Sunday, September 23, 2007

Symbols of Our Prison Culture

On Friday, the PBS program Bill Moyers Journal ran a fascinating interview with former corporate attorney turned photographer Chris Jordan about his work "Running the Numbers: An American Self Portrait." The two that caught my eye are shown above and they reveal what the prison population of America in 2004 truly looks like, if each of the 2.3 million prisoner's uniform were folded and stacked together. As Jordan says on his website:

My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone... Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison... This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs.

On the Moyers program, Jordan described what he was trying to show in the photographs above:

We have the largest prison population of any country on earth. There's also no other country that has that percentage of its population in jail. And that includes all of the dictatorships that we think of as the enemies of freedom."

Here's another way of looking at it: According to Wikipedia, "The United States has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's incarcerated population." So, while 1 in 20 of the world's population hails from the so-called "Land of the Free," 1 in 4 of the world's prisoners calls America home.

Isn't there a lesson here about how we can show judges the "big picture" as we ask them not to add to this grotesque scene? When we step back at look at what our prison population truly looks like, don't we have a better argument (especially in the case of non-violent drug offenders) that adding another orange uniform to this picture means isn't the only way, or the right one?

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