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Are “Mugshots” Unethical? How Jailhouse Photos Undermine Defendants & Reinforce Systemic Bias

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While being booked for attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump made history as the first former president to have his mugshot taken and released to the public. Shortly after the image of Trump scowling at a police camera started to circulate, the embattled real estate mogul and politician began using it to raise money for his 2024 presidential campaign. “Mugshots have these various ways of being deployed … to craft a narrative, or to reinforce a narrative,” says Emory University professor Carol Anderson, who contrasts the novelty of Trump’s mugshot with the usage of mugshots by the media and the state to convey an image of Black criminality. As L.A. Times reporter Keri Blakinger explains, “the widespread distribution of mugshots undermines the presumption of innocence” and exacerbates racial bias. Blakinger is also the author of the memoir Corrections in Ink, which details her experience serving time in prison in upstate New York. “If he were treated like any other defendant, [Trump] would have been given a bail amount he couldn’t afford and left to die in a filthy cell,” she notes, cautioning that “the more that we celebrate some of these broken features of the system, the more ingrained they become.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to bring someone else into this conversation. As Donald Trump begins using his mugshot to raise money for his presidential campaign, we’re going to turn now to look at why some criminal justice advocates are urging police departments to stop releasing mugshots. We’re joined now by Keri Blakinger. She’s an investigative journalist, reporter at the L.A. Times. She previously reported on the criminal justice system for The Marshall Project. She’s also author of the memoir Corrections in Ink, which details her own experience serving time in prison, upstate New York.

Keri, thanks so much for joining this conversation. This is the first time, though he’s been indicted four times, that President Trump has had a mugshot taken. And, of course, it’s out there right away. It was the first thing he tweeted out on X. Can you talk about the significance, the history of the mugshot, and now the movement not to have these photographs released?

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, sure. So, I think that, you know, historically, there’s been concerns that the widespread distribution of mugshots undermines the presumption of innocence. And their distribution also sort of exacerbates some of the existing racial inequities and biases that exist in the criminal justice system. Obviously, some of those concerns don’t necessarily apply to Trump, who is a privileged and rich white man. But I do think that as there’s growing conversation about their use and distribution, it’s good to remember that the more that we celebrate some of these broken features of the system, the more ingrained they become.

There’s been a lot of conversation about whether mugshots should even be released at all. I think in recent years it’s tended to be more focused on whether media should distribute them, which is a separate conversation from whether they should actually be released. And it’s worth remembering that some of the first jurisdictions that Trump was charged in, the norm would have actually been not to release mugshots. The DOJ has not released mugshots ever, as far as I know. And New York has stopped releasing them in recent years. And people often act as if not releasing mugshots or not allowing police to release mugshots would sort of bring the system to a halt, but there are jurisdictions that have been doing this for some time. And in many countries, that is entirely the norm.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, in your own experience — and your memoir is so powerful, I encourage everyone to read it — what mugshot meant?

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah. I mean, I think that, for me and for a lot of people, a mugshot is this sort of enduring image of you at your worst and most vulnerable. And it haunts you. It follows you around forever. You know, for a lot of people, it’s something that, you know, they have to pay money to have removed. It’s something that media websites have been able to monetize and make money on from mugshot galleries. And it’s really quite something to see the way in which Trump sort of turned that on its head by — you know, we all know this is going to end up being used for quite some time in fundraising emails. So, I think, if anything, the distribution of this mugshot and the way in which it’s being used shows exactly how broken the system is in even having these be available for distribution in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Carol Anderson back into this conversation. Professor Anderson at Emory, the use of mugshots, and how it’s been used, but also the reverse of that, for example, John Lewis? His mugshot became famous, a symbol of what he was willing to risk to fight for voting rights in this country.

CAROL ANDERSON: Right. And so, we also have the mugshot of Martin Luther King in Montgomery. And that mugshot was designed to try to show that the fight for civil rights was criminal, that these were criminals. And so, it was flipping the issue of criminality, which was one of the key elements of the civil rights struggle, one of the key strategies of the civil rights struggle, of flipping the sense of criminality, of Black criminality, on its head and saying, “No, what we’re fighting for is American democracy.”

You get the inverse with Trump, though, because it’s always so, so — “perverted” is not the word, but it is always so Kafkaesque, that what you’re seeing is not what it really is.

In the struggle for civil rights, though, it was really about: How do we fight for American democracy? How do we change the narrative of who Black people are in this nation? And so, so much of what we saw with the thing of the stolen election was trying to reify that the stolen election was because Black people voted, because they’re not legitimate. And so, there’s that long strand of dealing with issues of Black citizenship, Black legality. And the mugshot was a key element in that.

Another key element in that was the way that down in Georgia, in Quitman, George, where Black people had used absentee ballots to be able to have Black people get on the school board, their mugshots were used, because Brian Kemp had charged them — he had led the GBI to charge them with voter fraud. There was no voter fraud. But their pictures, their mugshots, were used on the front page of the newspaper as a symbol of Black criminality, Black theft of elections, Black theft of democracy. And so, the mugshots have these various ways of being deployed, to send a signal, to craft a narrative or to reinforce a narrative.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go from mugshots to bail. Keri Blakinger, you also recently wrote on social media, “When I got arrested for drug possession in 2010 it was considered such a serious offense I was not eligible for bail. Wild that someone accused of interfering with/ an election can get $200k bail. Clearly, v diff cases but says a lot about our criminal justice priorities.” Talk about this.

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, well, I think I kind of said everything on that one in the tweet. But related to bail, one of your prior guests you had on had mentioned that after his arrest, Trump was treated like any other defendant in terms of the booking process. And that sort of made me think about, I mean, if that were true, I think, if he were treated like any other defendant, he would have been given a bail amount he couldn’t afford and left to die in a filthy cell, because that is what happens in the Fulton County jails. They’re particularly notorious jails. And I think that this relates to both the issues of bail, that I alluded to in that tweet, and also just the general conditions of confinement that a lot of people face behind bars.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about that issue, as you’re talking about the notorious Fulton County Jail and the conditions in jails. We also saw this with Sam Bankman-Fried, who was just remanded into custody, can no longer be under house arrest until his trial, and was objecting to being put in the jail in New York City, and the judge saying something like, “Yes, I admit it’s not a five-star facility.” But all of a sudden, the interest in conditions in jails, when the far-right Republicans, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, deeply concerned about the jail in D.C., where so many of the insurrectionists were put — I mean, I think progressives are very concerned and grateful that attention is being brought to these issues, but can you talk about the hypocrisy in this?

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah. First of all, I think it’s really frustrating to me when people make comments to the effect of that this is, you know, not a five-star hotel. Like, of course it’s not. And I think that really — I think that sort of flip commentary really minimizes how bad the conditions are in many jails and prisons. You know, I’m covering the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and jails there, and I read on a regular basis about some extremely appalling conditions that just regular people end up in. And, you know, it doesn’t often make the news, or certainly doesn’t make the news as much as it should, but people are routinely being booked in and brought to the inmate processing center there and left in cells that are covered in urine and feces and left to sleep on floors with no mattress and no blankets, and they’re using trash bags for warmth. And, you know, these are the conditions that many people face.

And I think it’s great if this whole situation ends up resulting in people on both sides of the aisle thinking more about bad jail and prison conditions and ways to actually solve that problem. But, you know, I think that — I’m not optimistic that this will have the sort of desired outcome in that respect, because I think that there’s clearly a narrative that this is about a system that’s, you know, targeting certain people, that it’s coming after Trump and his allies, instead of making this narrative about how this actually shows some of the broken parts of the system that the rest of the country experiences on a regular basis.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. And let’s not forget it was Lashawn Thompson who died in September after a three-month stay in the Fulton County Jail. His family said he was eaten alive by bedbugs. Keri Blakinger, we thank you so much for being with us, reporter at the Los Angeles Times, author of the incredible memoir Corrections in Ink. Carol Anderson, professor of African American studies at Emory University — read all of her books. And Hugo Lowell, reporter at The Guardian. Both Professor Anderson and Hugo Lowell speaking to us from Atlanta.

Coming up, we go to Tennessee to speak with Democratic state lawmaker Justin Jones. He was expelled earlier this year, then reelected by voters, for protesting gun violence at the Capitol. This week, Republican lawmakers attempted to ban the public from bringing signs into the Capitol around a special hearing on gun violence. Stay with us.

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