Amy Elkins’s project Black Is the Day, Black Is the Night is a compelling set of images that tackle the subject of incarceration. To circumvent the near impossibility of gaining access to prison populations in order to photograph them, Elkins focused her project on the ephemera surrounding her long-distance correspondence with inmates. Presented here with an essay by Pete Brook and a narrated letter from one of Elkins’ collaborators, this edition of Daylight Digital is truly moving. We hope you agree.
At the outset, Amy Elkins did not intend Black Is the Day, Black Is the Night to be a photography project. Rather, it was a commitment to correspond with men on death row and men serving life sentences without parole. The images came later.
Prison administrators routinely deny photographers’ and documentarians’ requests to get inside the walls, but such a bureaucratic obstacle never materialized for Elkins. She never wished to visit the prisons in which her pen pals were—and are—imprisoned, and as a result, she developed her own visual language to describe the psychological territory inhabited therein.
Black Is the Day, Black Is the Night (BITDBITN) is an earnest—and at times an improvised—scattershot of imagery: notes, quotes, scanned letters, pixelated portraits, composite images of landscapes sutured on Elkins’s desktop, and studio photographs of common jailhouse objects that Elkins bought or constructed.
Elkins learned through the men’s written and drawn descriptions, and in this regard, her pen pals are collaborators and BITDBITN is a collaboration.
The fragments Elkins brings together in BITDBITN are both response and challenge to the invisibility that defines the lives of her imprisoned pen pals. Subjectivity reigns in BITDBITN; the collection reads as a visual poem.
It may have been the family member sucked into the US prison system, or her curiosity about the effects of deprivation on the human mind, but something led Elkins to write to American prisoners.1 Likely a bit of both, but nevertheless she took a leap of faith to move away from the stylized, fine art portraiture for which she is known. Habitually, Elkins employs months of research, painstaking design, long studio hours, and meticulous postproduction to craft her portraits. Not here. For BITDBITN, Elkins surrendered a lot of control.
These are not images that wash over us; we must get in among them, know their origin, understand their purpose, and decipher captions. Most important, BITDBITN opens avenues for us to think about America’s vast prison industrial complex.
The late thinker Allan Sekula once asked, “How does photography serve to legitimate and normalise existing power relationships?…How is historical and social memory preserved, transformed, restricted and obliterated by photographs?”2
Surely, the discussion begins with a consideration of what images exist, what images are routinely or automatically manufactured, what scenes are never documented, and of course, what images are suppressed (or worse still, destroyed). The seen and unseen images nascent within US prisons require particular urgent consideration.
Elkins grew up in Southern California. At the time she was born, California operated 12 state prisons, which had been built during the preceding 130 years. In her lifetime, which coincides with the era of mass incarceration and the near fivefold increase in the US prison population, Elkins’s home state constructed a further 21 prisons.
Until the 2011 US Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Plata3 and the consequent relocation of 30,000-plus prisoners, California warehoused the largest prison population of any state. It was an ignominious distinction the Golden State held for 25 years. During the same period, California perfected the art of isolation. In 1989, Pelican Bay State Prison went into operation. The Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay was the first state-run supermax (supermaximum-security) facility in the country and provided the model for a consequent 60 supermaxes built across the US. They are prisons within prisons.
Of the seven men with whom Elkins made contact in June 2009, she remains in touch with only one, Freddy, who has been held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay since 1995, when he was 16 years of age. Freddy has been incarcerated since he was 13.
Of Elkins’s six other collaborators, two were executed (in 2009 and 2012); two opted out of correspondence at different stages; one suffered bouts of mental instability, which impaired his ability to maintain contact; and one was released (in 2010), at the age of 30 after 15 years in prison.
They are Freddy’s words that accompany this Daylight Digital presentation. The project title, Black Is the Day, Black Is the Night, is a direct quote from a poem Freddy wrote about the deadening tedium of life in solitary.
“It spoke about that environment so well. Being pulled away from everything. Experiencing no variance. Everything is the same; everything is dark. The poem is mind-blowing,” says Elkins. “Better for him to describe the situation than me.”
In some ways, Elkins was grasping in the dark herself. BITDBITN’s disjointed sequence results from trawling the online prison pen-pal sites and searching for answers.
“The whole project has been about searching,” says Elkins. “I searched out these men on the Internet, then I had to search my motives as to why I write these letters.”
If we, as viewers, experience disorientation as we pluck meaning from Elkins’s photography, then we should spare thought for her caged collaborators’ loss of bearing.
On any given day in the United States, 20,000 people are being held in solitary confinement. In California, solitary is a 22½-hour lockdown in a 6-by-9-foot cell with a steel door and no windows. Once a day, the prisoner is shackled, walked down a corridor on his own, and let into a concrete-walled “dog pen” with a metal grate over it, to exercise. By proxy, Freddy’s narrative is that of the thousands of inmates held in isolation each and every day.
For many reasons, the widespread use of isolation in American prisons is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past 20 years. Some prisoners have been kept down in the hole for decades. The controversial use of long-term solitary confinement is one of the most pressing issues of the American prison system currently in public debate. Much of the debate results from the attention drawn to California—and to the SHU at Pelican Bay in particular—by the California Prisoner Hunger Strike.4
At the time of this writing, the California Prison Hunger Strike is in its 59th day. Some 30,000 prisoners in more than a dozen prisons initiated the strike by declining nine consecutive meals and refusing to go to work. Now just a couple of hundred remain on fast. The strikers’ demands are reasonable: access to meaningful education and rehabilitation programs; the provision of nutritious food; an end to group punishments; abolition of the Kafkaesque debriefing practice that hinders release from solitary into the general prison population; and an end to long-term solitary confinement.5
What is the political discussion on solitary?
Juan E. Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture, is clear that solitary confinement is torture and permanently damages the mental health of prisoners.
“Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit…whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” said Mendez in front of the UN General Assembly in June 2011. “It is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”6
Prisoners lose their minds quickly when deprived of human contact. Identity is socially created, and it is through relationships that individuals understand themselves.
Solitary confinement “undermines your ability to register and regulate emotion,” explained Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in an interview with Wired.com. “The appropriateness of what you’re thinking and feeling is difficult to index, because we’re so dependent on contact with others for that feedback. And for some people, it becomes a struggle to maintain sanity.”7
Common symptoms resulting from long-term isolation include chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair. In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving and become essentially catatonic.
If a prisoner doesn’t withdraw within him or herself, he or she may resort to aggression. In his study of Pelican Bay SHU prisoners, Haney found that nearly 90 percent had difficulties with irrational anger, compared with just 3 percent of the general US population.8
Physician Atul Gawande has compared the permanent psychological impairment described in Haney’s research to that incurred by traumatic brain injury.9
And the rate of suicide attempts and success soars among prisoners denied human contact. In California, among the inmates who are in solitary confinement, 60–70 percent are successful in taking their own lives. The national average is 50 percent.10
Yet US states remain invested in the practice. The California Department of Corrections (CDCr) and Governor Jerry Brown, in particular, are bullish in maintaining solitary as a management technique. What would Freddy make of the CDCr’s specious claims that the protest is a power-play tactic by gang leaders? What about the other 20,000-plus men held in extreme isolation?
Stuart Grassian, forensic psychiatrist, former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, and expert in the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement, has interviewed hundreds of prisoners in solitary confinement. While evaluating inmates in the SHU at the state penitentiary in Walpole, Massachusetts, in the early 1980s, he observed a unique psychiatric syndrome associated with solitary confinement. Grassian noted a characteristic array of symptoms—including paranoia, severe panic attacks, mental confusion, obsessive thoughts, aggressive fantasies, hypersensitivity to stimuli, problems with impulse control, and extensive hallucinations—some of which, he reported, are rarely seen other than in neurological illness or injury.11
Shockingly, neither Méndez’s recommendations to the UN nor the conclusions of scientific studies are new information for politicians in Washington, D.C. In June 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a bipartisan national task force, issued a report that recommended ending the practice of long-term isolation and acknowledged research that long-term isolation (longer than 10 days) offers no benefits and instead causes substantial harm to inmates, prison staff, and the general public.12
Black Is the Day, Black Is the Night brings the near-invisible perversity of solitary torture to the fore. For Elkins, this was never more evident than in a letter and an image she received very recently and which did not make it into the BITDBITN final edit. For nearly 20 years, prisoners in Pelican Bay SHU—including Freddy—were not permitted to have their picture taken. Elkins had seen only a mug shot of Freddy as a 13-year-old child, taken when he was first admitted into the CDCr. As a portrait photographer, she was dumbfounded by this restriction.
The purposeless photo ban was lifted following the 2011 California Prisoner Hunger Strike, and consequently Freddy had his photograph taken. He sent Elkins a photo of himself as a 36-year-old.
Given the restrictions on portraiture, Elkins was only able to acquire old snapshots of her pen pals; compromised images borne of institutional power. She couldn’t give them credence so Elkins got creative. Using an algorithm that took into account the age of her subjects and the amount of prison time they had served, she degraded the quality of their images. These pixelated portraits of men, whose stories are dominated by narratives of courts and institutions, are new chapters in the visual records of their lives. In some cases, they ultimately serve as eulogies.
Born under sunny California skies, Elkins could not have known that the abuses within US prisons would manifest so tragically. She could not have known that BITDBITN would emerge right at the moment when the US takes a hard look at its isolation practices.
Solitary confinement is not reserved for the worst of the worst; it is used to punish and to make docile those maddened by America’s grossly overpopulated prisons. In the 1980s, mandatory-minimum sentencing and new laws tied to the war on drugs rapidly increased prosecutions of nonviolent offenders and sent them down for longer sentences.
“Solitary confinement is a logical result of mass incarceration,” asserts Terry Kupers, Institute Professor at the Wright Institute in San Francisco and Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.13
Prisons’ mandate to rehabilitate and provide activities for prisoners was all but suspended as overcrowding took over.
“Not surprisingly, prison systems faced with this influx of prisoners, and lacking the rewards they once had to manage and control prisoner behavior, turned to the use of punishment,” explained Haney. “One big punishment is the threat of long-term solitary confinement.”
America carried forth this disastrous social experiment with next to no forethought on the long-term repercussions of isolation for prisoners sentenced to it, nor for the wider moral crisis we—as taxpayers who fund the prisons—now must answer. Black Is the Day, Black Is the Night is an open invitation to join a collective examination of conscience.
Amy Elkins (b. 1979, Venice, California) is a photographer and curator currently based in the greater Los Angeles area. She received her BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Elkins has been exhibited and published both nationally and internationally, including at Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, Austria; the Carnegie Art Museum in California; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota; North Carolina Museum of Art; Light Work gallery in Syracuse, New York; and Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York City, among others. Elkins was selected for Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program in 2011 and for Villa Waldberta’s International Artist-in-Residence in Munich in 2012. Her work has been published recently in the Telegraph’s Stella magazine; Real Simple’s May 2013 issue; Lens magazine; Vice: The Fiction Issue; Conveyor 3: Smoke & Mirrors; Blink Magazine, Issue 15; Contact Sheet: The Light Work Annual; and more. Elkins is a cofounder of the website Women in Photography (wipnyc.org), a platform for showcasing both established and emerging women in photography.
Pete Brook is a freelance writer and contributor to Raw File, the photography blog of Wired.com. Since 2008, he has published writing about imagery produced within and about prisons on his website, Prison Photography. In 2011, Prison Photography was awarded a Life.com Photo Blog Award, and the British Journal of Photography recommended it as among “10 of the Best Photoblogs.” Brook was cocurator for Cruel and Unusual, an exhibition of prison photography at the Noorderlicht Photogallery in the Netherlands (February-April 2012) that later traveled to Amsterdam, New York, Sydney, and Ireland. From lost archives to Instagram hashtags, from 24-hour news cycles to embedded documentary work, Brook is interested in how images are manufactured, distributed, and consumed. His first solo-curated show, Beyond Documentary: New Prison Photographics, opens in January 2014 at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery in Haverford, Pennsylvania. He is currently working on a book of prison photography to be published in early 2014 by the Silas Finch Foundation. Brook lives in Portland, Oregon.
Elkins’s account of her experience visiting her father in federal prison is recounted in Photographs Not Taken (Daylight Books, 2010).