"Maximum Security Democracy"--
Posters for Our Time

Revolutionary Worker #964, July 5, 1998

"Maximum Security Democracy" is a powerful new series of 14 posters examining the U.S. prison industry--from the Vermont-based art/activist group Resistant Strains. Resistant Strains is a group of activists and artists producing alternative media projects, including poster series, publications, and traveling art shows. Previous projects include the poster series "Bank Job" which skewered the International Monetary Fund, see RW No. 835.

Project coordinator David Thorne describes the work: "Although the title Maximum Security Democracy is somewhat overarching, this project began with a fairly specific intent: to focus on the U.S. prison industry and to highlight some of the struggles of those opposing it. These posters touch on prison labor; police violence; racism in the criminal justice system; immigrant detention and torture; privatization of prisons; women, class, and incarceration; government "anti-crime" policy; technologies of control; youth detention; and political imprisonment. The series serves to foreground some of the issues central to the construction of crime and punishment at a time when these issues are deliberately dismissed in the frenzied expansion of the criminal justice system....

"The scope of it all is terrifying. After a mere nine months of reading and writing and corresponding and discussing, I am terrified. And I'm not in a prison, so I don't even know the half of it.... As both coordinator and contributing artist for this project, I have tried to remind myself that maximum security democracy is in some measure a product of maximum insecurity--that those who are the most terrified employ the most terror. (How terrified does one have to be to demand that a person be strapped to a gurney and injected with lethal chemical? To build prisons at an increasingly frantic pace? To send a person to prison for life for the "third strike" of stealing cookies? And so on.) These posters expose and exploit this insecurity. They are a kind of counter-terrorism, and a challenge to the conventional wisdom which asserts that prisons house the most violent and incorrigible and criminal elements of our society....It is a measure of the breadth of these issues that 14 posters, for all their individual and collective strengths, barely scratch the surface.

"For us, however, this project is a start. We plan to continue with this work in different formats, expanding the range of concerns to further explore the prison-industrial complex and, more importantly, to focus on the work of people fighting it."

The posters are at once chilling and provocative--in the way that art can be when it lets us see something about reality in a new way.

In "Crimestop," South African artist Jane Duncan creates a disturbing study of the connection between U.S. imperialist investment in South Africa and poverty and imprisonment there.

Crimestop is the South African government's anti-crime program, which uses the slogan "Don't Do Crime."

"Guilty Until Proven Wealthy"--by graphic designer Nick Jehlen of Somerville, Massachusetts--looks like money and tells us that "the majority of women in prison are there for property crimes, such as check forgery, check kiting, and illegal credit card use...At the same time, the safety net has been slashed, forcing many women to choose between staying out of jail and feeding their kids."

In "Riot" by art/activist Josh MacPhee, hands tear open the prison walls as faces of rebelling prisoners appear in the black and white stenciled patterns of convict stripes, bricks and barbed wire. A poem in English and Spanish by Assata Shakur, former Black Panther who escaped from prison and is currently living in exile in Cuba, floats on the surface:

And if I know anything at all/
Y si yo fuera reconocer algo
it's that a wall is just a wall/
es que un muro es solo un muro
and nothing more at all/
y nada más que eso.
It can be broken down/
Puede ser derrumbado.

In "For More Information" by Resistant Strains member Meghan O'Rourke, the faces of political prisoners look out from postage stamps--as postal cancellation marks like "COINTELPRO 30 March 1968" and "Racism 9 April 1991" remind of us how they were incarcerated.

"Portrait" by Jayne Pagnucco--a conceptual artist who combines photography, research, architectural installation and community outreach-- tells the story of Ramone, one of her drawing students at Rikers Island Adolescent Reception and Detention Center--who "dazzled us with his knowledge of perspective" and "was cut with a razor from the top of his neck down his spine."

Treatment of INS prisoners is the theme of "Detention" by Jenny Polak--an artist from Britain who is also a member of the RepoHistory project whose work was recently banned by the city of New York, (see RW No. 959). A young woman runs away in one corner...while in another corner a hand with pliers reaches for the genitals of a naked man. The text informs us that prisoners from the private Esmor Detention Center were tortured by guards in Union City Jail, NJ in June 1995. Their heads were pushed into toilets, their testicles were squeezed with pliers, and they were forced to kneel naked and say "America is Number 1."

"React" by illustrator Kevin Pyle, is a chilling commentary on prison torture and the Remote Electronically Activated Technology Stun Belt. A twisted spoon becomes a human being in the mind of a sadistic prison conjurerer as text from a document from the Bureau of Prisons informs us of "Inmate Notification of Custody Control Belt Use"--an electronic restraint belt which activates a stun package immobilizing the prisoner and causing the prisoner to defecate and urinate on themselves if the prisoner tampers with the belt, fails to comply with a verbal order by prison staff, loss of visual contact by the officer in charge and other violations of prison authority.

In "Fast Track Police State" by New York City artist Max Schumann, blue and white figures capture the LAPD and their signature choppers as tiny phrases float across the background calling to mind media hype and the realities of police repression in 1998: "the cost of living," "your spending power," "the possibility of going to jail," "the number of video cameras in public places," "the number of civilians killed this year by police," "where you go to get away from it all..."

The penetrating eyes of a young Black man confront the viewer over a fictional "memo" to the president from a fictional "Internal Security Agency" in "Punish" by Maoist artist Dread Scott. Under the faces--at once fierce and hopeful--the memo captures the realities of the system's program of criminalization of the youth: "Our basic assessment is: 1. That the inner city superpredators today can't be rehabilitated and it is increasingly clear that we have no choice except to incarcerate most of this generation...." "Punish" also recently appeared in the "Postcards from Black America" show at DeBeyerd Gallery in Breda, Netherlands and will be at Frans Halsmuseum in Haarlem, Netherlands from September 9 through November 29.

In "Sorry," Resistant Strains coordinator David Thorne makes a powerful contrast between modern prison cell blocks and the holds of slave ships; and in "Occupy the Cells!" he delivers a wicked send-up "calling all white people in the battle to end affirmative action" suggesting whites who are "tired of feeling locked out of the systems that should be serving you first" should "demand to be arrested, charged and held without bail."

"Packing a Golf Ball" by San Francisco painter Dale Wittig poses the explosive contradictions of a society where prisoners make golf balls for 29 cents an hour while a privileged strata plays the links and the media hypes the success of Tiger Woods as a role model for young Black men: "There's a myth that if you drive a nail into a golf ball it will explode: power thru swing."

"Superpredators" by the Resistant Strains group is a surreal juxtaposition of images--mixing designer sheets and bars, corporate jailers and prison shakedown in an acerbic commentary on the private prison industry.

And finally "Slavecatchers," reprinted from an 1851 poster warns the "colored people of Boston, one & all" to "avoid conversing with the Watchman and Police Officers of Boston, for since the recent order of the Mayor & Aldermen, they are empowered to act as Kidnappers and Slave Catchers."

Resistant Strains can be contacted at their website at http://www.prisonactivist.org/resistant-strains

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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