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OPENING REMARKS

I’ve stated it before but not often or forcefully enough: The LGBTQ community nurtures many of the most effective and motivating voices in the fight for prison abolition. LGBTQ people are frequently subject to the harshest and most dehumanizing treatment at the hands of the prison system. It is from this position that activists and formerly incarcerated individuals have mobilized against the prison industrial complex.

In the news, it is the circumstances of transgender people in prison that are most often described and decried. For clear reasons: imagine being held within a male facility when you identify as female. Or in a female facility when you identify as male. Read up on the situations of Marius Mason and Vanessa Gibson. In Pittsburgh, Jules Williams, a transgender woman suffered sexual and physical assault and harassment multiple times while detained at the Allegheny County Jail, a mens facility.

Very, very few prison or jail systems place transgender folx in facilities where they are free of victimization and predation. During her three years of incarceration in the Georgia Department of Corrections, Ashley Diamond was repeatedly assaulted, once after GDC officials placed her in a cell with a known sex offender. Diamond took the radical step to appeal directly to the public via “illegal” YouTube videos from her prison cell made on a contraband smartphone.

Diamond won freedom following a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the conclusion was that the GDC didn’t want to deal with the expense and supposed inconvenience of providing the hormone treatments she’d been on for 17 years prior to her imprisonment. Similarly, in California, Michelle-Lael Norsworthy was freed unexpectedly when her lawsuit for access to healthcare threatened the CDCR with huge medical bills. Shiloh Quine won the right for sexual reassignment surgery, but hers, all too unfortunately, was an exceptional case.

(For an instructive overview of the experience of female trans prisoners, read Kristin Schreier Lyseggen’s book Women of San Quentin: Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons which details the stories of nine women, including Janetta Johnson, Tanesh Watson-Nutall, Daniella Tavake, Diamond, Quine and others.)

While transgender people are winning more and more hard-fought recognition in open society, prisons occupy the other end of the spectrum—closed, rigid systems unable to safely house the majority of prisoners and certainly unprepared and, more often, patently unwilling to recognize prisoners with gender dysphoria and their specific needs. (Trans issues are at the forefront in the military again. The regressive and punitive White House is banning transgender personnel from service. Unsurprisingly, DJ Pee-Tape is largely at odds with much of the military command.) Historically, the marginalization and criminalisation of LGBTQ people has funneled them into the criminal justice system, too. That point needs to be made.

Transgender prisoners are just one group within the LGBTQ community. Lesbians and gays face daily vilification within the criminal justice system. The tactics for resistance of different groups within the LGBTQ community necessarily vary in specific ways, but the enemy is common.

In a push back against the homophobia and transphobia embedded within the criminal justice system we should look to leaders such as CeCe McDonaldDean Spade and Reina Gossett. Their intersectional critique of policing and prisons connects the dots between discriminations of all types. Prejudice and inequality exist within our society; certain groups, including LGBTQ and particularly LGBTQ persons of color, are valued less than others. The root causes for racism, sexism, imperialism, militarism are the same, and those root causes not only emerge out of capitalism but are, in many ways, its foundations. The complete abandonment of LGBTQ persons’ needs in prisons brings into sharp focus the fact that the systems, and our society from which they grow, deem this group more disposable than others.

“Prison abolition means no one is disposable,” says Reina Gossett. Exile is not a solution to the shortcomings of a society; exile allows wider discrimination to perpetuate.

“We should not model what the state’s logic is about who is disposable,” Gossett continues. “Challenging and dismantling structures of violence. [We need] relationships modeled on a different logic, not on the logic of white, heteronormative hegemony.”

Seen through a queer lens, the violence of the prison industrial complex is laid bare. Prisons are sites of waste and sites of survival; sites into which those outside the dominant norm are discarded. True to capitalist, carceral logic, the only economic benefits prisons bring about are for the state, law enforcement unions, corporations and craven politicians. We, the taxpayers, hand over this wealth at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of all those locked up. In the modern U.S., prisons are not about “time out” or rehabilitation; they’re about control in order to instill order. Prisons crush humanity and they assault diversity.

Prison abolition is about identifying structures of violence and working against them; about prefiguring a better world in which you want to live. In reviewing the book Queer (In)Justice (Ed. Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock), journalist and activist Vikki Law notes the authors’ contention that “deep-seated prejudices and fears of queer people cannot be dismantled via hate crime legislation.” Social attitudes are the strongest underpinning to a just society, not the latter-stage adjudications of the law.

“The authors say,” continues Law, “that ‘many of the individuals who engage in such violence are encouraged to do so by mainstream society through promotion of laws, practices, generally accepted prejudices, and religious views,’ and they note that homophobic and transphobic violence generally increases during highly visible, right-wing political attacks.

(For an introduction to community organising toward abolition, read James Kilgore’s recent piece Let’s Imagine a National Organizing Effort to Challenge Mass Incarceration.)

Prison abolition is about pushing back on all the structures that manifest the suspicion, dismissal and abuse of people who counter the white patriarchal status quo. That includes visual structures. That includes, as Critical Resistance states, “the creation of mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant.”

That is why Lorenzo Triburgo’s project Policing Gender is so important. Triburgo, a trans man, is not only advocates for the larger LGBTQ rights at stake, but also makes images that bring the weight of photographic history and analysis of images’ power to bear on his decision-making and design. His is a queer perspective. Policing Gender is enigmatic and beautiful and devastating. Triburgo’s personless portraits point us past what the images are in-and-of-themselves and toward a critique of what images have done in the past in service of, and to damage, LGBTQ-identified people.

I can make no apology for the length of these introductory remarks, because these photographs are built upon years of Triburgo’s conscientious thought, and on decades of queer activism by countless others. Context is important. From here, I’ll let Triburgo himself explain the conceptual underpinnings of Policing Gender and just add how grateful I am for our extended conversation. Scroll down for our Q&A.

 

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): We first met in Portland around 2012 or 13. We published a conversation in 2014. At that time you’d just picked up research for a photographic project on the topic of mass incarceration. You explained then that you’d wanted to do portraits of families, but the warden explained that the visiting room had a program for such portraits. The idea was shelved for a while, as you made Transportraits, but you knew you’d come back to it. Family portraits are very different to these curtains and aerial landscapes. How did you get from there to here?

Lorenzo Triburgo (LT): When I began Policing Gender I collaborated with the queer prison abolition organizations Black & Pink and Beyond These Walls to become pen pals with over 30 LGBTQ-identified prisoners.  I wrote and talked with my pen pals for months and months before deciding on what the project would entail visually.

Keep in mind that I also worked to gain access to various prisons and jails. I was doing my *photographer’s due diligence*. However, after getting inside, I thought, “F##k that. I’m not going to create photographs that could potentially strengthen the association between queer people and criminality.”

I kept obsessively thinking, “I want to make portraits, but not portraits. Portraits, but not portraits.” I was wracking my brain. The reasons were twofold.

First – ethically, as a queer person, feminist, and artist I am particularly sensitive to issues of representation and exploitation. I could have made the portraits but, to what end? How radical can a straightforward portrait really be? Would portraits of queer prisoners bring anything to the world besides an opportunity for viewers to gawp or sate their curiosity and voyeurism?

One of the hellish qualities of prison is the complete lack of privacy. Random administrators, politicians, teachers and students might make visits to a prison and get led on “tours” where they can peer-in on any prisoner through a tiny window and just watch. Did I want to replicate that experience with my camera lens? No.

Furthermore, how would I know for sure that I was getting informed consent from participants? In what world would our exchange be equal? Even more importantly, in what world would the exchange between any prisoner and viewer be equal?!

Secondly, conceptually, I felt my project demanded a complex approach that would embody the depth, pervasiveness, scale and abuses of the U.S. prison system. It needed to be more than a single-layered visual representation; more than a straightforward portrait.

 

 

LT: I started to think about making portraits with no figures.

What if instead of putting my incarcerated pen-pals on display, I go a quieter more contemplative route and conjure a sense of absence? The next step was to figure out what the figureless portraits would look like. I recalled a lecture by Cathy Opie where she cited renaissance portraitist Hans Holbein as a major influence. Holbein and Opie use fabric as a symbol of wealth, power and beauty.

PP: But to different ends.

LT: Yes. Opie appropriates formal aesthetics in order to queer the photographic portrait. I saw that I could use fabric and create connotations of portraiture and, for some of us, make a nod to queering the portrait through the use of form. It felt I’d found an answer to the inevitable imbalance of power between prisoner and viewer that I wanted to avoid perpetuating. Figureless portraits point toward this thorny ethical ground.

While thinking all this through, I was discussing my ideas with activists and researchers including Dr. Susan Starr Sered, co-author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility. Dr. Sered and I had a conversation that solidified my decisions.

PP: On your work’s figurelessness, an editor with whom I spoke recently referred to your work as “withdrawn”. It wasn’t a criticism per se, but I wonder about your reaction to that assessment?

LT: My pen-pals are trans and queer, and young and old, and out and not out, and coming out for the first time, and helping others come out for the first time all behind bars. I wrote and talked with them for months and months before deciding on what the project would entail visually. The decision to exclude people in the images is not ONLY about theoretical distancing from prisons and a challenge to photographic voyeurism. It’s also about anonymity for safety reasons and my pen-pals not always being able to come out without endangering their safety, and about recognizing that prisoners are a protected subgroup and not always able to give knowledgeable consent.

The figurelessness is about the absence of 2.3 million prisoners from society.

It’s difficult to communicate absence through photography but that was a risk I wanted to take. I believe we are at a stage when absence can be just as powerful as presence because there is so much photographic presence.

The work isn’t withdrawn. It’s emotional. It’s meditative. It’s quiet. I’m asking the viewer to take a minute and reflect: on their position in the world, on their assumption that they get to “see” whatever they want to see, and on the people who are missing from our society.

The lighting in these pieces was a meditative process for me. It was a way for me to process what I was learning about from my pen-pals. It’s not a vapid conceptual piece in reaction to the prison system. Each fabric represents a set of circumstances that was told to me by my pen-pals and is therefore named after them — each is a combination of their names.

 

 

PP: And what about the aerial shots?

The aerial images are about surveillance. The construct of imprisonment. The natural contained. Creating these was also an emotional process. I was in the hot air balloon …

PP: Wait! You were in a hot air balloon?!

LT: Ha! Yes. I photographed from a hot air balloon.

Balloons were an early method used by photography in the service of surveillance. During the U.S. Civil War, hot air balloons were used to create the first aerial reconnaissance images. I was looking for a way to undermine the idea of surveillance and to portray a grandiose notion of the ‘natural’. But once I was up there I couldn’t escape the feeling of my social position, the feeling of sadness and anger and unearned privilege and wishing that I could bring my pen-pals up in the air with me. The aerial photographs ultimately reflect these emotions and, metaphorically, the inescapable presence of surveillance.

All of my emotional experiences have a direct correlation to my conceptual interests in photography. It’s how I process the world.

I think about portraiture all the time. I feel the experiences of my various identities and ways I present myself to the world and the way I’m “seen”. I see oppression based on identities and I process that by creating photographs, and in the case of Policing Gender, audio art, too.

Photography is a way for me to make sense of the world and for me to present ideas to the world. These ideas are emotional as much as they are political and theoretical because I feel like I live them. I’ve had someone else’s camera pointed at me because I seemed “interesting” and it feels like crud.

 

 

PP: How are LGBTQ identified  people affected by the prison industrial complex?

LT: Right now there are 1.6 million youth facing houselessness in the U.S. We know that 46% of these youth are LGBTQ identified. Add to that, cities across the U.S. are increasingly passing laws that ostensibly make it illegal to be homeless. Over the last ten years, there’s been a steady increase in the number of cities that have made it is illegal to lay down, sleep, or even sit in public and (in cities like Houston) to share or give food to people. Once queer youth are arrested and detained they are more likely to be sentenced to jail time and serve longer sentences than their non-LGBTQ peers.

We also know that people who have been arrested have a higher chance of returning to jail or prison. So, these youth grow up to be LGBTQ identified adults with a much higher chance of spending time in U.S. prisons. This is especially true for people of color, youth, immigrants, differently abled, and poor people. So, are queer people in prison because they are queer? If we look at the systemic level, rather than a matter of individual choices, the answer is yes.

PP: Which LGBTQ-focused individuals and organisations are working specifically and effectively against mass incarceration?

LT: The book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith is an invaluable resource for just this question. It was published by AK Press soon after I began Policing Gender; this book came to me at exactly the right moment and is an invaluable resource.

Captive Genders includes first person narratives, research, and political analysis with an emphasis on writing from current and former prisoners.

I personally worked most with Black & Pink and Beyond These Walls.

Black & Pink is a grassroots organization that has been working in support of LGBTQ prisoners and towards prison abolition with nationwide chapters for over ten years. Their website is also an incredible resource. Beyond These Walls is Portland-based and is another grassroots prison abolition effort with a focus on supporting queer prisoners.

In the intro of Captive Genders, Stanley writes, “It is also important to highlight that women, trans, and queer people (specifically of color) have done much, if not most, of the anti-PIC organizing in the United States.”

Case in point: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy has been an activist for over 40 years and was the first Staff Organizer at The Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP). TGIJP is based in California and began as a legal project with leadership by formerly incarcerated trans women of color. Miss Major is recently retired from TGIJP but continues to be a badass inspiration to us all. (I recently saw her on the panel for the release of the book Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility at the New Museum).

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, formed by civil rights activist and attorney Dean Spade in 2002, must also be mentioned here. SRLP provides legal aid to low-income trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex people and “is a collective organization founded on understanding that gender self-determination is inextricably intertwined with racial, social, and economic justice.”

 

 

PP: You once expressed an interest in photographing prison guards/correctional officers. Do you still?

LT: No, but I think someone should. The abuse that prisoners face at the hands of correctional officers is abhorrent — and — it is crucial to recognize that the job of correctional officer is basically designed to produce and enable a monstrous abuse of power. If we are to understand the prison industrial complex for what it is – an entire system of oppression upheld in part by the narrative that people of color, poor people, and queer people are dangerous – we also need to recognize systemic/social/economic conditions that lead someone to become an officer and the mental trauma associated with this job.

According to one study (Stack, S.J. & Tsoudis, O. Archives of Suicide Research, 1997) the risk of suicide for correctional officers is 39% higher than their peers in other professions and other studies show increased PTSD, divorce, and substance abuse. (See: Denhof, Michael D., Ph.D and Caterina G. Spinaris, Ph.D., Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, 2013.)

The effects of unchecked power, a career culture that encourages and rewards racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia and corruption that goes all the way up the chain are traumatic. Hello Stanford Prison Experiment!?!

To go out on a limb, and to quote Michelle Alexander , I think of the job of the correctional officer as one manifestation of the many “efforts by the wealthy elite to use race as a wedge. To pit poor whites against poor people of color for the benefit of the ruling elite.”

Alexander continues, “Many people don’t realize that even slavery as an institution—the emergence of an all-Black system of slavery—was to a large extent the result of plantation owners deliberately trying to pit poor whites against poor Blacks. They created an all-Black system of slavery that didn’t benefit whites by much, but at least whites were persuaded that they weren’t slaves and thus were inherently superior to Black folks.” (‘The Struggle for Racial Justice Has a Long Way To Go’, The International Socialist Review, Issue #84, 2012.)

Keep in mind that people who take these jobs are predominantly working class, often with no other viable option for work because other industries have been (systematically) replaced by the prison industry in towns across the U.S. I feel myself holding my breath and my heart racing in anger as I say this.

 

 

PP: You have said repeatedly and in public that you’ll respond to any LGBTQ prisoner who writes to you. Kudos to you. That’s a serious commitment. It must also be quite the emotional experience—good and bad. Tell us about letter writing.

LT: So much here. I don’t know where to start exactly. In previous interviews I ducked the question out of fear of sounding schmaltzy, because it is super emotional and I don’t want to come off sounding all “we are the world” or like, neoliberal humanist or something.

That said, it has been fucking incredible.   

There’s something astonishing about getting to know someone slowly, over time, through written word. How often do we have the opportunity to get to know someone completely from scratch? With no photo to go by, no list of basic likes or dislikes, not knowing their preferred name or gender, or where they are from. I got to know my pen-pals’ handwriting and that is a specific intimacy unlike any other type of exchange.

I never ask my pen-pals why they are in prison. Instead, I ask about what they think are the most pressing needs of LGBTQ prisoners and what they think an artist can do. Very often the response is that a way to share their stories and their truth would be a huge help. In the audio for Policing Gender you hear one of my pen pals say, “At least out there you’ve got cell phones to record this stuff [abuse by officers], in here it’s complete secrecy.”

I’m not interested in “giving voice”—my pen-pals all have voices! But I am interested in giving their voices a platform outside prison.

By not asking about why they were in prison I aim to, at minimum, create a space for my pen-pals to talk to someone who didn’t see them first as a criminal and second as a person. I challenged myself, to be honest, to allow myself to be vulnerable, to share my thoughts, and to allow our conversations to develop without pre-judgements.

We talked about the prison system of course, but we also shared our coming out stories, what it was like during high school, whether our family was religious, our siblings, our parents, their kids. Some of my pen-pals were younger than me and grew up in the “Glee era” while others were baby boomers and couldn’t imagine being accepted as queer when they were younger. One of my pen-pals was really into Shakespeare. I am not. And we would joke about that. 

I love getting to know people and their stories—so it was just wonderful in that regard. I would also simply Google information and send it upon request. It is so easy to take our access to information for granted! I would send variations on photo assignments I give my college students, making them into creative writing or drawing prompts.

There was one person with whom I lost contact and that was devastating. The last I heard of her she had been raped, then left in solitary confinement for 24 hours, then finally taken to a hospital —four hours away—given antibiotics on an empty stomach, then driven back to the prison while handcuffed in the back of a van. If you’ve ever taken antibiotics you know that they are nauseating in the best of circumstances. I don’t like to talk about stories like this too much. They are important but I also don’t want to sensationalize my pen-pals’ suffering.

I wrote with over 30 people on a monthly basis for almost two years. I still write with a small number of people and I continue to pair every incarcerated pen-pal who gets in touch with me with someone to write with on the outside. So far I’ve connected about 40 people with new pen-pals.

 

 

PP: I know you’ve designed a course on gender and photo at SVA, so if it’s not revealing any too much info, can you give us a few important titles and articles from the course reading list?

LT: My course at SVA is a studio/portfolio course where we incorporate queer studies concepts in the development and critique of projects. (The class is offered online through SVA Continuing Education. Therefore, anyone interested in exploring these ideas in their artworks can register). I also developed a graduate level seminar that I teach online for Oregon State University with a focus on representations of gender and sexuality from a feminist perspective.

Here’s a greatest hits list of texts:

  • Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Image, Music, Text. Ed. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 32-51.
  • Blessing, Jennifer. “Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography.” Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1997. 7-38, 67-119.
  • Halberstam, Jack. “Technotopias: Representing Transgender Bodies in Contemporary Art.” In a Queer Time and Place. New York and London: New York University Press, 2005. 97-124.
  • Jhally, Sut. “Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture.” Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. 3rd ed. Eds. Gail Dines, Jean M. (McMahon) Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011. 199-204.
  • Lorber, Judith. “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender.” Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994. 13-36.
  • Mercer, Kobena. “Reading racial fetishism: the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.” Visual Culture: The Reader. Ed. Jessica Evans, Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications, 1999. 435-447.
  • Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures (Language, Discourse, Society). 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 14-30.
  • Rosler, Martha. “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography.)” The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2003. 261-274.
  • Sullivan, Nikki. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: NYU Press, 2003.
  • West, Candace, and Don H Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender & Society Vol. 1, No. 2. (1987): 125-151.

 

 

LT: I also want to give a shout out to these texts that strongly shaped my aesthetic and ethical decisions in Policing Gender:

  • The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Responsibility, Carol Becker.
  • Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 2011. Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
  • Queer (In) Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock.
  • Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith.
  • Are Prisons Obsolete, Angela Davis.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander.
  • Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility, Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk.
  • Punishment and Social Structure, Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer.

PP: Wow, thank you, so generous. So many new texts for me. Have you a resource list of organizations working in solidarity with LGBTQ prisoners?

LT: Absolutely, these are organizations as listed in the book Captive Genders:

All Of Us Or None
1540 Market Street Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102
415.255.7036 [ext 308, 315, 311, 312]
info@allofusornone.org
http://www.allofusornone.org

ACT UP Philadelphia
P.O. Box 22439, Land Title Station, Philadelphia, PA 19110-2439
actupp@critpath.org
http://www.actupphilly.org

Audre Lorde Project
85 South Oxford St., Brooklyn, NY 11217
718.596.0342
http://www.alp.org

Bent Bars Project
P.O. Box 66754, London, WC1A 9BF, United Kingdom
bent.bars.project@gmail.com
http://www.bentbarsproject.org/

Black and Pink<
c/o Community Church of Boston, 545 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116
http://www.blackandpink.org

BreakOUT!<
1600 Oretha C. Haley Blvd., New Orleans, LA 70113
http://www.jpla.org

Critical Resistance
1904 Franklin St, Suite 504, Oakland, CA 94612
510.444.0484
http://www.criticalresistance.org

FIERCE!
437 W. 16th St, Lower Level, New York, NY 10001
646.336.6789
http://www.fiercenyc.org

generationFIVE
P.O. Box 1715, Oakland, CA 94604
510.251.8552
http://www.generationfive.org

Gay Shame
San Francisco, CA
gayshamesf@yahoo.com
http://www.gayshamesf.org

Hearts On A Wire
(for folks incarcerated in PA)
PO Box 36831, Philadelphia, PA 19107
heartsonawire@gmail.com

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
P.O. Box 226, Redmond, WA 98073
484.932.3166
http://www.incite-national.org

Justice Now
1322 Webster Street, Suite 210, Oakland, CA 94612
510.839.7654
http://www.jnow.org

LAGAI—Queer Insurrection
lagai_qi@yahoo.com
http://www.lagai.org

Prison Activist Resource Center
PO Box 70447, Oakland, CA 94612
510.893.4648
http://www.prisonactivist.org

Prisoner Correspondence Project
http://www.prisonercorrespondenceproject.com

Prisoner’s Justice Action Committee
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
pjac_committee@yahoo.com
http://www.pjac.org

Sylvia Rivera Law Project
322 8th Ave, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10001
212.337.8550
http://www.srlp.org

Tranzmission Prison Project
P.O. 1874, Asheville, NC 28802
tranzmissionprisonproject@gmail.com

Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project
342 9th St., Suite 202B, San Francisco, CA 94103
415.252.1444
http://www.tgijp.org

Write to Win Collective
2040 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647
writetowincollective@gmail.com
http://www.writetowin.wordpress.com

PP: Brilliant. Again, thanks so much.

LT: Thank you, Pete.

 

 

 

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KAREN, 69, in a homeless shelter four weeks after her release. East Village, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: April 2017
“When I made parole plans, I thought I was going to have a good re-entry situation in the house I paroled to. I realized almost immediately that it wouldn’t work out, so I left, without anywhere else to go. Parole sent me to a homeless assessment shelter in the south Bronx. The quality of the bedding and the food was a lateral move from prison. But factoring in my freedom, there’s no question that it was an improvement. Now, I’m in a shelter run by the Women’s Prison Association. I feel safe and secure. The room is spare, with not much in it, but it’s mine. In this room, I find comfort, privacy, safety, and peace of mind.”

 

Working as a public defender, Sara Bennett has met a great many women who have faced struggle and hardship. Many serve, or have served, long sentences. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has increased by 800% in the U.S. There are nearly 100,000 women in state prisons and federal penitentiaries. A further 110,000 are in county jails, 80% of whom report having been the victim of sexual assault during their life time. Women who have been convicted of serious crimes have, more often than not, been the victims of serious abuse themselves. Irrespective of crime, I have consistently argued that mass incarceration does little to improve or heal. It does the opposite. It damages.

When facing conservative opposition, prison reformers often resort to arguments against the incarceration of non-violent people, women included. Reformers attempt to find sympathetic groups within the prison system for whom the public may be persuaded to support. This is all well and good, but it comes at a price; people convicted of violent crimes are left to rot, so to speak. For advocates such as Bennett, it is clear that long sentences achieve little and that the abuses of the prison industrial complex are wrought on all who it swallows. The Bedroom Project humanizes women who have recently re-entered society after serving long, multi-decade Life With Parole sentences.

Bennett has created a space for each of these women to reflect upon their post-release situation. They regale personal tales and they are photographed in their most personal spaces–their bedrooms. In some cases, a bedroom might be the only place some of these women can claim as their own.

Bennett is a former criminal defense attorney who most frequently represented battered women and the wrongly convicted. She uses photography to amplify her observations of the criminal justice system. Her first project, Life After Life in Prison documented the lives of four women as they returned to society after spending decades in prison. Bennett decries the “pointlessness of extremely long sentences and arbitrary parole denials”. The Bedroom Project is currently on show at the CUNY School of Law in Long Island City, New York until March 28th.

Keen to know more about Bennett’s process and motivations, I approached her with a few questions about The Bedroom Project. Scroll down for our Q&A in which we discuss the meaning of the work for both subjects and audiences.

 

EVELYN, 42, in an apartment she shares with a roommate five years after her release. Queens, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 20 years
Released: April 2012
“Look where I am now. Five years ago, I came out from a little cell, started out in a halfway house, moved to an apartment, back to a transitional home, and now I’m in my own room in an apartment I share with a roommate. What can be better than this? This is happening.”

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Many of the women you photographed are living in a room in a community house, or an apartment building for returning citizens, or in a one bedroom apartment. So, they have a single room that is their own. While imprisoned, they may or may not have had a cellmate, and the degree to which they could personalise their cell would differ. No matter, they lived within walls for long periods. You’re photographing them also within walls. Tell us about why you focused on their bedrooms.

Sara Bennett (SB): It’s not the similarity to the prison cell that I’m trying to highlight, but the contrast. It’s true that most of the women now live in shared spaces, but still there’s a sense of intimacy, self, and pride. They all have items on display that would have been contraband in prison, including stuffed animals, wooden picture frames, patterned sheets, cellphones and computers. For decades, their cells were randomly inspected, they were locked in every evening, and they were forced to move at a moment’s notice. Now these bedrooms are their own.

 

TOWANDA, 45, in her own apartment five years after her release, with her daughter, Equanni. Bronx, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: almost 23 years
Released: October 2012
“I was in the shelter system for the first four years. It was about the same as prison. You’re confined, you can’t do anything, you don’t have your own thoughts, you’re always stressed out. It’s good to have my own apartment and pay my own bills. It’s peaceful and I feel safe.”

 

PP: What was the dynamic between you and the women.

SB: For many years, I was the pro bono clemency attorney for Judith Clark, who was serving a 75-year-to-life sentence for her role as a getaway driver in a famous New York Case—the Brinks robbery of 1981. All my subjects know her and my first photography project, Spirit on the Inside, is about the women who were incarcerated with her and her influence on their lives. (Spirit on the Inside book.)

The reaction to Spirit on the Inside—viewers were surprised that the formerly incarcerated women were just regular women—sparked my second project, Life After Life in Prison. I followed four women in various stages of re-entry, and I spent so much time with each of them that we really got to know each other. At the same time, I began work on The Bedroom Project, and the four women put me in touch with other potential subjects. So before I even walked in the door, my new portrait subjects were open to me. They’d seen my previous work; they knew some of my former subjects or clients; and they’d been told that I could be trusted.

I’ve ended up being a mentor or friend to almost all the women I’ve photographed.

PP: Why did you choose to include the women’s handwriting?

SB: My goal in all of my photography work is to show the humanity in people who are, or were, incarcerated. I believe that if judges, prosecutors and legislators could see lifers as real individuals, they would rethink the policies that lock them away forever. I want viewers to know what these women are thinking. Including their handwriting emphasizes that these are their words, these are their thoughts.

I asked all of them the same question: “When you see this photo I took of you, what does it make you think?” Their answers are varied and lead the viewer to all kinds of issues—from what it feels like to live in a cell, to educational and employment opportunities inside and outside prison, the difficulties in getting parole and being on parole, finding housing, and issues of remorse, regret, and forgiveness.

 

TRACY, 51, in her own apartment three-and-a-half years after her release. Jamaica, NY (2017)
Sentence: 22 years to life
Served: 24 years
Released: February 2014
“I imagined coming home, living in a one- or two-bedroom apartment, where one was a master and an extra room for guests. Here I have that. I call this room my “doll house,” my safe haven. I feel at peace. I’ve finally unpacked. I spend a lot of time in here. I take pride in everything. I put more into this room than into the kitchen. I know I need to eat, but my room is my nutrition.”

MIRIAM, 51, in transitional housing two months after her release. Corona, NY (2018)
Sentence: 20 years to life
Served: 30 years
Released: December 2017
“This room is my room. A place of my sanity unlike the one in prison. No one will bother me if I’m heard talking to myself. I can think clearly, I can breathe, I can live my way, dress my way, look at things my may. Move my furniture around my way. I love my room. It’s mine—all mine and no one can say anything about it.”

 

PP: What were the main victories for these women post release? What were their main challenges?

SB: Each woman’s circumstance is unique and so their challenges and victories are different. I’d say the biggest and most immediate challenge is finding housing. There are some re-entry programs that provide housing that is either temporary (up to six months) or semi-permanent, and many of the women were lucky enough to get into one of those programs. Some of the women ended up in homeless shelters and some have bounced around from place to place. I know two women who went home to live with family but both ended up moving to housing programs, in part because those programs offer a community that feels familiar and supportive.

Some of the women have completed educational degrees since coming home, some have found rewarding jobs and relationships, and unsurprisingly, the longer a woman has been home, the more stable she becomes.

But most have difficulty finding a job, let alone a decent job, and almost all of them have financial struggles. Many get benefits but that amount is paltry.

It’s mind boggling how quickly the women seem to adapt, how resilient they are, and how they take challenges in stride. Remember, my subjects spent anywhere from 15 to 35 years in prison. The outside world changed radically in that time. As Aisha, one of my subjects says, “It’s like putting a kindergartner in college”.

 

AISHA, 45, in a house she shares with 5 other women 14 months after her release. Flushing, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 25 years
Released: June 2016
“When I was released, I didn’t feel overwhelmed; I felt as though I was right where I was supposed to be. Later though, the feeling of being overwhelmed came as I found myself on the business side of life: food shopping, rent, bills, metrocards, etc. That was all new to me because I lived at home with my mom until I was arrested. My children were one and three years old when I left them and I felt as if they were one and three the whole time I was away. I feel that way about myself now. I was arrested when I was 19 and being in this big, unfamiliar, advanced world makes me feel like a 19-year-old trapped in a 45 year old body. I am both happy and grateful to be out here, but it’s like putting a kindergartener in college.”

VALERIE, 62 in an apartment she shares with a roommate. Bronx, NY (2018).
Sentence: 19 years to life.
Served: 17 years (granted clemency by Governor Andrew Cuomo).
Released: January 2017
“I got my freedom. That’s true! But it’s not the same as being free free. I like to travel. I used to go to VA, to PA, and the casinos and the boardwalk in Atlantic City. I love the beach. But I can’t go anywhere without my PO’s permission. If I want to go to a play or a concert, I need my PO’s permission. Until I get off parole, my life is messed up. I can’t do what I want.”

 

PP: Release from prison is not easy thing. Many of the women were given “numbers-to-life” sentences. Some got out on their parole date, others years after their first parole eligibility. What has been the situation in NY state for releasing persons who’ve served long sentences? Has parole and release become more common recently?

SB: When I first became an attorney in 1986, there was a presumption of parole. If, for example, a person had a sentence of 15 years to life, then she’d likely be released after serving her 15 years, provided that she hadn’t been in serious trouble in the few years prior. But when Governor Pataki took office in 1995, that presumption changed. And no matter how people spent their time in prison—working in trades, earning college degrees, setting up programs, having excellent disciplinary records, living in honor housing—they were repeatedly denied parole based on the one factor that will never change: the nature of the crime they committed.

I like to think that the parole system in New York State is starting to change. In the last six months, the number of parole grants has steadily increased, in part because Governor Andrew Cuomo has had the opportunity to appoint new parole commissioners and in part because of a culture shift that recognizes that, we, as a society, lock people up for far too long. Still, we have a long way to go.

 

CAROL, 69, in a communal residence four years after her release. Long Island City, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: March 2013
“When I was inside, I dreamed of getting out, getting a job, travelling a little bit. But by the time I got out, my health was bad. Basically, that changed all plans. I wish I could do more, but I’m at peace. I have my grandson, Cecil. He’s precious.”

 

PP:  What have been the audiences’ responses to the work?

SB: The photos are currently facing out onto a busy street in Queens, NY and I’ve eavesdropped as passersby have studied the portraits and talked to each other. I’ve never heard anyone say, “you do the crime, you do the time.” Rather, passersby seem sympathetic, drawn in, and incredulous at the amount of time that the women have spent in prison. I’ve also moderated more than a dozen panel conversations with my subjects, and the audiences have been very responsive to the women. No matter what the women’s pasts might have been, today they are hard-working, loving, resilient, optimistic people, and the audience seems to understand that they have earned second chances.

PP: Do prisons work?

SB: That’s such a loaded question that I’m not sure how to answer it. Suffice it to say that in this country we incarcerate way too many people for way too long under conditions that are dehumanizing and obscene. In other countries, imprisonment itself is the punishment, but the conditions themselves are not punitive and abysmal.

PP: In extension of your photos and the women’s own testimonies, what would you like to impress upon members of the public about improvements in the criminal justice system?

SB: For a long time, most of the conversation around changing the criminal justice system has focused on non-violent felony offenders. President Obama talked a lot about non-violent felony offenders and low-level drug offenders. I’m concerned about people with really lengthy, or life sentences, those who are either repeatedly denied parole or don’t even have that possibility. That’s why my only criteria for The Bedroom Project was that the subjects had a life sentence. (A life sentence doesn’t really mean life in prison unless it’s life without parole. A sentence of say, 25 years to life, means that after 25 years a person becomes eligible for parole.) I wanted to really drive home the point: people with life sentences are ordinary (in the best sense of the word) human beings. They deserve second chances.

 

MARY, 51, with her niece, Trish, in her own apartment 19 years after her release. Brooklyn, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 15 years
Released: May 1998
“I’ve been home 19 years, but re-entry is a lifetime process. In many ways prison is with you forever. Still, the impact is a lot less than it used to be. For years, everything I did, everything I thought about, reflected back to prison. It was about 15 years out—I did 15 years in—that I stopped connecting to that girl I was in prison. Maybe you have to do the same amount of time outside as you did inside until you feel FREE from it.

”LINDA, 70, in her own apartment 14 years after her release. Albany, NY (2017)
Sentence: 17 years to life
Served: 14 years. Granted clemency by Governor George Pataki
Released: February 2003
“I love my apartment. The building is clean. I feel safe and at peace. I been here 10 years. I been out of prison 14 years. It’s so hard when you get out. I just stayed strong. With a friend’s help I got a job as a housekeeper in a hospital. I stayed there for 9-1/2 years. Then I retired. As of now I have to try very hard to stay on my budget finance wise. I have a good family & friends in my life. I thank the life I have now. And I thank God everyday that I am alive and safe. Thank you God.”

 

PP: What effects (positive and/or negative) do prisons and reentry have on women? What are their needs that often get overlooked?

SB: One of the saddest things to me about prison is that it can be the first time a woman has found safety in her life. Most women in prison have been victims of gender-based violence. I’ll never forget a client telling me that she got her first good night’s sleep when she went to prison, no longer subject to abuse by her boyfriend. So, in that sense, prison initially brought some peace as well as a sense of community and self awareness to some of the women I know. Of course, that came at the extremely high cost of the loss of freedom.

In general, women have fewer outside contacts than men and lose touch with their families much quicker than men do. So they are very isolated from the outside world and come home to a world that has moved on without them. They find a society that puts up a series of hurdles: they are required to attend state-mandated programs, barred from inexpensive public housing and banned from voting. In addition, they face travel limitations and curfews that make visiting family and working more difficult. When they eventually become eligible to be released from parole, they are often denied without explanation.

I hope the stories of these women remind us of the countless people still in prison who, like them, deserve that same chance to build a life on the outside.

PP: Thanks, Sara.

SB: Thank you.

 

 

 

Video still from an incident in Maine Correctional Center, June 10th, 2012. Capt. Shawn Welch sprays pepper spray into the face of Paul Schlosser who is bound in a restraint chair after the prisoner, who has an infectious disease, spat at an officer. The video came to light after reporting by The Portland Herald in 2013. Prison Photography‘s analysis at the time: ‘The Spit Mask As Prison Torture Apparatus’

I gave a lecture in Maine this week. It went well. People said nice things. Afterward, attendees and I talked about representation and perceptions—the considerations of which form the core of my work. We talked about feasible image-based actions and intervention. I had some ideas. Questions were raised about direct political action and advocacy too. Here, though, especially specific to Maine, I didn’t feel as though I had real suggestions. But now I do and this post details them.

FIGHT AGAINST VIDEO VISITATION, FIGHT AGAINST SOLITARY CONFINEMENT

After a screening of The Prison In Twelve Landscapes hosted by the ACLU of Maine, at SPACE (a brilliant arts organisation, BTW) a panel of local experts gathered to discuss the most pressing issues at hand for prison reform in Maine and the particulars of current ongoing fights. Joseph Jackson of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Meagan Sway, Justice Fellow at ACLU of Maine and Rachel Talbot-Ross, Maine state legislator talked about their work and that of allies.

(FYI, the film is great. Here’s my review from January 2017.)

Joseph Jackson spoke first. He is a coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. His work supports youth and adults in the system. African Americans account for 1.5% of the Maine population. Yet they account for 25% of the juvenile prison population and 29% of the adult prison population. Jackson detailed how the language and applications of law persist until they go challenged. We as citizens can halt years of inertia simply by paying attention and demanding clarification, renewal.

As examples, Jackson pointed to laws that outlawed marijuana in the fifties based upon racist stereotypes. He also decried the ad hoc application of guidelines set forth by the Maine Department of Corrections; vague language (shall/should/will/may) and the consequent grey areas benefit prison administrations and staff as they can choose at will what guidelines are enforced and which can be side-stepped. When pressed, the DOC said that 1 in 8 guidelines were mere suggestions. Prisoners and advocates want clarity. If guidelines are actual policy, if they are enforced, can they be challenged.

Meagan Sway explained that it is the ACLU of Maine’s current practice to oppose laws intended to define new crimes. In the face of mass incarceration, an obstructionist approach is logical. In tandem with fights for fairer and more humane practices in the courts and prisons, it’s effective too hopefully. Drastic times call for drastic response.

Rachel Talbot-Ross is a Democrat Representative in the Maine state legislature. She spent 12 years working for the NAACP but concluded that while she had close relationships with lawmakers, commissioners, superintendents and the like, she was basically given the run around; kept busy but unable to force through meaningful change. Talbot-Ross resolved she would make more difference as an elected official. She won election in 2016 and is the first black woman to be elected to the Maine legislature since its founding 185 years ago. Think about that. Talbot-Ross doesn’t want congratulations for this and I am merely pointing out the fact.

So, my suggestions for you are these:

Support the campaigns of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC) and the ACLU of Maine against solitary confinement.

A recent PBS documentary Last Days Of Solitary would have us think that Maine leads the way in step down programs out of solitary confinement, but the truth is other regimes and cell-blocks, such as the C-Pod, function equivalently as 22 or 23 hour lockdown. Without doubt, the work of then prison chief Jospeh Ponte deserves recognition, but Ponte left MDOC in 2014 to work at Rikers Island until this year, and more committed work to reduce solitary in Maine prisons still needs to be done in his wake.

(On the topic of new modes of prison image-making, PBS’s VR reel After Solitary is worth look.) 

Go to the next MPAC Statewide Strategy Meeting

Saturday, December 2, 2017. 10:00am (doors at 9:30am). Curtis Memorial Library, Morrell Room, 23 Pleasant Street, Brunswick, ME 04011.

Sign up for news from MPAC to join its actions.

Support the work of Talbot-Ross

On November 30th, the Maine Legislative Council will decide which bills it will work on for the 2nd Regular Session. This is a procedure upon which you can have an effect.

While some bills have already been slated for debate, others have been proposed, initially turned down, but have a last chance, under appeal, to make it onto the docket for 2018/2019. Talbot-Ross and her Democrat colleagues have four bills that deal with criminal justice and if you’re a Maine voter you can influence the 10 law-makers.

One deals with in-person prison visits and the pushback against video visitation replacing physical contact. Another deals with solitary confinement. Now that marijuana is legal in Maine, there’s a push for all past marijuana convictions to be sealed. This is in order to cease the prevention of people getting jobs or other social services due to a conviction for something that is now legal.

Contact Ross’ office directly. Your calls are needed to the 10 law-makers prior to the Nov. 30th meeting to request inclusion of these reform bills in the next session. Talbot Ross’ staff will provide all the info you need to lobby your state officials.

Email: rachel.talbotross@legislature.maine.gov

Phone: 800-423-2900

Legislative website: http://legislature.maine.gov/housedems/rossr/index.html

Support the activities of Maine Inside Out, which engages system-impacted youth in drama and the arts and in advocacy.

 

The Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, NY, has just put out an open call for photography related to prisons and incarceration. They’re seeking work about prisons, prison towns, neighbours, families and children, guards, incarcerated persons and returning citizens. Landscapes, portraits and still lifes are offered as suggestions but I’d hazard they’ll take any type of imagery and I encourage the pushing of boundaries.

“This is a topic I have long wanted to present,” says gallery owner Karen Davis. “[Mass incarceration] is not a topic commonly found in our type of gallery.”

Bravo to Davis Orton to getting stuck in to the issue.

Details on how to submit your work here. The dates of the show are June 24th to July 22nd. Deadline for entry is June 6th.

From the open call, Davis Orton will select two portfolios to be included in the show. They’ll go alongside works by Joe Librandi-Cowan and Isadora Kosofsky, who anchor the exhibition.

During the run of the show, the Prison Public Memory Project (one of the most intriguing and layered public research projects I know) will be facilitating film screenings, discussions and presentations relating to mass incarceration.

SUBMISSION DETAILS HERE.

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The Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville held the first open house for family and friends of inmates on Christmas Eve, 1977. The warden, Donald Bordenkircher and staff worked with the inmates to improve morale and make repairs to the facility. The event was successful and it was continued through 1984. © Jay Mather

2016 has been a very different year. I staved off some early-to-mid-career wobbles by taking a long walk and then stepped back into society just in time for the United States to descend into its own special horror show.

I was in Phoenix the night the satsuma-catastrophe won the electoral college vote. The clerk at the gas station voted for Trump. She told me her brother had served in the US military for 13 years, serving four tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. She had heard that Russia would initiate WW3 if Clinton was elected president. She believed Trump had good relations with Putin and so she voted for him so her brother wouldn’t be killed. The premise, the abandonment of logic, the separation I felt from her, her certainty, my certainty … they were all just really depressing. We were so far outside of reality nothing seemed solid or reliable, not a nod, not a discussion. Not there, not then, as the Michigan returns came in.

I don’t know what to say about 2016. Half of the US + 2.8 million know it was a catastrophe. The remainder are gonna figure out the catastrophe over the next four years.

The day after the election I said:

“History’s greatest leaders tend not to be elected politicians; they are most often people working in communities for the protection of their rights, the advancement of compassion, the resistance to gross concentrations of power and toward common sense. Trump is an ass-hat. We’ll see how bearable or utterly toxic things become in the next few months. All the while remember your own agency and don’t underestimate your own power.”

That still holds.

I’ll continue doing what I do, which is to write about the images and contexts which speak to the great injustices and abuses that occur daily in America’s prison industrial complex. I wish you calm, breathing, nourishing food this holiday season. I wish you strength, creativity and community in 2017 to take on, and thrive in, this confounding, challenging, bizarre world.

I’m spending the first half of 2017 in England. I’ll be back in the US to join the show in June. Love to you, be good, be smiling. Champion others and volunteer your time and resources so that you may be closer to your neighbours.

Happy hols.

A note on the image: I was pleased to discover Jay Mather‘s series Christmas In Prison which documents a family day at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville on Christmas Eve, 1977. It depicts a moment when prison administrations were willing to make efforts to accommodate the emotional needs of prisoners. It’s strangely old-school; the dinner is held in the massive stone cellblock. Family events these days are in visiting rooms or other communal spaces. Mather’s pictures seem so unlikely when set against modern day’s sterile, cinder block rooms that function to control visitors and prisoners. See Mather’s full 62-image series here.

A quick heads up for a new photography project about prisons. Jessica Earnshaw has embarked on an investigation of aging in prison. So far, Earnshaw has visited Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana, Maine State Prison and Maine Correctional Center. to make stills and videos that reflect the circumstances of elderly prisoners.

Of course, the greying of America’s prisons is a massive issue. Compassionate release for men and women who are clearly infirm and clearly no threat to society as they may have been 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago seems to me to be a no-brainer.

The project is in its very early stages and Earnshaw is sharing snippets on Instagram. Follow @AgingInPrison, listen and watch that space.

Norma, 76-years-old, cleans her teeth after every meal.

A post shared by Aging in Prison (@aginginprison) on

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Owen at a community outreach service, near Brisbane, that provides free meals. Owen had been out of prison and in Australia for three months when this portrait was made. © Cory Wright

A BOY OF GREAT PROMISE

What happens if you’re released from prison in one country and deported to another? What happens if you’ve no recourse? What happens if your so-called “home” is not at all a home but a place you’ve not seen for 30+ years?

These questions can be answered, partially, by looking at the experience of Owen, who was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 32 in the United Kingdom. In late 2013, after serving 19 years, Owen was released aged 51.

“As an Australian citizen Owen was released as part of a scheme devised to reduce taxpayer expenditure and ease prison overcrowding in the U.K. by deporting foreign national prisoners,” explains photographer Cory Wright who met Owen in January 2014 a few months after his return.

“Owen was taken from a maximum security prison to a detention facility and then to the airport where he was flown back to Australia under guard escort,” continues Wright. “After clearing customs at Brisbane International Airport, he went his way and the guards went theirs.”

For his first few nights in Australia, Owen camped out in a wooded area behind a university campus. Having no family in Brisbane, he headed a local church to get some help.

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Owen on faith and imprisonment: “In prison, I could actually feel the strength when I walked into the prison chapel and it helped me a great deal. I don’t get that feeling now. When I walk into a church sometimes I feel as though it could be any other room.”

It was at a prison ministry conference in Brisbane that Owen and Wright first met. After striking up a conversation and learning about their recent histories and their need to unpack disorienting experiences. Owen and Wright decided to work together. For one year, through image-making, conversation and archives, they reflected upon Owen’s institutionalization, the social stigma of incarceration, repatriation and reentry.

Soon, Owen moved from Brisbane to Melbourne where his ailing  mother lives. He cared for her for a while until she has since moved to a nursing home where he expects her to stay from now on. She was in her 60’s when Owen was sentenced to life in prison and over 80-years-old when he was released.

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Owen’s mother lived in Bundaberg, a small town in northern Queensland for many years. She was a well-known member of the community, but she moved to Melbourne shortly after “Owen got into trouble” because it was too difficult to stay once members of the community learned of his offense.

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A scan of Owen’s year 3 report card. The series takes it’s title from the first sentence of the teacher’s remarks at the top left. “Owen is a boy of great promise…”.

Wright titled the project A Boy Of Great Promise, a phrase taken from Owen’s year 3 report card, written by his then teacher.

Wright and Owen could not help becoming friends.

“With empathy and attention afforded to the victim, little thought is given to the lives of those who have “paid their debt to society”. The stigma of the crime is often residual as is the label it caries. It is difficult to be known as anything other than an ‘ex-con’. Furthermore, the lasting effects of prisonisation often make reintegration back into society especially difficult,” says Wright.

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During his time living in Brisbane, Owen often relied on free amenities provided by community shelters.

“While A Boy Of Great Promise offers no firm resolution, it starts discussion among those who, all to readily, apply this stigma and rely on assumptions to judge those who have been convicted of a crime.”

I wanted to know more. I sent Cory Wright a few questions. But he replied saying he wanted to share the repsonsibility with Owen. And so I sent a few more questions and Owen and Wright explain the project jointly.

Q & A

How did you meet?

Owen (O): We met at the Uniting Care Prison Ministries Conference in Brisbane, March 2014.

Cory (C): I was encouraged to contact a local prison ministry in Brisbane, Australia and invited to attend the conference, which led me to meet Owen.

Due to the restraints outlined in the Queensland Corrective Services Act 2006, I was unable to photograph or interview any Australian individuals who were on parole as it is forbidden under the act since they are still classified as ‘prisoners’ by the state.

Owen’s circumstances were unique because he was incarcerated in the UK and therefore not considered a ‘prisoner’ under the Act.

I remain very grateful to Owen and members of his family for allowing me into their lives over a period of time.

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Serving his sentence in the United Kingdom, Owen did not have many visits from family. During the 19 years he was in prison his mother did not visit him and his father visited only once.

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A card Owen bought for his mother whom he hadn’t seen since before he went to prison.

Why did you both agree to document this transition?

O: Cory approached me with the idea, explaining he needed a subject for his university assignment. I’m always willing to help people. And I like the idea of prisoners/ex-offenders getting positive exposure.

C: I wanted to spend period of time documenting post-release transition. I wanted to learn more about life post-incarceration with specific focus on individuals who had been recently released. The term ‘paid their debt to society’ has always interested me and I wanted to know if it was ever ‘paid’ or whether it was something that individuals continue to ‘pay’ following their release.

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Owen in his rooms surrounded by past family photographs, mainly from his childhood.

What did you hope to get out of the project?

O: I do see myself as a kind of ambassador for ex-offenders. I wanted positive exposure for ex-offenders. I like art. I like turning life into art. There’s a freeing up and a cleansing that comes from it.

C: I hoped to learn more about life after prison. It’s not something that is discussed, certainly not in mainstream media. In Australia specifically, there seems to be a focus on vilifying criminal behaviour in order to support a tough on crime political approach. I’m not condoning crime, but I think there needs to be more thought and discussion on what happens after prison, which may lead to more consideration about what prisons are for.

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Owen on the long term effects of prison:“It’s like going to war. When you come home you have PTSD just like those soldiers coming home from war in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Owen, do Cory’s photographs reflect your emotional state during this time?

O: Yes. I was happy and at peace, very happy to be released and enjoying my new found freedom. I think that is captured.

Cory, were you trying to reflect Owen’s emotional state?

C: I was documenting what I saw over a period of time, which was Owen gradually become more comfortable in Australian society. I saw happiness and relief yes, but I also saw Owen’s struggle to regain his place in a society from which he’s long been absent.

Owen repeated told me how relieved he was to be free, but he also said that he was worried he would be sent back to prison. There was a certain level of anxiety that the other shoe would fall and somehow he would be locked up again.

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Shortly after Owen moved to Melbourne, he entered a romantic relationship with S. Initially, S was unaware of his past and Owen was reluctant to tell her. Here, Owen and S. during a camping trip in northern Victoria. During the time they were together Owen helped S. learn English (which is not her first language) for her studies in a masters program. They would buy two copies of the same book and take turns reading aloud to one another.
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The garage of Owen’s mother’s townhouse where Owen and S. had sex when his mother was home.

Owen, what preparation did the UK government give you for the return trip to Australia?

O: None at all.

Owen, what has worked and what has not worked in your transition back to civilian life?

O: Australia is an easy country to live in, which has made the transition easy. None of my former friends welcomed me back and hardly any of my family, which has been the hardest thing to accept. I found I needed to start again and accept that people wouldn’t generally be accepting of my circumstances. I don’t tell people about my criminal past any more.

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A list of email addresses to reach out to for support after his release. Owen compiled the list using internet access at a public library.

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The view down the street from Owen’s mother’s townhouse in a suburb of Melbourne. After four months living in Brisbane, Owen relocated to Melbourne to live with and care for his mother.

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Owen’s booking image provided and partially redacted by the Ministry of Justice.

Why was the mugshot redacted?

C: I’m not sure why the Ministry of Justice decided to redact the image, especially since all of the consent forms and signatures they requested were provided.

In one of our discussions Owen told me that being released after serving a long-term prison sentence is like returning from war in the middle-east with regards to the effect on the person. Your identity is effectively stripped away from you and you become a number. I felt that this redacted image reflected that.

How common is the removal of non-UK citizens from UK society after their release?

O: It’s only relatively recent that lifers have been returned to their country of origin after their sentence. The TERS (Tariff Expired Removal Scheme) agreement began three years ago. Fixed-termers get sent back regularly.

A boy of great promise001

Prison diary and address book.

Owen, did you have any right of appeal?

O: There is an appeal system, but I doubt if a prisoner would have much success with it. I wanted to come back to Australia.

Owen, if you could be anywhere where would it be?

O: At the moment I’m still happily settling into life in Australia. I probably will travel when I get some money together – in Asia or Africa or South America.

Owen, why do you camp?

O: I like the freedom of it. After being locked up for so long I like not having four walls around me.

A boy of great promise023

Owen during a camping trip to the south coast of Victoria. Since his release, Owen has spent a lot of his time outdoors, mainly camping in rural areas of Victoria.

What would you like the world to understand through this project?

O: Good things can always happen.

C: I would like the people to give more consideration to a part of society that is largely ignored.

Cory Wright is a photographer based in South East Queensland. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram.

All images: © Cory Wright

davinci

There are many stories of prisoners’ resourcefulness and creative spirit. There’s lots of tales of redemption through art, or something akin to it. The grandly titled Prison Da Vinci is one of the better produced tellings of this type of story arc.

Filmmaker Zach Sebastian relies heavily on the subject Chris Wilson’s words and phrasing. The viewer is quickly told why a British guy was locked up in San Quentin so that we’re accelerated to the important details of how and why he made paintings made of candy.

I was surprised–but happily relieved–that Wilson was able to exist in San Quentin outside of the gang culture. He encounters philosophy for the first time and met a lot of good people, he says. And he made art.

(The Prison Da Vinci film recalls to mind the work of Donny Johnson, a man convicted of second degree murder who paints postcards with colours leached from M&Ms in his Pelican Bay State Prison solitary confinement cell for the past decade-or-more. In 2006, Johnson had a show in Mexico.)

Whilst Wilson–the artist–prevails, his existences is not far from hell. What’s missing from Prison Da Vinci is a fuller picture of the depravity Wilson experienced inside the California prison system … but that’s too big for a 4-minute short and would take us off the topic of art. We know from his book Horse Latitudes that Wilson had a torrid time of it.

Horse Latitudes first landed on my radar last year when Aaron Guy (and here) sent me a copy (Thanks, Aaron!)

5a

Spread from Horse Latitudes (Sorika) by Chris Wilson.

Here’s the lowdown on Horse Latitudes on Self Publish Be Happy.

What’s fascinating to me about the book is that it uses descriptions of “photographs” to anchor several scenes. Wilson describes regularly things he witnessed to put us in the picture–both when he was out on the streets living life as a junkie and later when he’s inside the nick. For example:

PHOTOGRAPH

Time Unknown

Foreground, a young man shirtless, tattooed, faces a mirror with his teeth bared, metal wires are entwined through his teeth to clamp his jaws together, in his right hand, which is raised to his mouth, he holds a red-handled pair of wire-cutters.

It’s dark, foreboding and inescapbaly bleak. Wilson has been called ‘The Nietzsche of Narcotics‘.

I was left to wonder how Wilson has even survived. Horse Latitudes is a short, violent and unapologetic read. Get it if you can.

The book differs massively in tone from Prison Da Vinci and that’s okay. Wilson has established himself as a successful artist and is not cagey about his tortured past. We know people change and we know identity isn’t fixed. We know people are more than their worst behaviours. Prison Da Vinci does its bit to celebrate Wilson’s post-prison and drug-free life. It’s one story of his storied life. Wilson got beyond incarceration’s grip. Art played its part. But painting with Skittles wasn’t even the half of it.

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