Archives for August 2010

Because they are still human

James Kessler is a justice architect. That means he works in criminal justice architecture. He is a senior principal at Hellmuth, Obata + Kassebaum, Inc, better known as HOK, one of the largest architectural firms in the world. Here’s how they describe justice architecture: “As an integral part of society and a component of contemporary life in our cities and states, Justice Architecture is a powerful symbol that serves to define the image of justice in every community.”

In a profile this week, Kessler talked about women prisoners in the United States: “Incarcerated women, for example, are more likely to change, or want to change, Kessler said, noting “an incredibly high percentage – more than 50 percent – have been abused as children.” Statistically they also have more health issues than men, and 75 percent are mothers with the added burden of being away from their children, exacerbated by having been abandoned by their own parents in similar situations….In the past, and sometimes at present, Kessler said parity issues arise vis-à-vis men’s prisons, with fewer opportunities and programs available to women who comprise a much smaller percentage of the prison population.…One of the goals during incarceration, Kessler explained, is to ameliorate the anger that defines inmates. According to Kessler, because research has determined women have a much greater need for privacy than men, requiring them to live in open dormitories would very possibly build on that anger rather than helping to relieve it.”

Women prisoners’ anger, women’s anger, creates a different space and inhabits a different architecture than the anger of men.

The profile concludes with Kessler’s reflection: “As architects, we have social responsibilities and certain sensitivities, perceptions and skills to deal with unusual situations for the people that work in them, the people that visit them and for the people that are in them, because they are still human.”

Because they are still human. What determines the humanity of a prisoner? The architecture? The design elements? Such as shackles around the ankles and waists of women in labor and delivery?

In Rhode Island, pregnant prisoners are handcuffed and shackled. Earlier this month, the Rhode Island chapters of the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union find this “troubling” and “unnecessary”. Rhode Island Department of Corrections officials see shackling as striking “a balance between the need for security and the interests of a pregnant inmate.” How is being shackled in the interests of a pregnant woman? She is still human, isn’t she?

In California, the ACLU is challenging the same “balanced” shackling of pregnant women: “In California, we currently shackle pregnant women. In jails and prisons, women are forced to walk with shackles around their swollen ankles, chains around their middles, and handcuffs behind their backs. They walk through downtown city blocks chained to one to another, trying their best not to lose balance”. The ACLU thinks this is cruel and unusual punishment, not a balance struck in the interests of pregnant women. But then, perhaps the interests of pregnant women and those of pregnant prisoners are not the same. Does “security” define reconstitute pregnant women prisoners as other than human? Is that the “balance”? What is the name of the different space created by shackled pregnant women walking, stumbling, falling?

In a couple weeks, the Governor of California will have the opportunity to strike a new balance, limiting the use of restraints on pregnant women who are prisoners.

In Texas this month, the ACLU and the Texas Jail Project have charged the Dallas County jail and others in the state with shackling prisoners during labor and delivery.

This week, the U.S. government submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council. This is the first time the US has ever reported on its own human rights situation. Prison is included in the report. It appears in Chapter III, “A Commitment to Freedom, Equality, Dignity.” Prison is in the third section, Dignity. There are safeguards for dignity in law enforcement and criminal justice, dignity and incarceration, dignity and criminal sanctions, dignity and juvenile offenders. Dignity abounds. There is no mention of dignity and women. There is no mention of the shackling of pregnant women prisoners.

It is August in America. Pregnant women prisoners across the country are being shackled. Even though they do not appear in the report on human rights, they are still human, they are still women … aren’t they?


(Image Credit:

Azbaa’s anguish, Auden’s blues

Azbaa Dar

Pakistani born Azbaa Dar is being held in Yarl’s Wood. On Monday of this week she reported, dutifully, to the Liverpool office of the UK Border Agency. She has been applying for asylum for nine years, and as part of the process, she has to `visit’ the UKBA offices regularly. At this visit, she was given a letter denying her asylum. She was then taken to Yarl’s Wood and told she was to be returned to Pakistan.

Azbaa’s family had been turned down for asylum on Easter 2006, after a five year asylum process. Her father, Arif, a local high school governor, her mother, her four younger sisters were sent to Yarl’s Wood, and then shipped back to Pakistan. Since their return, Arif has been detained and tortured on a number of occasions, her mother is ill, her sisters have been threatened if they pursue formal education. And then of course there are the floods.

Azbaa escaped capture and lived clandestinely around Liverpool for close to four years. Finally, a deal was struck that if she turned herself in and came regularly to the office, she’d be fast tracked. She was. To Yarl’s Wood.

She was supposed to fall under a `legacy’ agreement, that would take into account the roots of the applicant in her new community. Azbaa has won Good Citizenship awards, has logged in 800 hours of volunteer, unpaid service at a local hospital, and is generally viewed as a model. She was supposed to be treated with some modicum of decency, recognition, appreciation. She was supposed to receive due process of some sort.

Instead, she has been treated as a dangerous criminal, a threat to society.

Azbaa Dar’s story, and that of her family for that matter, is all too common in the so-called advanced democracies. Pregnant Tamil asylum seekers are kept as prisoners in Canada. An Australian candidate for Prime Minister of Australia bases his campaign on severely limiting the number of asylum seekers who reach the nation’s golden shores.

It’s a common story. Seventy one years ago, 1939, on the verge of World War II, W.H. Auden wrote “Refugee Blues”. Here are some stanzas:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us….

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me….

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.”

I dreamed I saw Azbaa Dar and W.H. Auden, walking down the road, smiling. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we live with the anguish of the asylum seekers, in the UK, in Canada, in Australia, in the US, in the great democracies of the world. Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.


(Photo Credit:

Art South Africa: Who is your audience?

Who is your audience?
by Zanele Muholi

My audience is not here.

My audience is those people who look at two lesbian women in a photo and say that it is a shock: ‘Oh my God, don’t show that!’ That is my audience.

I don’t know who my audience is.

I know that I have brothers who give me a space to showcase my work, but then I don’t know how far or how safe other spaces can become. We are at a gallery here. My audience is at the station, at Gugs [Gugulethu] taxi rank, where a different mindset occupies that space. That’s the audience, or that’s the space that I’d like to penetrate.

You have different kinds of audiences in different spaces occupying different positions in this country, and I happen to interact with all those audiences.

The president is my audience. And a whole lot of other Zulu men who might not agree with my images, because Zulu men don’t dress up like that.

I’m still looking for my audience.

[ENDNOTE] This is an edited version of Zanele Muholi’s response to a question at a public talk hosted by Michael Stevenson Gallery, April 23, 2010 and originally appeared in Art South Africa magazine, Issue 8.4, June 2010. Thanks to the editors, publishers and author for this collaboration.


(Photo Credit: Michael Stevenson / Zanele Muholi)