‘State Property’ Exhibition Explores American Consumption of Prison Labor
Is the system broken? Or working as intended?
The power of consumer choice is real. We know this. Where and what we buy is, at its root, a political endorsement. And whether we’re paying attention or not, we cast our vote daily with every dollar we spend.
A new multi-disciplinary exhibition throws into stark relief our interconnectedness as consumer citizens with the prison industrial complex. State Property traces and exposes the conditions of confinement and slave labor that our tax and direct dollars support.
The exhibition has opened its doors across the spread of three Bronx art spaces as a hub for education, reflection and action. Its title is an acknowledging of the dual meaning of the term: individuals as state property; fellow citizen as object – cataloged, stripped of identity and warehoused – and all the goods manufactured in correctional facilities.
State Property is comprehensive and detailed. Leaving no stone unturned, it names the many knots of racial and socioeconomic injustice in the punishment industry through a myriad of media and medium. More than 75 artworks that tackle the U.S. prison system are on display, including a mural of Kalief Browder, the 22-year old Bronx-native that committed suicide after spending nearly 3 years on Rikers Island without a trail. Several of photographer Scott Houston’s images of anti-immigration zealot Joe Arpaio’s chain gangs are on view. Visitors are also invited to experience a solitary confinement cell through virtual reality as well as partake in other interactive installations such as “Cell Game”, where, no matter how hard they try, players can’t escape the school to prison pipeline.
Guaranteed, you will leave State Property changed.
To learn more, MASS APPEAL sat down with Five Mualimm-Ak, an activist and survivor of solitary confinement that heads Incarcerated Nation Corp (INC), a network of post-incarceration humanitarians that are the beating heart of State Property, and at the forefront in the struggle to abolish modern day slavery.
What was the genesis of this project?
Five Mualimm-Ak: We wanted to show that, one, people are state property and, two, that products made inside prisons are state property. That there are products that are made by people in prison that are bought by other citizens. We wanted to push the envelope for people to be aware of consumerism and how we are all, as citizens, complicit in supporting the system.
Why is that information not widely known? Why do most people on average not know that a corporation like Victoria Secret for instance uses prison labor?
Because it is shameful as a nation. We are talking about the prison industrial complex which is based off of the sole birth of post-modern capitalism which is based off of slavery. So when you get stuff for free, you kinda don’t want to talk about it anymore – especially when it comes to paying people a wage and health insurance. Why should we do that? It used to be, back in the day, where equal education wasn’t equal, right? There was a whole population of people, primarily minorities and people of color who were uneducated. You have to remember, it’s only been 97 years since we have been legally able to read. Throughout this post-slavery period of time, there were these feelings of: so what do we do with all these people of color just walking around? It was through the criminalization of these people that allowed for re-enslavement to happen. Now, we also needed to bring products into the country. We began to outsource to other countries. Then America said “Why am I outsourcing to another country for say 10 to 16 dollars equal pay when it comes to liability and bonding when I can get labor for 16 cents an hour in prisons and other citizens are already paying the necessary taxes, paying for the facilities, paying for people to be held there and additionally, they will buy the products that are being made there?” It is sort of like realizing that normal American citizens are guilty and duped. [These corporations] are just triple-billing them. And [other citizens] seem to have no problem doing it because essentially they see these people as those that should be kept away from them.
What do you say to someone who says it’s not slave labor, it’s “programming” for inmates, it’s job readiness?
Job readiness is for a field and job you can actually get. People are being disenfranchised from the trade that they are being trained for. And that trade, coincidentally, is being charged to keep the facility you are in running. You are preparing them for jobs they can not get. In New York State, there are something like 1,900 laws that disenfranchise a person that is previously incarcerated from employment. This prison training is literally just supporting their disenfranchisement. But, the training is important to the prisons. We have the plumbing trade in prions because there is plumbing in prisons. We have masonry trade because masonry is needed in prisons. Electrical, floor covering, wall coverage. All of it. Once they cut education in prisons, they also cut certification. Let me explain. That means that you can’t get your apprenticeship in one of these trades inside a prison. So when you come home, yes, this man has worked in electrical for the last ten or twelve years, but he doesn’t have certification. Can’t hire him.
We have 62 counties [in New York State], all named after prisons. These towns needed jobs to be filled. That’s when you start to see the need for plumbing, housing, construction to build houses in these small towns. Subcontractors were able to open businesses in the jail. If you are in that program, you are technically an employee of that facility, working to clean that bathroom – technically being “trained” how to do it. You are working to fix the plumbing – technically getting paid to do it. A person who runs that program is an independent proprietor who makes money on those employees and is charging the system. So the taxpayers are the constant dupe of this game. What I would tell a person is yes, this is job training, if there were jobs available. And you can’t work in those fields because you are disenfranchised from those fields.
Angela Davis writes that “mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus tends to reprise the very conditions that lead people to prison.” This is literally the serpent devouring its own tail.
The prison industrial complex is such a big mechanism of our system that people can’t even fully comprehend it. This is exactly why our organization has invented State Property and this programming to expose these confinements and the collateral consequences of incarceration.
The system allows itself to validate it. It tries to articulate it in a nice way. They call it job readiness. For what job? The corporations that use the labor don’t hire felons. Victoria Secret, Walmart, Levi’s, Kmart – they won’t hire them. Not until Richard Bronson, a former “Wolf of Wall Street (who served time for securities fraud), came home and starting speaking out, none of the other companies like Starbucks and Target would hire felons too. But, he started the site, 70MillionJobs, where we now have job postings up nationally from organizations that have historically disenfranchised people [who have a record].
You also call into the space of the exhibition political prisons as state property.
Yes. What happens is because of your political view, not because of any action you may have done on the charges that you incurred, but because of your political views, we are holding you as state property. Herman Wallace did over forty years in solitary confinement just because the head of [Angola] prison said we own you. Angola was designed initially as a slave planation where if you are serving time there, the Board doesn’t even let you go after you die. They just bury you out in back to become fertilizer for the farm. This has been a historical place for punishment and torture. Because according to the 13th Amendment, you are no longer considered a human being, we don’t have to let you go. So, for those who are affected, doing this work is not a job. It is a lifestyle. We will always be affected.
The scope of State Property includes education, art, advocacy…
And action. Everything that INC does includes action. We have legislative letters, postcards available. We literally have a phone downstairs, so you can call and leave [a representative] a message. We have the address for you to write to political prisons directly. Or take a picture and post it. Whatever we can do to raise the level of awareness, we do it.
I mean really why state property is such a big issue is that you are paying for it. As tax payers, you are paying for all of it. You are paying for the prison. You are paying for the person being in prison. And then, you are not only buying all the products that are being made in the prison that supply every courthouse, every state housing projects – all made through a corporation called Corcraft – but, once a person comes home, you are paying for them to be in a shelter, their disenfranchisement. So, it’s like you are state property too, as a citizen, as well as the person inside.
You just mentioned Corcraft, a corporation discussed within the exhibition. What it is and how does it directly tie to the manufacturing of restraint desks used on Rikers Island?
Corcraft is a Fortune-500 company, the “brand name” for the Division of Correctional Industries, an entity within the NYS Division of Corrections and Community Supervision, that gets paid for every product it makes. Using prison labor, they manufacture items, from pillows for under every head inside to garbage cans to furniture to floor stripping to that Green Clean that will burn your hand if you put it in it. They also manufacture restraint desks used to punish youth held on Rikers Island. What’s made in one prison literally goes to punish others in jail.
Basically, the system constantly reinvents itself. What it does is create a certain need for a certain type of restraint that it just so happens they’ve already manufactured the year before. As the manufacturer, if you already have the blueprints and plans to make these restraints, then you are piecemealing out problems to the community and profiting from it.
There are also these shooting targets featured in State Property. Can you share the ugly truth behind them?
The shooting targets are based off of photos of prisoners. They are silhouettes of people that are in prison. They are from Corcraft and other websites. It’s sick. You are practicing on these people. It’s incredible. Welcome to America.
Do you shake your head when people say that the system is broken? Do you feel that it’s working exactly as intended?
The system is working very well in the manner that it was supposed to, and that is to incarcerate people of color, and more predominately, women and youth.
What additional programming will State Property be offering?
We have film screenings, panel discussions and different organizations that are mostly focused on conditions of confinement. We are going to discuss Rikers, hearing from people who were on the Island dating back to 1968, also hearing from people from the film I did with Bill Moyers called Rikers. Jamal Joseph, a Black Panther who has new book coming out will be joining us later in the month. We will also do screenings of 13th and the documentary Cruel and Unusual, which tells the story of how the Angola 3 spent over a hundred years in solitary confinement combined. And there will be much more. Really what we are doing is giving space for conversation, for real dialogue, for real lesson-building. We want people to see this and be inspired. I believe that education equals activation. And once you are activated, you still may not know what to do. So, we will be having a discussion in each of the three spaces at least once a a week.
State Property is currently on view across three venues: BronxArtSpace through October 21st, and at Swing Space and the Andrew Freeman Home through November 20th, 2017. For a full list of upcoming screenings and talks, please visit AndrewFreedmanHome.org and BronxArtSpace.com