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Aperture Magazine’s Prison Nation
Lucas Foglia, Vanessa and Lauren watering, GreenHouse Program, Rikers Island jail complex, New York, 2014© the artist and courtesy Fredericks & Freiser Gallery, New York

How photography shines a light on America’s dark prison system

Aperture Magazine’s latest issue, titled ‘Prison Nation’, examines present-day slavery in the States and raises a dialogue on how to break the cycle

Slavery in the United States was never abolished – it simply changed shape, allowing the government, corporations, and individuals to continue to profit off the oppression and exploitation of men, women, and children since the 13th Amendment of the constitution was ratified in 1865.

The 13th Amendment, which legalises slavery in the case of incarceration, has spawned a massive prison industrial complex. Although the US is a mere 5 per cent of the world’s population, it accounts for 25 per cent of the prisoners in the world – with 2.2 million people behind bars today. Invariably, race plays a major factor in who is imprisoned, with the police, courts, and legal system working against American citizens of African and Latinx communities for the past 150 years.

It is important to note that the first prisons came into being after the south lost the Civil War and their economy collapsed. Former slaves were arrested en masse on misdemeanour charges like loitering and vagrancy, forced to perform hard labour to rebuild the south during the Reconstruction era. For the next century, Hollywood entertainment and the mainstream media did their part to villainise and vilify black and Latinx citizens, disproportionately representing them as criminals.

Following the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the federal and state government waged brutal campaigns to destroy their neighbourhoods, beginning with President Nixon’s “War on Drugs”, which flooded inner cities with heroin while systemically denying them basic services under the policy of “benign neglect”. The stakes were raised with every succeeding administration, with new laws passed to force more people into jail for sentences that did not fit the crime – as well as the ongoing practice of imprisoning the innocent.

While in prison, citizens are stripped of their rights, forced to work for little or no pay, while the government provides tax credits to corporations that employ prisoners, in excess of millions of dollars a year. Corporations reported to use prison labour, both past and present, include Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, AT&T, Whole Foods suppliers, and the US military, among many others.

While millions of families have been torn apart and destroyed, for millions of other Americans, the prison industrial complex can be summed up as: “Out of sight, out of mind”.

But photography has the power to change the way we see the world, enabling us to look directly at what is happening here and now. With its Spring issue, titled Prison Nation, Aperture Magazine takes on the issues at hand, examining the historical and contemporary implications of present-day slavery in the United States.

Co-edited by Aperture Magazine’s editor, Michael Famighetti and scholar Nicole R. Fleetwood, Prison Nation features work by Jamel Shabazz, Joseph Rodriguez, Lucas Foglia, Hank Willis Thomas, Pete Brook, Jack Lueders-Booth, and Bruce Jackson, and examines all sides of the crisis, looking at how photography can be used to create a visual record of the issues at hand. Prison Nation empowers readers to educate themselves so that they can begin to understand that the “land of the free and the home of the brave” is anything but.

Here, Fleetwood shares her insights into how we can work together to take on the abuses of the state, by changing the way we look at the system and those who are forced to live inside the belly of the beast.

“Prisoners, detainees, and others held in punitive captivity are already humans; they do not need to be humanised. The question for me is how do we rehabilitate and re-imagine our society and governance that are not based in brutal systems of isolation, captivity, and torture” – Nicole R. Fleetwood

What does it take to create constitutional reform? Is this something that you think can be achieved, and if so, what role can photography play in this program?

Nicole R. Fleetwood: I’m glad that you started with this question. I am not a constitutional scholar and will leave the question of legislative reform to legal experts in the field. Of utmost importance in my research, curating, and activism is the work of black feminist abolitionists, most notably Angela Davis, who is influenced by the writing of W.E.B. DuBois, which shows how the failure of Reconstruction left black people subjugated, exploited, and held captive.

Contemporary prison abolition scholars have done incredible research and advocacy to show how the US prison system of punishment, captivity, and violence rooted in slavery. Davis writes, “In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete.”

Could you speak about the underlying themes of Prison Nation and the issues you want to address?

Nicole R. Fleetwood: I think this is the heart of the project. Incarcerated people have already been represented by the state as bad and undeserving subjects for all kinds of reasons. I am in no way suggesting that crime doesn’t happen or that we don’t need some form of public safety.

What I am hoping to make clear is that because of the punitive culture of American society, we can continue to expand the category of the criminal. It is a racialised and class-based category that has deep roots in slavery and Jim Crow segregation and continues to morph to include other groups of people from the poor (debtors’ prisons) to non-citizens to religious groups to those with mental health needs and drug dependence.

Who are we looking at when we see prisoners? What do prisoners hope to see when they are confined? How can we enact radical forms of recognition within, through, or beyond the current prison system?

How can photography be used as a vehicle to change the conversation around the representation of convicts – and what are some of the challenges photographers face being able to tell these stories?

Nicole R. Fleetwood: Prisoners, detainees, and others held in punitive captivity are already humans; they do not need to be humanised. The question for me is how do we rehabilitate and re-imagine our society and governance that are not based in brutal systems of isolation, captivity, and torture.

In many programs like the Rikers Island garden (documented by Lucas Foglia), you will hear those who are working as employees or contractors of the state talking about how such work has transformed and changed them. It begs the question of what is the work of rehabilitation in such a massive system where now many thousands of people’s lives depend on the confinement of others.

Photographers who get access to these sites and stories are fortunate. They have been entrusted or allowed to access some of the most highly regulated and surveilled sites on the planet. We should also understand that the photographer and the camera can never fully capture the experience of the many millions who are or who have been held in punitive captivity.

On the other side of this coin is the harrowing reality for good police on the job, such as Jamel Shabazz and Lorenzo Steele Jr., who are featured in the magazine. What are some of the challenges for people working inside the system?

Nicole R. Fleetwood: In his conversation with Lorenzo Steele and Zarinah Shabazz, Jamel said something that speaks to the experience of many black Americans, especially those who are descendants of US slavery or have been in the country for decades. He came back from serving in the military and applied for jobs with the post office, the police department, and the department of corrections. Among the most viable routes of finding stable employment and perhaps entering the middle class for black Americans is through employment by the state – either via the military, civil service, or law enforcement and institutions of penalty and confinement.

I am deeply struck by the moral, ethical, and aesthetic choices that both Lorenzo and Jamel made as agents of the state and as members of black communities who were being ravaged by the war on drugs and mass incarceration. As their conversation reveals, they are still working through these dilemmas and commitments to communities and individuals.

It is important to see their roles within a larger system that limits life possibilities for black and brown people. As Lorenzo Steele stated, the people they were jailing were the people they grew up with. Moreover, many correction officers and police officers, especially in urban jails and prisons, have relatives and loved ones who are also incarcerated.

“The system is overwhelming and that is part of its power: to make people feel completely and totally isolated, depressed, and helpless. Recognising that is part of it” – Nicole R. Fleetwood

The scale and scope of the prison industrial complex is so vast it seems nearly impossible to figure out how we as individuals can empower ourselves. Could you offer suggestions for ways that people can contribute to the cause?

Nicole R. Fleetwood: Yes, the system is overwhelming and that is part of its power: to make people feel completely and totally isolated, depressed, and helpless. Recognising that is part of it. Bryan Stevenson argues that “proximity” is part of how we chip away at the system; instead of all the micro and macro practices, we enact of distancing that we get closer to the system, the experience, the suffering of others.

I also think that we must be vigilant about how and when we engage the police, how we handle public distress and uncertainty, who and how we engage our neighbours, and to truly educate ourselves about what it means to be on a jury and the bias of jurors.

I recently had a harrowing conversation with an acquaintance who had voted to convict a man for an unsolved (20-year-old) double murder based on two eyewitness testimonies of men who were cooperating witnesses for the prosecutor as the only evidence! She dismissed the witnesses of the defendant as being uneducated and inarticulate! She considers herself a progressive feminist!

Wow, we are so far from justice but the only way that we can transform, what I believe is an unbelievably brutal, immoral, bankrupt system of terror, is through direct engagement and fearless activism. There are many local efforts at bail reform, restorative justice circles, and probation reform. This is work that has to take place locally as issue-specific causes and collectively as regional, national, and international demands. I think it’s always good for people to ask how to get involved locally. The US is not the only place where carcerality is a way of life.

Prison Nation by Aperture Magazine is available now