In 1831, Alexander de Tocqueville wrote of an emerging approach to prisons in America committed to the idea of “reformation,” which attempted to make criminals better people and reintegrate them into society. Reformation prisons ended with Nixon and the present prison paradigm was canonized under Reagan’s “War on Drugs.” This shift haunts Cameron Rowland’s “9102000” at Artists Space.
Splayed throughout a white room are the industrial artifacts of prison labor in the new paradigm: an office desk, court benches, manhole rings, lashes. Presented as individual objects, each was manufactured by subcontracted prison labor, with workers paid between $0.10-1.47 per hour, while private industries and consumers profit the rest. A prisoner, through their labor, is a part of each object, telling the story of a people we never see. The title is Rowland’s customer number for purchasing the items, his mark of participation in the system.
The objects force the viewer to confront a central problem of prisons: prisons were once envisioned as a place of reformation, where prisoners became better members of society upon release, but how are the imprisoned supposed to re-enter society with only a suit on their backs? How can the imprisoned produce so many goods, but see none of the profits? Rowland’s answer is uncomfortable: prison is a new slavery, where America can extract free labor from black men.