BY Jackie Wang in Features | 29 OCT 18
Featured in
Issue 199

Cameron Rowland and the Carceral Laboratory

The spectral presence of prisoners in everyday commodities 

BY Jackie Wang in Features | 29 OCT 18

On 21 August, prisoners in facilities across the US and Canada launched a strike in response to a riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. They issued a list of ten demands, including: the end of prison slavery, life sentences and felon voter disenfranchisement; improved prison conditions; and the re-instatement of Pell Grants for education. Meanwhile, from Greece to California, the world  is literally going up in flames as a result of droughts and rising global temperatures. In California, incarcerated firefighters are conscripted  to contain these wildfires – one of the many ways that the neoliberal state  relies on the labour of warehoused populations to manage capital’s negative ‘externalities’. The strike began, fittingly, on the 47th anniversary of the killing of George Jackson, the American black activist and author, by prison guards  in San Quentin, San Francisco. 

In 2016, two Nomex fire suits – produced by prisoners and distributed by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Prison Industry Authority – hung in New York’s Artists Space. The suits (1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011, 2016) were part of Cameron Rowland’s first major institutional show, ‘91020000’. Rowland’s work grapples with the continuities between slavery and incarceration, as well as with the commodification of prisoners themselves through the development of new financial instruments. The Nomex suits are used to clothe California’s 4,300 prisoner firefighters and Rowland’s title draws attention to their high-risk placement on the front lines. 

Prisoners are not only used in extraordinary and dangerous situations, they also produce quotidian goods and provide public services. From the fabrication of university desks to the maintenance of Boston’s subway system, public life has developed a parasitic dependence on those it confines. In Rowland’s ‘91020000’, most of the objects – courtroom benches, extension rings for manholes – were produced by prison labour. The show’s title refers to the customer number assigned to Artists Space by Corcraft, the state entity that sells prisoner-produced goods on behalf of the New York State Department of Correctional Services. Within the exhibition context,  augmented by the artist’s sensitive historical commentary, these items connote larger structures of power. 

By compelling Artists Space to engage in a relation of exchange with Corcraft, Rowland demonstrates that it is not just corporations that benefit from hyper-exploited prison labour. Non-profits such as Artists Space, given their tax-exempt status, are eligible to purchase prisoner-produced goods. As Rowland points out in the written statement that accompanied ‘91020000’,  the neoliberal state indexes the productivity of prisoner labour in terms of savings rather than profits. Thus, incarcerated firefighters, who are paid as little as one dollar an hour, ‘save’ the state US$100 million annually. But not only does the state ‘save’ by compelling prisoners to work: prisoner labour has historically been used to expand both state and commercial capacity through road construction and the maintenance of public infrastructure. Felons have also worked in high-risk industrial jobs through the convict-lease system (now technically abolished) and produce the furniture used in the very courtrooms in which people are subjected  to legal punishment. In other words, by expanding state capacity, prisoners are compelled to contribute indirectly to the conditions of their own displacement from society. Rowland’s work exposes these circuits of confinement, production, exchange and speculation; art itself is a node in the meshwork of the market society. 

I wonder: how many of the everyday commodities I use contain the spectral presence of prisoners? Was the coffee I drank today packed by prisoners? I think about the larger structures directing the unceasing flow of money, people, objects and time, and of the legal frameworks that undergird these flows. I wonder why a desk made using prison labour deemed to be worth US$0.16 to $1.25 an hour is so much more ‘valuable’ in the context of a gallery space, which leads me, in turn, to ponder the gallery’s commodification of critiques of itself. Rowland attempts to subvert this commodification apparatus by leasing his works to collectors for five-year periods rather than selling them to speculators seeking ownership of pieces they hope will appreciate in value. 

Cameron Rowland, 1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011, 2016, Nomex fire suit, distributed by CALPIA, 127.00 × 33.02 × 20.32 cm. Rental at cost"The Department of Corrections shall require of every able-bodied prisoner imprisoned in any state prison as many hours of faithful labor in each day and every day during his or her term of imprisonment as shall be prescribed by the rules and regulations of the Director of Corrections." – California Penal Code § 2700CC35933 is the customer number assigned to the nonprofit organization California College of the Arts upon registering with the CALPIA, the market name for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Prison Industry Authority.Inmates working for CALPIA produce yellow Nomex fire suits for the state's non-inmate wildland firefighters.Courtesy: the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York

While ‘91020000’ used material objects to make viewers aware of the ‘slave labour’ and power structures concealed in quotidian items, Rowland’s 2017 Whitney Biennial piece, Public Money, is a performative engagement with an immaterial financial technology called the Social Impact Bond (SIB). SIBs are a kind of private-public partnership that enable governments to contract the private sector to solve or improve specific social problems, and to pay bond holders revenue if the project succeeds. Intended as financial instruments that transfer risk from the public to the private sector, their complex contracts can guarantee payment regardless of success. By siphoning public money that could be spent on the direct provision of public goods and transferring it to the financial and non-profit sectors, SIBs could be considered a covert and convoluted method of privatization. In short, SIBs expand the domain of capitalist accumulation by enabling the private sector to make bets on social outcomes. As academics Zenia Kish and Justin Leroy write in their 2015 essay, ‘Bonded Life’: ‘Contemporary financiers benefit twice from the conditions of neoliberalism; they profit by “solving” the very social problems they have helped create and/or benefit from.’

The first UK SIBs were introduced with the aim of reducing recidivism among those released from HM Prison Peterborough. It’s not surprising that this new financial instrument was first tested out on felons. Prisoner SIBs, as social experiments, partly constitute what I call ‘the carceral laboratory’, in which the state contracts private entities to draw on the efficiency of the market or cutting-edge technologies to trial new approaches to solving a social problem. Such experiments often emerge out of calls to reform unjust systems.

For Public Money, Rowland compelled the Whitney Museum of American Art to invest US$25,000 into a SIB designed to reduce recidivism in Ventura County, California. Is it purely coincidence that Ventura has become the site of a venture philanthropic experiment? And what are we to make of the title, Public Money? The project itself reveals the blurred distinction between public and private, particularly in relation to art institutions. Without reading Rowland’s statement, the work might  be interpreted as an attempt to force  the museum to make a socially responsible investment and improve the lives of criminalized people in Ventura. But, since Rowland is aware that SIBs ‘marketize social services and their recipients’, what does it mean for him to embed the Whitney in a market circuit that contributes to the financialization of public goods? Rowland’s statement also reveals the biopolitical dimension of the Ventura project, which is focused on administering moral reconation therapy to prisoners – a behaviourist programme aimed at rewiring the ‘dysfunctional’ moral circuitry of  the ‘criminogenic’ subject. Such programmes locate the problem of mass incarceration in a specific kind of individual constructed as morally depraved and in need of Pavlovian reform.

Rowland writes that, for Public Money, the Whitney received information provided only to investors about the Ventura Project to Support Re-entry, and that this information is protected by a five-year non-disclosure agreement. Accessing such data is difficult given the opacity of the financial sector, but what if it is made public? How might an intentional breach of contract and the collectivization of private financial knowledge have changed the nature of the piece? What would it mean, performatively, to embroil an art museum in a situation that would put them at risk of being sued? Would  it transform the role of the museum from impartial exhibitor to informant?  

Rowland’s recent work exposes two distinct modes through which the carceral state and capitalism generate revenue and profits from mass incarceration: through the expropriation of prisoners’ labour and through financial speculation on prisoners themselves. In the carceral laboratory, felons become the testing ground for new financial technologies and methods of social engineering. Yet, this summer’s prisoners’ strike – which ended on 9 September, the anniversary of the 1971 uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York – offered a strategy for disrupting these exploitative circuits. Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun of the Free Alabama Movement has theorized the strike as a strategy to undermine carceral capitalism: ‘No state’s prison budget’, he writes, ‘can withstand the loss of our collective economic might.’ 

Published in frieze, issue 199, November-December 2018, with the title ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’

Main image: Cameron Rowland, Jim Crow, 2017, Jim Crow rail bender, 91.4 x 20 x 44 cm. Rental

Jim Crow is a racial slur, derived from the name of the minstrel character played by Thomas D. Rice in the 1830s. A Jim Crow is also a type of manual railroad rail bender. It has been referred to by this name in publications from 1870 to the present. The lease of ex-slave prisoners to private industry immediately following the Civil War is known as the convict lease system. Many of the first convict lease contracts were signed by railroad companies. Plessy v. Ferguson contested an 1890 Louisiana law segregating black railroad passengers. The Supreme Court upheld the law as constitutional. This created a precedent for laws mandating racial segregation, later to be known as Jim Crow laws.

Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin

Jackie Wang is a poet, scholar and multimedia artist. She is the author of Carceral Capitalism (Semiotext(e), 2018), The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void (Nightboat Books, 2021) and Alien Daughters Walk Into the Sun: An Almanac of Extreme Girlhood (Semiotext(e), 2023).