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In a room shared by seven prisoners, the folded futon and bedding for three of them sits neatly beside black cases in which they can store their personal belongings during the day in Onomichi prison, Japan. Monday, May 19th, 2008.

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The over 60s are the fastest-growing group of criminals in Japan, which incarcerates its pensioners at a rate far higher than any other country in the industrialised world.

In my last post, I featured Tim Gruber’s photographs of aging prisoners in the U.S. As chance would have it, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert contacted me about his 4 hour assignment in a Onomichi prison in Japan, designed specifically for the detention of the elderly. Sutton-Hibbert’s photographs are a good point of comparison with Gruber’s photographs of elderly U.S. prisoners.

Sutton-Hibbert’s photographs from Onomichi prison accompanied a thorough investigation of aging Japanese prisoners by Justin McCurry:

The number of Japanese aged 70 and over charged with crimes trebled between 2000 and 2006, from 9,478 to 28,892, according to the national police agency. In Japan, while the number of charges against juveniles increased by 2% from 2000-04, there was a 125% increase among over-70s.

The number of Japanese aged 60 and over grew by 17% between 2000 and 2006, the number of prisoners in the same age bracket soared by 87%.

Most are inside for crimes, that seemingly result from poverty. Again, McCurry:

Of the 46,637 people over 60 convicted in 2006, just over half were found guilty of shoplifting, followed by 23% who had committed petty theft.

Criminologists blame record levels of poverty among pensioners, the breakdown of the extended family, and a lack of professional help for those with depression and other mental illnesses. […] The best chance many [elderly former-prisoners] have of security, decent healthcare and three meals a day is another stint behind bars. […] According to a recent justice ministry study, almost two-thirds of Onomichi’s older inmates will walk back through its doors within five years of their release.

That’s a recidivism rate as bad as that in the U.S. the world’s most renowned broken prison system. We must bear in mind that the U.S. prison system, by population, is roughly 28 times the size of the Japanese (and UK) prison systems. McCurry:

At 80,000, the prison population of Japan is approximate to that of the UK. However, 12% of Japanese prisoners are at least 60, whereas 2.8% of prisoners in the UK are 60 and over.

Regardless of geography, aging prison populations bring about the same challenges, health problems and associated expense. In Japan, about 1,000 prisoners have difficulty walking, feeding themselves or doing prison work. That is surely a figure dwarfed in the states, which has 124,900 prisoners aged 55 or older.


Prisons are designed for punishment. The punishment is the deprivation of liberty. Prisons are also designed for a minority of prisoners to ensure public safety and remove violent people off the streets. When it comes to aged people, the first legal constant must remain, but in the case of the second – and when a prisoner is clearly old and infirm – is a prison always the right place for society to mete out it’s judgement? In the case of the UK, Edmund Clark’s photographs and Erwin James’ commentary might help us come to some conclusions.

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Ramps for elderly inmates to walk up, leading to the bathroom, instead of using stairs, in Onomichi prison , Japan. May 19th 2008.

Elderly prisoners (in white) preparing lunches for their fellow inmates, presided over by a prison guard, in Onomichi prison, Japan. Monday, May 19th, 2008.

Many of the elderly prisoners suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes, with 70-80% of them receiving medication.

Following a roll call of names, elderly prisoners (and one pushing a stroller chair for stability) make their way to a room for their lunch,  in Onomichi prison, Japan.

Elderly prisoners playing Japanese board game ‘shogi’,  during recreational time in an indoor recreational room, whilst two fellow inmates use the exercise bikes, in Onomichi prison, Japan.  Monday, May 19th 2008.

Elderly prisoner exercising on a rowing machine in an indoor recreational room, watched over by guards, in Onomichi prison, Japan.  Monday, May 19th 2008.

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All images: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert

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Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert‘s work has appeared in magazines such as Time, National Geographic, Italian Geo, Le Figaro, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, and many others. For the past decade, Sutton-Hibbert has been one of the principle photographers for Greenpeace International. His work has taken him to over 40 countries, as far flung as Antarctica and Outer Mongolia. Sutton-Hibbert’s photography has been widely published and exhibited in Europe and USA. For 9 years, Sutton-Hibbert was based in Tokyo, Japan and recently returned to his native Scotland to live and work.


From the New York Times:

The Japanese government opened up its execution chambers to the public for the first time on Friday, taking journalists on a tour of Tokyo’s main gallows. The insides were stark: a trapdoor, a Buddha statue and a ring for the noose.


“Apart from Japan and the United States, the other countries in the world that carry out capital punishment are those accused of other grave human rights violations,” said Kanae Doi, a lawyer who heads Human Rights Watch Japan. “Japan should be ashamed to be on that list.”

The US should be ashamed too.




Friend of Prison Photography, Emiliano Granado, likes football as much as he rocks at photography.

We pooled our knowledge to pair each country competing in South Africa with a photographer of the same nationality.


FRA France  – JR
MEX Mexico – Livia Corona
RSA South Africa – Mikhael Subotzky
URU Uruguay – Martín Batallés


ARG Argentina – Marcos Lopez
GRE Greece – George Georgiou (Born in London to Greek Cypriot parent)
KOR South Korea – Ye Rin Mok
NGA Nigeria – George Osodi


ALG Algeria – Christian Poveda
ENG England – Stephen Gill
SVN Slovenia – Klavdij Sluban (French of Slovenian origin … I know, I know, but you try to find a Slovenia born photographer!)
USA United States – Bruce Davison


AUS Australia – Stephen Dupont
GER Germany – August Sander
GHA Ghana – Philip Kwame Apagya
SRB Serbia – Boogie


CMR Cameroon – Barthélémy Toguo
DEN Denmark – Henrik Knudsen
JPN Japan – Araki
NED Netherlands – Rineke Dijkstra


ITA Italy – Massimo Vitali
NZL New Zealand – Robin Morrison
PAR Paraguay – ?????
SVK Slovakia – Martin Kollar


BRA Brazil – Sebastiao Selgado
CIV Ivory Coast – Ananias Leki Dago
PRK North Korea – Tomas van Houtryve (it was difficult to find a North Korean photographer)
POR Portugal – Joao Pina


CHI Chile – Sergio Larrain
HON Honduras – Daniel Handal
ESP Spain – Alberto García Alix
SUI Switzerland – Jules Spinatsch

Emiliano has been posting images from each of the photographers and doubled up on a few nations where the talent pool is teeming. You can see them all over on his Tumblr account, A PILE OF GEMS


* Don’t even begin arguing about who should represent the USA. It is a never-ending debate.

* I’ll be honest, finding photographers for the African nations was tricky, even for a web-search-dork like myself. But then we knew about the shortcomings of distribution and promotion within the industry, didn’t we?

* For Chile, we had to look to the past legend Larrain. I’ll be grateful if someone suggest a living practitioner.

* North Korean photographer, by name, anyone? We had to fall back on van Houtryve because he got inside the DPR.

* Rineke Dijkstra was one of approximately 4 thousand-trillion dutch photographers who are everywhere.

* Araki was the easy choice. Ill admit – I know next to nothing about Japanese photography (Marc, help?)

* I wanted a few more political photographers in there, while Emiliano goes for arty stuff. I think we found a nice balance overall.

* And, SERIOUSLY, name me a Paraguayan photographer! PLEASE.





Jolted by photographs from this ludicrous Alcatraz Hotel in Kaiserslauten, Germany I recalled an article about prisons & jails converted to tourist accommodations. I guess it makes sense to convert solid and culture-worn stone fortresses into chic hotels such as at the Charles Street Jail/Liberty Hotel, Boston (it seems a shame to waste all that cool masonry) but a prison-theme is downright tacky.

I like the no-nonsense approach of Mount Gambier Jail in Australia which “markets its rooms as budget accommodations for cheapskates and backpackers”. Oxford Castle/Malmaison Hotel in the UK retained the open cell tiers of the prison, just adding some mood uplights for the new plastered ceiling.


Here’s an article on “Slumber Slammers” which points to the larger tawdry scene of architecture-as-theatre for those wantaway tourists whose appetite for the early 21st century now fails them.

Not to be outshone, the Japanese go the farthest in recreating the prison-spectacle with handcuffs, dungeon-krunk, lethally injected cocktails and salads that refer to incest?! Don’t quite understand the link for that last one …

I’d like to begin a discussion here about recuperation, but that is presuming there was ever an element of resistance or meaningful political opposition from these various sites. All we can say for certain is the current histories of these spaces are gradually erasing those of the past.

Stones. Mark Kirchner

Stones. Mark Kirchner

Mark Kirchner has been returning to Manzanar for over 25 years. Kirchner’s project is Manzanar Pilgrimage which focuses on the annual memorial gathering and documents former internees and their families’ stories. Mark explains in his artist statement:

This project is a work in progress. As a photographer, I felt the need to create a visual record as the Japanese American community struggled to preserve the site, its history and legacy. My primary role is that of a witness. The process of witnessing the pilgrimages over many years has given me the time to attempt a holistic photographic document. Within this body of work I hope to make visible those brief moments when the human spirit is revealed. I have discovered that some of the people I have photographed do not see themselves or their actions as historically significant and rarely worth photographing. I hope some of their modesty has been instilled in me.

Watanabe. Sentry Post Building, 1984. Mark Kirchner

Inscription: Watanabe. Sentry Post Building, 1984. Mark Kirchner

March 30th 194(2) and Kanji, 2006. Mark Kirchner

Inscription: March 30th 194(2) and Kanji. 2006. Mark Kirchner

It is somewhat fortuitous that Mark asked me not to include images of people and that I didn’t wish to include any pictures of people. Manzanar is a peculiar site and certainly not of a human scale. As the Eastern Sierras drop off sharply, the plateau of high desert to the east is a stark landscape. Beautiful, awesome, sublime – yes; livable – barely by today’s standards.

Some could argue that Manzanar should be allowed to recede into the dust and weeds of the California/Nevada borderlands – that humans should never have been interred and nor should human’s need to return. But we are funny creatures and I, for one, appreciate the impression of meaning upon a site once the site has run through its cycle of original use. The dialogue about former sites of incarceration is where one finds responsibility, complexity and community.

Tets Ishikawa, 45, 55, 66, 83. Sentry Post Building, 1984 and 2007. Mark Kirchner

Inscription: Remember. Sentry Post Building, 2007. Mark Kirchner

Kubota 4-1-42 1984. Mark Kirchner

Inscription: Kubota 4-1-42. 1984. Mark Kirchner

Manzanar is a flat site with no place to hide. Everything that is visible is rooted to the ground, and all that is invisible is in the memories and oral histories of the people Mark Kirchner cares so much about. If Kirchner’s concern is preserving the stories of people interred, my concern is his images that reflect that aim. I chose these images because they speak of definites; definite people, dates and action (scribing). They are evidence of existence and time. These images are also all surface which to me summarises the barren desert site.

There is a poetic beauty that one speculates the original scrawler was aware or unaware of – that being, the paradox that the necessary human constructions at Manzanar are those to hold the visible, physical evidence. The concrete is as incongruous to the site at Manzanar as mass human occupation was between 1942 and 1945.

Remember, Sentry Post Building, 2007. Mark Kirchner

Inscription: Tets Ishikawa, 45, 55, 66, 83. Sentry Post Building, 1984 and 2007. Mark Kirchner

Itch 3-30-43. 1983. Mark Kirchner

Inscription: Itch 3-30-43. 1983. Mark Kirchner

Kirchner explains further:

Since the annual pilgrimage lasts only a few hours, I knew it would take many years to make the images for the foundation of this work. As the event grew from the intimate Manzanar Pilgrimage and Potluck of the early 1980s to the pilgrimages we experience today, the task of identifying and gathering contact information has grown. After the 2007 pilgrimage I decided to try to contact the people in my photographs. Most of my free time last year was spent in research and correspondence. I have attempted to identify and contact every person photographed on this site. I still have not been 100 percent successful with this effort. I am hopeful that any person that remains unidentified will in time contact me.

If this post can help Mark Kirchner in his noble endeavour I would be thrilled. Tell your neighbours about it!


Mark Kirchner is an expert bookbinder and salmon flies crafter. Here is his Silver Studios website. Read Kirchner’s biography. Found via photoexchange.

Thanks to Mark Kirchner for his permission to reproduce images and the helpful background information on the project.


Comment from Mark Kirchner: I like that you picked up on the nature of the artifacts and their relationship to the earth. At one time there were 800 buildings on the site. Now there are 4 buildings.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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