Behind Bars

The Social and Public Art Resource Center, SPARC, Behind Bars exhibit, currently on view until April 24th, is located at the old Venice Police Station in the Westside. The installation was a collaborative effort by Los De Abajo Printmaking Collective, which included wood cuts, stencils, mixed media, and other mediums by resident artists: Kay Brown, Nguyen Ly, Don Newton, Poli Marichal, and Marianne Sadowski. The work is a set of prints that denounces the industrial prison complex which warehouses people of color, practices cruel and unusual punishment, and influences anxiety, apathy, and alienation amongst the inmate population. Instead of developing programs that rehabilitate and reform criminal offenders in order to help reduce the recidivism rate, the California penal system has systematically passed legislature that does the opposite. Policies like the 3 strikes law, gang enhancement, street injunctions, and the war on drugs and gangs have all contributed to the growing incarceration rate, including non-violent offenders.

The United States has the highest prison population in the world, with California leading the race, and with plans to build more prisons throughout the entire state. Between 1984-2005 we built 22 prisons, but only 4 additional universities. In an era where college tuitions are increasing exponentially, drop out rates are skyrocketing, and violent crimes have decreased significantly, it is an embarrassment to observe the increasing number of inmates that are constantly being drawn from our inner cities. I understand this phenomenon well, I have many friends who are incarcerated or have been for non-violent crimes, such as carrying a small amount of cocaine or marijuana. Do you think that warrants six years in prison? What about the high number of politicians in Los Angeles who have been charged with nepotism, robbing pensions, stealing money from their constituents, money laundering, living outside of their districts, DUI’s, etc…how much time do they get? What is the severity of their crime? Peg Averill drew a poster in the 80’s which stated that capital punishment simply means that those without capital get the punishment. Guilty until proven innocent, right, and I have been a victim of this a handful of times by racist police officers.

When I saw the exhibit, it left a significant impact on my current state, and it brought back memories of riding around in the neighborhood and getting pulled over on a regular basis. When I think about my friends in prison, I think how simple it could’ve been for me to be there instead of them, since we grew up in a similar environment, engaged in similar activities, and came from the same socio-economic status. The cold imagery of inmates in solitary confinement made me depressed. I thought about my friends who have been housed in solitary confinement and how difficult the adjustment process was. I write about these conditions in my literature in order to capture their struggle so that it is never forgotten. The isolation and ridicule itself is cruel and unusual punishment. The exhibit also examines how the capitalist market economy influences the society at large to live in a carceral state because of its ability to monitor every aspect of our lives. When Jeremy Bentham created the Panoptican he said that it was enough for people to believe they were constantly being monitored to instill fear. And it was Rousseau who said it best, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”

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