When we talk about prison, let formerly incarcerated people speak

Illustration of person looking at photograph of themselves in jail
Annabelle Baker/Staff

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On Saturday, I had the surreal experience of attending a colloquium devoted to a discussion of the narrative of incarceration that used Nigel Poor’s San Quentin Project as a prompt — surreal insofar as the panel, while well-intentioned and articulate, lacked any former prisoner-artivist stakeholders on the stage.

As Poor explained, the exhibition’s imagery draws upon “found” images from the archives at San Quentin State Prison that were then “mapped” by current prisoners with their words. Poor developed old negatives and brought the pictures to some of the men incarcerated at San Quentin, having them interpret the images as a narrative.

I attended the colloquium, curious about how San Quentin would be discussed as a narrative, given that institutions are sites that can both uplift as well as diminish.

Sunday’s panel was about narratives of incarceration, yet the only one onstage who had personal experience with incarceration outside of volunteering was Alyssa Tamboura, the daughter of a previously incarcerated man. As the discussion unfolded, I became increasingly uncomfortable with what the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, had chosen to spotlight: the work of Poor, which draws upon the (uncompensated) life experiences and texts of incarcerated men.

At one point, another audience member raised the issue of compensation, a query that Poor dismissed out of hand, situating their payment as “attention” that “like water for a flower or a plant” can be “sustaining” rather than actual money.

Scanning the list of foundations (the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation and the Present Progressive Fund) and individuals (Frish Brandt, August Fischer, and Kaitlyn and Mike Krieger) financing this exhibition, it would seem that someone is getting paid in more than attention. More so, Poor’s answer raised the issue of copyright — the prisoner’s, and therefore the writer’s, text that covers the images are, presumably, owned by the authors: Have the prisoner-artivists surrendered the ownership and rights to these texts? How is it possible that Poor can claim ownership of these images and texts, as well as exhibit those images without compensating the actual copyright holders?

Given the expanding inequities in our society, I think it goes without saying that Poor’s response was nothing if not problematic. This begs the question of whether or not the curators who work within a school that, as UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare assistant professor Tina Sacks pointed out at the colloquium, is built upon expropriated Ohlone land are likewise unaware of UC Berkeley’s disgraceful exploitation by Alfred Louis Kroeber of Ishi.

From all appearances, Poor’s work is very much compensated through the exhibitions she lists on her CV that serve as professional totems, the travel it funds, her salary and many other benefits that she curiously doesn’t treat as equity worth apportioning to the prisoner-artivists without whom she would have literally nothing to show.

A scan of Poor’s podcast page shows images of her traveling the world, a white cisgender woman serving as some sort of ambassador and facilitator of experiences that are, again, not in any way her own — a variant on cultural colonialization and appropriation that, had UC Berkeley professor of English Genaro Padilla shown up on the panel as originally planned, I would have been curious to hear him discuss.

Earlier, during Berkeley Law professor Jonathan Simon’s presentation at the colloquium, I appreciated his invitation to former prisoners in the audience to participate in the discourse (although as I came to understand, those voices were not viewed as authors of their experiences but more like adjuncts who were tasked with enhancing the academic “experts”). This positioning of prisoners as subsidiary figures within prisoner narratives that only they could have experienced became apparent when the moderator, Prison University Project founder and executive director Jody Lewen, identified by name three men in the audience who she knew from San Quentin, yet failed to invite them onstage.

I was baffled by the idea of how a panel, which presented itself as generating a productive dialogue about incarceration, could even exist without the voices of former prisoners. As I asked the panel, why had a panel mainly composed of cisgender women been empowered with narrating prisoner experiences? Why were cisgender women narrating masculinity which they could not have in any authentic way experienced, especially since none of them identified as transgender or even nonbinary?

Conceptually, I was surprised by the narrowness of the categories of incarceration that were being discussed. Yes, it’s the San Quentin Project, so it’s focused on San Quentin, but despite drops in conviction and an aging prison population, the carceral state is hardly retreating: Recently, electronic monitoring and fees overseen by private corporations are exploding, setting young men (in particular) on the path of arrest and conviction, as well as long prison sentences for minor infractions of probation.

Lastly, given all the work and awareness that is being done at UC Berkeley around gender and sexuality, why is the exhibition and discourse so fixated on heteronormative cisgender men’s stories? Certainly, there are current students at UC Berkeley who are former prisoners and can be engaged vis-a-vis the Berkeley Underground Scholars program.

I sincerely hope that between now and Poor’s Oct. 28 appearance with Michael Nelson that BAMPFA gives some thought to the problematic nature of her work, equity and compensation of the prisoner-artivists for their work, the inclusion of prisoner-artivist stakeholders in the next colloquium and how these topics relate to the radiant issues of cultural appropriation and colonialism that are written into UC Berkeley’s history.

Tomas Mournian graduated from UC Berkeley in 2016.