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Prisoners cleaning the Great Mississippi River Road after the flood. Alton, Illinois, 2008. © Jo Ann Walters, from the series Dog Town.

Following on nicely from yesterday’s post about prisoners work details, is this image (right-click for a larger view) by Jo Ann Walters, from her series Dog Town.

Chance, or seemingly chance, encounters between photographers and prisoner road crews are not uncommon – portraits by Roger Kisby and Alec Soth spring to mind as similar types of images. Not to mention the dozens of photographers including Scott Houston, Jon Lowenstein and Jim Lo Scalzo who’ve photographed Sheriff Joe Arapio’s chain-gang publicity stunts.

I’ve always lived on the west coast and I haven’t happened upon prisoner work teams but I think this is because the work, for example, of the 200 fire crews and 4,000 offenders at the 42 California DOC Conservation Camps goes on in isolated areas.

How about you? Have you ever seen prisoners on your daily commute or holiday road-trips?


Prisoner at the County Farm, making cane syrup, 1966.

The Center for Documentary Studies described Paul Kwilecki (1928-2009) as “perhaps the most important late-twentieth-century photographer you’ve heard little to nothing about.” His work is completely new to me. Thanks to Mark Peter Drolet for the tip.

What I so fascinating about Kwilecki’s photographs is that they focus on the work details to which prisoners were assigned, ranging from 1966 to 1998. I don’t want to get into a debate here about the degree to which the work Kwilecki photographed was rehabilitative – it would be pure speculation. Instead, I’d ask you to muse on the changing nature of the work – cane syrup production; irrigation ditch digging; courthouse janitorial work; brush-clearing; hog butchering; and construction and renovation work, again in the courthouse.

Before the era of mass incarceration it was common for prisons to have their own pasture, cattle, milk parlours, arable land, and year-round crops. The organic foods produced by prisoners were sometimes sold outside the prison, but also almost always consumed by the prisoners themselves. Why is this no longer the case?

In the eighties, when inmate populations soared and with them prison budgets, cost cutting took its grip. Farms and work details only remained if they drew immediate profits (or, were at the very least, not money-losers). The staff costs to supervise self-sustaining food production were not deemed worthwhile. I’m sure arguments about security factored in somewhere too.

Added to this was a philosophy that rehabilitation was a flawed prospect and the only thing to do with prisoners was to “incapacitate them”,  This is why, today, prisons don’t have their own cattle, but they do press license plates.

In short, as the U.S. prison population rocketed to 2.3 million, contracting of services became big business. Prisoners ended up with overcrowded cellblocks, less time in programs, more time in lockdown, sub-standards foods and jobs that supported the production of State essentials such as uniforms, furniture and ironically industrially-manufactured foodstuffs. Prisoners have made products for IBM, Starbucks, Walmart, Microsoft and Dell.

Aside of this brief history of prison labour – and returning to Kwilecki’s photography – what is also refreshing to see is the relaxed and purposeful interactions between prisoners and guards. People might be shocked to see images of prisoners using butchering knives, but on a daily basis, U.S. prisoners are using tools for sophisticated fabrication work. Unfortunately, we often only hear about the use of tools when they are shanks.

One final note. This is the only collection of images I have encountered of prisoners butchering hogs. Unique.

The Center For Documentary Studies at Duke has a 634 image archive of Kwilecki’s work and his life’s papers and contact sheets too. Enjoy discovering Kwilecki’s work as I have. 


Sheriff Shorty (E.W.) Phillips in front of one of the women’s cells, [circa 1972].


Prisoners and guard working on dam, 1979.


Prisoner cleaning court room, 1979 Sept.


Prisoner with a bush hook cleaning Darsay family cemetery in the southern part of the county, 1983 June.


Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.


Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.


Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.


Hog killing at the County Farm, 1983 Mar.


Butchering hogs, County Farm (prison), 1983 Mar.


Prisoner at the county farm butchering hogs (prison), 1983 Mar.


Prisoner at the county farm (prison) butchering hogs, 1983 Mar.


Prisoner doing construction work, 1998 Apr.


Prisoners on break from construction work, 1998 Apr.


Guards, 1998 Apr.


Prisoner, 1998 July.


Thanksgiving dinner on courthouse grounds, 1998 Dec.

Two weeks ago I attended a talk by Van Jones, the founder of the Ella Baker Center. He advocates for social equality and the rights & opportunities of incarcerated youth. Recently, if he didn’t have enough on his plate, he has added saving the environment to his roster of causes. Jones’ energy is contagious and he quickly convinces you that there indeed is “one solution to our two major problems”.

Manufacturing Photovoltaic Cells (Reuters)

Jarnail Basraa lines up solar cells for a solar energy panel at Evergreen Solar's headquarters in Marlborough, Massachusetts. After decades on the fringe, solar power is closing in on America's mainstream as surging fossil fuel prices and mounting concern over climate change spur states, businesses and homeowners into a quickening embrace with alternative energy. (REUTERS)

Hold on! What? Two problems? Aren’t there more problems than that? Yes, and so Jones, like President Elect Obama, argues that all these can be traced back to economics and environment. Furthermore, Jones argues for a single root solution to these two issues that solves the many related problems. Jones envisages a government-supported, corporate-boosted, people-activated Green Economy that shifts investment from “a 20th century pollution-based & consumption-oriented economy” to “a 21st century clean, solution-oriented economy”. The magic being that the jobless urban poor with the worst cases of asthma, cancers and pollutant-based health problems are the ones to take full advantage of this new platform. Jones asks, “Do we really want to further entrench ourselves in “eco-apartheid” in which the affluent retreat to the hills and the remainder suffer the smog?”

Jones admitted he is not the most likely of authors for a book of this type, but following quick inspection, it (and he) makes sense. Jones seeks routes out of poverty for the urban poor and the formerly incarcerated. His native California is more desperate for solutions than most states.

Solar panels soak up some rays near the Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, Calif. Last week, the state unveiled a 1.18 megawatt solar-power plant at the prison that provides enough electricity to power a quarter of the facility's needs. (REUTERS)

Solar panels soak up some rays near the Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, Calif. Last week, the state unveiled a 1.18 megawatt solar-power plant at the prison that provides enough electricity to power a quarter of the facility

Jones is thinking big. The creation of jobs, personal prosperity and regional economic growth would need to be unprecedented if it were to mop up the wasted lives and wasted dollars of the California Youth Authority & the CDCR let alone the gross deficit of California’s halting economy (For your interest I read that over 20% of California households owe more on money toward their mortgage than their house is actually worth).

It seemed that I had, accidentally, skirted the same issues Jones works with. How do you give enough previously disenfranchised people enough work and pride to reverse social histories of crime and transgression? If the state intervenes, prematurely or not, where friends and family cannot succeed, it absolutely must begin when the offender is committed to an institution. And yet, as I noted in my previous post only 5,400 inmates are involved in PIA work. (This figure doesn’t factor for the number of inmates in retraining programs, which fluctuates. I’ll get back to you) The fact remains, the CDCR is overcrowded and not investing in rehabilitation adequately. All education and vocational training is fully subscribed.

Ironwood Solar Field

Ironwood Solar Field

The unremarkable photograph (above) of the first CDCR solar field at Ironwood State Prison, which I wrongly attributed to Wasco, and used as for closing cynical footnote about watercolour painting is perhaps worth revisiting.

The fields are in the middle of nowhere, because most newly constructed prisons are in the middle of nowhere. I wonder if there could be a conspiracy of persuasion to bring SunEdison or any of their partners and competitors to these remote locations with an inactive but very willing pool of men, set up factories and operations and train inmates during their sentences?

I would like to ask Van Jones if he considers the current CDCR and/or the developing green economy infrastructure flexible enough to execute a long term retraining programme within California’s prison system. How plausible is it that the new green economy can benefit the imprisoned population of America? I  believe Jones when he says we can reach out to the urban poor and provide training schemes. I believe Jones when he expects government support to launch thousands, even millions, of jobs and through doing so gives rise to a multitude of career paths that emerge, shape and change along with the renewable energy industry.

Ironwood Solar Field (REUTERS)

Ironwood Solar Field (REUTERS)

That said, I am skeptical that this herculean social project could dovetail easily with the federal and state prison systems of America. People are suspicious of corporations involved in state corrections; people may be shocked to inaction when learning of the massive investment and rarified leadership required for a large scale prison works programme; people know that historically the prison is hard to access; people may suspect no return on its tax dollars.

Logistically, anything is possible. But culturally many things are proscribed. The political will to enact a sweeping reform of prison training based upon a new-green-economy-doctrine may wither quickly when confronted with public opinion and economic depression. I fear prisoners will get ignored for another  generation and pushed oncemore to the bottom of the priority list.


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