Bars and Stripes Forever, Inequalities and Incarceration in America: David Simon, Susan Burton, and Ashley Hunt at MICA

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Documentation and Analysis of MICA’s 2013 Constitution Day Panel by Cara Ober

In an age where the U.S Constitution has been co-opted by conservatives who confuse the right to accumulate property with personal freedom, it is curious and note-worthy that an art institution like MICA hosts an annual Constitution Day panel. At the very least, it is a reminder to all Americans that the Constitution belongs to everyone, not just those who don’t want to pay taxes. The federal holiday, which commemorates the adoption of the US Constitution, falls on September 17, the date that the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution in 1787.

You are probably wondering why an art college would host an annual panel discussion on constitutional issues, but the answer is obvious: in the modern world, making art is a form of political and social activism. Plus, this two-hour panel, organized by MICA Faculty Firmin DeBrabander, is a great excuse to invite esteemed and even famous guests from across the country to discuss a specific, topical issue.

MICA’s 2013 Constitution Day theme was ‘Bars and Stripes Forever: Inequalities and Incarceration in America,’ and co-sponsored by the ACLU of Maryland. The three panelists included David Simon, the producer and writer of The Wire, Susan Burton, a social activist who helps formerly incarcerated women re-enter society, and Cal Arts Professor Ashley Hunt, who uses video, photography, and mapping to explore the history and culture of the prison system. WYPR producer Aaron Henkin moderated the event and audience members were encouraged to participate by texting their questions to the panelists.

First, before I share some of the discussion that ensued, I want to provide some basic information about the crisis of incarceration in America:

* The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails — a 500% increase over the past thirty years.
* Crime rates have declined by 25% in the US from 1998-2008, but prison populations have quadrupled since the 1980’s.
* The United States spends more money on prisons than it does on schools.
* The United States makes up about 5% of the world’s population, but constitutes 25% of the world’s prison population. We lock up more individuals than any of the totalitarian regimes we criticize for human rights violations.
* The main reason for the surge in the US’s prison population since the 1970’s is “tough on crime” mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes, a direct effect from the War on Drugs.
* More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. Currently, 1 in every 10 black males in their 30’s is in prison or jail. Two thirds of people in prison for drug-related sentencing are people of color.

Now that you have the background, I am going to give you an abridged transcript from the Constitution Day Panel at MICA, September 17, 2013. Please know this is a personal, edited version of the talk, based on notes and not recorded. It emphasizes the messages that stood out most to me, as an individual audience member.

[panel begins with individual statements from each speaker]


Ashley Hunt: I have two words for you: Hunger Strike. Consider the conditions that must exist, for your only available protest to be shutting down your own biological life. Usually resistance is about survival. Why did 30,000 California inmates participate in a hunger strike to protest the use of solitary confinement?

Hunt showed a few clips from his documentary films, one about a community attempting unsuccessfully to resist the construction of a new prison and another exploring the minority communities most affected by incarceration in America. Additionally, Hunt’s documentaries explore the profit motive and economic incentives behind the prison industry. Next, Hunt projected a video shot in a now defunct Turkish Prison, an image of blue sky seen through a high-walled fortress. He concluded his talk by asking about the presence of ideology in this country and the way it manifests in police policy, how being targeted repeatedly by law enforcement reinforces your ‘place’ in society.


Susan Burton: It’s all of us or none. I have learned what it means to be branded a criminal… what it’s like for those who are formerly incarcerated and convicted. I was born in an East LA housing project and this designed my life for prison. I almost beat the odds, but in 1982 my five-year old son was killed in an accident, a tragic accident. I didn’t know how to cope. I turned to drinking and then to drugs. I was sentenced six consecutive times to prison. I was last released in 1986 and then I went to a treatment center in Santa Monica. I was there 100 days. My recovery and treatment worked. Then I started wondering, Why aren’t these services available in my community? Why wasn’t I offered treatment before?

After getting treatment, Burton wanted to help others, especially women from low-income communities. She wanted to become a nurse, but was told she’d never be able to get a license as an ex-con. Instead, she started her own treatment center called A New Way of Life Reentry Project. At this point, Burton runs five centers and has helped approximately 700 women re-enter society after incarceration.

Susan Burton: We need a mass movement, like when we fought for the right to vote, or for jobs in the 1960’s. So much has been taken away from individuals, families, and communities by the industrial prison complex. Once you’ve served time, the history never goes away. We need to end the punishment after incarceration ends.

David Simon: I’m going to quote Bill Murray here: ‘I’m not gonna play by their rules anymore.’ This is one thing citizens can do. The game is rigged and it’s astonishing. The drug war is not merely racial, it’s about social control and class. The war on drugs is getting one last boost from crystal meth – if you throw in some white people, it makes it seem more credible, and the mandatory minimum sentence without parole can go on for a few more years.

David Simon: The truth is we don’t need ten to fifteen percent of this country any more. These are the people who used to work in factories and now we make nothing in America. There are no more factory jobs with union wages and health benefits. You used to be able to support your family working in a factory, but those jobs are gone. So, what do we do with these people? America has found a way to make a profit off of them, well; some people are making a HUGE profit… How does a for-profit prison system fit into a Democracy? This means that someone on Wall Street is looking to make profits based on prison growth. When are we going to give up on this Libertarian idea that markets should decide morality for the ‘least of us’? Why are corporations selling incarcerations and lobbying states for more restrictive bail and harsher penalties?


David Simon: There are two growing groups being affected by this industry: Non-Violent Drug Offenders and Immigrants. There is money to be made, paid for with our tax dollars, incorporated into our economic value. This is bipartisan stupidity. Nixon’s war on drugs put a higher percentage of funding towards treatment, whereas Clinton has done the most damage with his omnibus crime bills. Eric Holder wants to interpret these laws differently, but no one is talking about changing them.

David Simon: So what can you do? If picked for a jury, and it’s a non-violent drug case, DO NOT send another American to jail. I don’t care if they had a small amount of weed or a pound of heroin, if there is no violent crime, refuse to send them to jail. When no American jury will convict for drug charges, we’ll have change. This is the way the Volstead Act (alcohol ban) was changed – juries refused to convict and attorneys stopped prosecuting before politicians took any action.

[At this point, a question and answer session started, with all participants involved in the discussion. Aaron Henkin asked about the invisibility of the prison crisis and the power of art vs. journalism to spur social change.]

Ashley Hunt: Art makes the invisible visible. It’s a way to challenge what might seem reasonable to most people. The United States is good at branding enemies. We need to be suspicious when people are presented as an enemy.

David Simon: Journalism is limited, but both art and journalism serve essential roles in society. Let’s get something straight: art and journalism are both neutral, but can be used in many ways. Let’s face it; I work in television, which is clearly NOT art… (audience laughter) … Television is entrenched in our culture. If you consider a show like Dragnet, how TV dehumanizes ‘the other’ and presents law and order at all costs… Art can say things in a way that is true to the heart and good journalism to the head…. Both are good. Thank god there is now some public dissent on the drug war.

Susan Burton: I’m not sure what I’m doing is art, but I am creating alternative realities to help people. It’s a labor of love and a life commitment. Why is this issue considered invisible? Why is it not a bigger public issue?

David Simon: Because of fear. In the 6th grade, the DARE program taught us that the average heroin addict commits X crimes per week – a big number – and we all want to keep ‘those people’ away from us. In 1993, Ed Burns and I went out to The Corner, surrounded by the heroin trade, and nothing bad happened to us. The truth is, most of these people have jobs, and commit the occasional petty theft. Don’t forget all the people driving in from the suburbs to buy heroin. It was not a terror show and the vast number of people caught in this world are just human beings. But people think, if I can keep drugs away from my suburban school and my suburban kids, things will be okay. We have to relinquish fear. We can’t build enough walls. Maybe there is no “other”? America wants social control to feel safe.


Susan Burton: You could crash the criminal justice system by saying you’re not guilty, when you’re not. How do we put justice on trial?

David Simon: If you say you’re not guilty, you look like you’re not sorry. Then your sentence is higher.

Susan Burton: I was shot once. I went to the police station to make a statement, to get help. I went out in handcuffs. They said I brought drugs in. It was a five-year sentence vs. an 18-month sentence, if I plead guilty. What do you think I did? And I went to prison with a gunshot wound.

Ashley Hunt: In “Golden Gulag” by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, it discusses the massive incarceration movement in America where 2.3 million people are in jail now. This movement started at the same time as the civil rights movement. Prison is filled with approximately 75% brown and black bodies. America seems to think this is where they belong.

David Simon: Who knows about the drug war in Mexico? (Hands in the audience are raised in response) The US will fight our drug war to the last Mexican. Their war is a direct result of our demand for drugs in this country. I think we have learned you spend money on wars, not make it. But somebody is making money on it.

Ashley Hunt: Is it wrong to warehouse or put people in cages for profit? Privatization in prison tends to happen in southern “right to work” states, especially in Louisiana and Alabama, where immigrants can be held for up to two years just waiting for a trial. In California, we have a problem with prisons being overcrowded, so, instead of realizing we are jailing too many people and changing sentencing laws, our governor has decided to outsource extra prisoners to private facilities.

David Simon: There’s a naive notion that capitalism is more than a way to make money. Jail is a failure. It should be a last resort. It’s expensive to lock people up and it should be.

Susan Burton: No one should be treated as inhumanly as they are in prisons today. If you read Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” you’ll understand more about this issue. I need you to know, I am the rule. I am not the exception. When given an opportunity I will succeed.

Henkin reads a question from the audience: What are other non-cooperational strategies I can use? Everyone laughs.

David Simon: I believe less and less in the electoral process. The solution to this will not be political. Look at gay rights – the politicians are not leading on this. We need to help people register to vote and the laws should change – voting rights should be restored to the formerly incarcerated. I distrust anyone in leadership to do this – they will follow us. It needs to be a grass roots movement.

Susan Burton: I can’t even serve on a jury. Seventy-five percent of Americans will never serve on a jury. So we need other strategies.

Ashley Hunt: As we end this panel, I want to give you three useful examples from art history. One is Beuy’s idea of ‘Social Sculpture.’ It is not a rarefied object in a rarefied space. It’s an architecture within social life, a way to promote and inspire change. The second is Lucy Lippard’s ‘Trojan Horse.’ As an artist, you can smuggle content into art spaces and use formal aesthetics to force a conversation about important issues. And third is Martha Rosler, who said the most important thing art does is start a conversation between people. If artists are starting these conversations, this issue will not be invisible.

[panel ends]

I find it both ironic and hopeful that ‘Constitutional Conservatives’ believe that the US Constitution is a holy grail for Libertarianism, intended to protect us from a central government that “would take advantage of individuals.” The thing is, they are right, but they’re wrong about who is getting abused. In the case of the burgeoning prison-industrial complex, it is clear that our government is abusing individual rights and liberties, but there is no bipartisan momentum to put a stop to it. There obviously is no easy solution to this problem, but it is up to us – the artists and independent thinkers – to find some common, even bipartisan, ground on this issue, and find ways to bring change and healing to a broken system.

*Author Cara Ober is the Editor and Founder of Bmoreart.

** In the first image of the panelists, at the top, the background image is by artist Paul Rucker.

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