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Prisoner at the County Farm, making cane syrup, 1966.

The Center for Documentary Studies described Paul Kwilecki (1928-2009) as “perhaps the most important late-twentieth-century photographer you’ve heard little to nothing about.” His work is completely new to me. Thanks to Mark Peter Drolet for the tip.

What I so fascinating about Kwilecki’s photographs is that they focus on the work details to which prisoners were assigned, ranging from 1966 to 1998. I don’t want to get into a debate here about the degree to which the work Kwilecki photographed was rehabilitative – it would be pure speculation. Instead, I’d ask you to muse on the changing nature of the work – cane syrup production; irrigation ditch digging; courthouse janitorial work; brush-clearing; hog butchering; and construction and renovation work, again in the courthouse.

Before the era of mass incarceration it was common for prisons to have their own pasture, cattle, milk parlours, arable land, and year-round crops. The organic foods produced by prisoners were sometimes sold outside the prison, but also almost always consumed by the prisoners themselves. Why is this no longer the case?

In the eighties, when inmate populations soared and with them prison budgets, cost cutting took its grip. Farms and work details only remained if they drew immediate profits (or, were at the very least, not money-losers). The staff costs to supervise self-sustaining food production were not deemed worthwhile. I’m sure arguments about security factored in somewhere too.

Added to this was a philosophy that rehabilitation was a flawed prospect and the only thing to do with prisoners was to “incapacitate them”,  This is why, today, prisons don’t have their own cattle, but they do press license plates.

In short, as the U.S. prison population rocketed to 2.3 million, contracting of services became big business. Prisoners ended up with overcrowded cellblocks, less time in programs, more time in lockdown, sub-standards foods and jobs that supported the production of State essentials such as uniforms, furniture and ironically industrially-manufactured foodstuffs. Prisoners have made products for IBM, Starbucks, Walmart, Microsoft and Dell.

Aside of this brief history of prison labour – and returning to Kwilecki’s photography – what is also refreshing to see is the relaxed and purposeful interactions between prisoners and guards. People might be shocked to see images of prisoners using butchering knives, but on a daily basis, U.S. prisoners are using tools for sophisticated fabrication work. Unfortunately, we often only hear about the use of tools when they are shanks.

One final note. This is the only collection of images I have encountered of prisoners butchering hogs. Unique.

The Center For Documentary Studies at Duke has a 634 image archive of Kwilecki’s work and his life’s papers and contact sheets too. Enjoy discovering Kwilecki’s work as I have. 


Sheriff Shorty (E.W.) Phillips in front of one of the women’s cells, [circa 1972].


Prisoners and guard working on dam, 1979.


Prisoner cleaning court room, 1979 Sept.


Prisoner with a bush hook cleaning Darsay family cemetery in the southern part of the county, 1983 June.


Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.


Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.


Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.


Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.


Butchering hogs, County Farm (prison), 1983 Mar.


Prisoner at the county farm butchering hogs (prison), 1983 Mar.


Prisoner at the county farm (prison) butchering hogs, 1983 Mar.


Prisoner doing construction work, 1998 Apr.


Prisoners on break from construction work, 1998 Apr.


Guards, 1998 Apr.


Prisoner, 1998 July.


Thanksgiving dinner on courthouse grounds, 1998 Dec.


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