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A quick heads up for a new photography project about prisons. Jessica Earnshaw has embarked on an investigation of aging in prison. So far, Earnshaw has visited Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana, Maine State Prison and Maine Correctional Center. to make stills and videos that reflect the circumstances of elderly prisoners.

Of course, the greying of America’s prisons is a massive issue. Compassionate release for men and women who are clearly infirm and clearly no threat to society as they may have been 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago seems to me to be a no-brainer.

The project is in its very early stages and Earnshaw is sharing snippets on Instagram. Follow @AgingInPrison, listen and watch that space.

Norma, 76-years-old, cleans her teeth after every meal.

A photo posted by Aging in Prison (@aginginprison) on

A boy of great promise005

Owen at a community outreach service, near Brisbane, that provides free meals. Owen had been out of prison and in Australia for three months when this portrait was made. © Cory Wright

A BOY OF GREAT PROMISE

What happens if you’re released from prison in one country and deported to another? What happens if you’ve no recourse? What happens if your so-called “home” is not at all a home but a place you’ve not seen for 30+ years?

These questions can be answered, partially, by looking at the experience of Owen, who was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 32 in the United Kingdom. In late 2013, after serving 19 years, Owen was released aged 51.

“As an Australian citizen Owen was released as part of a scheme devised to reduce taxpayer expenditure and ease prison overcrowding in the U.K. by deporting foreign national prisoners,” explains photographer Cory Wright who met Owen in January 2014 a few months after his return.

“Owen was taken from a maximum security prison to a detention facility and then to the airport where he was flown back to Australia under guard escort,” continues Wright. “After clearing customs at Brisbane International Airport, he went his way and the guards went theirs.”

For his first few nights in Australia, Owen camped out in a wooded area behind a university campus. Having no family in Brisbane, he headed a local church to get some help.

A boy of great promise012

 

Owen on faith and imprisonment: “In prison, I could actually feel the strength when I walked into the prison chapel and it helped me a great deal. I don’t get that feeling now. When I walk into a church sometimes I feel as though it could be any other room.”

It was at a prison ministry conference in Brisbane that Owen and Wright first met. After striking up a conversation and learning about their recent histories and their need to unpack disorienting experiences. Owen and Wright decided to work together. For one year, through image-making, conversation and archives, they reflected upon Owen’s institutionalization, the social stigma of incarceration, repatriation and reentry.

Soon, Owen moved from Brisbane to Melbourne where his ailing  mother lives. He cared for her for a while until she has since moved to a nursing home where he expects her to stay from now on. She was in her 60’s when Owen was sentenced to life in prison and over 80-years-old when he was released.

A boy of great promise010

Owen’s mother lived in Bundaberg, a small town in northern Queensland for many years. She was a well-known member of the community, but she moved to Melbourne shortly after “Owen got into trouble” because it was too difficult to stay once members of the community learned of his offense.

A boy of great promise024

A scan of Owen’s year 3 report card. The series takes it’s title from the first sentence of the teacher’s remarks at the top left. “Owen is a boy of great promise…”.

Wright titled the project A Boy Of Great Promise, a phrase taken from Owen’s year 3 report card, written by his then teacher.

Wright and Owen could not help becoming friends.

“With empathy and attention afforded to the victim, little thought is given to the lives of those who have “paid their debt to society”. The stigma of the crime is often residual as is the label it caries. It is difficult to be known as anything other than an ‘ex-con’. Furthermore, the lasting effects of prisonisation often make reintegration back into society especially difficult,” says Wright.

A boy of great promise004

During his time living in Brisbane, Owen often relied on free amenities provided by community shelters.

“While A Boy Of Great Promise offers no firm resolution, it starts discussion among those who, all to readily, apply this stigma and rely on assumptions to judge those who have been convicted of a crime.”

I wanted to know more. I sent Cory Wright a few questions. But he replied saying he wanted to share the repsonsibility with Owen. And so I sent a few more questions and Owen and Wright explain the project jointly.

Q & A

How did you meet?

Owen (O): We met at the Uniting Care Prison Ministries Conference in Brisbane, March 2014.

Cory (C): I was encouraged to contact a local prison ministry in Brisbane, Australia and invited to attend the conference, which led me to meet Owen.

Due to the restraints outlined in the Queensland Corrective Services Act 2006, I was unable to photograph or interview any Australian individuals who were on parole as it is forbidden under the act since they are still classified as ‘prisoners’ by the state.

Owen’s circumstances were unique because he was incarcerated in the UK and therefore not considered a ‘prisoner’ under the Act.

I remain very grateful to Owen and members of his family for allowing me into their lives over a period of time.

A boy of great promise009

Serving his sentence in the United Kingdom, Owen did not have many visits from family. During the 19 years he was in prison his mother did not visit him and his father visited only once.

A boy of great promise008

A card Owen bought for his mother whom he hadn’t seen since before he went to prison.

Why did you both agree to document this transition?

O: Cory approached me with the idea, explaining he needed a subject for his university assignment. I’m always willing to help people. And I like the idea of prisoners/ex-offenders getting positive exposure.

C: I wanted to spend period of time documenting post-release transition. I wanted to learn more about life post-incarceration with specific focus on individuals who had been recently released. The term ‘paid their debt to society’ has always interested me and I wanted to know if it was ever ‘paid’ or whether it was something that individuals continue to ‘pay’ following their release.

A boy of great promise021

Owen in his rooms surrounded by past family photographs, mainly from his childhood.

What did you hope to get out of the project?

O: I do see myself as a kind of ambassador for ex-offenders. I wanted positive exposure for ex-offenders. I like art. I like turning life into art. There’s a freeing up and a cleansing that comes from it.

C: I hoped to learn more about life after prison. It’s not something that is discussed, certainly not in mainstream media. In Australia specifically, there seems to be a focus on vilifying criminal behaviour in order to support a tough on crime political approach. I’m not condoning crime, but I think there needs to be more thought and discussion on what happens after prison, which may lead to more consideration about what prisons are for.

A boy of great promise018

Owen on the long term effects of prison:“It’s like going to war. When you come home you have PTSD just like those soldiers coming home from war in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Owen, do Cory’s photographs reflect your emotional state during this time?

O: Yes. I was happy and at peace, very happy to be released and enjoying my new found freedom. I think that is captured.

Cory, were you trying to reflect Owen’s emotional state?

C: I was documenting what I saw over a period of time, which was Owen gradually become more comfortable in Australian society. I saw happiness and relief yes, but I also saw Owen’s struggle to regain his place in a society from which he’s long been absent.

Owen repeated told me how relieved he was to be free, but he also said that he was worried he would be sent back to prison. There was a certain level of anxiety that the other shoe would fall and somehow he would be locked up again.

A boy of great promise015
Shortly after Owen moved to Melbourne, he entered a romantic relationship with S. Initially, S was unaware of his past and Owen was reluctant to tell her. Here, Owen and S. during a camping trip in northern Victoria. During the time they were together Owen helped S. learn English (which is not her first language) for her studies in a masters program. They would buy two copies of the same book and take turns reading aloud to one another.
A boy of great promise017
The garage of Owen’s mother’s townhouse where Owen and S. had sex when his mother was home.

Owen, what preparation did the UK government give you for the return trip to Australia?

O: None at all.

Owen, what has worked and what has not worked in your transition back to civilian life?

O: Australia is an easy country to live in, which has made the transition easy. None of my former friends welcomed me back and hardly any of my family, which has been the hardest thing to accept. I found I needed to start again and accept that people wouldn’t generally be accepting of my circumstances. I don’t tell people about my criminal past any more.

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A list of email addresses to reach out to for support after his release. Owen compiled the list using internet access at a public library.

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The view down the street from Owen’s mother’s townhouse in a suburb of Melbourne. After four months living in Brisbane, Owen relocated to Melbourne to live with and care for his mother.

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Owen’s booking image provided and partially redacted by the Ministry of Justice.

Why was the mugshot redacted?

C: I’m not sure why the Ministry of Justice decided to redact the image, especially since all of the consent forms and signatures they requested were provided.

In one of our discussions Owen told me that being released after serving a long-term prison sentence is like returning from war in the middle-east with regards to the effect on the person. Your identity is effectively stripped away from you and you become a number. I felt that this redacted image reflected that.

How common is the removal of non-UK citizens from UK society after their release?

O: It’s only relatively recent that lifers have been returned to their country of origin after their sentence. The TERS (Tariff Expired Removal Scheme) agreement began three years ago. Fixed-termers get sent back regularly.

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Prison diary and address book.

Owen, did you have any right of appeal?

O: There is an appeal system, but I doubt if a prisoner would have much success with it. I wanted to come back to Australia.

Owen, if you could be anywhere where would it be?

O: At the moment I’m still happily settling into life in Australia. I probably will travel when I get some money together – in Asia or Africa or South America.

Owen, why do you camp?

O: I like the freedom of it. After being locked up for so long I like not having four walls around me.

A boy of great promise023

Owen during a camping trip to the south coast of Victoria. Since his release, Owen has spent a lot of his time outdoors, mainly camping in rural areas of Victoria.

What would you like the world to understand through this project?

O: Good things can always happen.

C: I would like the people to give more consideration to a part of society that is largely ignored.

Cory Wright is a photographer based in South East Queensland. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram.

All images: © Cory Wright

davinci

There are many stories of prisoners’ resourcefulness and creative spirit. There’s lots of tales of redemption through art, or something akin to it. The grandly titled Prison Da Vinci is one of the better produced tellings of this type of story arc.

Filmmaker Zach Sebastian relies heavily on the subject Chris Wilson’s words and phrasing. The viewer is quickly told why a British guy was locked up in San Quentin so that we’re accelerated to the important details of how and why he made paintings made of candy.

I was surprised–but happily relieved–that Wilson was able to exist in San Quentin outside of the gang culture. He encounters philosophy for the first time and met a lot of good people, he says. And he made art.

(The Prison Da Vinci film recalls to mind the work of Donny Johnson, a man convicted of second degree murder who paints postcards with colours leached from M&Ms in his Pelican Bay State Prison solitary confinement cell for the past decade-or-more. In 2006, Johnson had a show in Mexico.)

Whilst Wilson–the artist–prevails, his existences is not far from hell. What’s missing from Prison Da Vinci is a fuller picture of the depravity Wilson experienced inside the California prison system … but that’s too big for a 4-minute short and would take us off the topic of art. We know from his book Horse Latitudes that Wilson had a torrid time of it.

Horse Latitudes first landed on my radar last year when Aaron Guy (and here) sent me a copy (Thanks, Aaron!)

5a

Spread from Horse Latitudes (Sorika) by Chris Wilson.

Here’s the lowdown on Horse Latitudes on Self Publish Be Happy.

What’s fascinating to me about the book is that it uses descriptions of “photographs” to anchor several scenes. Wilson describes regularly things he witnessed to put us in the picture–both when he was out on the streets living life as a junkie and later when he’s inside the nick. For example:

PHOTOGRAPH

Time Unknown

Foreground, a young man shirtless, tattooed, faces a mirror with his teeth bared, metal wires are entwined through his teeth to clamp his jaws together, in his right hand, which is raised to his mouth, he holds a red-handled pair of wire-cutters.

It’s dark, foreboding and inescapbaly bleak. Wilson has been called ‘The Nietzsche of Narcotics‘.

I was left to wonder how Wilson has even survived. Horse Latitudes is a short, violent and unapologetic read. Get it if you can.

The book differs massively in tone from Prison Da Vinci and that’s okay. Wilson has established himself as a successful artist and is not cagey about his tortured past. We know people change and we know identity isn’t fixed. We know people are more than their worst behaviours. Prison Da Vinci does its bit to celebrate Wilson’s post-prison and drug-free life. It’s one story of his storied life. Wilson got beyond incarceration’s grip. Art played its part. But painting with Skittles wasn’t even the half of it.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

In modernizing institutions, new laws to permit intimate partner visits for prisoners were established. Cosmin Bumbuţ visited every penitentiary in Romania and photographed the boudoirs.

We’re obsessed with sex as much as we’re shy to talk about it open and honestly. We’re fascinated by prisons, particularly fictionalized accounts of prisons (Oz, Animal Factory, Shawshank, Orange Is The New Black, The Green Mile, the list goes on-and-on) but often our fascination doesn’t extend far enough to talk openly about what our prisons actually are and how they’re a symptom of a divided, racist, unforgiving social order. We’ve still a lot to unpack around prisons. Around sex too, we’re picky about what and where we unpack. I say this to acknowledge the fact that this is an article about sex, and prisons, and sex in prisons and those are fiery catalysts to the imagination. Be honest, you’re here because of the headline and you’re wondering whether to read these 1,300 words or just scroll through the pictures.

Fortunately, for us, these pictures, made by Romanian photographer Cosmin Bumbuţ (who is also one half of Teleleu.eu), sate our outsider curiosity without dragging us into a debased voyeuristic quagmire.

The series, titled Camera Intima, is expertly shot with phenomenal manipulation of space and lenses to secure these angles. Despite some of these rooms being converted basement store-rooms, the photos are well-lit and flooding with joyous color and pattern. Perhaps you enter this photo essay — and these rooms — expecting cheap gags, but you exit with a rounded and informed perspective on a type of room designed to meet 21st century policy, to ensure dignity and to bolster family relationships.

“In 2007, Romania joined the European Union,” explains Bumbuţ. “The whole prison system went through major revamp and the biggest reform was to introduce the right to private visits.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Simply put, the price for entry into Europe’s *modern* club was to allow previously-forgotten and despised convicts to get it on with their loved ones. Married prisoners and those in long term relationships have the right to one 2-hour private visit, every three months.

“Plus, if a prisoner gets married in detention he or she can spend 48 hours with the spouse in the special room and is allowed visits once a month in the first year of marriage,” explains Bumbuţ.

It’s obvious to say that these conjugal visit rooms are for sex. But it’s worth noting they are intended only for sex. In the United States, by comparison, conjugal visit trailers and designated rooms are set aside for the whole family. In these Romanian rooms, the only visitors are intimate partners but in the United States the purpose of family visits is broadened beyond just sex. Prisoners spend time with their children, siblings and parents; trailer visits are meant to strengthen family bonds throughout the entire clan. As such, US trailers have kitchens, dining and common areas.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

In Bumbuţ’s photos we see mostly, just the beds. For all their undeniably functional design for the carnal, these rooms are rather underwhelming. At its root, this photo essay could be of cheap motel rooms; they share the same essential elements — TV, mini-fridge, the occasional soft furnishing, nasty carpet and a sign or two reminding occupants of rules. The picture that these are prison rooms is Bumbuţ’s image of the cover page of the ‘Intimate Room’ handbook.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Between 2013 and 2014, Bumbuţ photographed the “private rooms” in all 40 Romanian penitentiaries. “I think I can boast of being the only civilian who entered all the Romanian prisons,” he says.

It wasn’t a project that came out of the blue. Back in 2009, he facilitated a photo workshop for women prisoners in Târgșor Penitentiary (more about that here). Soon after that he embarked on a multiyear project documenting life in the notorious Aiud Penitentiary. He witnessed a creaking and unsanitary lock-up trying to clean up and drag itself into the 21st century.

“In 2005, Aiud looked like a prison from the Communist era. Rooms were dirty and the walls unpainted, the cells were very small and crowded,” says Bumbuţ. “In 2008, it was renovated and the cells were expanded, the prisoners didn’t wear uniforms and were referred to as ‘Persons deprived of liberty’! Romanian prisons started to look like the ones from the American movies, with white walls and new metal shiny doors.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Even though prisoners are still handcuffed, Bumbut has, since 2008, been prohibited from photographing cuffed prisoners. Now it’s about image as much as it is about policy. When Bumbuţ first made his request to the National Prison Administration to photograph the conjugal visit rooms, he received quick approval and thanks for his dedication and help to the prison administration programs. Bumbuţ became well practiced at working in prisons. He reduced his equipment to a camera, a lens, a spare SD card and a spare battery to get through security checks as quick as was possible (often not quick at all).

The photographer’s good-standing all changed upon the release of his book Bumbata, an anthology of his best photographs from four years of shooting in Aiud Penitentiary. (Bumbuţ and I had an extended conversation about Bumbata in 2013).

The book was considered to gritty and perhaps, even, too sympathetic to the prisoners. Either way, it was seen as a damaging depiction. From there-on out, Bumbuţ was light on his feet and diplomatic. His access was never withdrawn.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

The pregnant pause within these rooms is what gives Camera Intima strength as an body of work. We look at the photographs and they ignite our imaginations about what goes on inside. When the door is open — and we and the photographer peer in — there’s nothing to see. What goes on behind closed doors will never be photographed. This tension is characteristic of good photographic series that insert themselves into the relationships of public/private space and personal/institutional power.

“Prisoners are allowed officially to have sex inside an institution, but they have to follow all the bureaucratic steps,” explains Bumbuţ, “to write a request, to wait for the approval, to obey the rules.”

Guards and the administration hold the promise of access to the rooms as a carrot to motivate prisoners toward good behavior.

“Only prisoners who behave in prison are allowed to have private visits,” says Bumbuţ. “Prisoners are more obedient when they have access to the intimate rooms.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Similarly, in the U.S., conjugal visits are seen as a very effective way to maintain prisoners’ complicity, even docility. Not all U.S. prisoners enjoy regular time with their family or intimate partners. All conjugal visits are banned within the Federal system and while states are left to rule on their own prison policies, only four — California, Connecticut, New York and Washington — currently allow trailer visits. In 2014, both Mississippi and New Mexico summarily ended their conjugal visit programs.

Sometimes these decisions will be couched in language about security but more often than not the decision rests upon public opinion (outrage), the moral judgements of the administration in power and probably the bottom line. It’s cheaper to keep men and women locked in boxes than it is to provide programming.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Back in Romania, it doesn’t matter what system or prison you’re in, your right to have conjugal visits is protected by law. And Bumbuţ was in many prisons when these visits took place. For a while he toyed with the idea of making portraits of prisoners and visitors.

“I even shot a couple before and after their private visit,” says Bumbuţ. “But when I looked at the portrait, I realised that it became too much about the couple and not about the intimate room.”

Bumbuţ wanted to spark our curiosity. He wanted to focus on the space and all the emotions, release, frustrations, love and contained freedom they embody.

Even though these rooms allow two humans to come together, they’re not places about individuals or individuality. They’re function spaces for the continuance of criminal justice policy. We know that given the choice, no-one would want to opt for these converted cells, cramped quarters or side-thought accommodations for their sexy time. No, Bumbuţ’s photographs are all about the denial of comfort and personal circumstance. These are compromise spaces. They’re about making do as much as they are about making out and they reveal carceral logic itself.

“So I decided to shoot the empty rooms.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

If you’re still with my these 1,300 words later, I’m glad you stayed the course and I hope I’ve convinced you that these images are more than visual one-liners. That, in fact, by photographing in every Romanian prison — 40 in total — Bumbuţ has created a unique, complete and priceless sociological survey. These four walls are the fulcrum between Romanian rule-of-law and the European Union compact; they’re the pivot of negotiation between prison and prisoner; and, of course, they’re containers for sexual expression between prisoners and loved ones. Ultimately, the rooms are the physical manifestation of contradiction.

“These are spaces for intimacy,” concludes Bumbuţ. “But, at the same time, the prison itself denies almost all desperately needed intimacy.”


In recent years, Cosmin Bumbuț and journalist Elena Stancu have traveled through Romania in an RV telling stories about today Romania, marginal communities and extraordinary people. They are Teleleu.eu. Follow Bumbuț and Stancu at the Teleleu.eu website and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

HAPPY THANKSGIVING! 

On the eve of Thanksgiving, it is good to remember our shared humanity. It’s also good to acknowledge our shared crimes and remember the blood spilt on the American continent. Yes, it’s imperative to celebrate common values and spiritual connection, but never at the expense of false narrative. Thanksgiving is an ideological construct to lessen the burden of a genocide perpetrated by first European and, later, White American settlers.

Yes, we need to commune and yes, we need to pause, often, and to be grateful for all we have, but let’s not wholly embrace a mythos that paints settlement of America by violent outsiders as one big picnic.

I just republished, on Medium, my 2009 Prison Photography interview with Ilka Hartmann, who photographed the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz in 1970/71.

Because our relationship to the past is our relationship to one another

Read: Photographing the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz: An Interview with Ilka Hartmann

See: Ilka Matmann’s photographs of the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

All images: © Ilka Hartmann

texas-prison-danny-lyon-009

Sean O’Hagan writes:

Lyon was a pioneer of what might be called immersive photojournalism, steeping himself in his subject matter in the manner of pioneering 60s writers of the New Journalism school such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson. He builds the visual narrative around extended personal accounts by selected inmates, the often intimate descriptions of life inside illuminating his already powerful images. “The text of the book, compiled from prison records and convict writings, presents the lives of a few of these men,” he writes in his introduction. “They are the heroes of this book. I knew each of them as well as a free man can.”

[…] On every level, then, Danny Lyon’s approach flies in the face of detached documentary reporting, but it is this that also makes his work so viscerally forceful.

Read the full piece: Conversations With the Dead: Book review – 60s prison life in the US

Artist_as_Activist_News_image

THIS ART MEGA-GRANT IS A SIGN OF THE TIMES

There’s a host of indicators that prison reform is firmly established near the top of the national agenda. In politics, journalism, art and culture the urgent voices and battles that constitute the discussion and solution-finding around mass incarceration are getting an airing they’ve not enjoyed during the past four decades of unfettered prison growth.

The battles brought by anti-prison activists and families (alongside the soul-searching among the rest of us) may define this moment. There’s a long, long way to go to reverse 40 years of failed policy, but it can only be done … incrementally, faithfully and with a long-view.

The Artist As Activist Fellowship program recently announced by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RFF) could be part of a continued movement toward justice and toward national healing. Specifically, the RRF wants to support projects that “address racial justice through the lens of mass incarceration.”

There are more-and-more funding opportunities for artists looking at prisons, abolition and racial discrimination. I don’t have time to flag them all, but for this one I had to take pause. The size of this grant is quite remarkable. There’s been a couple of $15K and $25K offerings recently, but the RRF just upped the ante.

DEADLINE

You have until December 7th to argue your case for 100,000 USD in support.

RFF’S STATEMENT

Of the 2.2 million people currently in American prisons or jails, 1 million are African American. This rate of incarceration is a 500% increase over the past 30 years, and if current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. Nationwide, African Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons.

This constitutes an epidemic. Particularly so given mass incarceration’s intersection with wealth inequality and economic justice, voting rights, immigration rights, access to affordable housing, and inequitable educational policies. It is exhausting to unravel the complexity of this issue, let alone to design ways to dismantle the social and economic structures that produced mass incarceration as a phenomenon. Yet that is the task before all of us, one that requires an army of creative thinkers.

THE FELLOWSHIP

The 2016 Artist as Activist Fellowship provides the opportunity for creative professionals who are committed to making meaningful progress towards ending mass incarceration to seek a robust set of resources to advance their work. RRF believes that, at their best, art and artists are disruptive. The very nature of being a compelling artist is to generate new thinking and inspire new ways of being, whether through fostering empathy or by proposing radical alternatives to our current systems. If a new world is possible, it is the minds of artists, designers, culture bearers, and other creative professionals who will call it forth.

ABOUT RRF

The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation fosters the legacy of the artist’s life, work, and philosophy that art can change the world. The foundation supports initiatives at the intersection of arts and issues that embody the fearlessness, innovation, and multidisciplinary approach that Robert Rauschenberg exemplified in both his art and philanthropic endeavors.

MO’ INFO

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Twitter
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press@rauschenbergfoundation.org

212 228 5283

Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
381 Lafayette Street
New York
NY 10003-7022

IMAGE

Robert Rauschenberg, Poster for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), 1965 (detail). Silkscreen print with varnish overlay, 35 7/8 x 23 7/8 inches.

Seeing-Beyond-Prison-Bars_Paule_Willow-10-387x580

American photographer Willow Paule has spent half her time, in recent years, in Indonesia. She recounts in PsychoCulturalCinema how she slowly learnt about the past incarcerations of her two friends. Their conversations together led to more questions. Paule writes:

Through my research and conversations with these former prisoners in Indonesia, I discovered that they had faced rampant corruption, extortion, and violence in prison. I found that people were often convicted without solid evidence, that they sometimes possessed only small amounts of narcotics or marijuana but were given long drug distribution sentences, while large time dealers got off with lighter sentences. The person with the fattest wallet got the best treatment.

I learned that mentally ill people often became police targets, and periodically drugs were planted on them in order for police to meet arrest quotas. Once they were locked up, they didn’t necessarily receive adequate care, and they sometimes created turmoil in the cramped cells they shared with the general population. Many people told me disheartening stories about human rights abuses in Indonesian prisons.

My focus is the U.S. prison system, but as I say, dryly and reductively, on my bio page, “problems exist in other countries too.” Paule knows this all too well. She recorded the art that her two friends created as a matter of survival and also their difficult reentry into society. There, as here, jobs are difficult to come by for former prisoners and the stigma of prison lingers long.

The extent to my knowledge on the Indonesian prison system spans the length of Paule’s article. The system sounds dire.

“Prison sentence lengths were decided depending on bribe amounts and prisoners had to pay for a cell or face daily beatings and electrocution in solitary confinement,” writes Paule.

Connecting Paule’s years-old inquiry to today, in the U.S., is Paule’s desire to repeat the methodology and record the stories of returning citizens in America.

There’s no shortage of people in this country with whom Paule could meaningfully connect and weave their history and story over a long period as she did in Indonesia. It takes more than just images though; I encourage Paule and all young photographers to use audio, family archives, collaborative processes and — as Paule did here — a focus on non-photo 2D artworks. Most of all, I encourage young photographers to empower not only individuals impacted by incarceration through the telling of their stories but also to empower small local communities by exhibiting and programming the work with those most closely implicated in the issue.

Simply put, a show at the local community centre is as important as one in the brand name gallery downtown. The former deals in hearts and minds, the latter in sales.

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