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It gives me great pleasure to introduce Prison Photography‘s first guest blogger. However, it saddens me as much that he must remain anonymous.

A couple of months ago, I received an email from a California state employee who worked as a prison educator. To paraphrase that initial contact, he stated that “California prisons were places of extreme emotion and stress – due in part to their ‘invisibility’  – and photography within the walls of prisons could go some way in bringing visibility and public understanding to the realities of contemporary prisons.”  This was a remarkable statement and the first of its kind that I had heard from someone in employment at a state prison. I asked if he could expand on those thoughts and I am grateful he did.

The great irony of this is that the essay is not illustrated by the images he witnesses daily. He has offered us poignant descriptions of scenes from within prison. The descriptions are a powerful device to get us thinking about what we think we know and what we potentially could know about our penal system.

He suggested I use some of CDCR’s own images. The aerial shots included are the official vision of the California prison system that disciplines and orders the different sized units that comprise the institution; cells, wings, blocks and facilities. The institutional eye of CDCR’s aerial views lies in powerful contrast to the personal narrative recorded here.

Avenal State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

Avenal State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

I work in California prisons. Penology has become grown into avocation over the last 10 years. A past career in journalism with some practice in photojournalism informs a strong inclination to report/communicate what I see and experience. So I am daily frustrated by prison policies against recording the visual images I see. Each day I wonder if these policies are justified. If not, are they an impediment to rehabilitation, perhaps even prison reform? Do these policies protect society and the prisoners and staff persons who are a part of society? Or are these policies so much heavy furniture upon the carpeting under which we have swept our societal human detritus?

[IMAGE] There but for the grace of God go I – Close up of a hollow expression on the face of a prisoner as he watches two uniformed guards escort another prisoner across the bare, brown dirt of a prison yard. One guard holds a baton at the ready, the other menacingly waves a carafe-sized container of pepper spray, his finger on the trigger. In the background are multiple 12-foot chain-link faces topped by rounds of glistening razor wire.

North Kern State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

North Kern State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

If you ever work with law enforcement on the street, you will hear the mantra “officer safety.” Policies, procedures, even individual officer actions have this mantra as an underlying core within their stated mission to serve public safety. In the prison, that mantra becomes “safety and security of the institution.” Everything is measured against that mantra. Nothing is approved if anyone can show that it may be a threat to institutional safety and/or security. Uncensored and uncontrolled photographic images seem to be considered an inherent threat to institutional safety and security. From a rookie guard to the departmental secretary, few things seem to frighten them quite so much as image impotence in the institutions they so wholly control. From regular staff trainings to informal reminders I have been inculcated (brainwashed?) to accept the imprudence of taking pictures on prison grounds. Simply having a camera on prison property could be cause for termination.

[IMAGE] The burden of laundry – a prisoner wearing only boxer shorts sits on the lowest metal slab of a three-high tier of bunk beds in a prison gymnasium. His hands are deep in a bright yellow, worn mop bucket on the floor in front of him. Inside, white socks and underwear mingle in lukewarm, soapy water.

Prison regulations acknowledge their public nature and the public’s right to know what goes on inside prisons, at least bureaucratically. Title 15 of California Code of Regulations, Section3260 is entitled “Public Access to Facilities and Programs.” It states:

“Correctional facilities and programs are operated at public expense for the protection of society. The public has a right and a duty to know how such facilities and programs are being conducted. It is the policy of the department to make known to the public, through the news media, through contact with public groups and individuals, and by making its public records available for review by interested persons, all relevant information pertaining to operations of the department and facilities. However, due consideration will be given to all factors which might threaten the safety of the facility in any way, or unnecessarily intrude upon the personal privacy of inmates and staff. The public must be given a true and accurate picture of department institutions and parole operations.”

Is absolute control over visual images in and around prison an unreasonable imposition on prisoners, staff, families, general public, media, etc? Does it interfere with the desirable goal of family/community connection with prisoners? Does it contribute anything to either rehabilitation or punishment, the two general goals of incarceration? I’ve catalogued the reasons I’ve been given, or even imagined, over the years and want to see how they stand up to public scrutiny.

Pleasant Valley State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

Pleasant Valley State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

The first and foremost reason for image control would seem to be the prevention of both escapes and incursions. Photographs of prisons may provide intelligence to anyone planning escapes, contraband smuggling, perhaps even terrorist activities. This seems reasonable enough, at least until you start prowling around the Internet. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Web site has high-resolution aerial photographs of every one of its prisons. Anyone with even rudimentary analysis skills could do serious escape/incursion planning based on these photographs alone. But wait, there’s more. Google maps have more information – local maps, photographs of the prisons, even their “street view” photographs in some instances that clearly show fences, towers, gates, etc. With that level of public information available, I don’t see how you make a credible argument that I can’t take pictures on prison grounds.

5th & Western, Norco, CA. Google Street View.

5th & Western, Norco, CA. Google Street View.

[IMAGE] The spread – four heavily tattooed prisoners in underwear standing around a dented, dingy gray metal locker. There are bowls on top of the locker and they are sharing food they cooked using hot water, instant soup noodle packets and canned meats, vegetables and seasonings. On the dirty gray concrete wall behind them is stenciled in fading red paint: NO WARNING SHOTS FIRED.

Privacy would seem to be the next strongest argument for prohibiting prison images. Given the open policies in other states, this argument seems flimsy. For prisoners, all conviction information is public. Simply go to the appropriate county court and the information is openly available to the public. Yet it is extremely difficult to get any information about prisoners in the California prisons. For the public there is one telephone number you can call. [916 445-6713] You must know either the prisoner’s CDCR Identification Number or the full name and correct date of birth. The line is perpetually busy and, if answered, the caller can expect to be put on hold for a long, long time (yes, hours). On the other hand, if you go to the Nevada Department of Corrections Web site, you can search for Orenthal Simpson and it will show not only his prison and address but all his convicted offenses, terms and release date. Oklahoma, not generally known for openness, shows the prisoner’s location, convicted offenses, release and parole dates, even pictures. The federal Bureau of Prisons will provide prisoner location and release dates for current and past prisoners. Try a search on their site for Martha Stewart.

Salinas Valley State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

Salinas Valley State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

A major defense California prison management will make for the privacy argument is gang violence. They believe if it is easy to find a person in a particular prison, that can make it easier for gangs to use him. The gangs may use the prisoner to do their illegal work or to order him killed if he has fallen from grace, so to speak. CDCR logic is that by keeping prisoners hidden they are keeping them protected. If this is true, the magnitude of the gang problem is nothing short of monumental. Other states apparently do not have this problem. Why not?

[IMAGE] A pile of clothing, denim pants, orange coveralls, boots, etc. on a six-foot folding table. Two uniformed guards on one side of the table. Two naked inmates on the other side of the table, one bent over spreading his rear-end cheeks for officer inspection.

I categorize all other arguments against my taking prison pictures as simple totalitarian need for control. An uncontrolled image is seen as a risk – and why take a risk? The fewer images that exist, the fewer possibilities there are for something to happen that they can’t control. Statistically speaking, very few members of the public or the media ever get to see what happens inside prisons. Media representatives are escorted at all times and only see what prison management wants them to see. They are rarely given unfettered access to prisoners. Visitors are the bulk of the public that see anything of a prison, and that is a very limited view – parking lots, processing rooms and the visiting rooms. Even inmate appearance is tightly controlled in the visiting experience. The prisoner who shows up needing a shave or wearing a wrinkled shirt doesn’t get into the visiting room. And he or she will be strip-searched going in and coming out.

San Quentin. Courtesy CDCR

San Quentin. Courtesy CDCR

Prisons, at least in California, are reactive rather than proactive. California’s first permanent prison, San Quentin, opened for business in 1852. Since then, the prison system has been making rules and regulations based on preventing the recurrence of negative events. For example, a prisoner at R.J. Donovan prison at San Diego escaped using a fake staff identification card he had made. He walked out amid a small crowd of other staff leaving at shift change time. As was customary then, he simply held up his photo ID and was waved through with the rest of the ID card wavers. To prevent this from happening again, CDCR policy now requires the gate officer to physically touch and examine the employee ID card before letting the person through the gate. Such policy-creation has been repeated tens of thousands of times over the past 157 years of the California state prison system. It does not lend itself to the openness of unfettered prison images.

[IMAGE] The back of a prisoner’s shaved head as he sits in the audience of a GED graduation ceremony. Visible under his mortarboard are gang tattoos on his head and neck. Blurred in the background an inmate stands at the podium giving his valedictory address.

Until 1980, incarceration in California had rehabilitation as a major goal. The state legislature in that year, bowing to a Reganesque rabble-rousing changed prison law to say the purpose of incarceration is punishment. The concept of rehabilitation disappeared and so did most of the prisoner programming and policies meant to promote rehabilitation. Connection with family is known to be one of the most important factors in rehabilitation. I suggest the control of images in the prison system is one policy that discourages family connections.

Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran. Courtesy CDCR

Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran. Courtesy CDCR

Prison subsumes human beings. Prisoners disappear over time. As soon as a man goes to prison, he begins to fade from his former life. Just as a photographic print will fade over the years, the place of a man in his family fades while he is in prison. Life goes on – without him. His linkages to the fabric of family and community eventually fray and break. Phone calls, letters and visits cannot fully replace the foundations of shared daily interactions, family projects, adventures, challenges and the intimacy of shared emotions. Despite our ability to love, we are creatures of habit, and over time absence can become a habit that seems a normal reality.

The absence of prison images in society supports the concept of shame in incarceration. This shame then supports an estrangement that prison system managers find useful for their purposes. The human toll of that is prisoners who simply hunker down to do their time. Some resist family contact. “I don’t want my children coming to see me in a place like this,” is a common thing I hear from prisoners who could have visits if they wanted them. Would this change if prison images were common in our society? I think so. I think it’s worth a try.

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