Exploring how graffiti and street art calls attention to social justice issues

Graffiti and street art has a longstanding connection with political and social issues. Not only do we see this kind of activity proliferate when controversial issues are contested in urban public spaces, but we typically witness graffiti and street art when a grass roots social movement develops, or political or social revolution emerges.

In recent times lots of this type of graffiti and street art in support of ethnic, racial, and social justice issues has been produced. This work may be generic, like profanity laced tags against political leaders (e.g., Fuck Trump), etc., or it may involve more detailed and complicated types of communication including with different colors, shapes, and sizes, etc.

This whole cavalcade of icons, images, lettering, symbols, and words begs numerous interesting questions such as who is doing this kind of work? what is the range (e.g., what particular subjects do writers and artists focus on)? what effect (or impact) does it have? etc.

Some of these questions are more interesting and/or difficult to answer. Among the three previously listed ones, the effect of graffiti and street art that criticizes racial and ethnic injustice and promotes social justice are perhaps most interesting and are most needed for deeper inquiry.

Why? In recent times we have seen a considerable amount of graffiti and street art in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and protesting the needless deaths of people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Climate Change and other threats to our environment, and in support of LGBTQ+ Rights and Visibility, Immigration and Migrant Rights, Gender Equality, Women’s Rights and Indigenous Rights and Cultural Preservation

The question is how much impact does this work have?

On the plus side, graffiti and street art can bring awareness to pressing issues. And, despite its transient nature these forms of urban public art can have a lifespan beyond the surfaces it was originally applied to (through its reproduction through news and social media channels).

But who and how are subject populations (those that are exposed to graffiti and street art) affected by this work? Keep in mind that awareness does not necessarily mean that people are motivated to spring into action and engage in political activity that supports a particular political position.

Thus it’s important to measure the impact of graffiti and street art with different populations (e.g., from experts to nonexperts) using a multimethodological approach (e.g., surveys, interviews, focus groups, content analysis of news and social media coverage, etc.)

That being said, conducting this type of research that is rigorous and one to produce meaningful results is complicated and resource intensive.

One should not assume that if you do an examination of only one type of
In order to best understand a phenomenon it’s important to take a multi method approach.

Why? in any type of communication there are critical aspects to all types of communication including the creator/perpetrator, the communication vehicle and the interpretation.

Photo credit:
Photographer: Thomas Hawk
Title: Rest in Peace George Floyd

Addressing the diversity of American correctional facilities and systems

Unless you have direct experience with incarceration, many people think that all correctional facilities and systems in the United States are the same.

The reality, however, is that there’s considerable variety among the places and systems that manage the approximate 2.1 million people who are currently incarcerated.

How exactly do correctional institutions and systems differ?

We can probably come up with five categories on which these entities vary including: philosophy of incarceration, facility types (e.g., city and county jails, state prisons, federal penitentiaries, specialized units, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Centers, etc.), management styles, public versus private entities, the types of populations that are incarcerated, and geographic/cultural variations.

Thus some jails, prisons, etc. are better at providing safe and secure living and working conditions, adequate health, medical and psychological care, while others are worse at delivering these kinds of things, etc..

Why is this important to know?

First, given the importance of jails, prisons and other correctional facilities not only for the criminal justice system, but in their attempts to achieve their goals (i.e., punishment, public safety, rehabilitation, deterrence, etc.), it’s important that we encourage informed discourse, and avoid making generalizations, and relying on myths, especially when they do not accurately reflect what we know to be true.

Second, understanding that there is considerable variety may help us to recognize disparities and perhaps address them in a timely fashion.

Third, understanding the diversity may assist correctional administrators and planners to tailor or better shape interventions and policies.

Fourth, and most important, understanding that there is variety may lead to better approaches to humanizing the carceral experience.

So how do we go about addressing the disparities, and improving jail and prison conditions so they are more just, safe and humane not only for inmates but for correctional workers too?

Numerous proposals have been advanced, including improved reporting systems, 1-800 numbers, etc. Overall these approaches are typically piecemeal.

If we want to better target our efforts, we might consider directing them towards the jails and prisons and correctional systems that need them the most.

How would we go about doing that? To begin with almost all correctional facilities and systems can be rank ordered on the previously mentioned continuums.

And a handful of organizations (e.g., Prison Policy Initiative; Vera Institute of Justice; U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics; PrisonInsight, and the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) do this sort of thing.

Sometimes this process generally relies upon self reports, provided by correctional institutions and systems and at other times they don’t. More importantly, there is no comprehensive scaling system, and the reports are released on a sporadic basis.

If we can find the correctional facilities, processes, practices, and system that need to be reformed the most, then prison activists and reformers, and correctional workers can target our collective efforts.

Until then activism directed at improving jails, prisons and other correctional facilities and systems is going to be a little bit of this and a little bit of that. People protesting against substandard and/or horrific jail and prison conditions, policies and procedures may feel like they are spinning their wheels because their efforts are spread all over the place.

Photo: Orleans Parish Prison, Louisiana. March 2012.
Photographer: Bart Everson

How American prison conditions can impact extradition requests

The United States is known around the world for lots of great things. Often referred to as the land of opportunity, America is blessed with spectacular wilderness areas replete with natural beauty, well-respected educational and medical institutions, generally friendly people, and Disneyland .

But all that glitters is not gold. The US is also recognized for its high rates of gun violence, (supported in part by the second amendment), homelessness, income inequality, intolerance, racism, etc.

Part of this latter package includes one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and prison conditions, that are often abysmal (including overcrowded, understaffed and dangerous correctional facilities).

Not only is this reality known among the average foreigner, but the judiciaries of those countries from whence they come.

That’s why many foreign criminal justice and political systems are reluctant to extradite citizens of all countries, irrespective of how hideous the crimes they are alleged to have committed, who are wanted by the United States government (and regardless if they are in custody or not).

Although the judiciaries of foreign countries may distain America’s mass incarceration per sea, or the disproportionate number of African American’s and people of low income behind bars, they fear not only that the accused person whose docket they are presiding over is not going to get a fair trial, or may receive the death penalty, but they generally know that US prison conditions and the provision of services inside fall below generally accepted standards of human rights.

They are well aware of numerous reports developed by well-respected experts and organizations documenting the mistreatment and in some cases abuse of prisoners in US correctional facilities, not to mention inhumane and degrading treatment behind bars.

Many foreign countries (particularly Western and/or advanced industrialized countries) have better standards for their correctional facilities. Most European countries, in particular, are signatories to the European Convention on Human rights which bars inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners. If they believe that prison conditions in the United States fall below these standards they may be reluctant to extradite an individual to America.

One of the most salient of those aspects is the quality of care incarcerated people might receive, particularly if they suffer from a serious medical condition or psychological challenges (e.g., Asperger’s syndrome, autism, acute depression, etc.).

This is not just hyperbole. Repeatedly we have seen this in action. Four salient cases are illustrative.

In 2012, Gary McKinnon, a British Citizen, residing in the UK, was wanted by the United States government for hacking into the Pentagon computer system. If convicted, McKinnon, a long time sufferer of Asperger’s would be required to spend a considerable amount of time in isolation, most likely at a Supermax Prison. This condition, it was argued may prompt him to commit suicide. Thus his extradition request was denied.

In 2018, the Irish High Court denied the extradition of Eric Marques, who was charged with running a dark web child pornography website. The court cited concerns about the conditions of confinement in the United States, including the use of special administrative measures (SAMs), which can involve prolonged solitary confinement, as well as the lack of mental health facilities and the high rate of violence in U.S. prisons.

Also in 2018, British citizen, Laurie Love won an appeal against a US extradition request. Love was accused by the United States of perpetrating a series of cyber-attacks against American government agencies, including the Federal Reserve, NASA, and the Army. Love (a long time sufferer of Autism) and his attorneys argued among other things that his mental and physical health would be at risk due to the harsh conditions in American prisons.

And in 2021, WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, who was wanted in the United States on charges of espionage and hacking government computers, and facing extradition, was prevented from being extradited because of his precarious mental health, that that his lawyers argued would deteriorate in American correctional facilities where he would be held for trail and possibly sentenced to.

Fighting an extradition request is not a slam dunk for individuals who have fled the United States and have been arrested in a foreign country, nor for foreigners wanted by the United States government, their defense council and loved ones. The process typically involves multiple court appearances, the involvement of one or more skilled legal teams, and expert witnesses that can testify not only to the wanted person’s medical and physical conditions, and psychological challenges, but also (depending on the particular charge) an intimate knowledge of local, state and federal correctional facility systems and practices, not to mention transportation practices.

The challenges of the American correctional system that tolerates poor jail and prison conditions and practices are not going to be fixed any time soon. But the reluctance of foreign governments to send individuals who are wanted back to the United States because of poor jail and prison conditions, should serve as an additional reason why the American correctional system should reform and change sooner rather than later.

Photo Credit: Alpha Photo
A photo about the topic Extradition.