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