Category Archives: prison

Prison. “We too are the punishers”

While in Geneva for the Mapping festival a few days ago, i visited Prison at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. The promise of the exhibition is bold: explain to us that incarceration is our shared responsibility and that “We too are the punishers”.

The show looks at incarceration from various perspectives: the many roles of guards, the characteristics of healthcare inside prisons, social reintegration, the inhumanity of isolation cells, the high rates of suicide but also inmates inventiveness when it comes to escape, cook and resist restrictions.

Devoid of any judgement and stereotypes, Prison helps visitors reflect on the possible alternatives to an institution that clearly doesn’t work.

Instead of a proper review, i’ll leave you with an injunction (“Don’t miss it if you’re around Geneva this Spring!”), many photos and a couple of comments beneath some of them:


Valerio Bispuri, Prison Poggioreale, 2015 Naples, Italy – © Valerio Bispuri


Valerio Bispuri, Prison Poggioreale, 2015 Naples, Italy – © Valerio Bispuri

“Don’t look at these photos thinking that people who made a mistake have to pay,” wrote Roberto Saviano in an essay about Valerio Bispuri‘s photo reportage from the Poggioreale prison in Naples. You don’t pay like this. You don’t pay by defecating and cooking in the same square meter. You don’t pay by living without hot water and heating. You don’t pay by losing your dignity.”

Bad Boy, direction by Janusz Mrozowski, production by Andana Films, 2012


Bad Boy (film still), direction by Janusz Mrozowski, production by Andana Films, 2012

The “Bad Boy” of this documentary is a rather amiable and frustrated 28-year-old Polish bank robber named Damian, who had been living in solitary confinement for two years when the documentary was shot. He has no privacy, no human contact other than with his guards but still maintains a certain sense of humour. Damian lives the same day over and over again under the scrutiny of the CCTV camera and with only bad tv shows to distract him from the soul-crushing routine.


Just Detention, Survivor Program 2005, United States

In 2005, Just Detention launched a campaign calling for greater protection of the victims of sexual violence inside prison – whether inflicted by fellow inmates or prison staff.


Artificial penis, before 1989, German Democratic Republic. Silicone with heating coil, Saxon Prison Museum at Waldheim, Germany

This artificial penis was made by female prisoners in the GDR for purposes of self-gratification but also to smuggle in sperm from the outside and get pregnant by artificial means, hoping to benefit from the suspended prison term to which pregnant women are entitled under provisions of the Penal Code.


Objects swallowed by prisoners


Basic pizza oven belonging to Jan-Carl Raspe, 1975, Stuttgart-Stammheim – © Ludwigsburg Prison Museum, Germany


Grégoire Korganow, Setting off for a Stroll, 2012, France


Grégoire Korganow, Visiting room, 2012 – © Grégoire Korganow

“Away from public view, prisons are the stuff of fantasy, but there’s nothing spectacular about the reality I experienced there,” writes Grégoire Korganow in the intro to his Prisons series. “What really turns the ordinary into a nightmare and creates the hell of incarceration are the multiple and repeated acts of degrading treatment: demeaning rules, solitude, promiscuity, insalubrity, idleness, absence of prospect, discomfort… In addition, there is violence, which is perpetrated in shady corners and the exercise yard.”


Robert Sturman, Yoga at San Quentin State Prison, Prison Yoga Project, 2104, US


Mathieu Pernot, The Screamers (Les Hurleurs), 2001-2004

Les Hurleurs portrays people screaming to communicate at a distance messages to their relatives held in prisons.


Cosmin Bumbut, Camera Intima, 2014. Bucharest-Rahova, Romania

Since the entry of Romania into the European Union in January 2007 and a reform of the prison system, married detainees are allowed to meet their spouse in private and for two hours every two months. The place dedicated to these visits is the Camera Intima.


Cosmin Bumbut, Degetoaice/Girlboys, 2011, Tirgsor Women’s Penitentiary, Romania

“Girlboys are women who, during prison detention, assume a male identity,” photographer Cosmin Bumbut explains. “They have “wives” who tidy up, do the laundry and wash the dishes. Girlboys protect them, fulfill their emotional need and offer them sexual pleasure. They have men nicknames, cut their hair short and wear masculine clothes, clench their fists and demand respect. Some of them have children at home and they do this only while they are imprisoned. Other, continue their relationships after they are released. Most of them are old offenders. Almost all have suffered sexual abuse.”


Lili Kobielski, Cook County Jail, Chicago, 2015, United States

Lili Kobielski photographed Cook County Jail in Chicago where more than a third of the inmates suffer from mental illness. Over time, it has become one of the largest, if not the largest, mental health care provider in the United States. Yet, the lack of financial and human resources means that often no adequate care can be provided.


Lloyd DeGrane, Cook County Jail, Chicago, 2010


Dirty Protest, from the documentary Notorious Prisons, Episode 9: The Maze, Northern Ireland (image)

The dirty protest took place at the Maze Prison outside Belfast between 1978 and 1981. Political prisoners refused to wash in protest at their treatment (which included attacks by prison officers). They rejected all forms of hygiene and smeared the wall of their cells with faeces, urines and left-over food.


Inmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity, Sept. 1971, during the Attica uprising, which took the lives of 43 people. AP Photo


Klaus Pichler, Marked for Life (Fürs Leben gezeichnet) No.144 and No.410, 2012/13, Vienna, Austria


Arrangement of Yoyos by the artist Ernest Pignon Ernest, 2012 Saint-Paul and Saint-Joseph, Lyon, France (shut down 2009) – © Bruno Paccard


View of the exhibition – ©MICR, photos Reprosolution


View of the exhibition – ©MICR, photos Reprosolution

Prison remains open until 18 August 2019 at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva. The exhibition will travel to the (wonderful) Musée des Confluences in Lyon and then to the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden.

Inside Private Prisons. An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Inside Private Prisons. An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, by Lauren-Brooke Eisen.

It’s on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Columbia University Press writes: When the tough-on-crime politics of the 1980s overcrowded state prisons, private companies saw potential profit in building and operating correctional facilities. Today more than a hundred thousand of the 1.5 million incarcerated Americans are held in private prisons in twenty-nine states and federal corrections. Private prisons are criticized for making money off mass incarceration—to the tune of $5 billion in annual revenue. Based on Lauren-Brooke Eisen’s work as a prosecutor, journalist, and attorney at policy think tanks, Inside Private Prisons blends investigative reportage and quantitative and historical research to analyze privatized corrections in America.

From divestment campaigns to boardrooms to private immigration-detention centers across the Southwest, Eisen examines private prisons through the eyes of inmates, their families, correctional staff, policymakers, activists, Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees, undocumented immigrants, and the executives of America’s largest private prison corporations. (…) Neither an endorsement or a demonization, Inside Private Prisons details the complicated and perverse incentives rooted in the industry, from mandatory bed occupancy to vested interests in mass incarceration. If private prisons are here to stay, how can we fix them? This book is a blueprint for policymakers to reform practices and for concerned citizens to understand our changing carceral landscape.


Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn. Mark Vancleave/ZUMA. Via the marshall project

I’d never call myself an expert in incarceration but because i follow closely the Prison Photography blog, The Intercept and watch the odd documentary, i’ve known for long that the USA has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world (right after Seychelles apparently.) 693 people out of 100,000 find themselves behind bars. That is nearly five times Britain’s and 15 times Japan’s rate. Because of mass incarceration, the U.S. government is contracting private corporations to house and monitor inmates that cannot find a bed in overcrowded public prisons.

I’ve always been very curious about an industry which financial well-being depends on keeping as many people behind bars as possible and for as long as possible. Lauren-Brooke Eisen‘s book sheds a compassionate, lucid and, she hopes, unprejudiced light onto the private prison industry. I wasn’t planning to review it but i learnt so much throughout the pages that i had to write something about the publication. I’ll start with a few facts and figures gleaned throughout the book:

– Private prisons “house 126,000 people in America, or 7% of state inmates and almost 18% of federal prisoners.” At the end of 2016 more than 40,000 undocumented immigrants were held in immigration detention facilities on any given day;

– between 1984 and 2005, a new prison opened every 8 and a half days;

– According to Adam Gopnik, more people are incarcerated America today than were imprisoned in Stalin’s gulags

– today Afro Americans are incarcerated at nearly 6 times the rate of whites Americans,

– 1 out of 9 state workers is employed in prison and today the country employs more correction officers than pediatricians, judges, court reporters and firefighters combined. Many states spend more in incarceration than they do on education;

– today, the for-profit industry manages 8% of prison beds across country but 62% immigration detention beds;

– 1 in every 28 children has a parent behind bars so children programme Sesame Street recently introduced a new character whose dad is imprisoned:


Alex, Sesame Street’s first-ever muppet with a parent in prison

The first chapters of Inside Private Prisons set the stage by looking at the history of prison in the U.S.A., the rise of the privatization of government services since the early 1800s, the long history of using captive labor for economic purposes, etc. The author then turns her attention to the many forms that the privatisation of the correction sector can adopt: from cigarettes especially designed for use in prison to technology that protects against civilian drones, from correctional trade shows to super lucrative prison telecommunication to enable families to converse over long distances.


JP4, the first tablet designed specifically for prisoners. Photo: Motherboard

A large section of the book also details how private-prison firms are attempting to ‘diversify’ and respond to the recent drive in being “smart on crime” rather than being “though on crime.” Criminal justice reformers are indeed looking for ways to safely reduce prison populations by investing in alternatives, by reforming sentencing laws, by reducing revocations to prison for violating probation or parole, etc. Policy makers have realized that more incarceration didn’t automatically translate into large crime-reduction benefits for the country and that the high rates of recidivism didn’t came about because of an increase in crime or because American citizens are inherently more prone to offend than others but because of policy choices adopted in previous decades.

The private sector is thus looking into ways to get involved into these alternatives to imprisonment and to make a profit out of the endeavours: they build halfway houses, drug or mental health treatment facilities, intermediate sanctions facilities, develop electronic-monitoring services and get involved more closely (and lucratively) into job training and other community-based operations that include rehabilitation. Carl Takei calls this trend ’the Wal-Martification of reentry.” The financial incentive in each of these operations is to keep people trapped in system for as long as possible.

Worryingly, it seems that nowadays, the biggest cash cow for the private prison industry is illegal immigration. Providing beds for immigrant detainees makes a lot of (financial) sense: these people have limited legal rights and are not guaranteed education programs, job training nor mental health and drug abuse counseling. They cost less and complain less.

Unsurprisingly, the election of Trump is a blessing for the whole industry: the new president favours rampant privatization and though on crime policies. And although he is notoriously ‘not racist‘, Trump is very keen on expanding the US immigrant detention infrastructure.

Throughout the book, people interviewed by the author conclude that even though private prisons have existed in US for almost 4 decades, there is still little evidence that they are cost saving and that they provide any substantial benefits for society. They also lack transparency and accountability. In the last chapter of the book, Eisen suggests 10 concrete requirements that would set the ground for a more robust state and federal government contracts with the private industry. But ultimately, she notes, the discussions around private prisons are a diversion from the real discussion about incarceration and punishment. I’ll end with a quote from her book:

The distinction between private and public prisons is not as important as the distinction between warehousing criminals and rehabilitating them.

Inside Private Prisons with Lauren-Brooke Eisen. A talk held at Revolution Books NYC, on 30 November 2017

Previous stories: 13th. Repackaging slavery, Prison Gourmet, YOUprison, Some thoughts on the limitation of space and freedom, Artissima: America’s Family Prison, etc.

Image on the homepage: Women at the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y., in 2012. Seth Wenig/Associated Press, via.

13th. Repackaging slavery

13TH | Official Trailer

A couple of days ago, film director Lucy Walker published a short list of documentaries to unleash the activist in you. I thought i’d make my way through the list. Starting with the one that looked the most interesting to me: 13th, a film by Ava DuVernay, that argues that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery except as “punishment for crime,” has not outlawed the practice of slavery. It has merely repackaged it into a ruthlessly efficient system of mass incarceration.

The film uses archival footage and interviews with historians, activists and other experts to expose how the subjugation of black people has evolved into a system designed to get black men into jails, grind them and them spit them out with little chance to re-build their life.

As the film reminds us, the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. In 2014, over 2 million people were incarcerated (a 500% increase over the last 40 years) and 40% of them are African-American men.

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Academic and civil rights activist Angela Davis interviewed in 13TH. Still from the film

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Still from the film 13th

I watched 13th yesterday. It’s on on netflix. It’s a shocking, harrowing movie. Yet you don’t doubt for a moment that it tells the truth. Not when you read that a (black) man spent 31 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, then was given a pitiful $75 as a compensation for decades unjustly spent behind bars. Not when so many police officers walk free after having murdered people. Most of them black men and women. Not when people are so afraid to be harassed and killed under spurious pretexts that they feel the need to remind society that they have the right to live too.

The moment that upset me the most? This one:

An extract from 13TH

Releasing the film on Netflix is a smart move. It gives the message more chances to reach people who might otherwise feel totally unconcerned by the issue.

Please, drop whatever you’re doing right now and watch this documentary!

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Still from the film 13th

The 13th
Interview with Van Jones, an author, activist and co-founder of several organizations including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights which focuses on police brutality and youth prisons

Related story: Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter and A People’s Art History of the United States. 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements.

Unthanksgiving and the occupation of Alcatraz by American Natives

One post about two important stories: a series of excellent webinars dedicated to art&activism and a few words about the origins of Unthanksgiving Day!

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John Trudell, a Sioux poet and activist, looks out across San Francisco Bay from a teepee on Alcatraz Island, 1969. Image: AP, via mashable

Following the disheartening results of the last U.S. election, Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe of the Center for Artistic Activism decided to run a series of free, online webinars to motivate people in the U.S. and elsewhere to keep on fighting for a better world. And in case you miss an episode, they also upload the videos on their website afterwards. The webinars are rather brilliant. And fun. I’d highly recommend you have a look.

The next webinar is this Wednesday 21st of December at 3:00 PM EST. and the theme will be Cognitive Science, an import topic to consider in these post-truth times. The previous episode of the series looked at creative movements of the past. That’s where i first heard about Native American activists occupying the island of Alcatraz. The prison had been closed in 1963, deemed surplus federal property, and the Red Power Native American liberation group took the island in November 1969. They stayed there for a year and a half, demanding that Alcatraz be developed as a Native cultural center.

The cause brought global attention to the Native American plight and in particular Native issues related to sovereignty, repatriation and civil rights.

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25 November, 1969. Image: Bettmann/Getty Images, via mashable

As a direct result of the occupation, new laws were passed to support Native American self-determination, recognition, health and education. Tribal lands across the country were returned and since 1975, an Unthanksgiving Day is held on Alcatraz Island to commemorate the protest event of 1969 and promote the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

The whole text of the Alcatraz Proclamation is a gem of dark irony. Here’s an extract:

We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars ($24) in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We know that $24 in trade goods for these 16 acres is more than was paid when Manhattan Island was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years. Our offer of $1.24 per acre is greater than the 47¢ per acre that the white men are now paying the California Indians for their land.

We will give to the inhabitants of this island a portion of that land for their own, to be held in trust by the American Indian Affairs [sic] and by the bureau of Caucasian Affairs to hold in perpetuity—for as long as the sun shall rise and the rivers go down to the sea. We will further guide the inhabitants in the proper way of living. We will offer them our religion, our education, our life-ways, in order to help them achieve our level of civilization and thus raise them and all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state.

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Activists occupy the main cell block, November 1969. Image: AP, via mashable

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20 November, 1969. Image: Bettmann/Getty Images, via mashable

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26 November, 1969. Image: AP, via mashable

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26 November, 1969. Image: Robert W. Klein/AP, via mashable

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A Coast Guard boat prevents supporters of the occupation from approaching the island, 23 November, 1969. Image: Bettmann/Getty Images, via mashable

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Adam Norwall, a Chippewa man, stands aboard the clipper Monte Cristo as it sails around Alcatraz, 9 November 1969. Image: AP., via mashable

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Native Americans arrive on Alcatraz to join the occupation, 2 Dec. 1969. Image: Robert Klein/AP, via mashable

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Richard Oakes, left, greets U.S. Attorney Cecil Poole as he arrives for negotiations with the occupiers, 1 Dec. 1969. Image: Robert Klein/AP, via mashable

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Occupation leaders Richard Oakes, Earl Livermore and Al Miller hold a press conference after a strategy meeting, 24 Dec. 1969. Image: Bettmann/Getty Iamges, via mashable

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Native Americans, including a veteran of the Alcatraz occupation, demonstrate outside the federal courthouse in Seattle to demand that Fort Lawton be turned over and made into a cultural and educational center, 1970. Image: Barry Sweet/AP, via mashable

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John Trudell watches a fire consume the lighthouse and other buildings, 2 June 1971. Image: Bettmann/Getty Images, via mashable

In 2011, “We Are Still Here,” a multi-media exhibit documenting the occupation, opened on Alcatraz Island.