Edgelands (2021), is a collaboration with filmmaker and artist Laura Poitras. Edgelands examines obscured nodes of New York City’s violent carceral and policing infrastructure.

Edgelands chapters were recently screened in an exhibition of Laura Poitras’ work in Berlin:

Laura Poitras. Circles

June 18 – August 8, 2021

In collaboration with Forensic Architecture and Sean Vegezzi.

A full press release can be found here.

Edgelands exists as three chapters:

Edgelands: TARU – the Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU), an advanced surveillance and technology unit of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), maintains an unlisted outpost on a former US Army seacoast defense site at Fort Totten, Queens. According to the official NYPD Patrol Guide, “TARU remains solely responsible for documenting protests, demonstrations, political events, etc., by means of photos and/or video.” The advanced technology TARU operates with telecommunication interception tools, military-grade mobile X-ray technology, unmanned aircraft systems, and geolocation tracking devices. TARU actively works with US federal agencies. For over a century, the NYPD has had a unit to monitor political dissent. Its ever-changing names include the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations, the Public Relations Squad, the Neutrality Squad, the Radical Bureau, and its first iteration, the “Italian Squad,” formed in 1904 to monitor Italian immigrants with ties to socialists, communists, labor leaders, and anarchists. Its current iteration, TARU, was founded in 1998, and was recently assigned to surveil the uprisings of summer 2020.

Edgelands: VCBC – Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center (VCBC) is an 800-bed, 191-meter prison barge that has been moored in New York City’s East River for 29 years. Located in an industrial zone of the South Bronx far from public transport. The majority of people imprisoned on the barge are awaiting trial. The film features intercepted radio communications between prison staff, which were recorded from March to May of 2021. They expose frequent fires, and an escalation in use of force and chemical agents such as pepper spray. The radio intercepts also include the near-daily use of “enhanced restraints,” which range from leg shackles, to having arms, legs, and chest strapped to a gurney, to spit hoods (plastic bags placed over detainees’ heads), and mitts to prevent the use of hands and fingers. Fifteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, detainees were still housed and quarantined together in overcrowded 50-bed dormitories.

Edgelands: Hart Island – In 2004, my older Brother was serving a one-year sentence on Rikers Island, New York City’s jail complex, notorious for abuses and violence against detainees. One day he called and told my family that he was going to be assigned to a work detail comprised of burying the dead on another island, further north, named Hart Island. My parents, like many New Yorkers, had never heard of the island. At first, they didn’t believe that he was actually burying bodies. He explained that it was a decent opportunity to get out in the open air and away from the chaos of Rikers. My brother went on to explain that the people being buried here were either too poor to afford private burials, unclaimed, or totally unknown. He also mentioned that some people get buried there as a result of some kind of an administrative error, “lost in the system”. 

The cemetery is one of the largest mass graves in the United States, with burials dating back to the US Civil War. During the AIDS pandemic, AIDS burials were isolated from other graves. Despite being a cemetery, the island was placed under the control of New York City’s penal authority, the Department of Correction (DOC). As a result, even family members were barred from visiting the graves of loved ones without going through the DOC’s prison security screenings. 

In 2020, I suspected that the DOC had not halted the prison labor program despite the city’s COVID-19 shutdown, nor protected the detainees via social distancing and PPE. My childhood friend Alon Sicherman and I traveled to document the island and see for ourselves. The footage revealed that the incarcerated workers were still burying the dead, and that there was no social distancing or PPE. The city halted its practice of using incarcerated workers on Hart Island soon after excerpts of this footage were made public. The city now hires contractors.

An emergency release of footage from Edgelands: VCBC was compiled into a short breaking news clip, Deathrap on the East River, released on May 28th, 2021. The video can be viewed below.