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Several Very Secure Letters

Jail is the only place where one gets to read
-Constance Gore Booth, jailed IRA activist, Dublin 1910

SITE: De-commissioned Los Angeles County Jail

COMPONENTS: Four hundred contemporary and historical letters written from jail. Some of the sources included: Amnesty International, Arm the Spirit, The Black Person's Guide to Surviving Prison by Abdullah, Angela Davis, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Emma Goldman, Constance Gore-Booth, Antonio Gramsci, Peace Nets Prisoner of Conscience List, George Jackson, Leonard Peltier, Susan Rosenberg, The Rosenberg Letters: The Complete Edition of the Prison Correspondence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Excerpts from these sources are printed on orange, yellow, blue and green safety paper, a paper used by banks and governmental institutions to discourage counterfeiting or illegal duplication. These letters, along with other letters made out of clay, folded paper kites, (smuggled jail letters), and destroyed illegible letters are installed/deployed throughout the 8,000 jail site. Prior to deployment, every letter is imprinted with an official notary seal which reads Several Very Secure Letters; Each letter is then placed in a plastic evidence bag, sealed and stamped on the outside with a color and a letter code which corresponds alphabetically to the author's name.

These letters were installed throughout the empty jail in available space from cell walls to windows, and from hallways to document processing rooms. They formed a network of discrete texts, information often partially hidden and apprehended only in the periphery of vision. Their discrete placement was designed to invite close scrutiny and serve as a reminder of their contained, censored and marginalized existence. I anticipated that letters might get stolen, a prison population in decline so to speak. Initially a public chart was to be kept each day logging the losses to thieving. This was abandoned when it became clear that no one chose to steal the letters. Instead many people took great care reporting fallen letters to the authorities. Finally many letters were given away to visitors on the last day of the exhibit. Entropy and thieving were both ironically defeated.

Several Very Secure Letters is designed to explore penal institutions through the contemporary and historical voices contained inside. The focus of the work is on the self-articulation of the political prisoner and the institutions designed to contain and curtail these narratives and communiqués. By returning prison letters to their site of origin Several Very Secure Letters addresses the first-person voice, the power structures that regulate that voice, and the definition of the political prisoner in contemporary society. Through the sheer volume and intensity of the texts that have been re-incarcerated, it is hoped that the viewer will examine his/her comfortable acceptance of penal institutions and of sanctioned definitions of proper societal control(s) and listen to the voices that have called and will continue calling for radical reform, redress and witnessing and who are still writing on the inside for the outside.


March 23, 1976
Stammheim Prison

Dear Hannah,
No windows sure... But that complaint reveals your shock at the sadism with which isolation was thought out, the perfection of its execution, the totality of the destructive will of the authorities, disbelief at the intensity of the antagonism which we encountered as fighters, finally, disbelief at the fact that fascism is effectively ruling here. In fact this is not just an allegation of ours but the exact term to describe the repression that hits you if you get involved in revolutionary politics in this state.

(Ulrike Meinhof to Hannah Krabbe in Ossendorf Prison)