Nothing happens in the “real” world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.
You, Me, Us and Them is part of a wider investigation into women offenders that the multidisciplinary visual artist Eva Merz undertook in Scotland between 2007 and 2010 as an extension of earlier projects, all of which were driven by a hands-on engagement with social issues, using a unique creative combination of resources. This rich volume, designed by Eva and illustrated with both her photographs and reproductions of her exhibited artworks, contains a compilation of interviews she conducted with key actors in the prison and criminal justice systems. It both illuminates a path towards awakening our awareness about disempowered lives and invites us to re-examine many of our assumptions about crime and punishment.
Prisons are expensive to run; they are ineffective both as a deterrent in the first instance and at preventing re-offending; they are also specifically ill-suited to women and, more specifically, to the great many women prisoners in need of treatment for mental, physical and addiction problems. Prison populations and overcrowding are on the rise. These are a few salient facts, delineating a vast scope of interrelated issues, that the interviewees in You, Me, Us and Them quote from official reports during their analyses of the state of Cornton Vale, Scotland’s only women’s prison, and the country’s criminal justice system at large.
The voices congregated in this book - those of drug dealer, judge, prison governor, warden and prison service official - offer us multiple insights into the bigger picture. The circumstances which have led women to commit crime unveil a web of social deprivation in which “offending lifestyles” are the norm; what the prison governor describes as the “cycle of offending”, linked to abuse, drug addiction, mental illness, poor housing and education. Many women end up serving short-term sentences in conditions inappropriate for the treatment of their offending behaviour. Upon release, they experience the same desperate conditions which led them to their crime in the first place, and which keep sending them back to prison.
The message rings loud and clear, many voices shouting in unison: humane, sustainable alternatives involve facilitating for women offenders conditions to develop a sense of responsibility and control over their lives if they are to come to realise that they have the potential to resolve their problems and move on. Legal changes need to be made, moreover, in order to reduce the rate of incarceration and more resources be focused on communities towards the support of desperate people before they resort to criminal acts.
In You, Me, Us and Them, Eva makes explicit her stance as a mediator between the women’s prison and the wider audience. It should be recognised that this book is really about us and our attitude, the type of society we live in and the type of society we want. Eva turns inwards, reminding us that in order to develop a profound understanding of our reality we must first forge transformations within ourselves which permit us to see what is out there and needs to be transformed. You, Me, Us and Them appeals to notions of critical citizenship and socio-political agency whose premise is that we all participate in the imagining and making of the society which makes us. The situation of women in prison is embedded in a broader societal context which is everyone’s terrain, not of politicians and media alone.
This book is an invitation to develop an informed discourse for meaningful participation in the debate about a fairer criminal justice system in Scotland. The universal nature of the issues treated here, however, could potentially extend this invitation beyond the national borders. With You, Me, Us and Them, Eva has completed a cycle of work in this country, a treasure-trove legacy, a series of projects which emerged from honest, generous everyday interactions with those she calls “Real People”, attempting to (re)connect us critically with the socio-political issues interweaving our daily lives. This is a book not to be missed - not as much as we’ll miss Eva, who in January 2011 returned to her native Denmark.
Review by Alejandra Rodriguez - Remedi, New Social Art School, January 2011
Eva Merz's book You, Me, Us and Them tackles the incredibly thorny issue of women in prison. In 2007, on an artist's residency in Tillydrone, Aberdeen, Merz got to know one of her neighbours, a heroin-addicted drug dealer. Through this personal friendship she followed her instinct and her nose into the justice system. Never judgemental, never hectoring but undoubtedly blistering at times - witness the anonymous ex-judge who fulminates against the stupidity of political rhetoric on crime - the book is eloquent testimony from the front line of suffering and chaos that drives women into prison and keeps them going back again and again.
Review by Moira Jeffrey in Scotland on Sunday, Jan 23, 2011