Steph Foster focuses his lens on the American prison system

Interdisciplinary artist Steph Foster is using his art to investigate and address what's wrong with the United States criminal justice system.

When Steph Foster was in his graduating year of high school his aunt was arrested and sentenced to 18-33 years for a non-violent crime. According Foster cases like his aunt’s are not uncommon in the United State’s criminal justice system.

He says there are more than 6.5 million people in the current American criminal justice system and 40% of that population is made up of African Americans despite them only making up 12% of the population.

Steph Foster

“So we are at a point in time where black people are five times more likely to go to prison than white people which is insane to me,” says Foster from the 2019 Design Indaba Conference stage. 

For his Master’s thesis, the Rhode Island School of Design graduate decided to look at the basics of the American prison system and the mass incarcerations which were taking place. One of the elements that really triggered him about the system was Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon structure. 

The panopticon structure is a common structure within a prison yard where the prison cells are positioned along a circular formation with a central pillar used for surveillance in the middle.

According to Foster, the importance of this structure in the prison system is because, “it instills this thinking within prisoners that they are always being watched and they never have a moment’s peace. And I’m interested in that imbalance of power and surveillance.”

To see what these structures physically look like, Foster visited prisons around the US in search of the panopticon structure.

“I’ve been going to visit prisons in the US that are built off the panopticon structure and pivoting my camera, my lens around them and seeing how these designs and structures place themselves in the community and how they have an effect on this community,” says Foster.

Through his research he also found that there is a major economy around prisons. One of them is bail bonds.

Steph Foster

“Bail bonds in my opinion is one of the most unequal aspects about our criminal justice system because it directly ties people’s freedom up into how much money they have. Not only is it unfair but it’s profitable. People profit off of black life and black suffering,” explains Foster. 

He mentions that in some prisons, inmates have to compete in bloody sports all for the entertainment and amusement of spectators.

For Foster, while this history of mass incarceration has been incredibly hard to confront he keeps going because these are real issues that affect real people.

He introduced his talk with a poignant poem describing elements of the vicious system designed to keep black Americans within it. Watch it above. 

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