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Original author: 
Jorge Benezra

His name is Wilmer Brizuela, Wilmito to his friends, but to the inmates of Vista Hermosa, he is simply the Pran, the unquestioned leader of one of Venezuela’s notorious prisons. Outside its walls, the Venezuelan national guard patrols; inside, the inmates live and die in a world of their own making. Brizuela has occasionally allowed reporters to visit for a few hours, but earlier this year, he gave photojournalist Sebastián Liste and me exclusive, full access to the prison for more than a week, revealing an improvised society that mirrors the one outside.

Brizuela, who is serving sentences of 10 years for kidnapping and 16 years for murder, believes that his rule over the 1,400 inmates of Vista Hermosa (Beautiful View) in the southern state of Bolívar is more humane than that of the Venezuelan prison authorities, who have been widely criticized by human-rights groups for the overcrowding, poor living conditions and corruption in the country’s prisons. Gang violence is rampant; last year 591 inmates were killed, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, a watchdog group. Under strongman Hugo Chávez, advocates and journalists who reported on abuses in Venezuela’s prisons faced intimidation and threats of violence; conditions have not improved since Chávez’s death.

Vista Hermosa is emblematic of these problems. Built in the 1950s to house 650 inmates, it now houses more than twice that number. As the population grew, clashes between prisoners and guards became common. Rather than improve conditions, prison authorities have allowed them to descend into near chaos. Since Brizuela, a champion boxer, and his gang took control of Vista Hermosa by force in 2005, drug use and violence are still widespread but tightly controlled. “So far we have achieved peace and a minimum of decent human living standards,” Brizuela says.

Entering Vista Hermosa during visiting hours feels a bit like stepping into the streets of a bustling slum. There are open-air vendors selling DVDs, medicine and snacks amid the unbearable heat and thumping techno music. There are plazas for dancing and a more formal ballroom for parties. In these areas, visiting women and children walk freely, the iron bars have been removed and the walls are freshly painted. The prison, like any society, has distinct subcultures. There are Christian evangelists, called varones, who live, pray and sing together and work hard to keep their spaces clean. Gay inmates have their own quarters, where they can live without fear of harassment.

Vista Hermosa feels like an extreme version of Venezuela itself, in microcosm. Along with the families and celebrations, there is violence and despair. Dozens of addicts, their bodies withered by crack and other drugs, smoke and sleep in rows of hammocks or on piles of trash. Men serving time for sex crimes live in an area far removed from the other inmates. And this society of prisoners has a prison of its own the zone known as La Guerrilla, where gandules, the renegade inmates who have violated Vista Hermosa’s unwritten code, are kept under armed guard. Their inmate-jailers make surveillance rounds night and day armed with pistols, high-caliber revolvers and automatic rifles.

Prisons like Vista Hermosa, which Brizuela says generates about $3 million a year in profit from illegal activities and weekly taxes paid to the Pran by the inmates, could not function without the complicity of corrupt officials who allow drugs and weapons inside. Even the Pran fears them. As Brizuela puts it, “The arms are for protecting us from the national
guard.”

Jorge Benezra is a journalist based in Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBenezra.

Sebastián Liste is a Brazil-based photographer. In September 2012, he received the Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography and the City of Perpignan Rémi Ochlik Award. LightBox previously published Liste’s work documenting the community living in an abandoned chocolate factory. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianListe.

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What does prison look like?

In her latest body of work,  Sailboats and Swans, Israeli photographer Michal Chelbin challenges viewers to re-imagine the answer to this question. Working with her husband and co-producer, Oded Plotnizki, Chelbin spent three years photographing prisons in Ukraine and Russia from 2008 to 2010.

The pair used a network of connections, built over the 10 years they have worked in the region, to gain incredibly rare access to these facilities. What they found inside surprised them. Instead of grey concrete and steel, there were tropical wallpapers, lace-covered tables and furniture painted in glossy blues and greens. The prisoners in Chelbin’s photographs are not dressed in orange jumpsuits, but the floral housedresses, cloth jackets and rubber sandals common to village life in the region. Religious icons seem as ubiquitous as tattoos.

With only one day to work in each location, Chelbin and Plotnizki carefully explored these strange environments, quietly combing halls and common areas to find subjects for their portraits.

“It’s something I look for in their faces, their gaze,” Chelbin said, adding that it was intuition, rather than any specific characteristics, that guided their choices. “It’s not a formula. Some people have this quality that you can’t take them out of your head,” Plotnizki added.

The mood in each location varied widely. Chelbin and Plotnizki described the tense atmosphere of a young boys’ facility as a “living hell, ” while the residents of a men’s prison “were like zombies.”

But it was a prison for women and children in Ukraine that made the greatest emotional impact on Chelbin, who herself had two young children at the time of the shoot. In one frame from that facility, a nursery attendant dressed in white is pictured leaning on the corner of an oversized crib. Inside, toddlers play with rubber balls that mirror the bright, primary colors of a mural painted on wall behind them (slide #7).

The tired, distant expression of the attendant, whose name is Vika, is the only clue that this isn’t a happy scene. The children, we learn from Chelbin, were born in prison and have never known the outside world. Vika herself is a prisoner–charged with murder. She is also a mother, but cannot visit her own child who has been placed in an orphanage.

Chelbin chose not to ask each prisoner about their crimes until after their portrait sessions. Likewise, in the soon-to-be-released book of this work, captions containing the names and criminal charges of each prisoner are left to the last pages. In this way, viewers do not immediately know that a pair of sisters in matching dresses are in custody for violence and theft, or that a young man, reclining on a green iron bed, has been charged with murder.

There are a huge variety of faces in these portraits. There are young girls with pale, delicate skin and older women whose features are made severe with heavy makeup. There are boys so small they look more suited to grade school than prison and men whose scars indicate years of hard living. In all of them, though, there is a sense of dignity.

“I want people to look at the book and see themselves,” said Chelbin. “The circumstances of life could have brought anyone to this place.”

Michal Chelbin is an Israel-based photographer. See more of her work here

Chelbin’s latest body of work, Sailboats and Swans, will be released on Nov. 1 by Twin Palms Publishers. An exhibition of the work will be on display at the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York City from Oct. 18 to Dec. 22

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Donny began raking in the cash almost immediately after the short yellow school bus dropped him off in front of his house in Troy N.Y.

He spotted his mother Kayla, 22, who had been waiting for him on their front porch and hurled his Spiderman backpack in the direction of her feet. As he walked up the steps, Donny made himself available to a random, yet steady, trickle of well wishers, the sort who preferred to peel off a few green backs instead of fumbling with gift paper and bows. Donny, whose name has been changed at the request of the photographer, turned eight that day and in his neighborhood, occasions such as birthdays, funerals and releases from prison, drew big crowds in which everyone was considered family and obliged to make an appearance.

That birthday, which took place this April, was particularly important for Donny. His previous birthday had fallen in the middle of a fourteen-day crisis intervention that the seven year old had spent in a pediatric psychiatric facility. Since kindergarten, Donny has struggled with several emotional and behavioral disorders including attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and separation anxiety. His diagnoses have resulted in multiple suspensions that have caused him to miss valuable school time.

This year, family members were making up for lost time. Jose, an old sweetheart of Kayla’s who was recently released from prison, passed by the stoop with a twenty; Donny’s uncle Will, who was scheduled to begin a 60-day stint in county jail, left a fist full of ones; Kayla’s brother Robby, out on probation, put $10 towards a World Wrestling Federation action figure that Donny wanted. And Sabrina, an extended family member, dropped by to give Donny a huge hug and reveal her birthday plan to take him to a Yankees game. A cousin to Donny’s biological father, Sabrina has filled in for him, on and off, since Donny’s birth and later became Kayla’s first serious girlfriend.

I’ve known Donny since he was born, after a friend introduced to me Sabrina, who was the subject of a New York Times Magazine assignment that sent me close to my hometown in upstate New York. It was the first time that I returned as a professional since leaving there more than 30 years before. Kayla lived in Troy, just 10 minutes from where I grew up, and her story resonated with me. Reserved and street smart, Kayla was the girl I wished I was when I was 14. There was an uneasy identification between the two of us that grew into friendship over the next eight years while I continued to document Kayla, Sabrina and their friends who lived as a family on the same block. A family, I discovered, that was formed largely in response to increasingly punitive legal, moral and economic shifts within their working class community. I watched, as school either became the interface between the justice system and a disengaged teenager or a lifeline thrown from an involved teacher. At year six, I began to agonize about the utility of this monster story and when Donny began school, it became evident that he was the story. Donny is the proverbial child that this neighborhood raised.

Donny is one of a number of very young children that are part of an alarming increase in students being labeled with disabilities at much younger ages. He was suspended from school four times when he was in kindergarten, almost twice that in first grade and more than twenty days in second grade. In New York City, policy critics and social justice advocates note that minority children and children with disabilities are more likely to be suspended, and at much younger ages. Yet, organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund note that there is no evidence to show that suspension corrects behavior, especially among children as young as Donny—and that this supports a “cradle to prison” pipeline. The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights 2009-2010 survey released In March 2012, shows that once students are suspended from school, they are more likely to be suspended again—and ultimately may serve time in prison.

In February, Donny was taken out of the Rennselaer county school district regular classroom for special education and placed in day treatment that serves as a specialized school with one-on-one instruction in small classrooms, a longer school year and where suspension is not an option. That consistency, along with the support of a team of social workers, has been a tremendous factor in his improvement at home and school. Kayla says he wakes her while it is still dark and wants to get ready for school. In the past, school social workers had targeted one of Donny’s “triggers” as school avoidance, and it became a cycle, with him acting out because he knew he would be sent home and then not feeling a part of the class when he returned and then acting out so he could leave again. Donny has now been in school since February without being suspended. This is the longest time he has gone with out a suspension since kindergarten.

Brenda Ann Kenneally is a photographer based in New York. See more of her work hereTo read more about the project, visit Upstategirls.org.

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How I Pulled Off a $300 Million Drug Deal

From 1972 until the late 80s, Brian O’Dea was one of the world’s most successful drug smugglers. Then he got addicted to coke, and although he cleaned up following an overdose and a heart attack, the DEA tracked him down. So, throughout the 1990s, while everyone else was enjoying grunge (and coke), Brian was in prison.

Nowadays, he’s a big, reformed hit on Canadian TV as a host and producer, and he continues to work with addicts while advocating the legalization of drugs. Far from being a grizzled ex-con, Brian’s an erudite, hip kind of guy. Apparently, as he told me, guys like him used to be the norm in the smuggling game. Nowadays, it’s all cartels and guns. I caught up with Brian to talk about the golden days of drug running.

VICE: I wanted to ask you about the process of drug smuggling, because it’s obviously a very complex operation. I was wondering if you could sort of talk me through it a little bit. First though, it was mainly marijuana that you were smuggling, wasn’t it?
Brian: Yes. From time to time I smuggled small amounts of coke just to get a stash of money when I was broke, but pot was always my choice because I loved it.

How were you bringing it in?
The last deal we did was ultimately 75 tons split over two loads, and we used fishing boats in Alaska. All of our crews were known in the area as fishermen, so we were hiding in plain sight. Do you want me to give you the anatomy of that last deal?

CONTINUE

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Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Inmate Julie Harper, center, marches with members of America's only all-female chain gang early in the morning at Estrella Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. Photos taken in May 2012 and made available to msnbc.com on June 28, 2012.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

The chain gang work in 104 degree heat, hacking at weeds at Bartlett Lake.

Photos and text by Jim Lo Scalzo, European Pressphoto Agency — It's a scene reminiscent of the Deep South at the turn of the 20th century: A dozen prisoners in pinstripes working by the side of the road, their legs shackled together and their brows dripping with sweat. Yet this is present-day Phoenix, and the prisoners are all women.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Kelly DeGrose, center, listens to a detention officer lecture them after a day's work on the chain gang.

With a few exceptions, chain gangs were abandoned in the U.S. by 1955. But Arizona's Maricopa County, which includes metropolitan Phoenix, reintroduced the practice in 1995, and today the county runs the only all-female chain gang in the country. Women volunteer for the duty, looking to break the monotony of jail life. Most are in for minor convictions - a DUI sentence, a probation violation - and are housed at the Tent City, a collection of surplus military tents erected next to Maricopa County's Estrella Jail to ease overcrowding. 

Previously on PhotoBlog: Rikers Island inmates graduate with high school diplomas

The "chain girls," as they call themselves, gather at 6 a.m., when detention officers drive them to that day's work site. It could be a local park to pick up trash, a highway roadside to pull weeds, or even a county cemetery to help bury the indigent. Though summer temperatures in Phoenix can rise above 110 degrees, inmates volunteer with surprising eagerness.

"It's worth it just to get out for a few hours," says Mickey Haas, who is serving time for a DUI. Fellow chain girl Honi Simmons agrees, adding: "It comes with a good story. I don't think people will ever believe I was in a chain gang."

Follow @msnbc_pictures

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Members of the chain gang line up for work early in the morning at Estrella Jail.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Members of the chain gang are seen in a bus driver's mirror en route to White Tanks Cemetery to help bury the indigent.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

The chain gang help bury an unclaimed body at White Tanks Cemetery, an indigent burial site in the desert west of Phoenix.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Inmates Alma Madrigal, left, and Jennifer Thomas, right, help Lisa McCorvey roll up her sleeves before a day's work.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Members of the chain gang clean the dust off their boots after another day's work in the desert.

 

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In academic and literary criticism, the verb “to interrogate” is often a neutral term, stripped of its more violent, forceful resonance. But in Donald Weber’s new book, Interrogations, itself an “interrogation” of the way state power plays out across stretches of Eastern Europe, the Canadian photographer seeks to show the brutality and helplessness that undergirds almost all societies.

The images above are scenes from interrogation rooms, the product of seven years of exploring Russia and the Ukraine and befriending and winning the trust of ordinary police officers. They are stark and bleak. Detained suspects sit slumped in empty rooms, their faces stretched in terror, shame and resignation. A teenager under suspicion of shoplifting bursts into tears; when his interrogation goes wrong, a supposed car thief finds himself pinioned to the table, his hands limply warding against a gun pointed down on his skull.

Weber says the scenes are not out of the ordinary. The interrogations are conducted by officers who are “respected in their departments,” he says. “They rose through the ranks and did the job required. What I think is so powerful is that this is not a rogue set of cops. This is standard practice, it is what it is. It’s the utter terror of a wayward bureaucracy.”

On one level, that’s an indictment of the ethical vagaries of policing in post-Soviet countries. But on another, Weber is illustrating—dramatically, to be sure—how state power essentially functions the world over. French philosopher Louis Althusser famously placed the moment we recognize our subservience to the authority of a state in a street scene where one is confronted by a police officer. The officer, writes Althusser, shouts: “‘Hey, you there!’… Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject.”

That subjection—that subjugation—is all too apparent in the suspects Weber photographs. Even in full-fledged, mature democracies, one still feels a kind of nakedness when in the crosshairs of the law, a vulnerability that can only be mitigated after the fact by norms of due process and habeas corpus. Says Weber: “This is work not about Ukraine or Russia or even the former Soviet Union, but instead a way to see the modern State as a primitive and sacrificial rite.”

That’s a particularly dark interpretation of how power gets wielded and realized, but it’s echoed in public opinion polls throughout the post-Soviet world. Twenty years since the fall of Communism, a significant majority of people in Ukraine and Russia have lost faith in both the promise of free-market capitalism as well as multiparty democracy. This disillusionment with politics has much to do with disgust at what some say are kleptocratic, domineering elites in both countries. But it also indicates a deeper gloominess: the sense perhaps that, whatever the dominant ideology of the day, there’s always the prospect of the interrogation room, and the grim, subterranean power that it holds over of us.

Interrogations was published this month by Schilt Publishing. Weber’s series recently won first place at the World Press Photo awards in the Portraits—Stories category.

Ishaan Tharoor writes for TIME and is editor of Global Spin. You can find him on Twitter at ishaantharoor

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