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Sandra Whyte is no stranger to prisons. Married to a prison officer, she has lived in prison quarters for the past 35-years–first at HMP Dungavel and later at HMP Peterhead. Now closed and functioning as a museum, HMP Peterhead is most well-known for a protest and hostage-takings in 1987. Most recently, Whyte and her husband have lived at HMP Shotts in Lanarkshire where these photographs were made.
“Most of my married life has been caught up with prisons; husband working in them, all my neighbours working there too,” says Whyte who thinks of the prison and prisoners as part of her community.
“The original prison was purpose built in 1978 and catered for long term male offenders with sentences of four or more years,” explains Whyte. Prisoners who required to be kept in more secure conditions were transferred from other prisons.
Whyte and her children would stop while walking the dogs in order to chat with prisoners who were tending prison grounds.
The original Shotts prison buildings operated until 2012 when they were completely demolished. Simultaneously, new blocks were going up—“a modern and much more economic and environmentally friendly group of buildings” says Whyte.
During construction, Whyte chatted to the contractors and got on good terms with the site manager.
“Once the old prison was emptied and the prisoners had been transferred to the new one, I got permission via the site manager and the Governor to gain access with my camera,” says Whyte. “I felt it needed documenting, it would have been sad just to demolish what was a huge part of so many people’s lives without keeping some sort of record of it.”
Whyte made hundreds of images, but here on Prison Photography I selected an edit of 26 which focuses on the external fabric and internal adornment—be it murals, signs, paintings, graffiti or scrawls. In these splashes of colour, small vandalisms, personal touches and sectarian declarations, Whyte finds evidence of individuality.
“I suppose [living in such proximity] has affected the way I view prisons and prisoners, I do see them as members of the community,” she says. “The graffiti shows something about the people who lived there.”
And for those that live there Whyte thinks prison works for some and not for others.
“If people are treated in a humane way and given opportunities and support then yes, perhaps prison can help the majority?” she posits. “Certainly, we have to incarcerate people who are a danger to society. I’ve chatted to a fair few lifers over the years—murderers and rapists—who agree that they had to go to prison for their crimes.”
Being so close to the institution, or the operations and staff of three institutions at least, leaves Whyte reluctant to gauge the Scottish public’s attitude toward prisons.
“I don’t think I can comment really on the attitudes of members of the public to prisons/prisoners, my view is probably somewhat skewed.”
All images: Sandra Whyte
The Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville held the first open house for family and friends of inmates on Christmas Eve, 1977. The warden, Donald Bordenkircher and staff worked with the inmates to improve morale and make repairs to the facility. The event was successful and it was continued through 1984. © Jay Mather
2016 has been a very different year. I staved off some early-to-mid-career wobbles by taking a long walk and then stepped back into society just in time for the United States to descend into its own special horror show.
I was in Phoenix the night the satsuma-catastrophe won the electoral college vote. The clerk at the gas station voted for Trump. She told me her brother had served in the US military for 13 years, serving four tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. She had heard that Russia would initiate WW3 if Clinton was elected president. She believed Trump had good relations with Putin and so she voted for him so her brother wouldn’t be killed. The premise, the abandonment of logic, the separation I felt from her, her certainty, my certainty … they were all just really depressing. We were so far outside of reality nothing seemed solid or reliable, not a nod, not a discussion. Not there, not then, as the Michigan returns came in.
I don’t know what to say about 2016. Half of the US + 2.8 million know it was a catastrophe. The remainder are gonna figure out the catastrophe over the next four years.
The day after the election I said:
“History’s greatest leaders tend not to be elected politicians; they are most often people working in communities for the protection of their rights, the advancement of compassion, the resistance to gross concentrations of power and toward common sense. Trump is an ass-hat. We’ll see how bearable or utterly toxic things become in the next few months. All the while remember your own agency and don’t underestimate your own power.”
That still holds.
I’ll continue doing what I do, which is to write about the images and contexts which speak to the great injustices and abuses that occur daily in America’s prison industrial complex. I wish you calm, breathing, nourishing food this holiday season. I wish you strength, creativity and community in 2017 to take on, and thrive in, this confounding, challenging, bizarre world.
I’m spending the first half of 2017 in England. I’ll be back in the US to join the show in June. Love to you, be good, be smiling. Champion others and volunteer your time and resources so that you may be closer to your neighbours.
A note on the image: I was pleased to discover Jay Mather‘s series Christmas In Prison which documents a family day at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville on Christmas Eve, 1977. It depicts a moment when prison administrations were willing to make efforts to accommodate the emotional needs of prisoners. It’s strangely old-school; the dinner is held in the massive stone cellblock. Family events these days are in visiting rooms or other communal spaces. Mather’s pictures seem so unlikely when set against modern day’s sterile, cinder block rooms that function to control visitors and prisoners. See Mather’s full 62-image series here.
A quick heads up for a new photography project about prisons. Jessica Earnshaw has embarked on an investigation of aging in prison. So far, Earnshaw has visited Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana, Maine State Prison and Maine Correctional Center. to make stills and videos that reflect the circumstances of elderly prisoners.
Of course, the greying of America’s prisons is a massive issue. Compassionate release for men and women who are clearly infirm and clearly no threat to society as they may have been 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago seems to me to be a no-brainer.
The project is in its very early stages and Earnshaw is sharing snippets on Instagram. Follow @AgingInPrison, listen and watch that space.
Albert, 82-years-old, is patted down by security as he arrives to medical to get a blood test. He pulls out of his pocket a small piece of paper with a drawing of a pipe on it and says to the security guard – “what is this?” The guard replies, “That’s a pipe!” Albert cracks up laughing, “what’s wrong with you? This is a piece of paper!”
Owen at a community outreach service, near Brisbane, that provides free meals. Owen had been out of prison and in Australia for three months when this portrait was made. © Cory Wright
A BOY OF GREAT PROMISE
What happens if you’re released from prison in one country and deported to another? What happens if you’ve no recourse? What happens if your so-called “home” is not at all a home but a place you’ve not seen for 30+ years?
These questions can be answered, partially, by looking at the experience of Owen, who was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 32 in the United Kingdom. In late 2013, after serving 19 years, Owen was released aged 51.
“As an Australian citizen Owen was released as part of a scheme devised to reduce taxpayer expenditure and ease prison overcrowding in the U.K. by deporting foreign national prisoners,” explains photographer Cory Wright who met Owen in January 2014 a few months after his return.
“Owen was taken from a maximum security prison to a detention facility and then to the airport where he was flown back to Australia under guard escort,” continues Wright. “After clearing customs at Brisbane International Airport, he went his way and the guards went theirs.”
For his first few nights in Australia, Owen camped out in a wooded area behind a university campus. Having no family in Brisbane, he headed a local church to get some help.
Owen on faith and imprisonment: “In prison, I could actually feel the strength when I walked into the prison chapel and it helped me a great deal. I don’t get that feeling now. When I walk into a church sometimes I feel as though it could be any other room.”
It was at a prison ministry conference in Brisbane that Owen and Wright first met. After striking up a conversation and learning about their recent histories and their need to unpack disorienting experiences. Owen and Wright decided to work together. For one year, through image-making, conversation and archives, they reflected upon Owen’s institutionalization, the social stigma of incarceration, repatriation and reentry.
Soon, Owen moved from Brisbane to Melbourne where his ailing mother lives. He cared for her for a while until she has since moved to a nursing home where he expects her to stay from now on. She was in her 60’s when Owen was sentenced to life in prison and over 80-years-old when he was released.
Owen’s mother lived in Bundaberg, a small town in northern Queensland for many years. She was a well-known member of the community, but she moved to Melbourne shortly after “Owen got into trouble” because it was too difficult to stay once members of the community learned of his offense.
A scan of Owen’s year 3 report card. The series takes it’s title from the first sentence of the teacher’s remarks at the top left. “Owen is a boy of great promise…”.
Wright titled the project A Boy Of Great Promise, a phrase taken from Owen’s year 3 report card, written by his then teacher.
Wright and Owen could not help becoming friends.
“With empathy and attention afforded to the victim, little thought is given to the lives of those who have “paid their debt to society”. The stigma of the crime is often residual as is the label it caries. It is difficult to be known as anything other than an ‘ex-con’. Furthermore, the lasting effects of prisonisation often make reintegration back into society especially difficult,” says Wright.
During his time living in Brisbane, Owen often relied on free amenities provided by community shelters.
“While A Boy Of Great Promise offers no firm resolution, it starts discussion among those who, all to readily, apply this stigma and rely on assumptions to judge those who have been convicted of a crime.”
I wanted to know more. I sent Cory Wright a few questions. But he replied saying he wanted to share the repsonsibility with Owen. And so I sent a few more questions and Owen and Wright explain the project jointly.
Q & A
How did you meet?
Owen (O): We met at the Uniting Care Prison Ministries Conference in Brisbane, March 2014.
Cory (C): I was encouraged to contact a local prison ministry in Brisbane, Australia and invited to attend the conference, which led me to meet Owen.
Due to the restraints outlined in the Queensland Corrective Services Act 2006, I was unable to photograph or interview any Australian individuals who were on parole as it is forbidden under the act since they are still classified as ‘prisoners’ by the state.
Owen’s circumstances were unique because he was incarcerated in the UK and therefore not considered a ‘prisoner’ under the Act.
I remain very grateful to Owen and members of his family for allowing me into their lives over a period of time.
Serving his sentence in the United Kingdom, Owen did not have many visits from family. During the 19 years he was in prison his mother did not visit him and his father visited only once.
A card Owen bought for his mother whom he hadn’t seen since before he went to prison.
Why did you both agree to document this transition?
O: Cory approached me with the idea, explaining he needed a subject for his university assignment. I’m always willing to help people. And I like the idea of prisoners/ex-offenders getting positive exposure.
C: I wanted to spend period of time documenting post-release transition. I wanted to learn more about life post-incarceration with specific focus on individuals who had been recently released. The term ‘paid their debt to society’ has always interested me and I wanted to know if it was ever ‘paid’ or whether it was something that individuals continue to ‘pay’ following their release.
Owen in his rooms surrounded by past family photographs, mainly from his childhood.
What did you hope to get out of the project?
O: I do see myself as a kind of ambassador for ex-offenders. I wanted positive exposure for ex-offenders. I like art. I like turning life into art. There’s a freeing up and a cleansing that comes from it.
C: I hoped to learn more about life after prison. It’s not something that is discussed, certainly not in mainstream media. In Australia specifically, there seems to be a focus on vilifying criminal behaviour in order to support a tough on crime political approach. I’m not condoning crime, but I think there needs to be more thought and discussion on what happens after prison, which may lead to more consideration about what prisons are for.
Owen on the long term effects of prison:“It’s like going to war. When you come home you have PTSD just like those soldiers coming home from war in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Owen, do Cory’s photographs reflect your emotional state during this time?
O: Yes. I was happy and at peace, very happy to be released and enjoying my new found freedom. I think that is captured.
Cory, were you trying to reflect Owen’s emotional state?
C: I was documenting what I saw over a period of time, which was Owen gradually become more comfortable in Australian society. I saw happiness and relief yes, but I also saw Owen’s struggle to regain his place in a society from which he’s long been absent.
Owen repeated told me how relieved he was to be free, but he also said that he was worried he would be sent back to prison. There was a certain level of anxiety that the other shoe would fall and somehow he would be locked up again.
Shortly after Owen moved to Melbourne, he entered a romantic relationship with S. Initially, S was unaware of his past and Owen was reluctant to tell her. Here, Owen and S. during a camping trip in northern Victoria. During the time they were together Owen helped S. learn English (which is not her first language) for her studies in a masters program. They would buy two copies of the same book and take turns reading aloud to one another.
The garage of Owen’s mother’s townhouse where Owen and S. had sex when his mother was home.
Owen, what preparation did the UK government give you for the return trip to Australia?
O: None at all.
Owen, what has worked and what has not worked in your transition back to civilian life?
O: Australia is an easy country to live in, which has made the transition easy. None of my former friends welcomed me back and hardly any of my family, which has been the hardest thing to accept. I found I needed to start again and accept that people wouldn’t generally be accepting of my circumstances. I don’t tell people about my criminal past any more.
A list of email addresses to reach out to for support after his release. Owen compiled the list using internet access at a public library.
The view down the street from Owen’s mother’s townhouse in a suburb of Melbourne. After four months living in Brisbane, Owen relocated to Melbourne to live with and care for his mother.
Owen’s booking image provided and partially redacted by the Ministry of Justice.
Why was the mugshot redacted?
C: I’m not sure why the Ministry of Justice decided to redact the image, especially since all of the consent forms and signatures they requested were provided.
In one of our discussions Owen told me that being released after serving a long-term prison sentence is like returning from war in the middle-east with regards to the effect on the person. Your identity is effectively stripped away from you and you become a number. I felt that this redacted image reflected that.
How common is the removal of non-UK citizens from UK society after their release?
O: It’s only relatively recent that lifers have been returned to their country of origin after their sentence. The TERS (Tariff Expired Removal Scheme) agreement began three years ago. Fixed-termers get sent back regularly.
Prison diary and address book.
Owen, did you have any right of appeal?
O: There is an appeal system, but I doubt if a prisoner would have much success with it. I wanted to come back to Australia.
Owen, if you could be anywhere where would it be?
O: At the moment I’m still happily settling into life in Australia. I probably will travel when I get some money together – in Asia or Africa or South America.
Owen, why do you camp?
O: I like the freedom of it. After being locked up for so long I like not having four walls around me.
Owen during a camping trip to the south coast of Victoria. Since his release, Owen has spent a lot of his time outdoors, mainly camping in rural areas of Victoria.
What would you like the world to understand through this project?
O: Good things can always happen.
C: I would like the people to give more consideration to a part of society that is largely ignored.
All images: © Cory Wright
Photo: Mimi Plumb. Anonymous man. Do you know this man?
During the summer of 1975, Mimi Plumb spent months in the Salinas Valley, watching farmworkers make history.
“I traveled up and down the valleys of California photographing the young men living in farm labor camps, in chicken coops and under the sky, the children and adults working together in the fields, and the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) organizers and volunteers listening and talking with farmworkers about how elections in the fields might change their lives,” says Plumb.
Plumb shot dozens of rolls of film, which she developed at the time and made prints. But she didn’t show them much except for in the UFW field office and in an SFAI (San Francisco Art Institute) exhibition. A few images appeared in newspapers at the time.
Almost 40 years later, after her retirement from teaching, Plumb pulled the negatives and old prints from their boxes and started to put together the pieces. (An edit Pictures From The Valley is on her website).
It is an exhilarating re-emergence.
Camp Roberts. The weather had turned warm, and by noon the temperature topped 100 degrees. The marchers stopped for a rest at Camp Roberts, a former Army training center just off Highway 101. Chavez was always using his time to organize – whether he was in motion or sitting still. He posed for photos with groups of workers from each of the ranches — the hand sewn banners forming a good backdrop. Photo: Mimi Plumb. Caption: Miriam Pawel.
The photos are rich and pregnant; they deserve so much attention. And they get it. The California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, with help from the Center for Community Advocacy and the National Steinbeck Center, produced and funded efforts to identify the people in Plumb’s photographs and to seek out their stories.
The result is Democracy In The Fields, a visual record paired with oral histories. It’s the history of popular movements mixed with anthropology mixed with the history of labor. I love the way photographs have been leveraged here to shape a collective story that would otherwise have been dissipated and drowned out.
Among the subjects are Rosa Saucedo, Jose Renteria, Mario Bustamante, Alberto Magallon, Sabino Lopez, Celestino Rivas, Ricardo Villalpando, Cesar Chavez and the Amezcua Family.
Many of the people in Plumb’s photographs were identified by journalist Miriam Pawel who has written extensively about Chavez and the history of the United Farm Workers union. Together, Plumb and Pawel met with groups of former farmworkers who had been in Salinas in 1975.
“Children saw pictures of their parents as young adults for the first time. Grown men who had no photos of their fathers found them in Plumb’s images,” says the Democracy In The Fields website.
The faces in the images are luminous. Time and time again, there’s huge joy among the workers. Did they know they were marching to victory? Despite the grave consequences at stake, the workers and protesters seem unencumbered by the repsonsibility. The marchers particularly look as if they’re relishing ever purpose-defined moment.
The Teatro Campesino performed skits at the Potter Road Labor Camp. Photo: Mimi Plumb.
UFW Field Office. Photo: Mimi Plumb.
Photo: Mimi Plumb.
In the summer of 1975, with only months to prepare for the first elections in the fields, dozens of farmworkers who had demonstrated leadership were tapped by the UFW to leave their jobs in the fields and work for the union for ten weeks. Rosa Saucedo, a 21-year-old in the lettuce fields, was one of 40 hired in Salinas. Each was assigned specific companies. Rosa’s job was to win over workers at D’Arrigo, a large vegetable grower where the UFW was fighting the Teamsters. She was interviewed in Spanish by journalist Bob Barber in the midst of the campaign. Photo: Mimi Plumb. Caption: Miriam Pawel.
Photo: Mimi Plumb.
Jose Renteria mans one of the election booths. When the votes were counted, the UFW won a big victory – 188 votes to 84 for the Teamsters and 4 for No Union. Photo: Mimi Plumb. Caption: Miriam Pawel.
Journalist Bob Barber was conducting interviews in 1975 in the fields. Tapes from his archives provide audio on the website. Plumb and Pawel also conducted their own interviews in recent years. Wendy Vissar finessed the workers’ stories into a digital form.
“Celestino, Ricardo, Rosa and Chuy often included me in their daily rounds, from the fields and camps to Maria’s kitchen table,” writes Plumb. “The UFW field offices were a hub of activity, of nightly meetings, and frequent visits from the union president, Cesar Chavez.”
Farmworkers listen to Ricardo Villalpando, who worked tirelessly to persuade others that supporting the UFW was the path to a better life. He went wherever he had to in order to talk to workers in small groups—buses, the fields, labor camps, apartments. Photo: Mimi Plumb. Caption: Miriam Pawel.
‘With the Virgen of Guadalupe Leading the Way’. Every day, Chavez walked between ten and twenty miles. On July 28, the marchers reached San Lucas, where Chavez held the first evening rally in the Salinas Valley, in a small wooded grove on a makeshift stage. The next morning, the marchers set off again, heading for King City. Photo: Mimi Plumb. Caption: Miriam Pawel.
“On June 5th, 1975, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (CALRA) became law,” explains Plumb. “In July and August of 1975, Chavez led a 1,000 mile march, to help bring attention to the landmark statute recognizing the right of farmworkers to vote for union representation. The first farmworker election was held on September 5th, 1975 with a vote of 15-0 for the UFW.”
What an incredible project.
It takes a while to meander through the history and the people involved in the movement, but it’s a rewarding wander.
Photo: Mimi Plumb.
Photo: Mimi Plumb.
The project is ongoing. You can help identify people in Plumb’s pictures!
Connect on Facebook too.
“It’s a pretty remarkable place,” says Raff who popped in to see what was happening on one of the two days each month the farm opens to the public.
“[My work] is not an investigative piece but just an uplifting slice of life inside a jail,” adds Raff.
I think we can be certain that petting zoos don’t hold the answer for the many rehabilitation and decarceration measures we’re needing, but there’s no doubt that for many prisoners, contact with animals bears positive results. Jailhouse cats, seeing-eye dog training programs, Puppies Behind Bars are the obvious examples. I’ve known prisoners to care for, and tame, birds. Jail birds.
There’s not many bright spots on the yard, so to speak, in America’s prison industrial complex and ones like these at the Monroe County Stock Island Detention Center are always well-covered by the media.
Tellingly, the farm is entirely volunteer-run. No taxpayers money goes toward it. So while we can clap Monroe County Sheriff for hosting the program we can as easily wag our finger at the predictably conservative attitudes of lawmen who refuse to help fund a program that has clear benefits for all.
Ultimately, as Raff puts it, here’s an example of a program that is “unconventional, interesting and actually working.”
Read Inside the Florida Jail that Doubles as an Exotic Animal Zoo to get Raff’s full account and see the images large.
Photographer/reporter Lili Holzer-Glier’s Inside the Massive Jail That Doubles as Chicago’s Largest Mental Health Facility marries meaningful and well-reported content and with hard-hitting images under a single byline.
It’s a day-in-the-life-ish of the mental health professionals and patients at Cook County Jail in Chicago, which is the largest walled institution in the United States. What stood out for me was the reason with which both patients and professionals speak and assess the situation. Even though their attitudes could be dismissed as those from a madhouse in the big house, these first-hand-responders are collected and clear in what the problems are and what the solutions might be. And, surprise! Incarceration is not a solution.
I was left to reflect on my own frantic dismay at the United States’ beyond broken mental health policies. But panic doesn’t help anyone. Reliable and committed health helps and this is the overriding takeaway from Holzer-Glier’s piece. The pictures reflect that too. There’s no outbreaks, no violence and no real “noise”. The patients are returning to a baseline and feeling listened to. It’s just a shame they have to be in a jail to receive that attention.
Holzer-Glier opens the piece with a volley of desperate facts.
“According to a May 2015 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness,” writes Holzer-Glier, “Illinois cut $113.7 million in funding for mental health services between 2009 and 2012. Two state-operated inpatient facilities and six City of Chicago mental health clinics have shut down since 2009. The report goes on to detail that Governor Bruce Rauner’s 2016 budget proposal to slash $87 million of funding for mental health services could cause an estimated 16,533 adults to lose access to care.”
From the way the article reads, it seems Holzer-Glier spent one day (November 10th 2015) observing the in-take and processing. She follows social worker Elli Petacque-Montgomery and her team as they assess new arrivals at the jail.
“Acutely psychotic, violent, or suicidal arrestees [are put] in single cells away from other inmates. People who are psychotic are then sent to CERMAK, the jail’s division for physically ill and acutely mentally ill patients. Those with minor mental illness are sent to Division Two, Dorm Two, where they live in dormitory-style bunk beds…”
While the four prisoner-patients Holzer-Glier meets–Milton, Daniel, Tommy, and Andrew–have problems they aren’t totally bereft of hope. They’re in the bunks of Dorm Two. They provide key insight. Thankfully, Holzer-Glier doesn’t make a case for them, but rather allows them to make their own case. Their statements are transcribed.
They speak with gratitude about how the attention they receive from the medical staff is professional, encouraging and helpful. They have hope they can find stability but they don’t (or can’t) offer too many certain routes to stability. Some plan to leave Illinois when they get out. Some hope to find a good balance from meds that have proved helpful in the past. Another just plans on a steak and a hot bath “to get rid of the crazies.”
In each case, it’s clear they’ll need assistance beyond these jail walls. But will they have access to care? Ask the professionals. Holzer-Glier closes the piece with a series of statements from a clinical psychologist, a social worker, a guard, director of the care center and a corrections rehabilitation worker, all of whom work in Cook County Jail and interface with the mentally ill prisoner-patients. They all report that mental health institutions elsewhere have been closed at a incomprehensible rate and that the majority of people they interface with in the jail should be in a medical facility not a prison.
“You can’t just take a mentally ill person and lock them away. Society has already shown it doesn’t work,” says Printiss Jones, the Superintendent of CERMAK, the jail’s division for physically ill and acutely mentally ill. “Why would we do it here?”
And the piece ends.
Jones says, “Not one of these people should be here.”
In modernizing institutions, new laws to permit intimate partner visits for prisoners were established. Cosmin Bumbuţ visited every penitentiary in Romania and photographed the boudoirs.
We’re obsessed with sex as much as we’re shy to talk about it open and honestly. We’re fascinated by prisons, particularly fictionalized accounts of prisons (Oz, Animal Factory, Shawshank, Orange Is The New Black, The Green Mile, the list goes on-and-on) but often our fascination doesn’t extend far enough to talk openly about what our prisons actually are and how they’re a symptom of a divided, racist, unforgiving social order. We’ve still a lot to unpack around prisons. Around sex too, we’re picky about what and where we unpack. I say this to acknowledge the fact that this is an article about sex, and prisons, and sex in prisons and those are fiery catalysts to the imagination. Be honest, you’re here because of the headline and you’re wondering whether to read these 1,300 words or just scroll through the pictures.
Fortunately, for us, these pictures, made by Romanian photographer Cosmin Bumbuţ (who is also one half of Teleleu.eu), sate our outsider curiosity without dragging us into a debased voyeuristic quagmire.
The series, titled Camera Intima, is expertly shot with phenomenal manipulation of space and lenses to secure these angles. Despite some of these rooms being converted basement store-rooms, the photos are well-lit and flooding with joyous color and pattern. Perhaps you enter this photo essay — and these rooms — expecting cheap gags, but you exit with a rounded and informed perspective on a type of room designed to meet 21st century policy, to ensure dignity and to bolster family relationships.
“In 2007, Romania joined the European Union,” explains Bumbuţ. “The whole prison system went through major revamp and the biggest reform was to introduce the right to private visits.”
Simply put, the price for entry into Europe’s *modern* club was to allow previously-forgotten and despised convicts to get it on with their loved ones. Married prisoners and those in long term relationships have the right to one 2-hour private visit, every three months.
“Plus, if a prisoner gets married in detention he or she can spend 48 hours with the spouse in the special room and is allowed visits once a month in the first year of marriage,” explains Bumbuţ.
It’s obvious to say that these conjugal visit rooms are for sex. But it’s worth noting they are intended only for sex. In the United States, by comparison, conjugal visit trailers and designated rooms are set aside for the whole family. In these Romanian rooms, the only visitors are intimate partners but in the United States the purpose of family visits is broadened beyond just sex. Prisoners spend time with their children, siblings and parents; trailer visits are meant to strengthen family bonds throughout the entire clan. As such, US trailers have kitchens, dining and common areas.
In Bumbuţ’s photos we see mostly, just the beds. For all their undeniably functional design for the carnal, these rooms are rather underwhelming. At its root, this photo essay could be of cheap motel rooms; they share the same essential elements — TV, mini-fridge, the occasional soft furnishing, nasty carpet and a sign or two reminding occupants of rules. The picture that these are prison rooms is Bumbuţ’s image of the cover page of the ‘Intimate Room’ handbook.
Between 2013 and 2014, Bumbuţ photographed the “private rooms” in all 40 Romanian penitentiaries. “I think I can boast of being the only civilian who entered all the Romanian prisons,” he says.
It wasn’t a project that came out of the blue. Back in 2009, he facilitated a photo workshop for women prisoners in Târgșor Penitentiary (more about that here). Soon after that he embarked on a multiyear project documenting life in the notorious Aiud Penitentiary. He witnessed a creaking and unsanitary lock-up trying to clean up and drag itself into the 21st century.
“In 2005, Aiud looked like a prison from the Communist era. Rooms were dirty and the walls unpainted, the cells were very small and crowded,” says Bumbuţ. “In 2008, it was renovated and the cells were expanded, the prisoners didn’t wear uniforms and were referred to as ‘Persons deprived of liberty’! Romanian prisons started to look like the ones from the American movies, with white walls and new metal shiny doors.”
Even though prisoners are still handcuffed, Bumbut has, since 2008, been prohibited from photographing cuffed prisoners. Now it’s about image as much as it is about policy. When Bumbuţ first made his request to the National Prison Administration to photograph the conjugal visit rooms, he received quick approval and thanks for his dedication and help to the prison administration programs. Bumbuţ became well practiced at working in prisons. He reduced his equipment to a camera, a lens, a spare SD card and a spare battery to get through security checks as quick as was possible (often not quick at all).
The photographer’s good-standing all changed upon the release of his book Bumbata, an anthology of his best photographs from four years of shooting in Aiud Penitentiary. (Bumbuţ and I had an extended conversation about Bumbata in 2013).
The book was considered to gritty and perhaps, even, too sympathetic to the prisoners. Either way, it was seen as a damaging depiction. From there-on out, Bumbuţ was light on his feet and diplomatic. His access was never withdrawn.
The pregnant pause within these rooms is what gives Camera Intima strength as an body of work. We look at the photographs and they ignite our imaginations about what goes on inside. When the door is open — and we and the photographer peer in — there’s nothing to see. What goes on behind closed doors will never be photographed. This tension is characteristic of good photographic series that insert themselves into the relationships of public/private space and personal/institutional power.
“Prisoners are allowed officially to have sex inside an institution, but they have to follow all the bureaucratic steps,” explains Bumbuţ, “to write a request, to wait for the approval, to obey the rules.”
Guards and the administration hold the promise of access to the rooms as a carrot to motivate prisoners toward good behavior.
“Only prisoners who behave in prison are allowed to have private visits,” says Bumbuţ. “Prisoners are more obedient when they have access to the intimate rooms.”
Similarly, in the U.S., conjugal visits are seen as a very effective way to maintain prisoners’ complicity, even docility. Not all U.S. prisoners enjoy regular time with their family or intimate partners. All conjugal visits are banned within the Federal system and while states are left to rule on their own prison policies, only four — California, Connecticut, New York and Washington — currently allow trailer visits. In 2014, both Mississippi and New Mexico summarily ended their conjugal visit programs.
Sometimes these decisions will be couched in language about security but more often than not the decision rests upon public opinion (outrage), the moral judgements of the administration in power and probably the bottom line. It’s cheaper to keep men and women locked in boxes than it is to provide programming.
Back in Romania, it doesn’t matter what system or prison you’re in, your right to have conjugal visits is protected by law. And Bumbuţ was in many prisons when these visits took place. For a while he toyed with the idea of making portraits of prisoners and visitors.
“I even shot a couple before and after their private visit,” says Bumbuţ. “But when I looked at the portrait, I realised that it became too much about the couple and not about the intimate room.”
Bumbuţ wanted to spark our curiosity. He wanted to focus on the space and all the emotions, release, frustrations, love and contained freedom they embody.
Even though these rooms allow two humans to come together, they’re not places about individuals or individuality. They’re function spaces for the continuance of criminal justice policy. We know that given the choice, no-one would want to opt for these converted cells, cramped quarters or side-thought accommodations for their sexy time. No, Bumbuţ’s photographs are all about the denial of comfort and personal circumstance. These are compromise spaces. They’re about making do as much as they are about making out and they reveal carceral logic itself.
“So I decided to shoot the empty rooms.”
If you’re still with my these 1,300 words later, I’m glad you stayed the course and I hope I’ve convinced you that these images are more than visual one-liners. That, in fact, by photographing in every Romanian prison — 40 in total — Bumbuţ has created a unique, complete and priceless sociological survey. These four walls are the fulcrum between Romanian rule-of-law and the European Union compact; they’re the pivot of negotiation between prison and prisoner; and, of course, they’re containers for sexual expression between prisoners and loved ones. Ultimately, the rooms are the physical manifestation of contradiction.
“These are spaces for intimacy,” concludes Bumbuţ. “But, at the same time, the prison itself denies almost all desperately needed intimacy.”
In recent years, Cosmin Bumbuț and journalist Elena Stancu have traveled through Romania in an RV telling stories about today Romania, marginal communities and extraordinary people. They are Teleleu.eu. Follow Bumbuț and Stancu at the Teleleu.eu website and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.