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IVY LEAGUE LAW GRADS MAKING FILMS?

Following up on Monday’s post The 20 Best American Prison Documentaries, I wanted to highlight the Visual Law Project out of Yale University.

The project runs “a year-long practicum at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School that trains law students in the art of visual advocacy — making effective arguments through film.”

I’d think being a law graduate and then a real world lawyer would be enough; one expects visual journalists or documentarians to have this sort of territory covered. Perhaps not? Never too many advocates or concerned observers, right?

There’s more answers on the FAQ page:

Q: Why should law students learn visual advocacy?
A:
 Visual and digital technologies have transformed the practice of law.  Lawyers are using videos to present evidence, closing arguments, and victim-impact statements; advocates are making viral videos to advance public education campaigns; and scholars are debating ideas in a multimedia blogosphere.  Everyone’s doing it.  But no one is really teaching it — or reflecting upon it.  We see training in visual advocacy — effectively evaluating and making arguments through videos and images — as a vital part of our legal education.

Of the films the VLP has produced The Worst Of The Worst is of particular interest to me. One can be lax and think that solitary confinement is a brutal practice prevalent only in California, New York, Illinois and other large states, but every state has at least one SuperMax including the seemingly genteel Connecticut.

The Worst of the Worst takes us inside Northern Correctional Institution, CT’s sole supermax prison, and includes interviews with a range of experts and administrators are interwoven with the stories of inmates and correctional officers who spend their days within the walls of Northern.

From the trailer, the treatment of the correctional officers and prisoners seems sympathetic. This gives me hope; it suggests the problem is the fabric of the facility which prohibits rehabilitation, rather than a presumption of fault or inadequacy. Prisons are toxic and often inflexible enough to capitalise on the potential of people who are caged and work within.

Check out the fledgling (est. 2011) student run Visual Law Project.

More here.

Thanks to Larissa Leclair for the tip!

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Christoph Gielen, a photographer known for his aerial views of American suburbs has chosen as his next subject super-maximum security prisons — the most controlled spaces in American prison industrial complex. Supermaxes are of particular interest as they are designed specifically for solitary confinement.

As I wrote for Wired.com, today, America has an unusual thirst for putting people in total lockdown.

In consideration of “the severe mental pain or suffering” it can cause, Juan Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, said that solitary confinement amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Mendez recommended that prisoners never be confined in solitary for more than 15 days.

However, in US prisons, stints in the hole can be longer. Much longer. The California Department of Corrections self-reports the average stay on an inmate in the Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (SHU) is six-and-a-half-years. Many have been in the SHU for a decade or more. In Louisiana, Herman Wallace and  Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 have been in solitary for over 30 years.

I’ve also written previously about how images of solitary confinement – despite its widespread use – are difficult to come by.

“The opportunity to visually examine these restricted locations is significant, especially at a time when journalists access is increasingly curtailed,” says Gielen.

Gielen noticed concentric patterns of equivalent interest in the Supermax prisons of Arizona whiel working on his suburbs photo series Ciphers.

American Prison Perspectives is a simple and effective presentation of these design forms. Are gated communities and caged facilities are our preferred housing solutions for the late 20th and early 21st centuries?

With 1 in 100 adults behind bars, America incarcerates more people than any other modern society. Of the 2.3 million men, women and children locked up in the U.S., 80,000 prisoners are in solitary. That number includes hundreds of children.

The rapid adoption of solitary by prison authorities as a means to discipline and segregate has led Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to call it one of the “greatest social experiments of our time.” For some sociologists, the parallels that Gielen drew between housing and prisons go beyond visual similarity. Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab goes so far to ask, “Have prisons and jails become the mass housing of our time?”

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The debate on solitary confinement is timely. To quote myself, again:

The Illinois campaign spurred Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to chair the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement last summer. Durbin showed up on Capitol Hill with an actual-size solitary-cell replica.

While for many, the discussion of prisons and segregation can revolve around human rights and legal justice, the issue is particularly relevant today for its economic implications. There was a successful grass-roots campaign to shutdown Illinois’ Tamms Correctional Facility, due largely to the fact that it costs more than $60,000 a year to house a prisoner in solitary confinement in Tamms, compared to an average of $22,000 for inmates in other Illinois prisons. The closure is currently stalled — held up in court following opposition from the AFSCME labor union with prison guards in its ranks.

“In America, particularly, the long view is hardly ever considered. Fiscal views are considered for on a yearly basis,” says Gielen. “Economically, the widespread use of solitary is unsustainable.”

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American Prison Perspectives doesn’t end with the images. In 2014, Gielen plans launch a website devoted to the series and host a public online forums. Furthermore, Gielen foresees symposia across the U.S. with former prisoners, prison architects, legal experts, activists, correctional officer union-reps and prison administrators, along with firsthand accounts of solitary confinement and the perspectives of mental health experts on the effects of isolation.

American Prison Perspectives will illustrate how prison design and architecture reflect political discourse, economic priorities, cultural sentiments, and social insecurities, and how, in turn, these constructed environments also become statements about a society.

American Prison Perspectives is supported by Blue Earth Alliance, the Fund For Investigative Journalism and Creative Time Reports and others. You too can help spread the potential reach of the work with your own donation.

I wish Christoph the very best in this ambitious project.

mission

lax |laks| adjective
1 not sufficiently strict or severe : lax security arrangements at the airport | he’d been a bit lax about discipline in school lately.
2 careless : why do software developers do little more than parrot their equally lax competitors?

It is perhaps easy to forget there once was an era when the prison in society was less useful. By 1905 when this picture was taken, there were only two prisons in California (San Quentin and Folsom) and it would remain that way for another 30 years. Much of the detention and incarceration was done through an smattering of local jails and jail houses for work crews.

Alum Rock Jail. Alice Iola Hare, ca. 1905. On the back of the photograph is written, "Much of the original road into Alum Rock Park was built by County Jail prisoners who were housed - and guarded - in these shacks. The roofed structures and the open one (stockade?) behind them stood for many years after the road building job was completed."

Alum Rock Jail. Alice Iola Hare, ca. 1905. On the back of the photograph is written, "Much of the original road into Alum Rock Park was built by County Jail prisoners who were housed - and guarded - in these shacks. The roofed structures and the open one (stockade?) behind them stood for many years after the road building job was completed."

This image of Alum Rock Jail, Santa Clara County was taken originally by Alice Iola Hare, was then part of the Arbuckle Collection and eventually went digital as part of Silicon Valley History online.

The description is right; this is a shack more than jail. The fabric of the structure did not discipline the inmates at Alum Rock, it was the guard’s rifles and the open countryside that asserted control. The physical make-up of this carceral structure is a world away from the SuperMax US society now relies upon. And for that reason, and for the indulgence of punnery, I want to refer to this example of historical jails as a “SuperLax” Prison.

What would people at the beginning of the 20th century have made of 16ft razor wire, heat sensing detection equipment, opticons and magnetic locks? I suppose the one piece of equipment they may have shared with their contemporary guards would be dogs, but they probably didn’t call them “K9 units” back then. I doubt they’d developed rubber bullets in 1905 either…

Special Emergency Response Teams (SERTs) are commonplace. Less so perhaps are the “sports team” group shots seen here at the end of a good days work out.

I.M.T.T. 2004

Training Exercise, Team Portrait. Photo Credit: I.M.T.T. 2004

Personal politics dictates how one feels about these constructed scenarios. To me they just seem unfortunate sad – not because of what they are, but because of what they represent. However, we must accept that tactical training within prisons is conducted with the same professional intent as that of any police authority or force of shock and awe. With caution, I’d say these trainings are a reality of prison management, but insist that they should not be considered an inevitability.

Once you get past the unnerving brevity of the group portrait, it is the second unposed image (below) that arrests the attention. It differs from other official images from within prison walls because of its ambiguity. As an isolated image, it is not clear whether the confrontation shown is genuine or not. Without the referenced source, could this be read as an actual suppression of inmate violence? How many eyes would be keen or informed enough to tell if the prisoner and guard uniforms were those of controlled dress rehearsal?

I.M.T.T. 2004

Training Exercise. Photo Credit: I.M.T.T. 2004

From building arguments of fact concerning the Abu Ghraib photographs, Errol Morris talks about the inherent traps for viewers of images, “You look at a photograph and you think you know all you need to know. That here you have a veridical piece of reality to look at. And, you need look no further. It, of in itself, is enough. You look as these infamous photographs that came out of Abu Ghraib. You look at the photographs of Gilligan, the prisoner on the box with leads, and of Gus, the prisoner on the leash, and you think you know what these are images of. ‘This is despicable, blah, blah, blah’ … You need look no further … and I believe noone looked any further, [they] presumed to know what the images were about and wrote articles accordingly.”

Morris adds to his general point, “We try to figure out the world by looking at things, and nothing we ever create is complete but you try to figure out what our relationship is to reality – to the real world.”

I.M.T.T. 2004

Training Exercise. Photo Credit: I.M.T.T. 2004

In a world of visual bombardment where deliberate disturbances between reality and fantasy are now commonplace have we lost interest in the strength of imagery and its testimonies? Images are mistakenly and willfully misrepresented and misinterpreted. In many ways, this is a fine game – a novel game. But does the game keep people on their toes or does it lead to apathy and disinterest? As Morris asks “What is true and what is false?” Without the proud group portrait to provide context would viewers have cared to question the seeming brutality of the second photograph?

Or am I missing the mark here? Is a lack of visual curiosity and/or sophistication really the problem here? Or, is the real problem the viewers normalisation to images of violence? Do the two issues compound one another? I would argue that many folk are too familiar with images (often involving wire, concrete walls and the ephemera of incarceration) to presume that the attacks meted out are a) unjustified or b) outside of the legal allowances of a prison authority. The issue of ‘Reality’ almost becomes redundant.

Perhaps, even, this worrisome trend of anesthetised reaction to human suffering can even be stretched through the interwoven spectacle of modern society and placed at the door of second rate video games. Prison Tycoon 4: Supermax, as featured recently on BLDGBLOG challenges the gamer to draw the most profit from prison administration; “Grow your facility to SuperMax capabilities, housing the most dangerous and diabolical criminals on earth – all for the bottom line.”

IGN.com

Prison Tycoon 4: Supermax. Screenshot. Source: IGN.com

I have never liked role playing video games that incorporate violence. But I am not an opponent pointing to them as the cause of delinquency among societies youth. I just don’t like them. Prison Tycoon is less gratuitous than Grand Theft Auto and the like. But I don’t know if this is any comfort. To manipulate a virtual prison population with “friendly interaction and fighting between inmates dependent upon mood and gang affiliation” and to rely on “guards [who] will subdue aggressive prisoners, medical staff to treat injuries, chaplains administer to prisoner’s spiritual needs and therapists talk to prisoners to lift their spirits” seems a bit too sinister and calculated for an evening of gaming.

And the ability to use “96 detailed prisoner model variations created to allow for a wide and varied prison population” and use a “unique ‘builder within a builder’ system to open your buildings and place their interior content wherever you like” in addition to the “over 100 different rooms and objects to place within the prison buildings, each one allowing prisoners to interact with them on various levels and each one having different effects on the prisoner’s mood.” seems like a gamer’s invitation to unleash virtual gang violence akin to those most unfortunate of prisoner abuses in real life.

Really, why does this game exist? I suppose it is just completing the loop – the gamer, as a God of Pixels, can create criminals in his other games and then manipulate them in this one.

For more information about High Risk Prisoner Transportation, Corrections Crisis Response, Cell Extraction, Escape Apprehension Training, Suicide Bomber Mitigation Tactics, Tactical Weapon and Explosive Training, Athermal Weapon Sight Usage and Finnish Sniper Training please visit the International Mobile Training Team Website. If all that seems like too much reading then just go to the IMTT promotional video and watch grown men in costume run around with guns to a butt-rock soundtrack.

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