You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Corrections’ tag.


In a massive 3×9-metre grid, Daniel Schwartz‘s Corrections (above) tiles a satellite view of every facility in the United States’ federal prison system. It’s a literal but effective means to describe the frightening scale of mass incarceration. If we bear in mind that the federal system houses approximately 210,000 prisoners, which is less than one tenth of the total prison population in the US only, then Corrections assumes an even more terrifying edge.

Schwartz created the images, I presume, by means of a customised script based upon the publicly available Google Map API. GPS coordinates inserted into the customised script allow for an automatically captured a satellite view and .jpg of sites (prisons in this case) when the script is run. I make this assumption because this was Josh Begley’s method in creating Prison Map, a similar project.

Corrections presents 1,218 facilities, about one fifth of the 6,000+ locked facilities in the US–including state, county, private and immigration prisons. To present all of the types of all of the United States’ prisons facilities would require a lot of wall space and a lot of double-sided sticky tape. I know this because as part of the Prison Obscura exhibition, I printed 392 images from Josh Begley’s Prison Map. and put them on walls. (See the heavily illustrated point below)



Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at Haverford College, PA


Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison Obscura’ at the University of Michigan, MI


Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison Obscura’ at Parsons New School, NY


Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison Obscura’ at Scripps College, CA


Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison Obscura’ at Newspace, Portland, Oregon

It was my intention to provide a visual backdrop to the computer/screen/console in the gallery at which people navigated Prison Map. Begley had, up to that point, never printed out the images from Prison Map (he did later make and sell large fine art prints), but physical objects were never the primary purpose of the project. Rather, Prison Map was an experiment how Google Earth could be manipulated to produce an image-set based upon a dataset; an experiment in how a corporation’s empire of images could be bent toward a social justice conversation. I’m speculating on this because I wonder if, after the point of automated capture, Schwartz intended to print out Corrections and stick it on a wall? There are arguments for doing so as valid as those for maintaining it as a virtual user experience. I should give Schwartz a phone-call.

I mention this, also, because there are other parellels between the work of Schwartz and Begley. In tackling the issue and enormity of the US/Mexico border, Begley made the film Best of Luck with the Wall and Schwartz made two accordion books. Both stitched together staellite images that tracked the entire border. One virtual, one physical.

On the topic of gun use, Begley made Officer Involved, which automatically captured Google Street View (GSV) scenes of the sites in which law enforcement officers killed a citizen, and Schwartz made Death By Gun, which maps firearm homicides in Los Angeles County carried out by citizens.

Both Schwartz and Begley are interested in tempting users to reimagine their smartphones’ purpose. Both are interested in having content “enter” the phone in real time. Once installed the Death By Gun app automatically saves the auto-generated images to the camera-roll. Begley’s MetaData+ app sends push notifications to your phone each time a confirmed US drone strike occurs.

Unsurprisingly, these two artists who are connecting the dots between non-human camera operation, emerging datasets and power as it relates to cyber-infrastructure, are both peering at surveillance too. Begley’s Profiling.Is usurps the photographs made by the NYPD during covert surveillance of Muslim owned businesses in New York City. While in Geo-fragments Schwartz uses GSV to automatically compose collages of sites a person (I presume himself) travels to over a 24 hour period based upon the GPS data *broadcast* by his smartphone.

What Now Then?

I’ve discussed the work of Begley and Schwartz at length because I feel they’re heading toward some very fruitful areas in which state and corporate power is challenged, if not subverted. We would do well to follow. Sure, putting the real estate portfolio of the Federal Bureau of Prison on a single wall makes for a stark visual argument–how can you not be effected by prisons filling your entire field of vision? Especially when each tile is only 4×6 inches and still the entirety towers over you.

Bringing the virtual into the real world can be a very canny strategy as Bernie Sanders showed recently in his commandeering of a Trump tweet and printing it out for the house floor. But visual effects work only in one place at one time. By contrast, superpowers’ surveillance and data gathering is non-stop. Consider that a citizen has the capacity to manipulate Google’s benign platforms but the US military has the power to plug in any data set of coordinates and launch a thousand drone strikes.

Beyond the information war in which art is essentially engaged against state and corporate malfeasance, art clearly has limited power. It is here that hacktivism and cyber-insurgence emerge as both tactic and necessity. Begley and Schwartz’s artworks reveal the gross concentrations of power inherent to astronautic surveillance but they do not fight it. They alter public perception of the oppression, but not the apparatus of oppression. Cyber-sabotage that downs, damages or compromises the apparatus is the front line of the fight. What does that mean for artists? Is hacktivism now the most crucial form of resistance? Is hacktivism art? Just spit-balling here.


Before Christmas, I mentioned that Zora Murff‘s first photobook Corrections–published by Ain’t Bad Editions–was out. I was invited to write the introduction essay. Murff and I agreed that it’d be nice to share the essay with some images here on the blog.

The title of the essay “Off Paper” comes from a common phrase used by many of the children with whom Murff worked. It refers to the time when they will no longer be supervised, monitored, checked, tested or on probation. I thought it interesting that they describe paper documents as the form that control takes. Especially as it is networked, electronic, digital devices that are increasingly used to maintain the day-to-day control over their activities.

Paradoxically, Murff has tried to describe the children’s experiences and individuality beyond the formless, GPS surveillance, the case number and the rules under which each lives. Murff has used photography–and specifically the photobook–to do that. He has put them on paper. Unlike legal paper, the paper of art is non-binding and possibly more sympathetic.

The kids hope they are only temporarily on paper, in the legal sense, but Murff’s book locks them permanently in. And on.

Scroll down for the essay.





“My therapist said that I’m a criminal because I think like a criminal. She’s wrong. I’ve just made some bad choices when I’m in the moment. It doesn’t mean I’m not capable of doing right.”

– A youth in the Linn County Juvenile Detention & Diversion Services system.

The extreme cruelties and systemic failures of the United States’ brutal prisons are, at this point, well known. Far from being a solution, mass incarceration in America has exacerbated profound social problems, widened the gap between the haves and have-nots and set generations back. We’re starting to accept these truths and admit our collective mistakes. We’re starting to think less-and-less of prisons as institutions that solve the behaviors and social dynamics that lead to the state’s need to control; we’re starting to identify them as the problem. Across the country, prisons and detention are now considered a last resort for the disciplining of children.


As criminal justice agencies employ community supervision more and more, monitoring systems are used more and more. James Kilgore — academic, activist and a man who was once electronically monitored — has described ankle bracelets as “going viral in the criminal justice system.”

In 2005, 120,000 people wore electronic monitoring ankle bracelets; in 2012, the figure was 200,000; and in 2015, we can assume the figure has grown further still. Proportionally, within the 7 million people under correctional supervision in the United States, a larger percentage of youth wear monitoring devices than adults.

Imprisonment is known to negatively impact young minds and bodies far more severely than those of adults and current policy — and carceral logic — deem ankle bracelets a palatable, convenient and more humane alternative. There are some blind-spots to this logic.



Corrections comes at a crucial moment. Electronic monitoring (EM) has come into its own in the age of GPS. Faster, more accurate and more reliable than previously-used radio-based devices, GPS technologies provide the state agencies responsible for managing sentenced and pre-trial citizens with the rhetoric of control, the vision of the future and assurances to the public of total security.

EM is presented as a more humane, productive and progressive means of social control. Companies such as iSecure Trac, Secure Alert, Pro Tech, GEO and Omnilink which manufacture ankle bracelets also talk up the cost savings to their state clients.




isaac david

All this to say, that this moment, in which we as a society are turning ever more faithfully to electronic monitoring, is not based solely on enlightened policy based upon supposed enlightened morals and the prioritization of the humane. No, it is based in large part to salesmanship in growth industries and the rhetorical promise of redemption through technology.

Corrections is an opportunity to reflect upon what is means to rely on widespread, diffuse and near total surveillance to correct antisocial behaviors. Furthermore, it is an opportunity to interrogate the outcomes of such surveillance upon larger society and the problems GPS-powered panopticism purports to address. Do ankle bracelets prevent criminal acts? Does EM propel, distract or compliment our investment in educational, economic and healthcare systems–systems we know improve citizens and reduce anti-social behaviors?




oral hygeine

While many of the recent headlines about juvenile justice reform have focused on New York State, California and the South, ankle bracelets are utilized nationwide. It is fitting that Corrections emerges from Iowa, the heartland of America. The young men and women in Murff’s photographs are ordinary children, just like all children are ordinary. And yet, we have a propensity to think of urgent debates about the social contract we share as being those centered around the big cities. GPS tracks kids the same in the Midwest as it does in urban cores; it “knows” geography but does not adhere to our regional stereotypes. Corrections, in its modest way, puts the debate about electronic monitoring of youth into all our communities.

Helping children to modify and understand their behavior is a vital task — a fact Murff acknowledges. Ask any of the teens he monitored and they’d say they were happier being out in the community than locked up. Murff grew close to many of the children through face-to-face contact with youths on a regular basis. He talks of “watching the youths grow throughout the probation process.” But that does not mean that all the teens evaluate their monitoring as fair or right. Having a clunky box strapped to ones leg can hamper ones feeling of freedom just as much as being locked within a box. This tension–this constant to-and-fro about the costs and benefits of EM–is what informs Murff’s photographs, and his images provide some avenues to explore the tension.



nick  close to home

The kids in Corrections are anything but armed and dangerous. The portraits came out of collaboration, discussion and sometimes accident. The evasive gesture and posturing of anonymous subjects is, for me, less a metaphor for the youths’ prior furtive behavior, but more a metaphor for our collective unknowing of the mechanism of the monitoring systems that we fund in order that they might inhabit them.

If the portraiture in Corrections is artful and poetic, then the studies of objects are pure documentary. Images of standard-issue deodorant, case files, uniforms, bracelets and other accouterments remind us of the regime and remind us of the industries behind it.



hair care

A youth writes “I have what I need to be fine,” on a self-assessment form and reminds us of the gulf, often, between what a child in crisis needs and what a caring society might be able to provide. It puts us right there. In tension. By contrast, a beautiful sun-dappled portrait of a youth seems so very far removed from the contested system and its narratives. Until you notice the ankle bracelet.


(But) seeing the system and understanding the system are not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, the ability to see is a great privilege. GPS “sees” relentlessly. Can Corrections help us understand the psychology and control at play as well as EM purports to understand the needs of youth and community?

Some of Murff’s images fill our gaps in knowledge; others inhabit blind spots in our collective understanding of a legally protected arena. What we learn, mostly, from Corrections is that we’ve more to know about how we’re helping troubled kids. We know that we’re using electronic monitoring more readily. How far will we proceed with this brave, new technology? Some Texas school districts, which include a large number of black and latino students, have expanded the use of EM for kids with histories of excessive truancy.

What does Murff’s documentation of fracture and healing from Iowa tell us about this very 21st Century practice? What is this version of freedom and control? Do we accept it?



One afternoon, Murff was sat in the bedroom of a young man for whom he was responsible for monitoring. The teen was playing his guitar and Murff was making a photograph. Then, a friend of the teen came to the bedroom window. He was confused by Murff, his camera, and the scene before him. Without missing a beat, the teen told his friend that he had just been signed to a record label and that Murff was from Rolling Stone Magazine.

I end with this anecdote because the teen, in spite of his circumstances, was witty and present. And he had agency. Lighthearted moments are harder to come by when people are implicated in the criminal justice system. Corrections is a serious body of work about a serious project, but it has been built on years of very personal interactions. For the protection of the youths, all of Murff’s subjects remain anonymous but that doesn’t mean they are distant.

What we think today affects what we do tomorrow. As you leaf through these pages, think about how you would feel as a kid under monitoring, think about your current attitudes about “delinquent” kids, and think about if those can change. Think about these things today because, certainly, there’ll be more electronic monitoring devices tomorrow.





Title: Corrections, 2015
Size: 9.75 x 7.75 in
Page Count: 80 pages, 40 images
Publisher: Aint-Bad Editions
Edition Size: 450, signed and numbered
Print: 8×10 signed and numbered edition of 50
ISBN: 978-1-944005-01-6




Earlier this year, Zora Murff contacted me and asked if would write some words for his debut book Corrections. Of course, I jumped at the chance. I’m a huge fan of the work. I interviewed Murff at length in January 2014 and I wrote about Corrections for the Marshall Project in December 2014.

Corrections is a collection of images made by Murff made between 2012 and 2015, while he worked as a Tracker for Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Interspersed with his portraits of teens and still life studies of monitoring equipment are anonymised mugshots.

Today, the book was made available for pre-order. Books ship December 7th.


Throughout Corrections, Murff is investigating the psychology, the coercion and the effects/costs/benefits of control. We’re dealt a teasing glimpse of how electronic monitoring works for the state and niggles against presumed natural freedoms. These frictions play out against the hormonal whirl of teenagers trying to find their place in the world.


“By reconsidering the role that I played in the lives of the kids I worked with, I began to acknowledge the burden that comes with tasking young men and women with continued complicity,” writes Murff. “My stance as a consequence kept our relationships in a state of flux ranging from stable to tenuous – a constant motion mirroring the discord that develops between the system’s intentions and outcomes. Through employing ideas of anonymity, voyeurism, and introspection, Corrections is an examination of youth experience in the system, the role images play in defining someone who is deemed a criminal, and how the concepts of privacy and control may affect their future.”


Murff provided services to youths who were convicted of crimes and were monitored while on probation.

“Juveniles in my charge were asked to comply with services which may include: electronic monitoring, therapies, drug screening, and community service; it is my responsibility to have continual contact with them to ensure these expectations are met,” he says.

Electronic Monitoring (EM) is becoming more and more common. EM is characterised–by its supporters–as a more humane, less forceful and cheaper alternative to incarceration. However, it’s use and long-term effects (especially for children) have been the subject of relatively little study or public attention.


“These services, which allow juveniles to stay in their homes, show a higher rate of success than strict incarceration. Although community-based services are built to foster a collaborative relationship between juveniles and service providers, attaining the actualization of teamwork becomes problematic when juveniles feel that they have done nothing wrong, are victims of circumstance, or do not fully understand why they have committed a crime,” says Murff.

My essay/introduction focuses on the business practices, markets and language behind the electronic monitoring industry and how this boom sector of criminal justice may or may not be the panacea law enforcement hopes for.

“The system has been put in place to provide rehabilitation, but it is far from being a straightforward process,” writes Murff. “Many influences outside of the youths’ control such as education, socioeconomic status, and race all play a role in whether or not a youth reoffends — all of these factors possessing the propensity to lead them to extended periods of incarceration in the juvenile system or to involvement with the criminal justice system as an adult.”


I’ll share my full essay (with Murff’s photos) in the new year, but at this moment I urge you to order a copy.

Murff and his publisher Ain’t Bad have manufactured a beautiful object about a crucially current and unexamined topic of criminal justice.



Zora J Murff is an MFA student in Studio Art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Zora attended the University of Iowa where he studied Photography and holds a BS in Psychology from Iowa State University. His work has appeared in The British Journal of Photography, WIRED, VICE Magazine and PDN’s Emerging Photographer Magazine. Zora was named a LensCulture 2015 Top 50 Emerging Talent, a 2014 Photolucida Critical Mass finalist, and is part of the Midwest Photographers Project through the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Zora is a member of Strange Fire Collective with Jess T. Dugan, Hamidah Glasgow, and Rafael Soldi.



Title: Corrections, 2015
Introduction: Pete Brook, Prison Photography
Size: 9.75 x 7.75 in
Page Count: 80 pages, 40 images
Publisher: Aint-Bad Editions
Edition Size: 450, signed and numbered
Print: 8×10 signed and numbered edition of 50
ISBN: 978-1-944005-01-6

Start shipping on December 7th. Pre-order now.



“I want this thing off today … this fucking thing is an invasion of privacy, and goes against my well-being,” said the young boy about his ankle bracelet. He was speaking to Zora Murff, a BFA photography student at the University of Iowa and also a Juvenile Tracker for the Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services (JDDS) of Linn County, Iowa.

It was only when Murff heard this complaint that he began to wonder if he and his camera could interrogate the issue of control.

“He was angry,” recalls Murff. “The more I thought about his anger, the more I pondered the concepts of privacy and control in the juvenile corrections system and the role that I play inside of those concepts. I interact with these youths at a critical point in their lives where control is an integral part of the day-to-day. My job is to be a consequence, to insert myself into their lives […] while the adolescents themselves are struggling to exert control over their development.”

Linn County JDDS provides monitoring and rehabilitation services to youths on probation. Murff has been in the job eighteen months. In mid-2013 he began to photograph his employment and construct a project for submission as part of his studies.

The resulting series Corrections is made up of: photographs of locations of interaction with accompanying narratives about the transgression that took place there (images below with captions); anonymous portraits of the youths; handwritten reflections of the youths; and official paperwork and service documents.

Murff published his notes during the series on the Corrections Tumblr. He has self-published a limited edition book (Murff welcomes interest from publishers to do a larger run). Murff is taking a temporary hiatus from the project. Last week, my Wired colleague Jakob Schiller wrote about Corrections in the piece Peering Into the Digitally Tracked Lives of Youths on ProbationI wanted to do a bit more digging and ask Murff about the logistics, motivations and relationships inherent to the work.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

c9 c11

Three youths broke into an abandoned home on the northeast side of Cedar Rapids. When Cedar Rapids Police responded to the scene, two of the youths surrendered themselves, while the third attempted to hide in the basement. Officers sent in a K-9 to retrieve him. Each youth was charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct.



Prison Photography (PP): Can you start by describing your work?

Zora Murff (ZM): Tracking is one of the diversion programs that JDDS offers. Diversion refers to the youth being able to stay in the community, rather than being placed in detention or in a different type of placement like residential treatment. My primary responsibility is monitoring youths on probation. I have face-to-face contact with youths on a regular basis to ensure that they are complying with the expectations of their probation. This may entail electronic monitoring, urinalysis, school follow-up, transportation to therapies (substance abuse, sexual offense, anger-replacement), and other things like completing community service hours. My caseload fluctuates – I believe the lowest number I had was nine youths and I have had up to twenty-one.

PP: Would you have managed to gain access if it weren’t for your job?

ZM: When I pitched the idea to my supervisor, she was very intrigued, but being an insider definitely gave me a leg up, and I was very lucky to have that level of access. My supervisor had a few specific guidelines, but gave me free reign, so I had a wide creative space to work with. I think there was a level of trust there, which made Corrections possible.

PP: How did you come to be studying photography if you’re also a probation service employee?

ZM: I started my degree in psychology. My professional background in human services started when I replied to an ad on a campus bus. I needed a job. I started in disability services working with a wide population of people. Those experience helped me get a job with juvenile criminal justice. I didn’t necessarily have a desire to work in this specific area, but it has been a great experience to watch the youths grow throughout the probation process.

I love my work but I have always felt I was missing out on a need to create, a desire to teach, and a love of the photograph. That is where my education in photography comes into play.

PP: Juveniles under the control of the state are vulnerable young adults. What sort of assurances did you have to provide for your employer, the children and the parents/guardians?

ZM: I have noticed that when working with any population in human services, it all comes down to trust. The real question is how do you build that trust with the people that you serve. I think that this can vary with any worker, but I usually broach this by being available and consistent. Having trusting relationships with the youths that I photographed was key to working on this project.

The biggest assurance that I had to provide was anonymity. It was also important to explain my project to them, which isn’t always easy to do, especially when I was starting out because I wasn’t sure where the project was taking me.





PP: Is Corrections about delinquency or about control; about youth or about state?

ZM: All of the above. The youths do delinquent things that warrant some type of intervention and I wanted to document their experiences once they become a part of the juvenile corrections system. Youths are attempting to control their lives while workers are trying to exert some sort of control over it for them. There’s a dynamic at play between the two.

The use of narratives and documents add context to the project. I felt that portraits of the youths, while the most important component of Corrections, would have told an entirely different story if they were to stand alone.

PP: Is Corrections a voice for you or for your subjects?

ZM: I wouldn’t say that Corrections is my voice personally. The youths are allowing me to show them through their portraits and through some of their writing. My intent was to approach it from an ‘anthropological’ standpoint if you will, almost as if I am a recording device. I felt that it was important to provide a window into this world without editorializing, even though I am embedded in the system.

I feel that when it comes to children on probation a lot of stereotypes are thrown around and it would have been easy to fall into tropes. I want viewers to see inside of the system and draw their own conclusions.




While hanging out with friends, a youth started verbally harassing a peer walking home from school. The youth started to follow the peer and punched him from behind in the side of the face. The youth continued to assault his victim until a car pulled up in the alley. While fleeing the scene, the youth kicked his victim in the head. The youth decided to turn himself in when the story aired on the local evening news, and told Cedar Rapids Police that he had no justification for the assault, that he was just, “mad at the world.” The victim was hospitalized for two days with a broken jaw, two teeth knocked out, and a severed facial nerve. The youth was convicted of felony charges and placed at the Eldora State Training School.

PP: How has the project effected your relationships?

ZM: In human services, the work is about the person that you’re serving, not about you, and typically sharing personal information is discouraged. However, I feel that opening up about my passion for and education in photography bought me a little more trust with some of the clients. It was kind of odd, really. The kids were either totally interested and invested in the project, or completely indifferent. When I walk through the detention center, one or two kids will ask if I’m still working on the project or what was my grade in my photo class. I have also earned the moniker, “that guy with the camera.”

PP: Any particular stumbling blocks?

ZM: My biggest barrier was not being able to photograph faces – I didn’t want to blur out faces or put bars over them. It almost became a game figuring out how to make faces unidentifiable and have the photographs be meaningful.




PP: Any pleasant surprises?

ZM: A number of the compositions happened by accident – a kid blocking the sun from his eyes, or deciding to sit in a certain spot. There is one photograph of a youth playing guitar in his bedroom. While we were taking the photograph, the youth’s friend came to the bedroom window and had a perplexed look on his face when he noticed me with the camera. The youth told his friend that he had just been signed to a record label and that I was from Rolling Stone Magazine. We all had a good laugh about that – and it was a welcome change from the more difficult interactions that I have.

PP: What has been the reaction so far to the work?

ZM: So far, reactions have all been pretty positive. I was part a group exhibition for the class Corrections was completed for, and a number of people drew some sort of sentiment from the photographs. I also had a portfolio review at Midwest SPE last year, and the project was received well. However, I understand that working with a vulnerable population, specifically youths, can be a contentious territory so I have been a pretty hard critic on myself about the work.






PP: Do you plan to continue photography and/or work in criminal justice?

ZM: I would like to teach photography as a means of creative expression to youths at the detention center, but that is just a lofty idea at this point.

PP:  It would be wonderful if you could achieve those types of workshops.

ZM: There are definitely some barriers. The biggest obstacles would be finding the time to teach a course, funding for materials, developing a curriculum, and figuring out when it would work into the residents’ schedule as their day at the detention center is very structured.

PP: What makes you think photography is useful for the youths? What skills does it teach? What can be achieved with photographic education, particularly to at-risk youth?

ZM: Any creative outlet is useful to children. I remember having a drawing journal when I was a teenager, and the amount of things I was able to work through by drawing.

Photography could be a good outlet for youths in the detention center as I feel that visually investigating their surroundings would allow them to build a sense of self-awareness, getting them to really consider where they are in life and where they would like to go.

Also, with the concept of control again, a number of the interactions that I have are usually based upon the youth feeling that they don’t have a say with what is going on in their lives and they are being told all of the things that they cannot do, the places that they cannot go, the people that they cannot hang out with. My hope is that by introducing them to photography this will provide them with a chance of self-expression – they can decide what they want to photograph and how they want to photograph it, getting some semblance of control back.

PP: What else are you up to?

ZM: I’ll continue Corrections until I reach a place where I feel that it is as complete as possible, but I am taking a break from it for the time being. I have an idea for a more intimate project, a case study of sorts, following the story of one individual on probation. I’m gearing up to start shooting for this project in the next few months, and have a youth interested in being a part of it, so I’m ironing out details.

PP: Is the camera a security device or an artistic tool?

ZM: Part of my statement for Corrections is how I, as a Tracker, am required to impose on these youths. This was problematic for me at times because by pointing my camera at them I was imposing upon them in an additional way, but it is important to understand the difference. The cameras that we use to surveil youths are all there in a reactionary capacity in order to provide some sort of control. With my camera, I too am recording, but my camera is there in a collaborative capacity – I feel that the youths have taken back a level of control as they have allowed me to portray them and document their experiences.

PP: Thanks Zora.

ZM: Thank you.




If the first post of an anthology is supposed to bear weight then I shall face this expectation head on – in fact I’ll insist upon it. San Quentin was the first American prison I visited. In the summer of 2004, I conducted research at the San Quentin Prison Museum (SQPM), analyzed the exhibits and evaluated its predominant narrative. I found, as with many small museums it suffered from the vagaries of volunteer staffing, poor marketing and unreliable access. Above all, however, the SQPM’s biggest failure was that it employed a historical narrative that ended abruptly in the early 70s and omitted contemporary issues of the California prison system. It was a particularly noticeable failure given the number of problematic issues faced by the CDCRovercrowding, under-staffing, inadequate health services, dilapidated buildings – and especially noticeable as the named problems were severe-to-acute at San Quentin prison.

The piecemeal SQPM collection was brought together by an appeal and a spirited drive that saw former prison employees alongside local enthusiasts donating artifacts they had acquired in times past. The museum’s narrative ends in approximately 1971 – a year in San Quentin’s history widely considered as its most traumatic. Racial tensions and new variations of Marxism, both inside and outside the walls, were growing and divining credence among disparate groups. It wasn’t so much that the prison, as an apparatus of state, was being called into question; more that the militant Black Panthers, with their cohesive social critique of modern America, led the questioning.

White America didn’t know where to position itself. This was revolution in its most-feared guise and, in so being, paralysed many Americans who were unable to objectively judge the Black Panthers’ arguments.

On the 21st August, an infamous day at San Quentin, George Jackson took over his tier of the adjustment center and attempted an armed escape. The escape failed and he was one of six people who died. The only SQPM artifact to speak of this event was a rifle mounted as centerpiece in a wall-display of weaponry.

This same rifle was discharged by a former prison guard, from the hip, along a tier of cells during the insurrection. It was shot  indiscriminately as the guard ran the length of the tier. Of course, the museum label beneath the semi-automatic weapon doesn’t volunteer this information.

The interim president of the San Quentin Prison Museum Association in 2004 was Vernell Crittendon. In mid 2007, Darcy Padilla, a freelance San Francisco based photographer, went to photograph Vernell on his daily duties. The images were to accompany an article by Tad Friend entitled Dean of Death Row in the July issue of The New Yorker. The article does a remarkable job of describing Vernell’s astounding work history, heavy responsibilities, personal amiability and curious (but not fallacious) role-playing. Padilla’s pictures were to accompany Friend’s article, which was and is the most thorough examination of Vernell’s personality, motives and politic. It was a timely piece of journalism as retirement for “Mr San Quentin”  approached.

Vernell gave me access to the museum and invited me to tour the prison. He was the only staff member at San Quentin I had any meaningful interaction with, but he played out his multiple roles with aplomb. Vernell was a personal guide and shopkeeper at the museum, historian on the prison-yard, eye witness in the gas chamber, and state department mouthpiece throughout. The first 250 words of my M.A. thesis relied on Vernell as the segue into the issues at, and description of, both the museum and the prison;

Lieutenant Crittendon has thrived as the public relations officer of San Quentin Prison. He is poised, gregarious, proud of office and a great raconteur. His enthusiasm for facts, years and tales of San Quentin blur the man and employee – if a distinction was necessary – and he confesses a long-standing predilection for history.

Vernell is familiar and distant simultaneously. He can always dictate the terms of an exchange but in so doing somehow doesn’t insult his company. Tad Friend, for the New Yorker, expertly summarized how Vernell navigates discussion and parries unwelcome inquiries;

Vernell excels at dispensing just enough information to satisfy reporters, and his sonorous locutions and forbearing gravity discourage further inquiry.

I found myself comforted (never duped) by Vernell’s version of events even when I didn’t believe his words 100%. I always felt that Vernell had said much more by what he excluded and it was my privilege to have witnessed his reticence.

Tad Friend’s economical ten page summary of Lt. Crittendon’s career is, in my opinion, the best reflection of a complex man with shrouded emotions and conflicting duties you are likely to find. What then of Padilla’s task to illustrate the man and the article? She does a fine job. From the evidence of the images on her website (only one of which was used for the article) she had only one window of opportunity on one day to capture her shots. I suspect she shadowed Vernell’s work for a little over an hour for the assignment. Already the odds were stacked against Padilla. We cannot know how well she and Vernell were acquainted beforehand, but prior acquaintance doesn’t necessarily mean an easier time capturing the most faithfully depicting portrait. It is fair to say, however, if Padilla had worked within the walls at San Quentin prison before (which is likely) she certainly knew Vernell. Furthermore, in the interests of another’s professional duties, Vernell was always accommodating.

Judging from the few clues in her principled, varied and continuing series AIDS in Prison, the image below could be from San Quentin. These background hills, however, could as easily be Vacaville or Tracy’s surrounding topography.

Back to San Quentin. Padilla’s San Quentin series captures the solitude of the yard; Vernell is alone in many images. During the days at many prisons the yards are empty. If they are not empty they are more likely being used as necessary routes for groups of traversing prisoners rather than ‘free’ time. When the prisoners are at recreation in the yard (a privilege that differs facility to facility), the staff is at distance unless addressing particular inmate inquiries or directing a group of inmates to their next secure location. Any visitors in the yard at this time (which I have been in San Quentin) are usually following closely the instructions of the guards. Regardless of reasons for being in San Quentin, the slowness of movement from one area to another is characteristic of all people’s experiences. Keys, locks, keys, calls, response, keys, locks, keys.

It is likely Vernell had to hunt out some activity involving inmates to vary the picture content. There is a chronic lack of rehabilitative and counseling programs throughout the stretched CDCR, but in reality, if there is one prison that is trying to counter this trend, it is San Quentin by means of its atypically large pool of Bay Area volunteers, the committed efforts of the Prison University Project (San Quentin is the only state prison that offers a college degree program) and not least the efforts of Vernell himself, “Crittendon helped oversee inmate self-help programs like No More Tears and the Vietnam Veterans Group, and was an adviser to many others. Every other Friday, as the centerpiece of a program called Real Choices, which tries to set wayward urban kids on responsible paths, [Vernell] would escort a group of ten-to-eighteen-year-olds into the prison to meet lifers, who tried to talk some sense into them.”

When Vernell is not photographed alone on the yard (look at the reflection of only him and Padilla in the fish eye mirror) he is taking a back stage to the activities of others. Vernell would not want to interfere in these rare interactions between prisoners and visitors from the outside. Vernell’s approach was typical of a San Quentin staff member; constant observation, constant vigilance and a silent restraint. I rationalized that this was simply a sensible approach – minimize ones own noise and be best positioned to pick up on the small signals/noises around. Words and gesture is used with strict efficiency at San Quentin.

Vernell’s open hand gestures, lumbering gait, deliberate pauses and dramatic referrals to the contents of his satchel are all part of an ensemble he has developed to impose the pace of an interaction and, I believe, to reassure the inmate. He promoted from the ranks of prison guard a long time ago, and so had the benefit of a different type of relationship with the prisoners. He was no longer the enforcer – in truth, he was often the only chance a prisoner had to negotiate a desired variation from system norms. Vernell never did favours per se but he could always see any request, however small, on its own merits. Now he is retired. His formal San Quentin spokesman duties went to his successor Eric Messick. Vernell self-adopted responsibilities were diluted by other staff and may have disappeared altogether. Padilla’s photographs do well to reflect a man carrying out his most unextraordinary job tasks. I think Vernell may be happy that the world has a few images of him to counter those charged press images of him outside the East-gate on the night of an execution.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories