Hurricane Harvey Told Through the Voice of the Prisoner-Artist

On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck Houston. In five days it brought 60 inches of rain and damaged or destroyed 300,000 buildings. At the time, images were reporting residents of assisted living homes in waist-high water. But what was not being reported was similar conditions inside area prisons and jails.

Assisted living residents left in peril. Photo courtesy of Timothy McIntosh

Photojournalism can tell us a lot, like the flood conditions outside of prisons and jails, but what it fails at, is telling the stories inside prison and jails during a natural disaster.

Federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, flooded by Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy of Charlie Riedel, copyright 2017 the Associated Press

Disturbed by the lack of press coverage of flood conditions inside Houston’s area jails and prisons, America’s Premier prisoner-artist, 1,500 miles away in Los Angeles, reported on the conditions for them. In the press release attached with his work, published in the February 2018, edition of Prison Action News, award-winning visual prisoner-artist, Donald “C-Note” Hooker wrote why he created the piece, During the Flood.

During the Flood is a piece inspired by Hurricane Harvey and its impact on the prisoners in the prisons that were flooded out by the storm. The photojournalism that was done failed in actual telling the story of the human distress. The photojournalism that was done on the storms impact on assisted living facilities was quite impactful, as the cameras had access to their living conditions, but no photojournalistic access was given to record the actual conditions the prisoners found themselves in. Images only existed post rescue. While Harvey was a tragedy, the impact of prisons affected by flooding first came to light doing Hurricane Katrina.

The role of the artist is not to tell the story, but make their readers, sees, or listeners, to feel the story. During the Flood, a work specifically done in ink on paper, is for prisoner print publications which predominately use a newsprint paper and format. This type of dissemination is more conducive to work done in black and white.

The title, During the Flood, was specifically chosen over naming the piece specific to Hurricane Harvey. There will be other floods in other parts of the country. Corcoran, California, is sinking. It sits on top of a major underground aqueduct that has been affected by government policies, farm crop choices, and drought. In Corcoran, is a major California State Prison. Most prisons are either administered by a state or federal agency, but the people involved in the evacuation of a prison in a local jurisdiction will be the local authorities. During the Flood, in conjunction with the prison publication community, is to hopefully inspire the dialogue between state officials responsible for housing these prisoners, and the local first responders who also will be involved in some sort of evacuation of distressed human beings within their local jurisdiction. It is my hope that the state’s response to such a crisis is more in line with being humane, rather than the clinical response seen in During the Flood.

Fight Toxic Prisons is one such organization that is forcing the public to become aware of the perils faced by those that are imprisoned in jails, juvenile facilities, detention centers, and prisons, during natural disasters. Last year, this grassroots organization which does intersectional advocacy for the environment and prisons, saved lives, when they were able to get facilities evacuated in North Carolina and Virginia ahead of Hurricane Florence. Currently, Tropical Storm Dorian is moving through the Caribbean with 60 mile per hour winds and is expected to grow into the first hurricane of the 2019 hurricane season before making landfall in Florida.

[Editor’s Note]:

The drawing, During the Flood (2017), was donated and sold during the Prisoner Art exhibition, Connecting Art and Law for Liberation, held at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA’s, Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. The exhibition, held less than 24-hours after the City of Los Angeles held funeral services at the Staples Center, and a 2.5 mile funeral procession for Nipsey Hussle, attracted some notable speakers; such as, actor and activist, Danny Glover; Los Angeles Poet Laureate 2014-2016, and activist, Luis J. Rodriguez; Hip-Hop artist, activist, and founding member of Public Enemy, and Prophets of Rage, Chuck D; author, activists, and former prisoner, Donna Hylton.

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