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The Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville held the first open house for family and friends of inmates on Christmas Eve, 1977. The warden, Donald Bordenkircher and staff worked with the inmates to improve morale and make repairs to the facility. The event was successful and it was continued through 1984. © Jay Mather
2016 has been a very different year. I staved off some early-to-mid-career wobbles by taking a long walk and then stepped back into society just in time for the United States to descend into its own special horror show.
I was in Phoenix the night the satsuma-catastrophe won the electoral college vote. The clerk at the gas station voted for Trump. She told me her brother had served in the US military for 13 years, serving four tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. She had heard that Russia would initiate WW3 if Clinton was elected president. She believed Trump had good relations with Putin and so she voted for him so her brother wouldn’t be killed. The premise, the abandonment of logic, the separation I felt from her, her certainty, my certainty … they were all just really depressing. We were so far outside of reality nothing seemed solid or reliable, not a nod, not a discussion. Not there, not then, as the Michigan returns came in.
I don’t know what to say about 2016. Half of the US + 2.8 million know it was a catastrophe. The remainder are gonna figure out the catastrophe over the next four years.
The day after the election I said:
“History’s greatest leaders tend not to be elected politicians; they are most often people working in communities for the protection of their rights, the advancement of compassion, the resistance to gross concentrations of power and toward common sense. Trump is an ass-hat. We’ll see how bearable or utterly toxic things become in the next few months. All the while remember your own agency and don’t underestimate your own power.”
That still holds.
I’ll continue doing what I do, which is to write about the images and contexts which speak to the great injustices and abuses that occur daily in America’s prison industrial complex. I wish you calm, breathing, nourishing food this holiday season. I wish you strength, creativity and community in 2017 to take on, and thrive in, this confounding, challenging, bizarre world.
I’m spending the first half of 2017 in England. I’ll be back in the US to join the show in June. Love to you, be good, be smiling. Champion others and volunteer your time and resources so that you may be closer to your neighbours.
A note on the image: I was pleased to discover Jay Mather‘s series Christmas In Prison which documents a family day at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville on Christmas Eve, 1977. It depicts a moment when prison administrations were willing to make efforts to accommodate the emotional needs of prisoners. It’s strangely old-school; the dinner is held in the massive stone cellblock. Family events these days are in visiting rooms or other communal spaces. Mather’s pictures seem so unlikely when set against modern day’s sterile, cinder block rooms that function to control visitors and prisoners. See Mather’s full 62-image series here.
It always a delight when you find gorgeous photographs. It’s a double delight when the photographer can write with genuine and compelling words. Sarah Hoskins – whose Girl’s School work I featured on Prison Photography in September – was recently featured on Roger May’s excellent Walk Your Camera website.
In presenting her series. The Homeplace, Hoskins recounts a car crash she and her daughter suffered this summer and the response of her subjects and new friends.
In the fall of 2000 I stood in the middle of Frogtown Lane map in hand, I didn’t know a soul. On June 11, 2012 I lay strapped down in an emergency room in Somerset, Kentucky a hundred miles away from that lane.
I had left the African American hamlets of the Inner Bluegrass Region that morning, where I had been photographing for the past week as well as the past twelve years. […] The residents of the hamlets arrived like the cavalry in Somerset within hours of the car accident, dropping everything to rescue my daughter and myself as well as all of our belongings including my cameras and film from the wreckage that was our car.
[…] I am being wheeled through the in the emergency room of UK hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. I am brought into yet another emergency room. I can still only look up. I see the eyes that are Derek’s, the same eyes his daddy had. He strokes my hair that is matted and covered in dried blood. His warm coal colored hand holds my cold pasty white one. The nurse says, “Only relatives are allowed in here. How are you two related?” I hear the smile in Derek’s voice, “It’s a long story.”
Heartfelt stuff. Read more.
As soon as I saw Ashley Stinson‘s photographs, it was a priority for me to publish them. How many prison environments or programs can we confidently describe as wholesome?
On the evidence, of Stinson’s images from Women’s Western Kentucky Correctional Facility in Fredonia, Kentucky, the female prisoners are given ample space and activity to forge their own purpose. Are these images sugar coating their experiences or faithfully depicting transformative hard-graft?
To close in on the truth, I asked Stinson a few questions. Scroll down for our Q&A.
What attracted you to the subject?
I wanted to start a project on female farmers around the Louisville, KY area because I continued to run into women who were pursuing it as profession and I thought it would be an interesting subject considering that it is historically a male dominated field.
A friend’s mother was a nurse at the prison while it was still an all male prison and she suggested that I look into the prison’s agriculture. So, what was initially a project about the surge in female farmers quickly turned into a project about this large-scale prison farming program.
Tell me about this seemingly unique program.
It currently has one of the largest farms in the nation run by female prisoners. It’s a fairly new program for the women; the prison was an all-male prison until a few years ago. The state is really proud of the work the women have done – they tend the crops, maintain the farm machinery, and take care of a large number of beef cattle. It’s a really positive program and I am reminded of that every time I travel to Fredonia to photograph.
What are these ladies locked up for?
Western Kentucky Correctional Facility is a minimum and medium security facility and to participate in the farming program the women have to be in the minimum security portion which naturally means that they have been convicted of lesser crimes. Mostly substance abuse or robbery with a few cases of manslaughter.
In your photographs, they seem like they’re enjoying themselves. Is this the case?
Absolutely! They certainly work hard but it is a fun atmosphere and I have never encountered a tense moment with these women. They are happy, healthy, and truly working on bettering themselves and I am trying to convey that through my photographs.
They have formed really solid friendships because farming can be incredibly dangerous and a lot of what they do requires looking out for one another and trusting co-workers. I believe that the biggest benefit of this program has been the relationships these women have formed. Not just with each other but also with animals that they have cared for, the crops that they tend and the employer/employee relationship they have with the farm management team.
I do not know the women’s backgrounds but I get the impression that these are whole new situations for them. They are held completely accountable for their daily tasks, and they can literally see the positive results of the hard work they are doing. The program taps into their ability to nurture and care for others which is such a positive experience. Also, it’s hard not to have fun when you are bottle-feeding a newborn calf or driving a huge tractor.
Beyond daily purpose and building self-esteem (which I take as a given in programs such as these) are these ladies hopefully they are acquiring skills that will sustain them in the job market when they’re released?
They are certainly acquiring a number of skills that could be applied to other jobs once their time has been served – car maintenance, welding, gardening, composting, etc. The farm managers are extremely experienced farmers, not police officers or trained guards, and I believe that creates a work dynamic that is much closer to what the women will find outside of prison if they decide to pursue a career in agriculture. Some of these women may continue farming in the future but they will ALL leave with a positive work experience and a sense of accomplishment which will serve them well when the re-enter the job market.
Who owns the farm? Who owns the products of the farm? Who eats the crops?
The state owns the farm. I am assuming the state or the prison “owns” the products of the farm. Most of the corn is used to feed the beef cattle and other crops are either used for food at this prison or the male prison in Eddyville. Extra veggies and fruit have been donated to the local food-bank and local churches.
Do the crops go into the prison system or onto the open market?
They have discussed selling surplus produce to the community in the future. A portion of the cattle stay on the farm to reproduce and the majority are sold at auction, with the money going back into the prison.
Is this project complete?
It is ongoing. I have clearance at the prison until August and then my next step will be to visit these women once they are paroled to take photos of them after incarceration so I may have some more photographs in the future.
View the work here.
Larry Chandler, Warden of Kentucky State Reformatory, La Grange, KY
This year, more than 700,000 people will be released from prisons and jails in the U.S. and more than half of them suffer from some form of mental illness. (Source)
A few months ago I wrote to Jenn Ackerman, praised her Trapped project and of course offered to promote it. I wanted to get at her stories behind the images – namely do an interview. Jenn, however, is as good a promoter as she is a photographer.
The list of questions I wrote out while eating my chili-verde burrito on Wednesday are made largely redundant by her blog post “Trapped: Questions Answered”. Her photography and multimedia is so strong that it also speaks for itself. There is a painful truth in her work; more questions than answers.
I have plenty material to give you a thorough summary of Jenn’s work.
Firstly, allow me to give a run down of the current situation of mental health care provision in America’s prisons and jails.
A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that the number of Americans with mental illnesses incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails is disproportionately high. Almost 555,000 people with mental illness are incarcerated while fewer than 55,000 are being treated in designated mental health hospitals. That is inadequate provision.
555,000 represents, at the very least, 16% of inmate populations of state and local jails. I would contend the figure is higher – well above 20% – but this is only my personal belief.
If these numbers are not shocking enough, one must consider the pressures the prison system – in and of itself – exerts on the mental health well-being of those incarcerated by consequence of the increased reliance on solitary confinement to control populations, unqualified staff (especially in private prisons), overcrowding, institutional violence, lack of volunteer programming and engagement (in remote facilities) and the inadequate/unconstitutional general health care provided in states such as Ohio and California. California Department of Corrections has been the subject of a high profile federal lawsuit for the short comings to provide suitable care. (Incidentally, the $1.9b figure quoted in the linked article used to be $6b, until Schwarzenegger rejected it … and there is a serious threat it will be nothing if California cannot sort out its budget disaster).
In prison systems with such endemic problems, it is those who have no way to advocate for themselves who suffer most. Jails have effectively become America’s defacto mental institutions; they house a larger volume of mentally ill people than all other programs combined.
Against this backdrop, Ackerman went to work.
Prison Photography is keen to unveil the means by which photographers, anyone, can gain access to prisons to engage with the “invisibles” of society. In that spirit I quote Jenn;
How did you get access to this story?
I had done a lot of research and had decided on the story I wanted to tell when going to talk to the warden. I always feel that a an in-person visit is more beneficial. — I can better express my passion and excitement for this story. I had called a couple of prisons days before I called the Kentucky State Reformatory and to no surprise they didn’t respond to my messages. But then I came across a wing that was dedicated to mental illness in a prison. Warden Chandler answered on the second ring. This caught me off guard but got it together enough to tell him what I wanted to do. He said I had a lot of work to do before I could start on the project but that he might be interested. I sent a proposal days later and asked to come visit the reformatory to talk to him in person.
How did the warden and officials respond to the project?
I didn’t know how they would respond at first. But I also knew that the warden and everyone involved wanted this story to be told. I was very honest with everyone from the beginning. I told them that I knew that they were doing something to acknowledge mental illness in prisons which hasn’t happened in every state but that I also knew that the program was not perfect. I told them that was going to be my approach. So from the beginning they knew that I was not going to make them look bad but also wasn’t trying to say that they have the final answer to this issue. But I visited the warden the day before I published it on my site to get his reaction. He loved it and thanked me for creating an honest portrayal of the mental illness in prisons. I told him that was the best compliment I could ever get.
There can be no doubt that Jenn was lucky to find Warden Chandler who was so sympathetic to her objective and realised the importance of the project.
Jenn has explained that she spent a total of 10 weeks on the project, including 10 days of still and video shooting. Her time commitment is reflected in the comprehensive coverage. Trapped is a dark bubbling cloud of stories and troubling images that are weft with human emotion, the occasional reprieve but predominantly the collision of lives – lives that orbit tormented psyches that a punitive world of reinforced doors & service hatches cannot soothe.
Jenn’s commitment is epic. Besides the Trapped feature film, Jenn breaks the project into a series of presentations. Firstly, the In Their Corner short about the inmate watch. Secondly, In Their Minds a series of seven film shorts allowing individual inmates camera time to represent themselves. Trapped is segmented into six photography galleries; each one a captivating photo-essay in its own right. I cannot over-emphasise the sensitive depth with which Jenn has documented the incidents on the Correctional Psychiatric Treatment Unit (CPTU) at the Kentucky State Reformatory. Jenn also provides an extended essay about her own response to the CPTU environment.
Jenn interviews for 25 minutes at Multimedia shooter. The audio is wobbly and distorted but the information is valuable. Check out from 21 mins. onward to learn of the administration’s response.
Trapped: Mental Illness Inside America’s Prisons has deservedly received acclaim from burn magazine, 100 Eyes, Verve Photo, the White House News Photographers Association (honorable mention), Inge Morath Foundation and CPoY. Jenn recently won an internship at the New York Times.
Jenn credits her students for much of her inspiration. Check out Jenn’s class website for more details.
Stephen Tourlentes photographs prisons only at night for it is then they change the horizon. Social division and ignorance contributed to America’s rapid prison growth. Tourlentes’ lurking architectures are embodiments of our shared fears. In the world Tourlentes proposes, light haunts; it is metaphor for our psycho-social fears and denial. Prisons are our bogeyman.
These prisons encroach upon our otherwise “safe” environments. Buzzing with the constant feedback of our carceral system, these photographs are the glower of a collective and captive menace. Hard to ignore, do we hide from the beacon-like reminders of our social failures, or can we use Tourlentes’ images as guiding light to better conscience?
Designed as closed systems, prisons illuminate the night and the world that built them purposefully outside of its boundaries. “It’s a bit like sonic feedback … maybe it’s the feedback of exile,” says Tourlentes.
Stephen Tourlentes has been photographing prisons since 1996. His many series – and portfolio as a whole – has received plaudits and secured funding from organisations including the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Artadia.
Stephen was kind enough to take the time to answer Prison Photography‘s questions submitted via email.
Pete Brook. You have traveled to many states? How many prisons have you photographed in total?
Stephen Tourlentes. I’ve photographed in 46 states. Quite the trip considering many of the places I photograph are located on dead-end roads. My best guess is I’ve photographed close to 100 prisons so far.
PB. How do you choose the prisons to photograph?
ST. Well I sort of visually stumbled onto photographing prisons when they built one in the town I grew up in Illinois. It took me awhile to recognize this as a path to explore. I noticed that the new prison visually changed the horizon at night. I began to notice them more and more when I traveled and my curiosity got the best of me.
There is lots of planning that goes into it but I rely on my instinct ultimately. The Internet has been extremely helpful. There are three main paths to follow 1. State departments of corrections 2. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and 3. Private prisons. Usually I look for the density of institutions from these sources and search for the cheapest plane ticket that would land me near them.
Structurally the newer prisons are very similar so it’s the landscape they inhabit that becomes important in differentiating them from each other. Photographing them at night has made illumination important. Usually medium and maximum-security prisons have the most perimeter lighting. An interesting sidebar to that is male institutions often tend to have more lighting than female institutions even if the security level is the same.
PB. Are there any notorious prisons that you want to photograph or avoid precisely because of their name?
ST. No I’m equally curious and surprised by each one I visit. There are certain ones that I would like to re-visit to try another angle or see during a different time of year. I usually go to each place with some sort of expectation that is completely wrong and requires me to really be able to shift gears on the fly.
PB. You have described the Prison as an “Important icon” and as a “General failure of our society”. Can you expand on those ideas?
ST. Well the sheer number of prisons built in this country over the last 25 years has put us in a league of our own regarding the number of people incarcerated. We have chosen to lock up people at the expense of providing services to children and schools that might have helped to prevent such a spike in prison population.
The failure is being a reactive rather than a proactive society. I feel that the prison system has become a social engineering plan that in part deals with our lack of interest in developing more humanistic support systems for society.
PB. It seems that America’s prison industrial complex is an elephant in the room. Do you agree with this point of view? Are the American public (and, dare I say it, taxpayers) in a state of denial?
ST. I don’t know if it’s denial or fear. It seems that it is easier to build a prison in most states than it is a new elementary school. Horrific crimes garner headlines and seem to monopolize attention away from other types of social services and infrastructure that might help to reduce the size of the criminal justice system. This appetite for punishment as justice often serves a political purpose rather than finding a preventative or rehabilitative response to societies ills.
PB. How do you think artistic ventures such as yours compare with political will and legal policy as means to bring the importance of an issue, such as prison expansion, into the public sphere?
ST. I think artists have always participated in bringing issues to the surface through their work. It’s a way of bearing witness to something that collectively is difficult to follow. Sometimes an artist’s interpretation touches a different nerve and if lucky the work reverberates longer than the typical news cycle.
PB. In your attempt with this work to “connect the outside world with these institutions”, what parameters define that attempt a success?
ST. I’m not sure it ever is… I guess that’s part of what drives me to respond to these places. These prisons are meant to be closed systems; so my visual intrigue comes when the landscape is illuminated back by a system (a prison) that was built by the world outside its boundaries. It’s a bit like sonic feedback… maybe it’s the feedback of exile.
ST. Yes I think they are related. I like his paintings quite a lot. The first time I saw them I imagined that we could have been out there at the same time and crossed paths.
PB. Many of your prints are have the moniker “Death House” in them, Explain this.
ST. I find it difficult to comprehend that in a modern civilized society that state sanctioned executions are still used by the criminal justice system. The Death House series became a subset of the overall project as I learned more about the American prison system. There are 38 states that have capital punishment laws on the books. Usually each of these 38 states has one prison where these sentences are carried out. I became interested in the idea that the law of the land differed depending on a set of geographical boundaries.
PB. Have you identified different reactions from different prison authorities, in different states, to your work?
ST. The guards tend not to appreciate when I am making the images unannounced. Sometimes I’m on prison property but often I’m on adjacent land that makes for interesting interactions with the people that live around these institutions. I’ve had my share of difficult moments and it makes sense why. The warden at Angola prison in Louisiana was by far the most hospitable which surprised me since I arrived unannounced.
PB. What percentage of prisons do you seek permission from before setting up your equipment?
ST. I usually only do it as a last resort. I’ve found that the administrative side of navigating the various prison and state officials was too time consuming and difficult. They like to have lots of information and exact schedules that usually don’t sync with the inherent difficulty of making an interesting photograph. I make my life harder by photographing in the middle of the night. The third shift tends to be a little less PR friendly.
PB. What would you expect the reaction to be to your work in the ‘prison-towns’ of Northern California, West Texan plains or Mississippi delta? Town’s that have come to rely on the prison for their local economy?
ST. You know it’s interesting because a community that is willing to support a prison is not looking for style points, they want jobs. Often I’m struck by how people accept this institution as neighbors.
I stumbled upon a private prison while traveling in Mississippi in 2007. I was in Tutweiler, MS and I asked a local if that was the Parchman prison on the horizon. He said no that it was the “Hawaiian” prison. All the inmates had been contracted out of the Hawaiian prison system into this private prison recently built in Mississippi. The town and region are very poor so the private prison is an economic lifeline for jobs.
The growth of the prison economy reflects the difficult economic policies in this country that have hit small rural communities particularly hard. These same economic conditions contribute to populating these prisons and creating the demand for new prisons. Unfortunately, many of these communities stake their economic survival on these places.
PB. You said earlier this year (Big, Red & Shiny) that you are nearly finished with Of Lengths and Measures. Is this an aesthetic/artistic or a practical decision?
ST. I’m not sure if I will really ever be done with it. From a practical side I would like to spend some time getting the entire body of work into a book form. I think by saying that it helps me to think that I am getting near the end. I do have other things I’m interested in, but the prison photographs feel like my best way to contribute to the conversation to change the way we do things.
Author’s note: Sincerest thanks to Stephen Tourlentes for his assistance and time with this article.
Stephen Tourlentes received his BFA from Knox College and an MFA (1988) from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, where he is currently a professor of photography. His work is included in the collection at Princeton University, and has been exhibited at the Revolution Gallery, Michigan; Cranbook Art Museum, Michigan; and S.F. Camerawork, among others. Tourlentes has received a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Polaroid Corporation Grant, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship.
This interview was designed in order to compliment the information already provided in another excellent online interview with Stephen Tourlentes by Jess T. Dugan at Big, Red & Shiny. (Highly recommended!)