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Coverage of aging prison populations will receive more column inches, online commentary, pixels and pingbacks in the coming years. Just as social security needs overhaul in the US and the pension age is to be raised in the UK, so too new means of fiscal policy are needed to cater for the elderly behind bars … on both sides of the pond.

Edmund Clark’s Still Life: Killing Time is a quiet meditation on the slowness, the fabric and the accoutrements of prison life for elderly inmates. It was two years in the making. This was a hard project to track down. It seems all of Edmund Clark’s promotion is done by others; by publishers, journos, gallerists and supporters. Clark has no website. Clark is as inconspicuous as his subjects.

Clark doesn’t do the commentary for the Guardian‘s Audio Slideshow (MUST SEE). In his absence, Erwin James does a great job of whispering the tragic, hard realities of the prison environment. I include and italicise Erwin’s comments below Clark’s photographs.


“It saddens me when I see these pictures, these tokens of disablement, the accoutrements of disability; a chair lift, a walking stick, a walking frame. I think that is when I struggle with the idea that these people should be in prison. If someone is demonstrably infirm, demonstrably not functioning well through age or ill health, a prison environment (which this clearly is) is not the appropriate environment.”

It’s worth noting some background to the series. Elderly prison populations only recently became serious noticeable enough for HM Prison Service to trial different modes of containment. The E-Wing of Kingston Prison, Portsmouth was the first experiment. In 2007, upon publication of the book, Erwin James explained;

The answer was Kingston’s E wing. For eight years, this was home to up to 25 elderly men serving life for murder, rape, child sex offences and other offences of violence. The men were aged from their late 50s to over 80. Many had been in prison for more than 10 years, and several for stretches of 30 years or more. E wing as a special facility for elderly prisoners no longer exists. The only other wing dedicated to infirm and disabled prisoners now is in Norwich prison, Norfolk.



“I think cell bars are a tough one. They offer a difficult vista. When you look through cell bars you are aware that the outside doesn’t belong to you. You’re disengaged. And when you see cell bars with a bit of colour like that – the flower and the card – it’s a bit incongruous. These old guys are still humans.”

But for James, as for myself, and particularly for Clark, this is not about sympathy or compassion for the convicted criminal. It has already been stated that these men are serious criminals. There surely must come a point though when an old man is not the physical threat he once was. Simon Norfolk – a photographer I personally consider one of Britain’s best – wrote for the foreword;

” … why are there bars on the window of a man who can’t walk without a frame. What kind of escape plan can be hatched by a man who can’t remember how to go to the toilet.”


“This picture for me epitomizes the absurdity, and moments of madness the prison system can have. We are keeping someone in prison, who has dementia. They have basic instruction about how to go to the toilet. If there were ever a case for somebody who needs not to be in prison, it would be for that person.”

The only statement I can find directly from Clark, the photographer, is worth meditation.

What you can see in the pictures is to what extent they are engaged with their routine, and on top of their regime and what sort of engagement they have with time. One man, who wore a long grey beard, coped with the passage of time, as far as I could see, by disengaging with it completely. He spent most of his time sitting in his chair … He just sat and disappeared within himself. After about a year I could go and talk to him, and this man was clever, he’d been a captain in the merchant navy and had sailed around the world. I asked him once what was the best place he’d been to and he lifted his head and said, ‘Sao Paulo, I loved Brazil …’ And then suddenly this life came out, his life was all there, hidden away. The bulldog clock on the book cover belonged to him, it was one of his prized possessions.


Apparently, Clark created this body of work spurred by reports from the USA about mandatory sentencing under “Three Strikes Laws” and the consequent swelling of America’s prison population. Clark engaged with Britain’s aging prison population in direct response to demographic disasters in American penal policy. Clark elaborates;

People subjected to it [Three Strikes Law] were swelling the ranks of the prison population, with the result that many men sentenced when young would spend the rest of their lives incarcerated. I wondered what the response in the UK was to those incarcerated for many years – the life prisoners, or ‘lifers’, who face an old age and growing infirmity in an institutional environment still ruled by the survival of the fittest.

Clark made his point by seeking out the UK’s first specialised prison facility for aged prisoners and then produced a body of work that is distinctly British. Photographs of Bond posters, a (British?) Bulldog, Red-top clippings of Diana & the Queen, and framed artwork of common birds to British gardens & allotments; these are not obvious clues to a global appreciation of prison culture. I conclude, Clark thinks globally, acts locally.


“If you are young and strong prison is manageable on the whole. If you feel weak or infirm or poorly it is a harder place to be and these photographs epitomize the frailty factor, the danger of getting old in prison or being old in prison … My feeling about prison is that it is not a place for old people. Prison is one environment for everybody regardless of your circumstances and so what happens is your survival depends on luck and natural resources. And if you’re old you’re not gonna have as much luck as the younger guys.”


“There’s a lot of people in the system who know that prison is not a place for old, infirm, disabled people. And its not. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be separated from society, but I am talking about prison as we know it. The common interpretation of prison is landings, wings, cells, prison officers, dogs, security; that whole encapsulation of captivity. If you are infirm there needs to be another place. We are giving extra punishment to the weak people.”



“There is an argument for separating the old folks from the main prison wing and that is what happened here. It was an experiment. E-Wing. The danger for me is that is becomes a place … you know, they talked of the fetid atmosphere; smelly and hot. The smell of old people. As a society we don’t have a lot of respect for old people.”

Clark’s unambiguous images of mobile aids and instructions for the senile are a clear call for change. His studies of prized-possessions and personal ordering of objects play on emotional responses to depicted vulnerabilities; Clark’s works conspire as a whole (43 images in total) to shape a convincing argument that we should all care about how our prison system accommodates different demographics. The elderly demographic is only growing, only advancing … with time.

As James’ words have served me so well throughout this article I shall close with his take on public opinion.

“I am pleased society is taking this on, because prison is a robust and hostile environment, and in fact the authorities refer to all prisons as hostile environments. That’s how they’re officially termed. That’s not because everyone who goes there are dangerous, but I think prison brings out the worst in a lot of people. It can bring out the best, but often it brings out the worst. And that’s not to say they are bad characters, it’s because people in prison are defensive and they are defensive because they are frightened.”



All images copyright of Edmund Clark.

Still Life: Killing Time, by Edmund Clark, is published by Dewi Lewis, and avaiable at PhotoEye

It gives me great pleasure to introduce Prison Photography‘s first guest blogger. However, it saddens me as much that he must remain anonymous.

A couple of months ago, I received an email from a California state employee who worked as a prison educator. To paraphrase that initial contact, he stated that “California prisons were places of extreme emotion and stress – due in part to their ‘invisibility’  – and photography within the walls of prisons could go some way in bringing visibility and public understanding to the realities of contemporary prisons.”  This was a remarkable statement and the first of its kind that I had heard from someone in employment at a state prison. I asked if he could expand on those thoughts and I am grateful he did.

The great irony of this is that the essay is not illustrated by the images he witnesses daily. He has offered us poignant descriptions of scenes from within prison. The descriptions are a powerful device to get us thinking about what we think we know and what we potentially could know about our penal system.

He suggested I use some of CDCR’s own images. The aerial shots included are the official vision of the California prison system that disciplines and orders the different sized units that comprise the institution; cells, wings, blocks and facilities. The institutional eye of CDCR’s aerial views lies in powerful contrast to the personal narrative recorded here.

Avenal State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

Avenal State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

I work in California prisons. Penology has become grown into avocation over the last 10 years. A past career in journalism with some practice in photojournalism informs a strong inclination to report/communicate what I see and experience. So I am daily frustrated by prison policies against recording the visual images I see. Each day I wonder if these policies are justified. If not, are they an impediment to rehabilitation, perhaps even prison reform? Do these policies protect society and the prisoners and staff persons who are a part of society? Or are these policies so much heavy furniture upon the carpeting under which we have swept our societal human detritus?

[IMAGE] There but for the grace of God go I – Close up of a hollow expression on the face of a prisoner as he watches two uniformed guards escort another prisoner across the bare, brown dirt of a prison yard. One guard holds a baton at the ready, the other menacingly waves a carafe-sized container of pepper spray, his finger on the trigger. In the background are multiple 12-foot chain-link faces topped by rounds of glistening razor wire.

North Kern State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

North Kern State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

If you ever work with law enforcement on the street, you will hear the mantra “officer safety.” Policies, procedures, even individual officer actions have this mantra as an underlying core within their stated mission to serve public safety. In the prison, that mantra becomes “safety and security of the institution.” Everything is measured against that mantra. Nothing is approved if anyone can show that it may be a threat to institutional safety and/or security. Uncensored and uncontrolled photographic images seem to be considered an inherent threat to institutional safety and security. From a rookie guard to the departmental secretary, few things seem to frighten them quite so much as image impotence in the institutions they so wholly control. From regular staff trainings to informal reminders I have been inculcated (brainwashed?) to accept the imprudence of taking pictures on prison grounds. Simply having a camera on prison property could be cause for termination.

[IMAGE] The burden of laundry – a prisoner wearing only boxer shorts sits on the lowest metal slab of a three-high tier of bunk beds in a prison gymnasium. His hands are deep in a bright yellow, worn mop bucket on the floor in front of him. Inside, white socks and underwear mingle in lukewarm, soapy water.

Prison regulations acknowledge their public nature and the public’s right to know what goes on inside prisons, at least bureaucratically. Title 15 of California Code of Regulations, Section3260 is entitled “Public Access to Facilities and Programs.” It states:

“Correctional facilities and programs are operated at public expense for the protection of society. The public has a right and a duty to know how such facilities and programs are being conducted. It is the policy of the department to make known to the public, through the news media, through contact with public groups and individuals, and by making its public records available for review by interested persons, all relevant information pertaining to operations of the department and facilities. However, due consideration will be given to all factors which might threaten the safety of the facility in any way, or unnecessarily intrude upon the personal privacy of inmates and staff. The public must be given a true and accurate picture of department institutions and parole operations.”

Is absolute control over visual images in and around prison an unreasonable imposition on prisoners, staff, families, general public, media, etc? Does it interfere with the desirable goal of family/community connection with prisoners? Does it contribute anything to either rehabilitation or punishment, the two general goals of incarceration? I’ve catalogued the reasons I’ve been given, or even imagined, over the years and want to see how they stand up to public scrutiny.

Pleasant Valley State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

Pleasant Valley State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

The first and foremost reason for image control would seem to be the prevention of both escapes and incursions. Photographs of prisons may provide intelligence to anyone planning escapes, contraband smuggling, perhaps even terrorist activities. This seems reasonable enough, at least until you start prowling around the Internet. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Web site has high-resolution aerial photographs of every one of its prisons. Anyone with even rudimentary analysis skills could do serious escape/incursion planning based on these photographs alone. But wait, there’s more. Google maps have more information – local maps, photographs of the prisons, even their “street view” photographs in some instances that clearly show fences, towers, gates, etc. With that level of public information available, I don’t see how you make a credible argument that I can’t take pictures on prison grounds.

5th & Western, Norco, CA. Google Street View.

5th & Western, Norco, CA. Google Street View.

[IMAGE] The spread – four heavily tattooed prisoners in underwear standing around a dented, dingy gray metal locker. There are bowls on top of the locker and they are sharing food they cooked using hot water, instant soup noodle packets and canned meats, vegetables and seasonings. On the dirty gray concrete wall behind them is stenciled in fading red paint: NO WARNING SHOTS FIRED.

Privacy would seem to be the next strongest argument for prohibiting prison images. Given the open policies in other states, this argument seems flimsy. For prisoners, all conviction information is public. Simply go to the appropriate county court and the information is openly available to the public. Yet it is extremely difficult to get any information about prisoners in the California prisons. For the public there is one telephone number you can call. [916 445-6713] You must know either the prisoner’s CDCR Identification Number or the full name and correct date of birth. The line is perpetually busy and, if answered, the caller can expect to be put on hold for a long, long time (yes, hours). On the other hand, if you go to the Nevada Department of Corrections Web site, you can search for Orenthal Simpson and it will show not only his prison and address but all his convicted offenses, terms and release date. Oklahoma, not generally known for openness, shows the prisoner’s location, convicted offenses, release and parole dates, even pictures. The federal Bureau of Prisons will provide prisoner location and release dates for current and past prisoners. Try a search on their site for Martha Stewart.

Salinas Valley State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

Salinas Valley State Prison. Courtesy CDCR

A major defense California prison management will make for the privacy argument is gang violence. They believe if it is easy to find a person in a particular prison, that can make it easier for gangs to use him. The gangs may use the prisoner to do their illegal work or to order him killed if he has fallen from grace, so to speak. CDCR logic is that by keeping prisoners hidden they are keeping them protected. If this is true, the magnitude of the gang problem is nothing short of monumental. Other states apparently do not have this problem. Why not?

[IMAGE] A pile of clothing, denim pants, orange coveralls, boots, etc. on a six-foot folding table. Two uniformed guards on one side of the table. Two naked inmates on the other side of the table, one bent over spreading his rear-end cheeks for officer inspection.

I categorize all other arguments against my taking prison pictures as simple totalitarian need for control. An uncontrolled image is seen as a risk – and why take a risk? The fewer images that exist, the fewer possibilities there are for something to happen that they can’t control. Statistically speaking, very few members of the public or the media ever get to see what happens inside prisons. Media representatives are escorted at all times and only see what prison management wants them to see. They are rarely given unfettered access to prisoners. Visitors are the bulk of the public that see anything of a prison, and that is a very limited view – parking lots, processing rooms and the visiting rooms. Even inmate appearance is tightly controlled in the visiting experience. The prisoner who shows up needing a shave or wearing a wrinkled shirt doesn’t get into the visiting room. And he or she will be strip-searched going in and coming out.

San Quentin. Courtesy CDCR

San Quentin. Courtesy CDCR

Prisons, at least in California, are reactive rather than proactive. California’s first permanent prison, San Quentin, opened for business in 1852. Since then, the prison system has been making rules and regulations based on preventing the recurrence of negative events. For example, a prisoner at R.J. Donovan prison at San Diego escaped using a fake staff identification card he had made. He walked out amid a small crowd of other staff leaving at shift change time. As was customary then, he simply held up his photo ID and was waved through with the rest of the ID card wavers. To prevent this from happening again, CDCR policy now requires the gate officer to physically touch and examine the employee ID card before letting the person through the gate. Such policy-creation has been repeated tens of thousands of times over the past 157 years of the California state prison system. It does not lend itself to the openness of unfettered prison images.

[IMAGE] The back of a prisoner’s shaved head as he sits in the audience of a GED graduation ceremony. Visible under his mortarboard are gang tattoos on his head and neck. Blurred in the background an inmate stands at the podium giving his valedictory address.

Until 1980, incarceration in California had rehabilitation as a major goal. The state legislature in that year, bowing to a Reganesque rabble-rousing changed prison law to say the purpose of incarceration is punishment. The concept of rehabilitation disappeared and so did most of the prisoner programming and policies meant to promote rehabilitation. Connection with family is known to be one of the most important factors in rehabilitation. I suggest the control of images in the prison system is one policy that discourages family connections.

Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran. Courtesy CDCR

Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran. Courtesy CDCR

Prison subsumes human beings. Prisoners disappear over time. As soon as a man goes to prison, he begins to fade from his former life. Just as a photographic print will fade over the years, the place of a man in his family fades while he is in prison. Life goes on – without him. His linkages to the fabric of family and community eventually fray and break. Phone calls, letters and visits cannot fully replace the foundations of shared daily interactions, family projects, adventures, challenges and the intimacy of shared emotions. Despite our ability to love, we are creatures of habit, and over time absence can become a habit that seems a normal reality.

The absence of prison images in society supports the concept of shame in incarceration. This shame then supports an estrangement that prison system managers find useful for their purposes. The human toll of that is prisoners who simply hunker down to do their time. Some resist family contact. “I don’t want my children coming to see me in a place like this,” is a common thing I hear from prisoners who could have visits if they wanted them. Would this change if prison images were common in our society? I think so. I think it’s worth a try.


Last week, I threw up a quick post featuring Emiliano Granado’s website images of his photographs of the San Quentin Giants. Here, Granado shares previously unpublished contact sheet images, his experiences and lasting thoughts from working within one of America’s most notorious prisons.



What compelled you to travel across the US to photograph the story at San Quentin?
This was actually a magazine assignment for Mass Appeal Magazine.  However, the TOTAL budget was $300, so it really turns out to be a personal project after the film, travel expenses, etc. So, the simple answer to the question is that I’m a photographer. I’m curious by nature. Part of the reason I’m a photographer is to study the world around me. I like to think of myself as a social scientist, except I don’t have any scientific method of measuring things, just a photograph as a document.

With that in mind, it would be crazy of me to NOT go to San Quentin! I’d never been in a correctional institution but I’ve always been fascinated by them.  If you look through my Tivo, you’ll see shows like COPS, Locked Up, Gangland, etc. I was also a Psychology major in college and remember being blown away by Zimbardo’s prison experiment and other studies. Basically, it was an opportunity to see in real life a lot of what I’d seen on TV or read in books. And as a bonus, I was allowed to photograph.



What procedures did you need to go through in order to gain access?
I was amazed at the lack of procedure. The writer for the story had been in touch with the San Quentin public relations people, but that was it. There was plenty of other media there that day. It was opening day of the season, so I guess it made for a minor local news story.

I’m pretty sure SQ prides itself in being so open and showcasing what a different approach to “reform” looks like.

It is my opinion that San Quentin is one of the best-equipped prisons in California to deal with a variety of visitors. Did you find this the case?
Definitely.  Access was very easy. They barely searched my equipment!  Parking was easy. I was really surprised at how easy and smooth the process was. Not to mention there were many other visitors that day (an entire baseball team, more media, local residents playing tennis with inmates, etc).



Did your preparation or process differ due to the unique location?
Definitely. I usually work with a photo assistant and that couldn’t be coordinated, so I was by myself. I packed as lightly as I could and prepared myself for a fast, chaotic shoot. Some shoots are slow and methodical, and others are pure chaos. I knew this would be the latter.

One thing I didn’t think about was my outfit. SQ inmates dress in denim, so visitors aren’t allowed to wear denim. Of course, I was wearing jeans. The officers gave me a pair of green pajama pants. I’m glad they are ready for that kind of situation.



You are not a sports shooter per se. You took portraits of the players and spectators of inmate-spectators. How did you choose when to frame a shot and release the shutter?
Correct. I’m definitely not what most people would consider a sports photographer. I don’t own any of those huge, long lenses. However, I photograph lots of sporting events. I think of them as a microcosm of our society. There are lots of very interesting things happening at events like this.  Fanaticism, idolatry, community, etc.  Not to mention lots of alcohol and partying  – see my Nascar images!

Hitting the shutter isn’t entirely a conscious decision. That decision is informed by years of looking at successful and unsuccessful images.  It’s basically a gut instinct. There are times that I search for a particular image in my head, but mostly, it’s about having the camera ready and pointed in the right direction.  When something interesting happens you snap.

There are photographers that come to a shoot with the shots in their head already. They produce the images – set people up, set up lighting, etc.  Then there are photographers that are working with certain themes or ideas and they come to the location ready to find something that informs those ideas. I’m definitely the latter. There is a looseness and discovery process that I really enjoy when photographing like this. It’s like the scientist crunching numbers and coming to some new discovery.



A lot of photo editors say the story makes the story, not the images. Finding the story is key. Do you think there are many more stories within sites of incarceration waiting to be told?
I’m not sure I agree with that. I always say that a photograph can be made anywhere. Even if there is no story, per se. I definitely agree that a powerful image along with a powerful story is better, but a photograph can be devoid of a story, but be powerful anyway.

Every person, every place, everything has a story.  So yes, there are millions of untold stories within sites of incarceration.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell some of them.

Having had your experience at San Quentin, what other photo essays would you like to see produced that would confirm or extend your impressions of America’s prisons?
Man, there are millions of photos waiting to be made! I’m currently trying to gain access to a local NYC prison to continue my work and discover a bit more about what “Prison” means. Personally, I’d love to see long-term projects about inmates. Something like portraits as new inmates are processed, images while incarcerated, and then see what their life is like after prison.  Their families, their victims, etc.  And of course, if any photo editor wants to assign something like that, I’d love to shoot it!


Anything you’d like to add to help the reader as they view your San Quentin Baseball photographs?
Yes. When I walked in to the yard, I didn’t know what reaction I would get from the inmates. Everyone was super friendly and willing to be photographed. Everyone wanted to tell me their story. I’m not sure how different their reaction would have been to me if I didn’t have a camera, but I was pleasantly surprised.  At first, I felt like an outsider and fearful, but after an hour or so, I felt comfortable and welcome.  It was a weird experience to think the guy next to me could be a murderer (and there were, in fact, murderers on the baseball team), and not be afraid. There was this moral relativism thing going on in my head. These people were “bad,” yet they were just normal guys that had made very big mistakes. I left SQ thinking that pretty much any one of us could have ended up like them. Given a different set of circumstances or lack of access to social resources (e.g. education, money, parenting, etc) I could very easily see how my own life could have mirrored their life.

And finally, can you remember the opposition?
I don’t remember who they were playing, but I do remember that their pitcher had played in the Majors and even pitched in a World Series. I believe the article that finally ran in Death + Taxes magazine mentions the opposition.



Authors note: Huge thanks to Emiliano Granado for his thoughtful responses and honest reflections. It was a pleasure working with you E!

Housekeeping. At the end of my previous post on Emiliano’s work, I postured when San Quentin would get more sports teams for the integration of prisoners and civilians. Emiliano has answered that for me in this interview. He observed locals playing tennis and also states San Quentin also has a basketball team.

Ettore Scalambra © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Ettore Scalambra © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Luca Ferrari is a young documentary photographer who graduated recently from The University of Wales, Newport. In 2001, he gained a scholarship in Rome and chose to document the lives of inmates in his native Italy at Rebibbia Prison.

© 2009 Luca Ferrari

© 2009 Luca Ferrari

I have chosen seven of his most striking works. Ferrari’s portraits are accompanied by words spoken by the prisoners. I have only included a single testimony here and I encourage you all to take the time to visit his site to understand the subjects more. Ferrari offers the caveat, “I apologise if some of the text is long for internet reading, but they are an essential part of my work.” No apology needed. The necessity for the text is obvious; I would argue crucial.

I have included the words of one inmate discussing the experience of another at the end of this post. The words are hard to read. I jostled with the decision to include them or not. In the end, I decided if anything should come from an analysis of Ferrari’s work it should be to convey the real gravity of his subjects’ lives.

I also firmly believe that in the work of any documentary photographer, if the sitters and subjects stories stay in the audience’s mind longer than the photographer’s name then the photographer has succeeded.

Pierluigi Concutelli © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Pierluigi Concutelli © 2009 Luca Ferrari

The Mass © 2009 Luca Ferrari

The Mass © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Giovanni Iacone © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Giovanni Iacone © 2009 Luca Ferrari


Alessia and Lucia

Ferrari interviewed inmate Alessia on September 10th 2003. She spoke of Lucia’s traumatic experiences and suffered injustice.

Alessia © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Alessia © 2009 Luca Ferrari

She is 42 years old. She comes from Ethiopia. She lives on the street – in the park at Piazza Indipendenza. She says she will go [be released] on the 22nd. She has a father and mother. They live her in Rome. Her parents have tried to help her but she cannot see a male person because five Italian guys have raped her. She was in the boarding school of Villa Pamphili and during the weekend she would go home. While she was at the bus stop waiting for the bus to go home, a car arrived and kidnapped her. They probably took her to a secluded place. It happened in the cell as well.

In fact, when they lock us up, she opens the water tap and fill sup the buckets, then she empties them on the floor. She then takes the toilet paper and puts it on the television screen. She does this to have the cell unlocked.

She has not been sane since she was raped. They did not only rape her they gave her a good thrashing. One of the guys made her pregnant and nobody knows the whereabouts of the kid. The social services gave him to another family.

Her parents took her to the hospital. She escaped and has never gone back. They attempted many times to help her, but nothing. She has been in a psychiatric hospital, where they bombarded her with electroshock. After this she was worse.

Lucia © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Lucia © 2009 Luca Ferrari


Brief Q & A

When did you photograph the Rebibbia series and how many times did you visit?
I did the series during August 2001 and the summer of 2003. I can’t count the times, but almost every day for a month in 2001 and daily for one month in 2003.

Describe Rebibbia prison.
Rebibbia is a prison in Rome which holds 352 women and 1927 men. Within the womens’ ward there is also a special section for mothers with children under 5 years old.

What first got you interested in the subject of prisons?
I won a scholarship in Rome in 2001 to produce a exhibition on the theme of “Memory”. From that I showed my pictures to a publisher who was interested in making a book on Rebibbia. In 2003 I continued the work.

Why Rebibbia prison?
At that time I was living in Rome. Moreover, Rebibbia is one of the biggest and most important prisons in Italy.

What arrangements did you need to make to gain access to the prison (phone calls, letters, recommendations)?
I needed a letter of commission from the scholarship/publisher and also the permission of the prison authority.

Describe your interactions with the prison inmates/subjects and also the prison staff.
The permission I had was very restricted. I could not going everywhere, so I decided to add text to my pictures. The texts are not official interviews but chats I recorded in my notebooks. Sometimes the inmates gave me letters from their relatives or text written by themselves.

I tried to be as informal as possible with the texts. The prison institution is already very formal; As Erving Goffman described in Asylums it is a total institution. The status of a prisoner “is backed by the solid buildings of the world, while our sense of personal identity often resides in the cracks.”

I just tried to be a crack.

While not related to the work of a single photographer or project, the lines of argument proffered by Subtopia are so resonant that Prison Photograph Blog feels the diversion justified. Through summary of the four chosen articles, we can gaze upon the complexity and omnipotence of incarceration in our frantic, contested global society. Subtopia’s images will knock you on your arse!

The analysis of Bryan Finoki at Subtopia consistently join the dots between geopolitics & biopolitics; movement & paralysis; spatial theory and spatial reality. Unsurprisingly, for a writer in the 21st century, his interest in the production of structures & networks, often leads him to theories of militarised space.

I am in awe of Subtopia’s output. From lengthy and comprehensive issue-based summaries; to purposed surveys; from fine image-editing; to diverse links and sources in each post. Finoki serves up rigorous analysis, or entertainment, but usually both.

© 2009 Subtopia/Brian Finoki

© 2009 Subtopia/Brian Finoki

Over the past couple of years Finoki has submitted a few pieces on “The Prison”. Subtopia’s preoccupation with power and spatial production means carceral sites/archipelagos are referenced frequently. Finoki has been keen to unravel the mysteries of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), its structures and its legacies – this always means dealing with detention, rendition, and construction (that can be visible, but more often invisible.)

Article OneFantasy Prison is a meditation on potential prison architectures spurred by the 2007 Creative Prison project a collaboration between architect Will Alsop prisoners at HMP Gartree to redesign corrective and rehabilitative space. Two things struck me about the suggestions made by prisoners. 1) They were most afraid of attack from other inmates, and therefore an option to lock themselves IN was a shared high priority, and 2) They wanted to include a designated photo-room within the visitors center to allow for photography and variant backgrounds. I have posted before about manifestly curious prison-polaroid aesthetic. This article also threw up the crucial social responsibilities of architects & designers in a time of prison expansion, most notably the Prison Design Boycott launched in 2004 by the group Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR).

A rendering of Will Alsop’s new corrections landscape, developed in collaboration with prisoners, resembles a cross between Communist-era housing blocs and a series of South Beach condos. Courtesy Alsop Architects

A rendering of Will Alsop’s new corrections landscape, developed in collaboration with prisoners, resembles a cross between Communist-era housing blocs and a series of South Beach condos. Courtesy Alsop Architects

I have been a fan of Alsop’s work since his 2005 hypothetical SuperCity project which would subsume my hometown in the North.

Article TwoFloating Prisons is a historical survey of sea-faring, carceral solutions by warring and colonising nations. Finoki maps the use of prison ships from 18th & 19th century economic necessity to transport human cargo to contemporary manoeuvrings in avoidance of international law. He makes reference to the convenience use of islands as sites of detention, the use of ships as temporary housing in leiu of land locked sites, and the dubious experiments in swapping refugees held in off-shore camps. The summary was to say that new legal definitions and controls are creeping in giving one the sense, “refugees and migrants are just an excess of biomass to be herded around on prison islands or in prison vessels, traded like geo-economic commodities, removed and disposed of like capitalist human waste, reinforcing the state of exception that goes on re-organizing the architectural spheres of global migration.” Phenomenal.

The Vernon C. Bain is a prison barge operated by the City of New York, and houses some 800 prisoners in a medium and maximum security facility. She was built in 1992 at a cost of $ 161 Million, which as usual, means it would have been cheaper to send the inmates to Harvard instead.

The Vernon C. Bain is a prison barge operated by the City of New York, housing 800 prisoners in a medium and maximum security facility. Built in 1992 at a cost of $ 161 Million means it would have been cheaper to send the inmates to Harvard instead. (Source)

Article Three“Block D” enters the Pantheon of GWOT Space is a meditation on the totality of restricted space across the globe – in multiple nations – in order to sustain military operations. The point of the survey (which includes previously known sites such as Guantanamo, Baghdad’s ‘Green Zone’, Bagram Theater Internment Facility, US homeland immigrant detention facilities, and Taxi networks for rendition) is to add another site to the list: “Block D” in Pul-e-Charki Prison just east of Kabul, Afghanistan.

With persistent references to journalists’ work for the BBC, New York Times and Washington Post, Finoki summarises, ” ‘Block D’ or ‘Block 4’ as it is also apparently known: a newly built detention facility [is] quickly becoming understood as the Asian corollary of Guantánamo Bay. No matter, it is another utterly disturbing black hole in the universe of legally suspect and secret space.” Finoki doesn’t focus on the conditions of detention but rather America’s self-created legal imbroglio.

Nearly a year after writing, this analysis seems prophetic now, as the American public is slowly coming to realise that Obama’s closure of Gitmo doesn’t necessarily magic away the human rights issues … only shifts them somewhere slightly more obscured. As with Gitmo, one expects Block D to focus the new rounds of jousting between the same ideological stakeholders.

Pul-e-Charkhi prison, Kabul, Afghanistan. Construction began in the 1970s by order of then-president Mohammed Daoud Khan and was completed during the Soviet invasion (1979-89). The prison was notorious for torture and abuses under the control of Afghanistan's communist government following the invasion by the Soviet Union.

Pul-e-Charkhi prison, Kabul, Afghanistan. Construction began in the 1970s by order of then-president Mohammed Daoud Khan and was completed during the Soviet invasion (1979-89). The prison was notorious for torture and abuses under the control of Afghanistan's communist government following the invasion by the Soviet Union. (Source)

Article FourThe Spatial Instrumentality of Torture is a stomach-pounding dose of reality in the form of an interview with Tom Hilde, Research Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. I will not offer a synopsis, just encourage you to read through it. The interview is illustrated in part by Prison Photography‘s favourite Richard Ross.

Hilde ends with the sobering words, “The secrecy of much of the US torture program, its physical spaces, and its extent has certainly kept public debate rather subdued. But I think the dualistic moral framework has been even more corrosive of a public understanding of torture in general and the consequences of American torture in particular. When a majority of Americans say that torture is acceptable for some purposes, I think they have the fantasy of the ticking timebomb, and likely racism in many cases, in the backs of their minds.”

Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo, Cuba. The facility has not been used since early 2002, and recent heavy rains at Guantánamo Bay have brought about overgrowth. Credit: Kathleen T. Rhem

Camp X-Ray, Guantánamo, Cuba. The facility has not been used since early 2002, and recent heavy rains at Guantánamo Bay have brought about overgrowth. Credit: Kathleen T. Rhem

Alabama Death House Prison, 2004. Silver print photograph. Stephen Tourlentes

Alabama Death House Prison, Grady, AL, 2004. Silver print photograph. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Stephen Tourlentes photographs prisons only at night for it is then they change the horizon. Social division and ignorance contributed to America’s rapid prison growth. Tourlentes’ lurking architectures are embodiments of our shared fears. In the world Tourlentes proposes, light haunts; it is metaphor for our psycho-social fears and denial. Prisons are our bogeyman.

These prisons encroach upon our otherwise “safe” environments. Buzzing with the constant feedback of our carceral system, these photographs are the glower of a collective and captive menace. Hard to ignore, do we hide from the beacon-like reminders of our social failures, or can we use Tourlentes’ images as guiding light to better conscience?

Designed as closed systems, prisons illuminate the night and the world that built them purposefully outside of its boundaries. “It’s a bit like sonic feedback … maybe it’s the feedback of exile,” says Tourlentes.

Stephen Tourlentes has been photographing prisons since 1996. His many series – and portfolio as a whole – has received plaudits and secured funding from organisations including the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Artadia.

Stephen was kind enough to take the time to answer Prison Photography‘s questions submitted via email.

Penn State Death House Prison, Bellefonte, PA, 2003, Stephen Tourlentes

Penn State Death House Prison, Bellefonte, PA, 2003. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Carson City, Nevada, Death House, 2002. Gelatin silver print. Stephen Tourlentes

Carson City, Nevada, Death House, 2002. Gelatin silver print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Blythe Prison, California. Stephen Tourlentes

Blythe Prison, California. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Pete Brook. You have traveled to many states? How many prisons have you photographed in total?

Stephen Tourlentes. I’ve photographed in 46 states. Quite the trip considering many of the places I photograph are located on dead-end roads. My best guess is I’ve photographed close to 100 prisons so far.

PB. How do you choose the prisons to photograph?

ST. Well I sort of visually stumbled onto photographing prisons when they built one in the town I grew up in Illinois. It took me awhile to recognize this as a path to explore. I noticed that the new prison visually changed the horizon at night. I began to notice them more and more when I traveled and my curiosity got the best of me.

There is lots of planning that goes into it but I rely on my instinct ultimately. The Internet has been extremely helpful. There are three main paths to follow 1. State departments of corrections 2. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and 3. Private prisons.  Usually I look for the density of institutions from these sources and search for the cheapest plane ticket that would land me near them.

Structurally the newer prisons are very similar so it’s the landscape they inhabit that becomes important in differentiating them from each other. Photographing them at night has made illumination important.  Usually medium and maximum-security prisons have the most perimeter lighting.  An interesting sidebar to that is male institutions often tend to have more lighting than female institutions even if the security level is the same.

Holliday Unit, Huntsville, Texas, 2001. Gelatin silver print. Stephen Tourlentes

Holliday Unit, Huntsville, Texas, 2001. Gelatin silver print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Springtown State Prison, Oklahoma, 2003. Archival pigment print. Stephen Tourlentes

Springtown State Prison, Oklahoma, 2003. Archival pigment print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2000. Archival pigment print. Stephen Tourlentes

Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2000. Archival pigment print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Arkansas Death House, Prison, Grady, AK, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Arkansas Death House, Prison, Grady, AK, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. Are there any notorious prisons that you want to photograph or avoid precisely because of their name?

ST. No I’m equally curious and surprised by each one I visit. There are certain ones that I would like to re-visit to try another angle or see during a different time of year. I usually go to each place with some sort of expectation that is completely wrong and requires me to really be able to shift gears on the fly.

PB. You have described the Prison as an “Important icon” and as a “General failure of our society”. Can you expand on those ideas?

ST. Well the sheer number of prisons built in this country over the last 25 years has put us in a league of our own regarding the number of people incarcerated. We have chosen to lock up people at the expense of providing services to children and schools that might have helped to prevent such a spike in prison population.

The failure is being a reactive rather than a proactive society. I feel that the prison system has become a social engineering plan that in part deals with our lack of interest in developing more humanistic support systems for society.

PB. It seems that America’s prison industrial complex is an elephant in the room. Do you agree with this point of view? Are the American public (and, dare I say it, taxpayers) in a state of denial?

ST. I don’t know if it’s denial or fear.  It seems that it is easier to build a prison in most states than it is a new elementary school. Horrific crimes garner headlines and seem to monopolize attention away from other types of social services and infrastructure that might help to reduce the size of the criminal justice system. This appetite for punishment as justice often serves a political purpose rather than finding a preventative or rehabilitative response to societies ills.

State Prison, Dannemora, NY, 2004. Stephen Tourlentes

State Prison, Dannemora, NY, 2004. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Prison, Castaic, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Prison, Castaic, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Atwater, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Atwater, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Utah State Death House Complex, Draper, UT, 2002. Stephen Tourlentes

Utah State Death House Complex, Draper, UT, 2002. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. How do you think artistic ventures such as yours compare with political will and legal policy as means to bring the importance of an issue, such as prison expansion, into the public sphere?

ST. I think artists have always participated in bringing issues to the surface through their work. It’s a way of bearing witness to something that collectively is difficult to follow. Sometimes an artist’s interpretation touches a different nerve and if lucky the work reverberates longer than the typical news cycle.

PB. In your attempt with this work to “connect the outside world with these institutions”, what parameters define that attempt a success?

ST. I’m not sure it ever is… I guess that’s part of what drives me to respond to these places. These prisons are meant to be closed systems; so my visual intrigue comes when the landscape is illuminated back by a system (a prison) that was built by the world outside its boundaries. It’s a bit like sonic feedback… maybe it’s the feedback of exile.

PB. Are you familiar with Sandow Birk’s paintings and series, Prisonation? In terms of obscuring the subject and luring the viewer in, do you think you operate similar devices in different media?

ST. Yes I think they are related. I like his paintings quite a lot.  The first time I saw them I imagined that we could have been out there at the same time and crossed paths.

PB. Many of your prints are have the moniker “Death House” in them, Explain this.

ST. I find it difficult to comprehend that in a modern civilized society that state sanctioned executions are still used by the criminal justice system. The Death House series became a subset of the overall project as I learned more about the American prison system. There are 38 states that have capital punishment laws on the books. Usually each of these 38 states has one prison where these sentences are carried out. I became interested in the idea that the law of the land differed depending on a set of geographical boundaries.

Federal Prison, Victorville, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Victorville, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Prison Complex, Florence, AZ, 2004. Stephen Tourlentes

Prison Complex, Florence, AZ, 2004. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Lancaster State Prison, Lancaster, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Lancaster State Prison, Lancaster, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. Have you identified different reactions from different prison authorities, in different states, to your work?

ST. The guards tend not to appreciate when I am making the images unannounced. Sometimes I’m on prison property but often I’m on adjacent land that makes for interesting interactions with the people that live around these institutions.  I’ve had my share of difficult moments and it makes sense why. The warden at Angola prison in Louisiana was by far the most hospitable which surprised me since I arrived unannounced.

PB. What percentage of prisons do you seek permission from before setting up your equipment?

ST. I usually only do it as a last resort.  I’ve found that the administrative side of navigating the various prison and state officials was too time consuming and difficult. They like to have lots of information and exact schedules that usually don’t sync with the inherent difficulty of making an interesting photograph.  I make my life harder by photographing in the middle of the night.  The third shift tends to be a little less PR friendly.

PB. What would you expect the reaction to be to your work in the ‘prison-towns’ of Northern California, West Texan plains or Mississippi delta? Town’s that have come to rely on the prison for their local economy?

ST. You know it’s interesting because a community that is willing to support a prison is not looking for style points, they want jobs. Often I’m struck by how people accept this institution as neighbors.

I stumbled upon a private prison while traveling in Mississippi in 2007. I was in Tutweiler, MS and I asked a local if that was the Parchman prison on the horizon.  He said no that it was the “Hawaiian” prison. All the inmates had been contracted out of the Hawaiian prison system into this private prison recently built in Mississippi. The town and region are very poor so the private prison is an economic lifeline for jobs.

The growth of the prison economy reflects the difficult economic policies in this country that have hit small rural communities particularly hard. These same economic conditions contribute to populating these prisons and creating the demand for new prisons. Unfortunately, many of these communities stake their economic survival on these places.

Kentucky State Death House, Prison, Eddyville, KY, 2003. Stephen Tourlentes

Kentucky State Death House, Prison, Eddyville, KY, 2003. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. You said earlier this year (Big, Red & Shiny) that you are nearly finished with Of Lengths and Measures. Is this an aesthetic/artistic or a practical decision?

ST. I’m not sure if I will really ever be done with it.  From a practical side I would like to spend some time getting the entire body of work into a book form. I think by saying that it helps me to think that I am getting near the end.  I do have other things I’m interested in, but the prison photographs feel like my best way to contribute to the conversation to change the way we do things.


Author’s note: Sincerest thanks to Stephen Tourlentes for his assistance and time with this article.


Stephen Tourlentes received his BFA from Knox College and an MFA (1988) from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, where he is currently a professor of photography. His work is included in the collection at Princeton University, and has been exhibited at the Revolution Gallery, Michigan; Cranbook Art Museum, Michigan; and S.F. Camerawork, among others. Tourlentes has received a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Polaroid Corporation Grant, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship.


This interview was designed in order to compliment the information already provided in another excellent online interview with Stephen Tourlentes by Jess T. Dugan at Big, Red & Shiny. (Highly recommended!)


Hailey, 2, reaches out for a quarter in her fathers hand, Shane Macleod, while her mother Danielle Macleod stares out from the table. Each visitor is allowed to bring $20 of quarters for the vending machine and nothing else. Shane, like all of the inmates in the visiting room must ask his wife and daughter to buy certain snacks, as he is not allowed near the vending machines. During the visits, Shane says, “There is just not a lot to talk about after a while, you can only beat a subject to death for so long.” The couple married four years ago outside of prison, and Shane says, “Prison just really messes up your life.”


Hailey Macleod, 2, look outs across the table at her father, Shane Macleod, and his outstretched hand. Shane was incarcerated two months prior for bank robbery. Shane says. “It gets really stressful sometimes, to have my wife and daughter away from me.”

Elyse Butler repeat-visited New Hampshire State Prison in 2005. She was working as an intern staff photographer at the Concord Monitor in Concord, New Hampshire. The goal of the assignment was to capture the dynamics of relationships in the prison visiting room. Butler documented the behaviours of those within the room; “how these couples, families, and friends interact with each other when they have only a small amount of monitored time to spend together.” I asked a couple of questions.

How did you get access?

In order to get access into the prison we [Concord Monitor] had to contact the PR department and go through a process of paperwork and I had prison officers watching me at all times when I was in the visiting room.

What reactions did the work receive?

After the piece was done we got a great reaction from inmates and families in the visiting room. They were touched to have their time documented with their loved ones.


Heather Metcalf and Mark Vangordon hold hands at table 19 in the visiting room of New Hampshire State Prison. Vangordon is imprisoned for sexual assault and has been in the for a year. Metcalf says, “Not having him home is the hardest part.” When she is not visiting she waits for his letters to hear how he’s doing. During a visit, they are only allowed to have a 15 second embrace at the beginning and end of each visit and otherwise they are only allowed to hold hands above the table.


Lori Tasney and Chris Lang look into each others eyes as Marilyn and Daniel Haldeman hold each other at the end of a visit. Tasney and Lang have been dating for two years and plan to marry when he gets out. His current parole date is set for 2008. Lang was imprisoned for robbery in January 2005. Tasney visits twice a week, which is the most time any inmate is allowed visitors, but says “I would visit every day if I could.”


Mark Langlais plays cards with his brother, inmate Alphee Langlais (right) and his son, inmate Eric Langlias (left) while a mother gives her son one last touch at the end of a visit. This is the first time Alphee and Mark have seen each other since 1996. Mark claims, “Alphee’s been in here since his hair lost its color.” The family was estranged a long time ago, but they claim prison has brought them closer together. Eric was admitted for assault and Alphee was admitted on a parole violation following a prior sexual assault crime. Alphee carries around his inmate request slip as if its a trophy and cried when he finally spoke on the phone with his brother Mark. “This visit has been really special to me, ” Alphee claimed. Eric and his father always fought but no that he is on medication and his father is in counseling, Eric says “it is the closest we’ve ever been … I have always loved my father. I have always wanted him around.”


An inmate and his visitor share a last kiss and 15 second embrace, along with three other couples also saying their goodbyes, at the end of a visit. They started dating 5 months ago, only a month before he went to prison, and she says, “If he ends up having a long sentence, we probably won’t stay together.” He was admitted on a parole violation after an original conviction for multiple robberies and larceny. She says, “I come usually once a week. I hate coming here.”


Elyse Butler is represented by Aevum Photos. She is one of the hardest working and posting photographers in the business. She previously won College Photographer of the Year Award in 2004 for her documents of the porn industry. She has also photographed the debutante activity of La Jolla. I’d like to hear an interview between Butler, Lauren Greenfield and Wendy Marijnissen on the topic of female identity.

Butler did some nice portraiture in South America, but my favourite project of hers is “From Pond to Purse” which follows the trade of alligator products. Be sure to read Butler’s information on the project at her site in the ‘passion’ category.

BURN Magazine, under the fiscal umbrella of the Magnum Cultural Foundation, have announced a $10,000 grant “to support [the] continuation of the photographer’s personal project. This body of work may be of either journalistic mission or purely personal artistic imperatives”

I am encouraging people to take on the difficult task of securing prolonged and necessary time with a prison/jail/detention-centre population in order to faithfully describe the stories and systems of its particular circumstance. On top of that your product must be “work is on the highest level”.

It’s a tall order but if you have carried out portrait or documentary photography in a site of incarceration before (I know many of you), then submit an application to continue that critical and valuable work. It will have to better than my attempt.

San Pedro Prison, La Paz. July 2008.

San Pedro Prison, La Paz. July 2008.

Hmm. On the same day I encourage photographers to attempt access into sites designed to be impenetrable, the government and police in my home country have introduced “laws that allow for the arrest – and imprisonment – of anyone who takes pictures of officers ‘likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’.” (British Journal of Photography via In-Public)

BURN Magazine is a new(ish) venture by David Alan Harvey whose got a Magnum portfolio and his own internets.


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