Article — Chris Arnade’s moving account of a woman’s experience of the US justice and penal system

Chris Arnade, a US-based photographer and journalist, has compiled a fascinating — and moving — account of a women’s (Beauty) experience of the US justice system following arrests for minor and non-violent offences concerning drugs and prostitution. Beauty attempts to turn her life around having been caught in a drugs and prostitution cycle in New York by returning to her Mother’s house in Oklahoma. But in turning herself in to the authorities she finds herself removed by law enforcement agents and incarcerated back in New York’s Rikers Island prison to be held on bail. Arnade’s account of the often perverse and overwhelmed legal process, particularly relating to the possibilities of parole off Rikers Island (where the majority of prisoners are simply awaiting trial), provides a grim rendition of the racial and class consequences of a system where the possibility of bail relies on the possibility of being able to pay. I am, of course, also drawn the geographical materiality at play in Arnade’s account — he talks of the the centrality of the criminal court house to life in the South Bronx:

[The criminal court house] sits at its geographic center, a six-story modern building dressed up in glass spanning an entire   block. It alone looks sleek; everything surrounding it is beat up, a combination of businesses feeding off the courts and others feeding them: liquor stores, bodegas selling K2 and single cigarettes, nonprofit legal services and 24-hour coffeeshops.

There are two interesting points about this spatial context. The first is the symbolic nature of court position, where its very centrality and aesthetic prominence is designed to embed the significance of the rule of law. In recent research in BiH Michaelina Jakala and I examine the complex (and paradoxical) relationship between the desire amongst ruling elite for courts to be both architecturally prominent while also attempting to portray the adjudication of law as separate from wider social contexts. Law is performed as both visible and distinct, and this poses a series of challenges when trying to convey the legitimacy of a new court, as we argue in the paper. The second point about Arnade’s account of the US criminal court in the Soutrh Bronx relates to the insertion of the court into the wider economy of the street. I haven’t really thought of this before (other than to remark on the location of expensive restaurants near courts in BiH to serve the judiciary) but there is perhaps a wider point to make about the political economy of law. It is an expensive and time consuming business, which is itself a key barrier to the completion of trials or, more commonly, a key reason why many cases never come to trial. As a note to myself: while we do look at the fear of retraumatisation as a key reason for people avoiding trial justice, the wider financial implication for the completion of trials requires similar scrutiny.

Alex Jeffrey, April 2015

Reference for the cited paper:

Jeffrey, A., & Jakala, M. (2014). The Hybrid Legal Geographies of a War Crimes Court. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104(3), 652-667.

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