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© Damon Winter / New York Times

In November, I interviewed Damon Winter for Too Much Chocolate. He is calm, modest and (quite frankly) not the best interviewee because he still feels he is too young in the career to make bold statements … you know the sound-bites from photojournalists we all crave … the ones about adventure or celebrity subjects.

His skills were proven when he raked in the Pulitzer for A Vision Of History his coverage of Obama (it was his first time covering a political campaign!)

Damon attested to the fact he has always learnt on the job. He did not train formally as photojournalist per se; he studied environmental science at college. He even admits that since his job is so time-consuming he feels somewhat detached from the talk and over-talk (my term) within the industry.

To cut a long intro short, I have a lot of respect for Damon.

Damon’s visit to Haiti has been his first coverage of a disaster area. His dispatches have been well received; most likely because he has put sensitive words (here and here) out there as well as his photographs.

I posted earlier this week about the unknowns surrounding the escape of the entire Haiti National Penitentiary population. Damon has since visited the prison for the New York Times and the NYT continues the reflections on these unknowns:

Who were the [prisoners]? Were they among the machete-wielding pillagers who made their way along the Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines on Saturday afternoon? (The account in The Times, “Looting Flares Where Authority Breaks Down,” said no one could answer with certainty.) Did their numbers include political prisoners? In “Disaster Imperialism in Haiti” on MRZine, a Socialist Web site, Shirley Pate wrote: “Who knows how many of the dead or escaped prisoners there were those who were incarcerated without cause over the course of the two years that followed Aristide’s departure?”

Damon Winter’s photographs answer none of these questions. They don’t mean to. But they do begin to paint a picture of life inside a Haitian prison; a picture that few people have ever seen before.

(My bolding)


© Fred Conrad/New York Times

© Fred Conrad/New York Times

3,000 inmates die of natural causes in US prisons each year. If they are fortunate, they will do so in a prison hospice. The New York Times’ John Leland reports on this growing sector of corrections provision. Fred R. Conrad provides the photography.

The story focuses on the relationships between the dying men and the inmate volunteers who tend to their needs in the final days, weeks, months.

Coxsackie Correctional Facility, NY, featured in the NYT audio slideshow is one of 75 prisons across the nation that has developed hospice programs for geriatric and dying inmates.

Fred R. Conrad is old school.


Related: Lori Waselchuk has won the admiration of the photographic community for her series Grace Before Dying which surveys the prison hospice at Angola, Louisiana. More on Waselchuk to come.


“What started out as an assignment for school has produced a piece that has changed my life and hopefully will do the same for the people that view it.”

Jenn Ackerman

“We are the surrogate mental hospitals now.”

Larry Chandler, Warden of Kentucky State Reformatory, La Grange, KY

“My students are my biggest inspiration.”

Jenn Ackerman


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.




Credit: Bruce Jackson

NY Times LENS Blog

Here, there and everywhere people are celebrating the New York Times’ LENS Blog as a messianic gift for the photophile. I was therefore happy to see that less than two weeks in LENS is featuring Bruce Jackson’s wide angle documentary work from Arkansas Prison in the early 1970s

Bruce Jackson should be a familiar name as it was he that rescued, scanned and shared the enigmatic Arkansas Prison Mugshot series, Mirrors.


Found and presented by Bruce Jackson. Arkansas State Prisoner Portrait

June 100 Eyes Issue

Over at 100 Eyes, Andy Levin from insists that “Whatever ones perspective, be it victim, civil rights activist or cop, there is one shared idea – something needs to change.”

The June edition of 100 Eyes, titled, America Behind Bars features the work of Dominic Bracco, Jerome Brunet, Darcy Padilla, Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber – all very talented and committed photographers.

As editor, Andy Levin, concludes, the genre of prison photography (or to be less aggrandizing) simply the practice of photography within sites of incarceration is often a difficult and thankless task;

The photographers who have contributed to “America Behind Bars” have worked against overwhelming odds to bring back powerful images of American prisons. One can’t simply walk into a prison with a camera. This kind of photography requires long negotiations and often a warden who has the vision and concern to allow a photographer into his jail.

Wonderful exposure for the most pressing of social issues in America today.

Darcy Padilla. From AIDS in Prison Series.

Darcy Padilla. From AIDS in Prison Series.

Prison Photography began its project in September 2008 with a celebration of Darcy Padilla’s portrait of former San Quentin Public Communications Officer, Vernell Crittendon.

In February, I was gob-smacked by Jerome Brunet’s Riding Shotgun with Texas Sheriffs.

Kevin Van Aelst for The New York Times

Kevin Van Aelst for The New York Times

I posted about Google’s collaboration with LIFE Magazine a few months ago. I – like many folk – were excited to dig in, ferret about and generally enjoy the visual culture of decades past. It seems the novelty has worn off for some. An excellent diatribe, Photo Negative, in the New York Times last week made the point succinctly.

“When Google first announced on its blog that the Life archive was up, it seemed like another Google good deed: rescuing the name of Life magazine and the glorious 20th-century tradition of still photojournalism. But Google has failed to recognize that it can’t publish content under its imprint without also creating content of some kind: smart, reported captions; new and good-looking slide-show software; interstitial material that connects disparate photos; robust thematic and topical organization. All this stuff is content, and it requires writers, reporters, designers and curators. Instead, the company’s curatorial imperative, as usual, is merely ‘make it available’.”

Prisoners watching baptism of repentant killer, in Harris County jail, TX, US. March 1954. Credit: John Dominis. ©2008 Google

Prisoners watching baptism of repentant killer, in Harris County jail, TX, US. March 1954. Credit: John Dominis. ©2008 Google

With little in the platform or functionality to inspire users, Google could find visitors’ perusal time shrinking. Users might face unavoidable limits to their search time and patience. 15 minutes?

James Estrin for the New York Times

James Estrin for the New York Times

Jeffrey Deskovic was imprisoned for 16 years for a rape and murder he did not commit. The New York Times produced this sobering slideshow of his first year outside prison.

James Estrin for the New York Times

James Estrin for the New York Times

Two things in Deskovic’s story stood out. First of all, I was struck by the everyday practices and processes he lists as doing for the first time – cooking his own breakfast; opening and closing the window, keeping his own hours, shopping, even driving “represents power and freedom”; using the internet; using a cell phone (“I asked where the holes were to talk into”); first day at college; and swimming. “The water felt heavy” was Deskovic’s summary. It had been so long his body was not used to it.

James Estrin for the New York Times

James Estrin for the New York Times

The second thing that struck me was how alone Deskovic was. He admitted to low points, thinking about taking his own life, wondering if it was a dream. Most tragic was his nagging feelings that he has somehow slipped through the cracks and that a twist of fate landed him on the outside. He is struggling and wonders whether he will be a ‘prisoner’ all his life. His institutional life has seeped into his psyche it seems.

James Estrin for the New York Times

James Estrin for the New York Times

These revelations are most shocking to me because Deskovic looks so well equipped to deal with his new life. He is an advocate for overturning wrongful convictions, he works with the press diligently, he feels “at his best” when he is making a presentation or talk. And yet, he is still waiting for the gradual process of a “normal-life”, including a trusting partner, to become him.

Jeffrey Deskovic addresses the press. James Estrin for the New York Times

Jeffrey Deskovic addresses the press. James Estrin for the New York Times

Jeffrey Deskovic admitted to a small smile when he first spoke to the press following his release, because “they knew what I had always known”. I would like to think this smile has sustained and grown in the 15 months since the New York Times did the feature.

Please read the original story by the New York Times. Photography by James Estrin and Suzanne DeChillo, who has photographed incarcerated immigrants awaiting deportation at Wyatt Prison, Rhode Island.

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

During the warm-ups, Ms. Barr asked the crew, "How cold does it have to be to get hypothermia? Only 50 degrees. But if you're cold you're probably not working hard enough." Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Sunday’s depressing article in the  New York Times detailed the political battle in Sacramento to keep hold of California Conservation Corps (CCC) through this period of recession. Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to cut the program to eat into the $45billion deficit California currently bears. Interestingly, Jerry Brown – who initiated the program as Governor in 1976 – is one of the leading voices to save the CCC from the chop.

The Corps. offers low paid work, but work nonetheless, to youth who for whatever reason do not fit the typical work history. Consider not the gaps in your work history, but work histories in your gap! This is a program that considers the individual and not the CV first – which is truly noble these days. The Corps is an employment gateway and an opportunity for young persons to complete unquestionably worthwhile work.

California’s program is modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put three million young, unemployed men to work from 1933 to 1942. Last year, I may have argued that the model was out of date, but given recent twitter comparing today with the Great Depression, I wouldn’t now question programs indebted to good ol’ fashioned graft. Indeed for many work crew, this is one of the few structures of employment that makes any sense.

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Jason Prue, 21, said he was living as a drifter in an old Dodge Intrepid with a dog named Buddy before joining the corps. "I decided I needed to do something, to find a job I loved." Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

A California Conservation Corps crew repaired trails in Mount Tamalpais State Park. The corps employs 1,300 young adults. Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

A California Conservation Corps crew repaired trails in Mount Tamalpais State Park. The corps employs 1,300 young adults. Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

While reading this article in the hairdressers, I was surprised to see Van Jones’ name once again. I have mentioned his previous work with incarcerated youth and now with sustainable energy policy. He sees the necessary link between these two issues and calls for former prisons, alienated youth, new unemployed and urban poor all to jump on to Obama’s “green economy employment juggernaut”.

“To cut off the opportunity for disadvantaged kids to get their feet on the first rung of the ladder to future green careers is criminal,” said Van Jones, author of the best-selling “Green Collar Economy” and founding president of the Oakland-based nonprofit agency Green for All.

Mr. Jones said the California program was the prototype for at least 13 similar corps in other states and an inspiration for conservation work programs being considered by the Obama administration.

“How can you be a green governor and be taking the tools to green the state out of the hands of young people?” Mr. Jones said.

That Schwarzenegger might gut the corps even as President Obama’s new administration evokes themes of public works, national service and overcoming odds galls some youth advocates, who say the program serves as a model for the type of “green collar” jobs promised by the Congressional stimulus package.

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Members of the corps cleaned their breakfast dishes in the dark before going out to repair trails and build a wheelchair-accessible trail in Mount Tamalpais State Park in Marin County. Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Edward Alvarez, 18, packing the group's lunches for the day. Mr. Alvarez comes from a long line of corps members. His father fought fires with the California Conservation Corps in the 1980s and his great-grandfather served in the Civilian Conservation Corps established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Does this effort to eradicate the CCC in order to save $34million/year suggest we have become too over ambitious? Are we realistic with the number and type of programs Obama’s stimulus package may bring? Is it really the “Christmas Tree” the Republican’s describe? How are we to design, support and administer a new movement in green jobs and environmental agri-service if we can’t maintain the simpler, tried-and-tested, restoration based programs?

For more pictures please view the full California Conservation Corps photo essay by Heidi Schumann for the New York Times

…. was today’s New York Times’ rueful statement of fact.

Writers note: These immigrants are undocumented and unsentenced. They are not criminals. This is not prison. This situation is of acute interest to Prison Photography blog because Maricopa County Sheriff’s office is deliberately trying to blur the distinction between these two very different populations.

I recently commented on Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s scurrilous publicity stunt and parading of immigrants in Maricopa County, Arizona. Not only does Arpaio don his ensnared with the stripes of historical chain gangs, he actually puts them to work as such.

Carlos Garcia for the New York Times

Carlos Garcia for the New York Times

Arpaio’s continued antics are firmly in the national spotlight. The New York Times has a long and varied history of comment. His mob-rule is increasingly divisive because a) we now hope for a just application of the law under an Obama administration and b) Janet Napolitano, former Governor of Arizona, and new Secretary of Homeland Security has yet to prove whether she can run the department without trampling human rights AND in so doing put pay to Arpaio’s abuses. The New York Times notes:

The burden of action is particularly high on Ms. Napolitano, who as Arizona’s governor handled Sheriff Arpaio with a gingerly caution that looked to some of his critics and victims as calculated and timid.

Ms. Napolitano, who is known as a serious and moderate voice on immigration, recently directed her agency to review its enforcement efforts, including looking at ways to expand the 287(g) program. Sheriff Arpaio is a powerful argument for doing just the opposite.

Now that she has left Arizona politics behind, Ms. Napolitano is free to prove this is not Arpaio’s America, where the mob rules and immigrants are subject to ritual humiliation. The country should expect no less.

All eyes are rightfully on this situation. It cuts right to the heart of the ideals America professes to uphold. Watch closely.


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