We are the camera

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Here is an excerpt of Executive Director Robert Gangi’s remarks at the 1844 Medal Award dinner. Drawing on his personal experience and the recent world events that have created a greater awareness about the terrible problem of abuse in prisons, he spoke about the work of the CA and why it is so important, not only to people in prison, but to society at large.

“Not so long ago, I was talking to one of my grown sons about a CA prison visit. Along with other CA representatives, dedicated board members and staff, I had just seen horrible conditions of confinement in an upstate New York prison. Upset at my report, Theo said, ‘Pops, you have to put a check on these things.’

That’s a key CA role, to apply a check, to put a stop to the bad things—terrible things—we sometimes observe in our state prisons. It’s especially important work because we have learned over time that imprisonment, like war I suppose, can unleash the worst kinds of human behavior imaginable.

The war/imprisonment connection brings to mind, of course, the terrible incidents at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In some ways, because of my experience with these issues, I’ve been surprised by how intensive and extensive the furor has been about the revelations of the brutal treatment of incarcerated Iraqis by U.S. soldiers. The common wisdom in this country has long been that it’s nearly impossible to stir outrage about prison abuses because the American public doesn’t care about incarcerated individuals, an unpopular—even despised—class of human beings if there ever was one. So why the terrific uproar about the circumstances in Iraq?

Maybe one explanation is that the common wisdom was flawed. Another is the hard blow these revelations have inflicted on Americans’ identity as a good and idealistic people. ‘What’s being done in our name?’ becomes the wrenching question. Then again, maybe it’s been a function of this season’s presidential and international politics? But I don’t think so.

The principal reason, I believe, is the pictures. So graphic, so perversely compelling, so dramatic in their power to shock and shame us. They pack an undeniable emotional wallop.

Too bad, isn’t it, that the CA can’t take cameras into the prisons.

Then I thought, that is the CA’s function; that one very real way to understand our work’s central purpose is to realize that we are the camera. We go everywhere in the prisons: the cellblocks, clinics, yards, visiting rooms, kitchens, program areas, punitive segregation units. We talk to incarcerated individuals and guards. We write up notes, take mental snapshots and issue reports aimed at revealing problems behind the walls. Because we are, after all, society’s camera.

The verbal report that so troubled my son Theo involved the confinement of severely mentally ill incarcerated individuals in punitive segregation cells. For 23 to 24 hours a day. For weeks, months, sometimes years at a time. With little or no social interaction. Extreme sensory deprivation. High rates of suicide and acts of self-harm. Men in their underwear cowering in corners mumbling incoherently. Men ranting so feverishly that we could not tell whether they were insane to begin with or driven mad by their conditions of confinement.

These ‘pictures’ that we conjure up with our words provided the dramatic heart of our Lockdown New York report issued last fall. But we don’t just send pictures out to the world through publishing and publicizing reports, as valuable as that effort is. Through our activism, we send a follow-up message.

Through the practical recommendations for reform included in our reports; through our coalition-building that draws the support of diverse, like-minded allies; through lobbying editorial boards, legislators, and other state officials—we don’t just take and point to the disturbing pictures. We are saying that it doesn’t have to be this way. We are saying that, with your help and the backing of our coalitions, together we’re going to do something about it.

Our follow-up public education and advocacy to the release of Lockdown New York, for instance, led the New York State Assembly to pass a law banning the confinement of mentally ill people in disciplinary units. Governor Pataki included an additional $13 million in his proposed budget for increased mental health services in the prisons. These are important first steps towards establishing a humane and sensible policy in this area.

In conclusion, and at the risk of sounding immodest, when it comes to prison policy and practice, the CA is not just society’s camera. We are also its conscience—an activist conscience: nagging, prodding until the problem, moral or otherwise, is resolved.

Get the picture?”