IMAGINE... being confined in solitude for 23 hours a day in a small single cell. The cell has no windows to the outside, or direct access to natural light. There are no options for meaningful activities of any kind. FACT: Some American prisoners are held in just such high security isolation units known as Security Housing Units (SHUs) — often for years. You may think that this is only a rarely-used form of punishment. The fact is, more than 81,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement in the U.S. according to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics census. By comparison, that’s 160 × the number kept in the U.K.

The stakes are high, and not just for the prisoners. Exposing these trends toward solitary confinement at this moment in time coincides with a financial tipping point in maintaining state Supermax systems — which is becoming increasingly fiscally unsustainable. With your support, it’s time to utilize this momentum and to underline that U.S. policies regarding solitary confinement are controversial... not just considering international law, but our own Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

My name is Christoph Gielen. I am a photographer who specializes in aerial surveys, and I need your help in producing my new journalistic exposé, titled American Prison Perspectives.

Arizona Prison Complex

This multimedia feature is about trends toward solitary confinement in Supermax prisons. It will present the perspectives of prison architects as well as seldom-heard human rights voices, and provide a rare glimpse into the dry “science” of building maximum security prisons. With this exposé, I will offer the general public an opportunity to confront the building of new high tech prisons as a growth industry, as well as views of prison systems that are otherwise not available.

But in order to be able to create this work, I need to secure additional funding for renting a helicopter and hiring a pilot to conduct aerial surveys. If you care about bringing an end to what are not only extreme but incredibly costly incarceration practices within the U.S. (the California Department of Corrections listed the taxpayer’s cost per SHU inmate for Pelican Bay State Prison annually at $70,641) — please help me shed light on these controversial conditions by making a tax deductible charitable donation to the production of American Prison Perspectives.


I am going to record prison facilities from the sky. Based on Amnesty International reports*, I have zeroed in on several of the most notorious “super-maximum” complexes in California and Arizona. From above my views will pull into focus the design details of these compounds, calling attention to architectural features which were specifically developed to minimize any prisoner movements and to produce isolation. For example “exercise yards” which consist of empty outdoor 8 x 10 feet concrete enclosures attached to the back of each pod, with a grid of rods atop its high walls. “Exercise yard” in this case is a misnomer for a “cage”, and allows us to attach a different value to the standard terminology employed by its planners.

To provide the opportunity to visually examine these restricted locations is significant, because any closer inspection of Supermax facilities either by journalists or members of an interested public who cannot step onto these premises is unattainable. This visual material, combined with critical text, forms the foundation for this photographic exposé. The Canadian cultural historian Michael J. Prokopow and I will collaborate to uncover the principal confinement strategies that maximum security prison designs are currently based on, as well as their effects on those incarcerated within these facilities.

Prokopow and I together will interview and present the perspectives of actual prison architects and mental health experts, testimonies which will anchor the visual material in hard facts. Solitary Watch cites Sandra Schank, staff psychiatrist, Mule Creek Prison, CA: “It’s a standard psychiatric concept, if you put people in isolation, they will go insane”. Imagery and commentary together will produce a synthesis of challenging details, and help us understand the rationales that currently drive the Supermax phenomenon.

There is a high potential to reach a large audience with my endeavor. The New York Times is committed to publishing this project, and The Fund for Investigative Journalism recently awarded their grant support. While this backing is terrific, the funding amount is still insufficient for covering the necessary aerial survey missions.


Will you help me confront a culture of incarceration? I am $14,000 short of the sum that I need to raise in order to get this project off the ground. Please join me in exposing the true costs of keeping a substantial portion of the U.S. population incarcerated in solitary confinement by supporting my project and donating 81 dollars, symbolizing the 81,000 individuals. (Or any amount you may wish to give.)

Contributions to this project are charitable donations through Blue Earth Alliance, our 501(c) 3 fiscal sponsor, and are tax deductible as allowed by law. Blue Earth Alliance will provide tax receipts for all donations. (Project Sponsorship Letter can be downloaded here)

Your donation can easily be made via this Google Wallet link:


or by sending a check made out to:

Blue Earth Alliance
! memo line Christoph Gielen American Prison Perspectives

BLUE EARTH ALLIANCE Po Box 94388 Seattle, WA 98124 (for further details please call the Blue Earth Alliance office at: 206-569-8754)

If you care about encouraging an active discussion about confinement practices, as well as the privatization and maintaining of prisons for revenue creation, please support this urgent work.

Thank you very much. I really appreciate your generosity.

Christoph Gielen

* The following Amnesty International reports are cited above: USA, The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s security housing units (2012), and United States of America: A Call to Action by the UN Committee Against Torture (2000).

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