Photography in prisons and jails isn’t always edgy nor riven with fraught emotion. Sometimes it can be quite ordinary. In fact, given the utter boredom of most prison facilities it would be good to see a photo essay that communicated effectively vacuous time and psychological space.

…but, I digress. Hetherington, over at the venerable What’s The Jackanory?, indulged in some “shameless self promotion” of his magazine work at North Branch Correctional Institution. Within the Wired article, Prisoners Run Gangs, Plan Escapes and Even Order Hits With Smuggled Cellphones, Hetherington’s images include a cell-tableaux, sniffing dog and bagged phone. I am more interested in the non-published images Hetherington provides in his post; they’re crisp, pared down images of inmate and interior.

Andrew Hetherington for Wired

Andrew Hetherington for Wired

It got me thinking about how the environmental fabric – along with the representation – of American prisons has changed.

When (documentary) photographers first began accessing prisons – Danny Lyon, Conversations with the Dead (1971), Jacob Holdt; Taro Yamasaki, Inside Jackson Prison (1981) – the conditions were poor.  And prisons were only one response to criminal behaviour and social contract.

Even latterly, Ken Light shot the black & white, in-your-face and sweaty Texas Death Row (1994) and in doing so romanticised historicised American prisons as definitively dirty sites of “the other”. By the 1990s, though, the US had implemented long term custodial sentences as the primary “solution” to crime. The phase-out of Federal parole beginning with Reagan and culminating with Clinton bloated the Federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) population, alone, from 40,000 to 200,000.

So two trends intersected: Prison populations swelled resulting in overcrowding and economically efficient facilities were rapidly being built. The mass construction of new warehouses prisons altered the spatial experience of confinement and the nature of interpersonal interaction within. Cell tiers were replaced by AdSeg wings.

The BOP has a reputation for housing the hardened criminal and specialises in high security facilities. Additionally, from the late 1980s states were building their own new high security and supermax prisons. This new penological architecture replaced 40 foot brick walls and watch towers with razor wire and motion sensors.

Prison environments are sparse. Problems with dark corners & damp have been replaced with the psychotrauma of constant fluorescent light. Problems with stashed contraband have been replaced with an absence of surfaces to set down objects. Denim uniforms have been replaced by sweat outfits. The penological management of gangs & group violence has been replaced with the pharmacological management of locked-up basket cases.

One former inmate of the Federal Supermax facility in Florence, Arizona (ADX) has described it as the “Perfection of Isolation.”

Correctional Officer Jose Sandoval inspects one of the more than 2,000 cell phones confiscated from inmates at Calfornia State Prison in Vacaville, California. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Correctional Officer Jose Sandoval inspects one of the more than 2,000 cell phones confiscated from inmates at Calfornia State Prison in Vacaville, California. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Telephoning a way out Isolation

“Cell phones,” says James Gondles, executive director of the American Correctional Association, “are now one of our top security threats.” (Wired, July, 2009)

I posited in the past that cell phones were just one part of the prison economy and their commodity status was in direct reaction to the cost of corporate-managed prison payphone systems – in essence a racket in response to a racket. However. having read the Wired article it is clear how much of a serious security threat cell phones pose to prison authorities.

The majority of tactics for isolation, perfected over the past 30 years by prison administrations, are rendered immediately obsolete,

With a wireless handset, an inmate can slip through walls and locked doors at will and maintain a digital presence in the outside world. Prisoners are using voice calls, text messages, email, and handheld Web browsers to taunt their victims, intimidate witnesses, run gangs, and organize escapes—including at least one incident in Tennessee in which a guard was killed. An Indiana inmate doing 40 years for arson made harassing calls to a 23-year-old woman he’d never met and phoned in bomb threats to the state fair for extra laughs.

So what’s the answer? Debate exists over the value and legality of jamming all signals around prisons but a High School in Spokane, WA proved localised signal-jamming a bad idea when it interfered with the local Sheriff’s radio signals.

We should also bear in mind that ‘The 1934 Communications Act prohibits anyone except the federal government from interfering with radio transmissions, which now include cell calls.’ (Wired)

Criminalize Smuggling but Not Talking

TIME does a good job of breaking down the stats and describing the evolution of the problem. It is obvious that authorities are going to make strategic response to a growing trend but prison authorities must not compromise the already limited opportunities for inmates to talk with friends and family. Close family ties and contact are key to reducing recidivism and giving former prisoners the best means to integrate back into society.

And of course, inmates aren’t the only ones caught up in the illicit trade of cell phones in prisons. One California prison guard admittedly to making over $100,000 in a year through smuggling and selling cell phones!

On that note, I offer you a CDCR sanctioned news VT.

As so very often, the spark of thought was ignited by the Criminal Justice blog.