“I can’t get out of the house to get what I need.”
We decided the prompt would best be served as a provocation expressed through a familiar object re-coded through a critical representational space in the hopes to call into question the neoliberal social imagination around wellness, correctional facilities, and the city.
In considering the prompt, Maria was initially inspired by the word ‘house’ as representing the space of inhabitancy of a group of people and prisoners instead of individuals. Encouraged by Maria on this front, Daniel was obsessively fixed on ‘can’t get out’ as a structure of dispossession and violence. The combination of these interests encouraged us to interconnect community and captivity, home and prison as the intersectional standpoint from which to engage the prompt and its attendant problematic.
This lead us to think about Correctional Facilities as the site for intervention, especially the Los Angeles County Twin Towers Correctional Facility, inspired by the history of said infrastructures in California and the re-imagination process occurring around the Los Angeles River.
From 1980 to 2005, California embarked on the largest prison building project in human history. The state is home to the largest prison population in the United States, with roughly 160,000 imprisoned and many more under state supervision. Since mid-1970’s, the California’s prison population has grown by 750%. This perverse Prison Crisis was made possible by a bloated regime of criminalization. Moral panics around crime helped pass iron-hand measures such as the three-strikes law and measured the prosecute juveniles as adults. As the editorial board of the New York Times noted, “California’s problem is not excessive crime, but excessive punishment.”
Parallel to the Prison Crisis, the redevelopment of Los Angeles is simultaneously discussing nature as a conduit for condominiums, lofts, art galleries, bars, and cafes. In this way, the Los Angeles River is constructed as both a justification and geographic route for the roll-out of a redevelopment socio-spatial imaginary. Initiatives such as the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative (NELA RC) are capturing the energy of the Los Angeles River as a catalyst for implementing development strategies through a Vision Plan.
By creating a Riverfront District along five selected sites in Los Angeles (Atwater, Elysian Valley, Cypress Park, Lincoln Heights and Glassell Park) the initiative argues that the Riverfront District serves as a focal point for community revitalization, recreational activities, environmental stewardship, sustainable civic engagement, and economic growth for the entire city. Miranda Joseph notes that community emerges when people imagine themselves bound together by a common ground, grief or effort during moments of crisis, transformation or tragedy. The figure of the community, however, often becomes a celebratory invocation of a “utopian state of human relatedness”, an unmediated homogenous space from which a certain set of values are built up, naturalized/universalized and legitimated to represent the collective interest.
While these five sites are the predominant sample for the larger narrative about the Los Angeles River, we instead ask: How would the Vision Plan look if, the 9,500 inmates of the Los Angeles County Twin Towers Correctional Facility, would be incorporated in the surveying process? Right now, they are the ghosts of the river and shadows of the community. If they have a stake in the destiny of the river and the community, shouldn’t we, the not-yet-captured, have a stake and obligation in their destiny as well? How can we reconstitute our relation to the inmate and recompose our social imaginary?
What can we/you do?
As an arena of speculation, the ‘community survey’ when implemented as is in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, becomes a vehicle from which inmates speak and represent, not only about the Los Angeles River but about their condition. The information was filled inspired by comments from people during Vision Plan process and entries from Yelp, a website that helps people find local businesses through peer reviews.
The mocking cracks open a fissure in both the conceived and perceived spaces (Lefebvre), allowing the trivialized, disqualified and subordinated knowledge of the inmate to seep through, to assert dignity in the mode of being denied; the survey leaks, and points toward living otherwise, another possible social imaginary.
As Maria reminds us, with what values are social designers aligning with when working with people? Silicon Valley approach to helping inmates dictates that a app, such as Pigeon.ly, a startup that offers low-cost phone and photo sharing for prisoners and their families outside, is enough to work with the concerns around participation. While attempting to close the gaps of access and creating opportunity for underserved communities is a first step to actively incorporating inmates, it does not question the perception built around inmate populations and their need to have dignified ways of participating in the larger societal structure. That gives rise to the question: can we reject prisons and other modes of organized abandonment as the ideal model of social order? What if we instead articulate the structural similarities of families and inmates as communities organized in a house, a building for human habitation by groups of people integral to the social fabric to instead unsettle our complacent participation in articulating inmates as shadows in our society. If we are to care for our inmates as for a family member we would need to answer some questions to start:
-Changing family structure if you are paired with an inmate
-Financially? What are consequences of assigning one inmate to a family?
-Rise in volunteerism and the need for inmate volunteers along the River
-How can we aid self-improvement for inmate people > self esteem, ego
-Growing respect for inmates
-Growing visibility in the community. How will these pairs define community?
María del Carmen Lamadrid and Daniel Olmos
PhD Candidate in Sociology at UC Santa Barbara
Dissertation: Managing Metropolitan Migrants: Informality, Borderzones and Racial Governance in Neoliberal Los Angeles
María del Carmen Lamadrid
Design Associate at LA-Más and author of the Social Design Toolkit
MFA graduate from Art Center College of Design’s Media Design Practice/Field