This afternoon, I’ll be speaking to photography students at Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA. Instructor, Steve Davis has asked me to discuss PPOTR, regale some stories, recount my interviews.

Without doubt, Lloyd Degrane‘s story was one of the most remarkable. I have yet to edit the audio of Lloyd’s interview, but I did transcribe part of our conversation so it could be included in the Cruel & Unusual/PPOTR Newspaper. I’d like to share the text (below).

When Lloyd and I met in Chicago, he was preparing for Prison, the first ever exhibition of his prison photographs. It was at Gage Gallery (which coincidentally just showed Lori Waselchuk – another PPOTR interviewee). Gage put together an audio slideshow, which I also wanted to share (bottom).

THE BACKSTORY

Lloyd is a gentle, unassuming, older gent. He worked diligently for an entire decade (1990-2000) within three Illinois prisons – the Joliet Receiving Center, the Stateville Maximum Security Prison and Cook County Jail (the largest walled facility in the world with approximately 11,000 inmates). Degrane did this without any fuss or anything approximating self-promotion.

Before the authorities allowed him in with his camera, the Department of Corrections sent Degrane on a 600-mile round-trip to Menard Prison, a maximum-security prison in Southern Illinois. At Menard, Degrane was to just have a tour of the facilities. The warden instructed him not to take in his camera, and said that they he discuss with Degrane the proposed photography project after Degrane has taken the tour.

Due to an extraordinary experience during his prison visit, Degrane never met the warden. The extraordinary experience did, however, give Degrane a bargaining chip with which to win access to the Illinois prison system.

LLOYD’S FIRST DAY IN PRISON

I was led around Menard Prison by a guard that was just about to retire. You don’t get comfortable for some time. On the yard, you’re walking around brushing shoulders with murderers and rapists. I’d never been around people who had committed heinous crimes.

We walked into a big cell house holding several hundred inmates. As we got to the centre of the cell house a race riot broke out around us. I later found out is was African American inmates who wanted to retaliate against a white biker gang for killing one of their own several weeks before, and we were right in the middle of that retaliation. I remember yelling and threats being directed at the guard I was with. I was wearing a white shirt at the time and prisoners stopped and looked at me as if to ask, “What is this guy doing here?” I ran with the guard through a gauntlet of muscular black inmates. We made it to a cell and inside the cell was one of the oldest inmates I’d ever seen – over seventy years of age. And the guard just pushed me inside the cell. And the race riot went into high gear then. The first thing I saw was a white biker gang member being beaten by four or five black prisoners and the beating got closer and closer to the cell I was in. One of the black prisoners picked up the white biker and threw him against the bars. His head split open and he fell right at my feet. That was my initiation into maximum-security prison. I thought he was dead.

I heard over the loudspeaker system “CIVILIAN INSIDE” and I looked at the guard who was in the cell with me and he pointed at me and he said, “That’s you”. About five minutes later I heard the state police come into the cellblock with kind of this chant from the wizard of Oz. It was a chant to get everyone psyched up and strike fear into the heart of the rioting prisoners. They marched in with clubs and they were there to rescue me. They made a pathway through this insanity and extracted me from the cellblock along with the officer. They got me out of the cellblock back to the warden’s office where I picked up my camera and they just kind of pushed me out the back door.

I went to the nearest tavern and had a couple of shots of whisky. The adrenaline was just incredible, to the point where I couldn’t sit down. I’d nearly lost my life and I’d never had an experience like that before.

Later that day, I contacted the communications officer for the Illinois Department of Corrections. He knew what had happened. He said, “If you don’t talk to the media about what happened today then we’ll send you into Stateville Prison,” And so I didn’t say anything. Two weeks later I got notice from the warden at Stateville that it was okay to come in and start the project.