Merry Christmas, San Quentin

Zoé Samudzi
Dec 23, 2019 · 9 min read

We are just two days from Christmas, yesterday evening was the first of eight nights of Hanukkah. Many different organizations do letter-writing drives for incarcerated people and toy or supply drives for their families because one of the state’s most time-specific cruelties is a maintained separation of families to be together during what ought to be a love-filled and celebratory time for countless others. And as I consider what it means for people to be behind bars during a time of year marked by community and generosity (both obviously marred by capitalism), I cannot help but think about the ways we are always meant to be surprised that prisoners have deep interior emotional landscapes beyond ones that can offered to make them more legible — more “complicated” — to those of us with no experience of incarceration and/or no relationships with incarcerated people.

Showcased partially in an exhibition curated by Lisa J. Sutcliffe, and then organized at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive by Julia M. White and Stephanie Cannizzo, the curated amalgam of images in The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin presents a small cross-section of the vast photo archival collection kept by San Quentin State Prison. The show includes a series of essays, written exercises, photographs from the prison’s archives and audio interviews. Guided by the increasing number of conversations about criminal justice reform, the show seeks to use art as a vehicle for questioning assumptions commonly made about incarcerated people and as a means of reframing public narratives. The show closed over a month ago; I’ve been unsettled by it since.

It feels naïve to admit to being surprised that the notorious San Quentin State Prison has such a diverse photographic archive. And still I was. But an archive is simply the deliberate collection of documents or records. If an archive can be kept for a library or for a family in the form of photo albums, then of course San Quentin has an archive. The question, then, is the purpose that particular visual archive serves.

It felt uncomfortable and almost paradoxically intrusive, to witness; The prison is a state-funded institution, after all, and its dealings should be made known to the public. And even still I felt like I was peering into a world that I should not know anything about. I was entering a space deliberately cordoned off from the world, a black site whose violent dealings are only known intimately by those who inflict violence and those upon whom violence is inflicted (the latter category includes systems-affected families and friends and communities and not simply imprisoned people themselves). It was unnerving to bear witness to the varied gaze of the panopticon, but I’m not sure why I was surprised; of course it must record and document every act. Some of the images were sweet and funny: family visitations, leisurely ball games, a shared Passover kiss. Others were decidedly less so: cloth materials used for suicide attempts or escape, assaulted inmates and officers, self-inflicted wounds, chalk drawings marking the scene of murder. A couple of images marked “public relations” were presumably intended as institutional propaganda. Photos of hardworking men would not be used to unequivocally humanize the subjects and their potential to learn and be educated, but to tout the rehabilitative potential, success, and social necessity of the prison. Regardless of content or aesthetic value, every single shot is imbued with the specter of violence.

Art and carcerality are not uncommon bedfellows; they, in many ways, share a hegemonic position. From the prison drawings of Joe Massey being revealingly described as art’s “Next Big Thing” to Aperture Magazine’s spring 2018 “Prisoner Nation” issue (which features Poor’s work in the prison’s archives) to the Smithsonian’s expressed interest in acquiring drawings made by detained migrant children, we are intrigued by any glimpses we can manage of life on the inside. But a great deal of this fascination stems from the apparent novelty of the racialized prisoner-artist (or prisoner-intellectual) based on gatekept conventional notions of who truly is and who is allowed to be an artist. “The archetypically brutal, brutish, unthinking, and uncultured inmate can draw!” goes the novelty. In the age of diversity and inclusion in art, the incarcerated outsider artist is sexy, but decarceration and prison abolition are not. The curiosity is not an attempt to have the subaltern prisoner speak, but to commodify expression in a way that reinscribes and reifies their subalternity. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and consistent patron of the arts, announced that the foundation would support a proposal to move people incarcerated at Rikers to four new smaller detention centers in an effort to close the infamous jail. Nuance, he calls it.

Time and time again, incarcerated people — people experiencing violent conditions of detention — offer critical standpoints and intimate relationships to violence and the overreaching regulation of personhood exerted by the state through incarceratjon. These perspectives are every bit as legible in drawings, prison writings, and archival commentary as they are in labor stoppages and prison strikes and clandestine documentaries. Nowhere are the evolution of the plantation, the loophole of the 13th Amendment, racist exploitations of labor, or treatments of people as chattel illustrated better than within the prison.

One part of the exhibition introduces the Archival Mapping Project, and this is where incarcerated men become active speakers. Poor began teaching visual studies classes to men inside of San Quentin as a part of the Prison University Project in 2011; assignments from her a course called Visual Concern in Photography are displayed in this show. For one exercise in her class, she assigned archival images from the prison to her students in her class to interpret because of their familiarity with the subject matter and with San Quentin itself. It was a powerful opportunity for the incarcerated subjects of the surveillant prison gaze — carceral images all serve a classificatory function — to respond to it. The archive, of course, is synecdochic for the prison: the archival map is the charting of their relationship to the institution, but also to one another and to themselves. The museum wall text describes how their work “make[s] life inside prison visible to external audiences,” which necessarily compels us to question the exhibition’s intended audience. In a way, the exhibition acts as space for audiences — specifically audiences that are not particularly familiar with the inner workings of carceral structures — to negotiate with their own morality. One’s own virtuosity permits them to truly see and empathize with these incarcerated men, but it may be limited because these men in San Quentin are confined to their cages in Marin County (and the flattened trope of a remorseful, keen to be rehabilitated prisoner might be limited to our imaginations). But do we extend this same generosity to non-white children swept up in the school-to-prison pipeline as young as preschool? Are we curious enough about the interiorities of young men in Richmond and Oakland and around the Bay Area to listen to what they have to say, or do we prefer to entangle ourselves with the lives of these men only as we are able to hold them at a geographic and social distance and never engage them fully as human?

The image “Fish Caught at Ranch 9–17–75” depicts a small statured Latino-appearing man holding a fish. Monta Kevin Tindall responds to the image 38 years later in 2013; his red and black and gold writing around the borders describes the immaculate tying of the bandanna around the man’s head, the symmetry of the fish scales within the photograph’s composition, the prison’s rules that may forbid this man from getting to enjoy his catch. Tindall titles his response “Prison at Peace?” which is mirrored and punctuated by three words directly beneath the image: “who’s really caught!” These responses reflect the self-reflectiveness that we typically deny incarcerated people save, perhaps, our favorite celebrities or Black nationalist prison writings (or Gramsci).

Incarceration also beget a warped relationship to temporality. There is a deliberate disconnection of the prison’s zone of non-being from the “real world,” which produces, for many incarcerated people (especially those sentenced to sensory-depriving solitary confinement), a sense of being left behind by the world. Encased in glass is Michael Nelson’s response to Assignment №2, the second assignment in Poor’s visual studies course. Students were to compare and contrast two video still images: one by Hiroshi Sugimoto and another by Richard Misrach. Nelson was twenty-eight and serving in solitary while completing his assignment. He wrote that “the two photographs remind me of those who get left behind by not being able to keep up with the change that lives and breathes throughout time.” He goes on to say that in prison, “time seems to stand still while the world outside moves on without me. I think of the two picture screens who are being replaced by technology which they have no chance of competing with.” Languishing in prison, to Michael, is not unlike the built-in technological obsolescence that makes us abandon our old phones for newer ones. The prison is not designed as a space for reform. Prison is a stunting of personhood, a deliberate social and emotional underdevelopment accentuated (for some) by the torturous solitude of administrative segregation. It’s not simply Michael’s melancholic thoughtfulness that’s heart-rending in itself, but his articulation of abandonment and the self-referential application of what is meant when we talk about prisons and social death.

Also encased in glass is one of the few pieces of prison archival ephemera: an old book containing images of the now shuttered Joliet Correctional Center. It’s a famous prison, featured in Blues Brothers (1980) and many more movies since its closure in 2002, as well as the serial drama Prison Break. An image in the book shows a few men sitting on one another’s shoulders in a mounted pillow fight staged to “help relieve some of the tension built up by confinement.” It chillingly evokes what are presently described as “gladiator fights,” where correctional officers pit inmates against one another for their own voyeuristic pleasure. A show like this feels timely because a show like this demands that we do two things: it asks us to listen to the images and how their subjects relate to them (and to their own representations by proxy), and it asks us to honestly evaluate our own motivations in looking at the exhibition’s images.

An external view of my prison (taken July 2019)

San Quentin and this Berkeley institution are just sixteen miles apart, but they could not be further apart in our political imaginations. But every day that I take the ferry to work, I pass by the prison. Sometimes, depending on when I leave for or return from San Francisco, the yard is empty. Other times, the yard is full: full of people playing ball or interacting, and sometimes they wave at our passing boat. The show quite clearly premises itself on the idea that we might be surprised at our very wrong assumptions about incarcerated people (here, specifically, incarcerated men), which forecloses any possibility of the intelligence, clarity, and humanity of incarcerated people in the same breath that it positions itself as an advocate or artistic interlocutor. Perhaps in the future, we will collaborate with presently or formerly incarcerated people or abolitionist organizations: perhaps we will begin to engage and embrace a plurality of more explicitly politicized representations of prison life rather than seeking to appeal to unaffected and relatively uninformed audiences. Otherwise, we stand to perpetuate the same patronizing, criminalizing gaze as this horrifyingly omnipresent archive.

Zoé Samudzi

Written by

writer, photographer, sociologist

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade