Life in Prison
Photographing in prisons was, above all else, a balancing act. In order to get behind the walls with a camera, I had to be an invited guest of the warden. But I never wanted to be perceived by the prisoners themselves as working for the prison administration. To be considered fair-minded and professional by suspicious prison officials, and at the same time, be honestly interested in the lives of the prisoners, required a lot more diplomacy than photography.
Almost all of these photographs were taken while a guard as an escort accompanied me. Whether I admitted it or not, I was dependent upon the guards for my own safety. But wherever I went in America, prisoners treated me with kindness and respect. They were eager to tell almost anyone about the injustices of a criminal justice system where money buys your freedom, of the beatings they had received from guards, and of the latest corruption scandal in the prison. When they were done, I’d have to turn to my escort and ask to be taken to see and hear more. Immediately, I would realize the only reason that I was able to take these pictures was because the prisoners had already been tried and convicted. Their stories are trapped with them behind the bars, accessible to any visitor willing to listen.
As a visitor, there is no way to experience what life in prison is really like. Several hours after being escorted past the razor wire and sliding doors, I would be ready to leave. Not being able to walk away is the only way to understand prison, and each time I left out the front gate, I was thankful that I had not come to terms with the claustrophobia, idleness, boredom, and fear, that dominate the prisoners’ lives. Most prisoners, seeing my camera, were very concerned that I was being given a propaganda tour by the guards. I’d never be allowed to be there when they were being beaten or gassed, or if there was a riot or stabbing, they challenged. When I replied that I took it for granted that I would never see the real truth about their lives, and that the only way would be to be locked up with them, without the cameras, they relaxed. Which is more than I could say for a few of the wardens, who on two separate occasions seized my film.
Over the past decade, America’s prison population has doubled. There are now over one million convicted felons sitting in American prison cells. Laws that impose mandatory drug sentences, and a general hardening of attitudes towards criminals, have put a whole new generation of young Americans behind bars. Attempts at reform and rehabilitation for people convicted of crimes have been abandoned, giving way to an honest admission of prison’s real role, as a place to punish people.
With that punishment has come the inevitable dehumanizing of the prisoners. America has collectively turned its back on anyone convicted of a crime, regardless of how petty the original offense, or how ridiculously long the sentence they were given. While visiting different prisons, I certainly met some people who I was glad were locked behind bars. Sadistic murderers, violent robbers, career criminals, and repetitive child molesters are in some of these photographs. But the vast majority of prisoners I met were people who had fallen on hard times, made some bad decisions, and with few financial resources to defend themselves, been caught in the tremendously powerful wheels of America’s criminal justice system. Convicted of a non-violent offense like drug possession, they had to learn how to survive in a world run by professional prison gangs, and prison officials who could not help but view them as just another number.
It was to give all of these wasted lives a human face that I began taking these pictures.
New York City