Community United Against Violence (CUAV)
El/La Para TransLatinas
Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB)
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP)
Community Justice Network for Youth
Sex Workers Outreach Project – Bay Area (SWOP)
All of Us or None
Dr. Annalise Ophelian, Filmmaker, Director/Producer – MAJOR! documentary
StormMiguel Florez, Musician & artist, Co-Producer – MAJOR! documentary
Courtney Trouble, Host of Queerly Beloved Pride Party, owner TROUBLEfilms
Unfortunately, I don’t think the protests nor the #NotProud Boycott SF Pride movement will stand in the way of this Pride At The Armory shindig. Half the tickets have already sold. It’s large event long in the planning and those types of entertainment-ships don’t turn.
That’s a shame because facts are facts and the issue is undeniable.
- LGBT teens comprise as much as 15% of the general population in juvenile justice facilities; among girls alone, 27% are lesbian or bisexual.
- LGBT young people and adults face harsher penalties from the justice system. LGBT people face higher rates of abuse and assault in prison.
- The two 2 leading risk factors for prisoner rape are previous sexual abuse and being LGBT.
- Incarcerated homosexual and bisexual men are sexually assaulted at rates 10 times higher than their heterosexual counterparts.
- The federal definition of “rape” didn’t even include men or non-vaginal penetration until 2010. Men assaulted in prison were not considered rape victims by the U.S. Department of Justice until 2010.
- Incarcerated trans women in men’s prisons report rates of sexual assault nearly 13 times greater than that among groups of other people.
More depressing facts here.
Bad call. PR fail SF Pride.
As Jezebel puts it, “Call it Dungeons & Dragons themed, call it Party in Westeros, do something else that involves bars and chains and implements of “torture.” But this? Taking one of the biggest issues facing the LGBT+ community and turning it into a party?”
During his research he happened upon some pioneer GIS maps by Rose Heyer which modeled the growth of the US prison system. With the information he composed an original score. A note to accompany each carceral outpost to blink into existence in the “Land of the Free.”
232 years in 10 minutes and 45 seconds.
Incidentally, Rose Heyer is a wonderful thinker. She developed the GIS methodology for the Prisoners of the Census project, enabling quick calculations of how Census Bureau’s prison miscount distorts representative democracy.
Heyer produced the map U.S. Prison Proliferation, 1900-2000 and she co-authored Too big to ignore: How counting people in prisons distorted Census 2000, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Massachusetts Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Texas, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Ohio, and Thirty-Two Years After Attica: Many More Blacks in Prison but not as Guards. Rose is now GIS and CAD consultant in California.
Talk to anyone about American documentary photography, they’ll probably mention Danny Lyon. Talk to anyone about prison documentary photography and they’ll definitely mention Danny Lyon.
In terms of US prison journalism, Lyon was the first photographer to a) give a shit, b) gain significant access, and c) distribute journalist images far and wide.
I had read Nicole Pasulka’s interview with Danny Lyon when it was published for The Morning News in December, 2008. I have since begun reading Like a Thief’s Dream (currently 100 pages deep). As in many cases, it takes an AmericanSuburbX reissue to press the issue.
I have a few things to say about the chapters I’ve read so far, but those thoughts need more brewing. While I mash those brain-hops, I’d like to draw your attentions to Lyon’s comments about prisons in America:
“You really need a friend, or family member inside a prison, to appreciate what we are doing. America has two million people inside of her prisons. Only China, a dictatorship, tops us in this growth industry. I like to think of the words of Fredrick Douglas “Be neither a slave nor a master.” All of us, outside of prisons, are the masters.“
“Prisons should be turned into bowling alleys, schools, and daycare centers, or demolished. We could probably do better with 90 percent of the inmates being released. Communities should deal with offenders on a local level. Review panels should meet with all of the 200,000 prisoners doing life sentences. Many of these people are harmless and aged, and should be released. I would like to see review panels sent into all the prisons, to meet with inmates face to face. Most should be released.“
“When I was working in the Texas prisons (1960s and 70s) there were 12,500 men and women inside and no executions. Today there are 200,000 in Texas and they kill prisoners all the time. Prisons are now everywhere, a major employer in upstate New York. Simply put, everything about prison is worse.”
“The best way to change yourself is to go outside your world into the world of others. It’s a big world out there. The worst thing about New York City is that all the young people that gather there are extremely like-minded. Creative people are comfortable there, but they are preaching to the choir. I always wanted to move Brooklyn to Missouri. Everyone would benefit.” (Source)
I couldn’t – and have not – ever put it better myself.
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Buy a signed copy of the book Like a Thief’s Dream at Danny Lyon’s website, Black Beauty.
If you ever needed a reason to question America’s prison system, the Daily Kos gives you dozens …
… and then some.