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If you ever needed a reason to question America’s prison system, the Daily Kos gives you dozens

… and then some.

While not related to the work of a single photographer or project, the lines of argument proffered by Subtopia are so resonant that Prison Photograph Blog feels the diversion justified. Through summary of the four chosen articles, we can gaze upon the complexity and omnipotence of incarceration in our frantic, contested global society. Subtopia’s images will knock you on your arse!

The analysis of Bryan Finoki at Subtopia consistently join the dots between geopolitics & biopolitics; movement & paralysis; spatial theory and spatial reality. Unsurprisingly, for a writer in the 21st century, his interest in the production of structures & networks, often leads him to theories of militarised space.

I am in awe of Subtopia’s output. From lengthy and comprehensive issue-based summaries; to purposed surveys; from fine image-editing; to diverse links and sources in each post. Finoki serves up rigorous analysis, or entertainment, but usually both.

© 2009 Subtopia/Brian Finoki

© 2009 Subtopia/Brian Finoki

Over the past couple of years Finoki has submitted a few pieces on “The Prison”. Subtopia’s preoccupation with power and spatial production means carceral sites/archipelagos are referenced frequently. Finoki has been keen to unravel the mysteries of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), its structures and its legacies – this always means dealing with detention, rendition, and construction (that can be visible, but more often invisible.)

Article OneFantasy Prison is a meditation on potential prison architectures spurred by the 2007 Creative Prison project a collaboration between architect Will Alsop prisoners at HMP Gartree to redesign corrective and rehabilitative space. Two things struck me about the suggestions made by prisoners. 1) They were most afraid of attack from other inmates, and therefore an option to lock themselves IN was a shared high priority, and 2) They wanted to include a designated photo-room within the visitors center to allow for photography and variant backgrounds. I have posted before about manifestly curious prison-polaroid aesthetic. This article also threw up the crucial social responsibilities of architects & designers in a time of prison expansion, most notably the Prison Design Boycott launched in 2004 by the group Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR).

A rendering of Will Alsop’s new corrections landscape, developed in collaboration with prisoners, resembles a cross between Communist-era housing blocs and a series of South Beach condos. Courtesy Alsop Architects

A rendering of Will Alsop’s new corrections landscape, developed in collaboration with prisoners, resembles a cross between Communist-era housing blocs and a series of South Beach condos. Courtesy Alsop Architects

I have been a fan of Alsop’s work since his 2005 hypothetical SuperCity project which would subsume my hometown in the North.

Article TwoFloating Prisons is a historical survey of sea-faring, carceral solutions by warring and colonising nations. Finoki maps the use of prison ships from 18th & 19th century economic necessity to transport human cargo to contemporary manoeuvrings in avoidance of international law. He makes reference to the convenience use of islands as sites of detention, the use of ships as temporary housing in leiu of land locked sites, and the dubious experiments in swapping refugees held in off-shore camps. The summary was to say that new legal definitions and controls are creeping in giving one the sense, “refugees and migrants are just an excess of biomass to be herded around on prison islands or in prison vessels, traded like geo-economic commodities, removed and disposed of like capitalist human waste, reinforcing the state of exception that goes on re-organizing the architectural spheres of global migration.” Phenomenal.

The Vernon C. Bain is a prison barge operated by the City of New York, and houses some 800 prisoners in a medium and maximum security facility. She was built in 1992 at a cost of $ 161 Million, which as usual, means it would have been cheaper to send the inmates to Harvard instead.

The Vernon C. Bain is a prison barge operated by the City of New York, housing 800 prisoners in a medium and maximum security facility. Built in 1992 at a cost of $ 161 Million means it would have been cheaper to send the inmates to Harvard instead. (Source)

Article Three“Block D” enters the Pantheon of GWOT Space is a meditation on the totality of restricted space across the globe – in multiple nations – in order to sustain military operations. The point of the survey (which includes previously known sites such as Guantanamo, Baghdad’s ‘Green Zone’, Bagram Theater Internment Facility, US homeland immigrant detention facilities, and Taxi networks for rendition) is to add another site to the list: “Block D” in Pul-e-Charki Prison just east of Kabul, Afghanistan.

With persistent references to journalists’ work for the BBC, New York Times and Washington Post, Finoki summarises, ” ‘Block D’ or ‘Block 4’ as it is also apparently known: a newly built detention facility [is] quickly becoming understood as the Asian corollary of Guantánamo Bay. No matter, it is another utterly disturbing black hole in the universe of legally suspect and secret space.” Finoki doesn’t focus on the conditions of detention but rather America’s self-created legal imbroglio.

Nearly a year after writing, this analysis seems prophetic now, as the American public is slowly coming to realise that Obama’s closure of Gitmo doesn’t necessarily magic away the human rights issues … only shifts them somewhere slightly more obscured. As with Gitmo, one expects Block D to focus the new rounds of jousting between the same ideological stakeholders.

Pul-e-Charkhi prison, Kabul, Afghanistan. Construction began in the 1970s by order of then-president Mohammed Daoud Khan and was completed during the Soviet invasion (1979-89). The prison was notorious for torture and abuses under the control of Afghanistan's communist government following the invasion by the Soviet Union.

Pul-e-Charkhi prison, Kabul, Afghanistan. Construction began in the 1970s by order of then-president Mohammed Daoud Khan and was completed during the Soviet invasion (1979-89). The prison was notorious for torture and abuses under the control of Afghanistan's communist government following the invasion by the Soviet Union. (Source)

Article FourThe Spatial Instrumentality of Torture is a stomach-pounding dose of reality in the form of an interview with Tom Hilde, Research Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. I will not offer a synopsis, just encourage you to read through it. The interview is illustrated in part by Prison Photography‘s favourite Richard Ross.

Hilde ends with the sobering words, “The secrecy of much of the US torture program, its physical spaces, and its extent has certainly kept public debate rather subdued. But I think the dualistic moral framework has been even more corrosive of a public understanding of torture in general and the consequences of American torture in particular. When a majority of Americans say that torture is acceptable for some purposes, I think they have the fantasy of the ticking timebomb, and likely racism in many cases, in the backs of their minds.”

Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo, Cuba. The facility has not been used since early 2002, and recent heavy rains at Guantánamo Bay have brought about overgrowth. Credit: Kathleen T. Rhem

Camp X-Ray, Guantánamo, Cuba. The facility has not been used since early 2002, and recent heavy rains at Guantánamo Bay have brought about overgrowth. Credit: Kathleen T. Rhem

Herman Krieger – stalwart of the Oregon photography community and Eugene resident – is a self-made specialist in the art of captioning. However, more than his quirky words, I appreciate the great lengths he goes to in order to document sites of the prison industrial complex.

View from Boise Gun Club, New Idaho State Prison. Herman Krieger

View from Boise Gun Club, New Idaho State Prison. Herman Krieger

Krieger described the circumstances of the series, “The idea of making a photo essay on prisons and their settings came after driving from Tucson to Phoenix.  The view of the prison in Florence, Arizona struck me as an odd thing in the middle of the landscape.  At that time I was only looking at churches for the series, Churches ad hoc.

With Lifetime Mortgage, Vacaville, California. Herman Krieger

With Lifetime Mortgage, Vacaville, California. Herman Krieger

“I then made some photos of prisons in Oregon and California. Others were made during a trip by car from Oregon to New York. I would have made a longer series, but I was too often hassled by prison guards who noticed me pointing a camera at a prison.  They claimed that it was illegal to take a photo of the public building from a public road, and threatened to confiscate my film”, explained Krieger.

Room Without a View, Pelican Bay, California. Herman Krieger

Room Without a View, Pelican Bay, California. Herman Krieger

Pelican Bay was opened in 1989 and constructed purposefully to hold the most violent offenders, usually gang members. Along with Corcoran State Prison, in the late 1980s, Pelican Bay ushered in a new era of Supermax facilities in California. They are remote (Pelican Bay is just miles from the Oregon border) and they are expansive. Their distant locations prohibit regular visits from inmates’ family members – a detail probably not lost on the CDCR authorities who sought to transfer, contain and stifle the aggressions of Californian urban areas.

Bayside View, San Quentin, California. Herman Krieger

Bayside View, San Quentin, California. Herman Krieger

Having lived in San Francisco for three years, the policies, activities, controversies and executions at San Quentin State Prison were always well reported in the Bay Area press. One of the most frustrating repetitions of the San Quentin coverage was the journalist’s compulsion – regardless of the story – to remind readers of the huge land value of San Quentin and the opportunities for real estate on San Quentin Point.

Open for Tourists, Old State Prison, Wyoming. Herman Krieger.

Open for Tourists, Old State Prison, Wyoming. Herman Krieger.

Over the Hill, New State Prison, Wyoming. Herman Krieger

Over the Hill, New State Prison, Wyoming. Herman Krieger

America is a large country. It should be no surprise that prisons are built in isolated areas – it makes economic sense to build on non-agricultural hinterlands and it makes strategic sense to purpose build facilities on flat open ground. More significantly, to locate these “people warehousing units” out of society’s view, allows convenient cultural and political ignorance for the authorities & citizens that sentenced men and women to America’s new breed of prison.

Krieger’s photographs summarise the key intrigues and detachment “we” feel as those excluded from prison operation and experience. Krieger, in some of his other images, gets closer to the prison walls and yet I deliberately featured these six prints precisely because of their disconnect. What terms, other than those of distance and exclusion, can we legitimately use in dialogue about contemporary prisons?

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