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“I would like to receive a photo of the new world trade centre buildings, in whatever stage of rebuilding they’re in. A nice view from a nearby building would be nice. Could the photographer take the photograph from a nearby rooftop?” Terrence’s request answered by Anthony Tafuro for Photo Requests From Solitary.

Author’s note: A little under two years ago, I was quite rattled by a new contribution to the ongoing Photo Requests From Solitary project. At the time, I thrashed out some ideas with colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull, wrote a pointed response, and then let the essay vanish. I return to it here.

Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) is a collaborative project that uses art to illuminate the issue of long-term confinement in U.S. prisons. I’m a fan, but I felt that the 2015 collaboration between PRFS and Vice Magazine missed the mark. Since 2015, PRFS has fallen under the stewardship of Jeanine Oleson who has worked on its expansion in New York and California, partly during an artist residency at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. In May 2017, a new round of images made in response to requests from men and women in New York’s state prisons was exhibited at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, NY.

As far as I can tell, the 2015 Vice partnership and article and gallery (the focus of this essay) was the first, last and only time PRFS assigned the creation of images directly through a media outlet. I feel my arguments apply as well now as two years ago (not a lot of new PRFS material has been released). I wanted to tidy up my original essay and tweak it to reflect the moment now in mid-2017. I think the key inquiries below will always be critical to the assessment of the relevance and impact of Photo Requests From Solitary.

— Pete Brook, 10th July, 2017


DOES THE IMAGE MEET THE BRIEF?

Photo Requests From Solitary is one of the most imaginative, expansive and effective political art initiatives of recent decades. Launched in 2009, Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) was one project of many pursued by the grassroots activists Tamms Year Ten (TYT) in the campaign for the closure of the notorious Tamms Correctional Facility, Illinois; a facility purpose-built to house prisoners in extreme isolation.

The core concept of PRFS is disarmingly simple. TYT sent forms to men in solitary in Tamms. The form explained that they would make an image—real or imagined—for the prisoner to have in his cell. A prisoner could, in writing, describe an image, offer specific instructions, and return the form. TYT would then coordinate with outside artists to make each image and send a copy to the prisoner.

Founded in 2008, TYT employed multiple tactics to mobilize diverse constituents in the fight to abolish solitary confinement. I’ve followed TYT and PRFS since late 2011 when I met some of the organizing activists in Chicago. One of the impressive things about PRFS was that it was able to move adeptly between artistic and political spaces and it convincingly occupied both; its message and art moved to where it’d have most effect. As far as I know, PRFS collaboration with Vice Magazine’s “Prison Issue” (October 2015) was the first time images were made by a publication’s staffers and freelancers for the project.

When I heard about the partnership, I was curious, a little skeptical (I’ll admit) but mostly I was excited to see PRFS’s latest iteration.

Although PRFS was only one of TYT’s initiatives, it cannot be overstated how important PRFS was to the success of the group’s work. PRFS served both the needs of the men languishing in solitary confinement AND the needs of a public kept largely in the dark about the brutal conditions at Tamms Supermax. It provided an essential, constant and intriguing visual hook to TYT’s efforts; it kept the fight in the limelight. PRFS galvanized activists, forged solidarity with prisoners and kept the issue at the forefront of the public conscience. This three-birds-with-one-stone efficiency is the effectiveness to which socially engaged art projects aspire.

TYT worked closely with then-Governor Pat Quinn who, in 2012, proposed closing the facility. Tamms was shuttered in January 2013. (It needs to be noted that people in Illinois remain in solitary confinement in other wings of other facilities, but no longer is a facility designed solely for extreme sensory deprivation in operation in the Land Of Lincoln.)

That success did not spell obsolesce for PRFS, nor it’s radical methodology. People remained in solitary confinement in states across the U.S. In 2013, Tamms Year Ten partnered with Solitary Watch, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Parsons The New School, and the artist Jeanine Oleson to expand the project into New York and California. In September of 2013, with support from the Magnum Foundation and the Open Society Documentary Photography Project, Photo Requests From Solitary went on public view at Photoville in New York City.

Also in 2013, one of the founding artists of TYT, Laurie Jo Reynolds was awarded the Creative Time Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, and in 2014 Reynolds received an A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art. A new genre—Legislative Art—was defined so as to describe the artworks of TYT and those of the same ilk. Legislative Art involves unglamorous admin, spreadsheets and letter-writing as much as it does poetry, poster-making and marching. Legislative Art strategically and creatively engages with government systems, with the intent to secure concrete political change. For those who had always wondered if art could change society, TYT seemed to provide an answer. Ask the 200 men moved out of extreme isolation. Art had changed their worlds.

All this is to say, TYT and PRFS are worth constant applause. They are also worth constant attention. We should analyze closely what PRFS puts out because due to the collaborative and decentralized nature of the project, contributions and results will vary considerably. Crucial to the ongoing success of PRFS is care surrounding its core principles. All this to say, it is right to judge when and how contributing artists meet the prisoners’ requests.

In a closed call, Vice photo editor Elizabeth Renstrom invited photographers who work regularly for Vice to contribute — including Jason Altaan, Edward Cushenberry, Fryd Frydendahl, Michael Marcelle, Keisha Scarville, Molly Soda, Anthony Tafuro, Ole Tillmann, and Vice photo-editor-at-large Matt Leifheit.

“I hired a blend of new and old contributors that I felt would best carry out their assigned letters for the inmates. I did this to make sure specific requests were sure to be completed,” says Renstrom, who was largely responsible for all the photography in the 2015 Vice Prison Issue.

I think some contributors succeeded. I think some failed. I think a couple failed spectacularly. For the simple reason that they did not meet the specifics of the requests, Jason Altaan and Fryd Frydendahl failed.

Frydendahl was asked, by Sonny, to provide an image of “a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of her life. Who is not biased or judgmental towards anyone but full of love and compassion for everyone and everything.”

“A face-shot of a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of her life. Who is not biased or judgmental towards anyone but full of love and compassion for everyone & everything.” Sonny’s request answered by Fryd Frydendahl for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

Judge for yourselves, but I don’t think the girl flashes a smile, nor does it “shine as bright as the sun”. The only warmth to be found in this image is that inferred by the yellow haze of the filter. I wonder what Sonny thinks?

Altaan’s case is less cut and dry. In a literal sense, he did photograph “a female in black leather pants w/ the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink all which can define her figures [sic] w/ a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powered blue) in a park. Black female with hazel eyes.” But it’s clear that Altaan was unable to divest of his trademark 80s, glamor sneer and style.

“I would like a female in black leather pants w/ the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink all which can define her figures w/ a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powder blue) in a park. Black female w/ hazel eyes.” Dan’s request answered by Jason Altaan, for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

Even temporarily, Altann could not put down his soft-focus cynicism. As with his other portraiture, Altaan has managed to match his disdain for fashion-shoot-charade with his clear infatuation with the playfulness of said charade. The skill of Altaan’s work lies in paying homage to the palette and poses of yesteryear’s beauty while simultaneously mocking the consumption, then and now, of versions of beauty. I think Altaan’s work is smart. That he is able to mock the industry as he climbs its rungs deserves applause but I just don’t think his signature look was what Dan had in mind.

“Our hope is that some of the [magazine] issue’s visuals, generated by and for inmates, offer a better understanding of the vagaries of the confined,” writes Renstrom introducing the Vice feature. All well and good, but only if we can conclude that the contributor’s image tallies with the prisoner’s intent. It’s possible that the Prison Issue’s visuals might derail understanding too. Assessing the level of understanding among audience is a difficult task but we can look closely at the images and ask if they appear to serve the prisoner or if they appear to serve the photographer.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not interested in the cheap-and-easy dismissals of Vice we see so often. This article is not of that nature. Vice draws plenty of ire for its tone but, as I have said before, Vice looks to be shedding the snark of its fledgling years.

Regarding the Prison Issue generally: I am a fan. I was grateful to see Zora Murff’s Corrections featured because the growing use of electronic monitoring is a relatively ignored issue in criminal justice debates. I was equally pleased to see Renstrom’s interview with Mark Strandquist about his numerous projects that nurture more sympathetic views of people involved in the prison system. Indeed, Renstrom told me she actively tried to get away from images made by outsiders to the issue. She succeeded for the most part.

On the success of individual images: I admit, it’s difficult to argue with any degree of certainty that the creative output of an artist does or doesn’t meet the visual imagination of a prisoner. Especially, when the medium between them is a hundred-or-so words, a few hundred miles, and all sorts of demographic distinctions. In the cases of Altaan and Frydendahl, however, I think I can structure an argument because their images appear to be closer to their existing artistic signatures than they are to the words of Dan and Sonny.

Friend and colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull agrees. A specialist in socially engaged methodologies, Turnbull is currently writing a PhD on co-authorship models in documentary photographic practice.

“What I think has happened here is that the artists have not always connected to the fact that the prisoner is the primary audience,” says Turnbull.

She’s right. Photo Requests From Solitary is about process as much as it is about product. PRFS prioritizes prisoners’ visual escape and the process toward realizing their escape means ego, rules and wider expectations must be actively set aside. Easy to say; not always easy to do. Artists pride themselves on individual act and independent vision. Yet, for PRFS, artists operate, effectively, as functionaries. Artists serve the prisoners and serve the politics of the project. What we have to understand is that PRFS is a communication project, not a photography project.

“Images, here,” says Turnbull, “are supposed to help prisoners transcend solitary. Help them feel like they are being heard.”

PRFS is necessarily complex in structure because it attempts to connect people who have been forcefully disconnected by institutions and discriminations. In the absence of common shared media, PRFS builds images out of, and around, the issue of solitary confinement from which we discern our social responsibility and agency. PRFS uses imagery—as a seemingly innocuous thing—so that we might rally around it. Knowing the power of images, though, we realize that this project has been anything but innocuous. It changed political course in Illinois. Described in these terms, PRFS is owned by us all. The longer PRFS exists and the wider it reaches the more shared its possession. In these terms, the insistent artist signatures of Altaan and Frydendahl are out of place.

Of course, sometimes, the artist can just miss the point entirely. Terrence asked for a photo of the new buildings replacing the World Trade Center, shot from a nearby rooftop. Instead, Anthony Tafuro made a picture of the 9/11 Memorial Pool (top image).

In the plus column, Keisha Scarville and Edward Cushenberry met their requests well, I thought.

An African American family at a Thanksgiving/Christmas Dinner, background of kids graduation, sweet sixteens, grandchildren being born, family reunion, birthdays, funerals, church attendance, aspects of a family tree. Grandparents, mother, father and sons and daughters, cousins, wives and husbands. To show/express the unity and growth of family when times are good and bad. I MISS MY FAMILY, BEING THERE FOR THEM. Keith’s request answered by Keisha Scarville, for Photo Requests From Solitary.

“Can the photograph be of my daughter ‘Daddy’s Angel’? Her name is ________ 3 years old.” Christopher’s request answered by Edward Cushenberry for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

I’m not singling out Altaan and Frydendahl so we can all just wag our fingers. I’d like this critique to be instructive. As PRFS moves onward to California, New York and potentially other states, it will not be under the guidance of one hand. Each participant is responsible for understanding the premium placed on service that is core to PRFS. Tamms Year Ten fought against a single facility, but CA and NY have dozens of secure housing units between them. PRFS must maintain prisoners as its primary audience. Those outside prison walls are the secondary audience. Don’t forget that.

“The pictures offer a new way to think about people in isolation,” writes Renstrom. She is correct.

“We don’t see,” Renstrom continues, “what prisoners see, but what they envision. Taken together, these requests provide an archive of the hopes, interests, and memories of people in the hole.”

Think of that for a moment. It is a huge responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively paint the imaginations of hundreds of prisoners. The VICE feature was picked up by The Daily Mail (a right-leaning UK newspaper with a massive online footprint) and featured by an Illinois NPR affiliate. We can presume that each time PRFS puts out new images, they’ll circulate … and they’ll speak, to some degree, for prisoners. It’s an uncomfortable responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively speak for hundreds of prisoners. Uncomfortable because no set of images can stand in for the experiences and thoughts of millions of Americans passing through locked facilities each year. Uncomfortable because we know images are slippery and we know the stakes are high for incarcerated individuals, their families and for anti-prison movements. Uncomfortable because inherent to the method of PRFS is the surrender of decision-making power to the artist and, frankly, we don’t want the artists to fuck up. We like artists and we like the resistance.

To be fair to the Vice contributors, their first introduction to PRFS probably differed to most before them. Renstrom emailed Vice contributors 2 or 3 weeks before the Prison Issue went to print. That email may have been the first time they had heard of the project? By comparison, in Illinois, there was a longer familiarity with the project; word-of-mouth and IRL interactions brought most contributors to the table. Some of those that conceived of the PRFS project made images too. Furthermore, publication of their images was implicit in Vice’s ask, so this may have appeared, and felt, like a standard assignment from a national publication. Altaan, Frydendahl and co. can be forgiven for not realizing that Vice readership is the secondary audience.

Despite my call to criticism here, I don’t want to discourage future collaborations between publications and the PRFS coalition of Parsons, Solitary Watch and TYT. As much as ever before, we need both PRFS’s empowering engagement across prison walls and we need alternative visual reference points for our understanding of the prison industrial complex.

“It’s really important to highlight and promote art activism so people aren’t constantly seeing the same type of photography surrounding prisoners,” says Renstrom. Hear, hear. It is precisely because I’m a huge fan of the open dialogue, the beautiful complications, the equity, and the shared responsibility that are central to PRFS’s methodology that I pay the project such close attention. PRFS cannot become a schtick. It cannot become cultural fodder. PRFS must remain rooted to its co-authorship intent. The photographers have to know they’re making work for the prisoner first, the rest of us second.

“The litmus test must be: Does the image meet the brief?” challenges Turnbull.

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Hopefully not so simple as to forget.

James Burn VICE La Paz Co Jail

Screengrab from the VICE webpage livestreaming James Burns’ 30 days in La Paz County Jail, Parker, AZ. Captured 02.01.2017

VICE reporter James Burns is spending 30 days in solitary confinement in La Paz County Jail in Parker, Arizona. You can watch any time. He’s into his third week. Why? Good question. Burns has many a good answer. He explains:

Unlike most of the rest of the planet, America embraces this practice at almost every level of the system—local jails, state and federal prisons, mental health facilities, you name it. By most estimates, solitary ensnares 65,000 to 100,000 people at any given time in the United States. Just this past month, a study from Yale Law School carried out in coordination with the heads of state prisons across America suggested nearly 6,000 of them have been in solitary for three years or longer. And like most layers of the American criminal justice system, solitary disproportionately impacts people of color.

It’d be one thing if this practice of confining people in cramped, isolated cells worked—if all the loneliness and human misery had a point. But report after report (and study after study) suggests solitary brutalizes the incarcerated and in some cases may even make them more likely to hurt others when they get out.

I’ve just watched 15-minutes. My immediate response was one of anxiety. Usually when I view a screen it’s with interest in a narrative (documentary film), or for clear information (news broadcast), or for the development of script and fictional character (TV), or the footage is reflexive of itself as a medium (video art), or it’s a quick, cheap laugh (cat GIFs). In other words, there’s always something happening, or about to happen. Or there’s mystery, tension or story arc; something’s coming up and something will change. The livestream puts me on edge because there’s no obvious movement in it, for it. We see everything in Burns’ world and at his disposal and it’s almost nothing. The footage not only holds no change, it inhabits the near-complete absence of any potential for change.

If the cell was to erupt in action, it’d likely be in a moment of Burns’ crisis or breakdown. Watching, I find myself simultaneously tormented by the lack of action but also fearful of anything extreme (because it’ll be very negative) actually happening. If Burns can last the 30 days and the “program” runs its full course I hope Burns can quietly survive.

I wasn’t convinced about the 30-day livestream as a form when VICE launched it on the 14th December, but having spent an hour with it I am greatly intrigued. (As I type have the feed playing in another browser tab, and the audio of Burns pacing his cell passing an orange from one hand to the other)

This isn’t active reporting but it is a full 30-day long report. It isn’t time-based art, but it is without doubt performative and requires investment by, and presence from, the audience. The slow-pace and anti-narrative are very effecting.

We cannot ignore the full cooperation of the jail administration though.  Lieutenant Curt Bagby explains La Paz Sheriff departments motives:

“Having cameras in our facility showing any part of the process is an easy thing for us to agree to because we take great care to follow the rules set forth for us by the Arizona guidelines on dealing with our incarcerated population. We are happy to show the general public the way we operate as we have nothing to hide. We understand VICE wanted to highlight the practice of solitary confinement, and we are willing to show how it is done here.”

I and many other activists could list countless prisons and jails in which a month-long live web-feed of a cell would not be considered or carried out. Merely the noise from a disturbance on the tier would be enough to put of most administrations. I don’t know the configuration of other cells and corridors in the pod or the block Burns is in, but I have heard noises from beyond his cell suggesting that a large disturbance would be clearly audible. I take Bagby at his word and I speculate he derives confidence from a belief or measurement that La Paz County Jail is less volatile than other facilities.

After years of conjecture about prison and jail administrators’ attitudes toward cameras, I’m interested to read Bagby’s statement on cameras relationship to transparency and management. It also is a clear indicator that no external factor will dictate the outcome of this experiment. Only mental stress upon Burns will end the confinement prematurely. We wait either for nothing or for total disaster. By occupying this box (at considerable risk to himself) Burns embodies the fact that confining others to solitary results either in absolutely nothing or in the complete destruction of the spirit.

price4

 

PRISON AND SOCIAL DEATH BOOK LAUNCH IN BROOKLYN

Get yourselves down to my fave counter-culture culture-space, the Interference Archive in New York City tonight for the launch of Joshua Price’s new book Prison and Social Death.

Joshua Price will be joined by Five Mualimm-ak and Terrence Slater from the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) for a discussion of current efforts to end solitary confinement and other forms of extreme isolation in state prisons and local jails in New York and nationally.

“Isolated confinement,” explains the Interference Archive. “involves confining people in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day without meaningful human contact, programming, or therapy. This practice is ineffective, counterproductive, unsafe, and inhumane, and it causes people detained in these conditions to deteriorate psychologically, physically, and socially. Nevertheless, New York utilizes isolated confinement at rates well above the national average.

price3Price, Slater and Mualimm-ak will discuss the experiences of people who have survived solitary confienment, and review recent legal settlements, legislative initiatives and activist attempts to end or curtail the use of solitary and solitary-like conditions.

BIO

Joshua Price teaches at SUNY Binghamton. He is the author of two books, Prison and Social Death (2015) and Structural Violence: Hidden Brutality in the Lives of Women (2012). He is coediting the forthcoming Decarceration and Justice Disinvestment, which examines the recent drop in the prison population in New York State.

Price has been committed to anti-racist, anti-gender-violence organizing for the last twenty-five years, especially in movements that advocate for currently and formerly incarcerated people. For his work, the Broome/Tioga County NAACP has honored him as Citizen of the Year and the New York State Assembly has cited him for “Outstanding Commitment to the Civil Rights of New Yorkers.”

DETAILS

131 8TH STREET NO. 4
BROOKLYN, NY 11215

Map

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 18TH

7:30PM ONWARDS

ALL INFO HERE

GET THE BOOK

Prison and Social Death.

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I wanted to share with you an essay I wrote for the publication that accompanied Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility a project by artist collective ERNEST at c3:initiative, in Portland, Oregon (September 2015).

The essay, titled Never Neutral, considers the drawings of one-time-California-prisoner Ernest Jerome DeFrance. I wander and wonder one way and then the other. For all their looseness, DeFrance’s drawing might be the tightest and most urgent description of solitary confinement, we have. They come from down in the hole.

Pen marks rattle around on the page like people do when they are put in boxes.

I ventured away from photography here. Got a bit speculative. Have a read. See what you think. See what you see.

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NEVER NEUTRAL

Power breeds more power. The unerringly-certain power belonging to, say, nation states, financial posses, military strategists and total institutions, rides roughshod over opposition. The assault upon bodies, ideas and ecology inherent to the process of accumulating power is not always a conscious assault. As a power grows, opponents shrink, relatively. Harder to acknowledge, and even see, opponents that recede from power’s view are easier to crush.

Prisons have crushed their fair share. For the past four decades, the United States’ prison systems have grown exponentially. They have, at times, and in some places, grown unchecked. Since 1975, the number of prisoners has increased five-fold (and the number of women prisoners increased eight-fold). The U.S. spends $80 billion annually to warehouse 2.3 million citizens. In any given year 13 million individuals are cycled through one jail or prison or another. The prison industrial complex has come to dwarf education budgets. It has, in California, battered teachers unions. It removed non-custodial sentencing policy from the table for many a long year. It disavows notions of treatment, restoration or forgiveness. The prisons industrial complex laid to waste many of the key social, moral, political, environmental and psychological underpinnings of community.

In the face of such tumorous growth, common-sense opposition has been edged out and swallowed up. Sporadically, however, narratives that counter the fear, bullying and rhetoric of the prison industrial complex and its beneficiaries capture attention — narratives from advocacy, journalism, personal correspondence, legal briefs, FOI requests, jailhouse law, contraband and whistleblower testimonies. Art, too, has consistently spoken—or sketched—truth to power. Art is part of the resistance.

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Prisoner-made art is, mostly, made for loved ones beyond the walls; prison art rarely gets seen by anyone beyond its intended recipient.

Given the sheer volume of jailhouse artworks made every day, it may seem strange to isolate, for this essay, a single prisoner’s sketches for critique. There is, however, something profound in the works of Ernest Jerome DeFrance that set them apart. Prison-art (pencil portraiture, greeting cards, DIY-calligraphy, envelope doodles) tends to reveal the circumstances of its production; that is, it reveals the facts and parameters of the prison system (limited resources, distant recipients, censor-safe subject matter).

A lot of prison part is personal and figurative, but DeFrance’s work is abstract, loose and reveals not only the circumstances of production but the brutalizing effects of those circumstances. For example, a run-of-the-mill prisoner-drawn portrait of a child — and the hope it may embody — is made in spite of the system, and a child’s innocence is something outside and beyond any corrupted system. Removing sentiment from the equation, a prisoners’ card for her child is an established, safe, non-controversial, and relatively unpoliced gesture. By contrast, DeFrance’s drawings operate outside of the routine prison art economy; they are untethered, non-figurative and non-occasional statements that are difficult to anchor and understand.

DeFrance’s loops and swirls are the feedback of a maddening prison system.

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DeFrance made these images while incarcerated in the California prison system. During that time he spent extended periods of time in solitary confinement. He submitted these works to Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights (UC Berkeley, Fall 2014) an exhibition produced by Architects, Designer and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) an anti-death penalty group that also argues against prolonged solitary confinement.

Architect Raphael Sperry, founder of ADSPR, led a highly visible media campaign for the adoption of language in the American Institute of Architects code of ethics prohibiting the design of spaces that physically and psychologically torture — namely, execution chambers and solitary confinement cells. Why? Because extreme isolation can lead to permanent psychological impairment comparable to that of traumatic brain injury. [1]

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In an attempt to reconnect the most isolated American citizens with the outside world and in order to get some reliable information about solitary confinement, the call for entries for Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights requested drawings of solitary cells by prisoners in solitary cells. Of the 14 men who submitted work, most stuck to the brief and drew plans or annotated elevations. DeFrance sent dozens of frantic nest-like lattices.

I defy anyone to say that DeFrance’s works don’t encapsulate the same terror as the to-scale, measured, line-drawn renderings by fellow exhibitors. It is not even clear if DeFrance had completed these works. What is complete? What is a start and what is an end … to a line, to a thought, to a stint in a box when the lights are always on, the colors are always the same, and sensory deprivation perverts time, taking you outside of yourself?

Solitary confinement “undermines your ability to register and regulate emotion,” says Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The appropriateness of what you’re thinking and feeling is difficult to index, because we’re so dependent on contact with others for that feedback. And for some people, it becomes a struggle to maintain sanity.” [2] Chronic apathy, depression, depression, irrational anger, total withdrawal and despair are common symptoms resulting from long-term isolation. [3]

All we know is that DeFrance considered these works finished enough to mail out.

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Like a Rorschach Test for the horror-inclined, DeFrance’s works trigger all sorts of associations — Munch’s The Scream, Mondrian’s trees, Maurice Sendak’s darker side, Pierre Soulages‘ everyday side and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away character No Face. I can go on. There are knuckles, clenched fists, scarecrows and magic carpets. I see bulging eyes. I see that optical illusion of the old witch’s nose. Or is the neckline of a young woman in necklace and furs?

Reading into DeFrance’s art with ones own visual memory is, admittedly, an exercise fraught with complications. Scanning work for something familiar is to lurch toward inner-biases. How does one land, or explain, connection with this work?

DeFrance’s art defies easy definition. These are not the crying clowns, the soaring eagles, the scantily-clad women or the Harley Davidson cliches common of prison art. These are … well …  you decide. Faces, collars, cliffs, ropes, cliff faces, tourniquets, capes and caps? Is that a helmet? Of a riot cop? Of a cell-extraction specialist? Of the law and that which metes out judgement, retribution, pain and accountability? Or is it a divine shroud? Or is it a torture hood? [4]

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On any given day in the United States, 80,000 people are in solitary. In California, solitary is a 22½-hour lockdown in a 6-by-9-foot cell with a steel door and no windows. Juan E. Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, told the UN General Assembly in June 2011 that solitary confinement is torture and assaults the mental health of prisoners. “It is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.” Mendez recommends stays of no more than 15-days in isolation. Preceding this, in 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a bipartisan national task force, recommended abolishing long-term isolation reporting that stints longer than 10-days offered no benefits and instead caused substantial harm to prisoners, staff and the general public. [5] Some Americans have been in solitary for 15, 20, 25 years or more.

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If a drawing “is simply a line going for a walk” like Paul Klee said then DeFrance’s drawings pace and circle the paper as he would his 54 square feet. One’s eyesight deteriorates rapidly in solitary. Denied any variation in depth-of-field, sharpness and acuity are lost. In a state of looseness and unknowing, gray walls throb and the mind conjures its own forms. Amorphous beings pulse within DeFrance’s work. Solid shape abandons us. Are we looking at shadows of ghosts? Scale suffers too. These forms are as large as you are brave enough to imagine.

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Inasmuch as these images are indicative of solitary confinement experience, they are indicative of all prisons in the United States. “Every terrorist regime in the world uses isolation to break people’s spirits.” said bell hooks in 2002. hooks was talking about social exclusion but the phrase applies as easily to physical confinement. Indeed, with the exception of total-surveillance enclaves (where control needn’t be material) social exclusion and extreme incarceration tend go go hand-in-hand anyway. DeFrance’s works are a commentary, from within, of the philosophy and architectures we’ve perfected as an ever-more-punitive society. No other nation in the world uses solitary to the degree the United Sates does, and no other civilization in the history of man has locked up as greater proportion of its citizens. [6]

“Solitary confinement is a logical result of mass incarceration,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, psychologist and esteemed solitary specialist. [7] The demand for cells to house those handed harsher, longer sentences resulted in a huge prison boom since 1975. Still, these facilities could not adequately accommodate the vast number of people being locked up. Overcrowding gripped all states and any mandates to rehabilitate and provide activities for prisoners were all but abandoned. Haney reasons that extreme isolation resulted directly from prisons attempting to maintain power. He says, “Faced with this influx of prisoners, and lacking the rewards they once had to manage and control prisoner behavior, turned to the use of punishment. One big punishment is the threat of long-term solitary confinement.” [8]

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Kalief Browder’s suicide in June 2015 brought national attention back to the issue of solitary confinement. He was kept in Rikers Island for 3 years without charge for an alleged theft of a backpack. Kalief didn’t kill himself, a broken New York courts and jail system did. [9] Ever since the California Prison Hunger Strikes, beginning in 2011, solitary had been the main topic on which to hang debate about mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. The unforgiving logic of solitary confinement policies is the same as that which has led to thousands of in-custody deaths, so-called “voluntary suicide” and officer-involved killings.

The Black Lives Matter movement has successfully tied over-zealous community policing, to stop-and-frisk, to restraint techniques, to custody conditions, to a bail system that abuses the poor, to extended and unconstitutional pretrial detention, and to solitary confinement in its devastating critique of a structurally racist nexus of law enforcement.

#SayHerName. Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas; Jonathan Saunders in Mississippi; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Charly Leundeu Keunang in Los Angeles; Sgt. James Brown in an El Paso jail; James M. Boyd in the hills of Albuquerque; John Crawford III in a WalMart in Ohio; Walter Scott in North Charleston; Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and thousands of more people over the past 12 months alone killed by law enforcement.

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So corrupted and violent is the prison system that one wonders if it can be fixed at all or whether it should be completely disassembled. Neil Barksy, chairman and founder of The Marshall Project, recently argued for the total closure of Rikers Island [10]. I am often asked if I think there exists people who deserve to be locked up and should be locked up. There’s a presumption in the question that the prison is a neutral factor. And there is a presumption, too, that people don’t change. But a prison is never neutral. In fact, most of the time prisons are very negative factors int he equation. Prisons damage people severely. Mass incarceration has made us less safe, not more safe. At what point and in what places can we confidently state that a prisoner’s violence (or the threat of violence that is attached upon them) is his own?

Conversely, at what point must we accept that the prison itself has caused anti-sociability and incorrigible behavior? Why are we surprised at the notion that a system built on threat and violence creates prisoners who incorporate threat and violence into their survival? Prisons create, often, people who fit better in prison than in free society — most end up institutionalized and docile and a few violent and unpredictable. Ultimately, no one can pass judgement on a prisoner because when hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are serving extremely long sentences or Life Without Possibility Of Parole, they exist in a system that molds them to our worst assumptions.

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How far are we willing to go to protect ourselves against our worst fears and demons of our own creation? The first of  many things I saw when viewing DeFrance’s was an echo of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. According to Roman myth, Saturn was told he his son would overthrow him. To prevent this, Saturn ate his children moments after each was born. His sixth son, Jupiter, was shuttled to safety on the island of Crete by Saturn’s wife Ops. Unwilling to surrender his absolute power, Saturn lost his mind. Goya is one of many artists to depict the scene, but none did it with such gross frenzy.

Goya had watched the Spanish monarchy destroy the country through arrogance. In his despondent old age, Goya reflected upon the darker aspects of society and human condition, and he played with notions surrounding power and the way a power treats it’s own charges. The prison industrial complex devours humans. It relies on bodies. Private prison companies forecast profits based upon toughening legislation to fill their facilities. Our laws have looked to warehousing instead of healing, and our society has travelled too far, for too long, into territories of massive social inequality. Art is part of the resistance and sometimes exposes a system that is programmed to deny witness; sometimes art can give those outside prisons a glimpse of the torture inside.

To see Ernest Jerome DeFrance’s art is to look into the belly of the beast.

FIN

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Atul Gawande, ‘Hellhole‘, New Yorker, March 30, 2009.

[2] Craig Haney, ‘Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement‘, Crime & Delinquency 49 (2003). ps. 124–156.

[3] Stuart Grassian, ‘The Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement‘, Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 22 (2006). p.325.

[4] The four men in charge of reconstructing Abu Ghraib for US military use were hired shills who had overseen disfunctional and scandal-ridden departments of correction the U.S. in the decades prior to 2003. Abu Ghraib was not an abnormal situation; it was a reliable facsimile of the abusive systems routinely in operation in the homeland. They four men were Lane McCotter, former warden of the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, former cabinet secretary for the New Mexico DOC, John Armstrong, former director of the Connecticut DOC. Terrry Stewart, former director of the Arizona DOC and his top deputy Chuck Ryan. View more at Democracy Now!

[5] Confronting Confinement [PDF] Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons: 

[6] For many reasons, the widespread use of isolation in American prisons is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past 20 years. Some prisoners have been kept down in the hole for decades. The controversial use of long-term solitary confinement is one of the most pressing issues of the American prison system currently in public debate. Much of the debate results from the attention drawn to California—and to the SHU at Pelican Bay in particular—by the California Prisoner Hunger Strike.

[7] Terry Kupers, in the keynote address at the Strategic Convening on Solitary Confinement and Human Rights, sponsored by the Midwest Coalition on Human Rights, November 9, 2012, Chicago.

[8] Brandon Keim, ‘Solitary Confinement: The Invisible Torture‘, Wired.com

[9] Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley Debug and pioneer of Participatory Defense makes this argument very well.

[10] Neil Barksy, ‘Shut Down Rikers Island‘, New York Times, July 15, 2015.

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Prisoners in California will no longer be kept in windowless boxes indefinitely. That improves the lives of 3,000 people. It also brings California into line with the practices of virtually all other states. This is landmark.

Many groups were involved in the support of the plaintiffs in the class action suit. Legal Services for Prisoners with Children put out a press release. Below I copy the press release of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group.

PRESS RELEASE

OAKLAND — Today, California prisoners locked in isolation achieved a groundbreaking legal victory in their ongoing struggle against the use of solitary confinement. A settlement was reached in the federal class action suit Ashker v. Brown, originally filed in 2012, effectively ending indefinite long-term solitary confinement, and greatly limiting the prison administration’s ability to use the practice, widely seen as a form of torture. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of prisoners held in Pelican Bay State Prison’s infamous Security Housing Units (SHU) for more than 10 years, where they spend 23 hours a day or more in their cells with little to no access to family visits, outdoor time, or any kind of programming.

“From the historic prisoner-led hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, to the work of families, loved ones, and advocate, this settlement is a direct result of our grassroots organizing, both inside and outside prison walls,” said Dolores Canales of California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC), and mother of a prisoner in Pelican Bay. “This legal victory is huge, but is not the end of our fight – it will only make the struggle against solitary and imprisonment everywhere stronger.” The 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes gained widespread international attention that for the first time in recent years put solitary confinement under mainstream scrutiny.

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Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) coalition members commemorating the first anniversary of the 2013 hunger strike suspension.

Currently, many prisoners are in solitary because of their “status” – having been associated with political ideologies or gang affiliation. However, this settlement does away with the status-based system, leaving solitary as an option only in cases of serious behavioral rule violations. Furthermore, the settlement limits the amount of time a prisoner may be held in solitary, and sets a two year Step-Down Program for the release of current solitary prisoners into the prison general population.

It is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners will be released from SHU within one year of this settlement. A higher security general population unit will be created for a small number of cases where people have been in SHU for more than 10 years and have a recent serious rule violation.

“Despite the repeated attempts by the prison regime to break the prisoners’ strength, they have remained unified in this fight,” said Marie Levin of CFASC and sister of a prisoner representative named in the lawsuit. “The Agreement to End Hostilities and the unity of the prisoners are crucial to this victory, and will continue to play a significant role in their ongoing struggle.” The Agreement to End Hostilities is an historic document put out by prisoner representatives in Pelican Bay in 2012 calling on all prisoners to build unity and cease hostilities between racial groups.

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Drawn by Michael D. Russell, Pelican Bay SHU

Prisoner representatives and their legal counsel will regularly meet with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials as well as with Federal Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas, who is tasked with overseeing the reforms, to insure that the settlement terms are being implemented.

“Without the hunger strikes and without the Agreement to End Hostilities to bring California’s prisoners together and commit to risking their lives— by being willing to die for their cause by starving for 60 days, we would not have this settlement today,” said Anne Weills of Siegel and Yee, co-counsel in the case. “It will improve the living conditions for thousands of men and women and no longer have them languishing for decades in the hole at Pelican Bay.”

“This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters,” said the prisoners represented in the settlement in a joint statement. “We celebrate this victory while at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle.”

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Drawn by Carlos Ramirez while in Pelican Bay SHU

Legal co-counsel in the case includes California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, Chistensen O’Connor Johnson Kindness PLLC, and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone. The lead counsel is the Center for Constitutional Rights. The judge in the case is Judge Claudia Wilken in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

A rally and press conference are set for 12pm in front of the Elihu M Harris State Building in Oakland, which will be livestreamed at http://livestre.am/5bsWO.

The settlement can be read on CCR’s website, along with a summary. CCR has also put up downloadable clips of the plaintiffs’ depositions here.

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By Chris Garcia, drawn while in Pelican Bay SHU.

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Joseph Harmon spent eight years in solitary at Pelican Bay State Prison in California. He is now a preacher, but still feels the need to withdraw. Credit Max Whittaker for The New York Times

I’ve spent a good amount of time over the past few weeks putting final touches to an essay for a forthcoming exhibition/project/programming by ERNEST Collective at c:3Initiative in Portland Oregon, in September.

The essay is about the sketches of a man who was held in solitary confinement for extended periods in the California prison system. Within it, I quote Dr. Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, a couple of times. His latest research was featured in the New York Times this week:

Most studies have focused on laboratory volunteers or prison inmates who have been isolated for relatively short periods. Dr. Haney’s interviews offer the first systematic look at inmates isolated from normal human contact for much of their adult lives and the profound losses that such confinement appears to produce.

The interviews, conducted over the last two years as part of a lawsuit over prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, have not yet been written up as a formal study or reviewed by other researchers. But Dr. Haney’s work provides a vivid portrait of men so severely isolated that, to use Dr. Haney’s term, they have undergone a “social death.”

[…]

Dr. Haney interviewed 56 prisoners who had spent 10 to 28 years in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit, or S.H.U., including seven men he had interviewed in 1993, eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit and 41 randomly selected inmates. For comparison, he also interviewed 25 maximum-security inmates who were not in solitary.

It’s a very important read and a good primer for those who are not up to speed on the torture in our supermax prisons. Make no bones about it solitary IS torture.

The best part of the article, for me, was not the words, the well researched links, the historical context or even the portraits by Max Whitaker, it was the embedded 4min, 41sec video of prisoners speaking about their decades in solitary.

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The final interviewee breaks down in tears and barely gets the words, “No human should live like this.” “Just give me a death sentence.”

Another prisoner, the article notes, said that the hour he had spent in Haney’s interview was “the most I’ve talked in years.”

Read: Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life

If you are in Portland, Ore. this autumn may I recommend you pay a visit to ERNEST’s show Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, and particularly the opening on Friday September 18th.

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Statewide Coordinated Action to End Solitary Confinement, Oakland

Critical Resistance, today, reflected back upon the California Prisoner Hunger Strike, which had several iterations beginning in 2011 and culminating in 2013.

The update:

Two years ago today, the largest prisoner hunger strike in California’s history was started by prisoners in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. Within the first month of the strike, over 30,000 in California’s prisons had joined, raising the call for the five core demands in unified struggle. The strikers received overwhelming support, with prisoners from across the U.S., in Guantanamo Bay, and as far as Palestine sending statements of solidarity. Outside prison walls, families, loved ones, and organizers elevated the imprisoned voices to an international scale, sparking solidarity actions all over the world, and even prompting the U.N. to call on California to end the use of solitary.

However, the struggle continues. The prison regime has refused to meet the strikers’ demands in any meaningful way, opting to demonize and repress prisoners.

A class action lawsuit brought on behalf of Pelican Bay solitary prisoners in 2012 is ongoing despite numerous attempts by the state to weaken and halt it. Importantly, grassroots organizing has been reinvigorated, with the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition organizing statewide coordinated actions on the 23rd of each month since March of this year to continue raising awareness and building the movement to end solitary, with the actions growing larger across the state.

In the words of Todd Ashker, one of the hunger strike leaders, “I personally believe the prisoncrats’ efforts to turn the global support we have gained for our cause against us will fail […] CDCr rhetoric indicates desperation – a very concerning desperation in the sense that it is demonstrative of CDCr’s top administrators’ intent to continue their culture of dehumanization, torture and other types of abusive policies and practices […] Our key demands remain unresolved. The primary goal is abolishing indefinite SHU and Ad Seg confinement and related torturous conditions.”

Especially in the wake of Riker’s Island scandal and Kalief Browder’s death, the nation is aware of widespread torture — by means of solitary confinement — in U.S. prisons. But, a few years ago the issue was only just beginning to register on the national conscience. It cannot be overstated how vital California prisoners’ efforts (with support from families and allies outside) led the march against this abusive and invisible practice.

Two long and short years … depending on which side of the box you are.

Also, not to be missed is this extended, #longread analysis of the situation two years on by the indubitable Vikki Law at Truthout, Two Years After Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, What’s Changed for People Inside the Prison?

Law writes:

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to claim that “there is no ‘solitary confinement’ in California’s prisons and the SHU is not ‘solitary confinement,'” but people inside the Pelican Bay State Prison’s security housing unit say they remain locked in for at least 23 hours per day. Meanwhile, in June 2015, the CDCR released proposed new regulations around its use of the security housing unit and administrative segregation – regulations that may, in part, curb participation in future strikes and other prison protests. […] The regulations are currently going through the required public comment period in which any member of the public, incarcerated or otherwise, can submit written comments. A public hearing is scheduled for August 7, 2015.

Author Todd Ashker, who was locked in the security housing unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison, disagrees with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s assertion that its prisons do not have solitary confinement.

In a 13-page typed statement, Ashker describes how, along with over 1,000 other people, he is locked for 25 years of his life into 11-by-seven-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day. The security housing unit cells have no windows and their doors face a wall so that those inside cannot see each other through the door slot. Any time they are taken out of their cells – for a shower, a visit or an hour of recreation in an exercise cage – they are handcuffed and ankle chained.

“What would it be like to have one’s bodily contact with others reduced to the fastening and unfastening of restraints, punctuated with the most intimate probing of the surface and depths of one’s body?” Ashker writes in his statement.

Solitary still exists and for long as it does, and for as many years tick by, it must be opposed. By us. We.

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