LOS ANGELES — On August 21, 2018, a series of work stoppages, hunger strikes, and boycotts began to take place in prisons across the US. Among the 10 demands of the national prison strike were improvements to living conditions, an end to prison slavery, and the restoration of voting rights to prisoners and formerly incarcerated people. Prisoners suspected of participating in the strike faced censorship and retaliation. Ronald Brooks, an inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary, was transferred to a facility 250 miles away for appearing in a video supportive of the strike. His visitation and outside communication privileges were taken away out of fear that he might radicalize other prisoners.
Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as The Farm or Angola, is the subject of an exhibition at Art + Practice featuring images by photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick. Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex, originally organized by the Frist Art Museum, presents a series of photographs began by the couple in 1980. It documents the lives of incarcerated men at Angola, a former slave plantation that is now the largest maximum-security prison farm in the US, and a reminder of the continued existence of slavery under the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crimes.
Angola state prison yields four million pounds of vegetable crops a year, enough to sustain its own food supply and that of other state prisons. In addition to growing crops and raising cattle, prisoners produce agricultural supplies, cleaning tools, road signs, and license plates, among other goods. Over 6,000 incarcerated men at Angola work as factory workers, farmers, cooks, and artisans for as little as four cents per hour. Most of the labor depicted in Calhoun and McCormick’s images are performed by black men. Seventy-five percent of Angola inmates are African American.
On one wall of the exhibition space, four generations of black men are represented in a sequence of photographs. In the first image, two small boys holding hands walk past a sign advertising car rides for those visiting loved ones in Angola state prison. The children watch their steps as if approaching an uncertain future. The tragic outlook referenced to in the photograph caption — “Our children endangered, the new prey for prison beds, New Orleans” — points to the possibility of these children growing up to experience incarceration themselves. The next two images are of a young man and middle-aged man wearing black-and-white striped prison uniforms. The fourth and final image in the sequence is of an older man identified as “Daddy’o, the oldest inmate in Angola State Penitentiary.” The images present the reality of generations of black men spending entire lifetimes in prisons.
Among the stark images of barbed wire fencing and prisoners performing hard labor are moments of levity. In one image, prisoners crack a smile in front of the camera as an armed overseer on horseback hovers in the background. Another set of images features photographs from a popular rodeo event in which prisoners perform dangerous stunts in front of the public, putting their bodies on the line for athletic feats and spectacles for which they are not paid. These events momentarily allow them to escape the everyday realities of prison life, perhaps even allowing them to briefly forget their imprisonment.
Another set of images captures moments in which Glenn Demourelle, an Angola inmate who was later exonerated and released after 27 years in prison, is furloughed and reconciled with family members at his mother’s funeral. A group photograph of Demourelle and his family seems to have been taken in a hurry as the subjects look distracted and stare in all directions. A small boy in the foreground tries to escape the frame but is held back by an older sibling. No one in the photograph is smiling. It’s an awkward family photograph, but also poignant as a rare instance in which Demourelle is able to stand together with his family members. In another image, Demourelle weeps at the funeral service as a family member comes from behind to console him. His handcuffed wrists serve as a reminder that his time for grieving with family is limited.
The national prison strike formally ended on September 9, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica Prison uprising, although organizing efforts in and outside of prisons continue to take place throughout the country. The demands of prisoners remain mostly unfulfilled. An amendment to restore voting rights to 1.4 million former felons in the state of Florida was a significant breakthrough during the November midterm elections, but prisoners continue to face abject living and labor conditions, some of which are captured in Calhoun and McCormick’s images. These photographs ask viewers to consider the humanity of prisoners, wrongfully imprisoned or not, and the possibility of their rehabilitation and reentry into society. If what we see in these images do not resemble justice, how might we reconcile the present reality with visions for a more just future?
Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun: Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex continues at Art + Practice (3401 West 43rd Place, Los Angeles) through January 5, 2019.