Clive Stafford Smith writes about Elmgreen & Dragset's Prison Breaking / Powerless Structures, Fig. 333

"I have often pondered – on a theoretical level – the morality of breaking someone out of death row. When the condemned man is innocent, most realist philosophers would cheer the helicopter pilot who hovers over the prison yard, winching the prisoner to safety moments before the scheduled execution. 

As prison architects, Elmgreen and Dragset and their Prison Breaking / Powerless Structures, Fig. 333 would have made it easy on me: they have created a double prison cell that has been assaulted by nature. The metal bars are sundered, and the breezeblock walls have toppled along their own geological fault line. Everything about the cell is broken – I checked even the steel toilets and, like many prisons I have visited, the flush does not work. 

My client could have walked away from this execution chamber, along the same open path I took to a glass of Victoria Miro’s hospitality. 

I saw the piece 36 hours before my client of many years, Kris Maharaj, ‘celebrated’ his thirtieth anniversary in prison for a crime he did not commit – the ‘celebrated’ double-murder of Derrick and Duane Moo Young in the Dupont Plaza Hotel in downtown Miami on October 16th, 1986. For 16 of those years, Kris hovered in a bleak cell in a bleak place called Starke in north Florida, near Old Sparky, the electric chair. As the current drained, dimming the lights across the prison, various people he knew were variously walked or dragged to their deaths, including – on May 4th, 1990 – Jesse Tafero, whose hair caught fire as he was roasted to death. With no son to visit, Tafero’s mother stopped riding up to the prison with Marita, Kris’ most loyal wife.  

I described Kris’ plight to a small crowd who were looking at Elmgreen and Dragset’s work. I am not sure whether the fractured prison cell is powerless to hold someone, or whether it reflects powerlessness. Meanwhile, Kris complained to me recently that he feels humiliated, unable even to look after the 76 year-old Marita, dependent upon the kindness of others.

In the 1970s, he was a self-made millionaire in London, and he took on the British government in a celebrated case on behalf of the small businessman, and spanked Lord Cockfield in court. He bought two racehorses from my father, when my own family was nouveau riche, before Dad charged back towards pauvre. And then Kris tottered off into penury himself, via a patently unfair trial to a death sentence. But before that, on the way to and from his riches, he helped many people with their own beginnings. In many ways, he earned the generosity of strangers – though he receives too little of it. 

The last place, thus far, where Kris has met compassion is in the legal system. In 2002, the courts eventually threw out his sentence to 2,400 volts of electricity, but substituted death by a thousand cuts – Kris is eligible for parole in 2042, when he will be 103 (dead). As if it were not enough that he is now 77 years old himself, and confined to a wheelchair, we have proven that he is utterly innocent. We have destroyed the prosecution case; we have identified Kris’ half-dozen alibi witnesses; we have even identified the Colombian cartel members who murdered the Moo Youngs when they ripped off Pablo Escobar. 

And yet, the federal court reviewing his conviction earlier dismissed evidence of his innocence: “claims of actual innocence based on newly-discovered evidence have never been held to state a ground for federal habeas corpus relief…” In plain English, that translates as – whether Kris did it or not is not a reason for a federal court to let him go. Bizarre though this may seem to a normal human being, that is an accurate statement of American law – at least for now. It is also absurd, and cruel. 

Perhaps Victoria Miro’s kindness represents a new beginning, as the recent Protest exhibition at the gallery has helped to highlight the work Reprieve do to support the cause of Kris and others in his predicament. But it may come too late. As Kris looks to his 78th birthday in January, he can currently expect to die in an American prison cell, much like Elmgreen and Dragset’s might have looked before their earthquake. Perhaps that is what they mean – the only meaningful protest on behalf of someone like Kris is a cataclysm. Or perhaps that helicopter."


Clive Stafford Smith is Founder and Director of Reprieve, a small organisation of committed human rights defenders who provide free legal and investigative support to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. The gallery is proud to have worked with Reprieve as a charitable partner for its Protest exhibition, held at Victoria Miro Gallery I, 23 September - 5 November 2016.

November 18, 2016

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