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Sandra Whyte is no stranger to prisons. Married to a prison officer, she has lived in prison quarters for the past 35-years–first at HMP Dungavel and later at HMP Peterhead. Now closed and functioning as a museum, HMP Peterhead is most well-known for a protest and hostage-takings in 1987. Most recently, Whyte and her husband have lived at HMP Shotts in Lanarkshire where these photographs were made.

“Most of my married life has been caught up with prisons; husband working in them, all my neighbours working there too,” says Whyte who thinks of the prison and prisoners as part of her community.

“The original prison was purpose built in 1978 and catered for long term male offenders with sentences of four or more years,” explains Whyte. Prisoners who required to be kept in more secure conditions were transferred from other prisons.

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Whyte and her children would stop while walking the dogs in order to chat with prisoners who were tending prison grounds.

The original Shotts prison buildings operated until 2012 when they were completely demolished. Simultaneously, new blocks were going up—“a modern and much more economic and environmentally friendly group of buildings” says Whyte.

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During construction, Whyte chatted to the contractors and got on good terms with the site manager.

“Once the old prison was emptied and the prisoners had been transferred to the new one, I got permission via the site manager and the Governor to gain access with my camera,” says Whyte. “I felt it needed documenting, it would have been sad just to demolish what was a huge part of so many people’s lives without keeping some sort of record of it.”

Whyte made hundreds of images, but here on Prison Photography I selected an edit of 26 which focuses on the external fabric and internal adornment—be it murals, signs, paintings, graffiti or scrawls. In these splashes of colour, small vandalisms, personal touches and sectarian declarations, Whyte finds evidence of individuality.

“I suppose [living in such proximity] has affected the way I view prisons and prisoners, I do see them as members of the community,” she says. “The graffiti shows something about the people who lived there.”

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And for those that live there Whyte thinks prison works for some and not for others.

“If people are treated in a humane way and given opportunities and support then yes, perhaps prison can help the majority?” she posits. “Certainly, we have to incarcerate people who are a danger to society. I’ve chatted to a fair few lifers over the years—murderers and rapists—who agree that they had to go to prison for their crimes.”

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Being so close to the institution, or the operations and staff of three institutions at least, leaves Whyte reluctant to gauge the Scottish public’s attitude toward prisons.

“I don’t think I can comment really on the attitudes of members of the public to prisons/prisoners, my view is probably somewhat skewed.”

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All images: Sandra Whyte

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Body orifice scanner and surveillance camera, HMP Low Moss, 2012

UK photographer and artist, Jenny Wicks – working as an artist in residence at The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) at Glasgow University, the largest centre for criminological research in Scotland – set out a year ago to document spaces of said research. Invariably this meant photographing prisons. She photographed in two working prisons – Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Barlinnie and HMP Shotts. She also shot in a new prison, HMP Low Moss, prior to its opening.

I have posted before about Wick’s portrait project They Are Us And We Are Them also completed during the residency. Here, I’d like to focus on Wick’s prison interior photographs.

Wicks’ research broadly titled Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces: The Meaning and Construction of Place through Criminological Research sought to explore key boundaries: between innocent and guilty, researcher and researched.

“The conceptual frame for the project focuses on the ways criminological researchers relate to the spaces where research is conducted, analysed and disseminated,” writes Wicks. “A central premise is that working in particular spaces simultaneously contributes to their meaning as places of punishment.”

Wicks’ aim was to expose hidden sites. To differing degrees, this is a common aim of photography in prisons, so it is therefore paramount to say that Wicks delivers plenty of interesting images, the likes of which I, and we, have probably not seen before.

Keep reading below.

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Scanner and cones on cell wing, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Orifice scanner and zimmer frame, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Gym, HMP Shotts, 2012.
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Personal belongings tags, HMP Barlinnie, 2012

My dad used to use the same Carte d’Or ice-cream tubs (see above image) to store screws and brackets in the garage when I was young. It’s a jolt to see such a practical, modest storage solution crop up within a prison.

But then again, prisons are full of the mundane. Images of the ordinary (latex gloves, powdered milk, hygiene products, boring carpet) are balanced with constant, also pedantic details reminding us of the disciplining function of prisons (overly instructive signs, fire safety posters about escape, painted walkway instructions, holding cells, scanners).

Sometimes the juxtapositions seem too ironic, but then in turn sad. The awards that hang over the chairs in the medical office are shinier than the untarnished plaque of ‘quit smoking’ and ‘mouth cancer’ posters. There’s a flimsy lock on the back of the mugshot camera box. Stored neatly in a stairwell are an orifice scanner and zimmer frame side-by-side. This reminds me of Edmund Clark’s evidentiary images of clearly infirm prisoners in Portsmouth, England.

In Wicks’ book (see below), photographs of segregation cells for prisoners follow those of dog kennel cages.

In the HMP Low Moss new library, we see promise. An image of the books stored prior to shelving tells us prisoners read the same horror-schlock (Stephen King) as the everyman reads. Oh, and there’s a vacuum cleaner to maintain that boring carpet.

Also in the shiny new HMP Moss is a row of green-tint-windowed visiting rooms. They look like the sterile, institution environments of cinema – I’m thinking of the psychiatric wing of Michael Mann’s early eighties film Manhunter, in which Brian Cox stars as Hannibal Lector, not Anthony Hopkins.

The electrics still going in and Wicks captures the work of contractors at mid-point. The literal description of construction reminds us of the ties between labour and prisons. These are spaces paid for and made by society to meet a socially-agreed end. Hopefully resources and money invested in a new prison brings about better opportunities for rehab and a positive economic return further down the line through the reduction of crime and its associated social costs.

The prisoners must do work too. Wicks photographed recreation schedules as well as work rosters. We learn from an HMP Low Moss electronic notice board that “the finer details of prisoner mobilization plan are progressing,” a burauecratic way of saying they’ll be moving in soon. Alternatively, if we take note of text in the older prisons, we’ll be reading graffiti. Such-and-suchabody was here. We know that soon enough, prisoners will be there, in their new quarters. Does it matter if the burned graffiti reads “Jobby bum” or “jobby burn”? Does it instruct us more or does it just convince us that prisons are heavily used and heavily contested spaces? If anything, I hope Wicks’ coverage of Scottish prisons old and new demonstrate that – if we must incarcerate people – we do so in sanitary, safe places with wide provision of work, vocational and educational training.

If prisons fulfil those key criteria then prisons should theoretically be able to open gates to photographers. Imagine a day when human improvement and human rights could become the key content of prison imagery?

Keep reading below.

IMAGES: HMP BARLINNIE

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HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Detention dog kennels, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Photography apparatus, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Toilets, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Sinks, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Personal belongings in a cell, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Personal belongings in a cell, HMP Barlinnie, 2012

Wicks believes (and I concur) that depictions of crime, and crime science, in popular culture represent that world through a narrow and increasingly hackneyed set of spaces – the crime lab and courtroom offering two examples.

“As the residency progressed I discovered striking juxtapositions of the mundane and the spectacular in the work of criminology,” says Wicks. “Suicide watch cells, the back of a prisoner transport van, a storage room holding physical restraint chairs and Zimmer frames mark sites of extreme human experience and yet at the same time are part of someone’s day at the office: a site where data is collected, transferred to spreadsheets and displayed to audiences in lecture theatres and conference halls. Exploring this dynamic tension is a key aim of the project.”

Keep reading below.

IMAGES: HMP LOW MOSS

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HMP Low Moss, 2012
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Bars and Irn Bru machine, HMP Low Moss, 2012
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HMP Low Moss, 2012
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New library, HMP Low Moss, 2012
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HMP Low Moss, 2012

THE BOOK, CORRECT

Wicks was kind enough to send me a copy of Correct. It’s a compact book of 86 pages. You can view a 25-page preview and buy the book through Blurb. My copy came with a fold out of 60 portrait thumbnails of portraits from They Are Us And We Are Them. I include some images below.

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Segregation unit exercise yard, HMP Shotts, 2012.

THE EXHIBITION, CORRECT: THE MEANING AND CONSTRUCTION OF SPACE

The exhibition titled ‘CORRECT’: The Meaning and Construction of Place features two audio pieces, and  an installation The Gallows, an installation of large format film giclée prints from They Are Us And We Are Them. You can see here a video of The Gallows previously exhibited in HMP Barlinnie.

The exhibition also features The Desk, a digital collage of giclée prints of criminologist’s desks.

“Closely cropped, excluding the life beyond the frame. Voyeuristic and subtly relating to the prison visiting experience: they are intrusive, this is a space where someone lives most of their waking week, a place the research comes back to and is pieced together. A personal space that appears impersonal. Cluttered with cheap plastic Chinese electronics, stationary, diary’s (hand made), mouse pads of choice, daily calendars, hand cream, distinctive handwriting and lots of notes,” writes Wicks.

Finally, and central, the exhibition includes digital C-type prints of prison interiors.

“They are an exploration of crime and justice spaces that criminologists inhabit. Such sites are more usually associated with highly iconic images of justice (bars, ankle tags, gavels) that are part of a larger popular essentialism of crime and punishment, i.e. places of cultural cliché,” writes Wicks. “I aim to demystify these places and the work criminologists undertake. Some of the images juxtapose the often-chaotic lives that occupy these spaces and contradict the harsh realities of prison life.”

‘CORRECT’: The Meaning and Construction of Place is on show now at The Briggait, 141 Bridgegate, Glasgow G1 5HZ from March 3rd – 22nd. Monday- Friday, 9.00 am to 5.00 pm.

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HMP Shotts, 2012

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