Sunshine Recorder

Link: Sex in Men's Prisons

Human Rights Watch estimated in 2010 that 140,000 US inmates have been raped. Shaun Attwood has written three books on life inside and his latest, Prison Time, details the sex – consensual or otherwise – the prostitution, the pimping and the equal, loving relationships behind bars.

The crook of another man’s elbow is on my Adam’s apple, pressing down, choking me. After just a couple of seconds, I panic and gasp.

Shaun Attwood, who spent more than five years in some of America’s toughest prisons, including Arizona’s infamous Maricopa Jail, is showing me how men in prison are raped.

"Generally they put the victim to sleep with a choke hold – locking the windpipe like this," he says, rendering me unable to reply. "Within about 10 seconds you’re unconscious."

Attacks don’t always begin like this. Sometimes, “they’ll lure them with drugs and get them really high – 90 per cent of prisoners shoot-up drugs”. Sometimes they’ll trick the victim into a debt and then make them repay it with sex. Other times it can start with a beating or stabbing.

Human Rights Watch estimated in 2010 – three years after Attwood left jail – that 140,000 US inmates have been raped. Other studies have helped fill in the quantitative picture: 21 per cent of prisoners in the Midwest reported being forced into some form of sexual activity, according to Prison Journal. Young inmates are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, says Just Detention International, an organisation devoted to ending prison rape. Similar statistics aren’t available in the UK but in the year 2011 – there were 103 male and female prisoner-on-prisoner sexual assaults.

The statistics, then, we know. The jokes, of course, we know, too: “Don’t drop the soap!” is repeated so often by so many as to become Britain and America’s prison-rape refrain – a chorus of discomfort to muzzle the horror.

But the 3D picture of prison rape in America, the how and why and what happens next, is scarcely uttered because those who survive the system almost invariably have no voice. Attwood, however, a tall, skinny, somewhat geeky 43-year-old from Widnes, doesn’t just have a voice, but has written three books on life inside. And his latest, Prison Time, details the sex – consensual or otherwise – the prostitution, the pimping and the equal, loving relationships behind bars.

The details of which cast fresh light not only on the culture, politics and dynamics in America’s penitentiary system, but on the nature of male sexuality itself. Heterosexual? Bi? Gay? Labels erode, irrelevant, in the absence of women and societal constraints.

We begin by discussing rape because it is everywhere in prison and everywhere in his book, an ever-present threat.

"I was constantly mentally preparing to fight to the death to stop it happening to me," he says. "I would leave pens out [in my cell] – I was getting ready to, you know…" his voice trails off. Pens can be a deadly weapon. They can also blind. (A transgender inmate called She-Ra, whom Attwood became friends with, was so broken by gang rapes she finally stopped them by popping an eyeball out of one of her attackers.)

"I had a profound determination to stop it happening because once that’s happened to you, everyone finds out and the whole prison society will treat you differently. From then on you’re game for anyone to do anything to do you. Not only sexually, but in any way you will be taken advantage of."

It’s not only young men who are more likely to be raped, but obviously gay ones, too. What are the chances, then, that a young-ish gay man such as myself would be raped? Attwood looks down.

"It is inevitable," he says quietly. "And no one on the outside is interested. Until someone’s son is calling them from prison saying, ‘I’ve got a cellmate with a padlock in a sock who is threatening to rape me,’ they couldn’t care less."

In 2003 – a year after Attwood’s incarceration for dealing ecstasy on the Arizona rave scene – a federal law was passed, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, decreeing statistics must be compiled nationally and grants given to prisons to help reduce rape. This manifested in what Attwood calls “rape classes”.

"It involved us being taught about rape and being told we have to report rape," he says with a snort of derision. "Everyone laughed throughout and said to the teacher, ‘We are not going to report rape!’. If you report anything in prison you’re deemed a snitch and it’s KOS – kill on sight – for snitches. At the end of the class everyone was saying, ‘They might as well give us rape kits’ – a how-to."

Not that they needed it. Immediately after the class, “a mentally-ill prisoner was gang-raped. No one reported a thing”.

Is there anything, then, that could be done to stop it?

"When you’ve got two guards watching hundreds of prisoners – to keep costs down – prisoners can do whatever they want. The US prison system cultivates rape. If you treat people like animals, they behave like it."

Unsurprisingly, in such an epidemic, sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates are sky-high. Attwood says in one prison, he counted up the cons with hepatitis C: it came to two-thirds. Many had HIV. The only ones receiving treatment were those who had taken legal action. And thus, some prisoners had full-blown Aids.

Without realising, Attwood himself illustrates how normalised inmates become to rape and sexual assault, to the extent they don’t even recognise it.

In Prison Time, he describes walking in on a young man being forced to fellate another prisoner, an act considered rape in several states and many countries. But when I ask if Attwood ever witnessed a rape, he says no. And when I ask if he felt he had been assaulted when another lag grabbed him, French-kissed him and groped him with hands moist with lubricant Attwood replies: “No, not at all. If I did that to a woman in a bar, that’s sexual assault, but in prison the limits are completely different from society.”

The man who grabbed him he had nicknamed Jeeves. This is because Jeeves was his “butler”. Jeeves was sexually obsessed with Attwood and so offered to work for him cleaning his cell and looking after all domestic concerns – a dynamic from which he derived sexual kicks. There was no payment, just the thrill of it. He would make advances to Attwood fairly regularly, but was always rebutted. To the English inmate, Jeeves was comparatively harmless – before being moved to this cell, Attwood would have to walk past another every day in which resided a prisoner called Booga. He documents their first meeting:

"I’m pulled into a cell reeking of backside sweat and masturbation, a cheese-tinted funk. ‘I’m Booga. Let’s fuck,’ says a squat man in urine-stained boxers, with WHITE TRASH tattooed on his torso…I can’t believe my eyes when he drops his boxers and waggles his penis… He grabs me. We scuffle… When I feel his penis rub against my leg, my adrenalin kicks in so forcefully I experience a burst of strength and wriggle free."

For Attwood, escaping rape, as well as “murder, or even having bones broken or teeth knocked out”, for nearly six years was “freakishly” lucky, and thanks in part to his “English wit” and “people skills” as well his friendships with some of the gang leaders. Other prisoners avoid rape – or at least consider themselves to be avoiding it – by becoming a “punk”.

This relates to the word’s original meaning – the receptive male partner in anal sex – but in prison becomes a job, an identity. You are a receptacle, owned by another.

"They tend to be the younger, prettier inmates – or the transsexual ones," explains Attwood. "If you’re a big, bad gang member, which gives you the right to have a punk to use for sex, as long as you’re the ‘giver’, it’s not considered remotely gay."

The particulars of this relationship can vary. The higher up the prison strata (which generally means the more violent) the gangster, the better looking his punk.

"But he’s got to fight to maintain that punk. It’s a warrior society."

The punk becomes their property. And as such, can either be kept for their sole use or pimped.

"People use them like a commodity and rent them out," he explains. But it’s only others with high status who hire them.

"Some will allow their punks to be unfaithful with other punks only, which is called ‘bumping pussies’. It’s all tied up in notions of property ownership, with sexual jealousy a secondary factor."

The rules of ownership are also governed by race. With most prisoners grouping socially on racial lines, so, too, must their punks.

"A punter – say a Mexican American – might rent a white punk from a white pimp, but a Mexican American wouldn’t be running a white punk."

As Attwood utters these words in his rather resonant Cheshire tones – an excitable Gary Barlow if you will – he attracts several glances. We are in a vegetarian restaurant called The Beano, in Guildford, where he now lives. Tables of slate-haired women are seemingly unused to hearing about sexual slavery as they chow down on mushroom lasagne.

They look round again when he describes a prisoner regularly selling his semen to another who used it in ways perhaps unsuitable to describe in a newspaper. And again when he enthuses about the aforementioned She-Ra melting down bits of plastic to make dildos. Needs must.

Attwood is as out of place here as he was in Arizona’s prisons. But the “shy” raver who went to America’s Wild West aged 21 to become a stockbroker, before giving it up to supply the state’s party scene with ecstasy, could scarcely care less. He is alive and five thousand miles from the world that stripped his identity like white spirit. Even his sexual identity, even after just a few years, started to wane, tracing a fairly typical trajectory for inmates.

"Early on, the other prisoners told me, ‘After so many years you’ll start to turn’, and I was like, ‘No, no, no, I’ve got a girlfriend’. But, gradually, all my belief systems and conditioning started falling away. Being in prison made me question my own sexuality."

Three magnets started tugging at his old heterosexuality. First, prison mores.

"Any number of activities deemed ‘gay’ on the outside aren’t inside," he says. "Being the ‘top’ in anal sex? Receiving oral sex from a [pre-operative] transsexual? Considered perfectly straight."

Then there were the transgender women themselves – found in male prisons because the American system doesn’t recognise chosen gender. One in particular, called Gina, he describes lusting after, fantasising about, and coming “this close” to having sexual contact with, prevented only by her pimp.

And finally, there is the vast, gripping loneliness.

"The deprivation of physical contact in any form plays a huge role," he says, frowning and looking more forlorn than ever. "You miss the warmth, that bond, the intimacy, the touch." He enunciates the words as if salivating over an exquisite dessert. "Going without sex kills you – it’s one of the hardest parts." At this he shrieks with laughter, a paroxysm of stress and relief. Now, he has a girlfriend.

But he wasn’t just unusually lucky to avoid rape or extreme violence; he was almost anomalous in never engaging sexually with another prisoner.

"The majority are at least receiving oral sex from a transsexual." One of whom, he says, cut her own testicles off in her cell, to quell testosterone.

But perhaps more striking and surprising than all of the above is the tender, loving relationships he documents. Mostly, couples keep their relationship private, as having anything valuable on display leaves one open to sabotage. But not all.

"There was one couple – an older and younger guy – and the young guy had broken up with him, so he was crying his eyes out, running across the recreation field, shouting, ‘You broke my heart!’ in front of all the men. It was quite a sight."

And when forced apart, for example when one prisoner is moved to a lower security unit, they would then often deliberately get into trouble to be moved back with their partner.

"Lots of these guys had wives or girlfriends on the outside who knew nothing about these relationships, and they’d return to them, on release."

Although unsure about the previous sexual identity of some of these men, Attwood is certain of one thing: the longer the sentence, the higher the chance of crossing the line.

"Presently, I couldn’t imagine ending up with a man, but I know you change over time – after a 10- or 15-year stretch I would in all likelihood be thinking differently. Your old life gets crushed out of you."

He also received some aching love letters from ostensibly straight prisoners. One of which was from a Mexican mafia hit man called Frankie who imagined being engaged to Attwood and explaining how he wants someone he can “make love to”.

"I spoke to Frankie on the phone last year, he’s back with his wife. I asked him how he reconciled all this and he said, ‘My mind works in all kinds of ways’." He shrieks with laughter again.

After everything the writer witnessed, it is perhaps no surprise that seven years on, Attwood remains psychologically scarred.

"I still have nightmares," he says. "I used to get flashbacks." This might also explain the place where he chose to make a new life.

"I don’t want any more mad excitement. I’ve had enough of it, so Guildford’s perfect for me. Just to be able to walk along the river, sit on a bench and stare at the water. It’s the height of ecstasy".

Link: Gitmo is Killing Me

Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay since 2002, told this story, through an Arabic interpreter, to his lawyers at the legal charity Reprieve in an unclassified telephone call.

ONE man here weighs just 77 pounds. Another, 98. Last thing I knew, I weighed 132, but that was a month ago.

I’ve been on a hunger strike since Feb. 10 and have lost well over 30 pounds. I will not eat until they restore my dignity.

I’ve been detained at Guantánamo for 11 years and three months. I have never been charged with any crime. I have never received a trial.

I could have been home years ago — no one seriously thinks I am a threat — but still I am here. Years ago the military said I was a “guard” for Osama bin Laden, but this was nonsense, like something out of the American movies I used to watch. They don’t even seem to believe it anymore. But they don’t seem to care how long I sit here, either.

When I was at home in Yemen, in 2000, a childhood friend told me that in Afghanistan I could do better than the $50 a month I earned in a factory, and support my family. I’d never really traveled, and knew nothing about Afghanistan, but I gave it a try.

I was wrong to trust him. There was no work. I wanted to leave, but had no money to fly home. After the American invasion in 2001, I fled to Pakistan like everyone else. The Pakistanis arrested me when I asked to see someone from the Yemeni Embassy. I was then sent to Kandahar, and put on the first plane to Gitmo.

Last month, on March 15, I was sick in the prison hospital and refused to be fed. A team from the E.R.F. (Extreme Reaction Force), a squad of eight military police officers in riot gear, burst in. They tied my hands and feet to the bed. They forcibly inserted an IV into my hand. I spent 26 hours in this state, tied to the bed. During this time I was not permitted to go to the toilet. They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary. I was not even permitted to pray.

I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.

I am still being force-fed. Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I’m sleeping.

There are so many of us on hunger strike now that there aren’t enough qualified medical staff members to carry out the force-feedings; nothing is happening at regular intervals. They are feeding people around the clock just to keep up.

During one force-feeding the nurse pushed the tube about 18 inches into my stomach, hurting me more than usual, because she was doing things so hastily. I called the interpreter to ask the doctor if the procedure was being done correctly or not.

It was so painful that I begged them to stop feeding me. The nurse refused to stop feeding me. As they were finishing, some of the “food” spilled on my clothes. I asked them to change my clothes, but the guard refused to allow me to hold on to this last shred of my dignity.

When they come to force me into the chair, if I refuse to be tied up, they call the E.R.F. team. So I have a choice. Either I can exercise my right to protest my detention, and be beaten up, or I can submit to painful force-feeding.

The only reason I am still here is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees back to Yemen. This makes no sense. I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one.

I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen’s president do something, that is what I risk every day.

Where is my government? I will submit to any “security measures” they want in order to go home, even though they are totally unnecessary.

I will agree to whatever it takes in order to be free. I am now 35. All I want is to see my family again and to start a family of my own.

The situation is desperate now. All of the detainees here are suffering deeply. At least 40 people here are on a hunger strike. People are fainting with exhaustion every day. I have vomited blood.

And there is no end in sight to our imprisonment. Denying ourselves food and risking death every day is the choice we have made.

I just hope that because of the pain we are suffering, the eyes of the world will once again look to Guantánamo before it is too late.

Link: "Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America's Prisons."

It’s been seven month since I’ve been inside a prison cell. Now I’m back, sort of. The experience is eerily like my dreams, where I am a prisoner in another man’s cell. Like the cell I go back to in my sleep, this one is built for solitary confinement. I’m taking intermittent, heaving breaths, like I can’t get enough air. This still happens to me from time to time, especially in tight spaces. At a little over 11 by 7 feet, this cell is smaller than any I’ve ever inhabited. You can’t pace in it.

Like in my dreams, I case the space for the means of staying sane. Is there a TV to watch, a book to read, a round object to toss? The pathetic artifacts of this inmate’s life remind me of objects that were once everything to me: a stack of books, a handmade chessboard, a few scattered pieces of artwork taped to the concrete, a family photo, large manila envelopes full of letters. I know that these things are his world.

"So when you’re in Iran and in solitary confinement," asks my guide, Lieutenant Chris Acosta, "was it different?" His tone makes clear that he believes an Iranian prison to be a bad place.

He’s right about that. After being apprehended on the Iran-Iraq border, Sarah ShourdJosh Fattal, and I were held in Evin Prison's isolation ward for political prisoners. Sarah remained there for 13 months, Josh and I for 26 months. We were held incommunicado. We never knew when, or if, we would get out. We didn’t go to trial for two years. When we did we had no way to speak to a lawyer and no means of contesting the charges against us, which included espionage. The alleged evidence the court held was “confidential.”

What I want to tell Acosta is that no part of my experience—not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners—was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement. What would he say if I told him I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated? Would he believe that I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody?

I want to answer his question—of course my experience was different from those of the men at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison—but I’m not sure how to do it. How do you compare, when the difference between one person’s stability and another’s insanity is found in tiny details? Do I point out that I had a mattress, and they have thin pieces of foam; that the concrete open-air cell I exercised in was twice the size of the “dog run” at Pelican Bay, which is about 16 by 25 feet; that I got 15 minutes of phone calls in 26 months, and they get none; that I couldn’t write letters, but they can; that we could only talk to nearby prisoners in secret, but they can shout to each other without being punished; that unlike where I was imprisoned, whoever lives here has to shit at the front of his cell, in view of the guards?

"There was a window," I say. I don’t quite know how to tell him what I mean by that answer. "Just having that light come in, seeing the light move across the cell, seeing what time of day it was—" Without those windows, I wouldn’t have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes, or the drops of rain that I let wash over my face some nights. My world would have been utterly restricted to my concrete box, to watching the miniature ocean waves I made by sloshing water back and forth in a bottle; to marveling at ants; to calculating the mean, median, and mode of the tick marks on the wall; to talking to myself without realizing it. For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through those barred and grated windows. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.

Here, there are no windows.

Acosta, Pelican Bay’s public information officer, is giving me a tour of the Security Housing Unit. Inmates deemed a threat to the security of any of California’s 33 prisons are shipped to one of the state’s five SHUs (pronounced “shoes”), which hold nearly 4,000 people in long-term isolation. In the Pelican Bay SHU, 94 percent of prisoners are celled alone; overcrowding has forced the prison to double up the rest. Statewide, about 32 percent of SHU cells—hardly large enough for one person—are crammed with two inmates.

The cell I am standing in is one of eight in a “pod,” a large concrete room with cells along one side and only one exit, which leads to the guards’ control room. A guard watches over us, rifle in hand, through a set of bars in the wall. He can easily shoot into any one of six pods around him. He communicates with prisoners through speakers and opens their steel grated cell doors via remote. That is how they are let out to the dog run, where they exercise for an hour a day, alone. They don’t leave the cell to eat. If they ever leave the pod, they have to strip naked, pass their hands through a food slot to be handcuffed, then wait for the door to open and be bellycuffed.

I’ve been corresponding with at least 20 inmates in SHUs around California as part of an investigation into why and how people end up here. While at Pelican Bay, I’m not allowed to see or speak to any of them. Since 1996, California law has given prison authorities full control of which inmates journalists can interview. The only one I’m permitted to speak to isthe same person the New York Times was allowed to interview months before. He is getting out of the SHU because he informed on other prisoners. In fact, this SHU pod—the only one I am allowed to see—is populated entirely by prison informants. I ask repeatedly why I’m not allowed to visit another pod or speak to other SHU inmates. Eventually, Acosta snaps: “You’re just not.”


Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon
The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.
The design consists of a circular structure with an “inspection house” at its centre, from which the managers or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates, who are stationed around the perimeter. Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, daycares, and asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a Panopticon prison, and it is his prison which is most widely understood by the term.
Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Elsewhere, he described the Panopticon prison as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”.
No true Panopticon prisons to Bentham’s designs have ever been built. The closest are the buildings of the now abandoned Presidio Modelo in Cuba (constructed 1926–28). Although most prison designs have included elements of surveillance, the essential elements of Bentham’s design were not only that the custodians should be able to view the prisoners at all times (including times when they were in their cells), but also that the prisoners should be unable to see the custodians, and so could never be sure whether they were under surveillance or not.
This objective was extremely difficult to achieve within the constraints of the available technology, which is why Bentham spent so many years reworking his plans. Subsequent 19th-century prison designs enabled the custodians to keep the doors of cells and the outsides of buildings under observation, but not to see the prisoners in their cells. Something close to a realization of Bentham’s vision only became possible through 20th-century technological developments – notably closed-circuit television (CCTV) – but these eliminated the need for a specific architectural framework.
Although the Panopticon prison design did not come to fruition during Bentham’s time, it has been seen as an important development. It was invoked by Michel Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) as metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. For Foucault, Bentham’s Panopticon is a symbol for the modern disciplinary society. “On the whole, therefore, one can speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social ‘quarantine’, to an indefinitely generalizable mechanism of ‘panopticism’.” The Panopticon is an ideal architectural figure of modern disciplinary power. The Panopticon creates a consciousness of permanent visibility as a form of power, where no bars, chains, and heavy locks are necessary for domination any more. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals and factories have evolved through history to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon. The notoriety of the design today (although not its lasting influence in architectural realities) stems from Foucault’s famous analysis of it.

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.

The design consists of a circular structure with an “inspection house” at its centre, from which the managers or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates, who are stationed around the perimeter. Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, daycares, and asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a Panopticon prison, and it is his prison which is most widely understood by the term.

Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Elsewhere, he described the Panopticon prison as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”.

No true Panopticon prisons to Bentham’s designs have ever been built. The closest are the buildings of the now abandoned Presidio Modelo in Cuba (constructed 1926–28). Although most prison designs have included elements of surveillance, the essential elements of Bentham’s design were not only that the custodians should be able to view the prisoners at all times (including times when they were in their cells), but also that the prisoners should be unable to see the custodians, and so could never be sure whether they were under surveillance or not.

This objective was extremely difficult to achieve within the constraints of the available technology, which is why Bentham spent so many years reworking his plans. Subsequent 19th-century prison designs enabled the custodians to keep the doors of cells and the outsides of buildings under observation, but not to see the prisoners in their cells. Something close to a realization of Bentham’s vision only became possible through 20th-century technological developments – notably closed-circuit television (CCTV) – but these eliminated the need for a specific architectural framework.

Although the Panopticon prison design did not come to fruition during Bentham’s time, it has been seen as an important development. It was invoked by Michel Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) as metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. For Foucault, Bentham’s Panopticon is a symbol for the modern disciplinary society. “On the whole, therefore, one can speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social ‘quarantine’, to an indefinitely generalizable mechanism of ‘panopticism’.” The Panopticon is an ideal architectural figure of modern disciplinary power. The Panopticon creates a consciousness of permanent visibility as a form of power, where no bars, chains, and heavy locks are necessary for domination any more. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals and factories have evolved through history to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon. The notoriety of the design today (although not its lasting influence in architectural realities) stems from Foucault’s famous analysis of it.

Link: Reading Plato on Death Row

Every Wednesday, I go to Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville to facilitate a discussion group with prisoners on death row and philosophy graduate students. It’s a nice prison, as far as prisons go: clean, suburban-feeling, with a soapy smell that lingers on my hands and clothes after I leave.  The reception area is filled with motivational posters of determined mountain climbers and goal-oriented rowing teams.  Beyond the checkpoint, an ordinary sidewalk leads to death row.  The path is lined with beige wooden fences and topiary shaped like giant bathtub stoppers.  We pass through a series of grey doors and empty hallways until we reach the smiling faces of ten men who have been condemned to death by the state of Tennessee.

Last semester, we read Plato’s dialogues on the death of Socrates.  The Apology was a great success.  “I want my lawyer to read this!” said one prisoner.  “Socrates is a badass,” another said approvingly.  The Crito was another story.  Socrates went from bring a principled badass to a spineless bastard, not just for refusing Crito’s offer of escape and exile, but mainly for his defense of fidelity to the law and the state, even when it has clearly committed a grave injustice.

We talked about whether Socrates was a political prisoner, which raised the further question: What is a political prisoner?  Is it someone who is punished by the state for their beliefs or political actions?  What about the person who is disproportionately punished for a crime in order to serve the interests of a few politicians seeking re-election?  And where does this leave the prisoner who commited a crime, perhaps a horrible crime, but has managed to transform themselves within prison thanks to formal and informal educational opportunities that they never had on the outside?  At what point does a prisoner become political, and what sort of resistance is possible for those who aspire to be principled rather than spineless?

There’s a saying in prison: “Do your time – don’t let your time do you.”  Prisoners are encouraged by wardens and pastors, parole boards and philosophy professors to learn new things, to reflect on their experience, to make something of themselves in prison.  “I didn’t read at all before,” said a supermax prisoner interviewed by anthropologist Lorna Rhodes.  “I have an eighth grade education.  But in there I learned to discipline myself.  I want to read.  I want to be an individual” (82).  This prisoner’s desire for self-discipline would have been music to the ears of Jeremy Bentham, who designed the panoptical structure that shapes modern penitentiaries and, in Foucault’s analysis, also shapes modern subjectivity.  The panopticon individualizes subjects by isolating them from one another and exposing them to the surveillance of a constantly present, but unseen and unverifiable onlooker.  To “want to be an individual” is to empower oneself through submission to the norms that define legitimate personhood.  It is to cultivate the habits of PERSERVERENCE, AMBITION, and COMMITMENT to the point where one no longer needs to be locked in a prison cell.  A series of motivational posters will do.

What are the possibilities for resistance in a panoptic society where we derive power and even pleasure from self-discipline?  In his later work, Foucault considers the possibility of shaping one’s existence through aesthetic practice.  In a 1982 interview, he says:

"You see, that’s why I really work like a dog, and I worked like a dog all my life. I am not interested in the academic status of what I am doing because my problem is my own transformation … This transformation of one’s self by one’s own knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience. Why should a painter work if he is not transformed by his own painting?" (131)

Everyone in prison is an artist, it seems.  They paint, they draw, they write poetry, they tattoo themselves and others.  When they don’t have access to standard art supplies, they become even more creative, using toilet paper or white bread to create papier-mache sculptures, or scraping the pigment from M&Ms or Skittles to use as paint.  Richard Odom, a participant in our discussion group, makes doll furniture out of discarded toilet paper rolls.  He says, “Society has flushed us down the toilet, but we can still make something beautiful with the leftovers.”

Link: Just Deserts: An Interview with Danielle S. Allen

What are the differences in the ways different societies conceptualize punishment? What are the differences in the ways they enact it? And what can be learned by looking at other systems of punishment about the contingency and potential for transformation of our own system? Ancient Athens has often served as a model for certain of the modern world’s deepest aspirations in democratic government and philosophical rationality. At least since Nietzsche, it has also sometimes been approached as an extremely foreign land, whose values and practices, in their strangeness, can at the same time show just how strange our own are. How, now, does Athens look when we turn our attention to its conceptualization and enactment of punishment?

Danielle S. Allen is a political theorist who has addressed these questions in her work on both ancient Athens and modern America. Author of The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (Princeton University Press, 2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (University of Chicago Press, 2004), and Why Plato Wrote (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), Allen is UPS Foundation Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Justin E. H. Smith spoke to Allen by phone about the relationship between justice, punishment, and citizenship.

Your book The World of Prometheus offers a perfect way of giving historical depth to this issue on punishment, but it may also be interesting to reflect on how punishment in ancient Athens is relevant to our understanding of punishment in the contemporary world and, in particular, in the US. I’ve read both Prometheus andTalking to Strangers, your more recent book on Brown v. Board of Education, and one thing that struck me is how many of the same themes run through both books. You observe in Prometheus that the value of approaching punishment through the Greeks is that we’re able to “sharpen our thinking about punishment on the stone of the unfamiliar ancient world.” Does this remain for you the ultimate reason for studying ancient conceptions of punishment: that it gives us a point of access for understanding the problem of punishment itself by looking at an unfamiliar conception of it?

I can tell you the origin story of the book, which is simply that, as an undergraduate, I took a class on Athenian politics in which we read a lot of the speeches that were given in Athenian law courts. I was really taken aback by the fact that there was very little mention of imprisonment in those speeches, and I suddenly realized that I couldn’t imagine a world where prisons weren’t a major part of how we think about punishment. That captivated me, and I wanted to understand a world where imprisonment was not the dominant mode of understanding punishment. In that regard, the origin of the book was absolutely the shock of discovering, by looking at the ancient world, that our world is contingent, and that one particular contingency is the degree to which we use incarceration. It bears some thinking as to how we got there and what a world without extensive incarceration looks like.

Well, that might be right about our contemporary context; the ancient story is somewhat different. Generally—there are minor exceptions to this—Athenian methods of punishment strove to protect the body of the citizen, and this established a distinction between citizen and slave, between citizen and foreigner, resident alien, and so forth. The citizen stood out as having that bodily protection. In the early phase of the democracy, the main modes of punishing were monetary fines and exile. What happened, though, was that poorer citizens would find themselves imprisoned indefinitely: there were monetary penalties, and you would be thrown into prison until you’d paid them. So imprisonment wasn’t itself a penalty, except that poorer citizens began to have these indefinite periods in prison because they couldn’t actually pay the fine. Imprisonment as a penalty seems to have been developed in order to equalize the penal system, so that poorer citizens could pay with their bodies. In that regard, it was a different approach to the body than the physical punishment used for slaves and foreigners. It wasn’t really so much a matter of chastising or wounding the body, but rather of accepting the idea that the body could stand in for property. That’s what happened at that historical moment: the body became a form of property, and the person could use that property to pay their debts. Only the citizen had such rights and control over his own body.

Of course, a later development would be further equalization by stating that the rich can in fact no longer pay their way out with money.

Right, and that did not happen in Athens. There do seem to be some wrongs for which imprisonment became the basic penalty, and in that regard there was a bit of an additional equalizing, but for the most part there was still a differential situation where the rich could pay penalties and get out of things.

The central concern of the book is to discuss punishment as “a practice of constructing authority,” as you put it, and you are also concerned with what you call “the construction of desert.” This involves, as you describe, a good deal of contestation. It’s not that the authority of the state to punish in this or that way is just something the state announces, but it’s rather something that is always being contested. In part, the perpetual contestation in ancient Athens had to do with the absence in their judicial system of the role of public prosecutor. Everyone acts as their own prosecutor, and that’s always a form of contestation: everyone who wanted to see someone punished had to be able to make their case on their own. I’m wondering if you can say a bit more about how that worked, and also about the concern in the book to show the way in which authority was constructed in ancient Athens.

If you don’t mind, let me answer that in reverse, since the argument I wanted to make about authority—in its relationship to ideas of desert and contested notions of desert—I meant as a general idea. That is, I take it to be true of all political systems that punishment rests, to an important degree, on the ability to cause people to be quiet, to acquiesce. In fact, that idea is even built into our own language of punishment. We hear it in the language of “appeals.” When you appeal something, you keep calling out until there’s a moment where someone is forced to be silent. But that silence lasts only if we actually can maintain a silence more generally in the culture, which requires people to accept that this was deserved. And let’s leave out here the case of totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, and those that use terror. We can see the dynamic I am talking about actually in the recent Trayvon Martin events, where the state made a decision, but people were not quiet. People were so loud about it that the state had to return to its processes and to engage with them. And there will be a very real question all the way to the end of the process as to whether or not it will be possible for the state to achieve silence at the end.

But let’s get back to Athens. Athens was an interesting case-study because the fact of contestation, which was central to the construction of the desert that grounds the moment of silence at the end of punishment, was itself, precisely as you said, a result of the fact that everybody was responsible for prosecuting their own crimes. Right from the start, when the person got to court, they had to justify the fact that they were there, since of course to be a plaintiff also prosecuting a crime is an ethically complicated position. Are you really there because you’re prosecuting a wrong? Or do you just dislike this person, or they’ve got things that you want and this is a way to get them? Are you just using the court as a way to attack them? There are a lot of reasons to suspect anybody coming forward in this way, and so that generates a framework of suspicion that makes questions of desert very alive. Nothing is really assumed about the outcome. So I think the relationships among desert, authority, contestation, and silence apply in all penal systems, outside of the context of totalitarian regimes, but in Athens, it was particularly explicit and so that made it a little easier to think about.



On the conditions in Penal Colony No.6 in Kopeisk, Russia
“If you want to live, you pay them.”
On Saturday, November 24st, 2012, hundreds of prisoners at Penal Colony No.6 in Kopeisk, Russia walked out onto the roofs of the prison with banners in order to protest the horrific conditions inside. The signs, some of them allegedly written in blood, plead for help. The protest led to a violent confrontation between the police and the prisoners’ relatives gathered outside the prison gates—the protest had been staged on a visitors’ day. 
The following are three testimonies: the first a statement from Valeria Prikhodkina, a member of the Public Monitoring Committee of the Chelyabinsk region; next, a description of conditions inside Penal Colony No.6 from former inmate Mikhail Ermuraki, who was released in April 2012; and, finally, human rights activist Nikolai Shur’s interview with Russian independent news site slon.ru upon visiting the prison on Tuesday.
Valeria Prikhodkina
Public Monitoring Committee, Chelyabinsk
[Source: Bolshoi Gorod. Published November 25, 2012] 
Saturday was visiting day at the prison. People started coming early in the morning, some having traveled long distances. All visitors were stopped at the prison gates without explanation. Something was going on inside. Suddenly, the riot police stormed into the prison along with other police forces and even fire trucks. The visiting relatives began to panic.
The inmates had organized a strike; they went out into the prison yard and refused to go back inside. 
More relatives gathered at the gates. By evening, it seemed that military operations were underway inside the colony: you could hear screams, people were running on the roofs, and then prisoners hung out a sheet with the message “People, help us” written on it. Members of the Public Monitoring Committee arrived, but they were not admitted into the prison. After they left at around 23:00, a bloodbath began. The police beat the prisoners with sticks, indiscriminately and swinging wildly.
From among our colleagues, only Oksana Trufanova stayed. She met the prison warden and was told that the prisoners had captured the watchtower and that she would not be allowed inside. She went into the grounds as far as she could and then left when she found she could go no further. While we were talking to her on the phone, we suddenly heard screams and the line went dead. It turned out that the riot police had attacked the assembled crowd of relatives to disperse them. Oksana was hit on the head with a police club and she lost consciousness. I don’t know anything about the drunken young people they’re talking about in official reports. I think it’s just nonsense. Who visits prisons? Mothers, wives—they’d been standing at the shut prison gates in the cold since the morning.
This particular penal colony is, of course, problematic, and we tend to visit it more often than we do other places.
If you come to a prison and the prisoners don’t say anything or tell you everything’s fine, that’s no reason to believe that it’s a regular Young Pioneer summer camp. Prisoners only start speaking when they can’t take it anymore and believe it can’t get any worse. Apparently that’s what happened in Kopeisk.
We are currently reviewing the case of Nikolai Korovkin along with the prosecutor’s office. Investigators have kept themselves busy by refusing all our requests since June. We have a lot of evidence that he was simply beaten to death. The authorities claim he died of late stage AIDS. The problem with that story is that he only spent two months in the penal colony after his trial. So either something happened to him in prison or they sent a gravely ill man to the penal colony. We have found someone who witnessed the beating.
Another prisoner, Daniil Abakumov, when he wound up in a pretrial detention facility, disclosed details and wrote a statement. But then they sent him back to the colony. I can’t even talk about what happened to him after that, but there is video of his testimony online. We’re talking about extortion, beatings, rape—in a word, torture.
Why does all of this go on? They’re trying to shake the relatives down for money. I don’t know whether it’s for themselves or for the colony as whole. Prisons in Russia are being reformed right now, and the penal colonies are supposed to be outfitted to European standards. But they don’t have the money for it. And so the relatives are paying for everything from fans to game consoles. You want to be paroled? That will cost you. Do you want your son or husband to be safe from beatings? That will cost you.
There aren’t standard rates—they stop at nothing. Someone was bringing them desk lamps, someone else, toilets. And the relatives were the ones who took out the loans, who actually bought these toilets, in exchange for parole. Parents are constantly complaining that their children are completely eligible for parole but it is not being granted because they can’t afford to pay the authorities. They were extorting money from Korovkin as well.
There are rumors that if a prisoner complains, they break his hands. I don’t have any proof of this, but this kind of injury, fractured fingers, is very common in the Chelyabinsk region, and often ends in amputation. Especially in this colony, where there have been several cases. No one will say what happened. And what would you say if they broke your fingers?
Yes, this penal colony is mostly populated with “maximum security” inmates, repeat offenders. But the government admits that 30% of the incarcerated are there undeservedly, while in reality the number is even greater. As human rights advocates, we are not concerned about what people are in prison for. People are people. They have been convicted and sentenced to incarceration. No law legislates slave labor, humiliation, round-the-clock beatings and torturous conditions.

On the conditions in Penal Colony No.6 in Kopeisk, Russia

“If you want to live, you pay them.”

On Saturday, November 24st, 2012, hundreds of prisoners at Penal Colony No.6 in Kopeisk, Russia walked out onto the roofs of the prison with banners in order to protest the horrific conditions inside. The signs, some of them allegedly written in blood, plead for help. The protest led to a violent confrontation between the police and the prisoners’ relatives gathered outside the prison gates—the protest had been staged on a visitors’ day. 

The following are three testimonies: the first a statement from Valeria Prikhodkina, a member of the Public Monitoring Committee of the Chelyabinsk region; next, a description of conditions inside Penal Colony No.6 from former inmate Mikhail Ermuraki, who was released in April 2012; and, finally, human rights activist Nikolai Shur’s interview with Russian independent news site slon.ru upon visiting the prison on Tuesday.

Valeria Prikhodkina

Public Monitoring Committee, Chelyabinsk

[Source: Bolshoi Gorod. Published November 25, 2012] 

Saturday was visiting day at the prison. People started coming early in the morning, some having traveled long distances. All visitors were stopped at the prison gates without explanation. Something was going on inside. Suddenly, the riot police stormed into the prison along with other police forces and even fire trucks. The visiting relatives began to panic.

The inmates had organized a strike; they went out into the prison yard and refused to go back inside. 

More relatives gathered at the gates. By evening, it seemed that military operations were underway inside the colony: you could hear screams, people were running on the roofs, and then prisoners hung out a sheet with the message “People, help us” written on it. Members of the Public Monitoring Committee arrived, but they were not admitted into the prison. After they left at around 23:00, a bloodbath began. The police beat the prisoners with sticks, indiscriminately and swinging wildly.

From among our colleagues, only Oksana Trufanova stayed. She met the prison warden and was told that the prisoners had captured the watchtower and that she would not be allowed inside. She went into the grounds as far as she could and then left when she found she could go no further. While we were talking to her on the phone, we suddenly heard screams and the line went dead. It turned out that the riot police had attacked the assembled crowd of relatives to disperse them. Oksana was hit on the head with a police club and she lost consciousness. I don’t know anything about the drunken young people they’re talking about in official reports. I think it’s just nonsense. Who visits prisons? Mothers, wives—they’d been standing at the shut prison gates in the cold since the morning.

This particular penal colony is, of course, problematic, and we tend to visit it more often than we do other places.

If you come to a prison and the prisoners don’t say anything or tell you everything’s fine, that’s no reason to believe that it’s a regular Young Pioneer summer camp. Prisoners only start speaking when they can’t take it anymore and believe it can’t get any worse. Apparently that’s what happened in Kopeisk.

We are currently reviewing the case of Nikolai Korovkin along with the prosecutor’s office. Investigators have kept themselves busy by refusing all our requests since June. We have a lot of evidence that he was simply beaten to death. The authorities claim he died of late stage AIDS. The problem with that story is that he only spent two months in the penal colony after his trial. So either something happened to him in prison or they sent a gravely ill man to the penal colony. We have found someone who witnessed the beating.

Another prisoner, Daniil Abakumov, when he wound up in a pretrial detention facility, disclosed details and wrote a statement. But then they sent him back to the colony. I can’t even talk about what happened to him after that, but there is video of his testimony online. We’re talking about extortion, beatings, rape—in a word, torture.

Why does all of this go on? They’re trying to shake the relatives down for money. I don’t know whether it’s for themselves or for the colony as whole. Prisons in Russia are being reformed right now, and the penal colonies are supposed to be outfitted to European standards. But they don’t have the money for it. And so the relatives are paying for everything from fans to game consoles. You want to be paroled? That will cost you. Do you want your son or husband to be safe from beatings? That will cost you.

There aren’t standard rates—they stop at nothing. Someone was bringing them desk lamps, someone else, toilets. And the relatives were the ones who took out the loans, who actually bought these toilets, in exchange for parole. Parents are constantly complaining that their children are completely eligible for parole but it is not being granted because they can’t afford to pay the authorities. They were extorting money from Korovkin as well.

There are rumors that if a prisoner complains, they break his hands. I don’t have any proof of this, but this kind of injury, fractured fingers, is very common in the Chelyabinsk region, and often ends in amputation. Especially in this colony, where there have been several cases. No one will say what happened. And what would you say if they broke your fingers?

Yes, this penal colony is mostly populated with “maximum security” inmates, repeat offenders. But the government admits that 30% of the incarcerated are there undeservedly, while in reality the number is even greater. As human rights advocates, we are not concerned about what people are in prison for. People are people. They have been convicted and sentenced to incarceration. No law legislates slave labor, humiliation, round-the-clock beatings and torturous conditions.

Link: Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As a Society

It is late in the afternoon in Montgomery. The banks of the Alabama River are largely deserted. Bryan Stevenson and I walk slowly up the cobblestones from the expanse of the river into the city. We pass through a small, gloomy tunnel beneath some railway tracks, climb a slight incline and stand at the head of Commerce Street, which runs into the heart of Alabama’s capital. The walk was one of the most notorious in the antebellum South.

“This street was the most active slave-trading space in America for almost a decade,” Stevenson says. Four slave depots stood nearby. “They would bring people off the boat. They would parade them up the street in chains. White plantation owners and local slave traders would get on the sidewalks. They’d watch them as they went up the street. Then they would follow behind up to the circle. And that is when they would have their slave auctions.

“Anybody they didn’t sell that day they would keep in these slave depots,” he continues.

We walk past a monument to the Confederate flag as we retrace the steps taken by tens of thousands of slaves who were chained together in coffles. The coffles could include 100 or more men, women and children, all herded by traders who carried guns and whips. Once they reached Court Square, the slaves were sold. We stand in the square. A bronze fountain with a statue of the Goddess of Liberty spews jets of water in the plaza.

“Montgomery was notorious for not having rules that required slave traders to prove that the person had been formally enslaved,” Stevenson says. “You could kidnap free black people, bring them to Montgomery and sell them. They also did not have rules that restricted the purchasing of partial families.”

We fall silent. It was here in this square—a square adorned with a historical marker celebrating the presence in Montgomery of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy—that men and women fell to their knees weeping and beseeched slave-holders not to separate them from their husbands, wives or children. It was here that girls and boys screamed as their fathers or mothers were taken from them.

“This whole street is rich with this history,” he says. “But nobody wants to talk about this slavery stuff. Nobody.” He wants to start a campaign to erect monuments to that history, on the sites of lynchings, slave auctions and slave depots. “When we start talking about it, people will be outraged. They will be provoked. They will be angry.”

Stevenson expects anger because he wants to discuss the explosive rise in inmate populations, the disproportionate use of the death penalty against people of color and the use of life sentences against minors as part of a continuum running through the South’s ugly history of racial inequality, from slavery to Jim Crow to lynching.

Equating the enslavement of innocents with the imprisonment of convicted criminals is apt to be widely resisted, but he sees it as a natural progression of his work. Over the past quarter-century, Stevenson has become perhaps the most important advocate for death-row inmates in the United States. But this year, his work on behalf of incarcerated minors thrust him into the spotlight. Marshaling scientific and criminological data, he has argued for a new understanding of adolescents and culpability. His efforts culminated this past June in a Supreme Court ruling effectively barring mandatory life sentences without parole for minors. As a result, approximately 2,000 such cases in the United States may be reviewed.

Stevenson’s effort began with detailed research: Among more than 2,000 juveniles (age 17 or younger) who had been sentenced to life in prison without parole, he and staff members at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the nonprofit law firm he established in 1989, documented 73 involving defendants as young as 13 and 14. Children of color, he found, tended to be sentenced more harshly.

“The data made clear that the criminal justice system was not protecting children, as is done in every other area of the law,” he says. So he began developing legal arguments “that these condemned children were still children.”

Stevenson first made those arguments before the Supreme Court in 2009, in a case involving a 13-year-old who had been convicted in Florida of sexual battery and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The court declined to rule in that case—but upheld Stevenson’s reasoning in a similar case it had heard the same day, Graham v. Florida, ruling that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for crimes other than murder violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Last June, in two cases brought by Stevenson, the court erased the exception for murder. Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs centered on defendants who were 14 when they were arrested. Evan Miller, from Alabama, used drugs and alcohol late into the night with his 52-year-old neighbor before beating him with a baseball bat in 2003 and setting his residence on fire. Kuntrell Jackson, from Arkansas, took part in a 1999 video-store robbery with two older boys, one of whom shot the clerk to death.

The states argued that children and adults are not so different that a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole is inappropriate.

Stevenson’s approach was to argue that other areas of the law already recognized significant differences, noting that children’s brains and adults’ are physiologically distinct. This, he said, is why children are barred from buying alcohol, serving on juries or voting. He argued that the horrific abuse and neglect that drove many of these children to commit crimes were beyond their control. He said science, precedent and consensus among the majority of states confirmed that condemning a child to die in prison, without ever having a chance to prove that he or she had been rehabilitated, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. “It could be argued that every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” he told the court. “But what this court has said is that children are uniquely more than their worst act.”

The court agreed, 5 to 4, in a landmark decision.

“If ever a pathological background might have contributed to a 14-year-old’s commission of a crime, it is here,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, author of the court’s opinion in Miller. “Miller’s stepfather abused him; his alcoholic and drug-addicted mother neglected him; he had been in and out of foster care as a result; and he had tried to kill himself four times, the first when he should have been in kindergarten.” Children “are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing,” she added, because “juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”


The Stunning Geography of Incarceration
There are 5,393 carceral facilities in the United States, places where people are held in local jails, state prisons, federal corrections facilities, immigration detention centers – “anywhere where an individual can be sort of confined and locked up,” explains Josh Begley, “and, in some of the bigger instances, warehoused in one place.”
Begley is a master’s student in the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University. He wanted to graphically represent what all of this means, to communicate not just the sheer quantity of prisons in America (a number that has been booming for decades), but their volume on our landscape. As part of a class project, he created the oddly beautiful website Prison Map, which offers a mashed-up birds-eye view of all of these places, taken from Google Satellite images.
“A lot of times we’ll just use numbers to talk about this idea of mass incarceration,” Begley says, “and I thought that there maybe was something powerful about using no numbers, no words and just having the images.”
Begley’s images capture the massive scale of this entire industry and the land that we devote to it (America has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but houses a quarter of the world’s prisoners). His website, in fact, includes only about 14 percent of all of the prisons he’s captured (each one is scaled to the same size).

The Stunning Geography of Incarceration

There are 5,393 carceral facilities in the United States, places where people are held in local jails, state prisons, federal corrections facilities, immigration detention centers – “anywhere where an individual can be sort of confined and locked up,” explains Josh Begley, “and, in some of the bigger instances, warehoused in one place.”

Begley is a master’s student in the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University. He wanted to graphically represent what all of this means, to communicate not just the sheer quantity of prisons in America (a number that has been booming for decades), but their volume on our landscape. As part of a class project, he created the oddly beautiful website Prison Map, which offers a mashed-up birds-eye view of all of these places, taken from Google Satellite images.

“A lot of times we’ll just use numbers to talk about this idea of mass incarceration,” Begley says, “and I thought that there maybe was something powerful about using no numbers, no words and just having the images.”

Begley’s images capture the massive scale of this entire industry and the land that we devote to it (America has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but houses a quarter of the world’s prisoners). His website, in fact, includes only about 14 percent of all of the prisons he’s captured (each one is scaled to the same size).

Link: Norway's controversial 'cushy prison' experiment has the lowest reoffending rate in Europe.

Can a prison possibly justify treating its inmates with saunas, sunbeds and deckchairs if that prison has the lowest reoffending rate in Europe? Live reports from Norway on the penal system that runs contrary to all our instincts - but achieves everything we could wish for.

On a clear, bright morning in the tranquil, coastal town of Horten, just south of Oslo, a small ferry slides punctually into harbour. I am to take a short boat ride to the sunlit, green island of Bastoy shimmering on the horizon less than two miles away. It is a curious place. There are no secluded holiday homes or elegant hotels with moorings for passing yachts. The 120 people who live there never visit the mainland, but then why would they?

They spend their days happily winding around the network of paths that snake through the pine forests, or swimming and fishing along the five miles of pebble beaches, or playing on the tennis courts and football pitch; and recuperating later on sunbeds and in a sauna, a cinema room, a band rehearsal room and expansive library.

Their commune has handsomely furnished bungalows with cable TV. The residents eat together in an attractively spacious canteen thoughtfully decorated with Norwegian art. The centrepiece is a striking 10ft long model of a Norwegian merchant ship.

If it sounds like an oddball Scandinavian social experiment, you’d be right. Bastoy is home to Norway’s only island prison. I am here to scrutinise its hugely controversial approach to crime and punishment, and to do so with some knowledge; the last time I set foot in a prison was as a foolish 23-year-old man.


Shawshank Without the Redemption
Imagine being held in solitary confinement, not for a day, not for a year, but for forty years. Imagine entering a cell, four paces long, three paces wide, when Richard Nixon was in the White House and still being confined to that cell, as Barack Obama gears up for re-election. Imagine being confined to that cell for every minute of those forty years apart from time out to shower and a walk around an outdoor cage three times a week, weather permitting. That has been the fate of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, two of the so-called ‘Angola 3’, whose story was retold this week in a fine BBC Radio 4 Crossing Continents programme. It is a story not simply of injustice wrought upon three men, but of the inhumanity that lies at the heart of America’s prison and justice systems.
Woodfox and Wallace were convicted in 1969 of armed robbery and sentenced to 55 and 50 years of hard labour respectively. They were incarcerated in the notorious Louisiana State Pen, the largest and some say the bloodiest prison in America,  for years infamous for its brutal forced labour and the depth of the  sexual violence inmates had to endure. It was in Angola that Woodfox and Wallace met Robert King, who had been convicted of murder, a charge of which he, too, has always protested his innocence.
Louisiana State Pen is nicknamed ‘Angola’ because was built on the site of a plantation that had been worked mainly by Angolan slaves. It is still, King says, ‘run like a plantation’.  Inside prison, the three men became politicized and joined the Black Panthers. They set up political classes, organized the other inmates, staged protests and a hunger strike to improve the brutal conditions.
In 1972, at a time that their political activities were causing particular concern to the prison authorities, Woodfox and Wallace were charged and convicted of the murder of prison guard Brent Miller. The conviction was based entirely on the hearsay evidence of other prisoners, some of whom were jailhouse informants and all of whom gave contradictory accounts of what happened. Evidence that might have proved their innocence, including a bloody fingerprint left at the scene that came from neither Woodfox nor  Wallace was first suppressed, then ‘lost’. The jury that convicted them was all-white and comprised largely people who worked at Angola. Even Miller’s widow now acknowledges the men’s innocence. ‘If they did not do this’, she told a court hearing in 2008,  ‘and I believe that they didn’t, they have been living a nightmare for 36 years!’

Shawshank Without the Redemption

Imagine being held in solitary confinement, not for a day, not for a year, but for forty years. Imagine entering a cell, four paces long, three paces wide, when Richard Nixon was in the White House and still being confined to that cell, as Barack Obama gears up for re-election. Imagine being confined to that cell for every minute of those forty years apart from time out to shower and a walk around an outdoor cage three times a week, weather permitting. That has been the fate of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, two of the so-called ‘Angola 3’, whose story was retold this week in a fine BBC Radio 4 Crossing Continents programme. It is a story not simply of injustice wrought upon three men, but of the inhumanity that lies at the heart of America’s prison and justice systems.

Woodfox and Wallace were convicted in 1969 of armed robbery and sentenced to 55 and 50 years of hard labour respectively. They were incarcerated in the notorious Louisiana State Pen, the largest and some say the bloodiest prison in America,  for years infamous for its brutal forced labour and the depth of the  sexual violence inmates had to endure. It was in Angola that Woodfox and Wallace met Robert King, who had been convicted of murder, a charge of which he, too, has always protested his innocence.

Louisiana State Pen is nicknamed ‘Angola’ because was built on the site of a plantation that had been worked mainly by Angolan slaves. It is still, King says, ‘run like a plantation’.  Inside prison, the three men became politicized and joined the Black Panthers. They set up political classes, organized the other inmates, staged protests and a hunger strike to improve the brutal conditions.

In 1972, at a time that their political activities were causing particular concern to the prison authorities, Woodfox and Wallace were charged and convicted of the murder of prison guard Brent Miller. The conviction was based entirely on the hearsay evidence of other prisoners, some of whom were jailhouse informants and all of whom gave contradictory accounts of what happened. Evidence that might have proved their innocence, including a bloody fingerprint left at the scene that came from neither Woodfox nor  Wallace was first suppressed, then ‘lost’. The jury that convicted them was all-white and comprised largely people who worked at Angola. Even Miller’s widow now acknowledges the men’s innocence. ‘If they did not do this’, she told a court hearing in 2008,  ‘and I believe that they didn’t, they have been living a nightmare for 36 years!’

Uncompromising Photos Expose Juvenile Detention in America

On any given night in the U.S., there are approximately 60,500 youth confined in juvenile correctional facilities or other residential programs. Photographer Richard Ross has spent the past five years criss-crossing the country photographing the architecture, cells, classrooms and inhabitants of these detention sites.The resulting photo-survey, Juvenile-In-Justice, documents 350 facilities in over 30 states. It’s more than a peek into unseen worlds — it is a call to action and care.

“I grew up in a world where you solve problems, you don’t destroy a population,” says Ross. “To me it is an affront when I see the way some of these kids are dealt with.”

The U.S. locks up children at more than six times the rate of all other developed nations. The over 60,000 average daily juvenile lockups, a figure estimated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), are also disproportionately young people of color. With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child, the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention. On top of the cost, in its recent report No Place for Kids, the AECF presents evidence to show that youth incarceration does not reduce recidivism rates, does not benefit public safety and exposes those imprisoned to further abuse and violence. Ross thinks his images of juvenile lock-ups can, and should, be “ammunition” for the ongoing policy and funding debates between reformers, staff, management and law-makers.

“Some of these kids really don’t stand a chance at all. Have they committed crimes? Yes. But has society failed in the social contract to keep these kids in a safe environment? Absolutely.”

Link: How One Man Escaped from a North Korean Prison Camp

There was torture, starvation, betrayals and executions, but to Shin In Geun, Camp 14—a prison for the political enemies of North Korea—was home. Then one day came the chance to flee…

His first memory is an execution. He walked with his mother to a wheat field, where guards had rounded up several thousand prisoners. The boy crawled between legs to the front row, where he saw guards tying a man to a wooden pole.

Shin In Geun was four years old, too young to understand the speech that came before that killing. At dozens of executions in years to come, he would listen to a guard telling the crowd that the prisoner about to die had been offered “redemption” through hard labour, but had rejected the generosity of the North Korean government.

Guards stuffed pebbles into the prisoner’s mouth, covered his head with a hood and shot him.

In Camp 14, a prison for the political enemies of North Korea, assemblies of more than two inmates were forbidden, except for executions. Everyone had to attend them.

The South Korean government estimates there are about 154,000 prisoners in North Korea’s labour camps, while the US state department puts the number as high as 200,000. The biggest is 31 miles long and 25 miles wide, an area larger than the city of Los Angeles. Numbers 15 and 18 have re-education zones where detainees receive remedial instruction in the teachings of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, and are sometimes released. The remaining camps are “complete control districts” where “irredeemables” are worked to death.


The Gray Box: An Investigative Look at Solitary Confinement
Among the misperceptions about solitary confinement is that it’s used only on the most violent inmates, and only for a few weeks or months. In fact, an estimated 80,000 Americans — many with no record of violence either inside or outside prison — are living in seclusion. They stay there for years, even decades. What this means, generally, is 23 hours a day in a cell the size of two queen-sized mattresses, with a single hour in an exercise cage, also alone. Some prisoners aren’t allowed visits or phone calls. Some have no TV or radio. Some never lay eyes on each other. And some go years without fresh air or sunlight.
Solitary is a place where the slightest details can mean the world. Things like whether you can see a patch of grass or only sky outside your window – if you’re lucky enough to have a window. Or whether the guy who occupies cells before you in rotation has a habit of smearing feces on the wall. Are the lights on 24/7? Is there a clock or calendar to mark time? If you scream, could anyone hear you?
In the warp of time and space where Rodriguez lives, the system not only has stripped him of any real human contact, but also made it unbearable to be reminded of a reality that has become all too unreal. It’s ripping him apart.
“Anyone who spends more than three years in a place like this is ruined for life,” Powers writes. “Two or three hundred years from now people will look back on this lockdown mania like we look back on the burning of witches.”

The Gray Box: An Investigative Look at Solitary Confinement

Among the misperceptions about solitary confinement is that it’s used only on the most violent inmates, and only for a few weeks or months. In fact, an estimated 80,000 Americans — many with no record of violence either inside or outside prison — are living in seclusion. They stay there for years, even decades. What this means, generally, is 23 hours a day in a cell the size of two queen-sized mattresses, with a single hour in an exercise cage, also alone. Some prisoners aren’t allowed visits or phone calls. Some have no TV or radio. Some never lay eyes on each other. And some go years without fresh air or sunlight.

Solitary is a place where the slightest details can mean the world. Things like whether you can see a patch of grass or only sky outside your window – if you’re lucky enough to have a window. Or whether the guy who occupies cells before you in rotation has a habit of smearing feces on the wall. Are the lights on 24/7? Is there a clock or calendar to mark time? If you scream, could anyone hear you?

In the warp of time and space where Rodriguez lives, the system not only has stripped him of any real human contact, but also made it unbearable to be reminded of a reality that has become all too unreal. It’s ripping him apart.

“Anyone who spends more than three years in a place like this is ruined for life,” Powers writes. “Two or three hundred years from now people will look back on this lockdown mania like we look back on the burning of witches.”