A Corrections Officer forcibly restrains an unruly prisoner who was screaming and claiming abuse by the officer, Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois. April, 2011.
In April 2011, Peter van Agtmael was assigned by Newsweek to photograph Tom Dart, the Sheriff of Cook County, Chicago, Illinois. The coverage involved one day’s access to Cook County Jail and day of access to the ride-alongs with the PD. With a daily average of 11,000 inmates, Cook County Jail is the largest facility of detention in the U.S.
During his time in the jail, van Agtmael witnessed an altercation and heard allegations of abuse.
“The possibility of one more day of access to the jail was floated, but then didn’t come through.”
It is uncertain as to whether van Agtmael’s photographs of the contact between prisoner and deputy affected the decision to cancel the next day’s proposed visit. Van Agtmael isn’t even sure if it was Newsweek or the Sheriff’s department’s decision to cancel.
Newsweek consequently killed the story.
“I don’t know why the story was killed,” says van Agtmael. “No reason was given. Tony Dokoupil, the reporter, briefly referenced the trip in a May 29, 2011 article, Mad As Hell.”
Van Agtmael explains the background to the story, “Dart had became notorious in 2008 for halting evictions tied to foreclosure. He became something of a populist hero, and a deal made with the courts gave homeowners and tenants more leeway to contest their evictions.”
Van Agtmael recounts, “Sheriff Dart was giving Tony Dokoupil and I a tour of the jail system, and I heard screams and dull thuds coming from down a corridor. I ran towards the sounds and began photographing a cop pushing the young man against a wall. I began photographing the scene. The young man was screaming that the officer had been beating him, and the officer was yelling at me to stop photographing as he pushed the man further down the hallway. I followed and continued to photograph.”
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A Corrections Officer forcibly restrains an unruly prisoner who was screaming and claiming abuse by the officer.
“The officer kept yelling at me to stop, and seemed to be trying to simultaneously restrain me as well as the man, but I kept out of arm’s length and explained that I was a guest of Sheriff Dart and had been promised open access to the jail. A moment later, Dart appeared and upon his arrival the situation calmed considerably. He asked the man to explain what had happened to him, wrote a few things down, and then the police officer pushed the young man into an elevator.
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“A few minutes later we came across the bald man who asked me to take his picture and whispered to me that the cops had punched him repeatedly in the face, resulting in the bruising in the portrait. I had no way of independently verifying the statement,” says van Agtmael.
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A Corrections Officer leads a prisoner – who had tried to escape – to a holding cell. The man was cut and bruised and claimed he had been beaten by officers after he tried to escape.
“Honestly, it’s very hard for me to make an informed commentary based on a day spent in the jail system. I saw a lot of desperation, and heard stories of alleged abuse, but the context and time limitations would compromise any superficial interpretation. I’ll let the pictures represent my experiences,” van Agtmael concludes.
Inmate of Cook County Jail who is cut and bruised. He claimed he had been beaten by officers after he tried to escape.
This ambiguous series of photographs goes right to the heart of the efforts I make on Prison Photography to decipher prisons and jails, which for the most part are invisible worlds. Immediately, their meaning and interpretations are up for discussion; they are contested.
Maybe, Newsweek wanted a fuller picture of the Cook County Jail system? Maybe, the relevance of the planned story passed? For me, the fact the story was killed is a sad turn of events.
Getting involved in meta-analysis of journalism can be dangerous but in van Agtmael’s photographs are the kernels of a larger story. It’s not that the stories of these two inmates and these two correctional officers were not told, it is that no story at all was told.
But, let’s not be churlish; this blog post is not an exposé. Van Agtmael’s images are not an illumination of a definable event because the details cannot be verified. They are, however, a depressing suggestion of the fraught and intense-contact situations that play out in prisons and jails across the U.S. every day.
I am not amplifying the inmates’ allegations; to do so would be baseless. I also don’t want to appear to be generally criticising correctional officers. I will however criticise politicians and a voting public that allows mammoth-sized prisons and jails to operate. The experience of prisoners and staff would be less frantic in smaller institutions, and in institutions designed to treat (as well as categorise) and not necessarily detain as their main task.
By publishing these photos my aim is to – again – call readers to think not only about the images they see but those they don’t see. Ultimately, I take van Agtmael’s tack, which is, to let the photographs speak for themselves.
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Here’s some other selects from van Agtmael’s visit to Cook County Jail:
Anthony Smith, a prisoner in the Cook County Jail, Chicago, IL, complains to Sheriff Tom Dart about his treatment and sentence.
Sandwiches for prisoners in the Cook County jail system.
An employee of the Cook County jail system.
A deputy at the Cook County Jail.
PETER VAN AGTMAEL
Peter van Agtmael (b. 1981) graduated from Yale University in 2003 with a degree in History. Following graduation, he spent a year in China on the Charles P. Howland fellowship photographing the effects of the Three Gorges Dam. Since the beginning of 2006, he has documented the consequences of America’s Wars, at home and abroad. A monograph of the work, ’2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die’ was published in 2009. In 2008, he helped organize the exhibition and book Battlespace, a retrospective of unseen work from 22 photographers covering Iraq and Afghanistan. Peter is represented by Magnum Photos.
Peter van Agtmael has been awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Young Photographer (2011); PDN Photo Annual (2011); PDN 30 (2010); PDN Photo Annual (2010); American Photography Annual (2010); FOAM Talent (2009); Santa Fe Project Competition - Honorable Mention; Pulitzer Center Grant (2008); World Press Photo Joop Masterclass (2008).
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All images: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.