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“At one time Angola was well known as the bloodiest penitentiary in America. And now you don’t have nearly as much as the violence as you woulda had.”

Troy West, Angola Inmate

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate per capita of all US states. over 1,100 per 100,000 – that’s more than 1 in a 100. Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary) is the mother of all prisons, carrying a weighty reputation and weightier history.

Only Georgia has a rate above 1 in a 100, as Louisiana does. The other Southern states make up the top five (Texas, Alabama and Mississippi).

These stats are due in most the more frequent sentencing of men to life without parole. The disproportionately high rate of prisoners who die within Southern prisons as compared to other state institutions makes for a very different culture.

Many photographers including Damon Winter and Lori Waselchuk have focused on the unique aspects of Angola culture. The rodeo is well known, the hospice less so, but least well known may be the football league.

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I have noted before the value of sports in prison, and Angola Prison Football a film-short by Charlie Gruet supports my position.

In it, Angola warden Burl Cain states his philosophy, “Good food, good medicine, good play and good pray. Lose any of those elements and you’ll have violence in your prison, but you would in your home. You think about it.”

The inmates back up the third point. It’s a well done documentary and to think that over 70% of the men in the film won’t ever get out just blows my mind. (Source: 2008 LSP Report).

Watch closely from 4.03 onward.

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This week, Metafilter – among others – threw a stats-bomb at my wordpress account. The lure? Uncredited, amateur, pinhole photographs. No name … no logo.

graph

The photography was by Girls in the Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center, Tacoma, WA during a 2002 Steve Davis arts workshop.

These pictures really struck a chord. I am left to wonder what sort of interpretations are being made by viewers?

One thing I know is that a big CV, a big camera and fancy digijournalist turns may not be enough to secure soul-grabbing images. In fact, I’d argue it probably isn’t possible to compete with those nameless girls of Remann Hall.

Remann Hall girls 2002.  Image created with pinhole camera in a Steve Davis workshop

Remann Hall girls 2002. Image created as part of a Steve Davis workshop. Pinhole camera.

Please contact Steve Davis for inquiries about image use and reproduction.

Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

These images are the result of a collaboration between photographer Steve Davis and the girls of Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center, Tacoma, Washington State in the US.

Davis was forced to think of the camera as a tool for different ends, essentially rehabilitative ends. For legal reasons and the protection of minors, Davis and his female students were not allowed to photograph each others faces. It became an exercise in performance as much as photography.

We see portraits of the girls with plaster masks, heads in their hands. The girls limbs outstretched made use of evasive gesture. The long exposures of pinhole photography resulted in conveniently blurred results.

remann hall kids 2002-7

 

remann hall kids 2002-8

remannhallkids 2002-10

Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

PINHOLE PHOTOGRAPHY vs ROTE DOCUMENTARY MOTIFS

Photography in sites of incarceration often depicts amorphous, vanishing forms within stark cubes; it is usually black & white, and often from peep-hole or serving-hatch vantage points. When this vocabulary is used and repeated by photojournalists, visual fatigue follows fast.

Heterogeneous architecture doesn’t help the documentary photographer. Limited and repetitious visual cues make it tough to work in prisons. Images, shot through doors, by visitors only on cell-wings by special permission, are dislocating and sad indictments of systems that fail the majority of wards in their custody. 

I celebrate all photography shining a light on the inequities of prison life. Having said that, very occasionallyonly very occasionally, do I wish a “prison photographer” had expanded, waited or edited a prison photography project a little longer … but I do wish it.

Photojournalism & documentary photography have taken a battering from within and been asked some serious reflective questions. I don’t want to accuse photographers of complacency. To the contrary, my complaints are aimed at prison systems that so rarely allow the camera and photographer to engage with daily life of the institution.

Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

remann hall kids 2002-13

remann hall kids 2002-11

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Therefore, I stake two positions on the issue of motif/cliché. First, repeated clichés have developed in the practice of photography in prisons. Second, prison populations have had little or nothing to do with the creation, continuation or reading of these clichés.

As a general criticism, I would say photographers in prisons struggle to achieve original work. But, prisoner-photographers – whose experience differs vastly from pro-photographers, custodians and visitors – cannot be held to that same criticism.

WHEN THE PRISONER CONTROLS THE CAMERA

These images by the girls at Remann Hall are distinguished from the majority of prison documentary photography, because the inmate is holding the camera. When an inmate repeats a motif it is not a cliché.

These are images of all they’ve got; concrete floors, small recreation boxes, steel bars, plastic mattresses and chrome furniture … all the while lit brightly by fluorescent bulbs and slat windows. These aren’t images taken for art-careerism, journalism or state identification. These are documents of a rarefied moment when, for a while – in the lives of these girls – procedures of the County and State took back seat.

When a member from within a community represents the community, the representation is above certain criteria of criticism.  A prison pinhole photography workshop has very different intentions than any media outlet. Cliche is not a problem here; it is a catalyst.

The simulation and reclamation of visual cliche (in this case the obfuscated hunched detainee) is doubly interesting. Why the frequent use of the foetal position? Why did the girls choose this vulnerable pose to represent themselves? Was it on advice? Was it mimicry? Was it part of a role they view for themselves? Why don’t they stand? Emotionally, what do they own?

As in evidence in some images, one hopes that some of these girls are friends. This selection of shots share a single predominant common denominator; the psychological brutality of cinder block spaces of confinement. Companionship seems like a small mercy in those types of space.

remann hall kids 2002-4

remann hall kids 2002-9

These photographs should knock you off your chair. I am in doleful astonishment. In the absence of faces, how powerful and essential are hands?

For now, consider how visual and institutional regimes square up.

remann hall kids 2002-6

Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

Since the original publication of these images, they have been viewed tens of thousands of times. More than any other photographer – famous or not – these images by anonymous teenage girls have been by far the most popular ever featured on Prison Photography. That appetite shows that when prisons and struggle and creativity are presented in a meaningful way, images can be used as a segue into wider discussion of the underlying issues.

The Remann Hall project was done as a part of the education department program at the Museum of Glass in partnership with Pierce County Juvenile Court. This comment sums up the importance but also the fiscal fragility of these arts based initiatives:

The Remann Hall project was an incredible project, which culminated in an outdoor installation at the museum and many of the participants coming to volunteer and participate in education programs at the museum after they were released. It was one of the many incredible programs I was lucky enough to be part of there. A book of poetry, artwork (and I think some of the photos in that link) was produced as well. The whole program was a great model for how arts organizations can do meaningful outreach in their communities. Unfortunately, the program was cut one year before the planned completion, due to budget concerns.”

[My bolding]

Bilingual Signs © Andreina, IDRA/Albuquerque Public School District, Critical Exposure Photography Project

Images Unseen, Images Unknown written by a guest blogger on Prison Photography last week was well received by readers, provoking more questions and some intriguing possibilities.

Change.org offered a synopsis of the article. Change.org focused on the concluding points of Images Unseen, Images Unknown which described the culture of shame shrouding California prisons created by the control of images and manipulated invisibility.

Too many prisoners are hidden from view to serve out their time. Many prisoners refuse visits from family because they don’t want loved ones to see them in institutions that deny them individuality, work to subdue the general population, hide prisoners from society, and keep them docile.

So, the issue of self-representation and empowerment arises. Specific to my interest would be the possibilities of empowerment through photography.

Recently, Stan Banos asked me, “Are you aware of any photography programs in prison for prisoners.”

My answer, in short, is no. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it just means for all my searching I have unearthed nothing.

Art therapy has been explored among prison populations and recently San Quentin piloted it’s first ever ‘Film School’. The project did many things at once, teaching inmates the technical skills of documentary film making, building team work and trust; and it allowed inmates to communicate narratives of their choosing from prison life.

Inmates documented the work of the prison nurses distributing medications; filmed the prison kitchens; recorded the “wasted talent” of artists, musicians and writers within San Quentin; and studied American Islamic faith in prison.

With that in mind, we can say empowerment through the arts has been well explored and apparently successful in a number of penal institutions. However, it would seem photography in prisons has not been used as a tool for self-representation and rehabilitation … yet.

Turn Away © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

Turn Away © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

The model for this type of program exists. Dozens of important non-profits use photography as a means for at-risk-youth to tell their stories. Organisations such as Youth in Focus, Seattle; AS220 Youth Photography Program, Providence, RI: Focus on Youth, Portland; New Urban Arts, Providence; Critical Exposure, Washington DC; First Exposures by SF Camerawork in San Francisco; The In-Sight Photography Project, Vermont; Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE), Nova Scotia; Inner City Light, Chicago; My Story, Portland, OR; Picture Me at the MoCP, Chicago; and Eye on the Third Ward, Houston; The Bridge, Charlottesville, VA; and Emily Schiffer’s My Viewpoint Photo Initiative are exemplars of empowerment through photography.

The Red Hook Photo Project New York offers photography opportunities specifically to a community blighted by crime. The photo project is run by the Red Hook Community Justice Center which operates many programs to improve the lives of teens within the geographically and socially isolated Red Hook Neighbourhood.

Only slight tweaks would be necessary to these types of programs for them to be effective as rehabilitative tools among prison populations. The central driving philosophy is to offer individuals a method of self-representation they’ve never been afforded previously.

A Backwards Eye © Gwendolyn Reed, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

A Backwards Eye © Gwendolyn Reed, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

It seems the main factor, aside of funding, for rehabilitative programs establishing themselves in prisons, is the philosophy of individual wardens. San Quentin Film School was pitched repeatedly across 47 states until Warden Robert Ayers decided to launch it at San Quentin. Likewise Burl Cain, at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) has become well known for maintaining a varied roster of programs to keep inmates occupied. They include the renowned (and ethically questionable) Rodeo, an American Football league and a hospice program in which inmates volunteer to carry out the palliative care tasks.

On this evidence, it would make sense that criminal justice reformers and those interested in increasing the visibility of prisons should actively seek out wardens currently supporting novel, or even pilot, projects. Wardens currently accommodate programs in education, the arts, dog-training, first aid, video and much more. Photography could be added to that list.

There is a lot of mainstream media programs featuring American prisons – Lockdown, Americas Hardest Prisons, Inside American Jail – but of course these are all made for cable distribution and ultimately profit; their common denominator is a heightened sensationalism.

© Wayman, Inner City Light Student Photography Project

© Wayman, Inner City Light Student Photography Project

Documentary projects upholding rehabilitation and education as their core purpose are a distinctively different type of exposure. There would be no need for regional or national television channels to provide financial backing as an end (marketable) product would not be the motivation. That said, if the narratives of such documentary projects could be shown to enhance the image of an institution the prison authority might be open to trying them. The prison warden has the decision making power, so if under a wardens leadership a prison is given (positive) exposure it makes sense that the warden would be interested.

All successful rehabilitative arts programs presumably share a cooperative approach from the outset. Wardens and authorities are not to be feared or misunderstood, but can be convinced, cajoled and open to novel suggestions and programs.

Matt Kelley has suggested that the criminal justice reform community take note of wardens who are open to more transparency within their institution. Could coordinated media access drive a movement against the “invisibility” of prisons in America today?

The ideal program I envisage, would have only a small operating budget allowing pre-screened inmates to learn the practical skills of photography and apply them for the purposes of self representation.

If San Quentin can mount a film school I am sure any prison in the future can develop a Photography School? What do you think?

I Reach © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

I Reach © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

Inmate Jeff Curbow, 40, says he improved a watering system for the moss after others built a special hut for it at Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Thurston County. © Ken Lambert for The Seattle Times.

Inmate Jeff Curbow, 40, says he improved a watering system for the moss after others built a special hut for it at Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Thurston County. Credit: Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times.

Prison Photography always looks to visual sources that represent incarcerated peoples from a different perspective. Some of the best opportunities to do this is with images of prisoners employing their time in job placements, self-growth programmes and/or restorative justice & community education projects.

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Prison Moss Project studies mosses. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Prison Moss Project studies mosses. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni of Evergreen State College

The Prison Moss Project, part of the Washington Department of Correctionssustainability efforts uses prisoners time for the benefit of multiple causes. The project studies the growth of different mosses, cultivates the fastest growing species and sells them commercially as an alternative to mosses stripped from America’s temperate rain forests. Harvested mosses constitute a $265 million/year business. 90% of mosses come from Pacific Northwest forests. The majority of mosses are used for short lived floral-arrangement. Moss can take between 20 to 40 years to regrow even a small patch of a few square feet.

The beauty of this model based on simple scientific observation and applied methods is that it is replicable the world over. And, the business that results makes sense too.

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Moss-in-Prisons project tends the garden. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Moss-in-Prisons project tends the garden. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni

So, the benefits? First and foremost, the inmates at Cedar Creek, a minimum security facility in the rural southwest of Washington enjoy daily active learning. Prison staff have described the facility as one without idle time among its inmate population. Engaging the bodies and minds of frequently docile populations is the first step in combating recidivism.

Concurrently, tax-payers (economically-efficient prisons), tourists (untouched old growth forests) and global citizens (robust ecological legacies) all benefit too. Finally, all this pales in comparison to the rewards for the Pacific Northwest old growth forests, which in future will not suffer unsustainable tree-stripping and moss harvesting.

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Prison Moss Project in the purpose built greenhouses. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni of Evergreen State College

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Prison Moss Project in the purpose built greenhouses. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni

How did all this start? Two convergent forces came together. The first was a general move by the Washington Department of Corrections to improve its carbon footprint, sustainability and opportunities for its inmates. This involved composting, recycling, organic farming, beekeeping at selected facilities. This green awakening fell into step with Nalini Nadkarni‘s need for extended and immediate research into moss varietal growth patterns.

Nadkarni has been called the “Queen of the Forest Canopies”. I am not one for personality worship, but let’s just say her work is socially – as well as environmentally – responsible, she knows how to work media channels, her message is imperative and the Evergreen State College in Olympia is very lucky to have her on faculty. She co-founded the Research Ambassador Program at Evergreen, which seeks to combine academic and non-academic practitioners to widen the reach of environmental dialogue and deliver relevant forms of communication to different groups; from inner city youth, to business CEOs.

It’s all about respectful communication, and it’s all for the benefit of our environmental futures.

Daniel Travatte, 36, suits up to check on the Italian honey bees he cares for at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, Wash. on Friday, Oct. 17, 2008. The bees are part of a program to help the prison be more environmentally green. Credit: John Froschauer/AP

Daniel Travatte, 36, suits up to check on the Italian honey bees he cares for at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, Wash. on Friday, Oct. 17, 2008. The bees are part of a program to help the prison be more environmentally green. Credit: John Froschauer/AP

Inmate, Daniel Travatte, tends the Italian honey bees he cares for at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, WA Credit: John Froschauer/AP

Inmate, Daniel Travatte, tends the Italian honey bees he cares for at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, WA. Credit: John Froschauer/AP

The media coverage of this programme has often focused on the story of a young inmate who, since release, secured a biochemistry PhD full ride scholarship at the University of Nevada, Reno. He was imprisoned after accidentally killing his friend with his sports rifle in his student apartment. Four years later, he has continued the exceptional academic track he seemed destined to follow. It is a testament to the Washington Department of Corrections and Nalini Nadkarni (his mentor during time served) that his life has been delayed rather than destroyed.

But, he surely is an atypical case and it is a case that obscures the facts about the sustainable projects in operation at Cedar Creek. Not every inmate is a PhD candidate, but every inmate is a willing recipient of education – especially environmental education which, in many cases, is totally novel. Environmental education carries an almost redemptive message in that your actions can directly benefit everyone in modest but crucial ways. Actions based upon this new learning can be very therapeutic. Responsibility for oneself and other human beings is not separate from responsibility for our shared environment.

Inmates Robert Day (left) and Brian Deboer (right) check on plants in one of the organic gardens at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, Washington, on Friday. The minimum-security prison has adopted many environmental and cost saving practices. Credit: AP/John Froschauer

Inmates Robert Day (left) and Brian Deboer (right) check on plants in one of the organic gardens at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, Washington, on Friday. The minimum-security prison has adopted many environmental and cost saving practices. Credit: John Froschauer/AP

I have discussed sustainability efforts in California’s prison system before. In closing I’d like to repeat the sentiments of Cedar Creek superintendents who, in attempts to convince the public of the utility of this program, talk of the direct reduction in operating costs at the facility. If commentators such as myself want to espouse the rehabilitative value also then so be it. Doubters now have firm fiscal, quantitative evidence – in addition to qualitative inmate testimonies – to shape their support for sustainability programmes in prisons. WDC senior staff are adamant Cedar Creek is the correctional model to follow in the 21st century.

Inmate Robert Knowles pitches plant stalks into a compost pile Oct. 17 at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest Washington. The minimum-security prison has adopted many environmental and cost-saving practices. Credit: John Froschauer/AP Photo.

Inmate Robert Knowles pitches plant stalks into a compost pile Oct. 17 at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest Washington. The minimum-security prison has adopted many environmental and cost-saving practices. Credit: John Froschauer/AP

There are many resources out there on the Prison Moss Project and Nalini Nadkarni‘s ongoing evangelism. I personally would recommend in this order … Nalini Nadkarni’s recent TED presentation about the opportunities for academic & non-academic communities to unite for greater good; this extended video from KCTS (9 minutes); this interview with Nadkarni; a recent Mother Jones summary of her projects and two media reports (1), (2).

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