Uganda, May 2010, from the series “Law and Order.” Chief Justice Benjamin J. Odoki is his office in Kampala. Like other judges, he has a huge backlog. Judges are appointed by the President on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, with the approval of Parliament.
When our Skype call connected, Jan Banning was rubbing his brow. He was trying desperately to chase down statistics with which to give his three years of photographs, across four continents, context.
Banning has, since 2012, worked on a project called Law and Order looking at the institutions–prisons included–that result from different philosophies and systems of justice. Banning recently successfully crowdfunded a book which includes photographs from four nations: France, Uganda, Colombia and the United States.
Banning spends a lot of time traveling, but more time in his studio synthesizing all his images and their meaning. While he labors, he listens to everything from Frank Zappa to The Kinks to African beats.
Jan lit a cigarette, apologized for the disregard for his health, but said the stress of hunting stats required some nicotine to take the edge off. I wanted to know how he viewed different prisons from around the world, how they compared, and what it was like to make photographs within closed facilities.
And so we began …
Kirinya Main Prison, Uganda, 2013. Uganda’s second maximum security prison, in Jinja, was built for 336 prisoners. It now holds 922 prisoners. Here, a primary level biology class is taught by a prisoner sentenced to death, known because of his uniform is white in color.
Q & A
What’s up Jan? How’s the work? The book?
I try to make work that contributes to the public debate. The book will include statistics about the long term development, trends and crime rates for the four countries I photographed, but also for other relevant countries. ‘Relevant’ in two senses: for one, Holland should be involved. Secondly, Germany, UK, Canada are relevant because they are industrialized too.
We can make fair comparisons?
To a degree. And make contrasts. Also, possibly Norway because of its extremely liberal prison policies. And possibly Japan because of its really low murder rates.
An American audience will find this book interesting — to really see, in line graphs, how much higher the levels of incarceration are in the U.S. compared to a lot of Western European countries and how that relates to recidivism rates. Finding reliable sources on murder rates, incarceration rates, recidivism rates and remand rates is the big problem. But they’re essential.
Have you tried Prison Policy Initiative? Or the Vera Institute?
I have. I’ve been looking mostly in Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United Nations and the World Health Organization. These websites are incredibly confusing. You can find one year but not another. For example, U.S. murder rates starting in 1900, but the sources are so ridiculously confusing I cannot judge whether they are reliable or not and I do not want to include sources that are not verified.
Premier president Mme Dominique Lottin heads the business of the court at the Palais de Justice, Douai, Nord/Pas de Calais.
Holding Cell #1, Dekalb County Jail, Atlanta. Built in 1995, with around 3,000 prisoners it is the biggest jail in Georgia.
Two court writers of the court, Cartagena. Colombia, Sept. 2011, from the series “Law and Order”. Gina Marcola Perez and Mahira Julio Amigo finish the paperwork and processes that still go forward under law #600 even though the law has been abolished. Courts in Colombia have a huge backlog.
How did you decide on the four countries–Colombia, France, Uganda and the U.S.?
I started with Uganda as because I had good connections. A friend of mine was working in the Dutch Embassy in Kampala. It was kind of an experiment to see if I could visualize this whole thing—a visual comparative analysis of law and order—in a let’s say, different or interesting way. After Uganda, I concluded that it would be tough but interesting.
Uganda, May 2010, from the series “Law and Order”. Kakira Police Station, Jinja Town. Police Constable #11431, Ndalira John, 54. He earns 205,000 shillings (54 Euro/US$72) a month.
The chapel at Putnam County Jail in Eatonton, Georgia, doubling as sick bay.
I had some private courses in criminal justice from a professor here in my home town Utrecht. He said I should contact the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg which is the top European institution on criminal justice. The director there advised me. I wanted to a geographical distribution so it’s four different continents. I wanted to include the two major lines of justice so the civil system in which France played a big role. And secondly, the common law system, a more Anglo-Saxon system. Of course I could have gone to the UK where it originated but it made more sense to pick the U.S.
A more extreme application of that type of law?
In a way. Certainly I wanted a State that still employed the death penalty. I ended up in Georgia basically because I had the best contacts there.
Ah, I thought it would be more targeted than that because Georgia leads the way in many of the wrong statistics—disproportionate numbers of minorities, high levels of female incarceration, poor folks locked up too.
Those things played a role, but so did the practical side.
First, I actually tried Texas because it kills the largest number of people but I just couldn’t get access. Then I saw that Georgia holds a larger percentage of people under control of the whole judicial system than anywhere else on earth. Approximately 1 in 13 adults is either in prison or in jail or in parole or on bail in Georgia.
Colombia is in Latin America. It’s a big country and it had high murder rates for a long period. Uganda seemed interesting because of its colonial heritage of common law whereas Colombia is from the Spanish sphere of influence.
Then, there are the religious-based justice systems such as Sharia. But after talking to several specialists, I learnt that real Sharia in the criminal justice system is only practiced in Saudi Arabia and Iran and they are not exactly easy to access.
The communist system is not easily accessible either and I didn’t want to fall into a kind of PR trap by trying China, so unfortunately that had to be left out.
Canning greens at a canning factory at which the workers are prisoners of the State of Georgia. Of the 1500 prisoners at the medium security Rogers State Prison near Reidsville, 350 work. Some unpaid. The products of the Georgia Correctional Industries manufacture plants, food production and processing factories are sold to government agencies. This plant producing one million cans of vegetables per year.
Disciplinary cell in the Grand Quartier of the Maison d’arrêt de Bois-d’Arcy, in France, was opened in 1980. Designed with a capacity of 500 prisoners, it now houses 770.
Luzira Women’s Prison in Kampala, Uganda, 2013. 370 women and 30 children (of convicted mothers) are locked up here.
Can you go name all the different prisons you visited?
Oh my goodness, that’s a long list! In Uganda I went to ten prisons including the big ones of Luzira, Jinja and Luzira Women’s Prison. Four in France after struggling to get access for two years. Five in the U.S. of which three will be included in the book. I’ve still to make a return visit to Colombia to photograph more but it’s as many, if not more, than in other countries.
Part of reception area of Luzira Upper Prison, Kampala, Uganda, 2013. Here, uniforms are adjusted for new prisoners. Luzira Upper Prison is Uganda’s biggest maximum security prison. Built to accommodate 600, the prison held in March 2013) 3114 prisoners.
Clearly you have a broad interest in systems and institutions of justice. How did you arrive at prisons, specifically?
My project Bureaucratics looked at one of the three pillars of the state: the executive. Law and Order looks at the judicial, the second pillar of the trias politica.
And the third pillar?
How do different societies handle crime? Police are involved. Courts involved. But I am fascinated by prisons. I studied of history so I’ve always gravitated toward a more structural analysis. As a photographer, I’ve been really interested in the news or in short term of events and developments.
San Diego Women’s Prison (Carcel de Mujeres de San Diego), the city of Cartagena, Colombia, Sept. 2011. From the series “Law and Order”. Rosa Martinez Meza (left, age 20) is serving ten years on aggravated criminal conspiracy charges. She studied Marketing and sales. Eliana Sofia Gonzalez (right, age 23), is still under investigation, accused of attempted extortion. She studied business administration and is self-employed. They share their room with ten other women.
Uganda Chief Magistrate’s Court, Buganda Rd, 2013.
You’re taking the longer view. An overview. So what are prisons supposed to do?
They can function an instruments of revenge for society, to punish. But as instruments of correction and as instruments to bring down crime rates, I don’t think they work.
French prisons are no hotels but they had the most humane atmosphere. U.S. prisons, in Georgia, were horrible. Of course prisons in Uganda are primitive and there’s a lot of bad things that can be said about them—corruption and bad personnel. But prisons in Uganda still gave me a much more humane impression than those in the U.S. Even in the maximum security prisons in Uganda, I was allowed to roam around freely. I had some nice relaxed chats with prisoners, even the most heavily sentenced prisoners would be patting somebody on the shoulders.
The maximum security prison in Jackson, GA had a horrible atmosphere and I think that is noticeable in the photographs. For example, if you look at the photographs from Uganda, it’s earth colors, it just looks nicer, now of course that can be deceitful, but in this case I don’t think it is. In the U.S., it is all steel and concrete, like an ice cold industry. You walk around with a couple of old marines who are heavily armed and wear bullet proof vests. Prisoners had to turn around and face the walls as I passed them in the corridor and that brings me to the conclusion that the U.S. was really extreme.
Court, Quartier Maison Central, Centre Penitentiaire de Lille-Annoeullin, France, 2013.
Colombia, Sept. 2011, from the series “Law and Order”. “Establecimiento Carcelario de Reclusion Especial” in Sabana Larga is a special facility with only 100 prisoners, 18 guards and 5 administrators. Over half of the prisoners at the small medium-security prison are officials who have been convicted or are under investigation i.e. governors, mayors, police officers, judges. Leonel Silvera Padilla (20) is under investigation for theft.
Latin American prisons have a reputation for being overcrowded and in squalor.
At first they allowed me into relatively mild prisons in 2011. Recently, however, I went to some disgusting facilities in Colombia. At times it felt like I was making propaganda for the prison authority. It’s a long story I cover here.
Do you think as an Dutch photographer, an outsider, you are able to tell reveal something new about U.S. prisons to the American public?
I made a photograph of a guy who is bathing in a jail. Obviously I would never use that photograph in a news context for which one photograph is being used to illustrate the Georgia prisons or jails. However, as part of a series it finds it’s place.
Meeting of committee of the “lifers” — men with a life sentence, at Georgia State Prison which is a medium security prison near Reidsville with 1500 prisoners.
I think my photographs give two different messages at the same time. There’s a photograph of a group of lifers that are being trained to advise other prisoners. Management matters are playing a big role there (the prison is probably trying to keep the lifers occupied there so they are not coming up with ways to make life hard for the guards).
And use them to bring other prisoners around to a more compliant set of behaviors.
True. So, something is being done for people, but it is in the surroundings which look like an old factory. I’m trying to come up with a nuanced picture and to paint a confusing picture and I hope that that will somehow contribute or stimulate people to ask questions Confusion is my main purpose.
In some ways, it’s more important to me that this plays a role in the public in the U.S. than in Europe because we have less tendency to be tough on crime and to lock everybody up than the U.S.
Putnam County Jail in Eatonton, Georgia.
The U.S. needs more introspection, relatively?!
Absolutely. Homeless people are absolutely unable to get housing because of their criminal past. From a European perspective it was astounding to hear that this information on them would be out on the internet so they couldn’t get a house because it was registered, they often couldn’t get a job because the employee would go on the internet. Now this is a weird situation. Let me put myself in the position of an employer and one of these women comes out and has a job interview with me and I am going to go on the internet and I am going to see what I find about them. I have found very few people who are somehow shocked by it. When I tell people in Europe or in Holland or in Germany, people are absolutely flabbergasted.
And this informed your side project of portraits of women at Pulaski Women’s Prison?
Law and Order has a distant approach, but soon I wanted another aspect. This is confusion for me as well as the viewer. Anywhere in the world, people are trying to make clear distinctions between criminals and us—to define them as different and as bad people but I don’t think they are, actually. I could have been in prison myself many years ago. I wasn’t so I am “a decent citizen”!
I wanted to bring these two groups closer together so that’s why I photographed the female prisoners the way I would photograph my family members or the Dutch Prime Minister.
But yet more confusion. I had to get permission to photograph them and yet all their portraits are on the Department of Corrections website!
But this work is not in your forthcoming book?
No, it was a parallel project. It’s formally different. The Law and Order book is not about portraits; it stresses on the consequences and environments of different systems.
I was only allowed to ask very few questions. I was not allowed to ask, why they were in prison or for what they were sentenced. But all that information was on the website of the Georgia Department of Corrections. So all the text that you find in my portfolio was found on the internet.
There’s a couple of other artists I know who’ve taken umbrage at the public exchange of mugshots for entertainment, Jane Lindsay and Kristen S. Wilkins. But you’re the first male to adopt such empathy. You’re also non-American.
Apparently for U.S. citizens it’s quite normal to trade in the personal details of felons.
What the people in Holland think of America and Americans?
The U.S. seems to have an image problem. I happen to I often find myself in the strange situation, to some extent, defending the U.S. or bringing up nuances in conversations with friends. For Dutch people who have not spent much or any time in the U.S., it is hard to see these nuances or to have a sympathetic view of Americans.
Etablissement Pénitentiaire — Maison d’Arrêt / Douai, Cell 10, Batiment B. Jean Michel, France, 2013.
What’s the situation like in Holland in terms of criminal justice and crime statistics and prisons?
Our prisons are underpopulated. We’ve started renting them out to Belgium and Norway because they are getting empty. A nice development. I think Holland would, in American terms, be called “soft on crime” and I think we’re doing pretty good.
The murder rates have been going down here since the 90s here and in a lot of other countries. As far as I know, crime rates are going down as well. The reasons still allude researchers. But we can definitely say that the bigger the social difference between the richest and poorest, the higher the crime rate. That is an interesting point to put to an American audience, don’t you think?
I do. Thanks, Jan.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Jan Banning is a photographer based in Utrecht, Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.