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How can images tell the story of mass incarceration when the imprisoned don’t have control over their own representation? This is the question Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood asks as editor of the latest Aperture (Spring 2018).

Prison Nation” can be ordered online today and hits the news-stands next week. Devoted to prison imagery and discussion of mass incarceration, the issue presents a slew of works across contrasting genres — landmark documentary by Bruce JacksonJoseph Rodriguez and Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick; luscious and uncanny portraits by Jack Lueders-Booth, Deborah Luster and Jamel Shabazz; insider images from Nigel PoorLorenzo Steele, Jr. and Jesse Krimes; and contemporary works by Sable Elyse Smith, Emily Kinni, Zora Murff, Lucas Foglia and Stephen Tourlentes.

Equally exciting is the banger roster of thinkers contributing essays, intros and conversations — including Mabel O. Wilson, Shawn Michelle Smith, Christie Thompson, Jordan Kisner, Zachary Lazar, Rebecca Bengal, Brian WallisJessica Lynne, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ruby Tapia, Zarinah Shabazz, Brian Stevenson, Sarah LewisHank Willis Thomas and Virginia Grise.

I have an essay ‘Prison Index’ included which looks back on almost a decade of this Prison Photography website–how it began, what it has done and what it has become. I highlight a dozen-or-so photographers’ works that are not represented by features in the issue itself. I wonder how PP functions as an archive and what role it serves for public memory and knowledge.


I’ve known for years that Prison Photography requires a design overhaul. This past week, I’ve moved forward with plans for that. It goes without saying that the almost-daily blogging routine of 2008 with which Prison Photography began has morphed into a slower publishing schedule. There’s a plethora of great material on this website but a lot of it is buried in the blog-scroll format. My intention is to redesign PP as more of an “occasionally-updated archive” whereby the insightful interviews from years past are drawn up to the surface.

It’s time to make this *database* of research more legible and searchable. Clearly, as this Aperture issue demonstrates, the niche genre of prison photographs is vast and it demands a more user-friendly interface for this website. I’m proud to be included in “Prison Nation” but know it’s a timely prod to develop Prison Photography’s design and serve the still-crucial discussions.



Get your copy of Aperture, Issue 230 “Prison Nation” here.

Thanks to the staff at Aperture, especially Brendan Wattenberg and Michael Famighetti for ushering and editing the piece through.



A small, unbreakable tin wall mirror in a solitary cell. Reflection is of a slatted window. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.

The suicide of Kalief Browder was the latest, most tragic reminder of how much of a hell hole Rikers Island is. It was the combined effects of broken bail and juvenile prison systems that killed Kalief.

Take your pick of the coverage from The Guardian and the New York Times, to New York Magazine. What has been consistent in the coverage of Rikers as information about conditions and treatment is that visuals have been limited and it has relied on the progression of lawsuits and news FOIA requests. Whistleblowers have been few and far between and prisoners’ testimonies are notoriously difficult to verify.


An August 2013 fight in the George R. Vierno Center, caught on surveillance tape.

That makes the recent feature Rikers Island, Population 9,790, a joint effort between The Marshall Project and New York Magazine noteworthy. In the expansive effort involving more than half a dozen journalists, we hear from a couple who both went to Rikers in the same year (she was pregnant); a teacher on Rikers; a couple of recent prisoners; an officer, the commissioner of the department of corrections; a girlfriend of a slain prisoner; a former volunteer-librarian; various visitors; a mental health professional; and others.

The selection of imagery (as well as an overview map) is one of the most diverse visual presentations of Rikers that I have seen online. It includes Ashley Gilbertson‘s straight shots from common areas, wings and solitary cells, Ruth Fremson‘s work from the kitchen, surveillance video stills, photos of prisoners by Clara Vannucci and Julie Jacobson, Instagram images found under the hashtag #Rikers, environmental studies by Librado Romero, and archival photos by my friend and former correctional officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.

Bravo to the photo editors of The Marshall Project and New York Magazine.


The recreation center at the bing. Photo: Officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.


Contraband, including jail-made weapons and drugs. Photo: New York City Department of Correction via AP.


The view from Instagram, #Rikers: Clockwise from left: The bridge to Rikers; bathroom graffiti inside the vistors center; the new maximum-security wing; the entrace to a chapel; a correction officer at an adolescent unit; an exercise and recreation area. Photo: Kelsey Jorgenson/Edgar Sandoval/JB Nicholas/Bryan R. Smith/JR/Gee Force.


Prisoners at “Rosie’s” the women’s unit. Photo: Clara Vannucci.


Inside a solitary-confinement cell. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.



If you’re in New York this Thursday and can spare the time, please think about joining four photo practitioners and I for Everyday Incarceration – Visualizing the Legacy of Mass Incarceration, a panel discussion about images of prisons and the associated social issues. We’ll be tackling the core question: Who gets to tell the story of a locked up nation?


Zara Katz and the Department of Visual Journalism at the CUNY J-School have done a great job of putting together a panel with diverse perspectives and practices – one documentary storyteller using video; one photographer who’s eye on the issues stretches back decades; one lawyer using software code and images to engage audiences and empower prisoners; and one former correctional officer turned campaigner armed with his photos from the job. Check the bios below!


After the panel, we invite you to sit for a portrait and to tell us your experience with incarceration. The photos will appear on @EverydayIncarceration, a collaborative Instagram feed.


The panel takes place in Room 308 of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, at 219 W. 40th Street, NY 10018.

6:30-9:30pm on Thursday, May 14th.

The event is free but an RSVP is very appreciated. Do that at – or at the event page on the Facebook.



Lashonia Etheridge-Bay, a 39 year-old woman who was granted parole in 2011 after spending 18 years in prison. Bulisova’s series Time Zone follows Etheridge-Bay’s return to society. Photo: Gabriela Bulisova.

Gabriela Bulisova is a documentary photographer and multimedia artist based in Washington, D.C. Over the past five years, she focused her attention on underreported and overlooked stories regarding incarceration and reentry, especially the impact on families. Bulisova has received numerous recognitions and awards, including The National Press Photographers Association’s Short Grant and Open Society Institute’s Moving Walls 18. In 2005, she was awarded the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Digital Imaging from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in photojournalism at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design in Washington D.C. and is a member of Women Photojournalists of Washington.


Michael is 17 and has ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder. He is on Ritalin.  He is under house arrest and wears an electronic monitoring device. He was arrested for possession of a knife and violating probation.  He is living in a hotel room with the rest of his family, 7 people in total. San Jose, California 1999. Photo: Joseph Rodriguez.

Joseph Rodriguez was born and raised in Brooklyn. His four-decade photography career examines incarceration, gangs, police and reentry, as well as families, communities and cultures across the globe. After being incarcerated at Rikers Island as a minor in the late-60s, Rodriguez turned to photography as a guide in his life. In 1985 he graduated from the International Center of Photography in New York. He went on to work for Black Star photo agency, and has published work in multiple top-tier outlets including National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine. He has received numerous awards and grants including New York Foundation for the Arts, Open Society Institute, National Endowment for the Arts, to name a few. Rodriguez currently teaches at New York University and as a visiting artist at national and international universities.


Photo: Lorenzo Steele.

Lorenzo Steele Jr. is a former New York City Correction officer (1987-1999) who mostly worked in the juvenile units at Rikers Island. He was regularly the photographer at events and celebrations with his fellow officers. In 1996, Steele began bringing his camera to the prison to document his experience there. That included daily violence and abuse of inmates and correctional officers. The deep emotional and physiological impact of his experience at Rikers compelled Steele to start a visual arts education program where he shares his photographs and prison experience with middle school and high school students.


Image courtesy of Nikki Zeichner/Growing Up Through Pictures

Nikki Zeichner began exploring multimedia storytelling with the Museum of the American Prison, a project that she initiated in 2012 to offer mainstream audiences a way to understand personal and experiential details of incarceration in the U.S. Her interest in telling stories about incarceration grew out of her experiences working as a criminal defense attorney in New York City and regularly visiting with clients held in federal and state pretrial detention facilities in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Nikki recently completed a Master’s degree in Integrated Digital Media from NYU’s Engineering School and is spending 2015 in San Francisco designing civic tech tools for a small, post-bankrupt municipality in Northern California. She remains in regular contact with the incarcerated individuals she worked with creatively on museum projects.


“Tex Johnson, 60” by Ron Levine, courtesy of the artist.

Later this week, I’ll be attending the inaugural prison arts and activism conference, Marking Time.

Hosted by the Institute for Research on Women at Rutgers, and across multiple venues, the event brings together an incredibly committed and skilled cohort of practitioners throughout many disciplines — from dance to yoga, from occupational health to sculpture, and from film making to social work.

I’ll be moderating a panel discussion Imagery and Prisons: Engaging and Persuading Audiences, with Gregory SaleLorenzo Steele, Jr., and Mark Strandquist on Wednesday afternoon. In addition, a version of Prison Obscura will be on show at the Alfa Art Gallery in downtown New Brunswick.

To emphasise the breadth and depth of expertise I’ve copied out the schedule below. I have made bold and linked the names of artists, activists and academics’ names with whose work I am already familiar … and admire.

I pepper the post with artworks made by photographic artists attending Marking Time.

Marking Time runs 8th-10th Oct. Registration for the conferecne is free.

See you in New Brunswick this Wednesday?!?!


“Allen and Tanasha, 1998.” Family album. Courtesy of the Fleetwood family.


Session 1: 9: 30 – 10:45 am

PANEL: Creative Arts and Occupational Health (ZLD)
Susan Connor and Susanne Pitak Davis (Rutgers University Correctional Healthcare) “Finding Meaning Thru Art”
Karen Anne Melendez (Rutgers University Correctional Healthcare) “The Concert Performance with Adult Females in Correctional Health Care”
Moderator: Michael Rockland (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

WORKSHOP: Steps Taken: Footprints in the Cell (NBL)
Rachel Hoppenstein (Temple University)
Ann Marie Mantey (Temple University)

Session 2: 11:00 – 12:15 pm

PANEL: Law, News, and Art (ZLD)
Regina Austin (Penn Law School)
Ann Schwartzman (Pennsylvania Prison Society)
Tom Isler (Journalist/Filmaker)
Moderator: Tehama Lopez

WORKSHOP: Utilizing Dance as a Social Tool: Dance Making with Women in Prison (NBL)
Meredith-Lyn Avey (Avodah Dance)
Julie Gayer Kris (Avodah Dance)

LUNCH: 12:15 – 1:15 pm

Session 3: 1:15 – 2:30 pm

PANEL: Imagery and Prisons: Engaging and Persuading Audiences (ZLD)
Gregory Sale (Artist)
Lorenzo Steele, Jr. (Founder, Behind these Prison Walls)
Mark Strandquist (Artist)
Moderator: Pete Brook (Freelance Writer/Curator)

PRESENTATION: The Political and Educational Possibilities of Exhibitions (NBL)

David Adler (Independent Curator)
Sean Kelley (Eastern State Penitentiary)
Rickie Solinger (Independent Curator)

Session 4 2:45 – 4:00 pm

PANEL: About Time (ZLD)
Damon Locks (Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project)
Erica R. Meiners (Northeastern Illinois University/Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project)
Sarah Ross (School of the Art Institute of Chicago/ Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project)
Fereshteh Toosi (Columbia College Chicago)
Moderator: Donna Gustafson (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: Best Practices: Arts, Prisons and Community Engagement (NBL)
Robyn Buseman (City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program)
Shani Jamila (Artist, Cultural Worker, Human Rights Advocate)
Kyes Stevens (Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project)


4:00 – 5:00 pm Artist Talk: Jesse Krimes (ZLD)

5:00– 5:45 pm Welcome Reception (ZL)

7:30 – 9:00 pm Opening Keynote: Reginald Dwayne Betts (KC)
Welcome Remarks: IRW Director Nicole Fleetwood
Introduction of Keynote: Dean Shadd Maruna, School of Criminal Justice – Rutgers, Newark


“Exercise Cages, New Mexico” by Dana Greene, courtesy of the artist.


“That Renown New Mexico Light” by Dana Greene, courtesy of the artist.


Session 1: 9: 30 – 10:45 am

PANEL: Theater in Prisons (ZLD)

Wende Ballew (Reforming Arts Incorporated, Georgia) “Theatre of the Oppressed in Women’s Prisons: Highly Beneficial, Yet Hated”
Lisa Biggs (Michigan State University) “Demeter’s Daughters: Reconsidering the Role of the Performing Arts in Incarcerated Women’s Rehabilitation”
Karen Davis (Texas A&M) “Rituals that Rehabilitate: Learning Community from Shakespeare Behind Bars”
Bruce Levitt and Nicholas Fesette (Cornell University) “Where the Walls Contain Everything: The Birth and Growth of a Prison Theatre Group”
Moderator: Elin Diamond (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: Prison Architecture, Space and Place (NBL)

Svetlana Djuric (Activist) and Nevena Dutina (Independent Scholar) “Living Prison”
Maria Gaspar (Artist) “The 96 Acres Project”
Vanessa Massaro, (Bucknell) “It’s a revolving door”: Rethinking the Borders of Carceral Spaces”
Moderator: Matthew B. Ferguson (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

Session 2 11:00 – 12:15 pm

PRESENTATION: Sustaining Engagement through Art: The US and Mexico (ZLD)

Phyllis Kornfeld (Independent Art Teacher, Author, Activist, Curator) “Thirty Years Teaching Art in Prison: Into the Unknown and Why We Need to Go There”
Marisa Belausteguigoitia (UNAM) “Mural Painting in Mexican Carceral Institutions”

WORKSHOP: The Arts: Essential Tools for Working with Women and Families impacted by Incarceration (NBL)

Kathy Borteck-Gersten (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)
Judy Dworin (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)
Joseph Lea (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)
Kathy Wyatt (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)

LUNCH: 12:15 pm – 1:15 pm

Session 3 1:15 – 2:30 pm

PRESENTATION: Visualizing Bodies/Space: A Performative Picture of Justice System-Involved Girls & Women in Miami, FL (ZLD)
Nereida Garcia Ferraz (Artist/Women on the Rise!)
Jillian Hernandez (University of California-San Diego/Women on the Rise!)
Anya Wallace (Penn State University/Women on the Rise!)
Moderator: Ferris Olin (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: 25 Years of the Creative Prison Arts Project: Connecting Incarcerated Artists with the University of Michigan Community (NBL)
Reuben Kenyatta (Independent Artist)
Ashley Lucas (University of Michigan)
Janie Paul (University of Michigan)

PRESENTATION: The Art of Surviving in Solitary Confinement (RAL)
Bonnie Kerness (American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch Program)
Ojore Lutalo (American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch Program)


“Theda Rice, 77” by Ron Levine, courtesy of the artist.

Session 4 2:45 – 4:00 pm

PANEL: Restorative Arts and Aging in Prison (ZLD)
Aileen Hongo (Educator/Activist)
Anne Katz (University of Southern California)
Ron Levine (Artist)

WORKSHOP: The SwallowTale Project: Creative Writing for Incarcerated Women (NBL)
Angel Clark (Photographer/Filmmaker)
Bianca Spriggs (Artist/Poet)

Session 5 4:15 – 5:30 pm

PANEL: Resisting Guantanamo through Art and Law (ZLD)
Aliya Hana Hussain (Center for Constitutional Rights)
Matthew Daloisio (Witness against Torture)
Aaron Hughes (Independent Artist)
Moderator: Joshua Colangelo-Bryan (Dorsey & Whitney LLP)

WORKSHOP: Bar None: The Possibilities and Limitations of Theater Arts in Prison (NBL)
Max Forman-Mullin (Bar None Theater Company)
Julia Taylor (Bar None Theater Company)


5:45 – 6:45 pm Reception (NBL)

7:00 – 9:00 pm: Artist Talks: Russell Craig, Deborah Luster, Dean Gillispie, Jared Owen (AAG)


“Self Portrait” by Russell Craig, acrylic on cloth, 2014, courtesy of the artist.


“LCIW, St. Gabriel, Louisiana, Zelphea Adams” from One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, by Deborah Luster, courtesy of the artist.


Session 1: 9: 30 – 10:45 am

PANEL: Prison Lit (ZLD)

Helen Lee (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) “Eldridge Cleaver’s SOUL ON ICE: A Rhetoric of Confrontation in Prison Writing”
Suzanne Uzzilia (CUNY Graduate Center) “Lolita’s Legacy: The Mutual Imprisonment of Lolita Lebrón and Irene Vilar”
Carolina Villalba (University of Miami) “Radical Motherhood: Redressing the Imprisoned Body in Assata Shakur’s Assata: An Autobiography”
Moderator: Monica Ríos (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: Photographic Education Program at Penitentiary Centers in Venezuela: From the Lleca to the Cohue (ZMM)
Helena Acosta (Independent Curator)
Violette Bule (Photographer)
Moderator: Katie Mccollough (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: Narrating Injustice: Youth and Mass Incarceration (BSF)

Sean Saifa M. Wall (Independent Artist) “Letters to an Unborn Son”
Richard Mora and Mary Christianakis (Occidental College) “(Re)writing Identities: Past, Present, and Future Narratives of Young People in Juvenile Detention Facilities”
Beth Ohlsson (Independent Educator) “Reaching through the Cracks: Connecting Incarcerated Parents with their Children through Story”
Moderator: Annie Fukushima (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

Session 2 11:00 – 12:15 pm

PANEL: Gender, Sexuality, and Systemic Injustices (ZLD)
Michelle Handelman (Filmmaker, Fashion Institute of Technology) “Beware the Lily Law: Tales of Transgender Inmates”
Tracy Huling (Prison Public Memory Project) “‘She was incorrigible…’ Building Public Memory About A Girl’s Prison”
Carol Jacobsen (University of Michigan) “For Dear Life: Visual and Political Strategies for Freedom and Human Rights of Incarcerated Women”
Moderator: Simone A. James Alexander (Seton Hall University)


“Beware the Lily Law” by Michelle Handelman, high-definition video, sound, Installation at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia. Photo credit: Laure Leber, 2014.

PANEL: Life Sentences: Memoir-Writing as Arts and Activism in a Maximum Security Women’s Prison (ZMM)
Courtney Polidori (Rowan University)
Michele Lise Tarter (The College of New Jersey)
Samantha Zimbler (Oxford University Press)
Moderator: Fakhri Haghani (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: The Politics of Imprisonment (BSF)
Dana Greene (New Mexico State University) “Carceral Frontier: The Borderlands of New Mexico’s Prisons”
Marge Parsons (Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund) “Free the Spirit from Its Cell”
Jackie Sumell (Independent Artist) “The House That Herman Built”
Treacy Ziegler (Independent Artist) “Light and Shadow in a Prison Cell”
Moderator: Angus Gillespie (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

LUNCH: 12:15 pm – 1:15 pm

Session 3 1:15 – 2:30 pm

PRESENTATION: Shakespeare in Prison (ZLD)
Tom Magill (Educational Shakespeare Company Ltd)
Curt Tofteland (Shakespeare Behind Bars)

PANEL: Building Effective Prison Arts Programs (ZMM)
Laurie Brooks (William James Association) “California Prison Arts: A Quantitative Evaluation”
Jeff Greene (Prison Arts Program at Community Partners in Action) “Beyond Stereotype: Building & Supporting Extraordinary Arts Programs in Prison”
Becky Mer (California Appellate Project/Prison Arts Coalition) “National Prison Arts Networking in the US: Lessons from the Prison Arts Coalition”
Moderator: Lee Bernstein

PANEL: Genre and Aesthetics in Prisons (BSF)

T.J. Desch Obi (Baruch College, CUNY) “Honor and the Aesthetics of Agon in Jailhouse Rock”
Anoop Mirpuri (Portland State University) “Genre and the Aesthetics of Prison Abolition”
Jon-Christian Suggs (John Jay College, CUNY) “Behind the Red Door: Real and Fictional Communism in Prison”
Ronak K. Kapadia (University of Illinois at Chicago) “US Military Imprisonment and the Sensorial Life of Empire”
Moderator: Jed Murr

Session 4 2:45 – 4:00 pm

PANEL: Twenty Years of Teaching Visual and Literary Arts in a Maximum-Security Prison (ZLD)
Rachel M. Simon (Marymount Manhattan College in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility)
Duston Spear (Marymount Manhattan College in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility)

WORKSHOP: Alternatives to Violence Workshops in Prison: Liminal Performances of Community and/as Activism (ZMM)
Chad Dell (Monmouth University)
Johanna Foster (Monmouth University)
Eleanor Novek (Monmouth University)
Deanna Shoemaker (Monmouth University)

WORKSHOP: More Than a Rap Sheet: The Real Stories of Incarcerated Women (BSF)
Amanda Edgar (Family Crisis Services)
Jen LaChance Sibley (Family Crisis Services)
Jenny Stasio (Family Crisis Services)

CLOSING REMARKS (ZLD): 4:00 – 4:30 pm


EVENING EVENTS: 7:00 – 9:30 pm (SH)

Tales from the Cell, Mountainview Program
The Peculiar Patriot, Liza Jessie Peterson
Women on Our Own, acapella group of formerly incarcerated musicians

Films to be shown all day on October 9 & 10 at the Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building, 162 Ryders Lane (Douglass Campus), schedule to be determined.


Key for venue codes:


Marking Time

A few months ago, I shared an announcement for the ‘Marking Time’ Prison Arts and Activism Conference, organised by the Institute for Research on Women (IRW) at Rutgers University.

Earlier this week, IRW announced the schedule for the October 8the -10th conference. On it are some inspiring artists whose work I’ve long admired from distance. Great line up.

I’m also pleased to mention that I’ll be moderating a panel, the proposal for which, for your informations, I have copy&pasted below.

Panel: Imagery and Prisons: Engaging and Persuading Audiences

We produce and consume an enormous quantity of images each day (350 million photos are uploaded daily to Facebook alone and the average person sees 5,000 advertisements per day). While images often reify stereotypes and social causality, many artists are creating and distributing photographs or disrupting dominant visual culture in hopes of supporting or instigating prison activism and reform. By looking at three practitioners with distinct approaches, audiences and strategies, this panel will explore the power, limitations, and corresponding ethics of visual activism. What images do citizens have access to? Who controls cliche and motif? What new images of prisons and prisoners need to be made? How can collaborative modes of producing and understanding images be catalysts for collective action? How can photography get past its role as mere documentation of prisons to help create visions for alternatives to incarceration?

Across New York City, Lorenzo Steele Jr. exhibits photographs he made during his work as a correctional officer deep in Rikers Island. At church groups, in parking lots, in schools, and during summer community days, Steele brings graphic imagery directly to multiple generations within the catchment area of Rikers. Steele’s presentations are accompanied by a number of workshops on conflict reconciliation, criminal justice and community.

Gregory Sale has produced longterm large scale projects that with significant institutional support have managed to bring together many disparate constituencies orbiting the criminal justice world. Sale’s “It’s Not All Black & White” made a conscious effort to wrestle the visual motifs and cliche of crime (striped jumpsuits, pink underwear and even brown skin) that Arizona’s infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio has manipulated for his own political advantage.

Mark Strandquist works with communities to create photographs requested by prisoners (“If you could have a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?”). After sending images to the corresponding prisoners, the photographs are exhibited and expanded upon through extensive public programing that brings students, policy makers, former prisoners, and many others together to engage with the causes, effects, and alternatives to mass incarceration.

Moderator, Pete Brook will ask the panelists which approaches have worked and which have not. What presentations of material have engaged and persuaded audiences? What different expectations and needs do audiences have which we as artists and activists must consider?


Gregory Sale is multidisciplinary, socially-engaged artist, whose work investigates issues of incarceration, citizenship, visual culture and emotional territories. In 2011, Sale orchestrated It’s Not All Black & White, a three-month residency exhibition at ASU Art Museum in Tempe, AZ. 52 programmed events brought together a wide array of constituencies including incarcerated persons, their families, parolees, ex-convicts, correctional officers, elected officials, government employees, members of the community, media representatives, artists, and researchers. It considered the cultural, social and personal issues at stake in the day-to-day workings of the criminal justice system in Arizona. Sale’s most recent project, Sleepover grapples with the challenges of individuals reentering society after periods of incarceration.

Sale is the recipient of a Creative Capital Grant in Emerging Fields (2013) and an Art Matters Grant (2014) . In summer 2012, as a resident artist at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY, and at VCCA in Amherst, VA, Sale’s work has appeared in museums nationwide including the Ackland Art Museum, UNC-Chapel Hill and the Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville. Sale is Assistant Professor of Intermedia and Public Practice at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. Before that he served as the Visual Arts Director for Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Curator of Education at ASU Art Museum, and as a public art project manager for the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture.

Lorenzo Steele Jr. is a former New York City Correction Officer. He worked for 12 years at Rikers Island, considered by some as the most violent adolescent prison America.

In 2001, Steele founded Future Leaders, a non profit youth that provides workshops, training, education and consultation to children, parents and educators about incarceration and the criminal justice system. Steele has worked as a New York City Board of Education vendor and assisted organizations — such as The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the Nassau/Suffolk (BOCES) school district — with workshops on conflict resolution, bullying and literacy. He has also worked with the Brooklyn District Attorneys office providing gang and prison awareness to at-risk youth. He has lectured at college across the New York area. Steele is the recipient of awards from Congressional, Senate, and State Assemblymen for services to the community and to children’s development.

Mark Strandquist is an artist, educator, and organizer. His projects facilitate interactions that incorporate viewers as direct participants and present alternative models for the civic and artistic ways in which we engage the world around us. Each interactive installation functions not as a culmination but as a starting point and catalyst for dialogue, exchange, and community action. While photography is often used, the visual aesthetics and technical mastery of the medium become secondary to the social process through which the images are created, and the social interactions that each exhibition produces.

The ongoing project Some Other Places We’ve Missed: Windows From Prison was awarded the 2014 Society for Photographic Educators’ National Conference Image Maker Award, a Photowings/Ashoka Foundation Insights Changemaker Award, and the VCU Art’s Dean’s Award by juror Lisa Frieman. Strandquist’s projects have been exhibited and presented in museums, film festivals, conferences, print and online magazines, and independent galleries. The project Write Home Soon was exhibited in the 2012-13 international showcase of Socially Engaged Art at the Art Museum of Americas, Washington, DC. The ongoing project, The People’s Library is part of the permanent collection at the Main Branch of the Richmond Public Library and was presented by Strandquist and Courtney Bowles at the 2013 Open Engagement Conference. Strandquist is an adjunct faculty member at the Corcoran College of Art, a teaching artist with the University of Richmond’s Partners in the Arts, a Professional Fellow at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and a Capital Fellow at Provisions Library.

Two months ago, I published a conversation with Lorenzo Steele, a former NY City Correctional Officer who now gives community talks and makes pop-up street exhibitions of photographs from during his time on Rikers Island. Steele wants to impress upon communities and particularly youngsters how violent jail is.

Steele has produced a video to promote his ongoing work with Behind These Prison Walls. a group he founded to inform, educate, and empower individuals and steer at-risk youth away from the criminal justice system.

Lorenzo Steele

“I had buddies that couldn’t take the job and wound up quitting because of the mental abuse and, sometimes, physical abuse,” says Steele. “You could be responding to a fight, not knowing that they’re setting you up to stab you with a shank. It’s a very dangerous job. Corrections officers don’t have guns. At that time we weren’t even carrying mace. The only weapon you really have is your mind — how you used it dictated if you were going to have a good 8 hours or a bad 8 hours.”


Lorenzo Steele Jr. worked as correctional officer on Rikers Island between 1987 and 1999. Most of his time was spent in the juvenile units. When the officers had retirement parties and other events, he was the one with the camera. In 1996, Steele began talking his small compact film camera into the units and making photographs of the dirt, the filth and the despair. All without any official approval. As part of his work, he also made evidence photos of injuries following violence inside the Rikers Island.


When Steele decided to leave the job, his “leap of faith” took him back to community instruction. As founder of Behind These Prison Walls Steele gives public lectures and brings pop-up exhibitions to New York neighbourhoods. It’s a mobile show & tell to shock and educate youngsters on the destructiveness and terror of prison. Steele estimates he has made close to 1,000 presentations in schools, churches and community centres since 2001.

I came across Steele’s archive when some of his images accompanied For Teens at Rikers Island, Solitary Confinement Pushes Mental Limits, a Center for Investigative Reporting article that was also adapted and cross posted to Medium as Inside Rikers Island, part of the excellent ‘Solitary Lives’ series.

It is very unusual for photographs made by correctional staff to surface, let alone for there primary use to be as tools for street-side exhibition and engagement. I called Steele and asked him some questions about his self-propelled cop-to-advocate career change, his motives for making the images, the efficacy of his methods and what we need to start doing differently to decrease the numbers of kids we lock up.

Lorenzo Steele


Prison Photography (PP): When did you decide you wanted to be a correctional officer?

Lorenzo Steele (LS): At 21 years old I took a [New York] City test. At that same time I was a para-professional for the New York City Board of Education working with Middle School children. I was there for 8-months and loving the job. I got a letter from the city saying that if I could pass a physical, if I could pass the psychological, if I could pass the drug test, I could become a correction officer.

The only reason I became a correctional officer was because it was paying more money than the Board of Ed. I didn’t know I had to experience the system for 12 years, in order to know the system, and later to help people avoid the system.

I’m 22 years old, and it is just a job — no one in my family went to jail. In the neighborhood I grew up in, nobody went to jail.

Lorenzo Steele

The academy was 2 to 3 months at that time. They could never prepare you mentally and physically for what you were about to experience working in a prison. On the first day took the ‘on the job trainees’ OJT’s into an actual facility. Now, they would tell you things — don’t talk to the inmates; don’t stare at the inmates but that was about it. I was afraid, but later I realized that in a prison you can not show fear because you will be manipulated. OJT was about 2 weeks, and after that we were assigned to our facilities.

I worked the C-74 Unit, the Adolescent Recession Detention Center (ARDC) for 14 to 21 year olds. Within that age range, of course, half are adolescents and half are adult inmates. One day you’re working with the adolescents, the next you’re working with adults. I dealt with mental health issues, behavior issues, socio-economical issues. I found out what our people actually go through and why they come to jail.

PP: What were your early impressions of the job?

LS: I’m young, I’m making good money. I have my own apartment, but I have the mind of an officer now.

Can you imagine sitting in a day room with a capacity of 50 inmates and you’re one officer that’s in charge? Your main function is to make sure they don’t kill each other or rape each other and if you see a fight you push a personal body alarm. Depending on which housing area you are in, you can sit there sometimes for 8 hours. I remember the day when I thought, “I can’t do this for twenty years. There are bigger and better things out there for me.”

I’m a photographer. I wondered what I could do legally. I started formulating a mentoring program. I used to volunteer my time in schools as a correction officer and share my insight on what the prison system’s really like. The average person doesn’t really know until its too late. It’s my mission to let these young children know that jail is the last place on earth they want to be.

PP: Do you consider yourself fortunate in that you came to that decision? Because for a lot of people in a lot of jobs, sometimes the stress is so high and the options seem so few they can’t even step back for a minute to see a change in circumstances.

LS: It was very rare for anyone to just resign from the department, unless they were brought up on charges. It was almost unheard of. People asked, “What are you gonna do? This is the best job.”

The last day that I knew I was going to be there, I walked around the jail and I grabbed a little object where I could and wrote on the wall. I carved my name in some wood objects and on some metal doors.

It was around the time of Mother’s Day. My Grandmother was in town and I took her to church. Sometimes, the preacher is actually talking to you. He said, “If there’s anything on your mind just leave it behind you, step out on faith.” That next day, that Monday, I went downtown and turned in my shield, turned in my gun.

PP: What year did you resign? 

LS: 1999.

PP: In between which years did you make photographs in Rikers? 

LS: I began maybe around ’95 or ’96.

I was the photographer for COBA, the NYC Correctional Officers Benevolent Association. People retire or you have parties or special events. I always had a camera on me. After that, I used to take pictures of inside of the prison not knowing that I was to turn it into an enterprise to save people from going into the jail.

I had a camera with no flash. Can you imagine taking out a camera? You’ve got 200 prisoners coming down the corridor to the cafeteria — they’re going to see the camera going off so I had to disguise it somehow. You get an adrenaline rush knowing that you can’t get caught. Once that shutter button is released its almost the best feeling in the world. Its like a high once that shutter button goes off and you’ve captured that image. And you know.

Lorenzo Steele

PP: Where did you keep the camera? In an office or did you take it home with you every day?

LS: I had it in my pocket. Sometimes I would take pictures of the officers in their uniform because the average officer never really has a picture of himself in uniform. It was a good time back then because the camaraderie was great. We had one team; the officers, the captains, the deputies, the warden. We were all one team back then, but you couldn’t do it today because after twenty years things change in the department.

PP: What type of camera did you use?

LS: A 35mm. One of those CVC store cameras. Digital cameras weren’t even out then. I put some black tape around the flash and disguised it almost like a cell phone or a beeper.

PP: How many photographs do you think you took, in total, inside the prison?

LS: Over 200 photos. Shots of prisoners in cells, of the solitary confinement unit, pictures of prisoners who were physically cut. In colour. You can’t imagine the power of those images when I show the kids: “If you don’t change your ways, this could happen to you.”


LS: Children cannot relate to prison, yet they see the negative violence on television and sometimes a rapper will glorify prison. Some rappers are promoting violence, promoting gang activity, and that’s some children’s reference to the criminal justice system.

But, once you step foot in that criminal justice system your life changes forever. Sometimes they might not even make it out. At 15-years-old we’ve had adolescents that end up taking 25 years with them upstate because they caught jail cases cutting and stabbing individuals while they was on Rikers Island.

Lorenzo Steele

PP: How do you exhibit those 200 photographs to the public? 

LS: It depends on the audience. I have a lot of graphic images so I don’t put those in the schools with the kindergarten kids and the third graders.

I have select images that I use when I exhibit on the sidewalk in at-risk communities. About 20 images at a time but it depends on where and what message I’m trying to get out.

PP: I’ve seen only a few images like the ones you’ve published. One example is the selection of images leaked by a Riker’ Island officer to the Village Voice two years ago.

We don’t see many images shot from the hip. If we do, they’re usually anonymous. Such images do exist but one must work hard to seek them out. How many people see your presentations? Are people shocked? Surprised? Do people respond to the images in the way that you hope they will?

LS: The first time they see the images, yes, they are shocked, especially students. Students that I deal whether in the church, in schools, in the community, are shocked. Images are powerful but the knock out blow is information, the experience, that actually goes behind what’s in that image.

PP: How dangerous was Rikers? In the 12 years you worked there how many incidents of serious assault and possibly even murder occurred or occurred on your shifts? 

LS: Let’s talk about the adolescents first. Rikers Island was considered the most violent prison in the nation. We used to average sometimes 50 to 60 razor slashings a month. Slashing with the single edge razor blade. Cut somebody over the face multiple times inside. There was a lot of blood.

When I went into corrections, I didn’t like the sight of blood [but] I saw so many people get cut that it became normal. I was so desensitized. And that’s scary because that normalcy meant somebody had a scar on their face for life and for every cutting there was a repercussion; if a prisoner got cut he had to get revenge on the other guy and catch another jail case.

PP: I have no idea how politics, street politics or gang culture — in or out of prison — work in New York today let alone in the late 80s and 90s. Over your twelve years, was there consistent gang activity or did it change? 

LS: In ’87, there weren’t gangs in the New York prison system. In the early ’90s, we realized we had a gang problem in the prisons. The gangs had their own language. 300 prisoners in the cafeteria and five officers. We had to learn the language real quick and that is what established the Gang Intelligence Unit. By conducting cell searches, we would get the paraphernalia and the by-laws of the gangs

Later on, they flipped gang members into telling the department what the language meant; that’s how the Department of Corrections infiltrated the gangs. We passed the information on to NYPD.

It was very dangerous. You had to be on your toes all the time. The gangs recruited younger people whom they would force sometimes to do harm on officers or do harm to prisoners. We did the best we could.

One of the blessings was that I always had good supervisors. When the captain said ‘go’, you went, and when he said ‘stop’, you stopped. You put your life in the hands of your captain; it’s almost like being in a war. I am old school. That’s what really kept us on top of the prisoners. The jail would never be overrun because you had a select group of officers that demanded respect and that knew how to take care of the business without anybody getting hurt. When prisoners saw that select group of officers, nothing was going down that day.

Lorenzo Steele

Part of being a Correction Officer is knowing your prisoners and you always wanted to know the gangster, you always wanted to know the person who was running the housing area because that’s the one that you would use, you know. “Listen man, while I’m here today, nothing’s gonna go down. Tell the boys man to shut it down while I’m here.”

PP: Clearly, I’m opposed to prisons as they exist. I think we lock too many people up and I think when we’re locking people up we’re not providing the right sort of conditions or services for them. Obviously, what goes on in the jails and prisons relates to outside society. The reason you do your work now, I presume, is because you see that link between poverty, what goes on in the neighborhoods and what happens in the jails.

What do we need to do better? How do we rely less on incarceration and when you must  imprison people, how do you make it safer for everyone in the place? How do you stop people from coming back? Do we need smaller prisons, do we need more money, do we need different sentences for different crimes? 

LS: It starts before prison. I worked in the neighborhoods classified by criminal justice books as “high-crime areas” and it starts with parenting.

Bill Cosby said on National TV that we have parents more focused on giving their kids cell phones, expensive gear and expensive pants. And they condemned Cosby. They found some black guy on CNN to come on and say ‘Cosby, you are wrong.’ But he was right. Unless you are inside the school system you wouldn’t necessarily know.

That’s why I hit the streets. I try to let the parents know that without that proper parenting their child has more chance of going through the criminal justice system.

Imagine being in a first grade class in an impoverished neighborhood (it depends on the school district) with 30 to 35 students in one class. 1st grade. Half the children can read, half the children cannot read, now you have one teacher. How is that teacher going to really teach? There’s two different dynamics going on in that classroom. We have children across America that are coming into the public school system unprepared to learn.


LS: Poverty is a crime, because poverty comes with where you live. Those in impoverished neighborhoods are subjected to crime, shootings, and drugs, and then children have to go into a school system that doesn’t have the necessary resources. It’s a ticking time bomb.

Unless a parent or guardian is there to break down that math homework, for them, some children don’t know what’s going on. Unless there’s a parent there that could check the homework that the teacher gives every night. Its not going to get done. There’s a lot parents in poorer communities who are uneducated themselves. Look at the statistics coming out of poor neighborhoods — many young adults are not finishing high school and are not going to college. If a parent is not educated, then probably education is not talked about in the home.

The point of attack, strategically, needs to be that early childhood.

PP: Parenting and education. I can agree. But we can’t roll back the years’ generations to correct past mistakes. So what about the situation as it stands now? Say, you have a 15-year-old who’s acted out, he’s been pulled in by the police, he’s got a serious charge over his head. Is Rikers Island the best place to deal with that kid? Is Rikers Island the sort of institution in which — while they are kept away from the public for public safety — they themselves are kept safe?

LS: If you break the law there are consequences. There are necessary disciplines in place so we have a civil society. But is it Rikers Island or is it a juvenile detention center?

If you would have asked me this question as an officer, I’d have said, “Rikers, yeah.” But, now, when I go into the communities and hear what the parents have to say about a lot of these children just mimicking their parents, I wonder is that child at fault? Why did he steal that cell phone? Maybe his father was a thief, or maybe they don’t have structure in the home. Maybe there needs to be a place where a child’s whole history needs to be examined? What’s going on in that child’s home. Does he have a support system? He lives in a high crime area, how much do we expect him to succeed?

Lorenzo Steele

LS: Yes, I feel there needs to be places where children can go to receive those special considerations, not thrown into a place like Rikers Island in which you’re housed with murderers.

Let’s create places and bring in the necessary mentors. And I’m not just talking about doctors in psychology. Sometimes, it takes the correction officer. Sometimes, it takes that guy that did 25 years in jail.

Create a first offense type place. “Young man, we give you a year. If you do the right thing in this place we’ll seal your record, but if you don’t, you gotta go to the next level.”  Sometimes, some people have to go through that prison system if they’re going to turn their lives around.

Create a place where they could come in and get properly mentored to. You understand? Some people have degrees and others not, but there’s only a select few who can really get through to these children.

PP: So, the prison system is too rigid?

LS: It doesn’t always work. Prisons are putting way too many adolescents with mental health problems behind bars. They’re banging on the cells for 3 or 4 hours. These young children need advocates. They can’t speak. Not too many kids are writing a letter to mommy saying, “I’m thinking about suicide tonight; being locked in a 8×6 foot cell for 23 hours, I can’t take it no more.”

Lorenzo Steele

PP: Your photographs were used in an article by the Center for Investigative Reporting about solitary confinement. Over your time as a correctional officer did you see the use of solitary for youngsters increase, decrease, or stay the same? 

LS: We had one unit, about 66 cells. Prisoners that cut, stabbed, or assaulted officers, were locked in solitary confinement.

Warden Robinson implemented a program called Institute for Inner Development (IID). The warden put together a team. Hand-picked. A select few that you could trust and you knew they weren’t going to violate any prisoners rights. We did two weeks of training and took it to a select housing area. We transformed that housing area. Imagine going from 50 slashings a month, [among the] adolescents, to zero for four years.

Programs work if you can get the necessary personnel to properly run and maintain them. When we ran the IID program, we took another housing area — a hundred more prisoners — then another housing area. Eventually, we had 200 prisoners in the nation’s most violent prison in America and and next to no violence.

PP: What was different about that program? What was it that you provided the youngsters?

LS: I love children. I’m a disciplinarian, I love reading, so I had tons of knowledge about slavery and the connection between slavery and incarceration, so when you start talking about this new thing, they just love it. These 14, 15, 16 year-olds didn’t have any type of discipline at home, didn’t have the male role models at home. “This is what men do young man. Pull your pants up. Grown men do not walk around with their pants down.”

PP: So it was more about developing different interactions between the correctional officers and the prisoners, and changing the culture within the unit?

LS: Out of all of those officers, twelve officers, we had no psychologists, no therapists. We were the psychologists we were the therapists. Just because you have a degree that doesn’t mean that you can work in an area like that. There’s a lot of passion that’s involved in that.

Lorenzo Steele

PP: After you resigned, when did you begin exhibiting the photographs?

LS: I detoxed for about 8 months, just not doing anything. From being on the drill to taking it back to normal. Then I started going into the schools and just sharing my information.

PP: With the images?

LS: I laminated some 8×10” color prints and put them on the blackboard. Then I got a laptop and a projector, and went from holding the pictures in my hand to projecting them agains auditoriums and classrooms walls. My first printed use of  the images came in a 2005 Don Diva Magazine feature. They gave me 5 or 6 pages. I provided my phone number. Soon after, a police officer who worked with youth called me and asked, “Could you come in a talk to my youth?” That was the start of giving back.

PP: How do you evaluate your work? 

LS: Seeing that look on somebody’s face when they think they know what jail was like, but then I show them the reality. Talking to 500 students in an auditorium and asking them, “Is this new information?” and they all say yes. Many of them have to make a change right there. For others its going to take longer to make that change.

PP: Is what you do anything like Scared Straight!

LS: I’m not trying to scare you straight I’m trying to inform you straight.

When you’re looking at somebody and they got a thousand stitches on their face, the shock is there but along with the shock is the information behind it. Prison is a violent place and the criminal justice system is a for profit agency and so I break down a lot of information within the program.

PP: What images do we need to see? 

LS: We need to see the graphic images of the young guy that was in solitary confinement unit who just cut himself with a razor blade because that was the only way that he could get out.

Lorenzo Steele

LS: We need to see the images of a young girl in shackles walking down the corridor with a hospital gown on. We need to see images of somebody crying in their cell at night and the only reason he’s in the cell is because his parents didn’t have the money to bail him out. We need to see those images of the abuses, we need to see the dirt, we need to see the filth.

We need to see the pain the officers go through — the officers that get cut and the officers that get feces thrown in their face hoping that they don’t have Hepatitis. An image is what stays in the mind. Every time you think about doing bad you need to think about that image.

Hollywood uses images too to glorify the rich and powerful with the jewelry on their neck. But it is fake. I use images to bring awareness to what really takes place behind bars and what young adolescents are actually going through. Everyday. It has to be traumatic.

Is the prison system still in the business of rehabilitation? That’s a question that needs to be asked in the Department of Corrections nationwide. Are prisons and jails in the business of rehabilitation? Yes, he did commit a crime, but does he have to be put into a cell for 23 hours. Is that rehabilitation? Or is that torture? We have to define cruel and inhumane treatment. We have to bring up those: terms, rehabilitation or torture.

What we do with this young child while we have him here for a couple years could make or break him for the rest of his life. There’s volunteers that go into the prison and mentor. Recently, I had the week off so I went back to Rikers Island, and did some workshops, talking to the kids. I felt obligated because we’re in a place that could make or break them. Some are going to the street. Some are going upstate. If you’re going to the street, prepare their minds while they’re here. If we’re trying to rehabilitate.

PP: Over the 12 years that you’ve been doing this work, if you can estimate, how many times have you presented to groups speaking and how many times have you presented images? 

LS: I’ve done close a thousand presentations — in churches, schools, and sometimes putting them on the streets. Just taking the images right to the high crime areas and putting them right on the sidewalk. People in the poor neighborhoods are not going to go to the museum so I bring the museum to the streets.

PP: Thanks, Lorenzo.

LS: Thank you, Pete.

           Lorenzo Steele


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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