Tag Archives: prison industrial complex

“UNDOCUMENTED” Maps the Hidden World of Migrant Detention

Undocumented coverTitle: UNDOCUMENTED: The Architecture of Migrant Detention
Author: Tings Chak
Illustrator: Tings Chak
Published: Self-published as a 3-part zine in August 2014; published by in September 2014
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Comix Online Store
For more info: www.tingschak.com

Architecture has been described as a synthesis of life’s components in materialized form. Its proponents describe it as the mother art, or the soul of a civilization, and one in which we have historically defined our understandings of home, safety, comfort. It is an art form that can seem invisible and yet cannot possibly go unnoticed. But what happens when buildings are not, as architect Stephen Gardiner describes it, ‘good people making good buildings by good design’? What if the desired architecture is one of discomfort, isolation, and transience?

graph of architecturePrisons, detention centres, and other “holding facilities” are the subject explored artfully in this premiere work by Tings Chak, an artist, activist, and former architecture student. “Undocumented” is a jarring 3-part exploration the intimate relationship we have with the spaces around us. By examining their physical, emotional and psychological toll when occupied, “Undocumented” posits that their architecture is ill-designed and of ill-intent, meaning it mirrors the economic and political  architecture of global neo-liberal policy.

Part One: Landscape

What first strikes the reader in the comic’s first pages is the invisibility of migrant detention in countries like Canada.  From the outside, prisons and holding facilities are often nested inconspicuously in suburbs and bedroom communities. Locals think little of their impact but as a source of jobs in increasingly desperate economic times. Despite their underwhelming appearance, their intent, by design, is diametrically opposed to all the buildings around them.

confined viewThe construction of prisons and other involuntary holding facilities turns architecture on its head, and we experiences a sense of conceptual vertigo. Space and inhabitants alike are compartmentalized. The comic illustrates what inmates describe as a sense of isolation so intense that they feel they are becoming one with the walls in their cell. Aesthetically, this feeling is aided by the compartmental nature of comics as a “sequential” art form.

minimum space

Part Two: Building

“Undocumented” steps beside the realm of a comic with a linear narrative and into a category of ‘statistics illustrated’. The cold delivery of information brings home the point that these detention centres are, in so many ways, an impediment to the human narrative of their captives. Each individual, in their life journey through spaces and other individual lives, is suspended and infringed upon. Here, life is devoid of free will. Schedules are fixed and micro-managed. Interpersonal interaction is withheld and restricted. In order to understand the stories that escape from these hellish conditions, one must acknowledge the adversities they have overcome.

toronto immigration holding centerLooking over the grounds and conditions of a series of holding facilities in Ontario, they seem underwhelming, banal where we might expect that they be ominous. In other words, they are deceptive, and intentionally so.   By design and locale, they seem to embody the 19th century French “oubliette”: a dungeon where people are placed with the intention of being forgotten. Modern prison architecture shows that little has changed: rehabilitation, correction or even punishment are beyond the essential purpose of these facilities.

Confinement, historically: Pictured here from the larger french atlas, Civitatis Orbis Terrarum, Bedlam, circled in blue, was a holding facility for those deemed mentally ill or otherwise unfit for 16th century civilization. According to a writing in 1591, "Bedlam was an oubliette in all but name--a place for forgetting, where the insane were locked up with those interred by their own families on some trumped-up charge simply to be rid of them."
Confinement, historically: Pictured here from the larger french atlas, Civitatis Orbis Terrarum, Bedlam, circled in blue, was a holding facility for those deemed mentally ill or otherwise unfit for 16th century civilization. Despite it being officially identified as a place of support and assistance, according to a writing in 1591, “Bedlam was an oubliette in all but name–a place for forgetting, where the insane were locked up with those interred by their own families on some trumped-up charge simply to be rid of them.”

Part Three: Resistance

Here, the work takes a decidedly more human tone. We go from the vital statistics of carceral facilities to the descriptions of the lives of migrant detainees: precarious, vulnerable, and fearful. Quotes from men, women and children held in detention reveal a profound isolation – from spouse, sun and seasons – an example of the emotional trauma inflicted by confinement. Shine the light a bit further down this rabbit hole, and we consider the subject of solitary confinement, euphemistically termed “administrative segregation” by Corrections Canada. Here, a detainee could spend up to 23 hours completely alone, in what has been regarded by human rights activists for years as a criminal act that jumps the fenced definition of torture by any decent definition.

missing family memberUltimately, “Undocumented” is a look at architecture not as a thing of author-less objectivity, but as the physical legacy of accomplices to an agenda of discipline and exploitation. It helps us connect the economic policies of neo-liberalism that impoverish and displace populations to the detention centres they are confined in when they try to escape. With a cold, empirical lens, it demonstrates that the blueprints of migrant detention centres are drawn with the intent to isolate, agitate, and demoralize their human occupants.

Frank Lloyd Wright described architecture as a component in the construction of a civilization’s soul.  What, then, can be said of the civilization responsible for these gaps in our urban landscapes that neither light nor hope can penetrate?

“Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Centres” is launching as a published book this week, and if you’re in Toronto, you are invited! RSVP for the event here, on Facebook.

For those wanting to know more, visit Chak’s website, or the Ad Astra Comix online shop to purchase a copy.

 

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Evidence As Antidote – “Race to Incarcerate” Fights Prisons with Facts

If all great truths begin as blasphemies, as George Bernard Shaw put it, we in Canada find ourselves living in a theocracy. Certainly even Adam and Eve would wonder at the spectacular efforts to preserve the innocence of ignorance undertaken by our present government. It has taken a valiant stand against sex education so we may uncover our nakedness. In seeking to dismantle the National Archives, they will free us from knowledge of good and evil. Thanks to the government’s destruction of the integrity of census data, we are free from even the prospect of acquiring knowledge.

Stephen Harper Destruction of Public Property

But to be sure we are safe from it, they are throwing whole libraries into the trash, and forbidding the wicked among us from sharing their dangerous truths with the press.

So we are nearly free of blasphemy, and what greater expression of piety than prisons? At a time when American districts are turning away from the tough on crime approach, Canada embraces it enthusiastically. If books are not totally passe at this point, I should recommend to the Justice Minister and any higher powers to which he might answer a thorough reading of ‘Race To Incarcerate.’

cover

Title: Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling
Created by: Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer
Forward: Michelle Alexander
Preface: The Sentencing Project
Published: 2013 by The New Press

‘Race To Incarcerate’ practically bursts its bindings with relevant historical, sociological and economic data. It doesn’t shrink from statistics either, as it outlines the growth in prison populations, corrections spending and the prevalence of private prisons. Exploring public attitudes towards morality, the dishonesty of elected representatives and the role played by the War on Drugs, this expressive tome shines light onto critical questions in one area of public policy where high-minded moralizing has long reigned supreme.

ReaganThe comic traces the evolution of America’s obsession with getting ‘tough on crime’ from its beginnings in the 1970s through to the second Bush administration. Along the way it explores the impact of the War on Drugs, changes in social attitudes towards crime and the role of racism in expanding the prison-industrial complex. On the political file, the crass electoral motives of successive legislators are exposed. Clinton and George W. Bush are particularly held up as hypocrites, promising to reform the system while allowing prison spending and populations to grow in tandem.

racism and incarcerationThe comic does an excellent job of outlining the role played by racism in incarcerating black and Hispanic Americans at a disproportionate rate. Racism, and underlying white cultural anxieties, are ably exposed as the culprits for rates of black incarceration. The usual apologies for the racial composition of the prison population are handily debunked. The proverbial fig leaf is pulled away, and the naked truth is not a pretty thing to behold.

If there is a flaw in ‘Race To Incarcerate’, it is in the conclusion. After spending the majority of its pages identifying the endemic racism in American society, it proposes a coalition of business, academic leaders, communities of colour and families of addicts to tackle the problem by lobbying the government. The book persuasively argues that the rich and powerful have a vested interest in maintaining the current system. It then proposes the problems be solved through a coalition made up in part by the rich and powerful appealing to the very politicians whose dishonesty it has exposed. Some business leaders may feel compelled to oppose the prison industrial complex, but it is a drop in the bucket to a system that has been constructed–designed–in the interests of corporate profits.

Furthermore, the book is right to suggest the involvement communities of colour, but missed the opportunity to highlight one of the most important groups of all – prisoners and ex-convicts themselves. Prisoners and ex-cons not only deserve the right to tell their stories, their voices should be at the forefront of a prison abolition movement. Regardless of the accuracy of the book’s conclusion, the information in it can help persuade regular people that prisons don’t work.

Canadian prison
Canadian or American prison? Can’t tell? They’re about to get even more similar…

But the truth, we are told, shall set us free. The Conservative government is hot to bring many of the measures described in ‘Race To Incarcerate’ up to Canada, including mandatory minimum sentences and private prisons. The message of ‘Race To Incarcerate’ is clear: prisons don’t work. But more than that, they are dangerous to a degree that should alarm us. Indigenous people make up about 4% of Canada’s population, but 23% of its prison population – and the rates are climbing. In Canada, prisons are looking more and more like another form of genocide.

conclusionThe facts in ‘Race To Incarcerate’ won’t liberate those prisoners, but they can free the rest of us from the moralizing naiveté that justifies mass imprisonment. Liberated from our ignorance, we can turn our attention to prying open the bars of the prison industrial complex.

On Kickstarter: Prison Grievances by Teri Leclercq

As a comic book author who knows full-well how hard it is to find funding for a project (let alone make that seemingly impossible step from unpublished to published author), I’ve decided to begin publicizing political comic projects that I’m finding online–projects that have not yet reached store shelves, and that can benefit from your support.

This is not only to encourage the medium develop itself as an incredible vehicle for education and storytelling. It’s also to promote the people out there who have chosen comic books to raise awareness. I’ll be bringing you information and links on these projects as I find them on websites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter. (In fact, a recent Guardian UK article noted that Kickstarter has arguably become the 4th largest publisher of graphic novels, according to its crowd-funding data. Surely, within the numbers of those success stories are some amazing pieces of political comic storytelling that mainstream publishers didn’t want to “risk” putting out.)

~(Preview 1)~

“Prison Grievances” is a graphic novel of guidance for U.S. prison inmates in their efforts to file complaints and protect their rights. Written by educator, Terri LeclercBy

Title: Prison Grievances
Project Platform: Kickstarter
Author: Terri Leclercq, (author and educator) 

This project is not to create a book for a regular readership. Prison Grievances is written specifically for inmates of the U.S. prison system, fundamentally focused on education and empowerment. The book, reviewed by people at all levels of the prison system from judges to former inmates, details the step-by-step process for filing complaints with the court system, requesting a special piece of equipment due to a disability–whatever the case may be.

While this book may come across as little more than a practical tool for someone in a different situation than you, it serves a great purpose. The fact of the matter is that 1 in 12 Americans have been in the prison system, and over 2 million people currently sit in jail cells–that’s more prisoners than the People’s Republic of China (which, by the way, still has more people than the U.S.) Anyone who still thinks that the prison industrial complex isn’t a problem should do some more reading on the matter – maybe start with Shane Bauer’s recent heart-wrenching article in Mother Jones: “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.”

Leclercq has taken the right approach in tackling this titanic challenge that we face as a society (whether we admit it or not–prisoners becomes ex-prisoners, who are then our co-workers, neighbours, and fellow citizens), and is attempting to hand these men and women a valuable tool. If this project speaks to you, please check out the pitch page and make a donation.