New Orleans Photographers Highlight the Prisons-for-Profit System

Keith Calhoun, Prisons-for-Profit

PHOTO CREDIT: Keith Calhoun | (L) Glenn Demourelle, Angola State Prison CCR Lockdown, 1980. (R) 23 Hour Lockdown, Chess Players, 1980. Archival pigment prints.

In 2007, Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun formed the L9 Center for the Arts to emphasize and provide support to African American artists in New Orleans and the surrounding area. Their work presents stark and gripping insights into both the beautiful and barbaric realities of Louisiana culture. For over three decades, Calhoun and McCormick have been capturing the richness of New Orleans’ rapidly vanishing traditional culture. Their photography is the visual poetry of everyday life.

Recently, their work has focused on what some view as a new slave system – the private prisons industrial complex – an array of corporate interests privatizing prisons across the United States to gain lucrative contracts and utilized the forced labor of convicts to save labor costs. McCormick and Calhoun’s recent work focuses on the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison known also as the “Alcatraz of the South” or simply as “Angola” to locals. The facility is the largest prison in the United States.

As noted by journalist Cindy Chang in The Times-Picayune , “Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s.” And, as highlighted on the exhibit’s website, slavery is not only legal in U.S. prisons, it is profitable.

The Corrections Corporation of America and other such entities lobby legislators to pull funding from public programs like higher education and work to divert much needed monies to build private prisons where convicts are used to create products and perform services. In addition, in many states, CCA interests and lobbyists work to increase criminal penalties to ensure that those convicted of even minor crimes are forced to serve long sentences working to enrich the company’s shareholders.

The system works like this: a private prison firm contracts companies who agree to pay the prison company for products manufactured in their prisons with convict labor. This seriously reduces production costs and increases profits for all involved – except the inmates. But this system doesn’t only hurt the inmates, it hurts others “on the outside” working in the manufacturing industry as the allure of cheap prison labor causes many companies to close their doors and shift to the private prison factories.

The conflicts of interest are glaring: in Oklahoma, former Governor Frank Keating – using his background in law-enforcement to justify his policy positions – sought to defund higher education programs and redirect funds to CCA. He then sought to pass a “two strikes, you’re out law” that would create more permanent prisoners working in CCA facilities. What was not widely known was that Keating’s wife was a stockholder. By defunding education, more working-class people and minorities would find it difficult to find work. Data concluded that lower-education, led to lower employment, which led to more crime which would, as an end result, lead to more prisoners and ultimately more profits for CCA and the Keating family.

The private detention facilities, however, were cheaply built and routinely experienced crises of every sort. In Union City, Oklahoma, a private juvenile facility, employees reported that cell doors were improperly installed allowing the young inmates to lock out the guards. In Chickasha, Oklahoma, a new county jail built by private companies collapsed due to poor construction. But the companies involved profited in spite of risks to inmates, corrections workers and staff. Similar situations have played out across the nation.

As African Americans remain some of the most marginalized people in the U.S. they continue to be disproportionately represented in U.S. prisons – especially in the South – as the work of McCormick and Calhoun illustrate. Their photographs are more than just powerful documentary evidence of the continued crises brought on by social, racial and class inequality. The exhibit is more than art; it is a wake-up call to anyone concerned by privatization of the penal system. McCormick and Callhoun’s photos have been exhibited at The Philadelphia African American Museum, the Civil Rights Museum, The Smithsonian Institution and are currently on display at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art at the University of New Orleans, Louisiana until January 25, 2015.

For more information on the work of McCormick and Callhoun, go to: http://www.prospectneworleans.org/p3-artists/2014/8/25/meet-p3-artists-keith-calhoun-and-chandra-mccormick.html

For more information on the work on their current exhibit at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, go to: http://www.ogdenmuseum.org/exhibitions/index.html