Judy Glickman Lauder
“Arbeit macht frei” were the words placed on the gates of many forced labor and extermination camps during the Holocaust. These words meant “work makes one free,” but the horrific intention of these camps was the total annihilation of the Jewish people. Most people who entered were held captive and never saw freedom again. The buildings, cells, and chambers within these gates were created for confinement, torture, and death. These images remain as sad reminders of the Nazis’ ultimate deception.
Incarceration is inextricably linked to social conditions. Those who live in poor and minority neighborhoods and communities are imprisoned at a much higher rate than those living in affluent communities. According to The Sentencing Project, low-income and minority populations made up approximately three-fifths and two-thirds (respectively) of the US prison population in 2020. Systemic racism, moreover, is readily apparent in any accounting of police arrests and court sentencing. A black man is five times as likely to be stopped without cause than a white man. After being stopped, blacks are more likely to be arrested than whites. Once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted and to receive lengthier prison sentences than whites. Overall, blacks are 5.9 times more likely to serve prison time than whites. Latinx are 3.1 more likely to be incarcerated than whites.
The first image, No somos esclavos, shows migrant farmworkers on strike. These farmworkers’ struggle for a nickel-an-hour raise reflects the enormous pressure of poverty and how it disproportionately affects people of color. While the poster claims “we are not slaves,” the workers on the side of the road watched over by a policeman in the foreground nevertheless suggests that they remain shackled to low-paying jobs and substandard living conditions.
The second image, Young Farmworker in Camp, depicts a Puerto Rican migrant farmworker in a moment of reflection. The isolation of camp, the towels and clothes strung up over the beds to dry, painted cinder-block walls, and the disheveled sheets on the sleeping cots suggest the enormous burden of poverty, social deprivation, and racism. One can hardly escape seeing the shadow of a prison cell here in the workers’ camp.
The third image, Don’t Shoot!, is a wheat-pasted portrait of a young man, faceless. The photograph was taken in New York City, but it could have been Portland, Waterville, or Bangor as well. Is he trying to escape through the locked door? Why is he shirtless and barefoot? Why does he show us that he has nothing in his hands? He appears surprised, perhaps threatened. We see him through a steel gate, reminiscent of prison doors. Part of the building is painted red, white, and blue.
Freedom and captivity are historically married in America. Since before the founding of the United States, the freedom of European colonists depended on the enslavement of blacks and the genocidal campaigns against native peoples. Is it so surprising, then, that the US has more people imprisoned (2.2 million) than any other country in the world? More than Russia (558,778)? More than China (1.7 million), a nation of 1.44 billion people? According to a recent UN report on incarceration, the US makes up five percent of the world’s population but accounts for roughly twenty-five percent of the world’s imprisoned population.
Image at top: Judy Glickman Lauder, Cell, Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland, digital pigment print, 13 x 19 in.