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Ben Shahn, Untitled (New Orleans, Louisiana). Gelatin silver print photograph, 1935. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn. #P1970.1487.

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Ben Shahn,

Untitled (Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana). Gelatin silver print photograph, 1935. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn. #P1970.1342

 

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Ben Shahn,

Untitled (medicine show, Huntingdon, Tennessee).  Gelatin silver print photograph, 1935. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn. #P1970.1414

 

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Ben Shahn, Untitled (Ozarks, Arkansas). Gelatin silver print photograph, 1935. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn. #P1970.1146  

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Ben Shahn, Untitled (Natchez, Mississippi). Gelatin silver print photograph, 1935.  Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn. #P1970.1451

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“Not
long after Ben Shahn and
Austin MacCormick began discussing The Rikers Island mural, Shahn
abandoned the original concept for the mural, which would have
emphasized more broadly historical developments in the history of
penology. Instead, the focus became quite contemporary. Shahn and
Block argued to LaGuardia, ‘The murals would have more force’ if
they examined only ‘prisons of our own time.’ As a consequence,
the ‘archaic’ side of the Rikers mural, the one featuring scenes
of retrograde punishment and inhumanity, was drawn not from scenes of
ancient ritual or obviously bygone moments, but from present-day
conditions. Shanh gave a sharply political edge to these observations,
consistent with his previous explorations at the intersections of
social injustice and the criminal justice system (in the Sacco and
Vanzetti series, and his series on imprisoned labor leader Tom
Mooney). His notes on the Rikers project show him deeply immersed in
contemporary criticism of criminal justice, including John Spivak’s
devastating 1932 account of the Georgia chain gangs, Georgia
Nigger
; the 1932 Warner
Brothers film I Am A
Fugitive From A Chain Gang
;
and the movie of the same year, on which it was based, I
Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang.
Shahn
also maintained a file of images related to the notorious Scottsboro
case, for which retrials were still ongoing.

The
final rendering of the mural reflects Shahn’s immersion in the
causes of social justice. In the center of the north end of the
mural, between the two long hallways, two prisoners appear in a
lineup. Standing somberly in front of an institutional setting,
bundled up in overcoats and visibly handcuffed together, they appear
to have been taken directly from similar images of Sacco and Vanzetti
that Shahn had prepared a few years earlier. Just outside the lineup
scene, homeless men sleep on newspapers with screaming crime-related
headlines partially visible, and a line of unemployed men confront a
‘No Help Wanted’ sign – all ironically juxtaposed against the
Centre Street courthouse and the words along is facade, ‘The True
Administration of Justice is the Firmest Pillar of Good.’

The
mural echoed the manner in which reformers defined the harms of
punishment in terms of both body and mind. There were scenes focused
on the mistreatment of the body: images of southern chain gangs (in
front of what sharp-eyed observers would have recognized as the Morgan
County Circuit Courthouse in Alabama, site of the ongoing Scottsboro
trials), poor prison conditions, and even Delaware’s whipping post
(known as Red Hannah, a potent symbol of the forms of corporal
punishment still extant). Scenes of mental suffering appeared
throughout – images of hopelessness, overcrowding, and idleness. In
a preliminary sketch, ‘Prisoners in Bed,’ Shahn showed an endless
row of inmates packed together in dormitory bunks, restless,
disturbed, their individual differences washed out by the setting.
The program for his final sketches listed the scenes: ‘idleness and
the milling about of prisoners,’ ‘dreary, unproductive labor,’
and ‘overcrowded dormitories.’ All scenes seem to consciously
echo what MacCormick called ‘Peregoric Penology’: ‘As long as
these institutions were kept nice and quiet, with the prisoners
drifting in half or total idleness through the day and locked snugly
in their cells at 5.00 pm for 14 hours, their wardens perfectly
willing that the prisoners deteriorated like vegetables rotting in a
bin.’ The wall ended with a strong intimidation of a revolving-door
criminal justice system, with lines of released inmates queuing first
at an employment station, then into jail.

Shahn’s
mural perfectly captured the
prevailing sense within reform circles in 1934 that tremendous abuses
and cruelties remained within the American prison system. Frank
Tannenbaum put it most forcefully: ‘Imprisonment is negative. It
takes all. It gives nothing. It takes from the prisoners every
interest, every ambition, every hop; it cuts away, with a coarse
disregard for personality, all that a man did or loved, all his work
and his contacts, and gives nothing in return.’ And few reformers
had seen more than Austin MacCormick. Since the early 1920s had
traveled throughout the United States making prison inspections under
the auspices of the National Society of Penal Information (NSPI), the
organization Osborne has founded in 1922, following a nationwide
speaking tour on which he raised funds for the new enterprise. The
purpose behind the NSPI was to conduct systematic surveys of prisons
and prison conditions, much like other privately funded surveys were
doing with other dimensions of the criminal justice system. These
surveys would, in turn, provide a basis for pressuring states to
reform prisons where reforms were needed, and to give an accounting
of best practices and standards to follow.

The
NSPI surveys (eventually organized and published as the Handbook
of American Prison
s,
the first edition of which appeared in 1926) exposed horrific
conditions. Frank Tannenbaum made some of the NSPI-sponsored visits
to southern prisons, prison farms, and road camps. He incorporated
some of these experiences into Dark
Phases of the South
(1924),
where he asked the reader to ‘believe the unbelievable’ regarding
the conditions of confinement. MacCormick reported from Mississippi
that conditions were ‘very primitive’ and that the dormitories
were ‘like the holds of slaveships…what goes on in there better
not come out in the light of day.’ In addition to ghastly
conditions of confinement, NSPI surveys helped demonstrate that
torture continued to be commonplace in southern prison systems,
including the use of the strap (‘fastened to a short handle so that
some of the clever boys can make it come down edgewise’), stocks,
sweatboxes, and similar instruments of abuse.

Even
as the NSPI exposed the brutality of punishment in the South, the
surveyors cautioned readers against ‘the delusion that the rest of
the country is so much better.’ Throughout much of the United
States, the same conditions of confinement that had inspired
progressive-era indictments by Donald Lowrie, Kate Richard O’Hare,
and others remained stubbornly resistant to change by the early
1930s. The Wickersham Commission’s investigation of prison
conditions, published in 1931, revealed many appalling practices. To
his colleagues in 1933, MacCormick observed that many ‘rotten old
penitentiaries’ deserved to be ‘turned over.’

MacCormick
and fellow reformers tried to explain the consequences of brutality
and torture. Their writings harkended back to Donald Lowrie’s
progressive-era declaration: ‘You cannot make a saint out of a man
by confining him in a church, but you can make a devil out of him by
treating him like hell…fear has no legitimate place in the training
of men.’ The mechanisms of imprisonment generated cruelty, even
evil, all in the name of virtue and under sanction of the state. The
personal transformations it produced were damaging for both the
keeper and the kept, ‘the sufferer and the perpetrator both being
unfortunate souls caught in a vortex of passion and hate that drives
them to madness and brutality.’

In
Portsmouth, MacCormick had encountered a prison overcrowded with
wartime inmates, forced to house more than half of its men in wooden
barracks, guarded largely by other inmates. Touring confinment
facilities at California’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard with Captain
Clark Stearns (an ally of Osborne’s), MacCormick observed the men
being treated ‘like dogs’ in isolation cells called ‘coke-ovens.’
Locking up a man for twenty hours a day, MacCormick would later
write, ‘puts an intolerable strain on the physical and mental
health of every man so confined.’ The ‘vicious phases of Naval
discipline,’ disgusted MacCormick, who wrote to Osborne from
Guantanamo Bay, described a scene in which a boatswain’s mate had
been convicted of breaking and entering and was being led off the
shop: ‘We were all kept aft while he marched across the deck under
guard and went into the boat which
started him on this way to prison. It was all very dramatic and very
stupid and very ineffectual and unspeakably cruel.’

Even
as MacCormick and others attacked the cruelty and waste of punitive
imprisonment, they firmly believed that these conditions derived not
from any universal
quality of the prison, but from case-by-case decision making. By
implication, the mitigation of cruelty was also a matter for
case-by-case intervention and control. There was no inherent defect
in prisons, not any inevitably positive quality. The 1929 NSPI survey
put it this way: ‘It is too sweeping a statement to say that
American penal institutions are steadily getting better…Waves of
public opinion, caused by general excitement over crime or by some
bit of local scandal of maladministration, cause temporary changes
for better or worse.’ It was therefore true, MacCormick argued,
that ‘an institution might be a fine place in 1930 and a bad place
in 1935; or it may be a bad place in 1932 and a good one in 1937.’

Conditions
could not be changed by good intentions alone, but good intentions
backed with political influence could defeat punitive interests. The
critics of reform presented a formidable obstacle to changing
prisons, as they had for Thomas Mott Osborne. MacCormick reflected on
his mentor, ‘The prison field does not…attract his life, except
in rare instances. When it does, it often crucifies them.’ The navy
had been MacCormick’s most personal lesson in the politics of
punishment. Although he and Osborne enjoyed the patronage of Navy
Secretary Daniels and Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, they suffered
from officers’ resentment of the ‘soft’ treatment being meted
out at Portsmouth. 

Near the end of their navy work, MacCormick warned
Osborne of the animosity he and Daniels would face: ‘I can’t
impress upon you too strongly how great and widespread the hostility
to you is among officers. It is partly because of the way in which
they despise the Secretary. There is no other way of describing their
attitude toward him. He is accorded the same respect that
Emma Goldman and Berkman get when their names come into a
consideration – no more.’ Captain Joseph K. Tausing, former navy
director of personnel, unleashed a series of violent attacks on
Osborne and MacCormick in the Army
and Navy Journal,
precipitating
a lengthy and public battle pitting Daniels and Roosevelt against the
navy brass and the Republican press. Under pressure, Osborne and
MacCormick resigned in early 1920; the next year President Warren G.
Harding’s newly appointed navy secretary systematically purged the
remaining elements of Osborne’s reforms.

MacCormick
spent much of 1924 helping Osborne and Colorado governor William
Sweet remove Warden Thomas J. ‘Golden Rules’ Tynan, in what
MacCormick later recalled as ‘one of the most
exciting and dangerous experiences I ever had in my life.’ Replying
to Osborne’s invitation to survey Colorado, MacCormick replied:
‘You bet I will go. Thrilled to pieces.’ ‘Hopelessly rusty on
prison work,’ MacCormick saw Colorado as ‘a great chance to get
back in the traces.’ The initial survey found Tynan’s prison to
be in bad shape, a mix of equal parts torture and corruption.

The
battle engaged, Osborne warned Governor Sweet that those who fought
‘crooked politics’ confronted two essential problems: ‘the
utter unscrupulousness of his opponents, and second, the ignorance
and indifference of right-minded people.’ When the State Board of
Corrections failed to act on the survey, Sweet brought charges before
the Civil Service Commission (for which MacCormick returned to
testify.) At one point, Governor Sweet (strongly anti-Klan in a state
where Ku Klux Klan activity was near a peak in 1924) arranged a
secret meeting between himself, Osborne, MacCormick, and the prison
chaplain (who also happened to be the local Klan leader). They
persuaded the chaplain to permit Klan members (virtually the entire
guard force) to testify at the hearing against Tynan.

The
weakness of the reform position in the state meant that neither
Osborne nor MacCormick was willing to take an administrative position
and ‘serve under a bunch of low-down trimmers like that prison
commission.’ MacCormick wrote to Osborne: ‘I am not a combined
Napoleon and Caesar. I would be badly handicapped, as you would, in a
state where we could not use a lot of people whom we know and trust.
Out there we would have to go it blind. Still, MacCormick observed to
Osborne, ‘We certainly kicked over the milk pail. If Tynan has time
enough he will prove every charge we made against him.’ In the end,
Tynan outlasted Sweet, but not for long – he was ousted in 1927
(though not until attracting national attention by barricading
himself behind machine guns to prevent legal papers being served).

Reformers
like MacCormick took an expansive view of prison politics,
understanding that it included national, state, and local politics as
well as prison administration and staff. Reform politics could not
afford to stop at the prison gate. While MacCormick was at the Bureau
of Prisons, the bureau established the United Stated Training School
for Prison Officers, based at the Federal Detention Headquarters in
New York City; according to its director, ‘The School is not only
informative in the essentials of prison management, but is also a
test period to weed out inferior characters whose service in an
institution would be hazardous to the orgnanization.’ The school
eliminated one of every six would be officers who arrived during its
first two years.

Reformers
were also forced to confront their opponents’ powerful rhetoric in
public  debates over punishment – what MacCormick one referred to
as the ‘machine-gun school of criminology.’ One of the foremost
proponents of that school, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, assailed the
advocates of parole and rehabilitation as the ‘cream puff’ school
of criminology, whose views ‘daily turn loose upon us the robber,
the burglar, the arsonist, the killer, and the sex degenerate.’
MacCormick was in attendance for a speech in which Hoover assailed
‘sob sister warden, country club prisons, and convict coddlers’;
MacCormick later lamented to
a meeting of the American Prison Association that he ‘had to sit
within six feet of the speaker and didn’t have a gun on me.’

Years
earlier, Donal Lowrie had observed that, as soon as he began making
his public criticisms of the prison, he had been accused of
‘sentimental twaddle,’ ‘maudlin hysteria,’ and ‘lackadaisical
neurasthenia’ – all suggesting a lack of true manhood. Prison
reformers were often attacked on the basis of their supposed
homosexuality or sexual practices. This had certainly been true of
Osborne, at whose 1916 Assistant District Attorney William Fallon
proclaimed: ‘We have numberless affidavits, testimony that we have
not introduced, that shows this man to be the worst kind of
degenerate.’ MacCormick knew that these charges had ‘hurt his
[Osborne’s] work immeasurably’ and ‘could never have been given
color if it were not for his decent and effective way of handling
perverts as he encountered them in prison. He did not side-step the
issue and paid for his honesty and courage with his reputation.’

The
fate of the Rikers mural gave Austin MacCormick and Ben Shahn one
more powerful example of prison politics. By early 1935, Shahn had
completed his sketches and presented them to MacCormick and
LaGuardia. By all accounts, the two men were well pleased with what
they saw; both stooped by Shahn’s Bethune Street studio to offer
their personal congratulations on a job well done. As publicly funded
art, however, the mural sketches still required the approval of the
Municipal Art Commission, and here they ran into serious trouble. The
commission, which had the previous year rejected a series of public
murals from Shahn on the subject of Prohibition, now attacked the
Rikers reform mural. They rejected the design, with its review of
harsh punishments, as too disconcerting to prisoner sensibilities.
Among art historians, the commission’s decision has been cast as an
act of aesthetic conservatism against challenging modern public art
(‘lugubrious and unpleasant to look upon’), which it certainly
was, but the rejection of Shahn’s mural was also explicitly about
the politics of prison reform. The commission branded the proposed
mural as ‘anti-social propaganda.’ Jonas Lie, painter and member
of the commission, argued that would ‘incite prison inmates to
further an anti-social attitude’ and to ‘increase their
opposition to law and order.’

The
art world bitterly protested the actions of the Municipal Arts
Commission. Audrey McMahon defended the mural sketches as ‘works of
high artistic merit.’ New York Times art writer Edward Alen
Jewell praised the mural’s depiction of a ‘New Deal in prison
life.’ Stuart Davis, in Art Front magazine, famously
attacked commission member Jonas Life: ‘We suggest that while the
Commission was thinking along the lines of ‘psychological
unfitness,’ it might have done well to look at its own painter
member. For, wherever particularly stupid and reactionary acts are
committed in regard to art matters, one seldom has to look far to
find the person of [Lie]…Jonas Lie has proved himself unfit to hold
a seat on the Municipal Arts Commission, or to hold any public
office, for that matter, outside that of a Fascist Censor.’

MacCormick
and LaGuardia tried to help Shahn fight back against the Municipal
Art Commission. Following the commission’s preliminary rejection of
the plans, in February, MacCormick went to so far as to persuade his
friend and colleague, the psychologist Harry Shulman, to conduct a
remarkable study of inmate reactions to the proposed mural. Forty
inmates were selected and shown some of Shahn’s drawings. They were
then given a questionnaire that began: ‘Here is a set of pictures
showing the good and bad sides of prison life. The small ones are
sketches and the large ones will give you an idea of how it will look
on the wall. This is planned for a mural in one of the halls of a
brand-new and modern prison building. The artist would like to know
what you think of these pictures.’ Inmates were also asked how they
felt about having a mural on the walls of a prison, what they thought
other prisoners might think of such a mural, and whether visitors to
the prison would have any interest in them. The four questions for
the forty inmates produced a total of 160 question responses. Shulman
reported to MacCormick that out of a possible 160 answers, 97 were
favorable, 10 unfavorable, 22 indifferent, and 31 left blank. The
positive responses were encouraging: ‘They will certainly brighten
the place up a bit and also give the inmates something to concentrate
on besides the walls.’

LaGuardia
and MacCormick offered the survey results to the Municipal Art
Commission as evidence that the murals would not be overly disturbing
to the inmates, but the commission remained unmoved. In its formal
decision in May, the murals were definitely and finally rejected. At
this point, LaGuardia and MacCormick gave in to the commission,
formally abandoning the project. Theirs was a shocking decision for
Shahn and his supporters, and there is no clear explanation for this
reversal of course. MacCormick gave a statement to the press in which
he lamely attempted to explain his new reasoning: ‘Although a
number of prisoners submitted written opinions that were favorable to
the sketches, we found afterwards that many of them expressed
approval because they thought they were expected to do so.’

Disgusted
at the politics of public art in New York, Ben Shahn left both the
city and the prison project behind. It was never carried out. Shahn
and Block briefly attempted to resurrect the mural by bringing it to
one of the state prisons, but this seems not to have progressed very
far. The panels that composed the mural study were sold by weight as
scrap…” 

– Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2014. pp. 28-35

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Ben Shahn, studies for Riker’s Island Penitentiary murals, 1934-1935. Photographed by Walker Evans. 

All gelatin silver prints, donated in 2000 by

Bernarda Bryson Shahn to the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

A selection of photographic records of now lost large scale studies by Ben Shahn for murals intended to be installed at the new ‘model prison’ of Riker’s Island in 1935.  Although typical of Shahn’s work documenting the Great Depression, his murals were deemed too political for Riker’s and never installed. From top to bottom they show:

1) Down and out in the big city – the conditions leading to crime. #P2000.57 

2) A typical scene from a Southern US labor camp, meant to show the barbarity still practiced in American prisons – the implication being that Riker’s was a ‘new deal’ for inmates. #P2000.48

3) Prisoners in stalls, possibly at a work site. Again, another example of something that shouldn’t be happening anymore at a penitentiary. #P2000.47

4) A black prisoner being giving corporal punishment – that is, being tortured – at a public whipping in Delaware.  These displays of state power against (frequently black) bodies were actually revived in some Northern US jurisdictions in the 1930s, and like the above mural, imply that Riker’s discipline has moved on from this barbarism. #P2000.46

5) Prisoners being returned by guards to their cells from yard time.  A typical part of the prison routine, this mural appears to have been based on photographs Shahn took at the old New York Penitentiary on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island. #P2000.55

 

6-7) Prisoners, from left to right, at school, learning automotive repair, taking tests, out in the yard, and in the back, playing baseball. #P2000.49 & #P2000.50

8) Prisoners receiving their visitors at the penitentiary.  #P2000.56

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