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Set photo, from the filming of Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility. © ERNEST

In the northern reaches of Portland Oregon, in the quieter quarters of the St. John’s neighbourhood, sleeps a beast. Wapato Jail was built for $58 million but never opened. It has sat vacant since 2004. It has been used as a film set. They tried to sell it. At one point, the City of Portland put out an open call for alternative uses proposals. Some suggested it could be used as a garden and rehabilitation center. Others suggested it could be used to house Bush, Cheney and other war criminals.

Wapato has costs the tax payer $300,000 per year (a conservative estimate) to just keep the thing offline. One long expensive joke. Systems normal but never operational.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

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Screengrab of a Google Maps angled, aerial view of Wapato Jail, looking northwest.

ERNEST and DEMOS

When the arts organisation c3:initiative moved into St. John’s in 2014 it didn’t take them long to turn its focus to the empty jail. c3:initiative sponsored artist collective ERNEST as artists-in-residence. ERNEST have produced a multi-medium art installation, film, a book and public programs.

Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility probes the many concerns that the vacant jail suggests: breakdowns in democracy, prevailing power structures,” reads the exhibition statement.

During ERNEST’s early research they discovered that coyotes had dug under many fences. Video footage shows that they will scale fences too to cross and inhabit the lush ground within the jail perimeter. These wily mammals, that have roamed the area far longer than the jail has stood, have found a way to ignore the unwelcome interruption of a hard and fast boondoggle. Coyotes continue their evolved routine and instead of fighting the jail just orient themselves around it. Ultimately, they operate to ignore the jail’s presence and minimise it’s impact on their rhythms.

Is the coyote a good metaphor? Might we find new solutions to old problems if we approach prisons, jails and social ills with a similar low-key pragmatism. Prisons might be the problem but so to might our strategies of opposition?

“Acting as a conjuror of sorts, the character of Coyote leads the video component of Demos, transforming the specific architecture, history and politics of Wapato Jail into a platform for conversation and collaboration,” says the press release.

While ERNEST are allied to prison reform and abolition arguments, their work doesn’t necessary look like the typically political and didactic protest-imagery. Bringing the subtlety of fine art to a brutish topic such as the abusive prison industrial complex is intriguing. I don’t know what to expect truthfully, which is why I am in Portland right now for tomorrow’s opening.

OPENING RECEPTION

Friday, September 18, 6:30-9:30pm
At c3:initiative, 7326 N. Chicago Avenue, Portland 97203.

Visitors are invited to join c3:initiative and the artists from ERNEST in marking the opening of Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility. Complimentary drinks and light refreshments will be served.

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A graphic by ERNEST from an early conceptualisation stages of the project Demos.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

THAT TITLE?

The project’s title takes its meaning from various interpretations of the word “demos”. The Greek word “demos” (pronounced “day-moss”), refers to the “village” or “people.” In English, “demo”, is used as a shorthand for “demonstration”, as reference to the “demo mix-tape”, or as the vernacular for “demolition”. ERNEST thus uses “demos” to refer to its interest in keeping their methods experimental and provisional, while creating opportunities for local participatory engagement.

PUBLICATION

The book, published by Container Corps, includes a collection of essays, artworks, research and primary documents. I have an essay in there about sketches made in solitary by a man named Ernest Jerome DeFrance.

The book’s contents are both specific to Wapato Correctional Facility, and related to general issues of incarceration, participatory citizenship, and the role of art in social justice and storytelling.

BIG SATURDAY EVENT

I’ll also be in the room for an open roundtable conversation — a broadened investigation of themes relating to the empty jail facility, both locally and nationally.

Saturday, September 19, 2015, 11am-1pm. Followed by a 12-1pm community meal and conversation.

I look forward to hearing from panelists:

Emanuel Price is the Founder and current Executive Director of Second Chances Are For Everyone in Portland, OR. S.C.A.F.E. works to reduce the rate of recidivism by providing support services to promote employment, empowerment, and community engagement for men in transition because Second Chances are for Everyone. Price is currently leading the organization in developing key programs and resources that will help reduce criminals going back into destructive lifestyles after being released from jail or prison. More information about Price is available here.

Melissa Salazar is a May 2015 graduate of Pacific Northwest College of Art, where she studied Communication Design. Melissa has recently become involved in activist work focusing primarily on incarceration of black and brown individuals. She has been influenced by events in her own life and seeks to bring awareness to an invisible society behind bars.

Yaelle Amir is a curator, writer and researcher who currently holds the position of Curator at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, OR. Her writing and curatorial projects focus primarily on artists whose practices supplement the initiatives of existing social movements, rendering themes within those struggles in ways that both interrogate and promote these issues to a wider audience. She has curated exhibitions at Artists Space, CUE Art Foundation, Center for Book Arts, ISE Cultural Foundation, The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Marginal Utility, and the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, among others. Her writing has appeared in numerous art publications includingArt in America, ArtLies, ArtSlant, ArtUS, Beautiful/Decay, and Sculpture Magazine. She has also worked at major art institutions, such as the International Center of Photography, the Museum of Modern Art, and NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts.

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Members of ERNEST tour the gymnasium in the empty Wapato Jail, Portland, OR.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

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Photo taken in Wapato Jail, Portland, OR as part of ERNEST’s early research.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

DETAILS

Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility
A project by ERNEST
September 18–November 22, 2015
Gallery Hours: Fri–Sun, noon–5pm at c3:initiative, 7326 N. Chicago Avenue, Portland 97203.

OTHER EVENTS

Reading Group: The New Jim Crow – Wednesdays, October 7, 14, 21, 7:00-8:30pm
Stories in Movement – Saturday, November 7, 5:00pm
No Thank You Democracy, The politics of non-participation, by Ariana Jacob – Sunday, November 22, 4:30pm.

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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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At first glance, the image above looks like the usual press photograph of a suspect accompanied to the stand, being escorted between holding cells and a courtroom. Alternatively, it could be a scene from inside a jail. Jumpsuit, shackles and guards are glaring visual clues and we think we know what we are seeing. But, in most cases we don’t. And in this case were aren’t. This is a photo from the set of the in-production web series wHole, for which filming began last month at the vacant Wapato Jail in Portland, Oregon.

wHole, made by Think Ten Media and directed by Ramon Hamilton (who is actually to the left in this picture) aims to raise awareness about the sensory deprivation and widespread use of solitary confinement in American today. The limited information this fictional scene provides us is akin to the limited visual information available to us generally of solitary confinement in America’s prisons. (Aside of photography, we must recognise there is currently a good swell of great advocacy journalism about solitary, not least by Solitary Watch).

Even though Wapato was designed as a medium-level-security county jail. Think Ten Media thought it a worthy location for depicting Supermax facilities. wHole might be the only good thing to come out of this waste of space and money.

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In 1996, the taxpayers of Multnomah County (Portland, Oregon) approved a bond measure to build a 168,420-square-foot, 525-bed jail back, but county leaders never set aside money to open and operate it. Construction was completed ten years ago at a total cost of $58M. Wapato was a bad idea to start with, but changes in legislation and a drop in crime proved it a terrible idea. The jail never went into operation. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good thing that no-one has been locked up at Wapato, but it is a terrible thing that it was built in the first place. What could have that $58M (plus the $3M of tax payers money spent over the past decade to merely to maintain the place) achieved in terms of rehabilitation, jobs training and addiction treatment?

Last year, sensible suggestions such as repurposing the jail as a drug rehab center, a homeless shelter or a community center were invoked but didn’t develop. More recently, the county made concerted efforts to sell the jail and get it off the books. In a typical Portlandish well-meaning, transparent but somewhat comic and farce-like public relations stutter, the county called for proposals from companies and citizens alike and then promptly rejected them. The proposals? Some people wanted to make a community garden for at-risk youth, other a prison for international war criminals. A TV production company wanted to make a reality TV show and a private prison firm wanted to use it and use it for you can guess what.

There has been a persistent myth in Portland that Wapato sat empty and was never used for any type of revenue raising, including the exploitation of opportunities presented by the many production companies wanting to film at Wapato. That’s simply not true. Maybe, more filming and more money could’ve been supported, yet, speculation aside and to date, wHole is the 32nd project filmed there int he past 6 years.

That wHole is about mass incarceration makes it, in my book, the most worthy of projects. When the nearly two-month-long California Prisoner Hunger Strike kicked off in the summers of 2011 and 2013, filmmakers Ramon Hamilton and Jennifer Fischer knew they wanted to make a project about solitary. wHole is intended to be “raw and real.”

The locals are excited about the future impact of wHole, which is a far cry from Orange is the New Black. While no mainstream TV show has depicted prisoners so sympathetically, Orange Is The New Black carries its fictional aspects and as such doesn’t reflect reality.

I wanted to know more about how you get into a jail to film and so asked Jennifer Fischer, Think Ten Media co-founder, a few questions.

Scroll down for our Q&A and then further still for more information on the project.

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Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): How many vacant jails or prisons are there in the U.S. in which to make feature films or TV series?

Jennifer Fischer (JF): I am not sure. I know Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility is used often for filming by productions in the Los Angeles Area. I believe Hancock shot there, and there’s lots going on with it right now.

PP: Why did you choose Wapato?

JF: There was really nothing like Wapato Jail that was reasonable in terms of cost. There is a facility in New Jersey I recall Five mentioning to me. I lost all of my research notes about prison locations when my hard drive crashed recently!

We looked into shooting at Nelles and at other locations, but all were prohibitively expensive for our project being made on a limited budget. There were other challenges, such as no running water or electricity, the requirement of a water truck on site.

Some active prisons and jails are often used for filming! But with these locations, if they need the cell you are shooting in, you get booted. At Wapato we’d have access to the entire facility.

PP: How was the process to secure use of the facility?

To secure the facility, we had to speak with Mark Gustafson, who is the property manager. He had a few questions, but the process was really pretty simple. The important thing was getting the correct insurance. Here’s the county’s property management webpage for Wapato jail.

PP: Were the rates reasonable?

JF: Yes, the rates are quite reasonable, basically covering the cost to operate — security guard on site, opening and closing of the facility and any janitorial costs incurred from our use.

In fact, we initially went up to Portland because of the [relatively low] cost of the facility. Before we went we were still considering building a cell somewhere in L.A. when the whole series was greenlit.

However, given how wonderful and support everyone in Portland was and how professional the local cast and crew were, we are now absolutely committed to being back in Portland at Wapato to shoot the entire show.

Scroll down for more info on the web series and links to production photos.

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Filming the filmers.

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A cell doubles as a make-up room.

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Filming inside a cell.

INTIMATE EXPERTISE

wHole draws on the intimate knowledge of two people who have been incarcerated.

Actor William Brown plays the protagonist in wHole. He has served time in prison. Fischer and Hamilton connected with Brown through Deborah Tobola who runs the Poetic Justice Project, a theater program in California for individuals who have been incarcerated. Tobola and Brown worked together when he was in prison in a program called Arts in Corrections.

Five Mualimmak is a co-producer for the project. Mualimmak also spent time in solitary confinement, 5 years, before he was exonerated. Mualimmak works with the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow and is the Executive Director of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign.

“As I wrote the screenplay, I was in touch with Five throughout,” explains Hamilton who is the series writer and director. “I want to make sure that viewers get a real sense of what it is like for a person to live in complete isolation for years.”

Mualimmak wrote about Solitary confinement’s “invisible scars” for the Guardian.

SET PHOTOGRAPHS

In chatting with Fischer, one of the intriguing resources she pointed me toward was the set photography for wHole. I’ve included some of my preferred shots thorughout this post.

View images from day one, day two, day three and day four. Perhaps most interesting are photos made by crew of the facility’s control room, surveillance systems and control boards.

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Five Mualimmak, who spent 5 years of his 12 prison term in solitary confinement, before being exonerated is co-producer on wHole. Above, he plays a prison guard.

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Lunch on set

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Looks depressingly accurate.

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On set.

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Downloading the day’s footage in the control room.

COLLABORATION

wHole was made in partnership with American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Incarcerated Nation Campaign, the Media Change Makers (of the University of Texas-El Paso), SendAPackage.Com, Broken On All Sides, Jail Action Coalition New York City, The Bronx Defenders.

Additionally, Academy Award-Winning Producer Jonathan Sanger is an Executive Producer for the project and Dr. Arvind Singhal is the Entertainment Education Specialist for the project.

In Portland, specifically, the assistance of Jan Elfers, Public Policy Director at Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, and Shannon Wright, Deputy Director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice was crucial.

IMAGE USE

All images courtesy of Think Ten Media and William Meeker.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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