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La Fenice, Venice, Italy, 2008.

La Fenice, Venice, Italy, 2008. © David Leventi

I first saw one of David Leventi‘s Opera House prints at Exposed, the 2009 Critical Mass Top 50 exhibition at the PCNW, Seattle in March this year. To be honest, I struggled to access it. I am grateful therefore, for his interview with Sarina Finkelstein in which Leventi outlines his motivations and emotional response to these architectures. Toward the end, Leventi discusses his recent interest and move toward roundhouse prisons as subjects – and how they compare to opera houses:

“[Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, IL] happens to be a reverse opera house. It has basically the same architectural structure as an opera house, but the difference is in who is observing who. In an opera house, the audience of many is observing a few. In a jail, it’s the reverse, giving me the opportunity as a photographer to better understand what it must feel like to be a tenor performing for a full house, albeit with a captive audience.”

Prisoners in their cells, Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, IL, 2010. © David Leventi

Leventi adds, “I have always had stage fright. Photographing from the center of a round prison is pure anxiety. The in-mates are all yelling, jeering, talking, in cacophony. You become the center of attention and taking the photograph becomes a performance in itself.  At first, I was really intimidated, but then I blanked everything out and focused on photographing. It must be the same for the performer.”

Leventi adds that in the case of both opera houses and prisons, access is the most difficult aspect of his work. No surprise there!

All interesting stuff. I’ll be eager to see his continued progress on this subject matter. Roundhouse prisons are a rarity these days; Bentham’s Panopticon is more likely to crop up in discourses on philosophy than it is in those of criminology or correctional management.

Leventi’s images of opera houses and Stateville prison are reminiscent of some of Richard Ross’ photographs from Architecture of Authority. And, likewise, Leventi plans to look at churches and religious buildings, presumably drawing more parallels between these complete spaces.

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Lloyd DeGrane‘s work is long-term and it is honest. DeGrane would like to see more transparency surrounding American correctional facilities, “I think people, taxpayers should see what they’re getting for their money”. I came across DeGrane in James R Hugunin’s 1996 curated exhibit Discipline and Photograph.

DeGrane carried out his Prison series between 1990 and 2001, when he photographed within the state maximum security Stateville Correctional Center,  Illinois and Cook County Jail in Chicago. The three photos featured here each depict scenes at Stateville.

DeGrane took the time to discuss the role of photography in sites of incarceration, a photographer’s best approach, the names and labels given to him by inmates and images of the spaces between cells.

Did you await each photo opportunity? While working, were you alone or accompanied on the corridor or wing?

“I was usually escorted by a counselor – an unassuming, non-threatening person. Sometimes I’d go into a unit and walk around by myself, being careful not to get out of the view of a correctional officer. Stateville is a maximum security facility so some of the inmates were violent offenders. I talked to the inmates directly, sometimes going into their cells. For the most part the officials let me browse freely and talk to any inmates I wanted. Things, to a point, were pretty transparent. When I came into a unit someone would usually yell out my arrival”.

Isolation Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

Isolation Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

What is happening in the Isolation Unit photograph?

“This is the isolation unit – I called it ‘the jail within the prison’. Inmates who committed an offense in the prison were taken out of the general population and held there 23 hours a day with one hour for outside exercise. That [the display of legs and arms] was the first reaction to me being on the wing”.

“The inmates, for reasons unknown to me, thought I was a state official of some kind. But, after I got to talking with a few people independently I was able to photograph several inmates with no problems, with the exception of one inmate who would try to throw excrement at the guards”.

Lockdown Protest, Stateville Correctional Center, 1993. Llloyd Degrane

Lockdown Protest, Stateville Correctional Center, 1993. Lloyd Degrane

Explain the situation here, with the trash and food on the floor.

“That was taken in 1993. Inmates were ending a five day lock-down and totally disgusted by the lunch served (cold baloney sandwiches every day). So, they threw the servings out of their cells onto the floor. The floor of the wing is commonly known as ‘the flag’.”

“Guards eventually had to clean it up. I noticed when I came back the next week that the roach problem was severe. I had to tuck my pant legs into my socks so the roaches wouldn’t crawl up my legs”.

Protective Custody Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

Protective Custody Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

The interaction between the guard and inmate in the protective custody unit is fascinating – it melds contortion, humanity, routine and unlikely types for the prison environment.

“The inmate was in the protective custody unit. That’s a pregnant guard that’s looking at him. He didn’t have a mirror so the only way he could see what was happening outside his cell was to stick his head out of the food tray slot.”

Did the subjects of your images, specifically inmates, see the photographs after they were produced/exhibited?

“I always made a small photo for the inmates. Sometimes they got them and sometimes the warden or captain (for reasons I do not know) didn’t get around to giving them the photo. But, I was able to get a little deeper into the lives of the inmates that received photos.”

How do you work?

“The images are made slowly and carefully. No surprises. Observation and discussion with the inmates and then photos. That was my modus operandi. It’s like going into someone’s home, they know you’re there! So, it’s best to be respectfully curious. Some inmates wanted nothing to do with me (I think they had committed other crimes on the outside and didn’t want to be recognized). Other inmates didn’t mind at all. I talked with people all the time. I think taxpayers should see what they’re getting for their money. Transparency is key. But, many prison officials believe the opposite and in their facility, they rule!

Final thoughts on the prison system?

Prisons – and not correctional facilities (as the State of Illinois has named their institutions) – the concrete human warehouses behind razor wire are just that! Buildings that confine people. It’s an existential experience in a world that is both separate from America but a big part of the American economy. One sees homemade signs along Interstate 55 that read, ‘Don’t shut our prison down’, ‘Save the prison, Save our jobs’ outside Pontiac, Illinois, home to another maximum security facility that may close because of state budget cuts.

Don’t get me wrong though, some people belong in prison. I met many men who raped innocent women, killed children, beat other men to death for a few dollars and some who murdered their cellmates. I was glad that I didn’t meet them in a dark alley in Chicago. But, one thought that always went through my mind was, most of these people will get out some day. Will they change for the better or just be better criminals?

You kept an index of how the prisoners referred to you. It’s length, variety and contradictions reflect well the complexity of social experience within correctional facilities. Can you remind us of the index?

This is my index of how inmates referred to me. Picture Man, White man, The Man White Mother Fuckin’ Press Man, Black Gang Lover, Spic Gang Lover, White Prisoner Lover, Straight Dude Looking for Something – Policeman, The Photo Man, The European, The Springfield Connection, A Fair Man, An O.K. Photographer, An Artist, Homes, Homey, Fuckin’ Photographer, Homo, Fuckin’ Camera Man, The Camera Man, Inmate Lover, The Police, Friend and Cute Mother Fucker (The label given to me by Richard Speck).

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