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Still from video of a TDCJ officer firing a tear gas canister at a group of prisoners from just several metres. Source: ABC

If you’re in any doubt about either the power of images or the vindictiveness of prison authorities then consider this story.

Elderick Brass, a former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) officer leaked a video in May 2015 that showed a Lychner State Jail guard firing a tear gas canister into the chest of a prisoner. The video appeared in an ABC report in August 2015.

Indicted by a grand jury in December, Brass is due to appear in court February for “misuse of official information.” The law states he could face between 2 and 10 years if found guilty.

WHY THE PUBLIC EXPOSURE?

TDCJ has already admitted the improper use of the tear gas gun, but it has not sanctioned the trigger happy guard, let alone terminate his employment. Not wanting to cause itself problems, I presume, the TDCJ is hoping the matter will be forgotten and the retraining of staff it says it has done since will prevent a repeat event. Usually, the authorities want stuff like this to go away as quietly and as quickly as possible; for it to get out and off the news. One wonders then what the prosecution of Brass does? It certainly brings the video back to public attention.

Assuming that the TDCJ are willing to tolerate the scrutiny afresh, one must conclude that they really want a prosecution for the purposes of intimidating whistle-blowers and putting staff back under the order of command. They’re bringing the boot down especially to quash internal leaks of misconduct and injustice. They’re accommodating the continued circulation of this video in order to preclude the future circulation of others.

Worth noting is that the video on ABC includes only the incident and the moments leading immediately up to it. There is a longer video depicting the before and after and giving more context to the altercation between prisoners that gave rise to this nervy cop’s point-blank violence. Get the full context of the video and the TDCJ response in the ABC August 2015 report.

NEW VISUAL PARADIGM

Between whistle-blowers, FOIA requests, court materials, leaked CCTV and contraband cellphone vids there is a wealth of visual material emerging from the Prison Industrial Complex that describes the system very differently to the descriptions of professional photographers.

Whether the video and images are amateur, operational or prisoner-made they tend to share a grain and a noise. Characterised by awkward angles, low resolution, ambient cacophony and muted tones, prisoners’ illegal vids resemble surveillance footage. Prisons and jails give rise to horrific conditions and in some ways all the images and videos in what I’m referring to as a new visual paradigm are horrifying too. Often, if a video comes to our attention it is due to the violence or injustice it includes.

Even within images and videos in which abuse is not explicit, our eyes are being trained on the aesthetics and, crucially, the psychological and existential threat of incarceration. I’m thinking this through as I write.

I’ve not put into words fully, yet, what the emergence of this distinctly new type of visual evidence means. I expect it’ll function in the courts and for journalism as it always has; to construct, confirm and dispute narrative. And so, I guess, I am more interested in what it means for us as citizens.

Are we aware that more and more of the visual representations of US prisons and jails are shifting toward raw, unpolished feeds captured by wall-mounted cameras, body cams and illicit phone-cameras?

As we are exposed to this new type of imagery do we process it with the narrative its given to us through news and Internet alongside ads and comment boards? Do we take empathetic leaps to imagine all experiences within the scenes of abuse played out on our screens? Do we appreciate that events in one prison, at any moment, may be repeating in hundreds of the other 6,000+ locked facilities in the U.S.?

Visuals are one of the key ways outside-citizens learn about prisons. They are a key tool with which authorities–and increasingly prisoners–tweak their narratives for public consumption. Being a engaged citizen means to approach this new paradigm armed with information, skepticism and visual literacy.

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“The statistics are embarrassing to the state [of Texas]”

Mona Reeder, Poynter Online, May. 20, 2008

60% of children under the Texas juvenile prison system come from low-income homes. Texas spends more than twice as much per prisoner as per pupil. Laying on the floor, thirteen-year-old Drake Swist peers out from underneath the bars on his cell door in the security unit of the Marlin facility. Kids get their first glimpse of life in the Texas Youth Commission through the Orientation and Assessment facility in Marlin, Texas.

41% of children in the juvenile justice system have serious mental health problems. Joseph, 17, got a little bit of sunshine in the yard outside the security unit at Marlin. The facility, which once housed adult prisoners in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Damon Winter recommended the work of Mona Reeder, a former colleague of his at The Dallas Morning News.

Reeder won the ‘Investigative Issue Picture Story’ at the 2008 Best of Photojournalism Awards for The Bottom Line. Through pictures, Reeder explored Texas’ poor rankings in a number of categories including health care, executions, mental health statistics, juvenile incarceration, voter apathy, poverty and environmental protection.

This is not solely a photography project about prisons, and thereby lies its strength. Reeder successfully links the stories of numerous state institutions that are left wanting when put under close examination. It is truly a Texan story for Texan constituents. Reeder explains, “As I was wrapping up a project about homelessness in Dallas, a social worker who had helped me with contacts on the streets handed me a set of statistics issued by the state comptroller’s office ranking Texas with the other states in the U.S.”

Photojournalism was an effective medium for this breadth of information, “This project represented a well-researched, in-depth piece about serious issues affecting the entire state of Texas, and it was presented in an innovative manner that even the busiest person could get through and absorb in a relatively short amount of time” states Reeder.

60% of children under the Texas juvenile prison system come from low-income homes. Texas spends more than twice as much per prisoner as per pupil. Laying on the floor, thirteen-year-old Drake Swist peers out from underneath the bars on his cell door in the security unit of the Marlin facility. Kids get their first glimpse of life in the Texas Youth Commission through the Orientation and Assessment facility in Marlin, Texas.

60% of children under the Texas juvenile prison system come from low-income homes. Texas spends more than twice as much per prisoner as per pupil. Laying on the floor, thirteen-year-old Drake Swist peers out from underneath the bars on his cell door in the security unit of the Marlin facility. Kids get their first glimpse of life in the Texas Youth Commission through the Orientation and Assessment facility in Marlin, Texas.

Mona Reeder has worked on numerous criminal justice issues in Texas, including death row stories and sex-offender rehabilitation.

As well as the BOP (2008), Reeder won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for The Bottom Line. She was interviewed by the Poynter Institute about the project and her approaches to photojournalism.

The Dallas Morning News gave The Bottom Line the full multimedia treatment with an impressive online package featuring eight slideshows of the stories of individuals wrapped up in the statistics. IT’S A MUST SEE.

Texas: First in capital punishment, second in the size of the income gap between rich and poor, and second for the number of people incarcerated. Behind every set of numbers is the possibility that yet another child will live a lesser existence. Does Texas not know what to do, or does it just not care? Texas has the most teen births and the most repeat teen births in the nation, earning a ranking of 50th in the U.S. Barely one day old, Jasmine Williams sleeps on her mother’s lap as they wait for the baby’s paternal grandmother to come and take custody of her. Her mother, Kimberly Williams, 15, is in TYC custody and correctional officers shackled her feet shortly after giving birth to her baby. Both of Jasmine’s parents were 15 when she was born.

Texas: First in capital punishment, second in the size of the income gap between rich and poor, and second for the number of people incarcerated. Behind every set of numbers is the possibility that yet another child will live a lesser existence. Does Texas not know what to do, or does it just not care? Texas has the most teen births and the most repeat teen births in the nation, earning a ranking of 50th in the U.S. Barely one day old, Jasmine Williams sleeps on her mother’s lap as they wait for the baby’s paternal grandmother to come and take custody of her. Her mother, Kimberly Williams, 15, is in TYC custody and correctional officers shackled her feet shortly after giving birth to her baby. Both of Jasmine’s parents were 15 when she was born.

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