Introduction by Austin McManus, Interview by Judith Supine
Approaching the eerie compound in Jesse’s large white cargo van, we joked about the vehicle’s appearance and how we looked like scrappers. The prison, which consists of several separate buildings, was surprisingly absent of any graffiti or vandalism, despite being unused for a long period of time. Lurking around, taking photos and doodling on walls, the world outside temporarily dissolved and I realized why Jesse had asked me to come. It’s a place for conversation, contemplation and tranquility. The infrastructure included ridiculously tiny cells and was a sobering reminder of America’s highly profitable, inhumane and deeply corrupt incarceration practices, the most prevalent theme in Jesse’s most recent body of work. For this interview, I reached out to Brooklyn-based artist, Judith Supine who’s frequently collaborated with Jesse, creating multiple projects intended solely for the streets. — Austin McManus
Judith Supine: How do you define compassion?
Jesse Hazelip: Being able to look at a criminal and love them regardless of their deeds. People in our society are very quick to judge others, especially poor people, based upon their own reality. I’ve been reading a lot about the prison system for my current body of work, and it’s alarming how racist and cruel the current punitive system is. I had a small taste of it the few times that I’ve been in a county jail facility. I was shocked by the inhumane treatment and the obvious racial bias in the population, and I could guess that it was much worse in higher security prisons. My experiences there triggered the need to make art to bring attention to the atrocities silently occurring behind those thick concrete walls.
The book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander has been my bible in researching this series. She worked tirelessly, uncovering blatant racism throughout all levels of our judicial system. Though there are many issues that need examination, I think that there are a few pressing ones that need to be dealt with urgently. The number of prisoners with mental illness is sickening. Prisons are not at all capable of caring for the needs of these individuals. Solitary confinement is another major violation of human rights. This method of incarceration is equivalent to torture, especially when you have prisoners in these conditions for multiple years and sometimes decades. One of the most prevalent issues I have a problem with is the overwhelming number of nonviolent offenders doing serious time for drug charges associated with the ages-old drug war that we’ve been losing for more than 40 years. If we were in Iraq for 40 years, do you think the public would be supportive? We need to take a different approach, obviously.