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I’ve said before that Angola prison is probably the most photographed prison in the nation. Damon Winter, Bettina Hansen, Darryl Richardson, Tim McKukla, Sarah Stolfa, Adam Shemper, Lori Waselchuk, Deborah Luster, Serge Levy, Frank McMains and thousands more. Even I’ve had a go!
This is the second in an ongoing occasional series I have going with Clarke in which we chat about the whys and hows he’s going to prisons … which he is doing more frequently these days.
Remember, while all this palaver occurs in public-accessed areas, Albert Woodfox — the single member of the Angola 3 still incarcerated — awaits potential release on bail and a third trial. All this, in spite of the State of Louisiana’s case against him being largely discredited. As we’ll learn from Clarke, Louisiana has a strange definition of justice.
All images: Giles Clarke/Getty Images Reportage.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Why were you in Louisiana?
Giles Clarke (GC): I originally went down to the area to explore the toxic industrial corridor that runs from Baton Rouge south, along the banks of the Mississippi River, to New Orleans. The area is otherwise known as “Cancer Alley.” While researching that horrible story, I read in a local paper that Angola Prison would be holding its Prison Rodeo. It seemed like a good thing to do on a Sunday in the Deep South.
PP: Now, c’mon Giles, everybody and his mother has photographed the Angola Prison Rodeo. Why did you want to shoot it?
GC: A couple of years ago, I had made a short commercial film for ‘SuperDuty’ Ford Trucks, which featured about ten 1800lb bulls and some rather small Midwestern bull-riders. Seeing those bulls REALLY close-up left a deep impression. The guys who rode them were pros but they often got hurt. When I read the ad for the Angola Prison Rodeo, my thought was ‘How the hell are a load of prisoners going to deal with these huge animals?’ and secondly, ‘Why the hell are the prison letting them do it?’
Then, of course, there is the legacy of Angola. It just so happened that Herman Wallace — one of the Angola 3 — had died only 2 weeks before the rodeo. I attended his funeral in New Orleans which was held the day before the rodeo. It was a very moving occasion. If you know the story of Herman Wallace, then chances are you want ask some questions — which is what I did when I got into Angola the very next day.
PP: Was there anything specifically different you wanted to do at the Rodeo, or Angola generally? What did you want to achieve with your photographs?
GC: Most of the prison media officials were about as unhelpful as they could be. Yes, they were courteous and let me talk to the prisoners before, but when it came to the actual event, they kept us well away from the arena. We photographers were penned high-up in the nosebleed seats. Almost the whole rest of the audience was closer. It was blindingly obvious that they didn’t want to show the reality and the gore.
Whenever we asked about injuries we were fobbed off. That was a shame. Fact is, it’s brutal and it’s not pretty when things go wrong. Which they do a lot.
PP: The Angola Prison Rodeo looks pretty gladiatorial, but I’ve heard arguments to say it’s good for the prisoners — prize money, selling arts, meeting friends and family, glory and honor. What is your reading of the event?
GC: I was really skeptical to begin with but having talked to many of the prisoners who were involved in the event, I soon realized that this event was something that they really looked forward to. There was plenty of money at stake. If you pluck the puck from the bull’s nose, you win $500! Thats a lot of cash on the inside. Of course, the glory. If you win the rodeo you get to wear ‘Angola Prison Rodeo’ belt buckle.
At the end of the day, its a big money-making exercise that involves the prisoners. They make the products, sell the tickets for rodeo and take home about 10% of those earnings. The warden says this money goes back into rehab programs. If that’s really the case, then its a good thing.
PP: Who were weirder? The prisoners, the staff or the public?
GC: It’s hard to focus that question. I’m from the UK and to be honest, I find all this stuff fucking weird! I find the entire Louisiana justice system almost laughable … except for many its far from laughable. In Angola, there are over 5,000 men are held for life with no chance of parole — they’ll never ever leave. They talk about rehabilitation, but for what? So you don’t get sent to the punishment wing for your entire life? It’s all so messed up but they seem to think they are on the right path.
You gotta remember also that 2,000 staff family members live on the grounds of Angola. It’s work that is welcomed and promoted. Incarceration for many is a profitable business that needs to be continually fed. It’s an ugly beast whichever you look at it. Guess it’s better that Angola 40 years ago, when conditions were mostly described as squalid and medieval.
PP: When you spend time in Louisiana, does Angola Prison start to make sense?
GC: Well, as much as any prison can make sense. Mass-murderers and serial killers need to be locked and probably sent down for the rest of their lives, but in the USA, and especially in Louisiana, they want to lock you up as soon as they legally can often for crimes that do not comprehensibly meet the sentence.
I am very cynical toward the American justice system. It can work for you, if you have the money. Most don’t, so down they go for, usually for as long as they can *legally* send you down. Clearly, it’s better if you ain’t black. The prison business is big bucks for so many that it’s now sadly an accepted part of American society. For Angola, its a dead end. It’s depressing and fucked up. What else can I say?
PP: And so does the rodeo make sense?
GC: The rodeo was actually thought up by Jack Favor, a man who was framed for two murders and wrongly convicted for life in Angola. He was eventually released in 1974. As a former rodeo rider himself, he is the man who instilled the original self-discipline mantra into rodeo riders in Angola when it opened to the public in 1967. The whole idea came from a wrongly convicted prisoner. That was interesting to me. For the prisoners here now, it is an honour to be picked for the twice annual rodeo. And a chance to gain some self-worth and respect … and cash.
PP: Tell us about your relationships with the prison administrators.
GC: I don’t have a lot to say about them, other than they have unions, want full jails and probably don’t really give a fuck about most of the people they oversee.
They have families and need a job. I’m sure they are decent enough people but I can’t imagine that it’s much about helping people. I’m not sure one grows up saying “You know what, one day I want to work in a prison.” Maybe some do? Either way, the prison industry, like the military, is pretty much one big lie that we all tow along with. “It’s for the sake of safety and security.” Bollocks. It’s big business full stop.
PP: Did you meet Warden Burl Cain?
GC: I did. And I liked him. I found him refreshing and honest.
PP: He’s a bit of a media-celeb at this point and he divides opinion.
GC: While other journalists at the event asked him fairly straightforward rodeo related questions, we asked him some pretty tough things in regard to conditions, the Angola 3 and Herman Wallace. Cain answered them all directly.
Cain can be credited for turning Angola into the place of relative calm that it appears to be today. That had to happen. The dark legacy of Angola was something he wanted to wash away. His rehabilitation programs which give the prisoners work and more importantly, self worth, cannot be underestimated in prison reform. In many ways, he’s just the gatekeeper. He has to keep a clean and busy prison. I was impressed by him and hope others might model prisons after him. It was Burl that made sure that I was allowed back into the facility the next day for a private tour. It would not have happened without him. I thank him for that.
PP: Did you meet memorable prisoners, who said things to you that you maybe cannot say in your pictures?
GC: I met Bryce, (above) prisoner #582440, both at the rodeo and the following day inside his jail wing. At 26-years-old and serving life with no chance of parole, Bryce had been at Angola for 3 years, and said it’s the best prison he’s been in. He was locked up for second-degree murder, but is trying to fight the charges.
“It was a bar-fight, someone threatened my brother, I pulled a gun, it dropped and fired. That stray bullet killed a man,” he said.
The original charge was manslaughter, but, as Bryce said, “This is Louisiana.” I asked Bryce how he survives knowing he’ll never return to the outside world.
“How do I keep going? It’s all about respect in here. As long as I respect the next man and don’t show weakness then it’s all fine. The rodeo is something I look forward to all year so I behave ‘cause this is a real privilege.”
PP: What do you want folks to take away from your Angola photos?
GC: Why do we have 5% of the worlds population but 25% of the world’s prisoner population? Are we really doing this right?
In the eyes of those who run the current incarceration system, things are going just fine. But with the decriminalizing of certain low-level drug offenders and minor repeat offenders, one must assume that the authorities are also nervous about keeping these ridiculous occupancy levels so high. Private prisons are a huge worry. As are the new immigration centers that are bursting at the seams. From the outside, the U.S. seems to encourage mass-incarceration and most members of the public are still sort of okay with that. It’s fucked up.
One hopes that pictures can affect change but the reality is that no-one in authority really wants to affect change or be the focus. Many like it all the way it is — it keeps the dollars coming in after all.
PP: Thanks Giles. Until our next collaboration …
GC: Thank you, Pete.
All images: Giles Clarke/Getty Images Reportage.
Maybe I got sucked in by the fact it is A FRIKKING MONKEY RIDING A SHEEP DOG IN SOME MUDWORLD MAMMAL OLYMPICS! … maybe the photo is a document of animal misuse. It’s mad-bonkers.
Either way, this photo of animals being forced to do unnatural things under the watchful eye of humans seemed to say more about the Angola Prison Rodeo than the thousands of images I’ve seen of people at the Angola Prison Rodeo. It’s a weird event.
See Bettina’s full set from the Angola Prison Rodeo.
(All of this explains the title to this interview with me from ages ago. I never understood the title at the time.)
Source: 225 Baton Rouge
Well, I thought I’d seen it all. But no.*
Prisonview Golf Course is a 9-hole, par 72, 6000 yard course, on the grounds of Louisiana State Penitentiary.
This isn’t golf for the prisoners, but amateurs who fancy a punt on one of America’s most ethically dubious courses. Could the disparity between the have and have-nots be played out in a more brazen manner in a more bizarre location? Many golf courses already invite criticism given their over-use of water and the cultivation of monocultures. In the case of Prisonview Golf Course, to those concerns, we might as well add cynical social attitudes.
- All guests must provide personal information (date of birth, drivers license number, social security number, etc.) for complete background check before play. (48 hours in advance)
- No tee times will be scheduled prior to completed background check.
- Convicted felons and individuals listed on any inmates visiting list will not be allowed access.
- All golfers must present valid, state issued identification upon arrival.
- Play may be suspended at any time, due to institutional need or at the Warden’s discretion.
- Tee times may be cancelled without notice.
- Absolutely NO firearms, drugs, alcohol or other contraband items (such as, but not limited to, cameras, knives, etc.) are allowed on the premises.
- Persons entering Louisiana State Penitentiary must consent to a search of their vehicle, belongings and/or person at any time, while on institutional grounds.
I wonder if golfers are allowed to take photographs, unhindered?
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* When I visited Louisiana State Penitentiary in December, I did not see the golf course.
I wanted to share some PPOTR snapshots with you. Angola Prison (Louisiana State Penitentiary) is the state’s maximum security prison. An 18,000 acre former slave plantation, Angola is the size of Manhattan. At the time of my visit, Angola was “home” to 5,400 men, over 4,500 of whom will die within its razor wire.
Angola is a strange place. Burl Cain, warden since 1994, has blurred the lines between church and state by implementing a regime of “moral rehabilitation”. Of the six interfaith chapels on prison grounds, four have been constructed under his watch.
As well as providing God, Cain also provides as many programmes as possible to keep the prisoners active. From harvesting tonnes of crops (“We never open a can of food in our kitchens,” said prison spokesperson Gary Young), to refurbing wheelchairs for charitable use; from the twice annual rodeo season to the dog-training facility; from the horse breeding programme to the prison hospice; and from the prison newspaper – The Angolite – to the prison’s own TV station, prisoners who tow the line are kept busy.
Of course, on my media tour, I wondered what I didn’t see: the death row, the solitary confinement cells, the staff quarters.
I did see worklines in the fields guarded by armed correctional officers on horseback. I was also provided a meal of beans, rice and fried chicken at the Warden’s Ranch House. I visited shortly after Thanksgiving so the Christmas decorations were going up.
All in all, on that sunny late autumn day, I was driven through what outwardly appeared to be a pastoral idyll. I focused my lens at the signage, the murals, the markings of the regime. I present this little snapshot not in an ironic way, but that it may confound some viewers and we might wonder what lies behind these very surface-level illustrations.
Photo: Darryl Richardson, from the series Nothing To Lose (Angola Prison Rodeo)
I was given a media tour of Angola Prison while in Louisiana during Prison Photography on the Road. The arrangements were straightforward and the administration very welcoming. The warden’s office is set up for requests and visits like mine. The prison even puts on tours for high school kids; they come in their thousands every week.
I put it to Cathy Fontenot, the Assistant Warden, that Angola was the most photographed prison in America. She said that was probably the case. (Look through the PP archive for examples.)
The Angola administration are proud that they can accommodate photographers and journalists in the numbers they do. Naturally, a discussion must exist about the level to which journalists gain access – what they see and what they don’t see – but this is for another time.
In the case of the Angola Rodeo, access for journalists is as easy as it is for the tens of thousands of public who attend each autumn. Florida based photographer, Darryl Richardson, went to Angola in October 2011. He, like others before him, focused on the visual spectacle of the rodeo. He attempted to draw a metaphor between the “combative livestock” and an unforgiving public; the prisoner always under attack.
Personally, I like Richardson’s portraits.
Take the portrait above. Whose is the signature on the hat? That’s a nice hat. Does the prisoner own it? Was it a gift or a prize? I’m drawn into the story behind that hat and behind that photograph.
The Angola Rodeo is a complex thing. At the arts fair, it is a chance for prisoners to interact with society and hawk their crafts; the rodeo is a big event that focuses energies of prisoners (Angola Prison is always looking for activities to occupy the thoughts of 4,500+ men that will die within its parameters); and it is about commerce. I was told by prison authorities that the rodeo raised $2.5million for the prison [programmes] last year. As the event grows, so does the figure year-on-year.
Richardson told me in an email, “I’m in the process of going back to Angola to connect with other inmates and take a look at other areas inside the penitentiary.” I wish him luck. For our sakes, we need to see more of Angola Prison than this wild public event. We’ll see what emerges.
David, DJ at the prison radio station holds a Polaroid of him and his wife. He said the picture was taken more than 15 years before, when he was 18 and she was 16 years old. During his hour as DJ he played mostly Gospel and Christian music at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, June 27, 2000.
Photographer, writer and psychotherapist Adam Shemper and I talk about his portraits and photographs from Louisiana State Penitentiary.
At the age of 24, Adam was challenged (almost dared) by a family friend to “experience something real.” The friend offered him an introduction to warden Burl Cain and the test to photograph within Angola Prison.
We all have difficulty putting our work out in the world, and Adam found that after his nine-month stint at Angola he had more questions than answers.
For many years the work remained unpublished and Adam’s own justifications for the work unsteady. We discuss the life-cycle of the photographs, the reactions of the prisoners to Shemper and his work, and generally, the responsibilities of photographers toward their subjects.
In photography, as in life, it is all about relationships and positive connections that benefit all parties.
Victor Jackson, cell block A, upper right, cell #4. He had ‘I Love U Mom,’ tattooed on the inside of his right forearm. Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, April 17, 2000.
LaTroy Clark, cell block A, upper left, cell #6, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, April 17, 2000
Don Jordan reads the Bible in his cell, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, April 17, 2000
Jonathan Ennis puts a puzzle together of a farm scene in Ward 2 of the Louisiana State Penitentiary hospice at Angola, March 21, 2000.
A man sleeping during the day in the main prison complex, camp F dormitory, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, February 1, 2000.
Henry Kimball and Terry Mays in cell block A, upper right section, cell #15, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, September 6, 2000.
Brian Citrey, main prison, cell block A, upper right, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, April 17, 2000
Nolan, a prison trustee, standing in front of the lake, where he often spends his days fishing. He caught catfish and shad on this day for the warden and his guests. Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, June 27, 2000.
Man cuts open sacks of vegetables to sort through, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, June 27, 2000
After chopping weeds in the fields, men wash up as they transition back to their cell blocks at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, April 17, 2000.
Men housed at prison camp C dig a ditch at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, January 31, 2000.
All images © Adam Shemper.
Images may not be reproduced elsewhere on the web or in print without sole permission of the photographer, Adam Shemper.
© Adam Shemper
Photographer: Adam Shemper
Title: ‘In the Wheat Fields, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana’
Print: 9″x9″, B&W on archival paper.
Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape – $325 – $BUY NOW
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Another incredibly beautiful and difficult image has been made available for purchase to funders of my Prison Photography on the Road proposed road-trip. This time by photographer and psychotherapist Adam Shemper.
I first discovered Shemper’s work in the Mother Jones feature, Portraits of Invisible Men: A photographer’s year at Angola Prison. Shemper describes how he responded to the frequent question for inmates, “What are you doing here?”
I answered that I’d come to make their largely invisible world visible to the outside. I said I wanted … to reconnect them in a way to a world they had lost. I talked of the prison-industrial complex and the deep-rooted inequalities of the Southern criminal justice system. (Almost 80 percent of the inmates at Angola are African-American and 85 percent of the approximately 5,100 prisoners are serving life sentences.) But as I spoke of injustice, it was obvious I wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t know from their daily lives.
Eventually I stopped trying to explain what I was doing. I simply kept taking pictures.
Chaperoned by a prison official at all times, I visited dormitories, cellblocks, and even the prison hospice. I photographed prisoners laboring in the mattress and broom factories, the license plate plant, the laundry, and in fields of turnips, collard greens and wheat.
In the management of prisons, fighting is an activity prohibited by the authorities (bar some exceptional instances) and a sign that the regime and control measures are failing. However, at Louisiana State Penitentiary (commonly known as Angola), the Angola Amateur Boxing Association provides equipment and space for prisoners to spar and bout. From the Louisianan Dept. of Corrections website:
“The prison’s boxing program sponsors “fight night,” held every few months with boxing teams from other state prisons competing for corrections department championship belts. The Angola Amateur Boxing Association has held more belts in all weight classes through its 25-year history than any other prison boxing club in the state. The organization is a member of the Louisiana Institutional Boxing Association.”
In February of 2010, Baton-Rouge based photographer Frank McMains went to Louisiana State Penitentiary to document the club, the fighters and a bout. I asked him a few questions about the experience. [Underlining added by me]
How did you hear about the boxing club?
I had heard about prison boxing through another photographer who had attended a bout at a different prison in Louisiana. Oddly enough, he went without his camera. There is also a documentary about a volunteer boxing coach at Angola and I happen to know the guy who put that together. In short, among those who are interested in such things, boxing at Angola and intra-prison boxing between different prisons in Louisiana is somewhat widely known.
Did you do the story on assignment or of your own volition?
These shots were taken because of my interest in Angola and my interest in the boxing specifically. I pitched it to a few national magazines and one picked it up, but the folks at Angola were uncomfortable with the magazine that was interested in running the photos and article. They felt it was not a serious enough venue for the subject, so the photos remained un-published.
How did you gain access?
Angola is surprisingly accessible for a maximum security prison. I can’t say I have tried to get access to any others, but my sense is that they welcome outsiders who want to report on what is going on there. Over the course of several articles about different activities at Angola I have built a relationship with some of the wardens and staff. As a result, I didn’t really have to negotiate for access so much as plan around their schedule. Recent funding cutbacks meant that Angola’s boxing team did not fight teams from other prisons as they had in the past. There just wasn’t the money to transport the prisoners. So, the whole program was kind of in flux for a while, but once they confirmed a date, I wasn’t going to miss it. The staff at Angola are very professional and they are clear about what sort of interactions you can have with inmates as well as what sort of things you can bring into the prison. I have had my gear searched before but the prisoners who are allowed to participate in events like the rodeo or boxing matches are ones the prison administration feels are less of a threat. They basically would not let you into an area with prisoners who they didn’t trust and they also wouldn’t let someone into the prison with a bag full of gear with whom they didn’t feel comfortable.
How many individuals were involved?
There were about eight bouts so that means 16 boxers. However, there were about 150 prisoners who were there to watch the event and cheer on their friends. In the room with us there were probably four guards who sort of came and went as well as a few staff members and the warden with whom I was acquainted.
How did the prisoners talk about the AABA? Had it changed their behaviour or outlook?
One of my real regrets about this project is that I didn’t get a chance to talk to the boxers in more depth. As they were warming up for the fights they were focused on the what was ahead of them and I didn’t want to interfere with that. After the fights were over I spoke with several of the fighters and coaches but it was very informal.
It has been my experience that prisoners are much more interested in talking about where their family might see the photos and things that don’t pertain to their life in prison. Most of the conversations I had after shooting these photos were about people’s families, not about their lives behind bars.
I would like to follow up with the guys involved, but it was sort of outside of the scope of this shoot.
Some people might think boxing is not the right activity for prisoners; that it is violent. What would you say to people with these reservations?
Some people will always object to boxing as a brutal activity whether that is in prison or in Las Vegas. I get that objection, although I see it as graceful and pure in a way that many sports are not, but you can’t deny that it is violent. Last I checked that was a component of the human condition.
When it takes places in a prison I think it is understandable that some people would balk at what could be construed as violence piled on top of violence. It has been my experience that anything that the prisoners get to do is a step towards socializing them and giving them some hope in the face of a pretty bleak future. Angola has an unusual approach to punishment; they try to engage the prisoners in as many activities as possible. The prisoners work the land there to feed the prison population, they maintain the facilities and even staff the prison museum and gift shop. There is also a prisoner run newspaper and radio station. So, if you remove the fact that it is boxing from the equation then I think that an approach to incarceration that does something other than let people rot away in a cell is a good thing; boxing is a commitment to rehabilitation.
The other aspect of life at Angola is that most of the prisoners will die there, simply put. Most are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. I understand the punishment-as-vengence argument that some might have. It is understandable to look at a murderer and say, “Who cares if they have any dignity.” I think the staff at Angola see a path for redemption for the prisoners that runs through many different courses. It might be boxing, it might be prison ministry. They seem to think that engaging the prisoners is preferable for all concerned to treating them as de-humanized creatures who simply have to be warehoused until the end of their days. From that perspective, Angola seems to run pretty well. Less than a quarter of the inmates are housed in cells and they spend their days working to make the prison run. That, to me, speaks for itself.
Did you get any sense of what the boxers wanted from you as a photographer? Did they want to convey any message to the eventual viewers?
Yes, every time I have photographed at Angola it is pretty clear that the prisoners want to be portrayed as retaining some of their human dignity. Beyond that, they long for connections with the outside world, their family in particular. You can’t forget that the prisoners at Angola have committed horrible crimes, but it is hard to not feel some sympathy for the incredible loneliness and isolation they all seem to share. Maybe they deserve that, it isn’t really for me to say what justice should look like.
How was, and how is Angola? What’s the culture like? How is it perceived?
All of my experiences at Angola have been unsettlingly mundane. In my mind, I expected to see prisoners rattling tin cups on metal bars and walking around in leg-irons or something. But, they are mowing the grass, cooking food, painting buildings, essentially participating in their own, highly-unusual little community. When people think about Angola, if they think about it outside of the rodeo, it seems that they imagine a dreary place of routine horror. I am sure that it is rough out there, very rough in many respects. But, it does not have the feeling of an armed camp where gangs are pitted against each other, where races are seething to tear into one another or where the guards are everywhere searching for escape tunnels. It’s culture will confound your expectations. Or, it did mine anyway. I didn’t grow up with any sense of prison life outside of film and television. If Angola is anything, it is unlike those scenes from popular entertainment. That is not to say it is bucolic or some penal Club Med. It is a sad but necessary place where the passage of time and the intrinsic nature of humanity do not conform to the normal rules.
It seems there have been many photographers who’ve shot at Angola (I might go so far to say it is the most media-present prison in America). Would you agree? What would one attribute that to?
In a word, yes. It is a thoroughly media documented prison. I think that is for two reasons. First, it is highly unusual in its approach to incarceration as I have spelled about above. They just do things differently there in terms of engaging prisoners rather than just warehousing them.
Secondly, it seems that the administration at Angola, starting with warden Burl Cain and running all the way down, are genuinely empathetic to the prisoners. They know that some of them have been changed, and perhaps redeemed, by the way Angola does things and they want people to know about it. I think they are also keenly aware of how the lack of hope not only destroys the human spirit but also makes prisoners much more difficult to handle. If the prisoners have a reason to get up in the morning then they see a value in toeing the redemptive line that Angola is pushing.
The staff know it is expensive and pointless to incarcerate grey-haired old men who are no longer a threat to society. It seems that Angola is trying to re-humanize prisoners in the eyes of the general public in an effort to change the way our legal system approaches punishment and justice.
Frank McMains is a jack of many trades. He’s got a lot of Flickr. I thank Frank for his time to share his work and thoughts. You can read more about Frank’s time photographing at Angola at his own website Lemons and Beans.