Coverage of aging prison populations will receive more column inches, online commentary, pixels and pingbacks in the coming years. Just as social security needs overhaul in the US and the pension age is to be raised in the UK, so too new means of fiscal policy are needed to cater for the elderly behind bars … on both sides of the pond.
Edmund Clark’s Still Life: Killing Time is a quiet meditation on the slowness, the fabric and the accoutrements of prison life for elderly inmates. It was two years in the making. This was a hard project to track down. It seems all of Edmund Clark’s promotion is done by others; by publishers, journos, gallerists and supporters. Clark has no website. Clark is as inconspicuous as his subjects.
Clark doesn’t do the commentary for the Guardian‘s Audio Slideshow (MUST SEE). In his absence, Erwin James does a great job of whispering the tragic, hard realities of the prison environment. I include and italicise Erwin’s comments below Clark’s photographs.
“It saddens me when I see these pictures, these tokens of disablement, the accoutrements of disability; a chair lift, a walking stick, a walking frame. I think that is when I struggle with the idea that these people should be in prison. If someone is demonstrably infirm, demonstrably not functioning well through age or ill health, a prison environment (which this clearly is) is not the appropriate environment.”
It’s worth noting some background to the series. Elderly prison populations only recently became serious noticeable enough for HM Prison Service to trial different modes of containment. The E-Wing of Kingston Prison, Portsmouth was the first experiment. In 2007, upon publication of the book, Erwin James explained;
The answer was Kingston’s E wing. For eight years, this was home to up to 25 elderly men serving life for murder, rape, child sex offences and other offences of violence. The men were aged from their late 50s to over 80. Many had been in prison for more than 10 years, and several for stretches of 30 years or more. E wing as a special facility for elderly prisoners no longer exists. The only other wing dedicated to infirm and disabled prisoners now is in Norwich prison, Norfolk.
“I think cell bars are a tough one. They offer a difficult vista. When you look through cell bars you are aware that the outside doesn’t belong to you. You’re disengaged. And when you see cell bars with a bit of colour like that – the flower and the card – it’s a bit incongruous. These old guys are still humans.”
But for James, as for myself, and particularly for Clark, this is not about sympathy or compassion for the convicted criminal. It has already been stated that these men are serious criminals. There surely must come a point though when an old man is not the physical threat he once was. Simon Norfolk – a photographer I personally consider one of Britain’s best – wrote for the foreword;
” … why are there bars on the window of a man who can’t walk without a frame. What kind of escape plan can be hatched by a man who can’t remember how to go to the toilet.”
“This picture for me epitomizes the absurdity, and moments of madness the prison system can have. We are keeping someone in prison, who has dementia. They have basic instruction about how to go to the toilet. If there were ever a case for somebody who needs not to be in prison, it would be for that person.”
The only statement I can find directly from Clark, the photographer, is worth meditation.
What you can see in the pictures is to what extent they are engaged with their routine, and on top of their regime and what sort of engagement they have with time. One man, who wore a long grey beard, coped with the passage of time, as far as I could see, by disengaging with it completely. He spent most of his time sitting in his chair … He just sat and disappeared within himself. After about a year I could go and talk to him, and this man was clever, he’d been a captain in the merchant navy and had sailed around the world. I asked him once what was the best place he’d been to and he lifted his head and said, ‘Sao Paulo, I loved Brazil …’ And then suddenly this life came out, his life was all there, hidden away. The bulldog clock on the book cover belonged to him, it was one of his prized possessions.
Apparently, Clark created this body of work spurred by reports from the USA about mandatory sentencing under “Three Strikes Laws” and the consequent swelling of America’s prison population. Clark engaged with Britain’s aging prison population in direct response to demographic disasters in American penal policy. Clark elaborates;
People subjected to it [Three Strikes Law] were swelling the ranks of the prison population, with the result that many men sentenced when young would spend the rest of their lives incarcerated. I wondered what the response in the UK was to those incarcerated for many years – the life prisoners, or ‘lifers’, who face an old age and growing infirmity in an institutional environment still ruled by the survival of the fittest.
Clark made his point by seeking out the UK’s first specialised prison facility for aged prisoners and then produced a body of work that is distinctly British. Photographs of Bond posters, a (British?) Bulldog, Red-top clippings of Diana & the Queen, and framed artwork of common birds to British gardens & allotments; these are not obvious clues to a global appreciation of prison culture. I conclude, Clark thinks globally, acts locally.
“If you are young and strong prison is manageable on the whole. If you feel weak or infirm or poorly it is a harder place to be and these photographs epitomize the frailty factor, the danger of getting old in prison or being old in prison … My feeling about prison is that it is not a place for old people. Prison is one environment for everybody regardless of your circumstances and so what happens is your survival depends on luck and natural resources. And if you’re old you’re not gonna have as much luck as the younger guys.”
“There’s a lot of people in the system who know that prison is not a place for old, infirm, disabled people. And its not. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be separated from society, but I am talking about prison as we know it. The common interpretation of prison is landings, wings, cells, prison officers, dogs, security; that whole encapsulation of captivity. If you are infirm there needs to be another place. We are giving extra punishment to the weak people.”
“There is an argument for separating the old folks from the main prison wing and that is what happened here. It was an experiment. E-Wing. The danger for me is that is becomes a place … you know, they talked of the fetid atmosphere; smelly and hot. The smell of old people. As a society we don’t have a lot of respect for old people.”
Clark’s unambiguous images of mobile aids and instructions for the senile are a clear call for change. His studies of prized-possessions and personal ordering of objects play on emotional responses to depicted vulnerabilities; Clark’s works conspire as a whole (43 images in total) to shape a convincing argument that we should all care about how our prison system accommodates different demographics. The elderly demographic is only growing, only advancing … with time.
As James’ words have served me so well throughout this article I shall close with his take on public opinion.
“I am pleased society is taking this on, because prison is a robust and hostile environment, and in fact the authorities refer to all prisons as hostile environments. That’s how they’re officially termed. That’s not because everyone who goes there are dangerous, but I think prison brings out the worst in a lot of people. It can bring out the best, but often it brings out the worst. And that’s not to say they are bad characters, it’s because people in prison are defensive and they are defensive because they are frightened.”
All images copyright of Edmund Clark.
Still Life: Killing Time, by Edmund Clark, is published by Dewi Lewis, and avaiable at PhotoEye