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This year marks 200 years since Auburn Prison went in to operation. Joe Librandi-Cowan grew up in the shadow of massive maximum-security prison in upstate New York. Over the past three years, Librandi-Cowan has been photographing the neighborhoods around the prison (now called Auburn Correctional Facility), has been meeting locals, diving into archives and exhibiting the work within the region. His main body of work is The Auburn System, titled after the Auburn System of prison management that added hard labour to the Philadelphia System of solitary, penitence and prayer. His photobook Songs of a Silent Wall brings together archive images of American prisons.

Librandi-Cowan has contempt for the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) in the United States and the manner in which its decentralized and embedded nature allows for its silent persistence. His work mounts a narrative that writes Auburn into the early chapters of the development of the PIC. It’s not a narrative closely examined by others in his hometown. Shaping and presenting the work has not been without its challenges.

It is Librandi-Cowan’s negotiations between critiquing the system and maintaining empathy for ordinary people who work in it–who are also swallowed by it–that fascinate me. Not least, because other image-makers focused on prisons are dealing with similarly delicate negotiations.

I’m grateful to Librandi-Cowan for making time to answer my questions.

Scroll on for our Q&A.

Q&A

PP: How did your work on Auburn Prison come about? Is it still ongoing?

JLC: The project formed into the focus of my undergraduate studies and eventually into my thesis work. The project is ongoing. The work requires a slow, long-term approach. While Auburn is my hometown, I still struggle to understand and represent it visually. My relationship to Auburn, much like the town’s relationship to the prison industry, is complex. I critique and question the history of an institution that has almost always supported the community. The fact that I am a member of the community, forces me to move slowly and carefully.

The history takes a while to sift through, the relationships I make with fellow Auburnians take a while to forge, and figuring out how to represent and combat the prison industrial complex isn’t something that is simple to figure out.

PP: When did you first start thinking of the prison as a topic for your art and inquiry?

JLC: The prison sits in the middle of the city. Many members of local families, generations deep, have been employed by the prison industry. Growing up, I was vaguely aware that some of my family had worked in the prison, but I never gave the prison – which was down the street from where I lived, always in view – much of a thought.

I knew little bits about the prison’s history – that it was one of the oldest prisons in New York State, and that it was the first place to host an execution by electrocution – but the prison, and ideas related to imprisonment, were seldom discussed or explained. I never questioned or understood the prison beyond it being a place for employment.

It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t necessarily normal to have a prison down the street or to have a family member or neighbor that worked inside a prison.

JLC: As I got older, I began to learn more about the prison system, mass incarceration, the economics involved and I began to realize that the prison had a much larger influence on my community than I had initially thought or understood. I began making images to make sense of the complicated role the prison has had with my hometown, with history, and with myself as a young person living in the town. I began photographing in an attempt to make sense of the prison system from the lens of a prison host community, but immediately I realized that it further pushed me to question it.

PP: Where have you presented this work?

JLC: I have presented this at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art, which is Auburn’s local history museum. I have also shown selections of the work at LightWork in Syracuse, NY, and I recently opened a show at SUNY Onondaga.

PP: When you showed it in Auburn itself how was it received?

JLC: Reactions varied – it was positive, negative, and also a bit static/unresponsive. Much of the feedback I received were initial aesthetic responses, and not feedback on the conceptual aspects or questions the work asked.

The prison is a top employer within the community, so people are seemingly reluctant to critique or question the role of the prison, its historical implications, or what the hosting of a prison means for a community.

While showing the work in Auburn, I made it clear within my presentation that I was questioning Auburn’s role within the prison industrial complex – past and present – and that I was interested in finding a way within our community to talk about the increasing problem of mass incarceration within the United States.

JLC: I found this information to be much more difficult to present and discuss within Auburn because so many within my community are directly involved with the correctional system. It was incredibly difficult to find ways to talk about what the work questions without the perception that I was criticizing the generations of people within my community who work or have worked at the prison. Finding productive ways to critically engage, discuss, and question the livelihood of many in my community has been very difficult.

In turn, the response to the work often ends up being extremely limited. Employee contracts won’t allow for correctional officers to discuss some of these issues with me, nor they do not want to talk ill of their work. Many people within my community have a difficult time reasoning with my questioning of the prison system; their relationships to it are complex, deep, and difficult to reckon with.

While many may generally agree that the prison system doesn’t function properly or fairly, Auburn’s relationship to its prison doesn’t seem to allow for a communal discussion on the matter.

PP: You suggested to me in an email that your worry over local reactions have effected the way you edit and present?

JLC: I wouldn’t say that I’ve necessarily changed the work, but I often worry that the project, and that the directness of my stance on the prison industry, may do damage to my community – especially when presented internally. Auburn has bore witness to much trauma. It has direct and early links to the Prison Industrial Complex, the electric chair, and to correctional practices that have helped shaped modern day incarceration. Condensing and presenting that information to the community almost produces and perpetuates this trauma. While it’s not the community’s direct fault, my questioning of these practices and histories has the potential to produce the feeling that the community itself is to blame.

While it is important to combat mass incarceration and the toxic attitudes that prison work can breed, I believe it’s also important to realize and remember that prisons have direct effects on the people who work within them and on the communities that host them.

To me, the ability of many within my community to navigate between the daily entrapment of prison walls and civilian life, begins to raise many questions about how traumas and toxic attitudes are transferred and perpetuated within my community and within society in general.

JLC: Prisons not only affect incarcerated individuals – they affect those who staff the prisons, the people close to those staff too. They affect towns that host prisons and communities from which members are extracted to then be incarcerated.

Prisons shape, and are shaped, by local and regional economies connected to the prison industry, and attitudes towards race – the list goes on. I’m trying to show that the web of the prison industrial complex, while much closer to my hometown than others, is something, often almost invisible, that is local to almost every American.

While I doubt many would pick prison work as their first employment opportunity, it is one of the only financially stable options within the Auburn area. Attacking the industry that financially provides for many within the community doesn’t seem to be the best way to have these conversations or to figure out alternatives or answers to the prison.

As I continue this project, I am attempting to find ways to properly and effectively critique mass incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex without alienating or further damaging my subjects – whether they be community members, correctional officers, or incarcerated individuals, or returning citizens.

PP: What is gained and what is lost by such slow and reflexive approach?

JLC: Being cautious and thoughtful about how the work may impact the actual people that the work represents will only help further the project and its possible impacts.

Much of the contemporary work on prisons deals with incarcerated individuals, however, I’m becoming increasingly interested in figuring out how conversations and representations of others within the prison industrial complex can impact and change our discussions on mass incarceration. Maybe if it can be shown that mass incarceration negativity effects all within the equation, different sources of change may occur?

I believe The Auburn System functions well outside of Auburn because distance from the work allows for a more general discussion around mass incarceration. But showing the work within Auburn has made me rethink how it should function within the town.

PP: Thanks, Joe

JLC: Thank you, Pete

JOE LIBRANDI-COWAN

Follow Librandi-Cowan‘s work on Instagram, VSCOFacebook, Vimeo, Tumblr and Twitter.

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Cameron Rowland, “New York State Unified Court System” (2016), oak wood, distributed by Corcraft, 165 x 57.5 x  36 inches, rental at cost. Courtrooms throughout New York State use benches built by prisoners in Green Haven Correctional Facility. The court reproduces itself materially through the labor of those it sentences. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)

You may have sat in the chairs, or slept on the pillows, or worn the smocks. What am I talking about? You may have used goods made by prison labour. You or your kids, depending what state you’re in, may have eaten school meals made by prisoners.

Wellington boots, uniforms, mattresses, furniture, binders, paper-goods, forms, flagpoles, hardware, utensils, even cookies … the list of goods made by prison industries is long. CALPIA (California Prison Industries Authority) in California and Corcraft in New York State are just two government agencies making high-quality goods while paying low-quality wages.

Prisoners working for CALPIA earn between 30 and 90 cents per hour (the higher end is rare) and then about 50% is taken out for taxes, charges and restitution. Supporters of these multimillion dollar agencies say it they provide valuable jobs training for prisoners. Opponents say it’s slave labor. Of course, you’re opinion will be swayed by whether you think prisons and jails are a net benefit or a net cost for society.

For prison abolitionists these state-insider agencies are second only in evil to the private prison companies. Why? Because they execute the quieter but some of the more pernicious maneuvering within capitalism. They devalue labor and devalue human beings. In California, those that defend CALPIA point out CALPIA only sells to other state bodies, but a market is a market and who the buyer is doesn’t change the work, wages or conditions for prisoners. In fact, most state-run prison industries don’t sell beyond state agencies is because they’d destroy many “free” markets simply by undercutting them on price–so great is the savings on wages. Look at those benches above; the joinery on those is out of this world. A steal at $654.50 (see below).

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Artist Cameron Rowland is dismayed. And energised. The benches and the jackets and desk in the images here are from Rowland’s latest show 91020000 at Artists Space in New York. Continuing his minimalist installation approach, Rowland has put a few (of the bigger) Corcraft goods in the gallery space. The project is as much an extended and deeply researched essay as it is this gallery installation.

“Property is preserved through inheritance,” writes Rowland. “Legal and economic adaptations have maintained and reconfigured the property interests established by the economy of slavery in the United States. The 13th constitutional amendment outlawed private chattel slavery; however, its exception clause legalized slavery and involuntary servitude when administered “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

To prison activists this is not new language. Even to Oprah’s List devotees this is not new. Michelle Alexander put into plain and passionate terms how the legal inequities of first, convict leasing, then Jim Crow laws and, now, expanded disenfranchisement laws in the era of mass incarceration, have maintained a “sub-class” made up disproportionately of people of colour.

Crucially, when Rowland talks of inheritance, he’s not talking about the bank accounts and assets of our parents. No, he’s talking about our shared inheritance as a nation that enjoys civic infrastructure and communities who benefit from, or not, the provision of nurturing institutions and spaces. Capitalism depends upon the movement and trade of raw materials. Roads, ports, markets, factories and comms all built upon a dependent system of inequality.

Rowland describes how convict leasing replaced a “largely ineffective” statute labor provision. And the roads in southern states got built. From there, Rowland rolls with the examples into modern day, not letting up to allow us an escape route argument of ‘This is now, That was then.’ It all connects. Read it.

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Cameron Rowland, “1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011” (2016), Nomex fire suit, distributed by CALPIA, 50 x 13 x 8 inches. Rental at cost “The Department of Corrections shall require of every able-bodied prisoner imprisoned in any state prison as many hours of faithful labor in each day and every day during his or her term of imprisonment as shall be prescribed by the rules and regulations of the Director of Corrections.” – California Penal Code § 2700. CC35933 is the customer number assigned to the nonprofit organization California College of the Arts upon registering with the CALPIA, the market name for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Prison Industry Authority. Inmates working for CALPIA produce orange Nomex fire suits for the state’s 4300 inmate wildland firefighters. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)

Alternatively, and also, read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Case For Reparations. It looks at generations of African Americans robbed of earnings, assets and net-worth, with a focus on agriculture in the south and red-lining of properties in Chicago. Coates’ piece is not a tour de force only because of its impeccable research but because he puts figures on it.

Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.

To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte. Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.

Which brings us to the modern day. And to the darker corners of American commerce.

Let’s be clear, Rowland isn’t arguing about the merits, or lack thereof, of the existing judicial system and the rightness or wrongness of the control of prisoners. No, he’s more interested in the economic uses of the prisoners, of those bodies.

I’ll argue, in Rowland’s absence, that prisons in the U.S. are morally repugnant and a violence on poor Americans to a unconscionable degree. I’ll double back round and point to Rowland’s beautifully constructed text and visual arguments as one piece of evidence for the assertion.

I’m sure Rowland and I would agree that the over-arching forces of commerce (from which all hands are a few steps removed from the control panel and therefore responsibility) are the problem.

Now read Seph Rodney‘s review The Products of Forced Labor in U.S. Prisons on Hyperallergic.

This excerpt particularly:

But how do we conceal the theft? The question that has to be posed when people are systematically disappeared is: Where do we hide the bodies? “In prison” is only part of the answer. The deeper, more sinister response is also the most seemingly benign: we abstract them so they become only sources of labor and wealth. We reduce them to lines in an actuarial table, an oblique reference in a statute, a number in a log book. We dissolve people into fungible assets.

A lot of the time quiet gallery spaces don’t do a lot for me. They just seem sad. But when an artist can fill the space with poignancy … and especially when they are dealing with a grave matter that is–like in the case of prison labor–desperately sad, then I think it works.

Cameron Rowland: 91020000 continues at Artists Space (3rd Floor, 38 Greene St, Soho, Manhattan) through March 13. Get there if you can.

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Cameron Rowland, “Attica Series Desk” (2016), steel, powder coating, laminated particleboard, distributed by Corcraft, 60 x 71.5 x 28.75 inches. Rental at cost: The Attica Series Desk is manufactured by prisoners in Attica Correctional Facility. Prisoners seized control of the D-Yard in Attica from September 9th to 13th 1971. Following the inmates’ immediate demands for amnesty, the first in their list of practical proposals was to extend the enforcement of “the New York State minimum wage law to prison industries.” Inmates working in New York State prisons are currently paid $0.10 to $1.14 an hour. Inmates in Attica produce furniture for government offices throughout the state. This component of government administration depends on inmate labor. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)

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Installation view of ‘Cameron Rowland: 91020000’ at Artists Space, New York (photo by Adam Reich)

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Every Friday Evening, in New York City, Women and Children Board Buses Headed for Upstate Prisons

Photographer Jacobia Dahm Rode Too and Documented, Through the Night, the Distances Families Will Go to See Their Incarcerated Loved Ones

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There are various ways to depict the family ties that are put under intense strain when a loved one is imprisoned. Photographers have focused on sibling love; artists have focused on family portraits, and documentarians have tracked the impact of mass incarceration across multiple generations. Often, the daily trials of family with loved ones inside are invisible, unphotographable, psychological and persistent—they are open ended and not really very easy to visualise.

One of the many strengths of Jacobia Dahm’s project In Transit: The Prison Buses is that it very literally describes a time (every weekend), a duration (8 or 10 hour bus ride), a beginning and an end, and a purpose (to get inside a prison visiting room). In Transit: The Prison Buses is a literal example of a photographer taking us there. Dahm took six weekend trips between February and May 2014.

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Dahm’s method is so simple it is surprising no other documentary photographer (I can think of) has told the same story this way. Dahm told me recently, that since the New York Times featured In Transit: The Prison Buses in November 2014, the interest and gratitude has been non-stop. I echo those sentiments of appreciation. Dahm describes a poignant set of circumstances with utmost respect. It is not easy to travel great distances at relatively large cost repeatedly, but families do. As a result, they take care of the emotional health of their loved ones — who, don’t forget are our prisoners — and society is a safer place because of it.

“Honestly, I don’t know why they place them so far away,” says one of Dahm’s subjects in an accompanying short film.

The women on these buses—and they are mostly women—are heroes.

I wanted to ask  Jacobia how she went about finding the story and photographing the project.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

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Prison Photography (PP): Where did the idea come from?

Jacobia Dahm (JD): In the fall of 2013, I began studying Documentary Photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. When the time came to choose a long-term project, I realized I had been captivated for a long time by the criminal justice system here in the U.S., where I had lived for the past decade. Frequently the severity of the sentences did not seem to make any sense, and the verdicts seemed to lack compassion and an understanding of the structural disadvantages that poor people — who make up the majority of prisoners— face. In short, sentencing did not seem to take human nature into account.

My sense of justice was disturbed by all of this. I was shaken when Trayvon Martin was killed and his killer walked free. Or when shortly after, Marissa Alexander, a woman who had just given birth, was given a 20-year sentence for sending a warning shot into the roof of the garage when cornered by her former abusive partner. Her sentence has since been reduced dramatically. But it’s complex: Where does a society’s urge to punish rather than help and rehabilitate come from? In both cases there was a loud public outcry. What’s remarkable is that there are frequent public outcries against the US justice system, because the system simply does not feel just. So I decided to do some work in this area.

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JD: But how do you even begin to photograph injustice?

My original plan was to take on one of the most worrisome aspects of US criminal justice: I wanted to photograph the families of people who were incarcerated for life without parole for non-violent offenses. But New York State does not incarcerate in that category and, as I had classes to attend, travel to further locations would have meant trickier access and less time with the subjects.

In conversation with one of my teachers Andrew Lichtenstein, who had done a good amount of work on prisons, he mentioned the weekend buses that take visitors to the prisons upstate. And once I had that image in my head — of a child on these buses that ride all night to the farthest points of New York State to see their incarcerated parent — I wanted to go and find that image.

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PP: How much preparation did you need to do? Or did you just turn up to the terminus?

JD: I researched the bus companies beforehand, some of them are not easy to find or call. And I had to find out which company went where. I also looked into the surroundings of each prison beforehand. I knew I would not be able to go into prison and knew most of them are in the middle of nowhere, so I had to make sure — especially since it was in the midst of freezing winter — that I would be within walking distance of some sort of town that had a cafe.

The first time I went upstate, it was on a private minivan. I had just finished reading Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s amazing non-fiction book, Random Family that narrated life over a decade in the 1980s and 90s in the South Bronx. The characters in the book travel with a company called “Prison Gap” which is one of the oldest companies running visitor transportation in New York City, and so I felt they were the real deal and decided to use them on my first trip upstate.

It was a freezing February night in 2014 and we gathered in a Citibank branch south of Columbus Circle for two hours before the minivans appeared. Many people came in to use the ATMs and some looked at us wonderingly, but no-one would have known that these people were about to visit prisons. What they would have seen is a mostly African-American crowd, mostly women, waiting for something.

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PP: I see Attica in your photos, did you just photo one route or many?

JD: The bus I ended up focusing on — because riding on the same bus would allow me to get to know passengers better — went to six different prisons in the Northwest of New York State: Groveland, Livingston, Attica, Wyoming, Albion and Orleans. Most buses and mini vans ride to a number of prisons, that way they always have a full bus because they serve a wider demographic.

I wanted to be on a bus that went to Albion, the largest women’s prison in NY State, because my assumption was, that female prisoners get more visits from their children, simply because the bond is almost always the most crucial one. But I was wrong, because as it turns out, women have fewer visitors, and for a number of reasons: Women tend to act as the social glue and make sure visits happen. And so when they’re the ones who are incarcerated, not everyone around them takes over or can take over the same way. Some dads are absent and if the children are raised by the grandmother, that trip will be very difficult to make for an elderly person.

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PP: What were the reactions of the families to your presence, and to your camera?

JD: The time I traveled upstate I was squeezed into the back of a white mini van, the only white person traveling up and the only one with a camera strapped around her neck. We drove all night and barely talked. It felt otherworldly thinking we are now driving to the Canadian border, but I forced myself to take at least a few pictures through the frozen window and of hands etc. Later the next morning we were moved to a larger bus and that bus was the one I rode on for the next five rides between February and May.

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JD: The first one or two times I took the trip, I did not take many pictures on the bus and I photographed the towns instead. I could quickly tell there was a sense of shame involved in having family in prison, and people where uncomfortable being photographed, which I understand. People had to get used to me first an understand what I was doing. So I did what you do when you are in that situation: I introduced myself to people, I took some pictures and brought them a print next time.

Once they had seen me on the bus more than once they were starting to be intrigued. I also told them that I too was a parent and could not imagine having to bring my children on such a long and difficult journey, and that I was sorry this was the case for them. I think it was rare for many of these women to encounter any kind of compassion from others, and it might have helped them to open up to me.

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PP: You describe the journeys as emotional, tiresome, grueling.

JD: You’re on the bus all night without getting much sleep. The expectations of the visits can be tense, because the mood of your entire relationship for the next week is depending on a few hours. But the journey has also been expensive and most likely exhausted all your funds for the week. During the visit you will be watched closely by the correctional officers, some of them might be rude to you. And if you bring your kids that aspect might be particularly difficult because you’re in no position to stand your ground.

You worry and hope your kids sleep well because you want them to be in good shape for the visit. I knew a grandmother who slept on the floor so her grandson could get the sleep he needed.

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JD: Another one of the moms I knew was not allowed to bring her three kids to Attica because Attica only allows for three people to visit. The child that was left at home with a babysitter or family member was upset and that puts stress on the entire family.

PP: Why are New York State’s prison so far upstate?

JD: New York has around 70 state prisons, and many of them are in rural, post-industrial or post-agricultural areas. You could not get to some of these towns with public transport if you wanted to. The prisons have been economic favors to depressed rural areas that have little else to offer in terms of jobs, but not factored in is how these favors tear families apart and further widen the distance between children and their incarcerated parents.

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PP: Do other states have similar geographic distances between communities and prisons?

JD: I am only beginning to understand what the system looks like in other states, but I believe people have to travel far in most states, as there seems to be no policy on the part of Departments of Corrections to place prisoners in proximity to their families.

In California for example, most prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison come from Los Angeles, and that prison is a 12-hour ride away. In Washington D.C. it seems a large part of the prisoners are placed federally, rather than within state, so the distances can be even larger. And with distance come increased travel costs that poorer families have a very hard time covering with regularity.

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JD: Considering that family ties are crucial in maintaining mental health and key in helping the prisoners regain their footing when they are out, it is a cruel oversight not to place people closer to those that are part of the rehabilitation process. Statistics tell us that the majority or prisoners have minor children.

PP: What can photography achieve in the face of such a massive prison system?

JD: I think at the very least pictures of an experience we know nothing about can create awareness, and at best it can move people to develop a compassion that can move them to act. I think a photograph can give you a sense of how something feels. Seeing is a sense of knowing, and it’s easy not to care if you don’t know.

In the face of the U.S. incarceration system — a system that seems to be concealed from most people’s sight but at the same time permeates so many aspects of the American life and landscape—it feels particularly important to me that photography plays the role of a witness.

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A rest stop at night in Pennsylvania. April 26, 2014.

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PP: How do you want your images to be understood?

JD: I think my images highlight a difficult journey that many people know nothing about.

The focus of the journey, and of my photographs, is on the people that connect the inside of a prison to the outside world: the families.

It might be that by seeing how an entire family’s life is altered people seeing those images and beginning to understand something about how incarceration affects not just the person on the inside, they are maybe capable of a compassion they don’t usually afford for prisoners themselves.

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PP: How do you want your images to be used?

JD: It’s hard to say because I believe an artist’s intention has limits when it comes to how the work is used.

I want people to put themselves in the families’ shoes. I want these images to help people begin to imagine what the secondary effects of incarceration are and how they could be softened. 10 million children in the US have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives, and that is not a good start in life for a very large number of the most vulnerable population.

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BIOGRAPHY

Jacobia Dahm (born Frankfurt, Germany) is a documentary storyteller and portrait photographer based in New York and Berlin. She graduated from the International Center of Photography in 2014, where she was a Lisette Model Scholar and received the Rita K. Hillman Award for Excellence. Dahm’s photography and video has been recognized with awards from Rangefinder and the International Photography Awards. Her work has been published by Makeshift Magazine, The New York Times, Shift Book, AIAP and Prison Photography. Her key interest is documenting issues of social justice.

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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.”

COP TURNED ADVOCATE

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.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE INCLUDES GRAPHIC IMAGES OF MUTILATION

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

Q&A

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.”

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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.

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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

In 1972, Joshua Freiwald was commissioned by San Francisco architecture firm Kaplan & McLaughlin to photograph the spaces within Clinton Correctional Facility in the town of Dannemora, NY.

In the wake of the Attica uprising in September of 1971, the New York Department of Corrections commissioned Kaplan & McLaughlin to asses the prison’s design as it related to the safety of the prison, staff and inmates. The NYDoC wanted to avoid another rebellion.

The most astounding sight within Dannemora was the terrace of “courts” sandwiched between the exterior wall and the prison yard. It is thought the courts began as garden plots in the late twenties or early thirties, although there is no official mention of their existence until the 1950s.

Simply, the most remarkable example of a prisoner-made environment I have ever come across.

The courts were the focus of Ron Roizen’s 55 page report to the NYDoC on the situation at Clinton Correctional Facility. Sociologist Roizen, also hired by Kaplan & McLaughlin, conducted interviews with inmates over a period of five days:

“Inmates waited months, sometimes even years, to gain this privilege. The groups would gather during yard time to shoot the breeze, cook, eat, smoke, and generally ‘get away from’ the rigors and boredom of prison life.”

In the same five days, Freiwald took hundreds of photographs at Dannemora. Eight of those negatives were scanned earlier this month and are published online here for the first time.

“Since I’d taken these photographs, I’ve come to realize that these are something quite extraordinary in my own medium, and represent for me a moment in time when I did something important. I can’t say for sure why they’re important, or how they’re important, but I know they’re important,” says Freiwald.

Freiwald and I discuss the social self-organisation of the inmates around the courts, his experiences photographing, the air “thick” with tension and surveillance, the spectre of evil, and how structures like the courts simply do not exist in modern prisons.

LISTEN TO OUR DISCUSSION ON THE PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY PODBEAN PAGE

All images © Joshua Freiwald

All images © Joshua Freiwald

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