Patterns as Priorities: Aerial Supermax Prison Photos Echo Shapes of Suburbia 2 Favorite 



Apr 5 2013


United States

by Pete Brook

High above the Arizona desert in 2010, after a day of photographing housing developments, Christoph Gielen looked down from the helicopter upon Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence. The hexagonal arrangement of the prison site, to him, replicated the six-sided concentric order of suburbs he’d shot previously. That chance observation kickstarted a three-year project called American Prison Perspectives, in which Gielen examines the architecture of Supermax prisons via aerial photos.

“I am intentionally turning surveillance technology back on the surveillance apparatus of the prison itself — in a sense democratizing the use of surveillance,” says Gielen.

The birth of the Supermax — a prison complex fully or partially designed solely for single-cell solitary confinement — came about in the ’80s. The first was the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX), opened in 1983 by the federal authorities in Florence, Colorado. It is known presently as the prison that holds high-profile terrorism suspects. Pelican Bay State Prison, put into operation by the California Department of Corrections in 1989, was the first state-run Supermax. Today, 30 states have one or more Supermax prisons. In addition to purpose-built complexes, existing prisons may have added designated solitary wings.
Segregation, the box, AdSeg, isolation, lockdown, the hole, secure housing, the cooler — names differ but the reality stays the same. Solitary confinement buildings are prisons within prisons.

“I want to expose the prevailing trend toward building increased-security prison systems, and illustrate how prison design and architecture do, in fact, reflect political discourse, economic priorities, cultural sentiments and social insecurities,” says Gielen. “What does our ongoing tolerance of solitary confinement say about us as a society?”

While many Supermax occupants are there for terrible crimes, solitary has creeped into wider use without understanding its consequences or discussing whether it is a just punishment. With 1 in 100 adults behind bars, America incarcerates more people than any other modern society. Of the 2.3 million men, women and children locked up in the U.S., 80,000 prisoners are in solitary. That number includes hundreds of children.

The rapid adoption of solitary by prison authorities as a means to discipline and segregate has led Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to call it one of the “greatest social experiments of our time.” For some sociologists, the parallels that Gielen drew between housing and prisons go beyond visual similarity. Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab goes so far to ask, “Have prisons and jails become the mass housing of our time?”

“My photographs pull into sharp focus such design details as exercise yards consisting of empty outdoor 8′x10′ enclosures attached to the back of each cell block, with bare concrete surfaces and a set of bars atop their high walls. ‘Exercise yard’ is a misnomer; they should be called cages,” says Gielen.

Gielen became interested in photographing Perryville State Prison complex (4th photo) after hearing about the death of Marcia Powell in an outside cage on May 20, 2009.

Powell died after four hours of exposure to 107-degree temperatures. The prison’s own guidelines instruct that prisoners should not be held outside for more than two hours. Powell pleaded to be taken back inside, but was ignored. The autopsy report showed Powell suffered first and second-degree burns, and had a core body temperature of 108 degrees when she died.

Locked down for 23 hours per day, prisoners in solitary confinement have restricted or no access to meaningful educational, social or physical activity. They may never interact with other prisoners and see a guard only as food is passed through a slot in the door. Isolation has a rapid detrimental effect on mental health. While the nature and severity of the impact depends on the individual, the duration, and particular conditions (e.g., access to natural light, books or radio), psychiatrist Stuart Grassian reported that solitary alters brain activity.

“Even a few days of solitary confinement will predictably shift [a prisoner's] electroencephalogram (EEG) pattern toward an abnormal pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium.” Grassian reported that about a third of the 200 prisoners he interviewed developed acute psychosis with hallucinations.

“I can’t even contemplate what it would be like to be in solitary for any length of time,” says Gielen. “It’s really beyond imagination.”

In consideration of “the severe mental pain or suffering” it can cause, Juan Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, said that solitary confinement amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Mendez recommended that prisoners never be confined in solitary for more than 15 days.

However, in US prisons, stints in the hole can be longer. Much longer. The California Department of Corrections self-reports the average stay on an inmate in the Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (SHU) is six-and-a-half-years. Many have been in the SHU for a decade or more. In Louisiana, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 have been in solitary for 30 years.

“The opportunity to visually examine these restricted locations is significant, especially at a time when journalists access is increasingly curtailed,” says Gielen.

As hard as it is for a prisoner to get out of the hole, it is as difficult for any photographer to get inside. Images of solitary cells are hard to come by.

In the age of Google Earth, it may seem surprising that an artist would need to get into a helicopter to capture their own images. Part of Gielen’s methodology is due to resolution quality and part of it is simply boots-on-the-ground access.

“The public cannot inspect Supermax facilities from the ground,” he says. “While some typically low-resolution satellite images of prison complexes are available in the public domain, some of them are locked out if you want to zoom in and see them in greater detail. You can purchase satellite views to be made. I’ve explored that as well but it’s still more efficient to go do it yourself. To get a helicopter and just do it. It’s not illegal to fly over there but just nobody wants to do it because it’s such a hot-button issue.”

While for many, the discussion of prisons and segregation can revolve around human rights and legal justice, the issue is particularly relevant today for its economic implications. There was a successful grass-roots campaign to shutdown Illinois’ Tamms Correctional Facility, due largely to the fact that it costs more than $60,000 a year to house a prisoner in solitary confinement in Tamms, compared to an average of $22,000 for inmates in other Illinois prisons. The closure is currently stalled — held up in court following opposition from the AFSCME labor union with prison guards in its ranks.

“In America, particularly, the long view is hardly ever considered. Fiscal views are considered for on a yearly basis,” says Gielen. “Economically, the widespread use of solitary is unsustainable.”

The Illinois campaign spurred Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to chair the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement last summer. Durbin showed up on Capitol Hill with an actual-size solitary-cell replica

American Prison Perspectives doesn’t end with its images. In 2014, Gielen plans launch a website devoted to the series and host an online forum. In meatspace, Gielen foresees symposia across the U.S. with former prisoners, prison architects, legal experts, activists, correctional officer union reps and prison administrators. Firsthand accounts of solitary confinement and the perspectives of mental health experts on the effects of isolation.

“I want to bring in the human experience through prisoners and people who are at the forefront of law concerning solitary confinement. I’m interested in the legal perspectives that are used to justify these places. Distill that into an online very accessible experience that is open to the general public,” says Gielen. “That will be the ultimate form for this work.”

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