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I came across this image on a ‘free media web hosting site’ where I lazily put in the term “Prison” to the search. I am unwilling to name the site as I do not wish you to suffer the same banner ads and unedited content.


Women prisoners working on road, Tanzania. circa 1901. Source: Unknown

The search returned the usual images of pets in crates (1st-person caption optional), macro-shots of rusting locks and/or bars, stock images of barb wire, and photos from Eastern State Penitentiary (which does many photography workshops). There were three images that were worth a second glance – the other two being images WWII prisoners of war.

Despite having no means to confirm its authenticity or the accuracy of the caption, I thought the image worthy of a quick reflection. The image is contrary to the usual representation of incarcerated peoples – the era; the gender of the subjects; the continent; the anonymity of the photographer. De facto, this becomes a visual source in its most naive understanding; all we have to go on are the women depicted. The photograph wriggles away from all the contextual information one needs to assess its political purpose.

The responses of the women to the camera (pride, defiance, awkwardness, subjection – and even laughter from a lady in the background) compel me to presume nothing of this picture. I question the authority to which they are subject, I question the legitimacy of the charge by which they are held prisoner, I certainly can’t reconcile hard labour with a mode of justice for grown women. This is a depiction of slavery more than it is of criminal justice.

If the date in the caption is accurate, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) was under German rule. “Tanzania as it exists today consists of the union of what was once Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar. Formerly a German colony from the 1880s through 1919, the post-World War I accords and the League of Nations charter designated the area a British Mandate (except for a small area in the northwest, which was ceded to Belgium and later became Rwanda and Burundi). British rule came to an end and Tanganyika became officially independent in 1961.”

I rarely harp on about “the power of photography” because it is a subjective assessment, but I will vouch for that personal reaction to imagery that can stop you in your tracks and get you thinking.

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

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

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

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

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. Partial zoom.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. Partial zoom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the wall surveillance (TWS) is still a technology in it’s infancy, but strategic needs and gushing public awe will perfect this fledgling military toy. It will be driven down marketing channels and into our living rooms. Perhaps TWS, like GPS, will be assimilated into middle class families across America. However, before TWS assumes mass commodity status, I am sure it’s advantages, limitations and in-combat-uses will have been fully tested and exhausted by multiple state and federal enforcement agencies.

Product Information Library, Defense Research & Development Canada

Human SAR signatures. Image: Product Information Library, Defense Research & Development Canada

These images are from Defense Research & Development Canada. This model is from the laboratory – probably a scientist. He is not an inmate or prisoner. In 2006, the National Institute for Justice (the research and development agency for the Department of Justice) sought “applications for funding research and development of sensor or surveillance technologies, or novel applications of those technologies, to address specific needs in criminal justice.”

This request included three specific interests: 1) Concealed weapon detection systems; 2) TWS technologies; and 3) “other novel sensor or surveillance technologies, applications, or support functions for specific criminal justice applications.” I guess that third was to keep the DoJ feeling lucky.

Do these images represent a future representation of a prison inmate? Could Prison SERT Teams adopt more surveillance paraphernalia into its existing observational apparatus? Given the opportunity will future media beam TWS images of hostage or seize scenarios, relying on the abstracted “Pixelated Prisoner” to impress the “otherness” – the other worldliness – of America’s incarcerated masses?

California Department of Corrections, SERT Badge

California Department of Corrections, SERT Badge

Don’t get me wrong, TWS technologies will be used more widely by agencies other than correctional agencies. One presumes city police departments would want their SWAT teams armed with TWS in hostile neighbourhoods. TWS is of most value in unfamiliar built environments. The prison is ordered and known to the extent that TWS would be needed only in crises such as riots in which prison authorities lose control of buildings or complexes.

Noteworthy of this upturn of interest in – and development of – TWS technologies, is the rabid integration of military strategy into American policing and correctional systems. Should energy and money be spent on equipment that has very limited use? Or could those resources go toward the ‘Research and Development’ of rehabilitation?

Product Information Library, Defense Research & Development Canada

Human SAR signatures. Image: Product Information Library, Defense Research & Development Canada

I have found two developers of TWS. The first is the government’s Strategic Technology Office (STO) which is itself a branch of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The second is “your dependable ally” Camero, a private company that has developed the Xaver 400 and Xaver 800. Watch this ludicrous drama presenting the soldier-game applications of the Xaver – try not to be carried away by the macho snare drum and power chords.

My speculations about TWS use in correctional facilities may or may not prove out. I think the need for TWS is so limited in prison environments that it will not be widely adopted. That said, TWS imaging equipment could make future representations of prisoners. I cannot escape the ironic turn this possibility allows. To witness these images is to “see” through the walls – it is a technology that undermines the crude and necessary walls of prison. Appreciating such irony is to understand a power and philosophy that is only interested in making visible the invisible when it is strategically advantageous. Furthermore, this scenario should be interpreted as insidious as it is ironic. In societies of the Supermax, the prisoner is barely evident. The prisoner is not a memory even; possibly a concept. The prisoner is an abstraction, nay, an apparition – a weightless collection of pixels.

On a recent search of the Harry Ransom Center photographic archive at the University of Texas, Austin (an incredible collection) I came across this image by Arnold Genthe.

Arnold Genthe, Slave Prison (Calabozo), New Orleans, circa 1920-1926

Arnold Genthe, Slave Prison (Calabozo), New Orleans, circa 1920-1926

Genthe is a widely respected practitioner of early photography, and (besides some notable exceptions) made it all the way out west before many others. Historians thank Genthe for having enough curiosity in the Chinese immigrants of San Francisco to photograph their community before the 1906 earthquake and resultant fire razed large swathes of the city. His are the only images of Chinatown from that time period.

Genthe’s Slave Prison, (Calabozo), New Orleans is, in all honesty, not an image that interests me very much. Without the caption I would not have known that this negative depicted a site of incarceration. It is reminiscent of Fox Talbot’s The Open Door; both images are mundane, both photographers pointed their lens at doors. One inconsequential but observable difference is that Genthe’s door is closed – which is, at least, consistent with the subject.

Henry William Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844

The Library of Congress record states that Genthe photographed the Calabozo between 1920 and 1926, and yet, in a reliable source I uncovered during a brief internet foray, it is stated the Calabozo was demolished in 1837. There are two likely explanations. One, Genthe was photographing another city jail and wrongly identified it as the Calabozo; or, two, Genthe set his camera up in the courtyard of the building that stood on the former site of the Calabozo (in which case the courtyard may have been original). There is uncertainty here that needs to be cleared up, but I don’t intend, here, to pursue the correct subject-hence-caption for Genthe’s sleepy image.

Despite the image’s astonishing banality, I was intrigued by the flawed description and I sensed an opportunity to sate my thirst for amateurish detective work. Furthermore, the fact remains it is an image of a prison; I was compelled to give it a second glance. I reasoned that a slave prison in a city that had operated under three different flags throughout the late 18th and early 19th century would have some intriguing history. The first questions that sprang to mind were: Do any other images of this same building exist? Do images of modern New Orleans’ prisons or jails exist that could provide interesting juxtaposition? I read and viewed whichever resources presented themselves readily.

Of the many passages that hooked me was this description from Louisiana: A Guide to the State (1947). It describes the conditions of the Calabozo.

An investigation in 1818 of the old Spanish Calabozo in New Orleans found the convicts “not provided for as humanity would dictate since many were destitute of clothing and others were almost destroyed by vermin.” Debtors were confined with the blackest of criminals. Entrance and exit fees as well as board and lodging payments were required of the prisoners. In 1861 a debtor was free after 90 days imprisonment, provided his keep for the interim had been paid.

Obviously, in the early 19th century matters of care while in detention & exit privileges were more easily negotiated by those with ready cash. A crude inequality that no longer remains, right? Possibly not. As I read this historical passage, I was also mousing over a slew of stories from modern newspapers that reported contemporary incidents of neglectful custodianship of men by state authorities.

The abandonment of prisoners in New Orlean’s jails during Hurricane Katrina is in no way more shocking than the early 19th century account. Within my web browser two centuries dissolved. Neglect, as the lowest common denominator, collapsed time. Men penning other men as animals showed itself ugly and unfortunate. The shortcomings of the system, the inflexibility of the system and the neglect within the system were revealed in New Orleans following Katrina in August 2005 as existed in 1818.

O.P.P. Inmates guarded on New Orleans overpass

O.P.P. Inmates guarded on New Orleans overpass © AP

The BBC This World documentary Prisoners of Katrina details the week of fear, panic, riots and evacuation at Orleans Parish Prison. When Sheriff Gusman’s initial plan to retain the prisoners at O.P.P. through the duration of the storm proved to be a disastrous decision, a tactical team from Angola Prison bailed Gusman out. Over 7,000 inmates were herded out (via an engulfed freeway overpass) and relocated to 42 facilities over a period of four dehydrated, sun-scorched, unsanitary days. Accounts conflict as to whether any inmates died, but eye witness testimonies have reported floating corpses in the halls of O.P.P. during evacuation.

Still today, the Louisiana justice system has not recovered. It is in total disarray. Prior to Katrina O.P.P. held a variety of inmates including lifers, violent offenders, short stay non-violent offenders and (the most unfortunate group) those awaiting trial for offenses yet unproven. These inmates are now indistinguishable from one another because their case histories were lost in the hurricane. They are all just “in the system”.

It is contended that half of the evacuated prisoners have never been to trial. Hundreds of inmates were arrested for minor offenses, traffic fines, jay-walking and sleeping on the sidewalk. Hundreds of the prisoners do not know why they were arrested, and the system can’t tell them either. But neither can the system cannot exonerate them. Unconvicted men are now warehoused while the system tries to decide what the charge is for each inmate. Public defenders are leaving their positions in droves after seeing their caseloads increase by six, seven, even eight hundred percent.

Michael Democker, An inmate sleeps in his cell in the 10th floor psychiatric section of Orleans Parish Prison, 2008

Michael Democker, An inmate sleeps in his cell in the 10th floor psychiatric section of Orleans Parish Prison, 2008

Judge Calvin Johnson states that Katrina “blew the system apart” and they now cannot cope with the backlog of over 6,000 cases. To make matters worse still, the basement which stored the majority of files and forensic evidence was flooded destroying any hopes to rule on individual cases in a timely manner.

Three years on this is still a system in crisis. O.P.P. has been repopulated and inmates suffer doubly – firstly as victims of a system in deadlock and secondly as victims to the decrepitude of the O.P.P after the ravages of flood and riot. Unsurprisingly, those that suffer most are the poor minorities. Efforts to glean facts for a fuller story by interviewing outgoing inmates continue.

In Spring of 2008, the Times Picayune reported once more on the desperate need to overhaul the newly populated Orleans Parish Prison. When a hundred year storm converges with poor catastrophe-contingency-planning, it is those that have no means and no voice who are left to suffer longest. In the scramble to get cases heard, those without resources are shunted to the bottom of the pile. Not only are the poor and the minority populations suffering, but also the mentally ill. The stretched system has until recently only had lock up as a resort to deal with inmates with mental health care needs. The majority of the men in O.P.P. are poor and black and many of them are in the O.P.P for minor unproven offenses.

Where does all this lead? How does this relate to photography? The image above from O.P.P left a pit in my stomach. The pit lingered, long. I could not fathom why. Later, I remembered an image I had viewed the previous year. The two photographs had the same components; the orange jumpsuit, the seemingly unaware subject in the orange jumpsuit, the subject positioned as a motif of solitude, and (most oppressively) the downward angle of view as seen through the cell door window.

Monica Almeida, Nicole Brockett is serving her sentence for drunken driving in a pay-to-stay cell at the jail in Santa Ana, 2007

Monica Almeida, Nicole Brockett is serving her sentence for drunken driving in a pay-to-stay cell at the jail in Santa Ana, 2007

But look closer and one identifies small comforts – linen, spare linen, spare prison-threads, reading and writing material, food being saved for later. Nicole Brockett had committed a proven traffic offence. She was fortunate to be tried in Orange County and so have the option of incarceration with frills. Santa Ana Jail at $82 a day is not the most luxurious of the Californian “Pay-as-you-Stay” lock-ups. At Fullerton you can take your cell phone. Montebello and Seal Beach Jails allow iPods.

The New York Times did a great job of illustrating the cushty cells as elite privilege.

For offenders whose crimes are usually relatively minor (carjackers should not bother) and whose bank accounts remain lofty, a dozen or so city jails across the state offer pay-to-stay upgrades. Theirs are a clean, quiet, if not exactly recherché alternative to the standard county jails, where the walls are bars, the fellow inmates are hardened and privileges are few. Many of the self-pay jails operate like secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world.

The realities of these dozen or so city jails are a far cry from those at O.P.P. How is it the US criminal system fosters such inequality? How have tenets of consumerism and favouritism crept into state systems intended to administer lawful punishment? What clearer message do these two contrasting stories offer than to point out that there is no equality in our current justice system. Those that pay, just as 200 years ago, receive preferential treatment. In a country where race and class are indivisible, those not in a position to pay for cell-upgrades are more likely to be people of colour. How low have our standards dropped to allow bare-faced state authority to operate penal systems with buy-in/opt out clauses on comfort and cell-mates? How many more social institutions do we want to hand over to the amorality of supply/demand economics?

I was going to suggest that things haven’t changed in 200 years, but they have in fact gotten worse. When trangressors of the early 19th century were locked up they received the same treatment regardless of class or race. Now segregation can occur at the will (and wallet) of the inmate. The inmate can buy the comfort of their own cell and avoid the dangerous inconveniences of “hardened inmates”. By “hardened inmates”  the New York Times is by definition referencing the typical inmate of the California penal system, which is to say a minority male or female, which is in the parlence of 1818, “the blackest of criminals”. It would seem discrimination between the races has always existed … the difference being that now the penal systems afford privileged prisoners the opportunity to act upon those discriminations.


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