A week after this blog post went to press, the Prison Reform Trust reported that 77 of the 131 prisons in England and Wales held more inmates than stated capacity.

London’s HMP Wandsworth, which is one of the the three prisons in Elphick’s photographs, is the seventh most overcrowded prison in the UK with 1,191 men being held in a facility only designed for 730 men. Wandsworth operates at 163% capacity.

In total, UK prisons hold 7,300 persons more than they were designed for.

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Hugh Elphick is a young British photographer who, in early 2011, took a cool and curious look at London prisons for his undergraduate photography BFA. The series is Inside.

“I wanted to produce images which intrigued more than shocked,” says Elphick. “I discovered how much prisons actually blend into their surroundings and used this blurring the boundaries, with some of the angles I shot.”

In the series of six photos, Elphick shows us the red-brick exteriors of three prisons – Pentonville, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs. Elphick was working close to Wormwood Scrubs and began to wonder about human rights, the acceptability of the prison system, and if prisons work.

“In England, it is not a commonly known fact [that the UK has the second highest rate of incarceration after the U.S. among industrialised nations] and that it is not something that most people worry about,” says Elphick. “It could be argued that there is more concern that prison sentences are not long enough or that there are moral disparities in sentencing. However, this is not to say that there are not a large proportion of people who see the wider picture.”

Elphick’s focus specifically is about the age of these *famous* Victorian prisons. The Victorian era is steeped in imagery of inequality, squalor and hardship for the working classes. For Elphick, there are points of comparison between the class-stratified 19th century and the inequalities of the modern era and especially today in a time of austerity and cuts in services.

“Victorian architecture offers an allegoric association with harsh systems and possibly with periods such as the late 70 early 80’s economic downturn. Such institutional auras, I believe, explore some of the dilemmas and imbalances of our society,” says Elphick. “These prisons show how little progression there has been in the prison system due to confused government policies.”

Much like the approach of German photographer Christiane Feser, Elphick’s interest is in how these large, alien institutions interact visually with nearby residential communities. Unlike in the U.S., the economic fortunes of the nearby communities in the UK are not tied directly to or dependent upon the operation of a prison. These UK prisons are part of the urban puzzle but quite opposite to the prison-towns of central Wyoming or eastern Washington, which come to rely on jobs as traditional agriculture and industry wane. There is not the same attrition and competition in the job market in central London. Prisons in the UK are not perceived of as big business, partly because by comparison to the bloated U.S. prison system, it isn’t.

In fact, Elphick argues that prisons have almost become mundane in UK cities. He writes in his artist statement:

“The fragmentary nature of London’s development, and its destruction in WW2, have meant a breadth of architectural forms have spread into areas surrounding the prisons. The prisons no longer stand as the monolithic symbols of suffering they once did, and have melted into the architecture of our city. They are taken for granted, dismissed”

This is a peculiar paradox to deal with in images; subjects hidden in plain sight.

“I set out to make a graphic and symmetrical set of images and fortunately there were features which allowed me to do this and at the same time inject some curiosity such as the splash of paint, bench or repaired hole,” says Elphick. “The walls are rigid and literal boundaries which can be translated metaphorically and ironically in many ways to question the justice system and inequalities in society.”

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Inside was exhibited in the three-person show Behind Bars at One & A Half Gallery, London in September, 2011.