There were a few times when I did feel threatened in a prison. But very, very few. If anything, it is much easier and safer to photograph in a prison than on the street. Prison is a very controlled environment. Random violence is not that common for the simple reason that every action has an immediate consequence, a loss of privileges, more prison time, etc. So when prisoners are violent, it is generally thought out, preplanned.
I found, for the most part, that prisoners were grateful for my interest in what was happening in their closed world. Or more likely, just grateful for something different during the day, a new face, anything to break the endless routine.
The one thing the prisoners would always complain about was that on my very brief visit, accompanied by an escort, I was never going to get to see what it was really like. I was just on a propaganda tour. Of course they were right. So the choice was clear enough. Never visit or photograph at all, because of all of the restrictions and constraints, or get what you can. To see prison, to feel prison, I’d have to not be allowed to leave. In that case, I would not be allowed to have a camera.
I’ve had my film seized on two occasions by prison wardens. The first time was fair enough. A fight broke out between two prisoners in a hallway while I was walking by. By instinct, I just picked up the camera and snapped a few frames. About a half an hour later, I heard over the loudspeakers that the photographer should please report to the warden’s office.
People tend to have this clichéd view of journalists and photographers as sneaky and underhanded. I’ve never played it that way, so when the warden asked me if I had photographed the fight, I simply said yes. And when he asked for my film, I handed him all the rolls that I had taken that day because I did not know which one it was on.
I think he appreciated my honesty, because the warden assigned me an escort, a corrections officer, to drive with me two hours to the closest lab that could develop slide film. We spent the afternoon together, in the gay section of Houston, had a cup of coffee. I think it was one of the first times he had left Walker County in several years. The officer had grown up on the same prison farm, because his dad had also worked at the prison. He told me stories about shooting at the prisoners as they left to work the fields with his bb gun when he was a kid.
When the three hours was up, the film was ready. He made sure he took the first look, grabbed the three or four offending frames, and we were on our way. A few years later I called the warden to ask if I could have the pictures back, but he had moved on to take a job with CCA [Corrections Corporation of America], a private prison company.
The second time was much worse. I was in a different prison, a real badass place, actually the prison where Clyde [Barrow], from Bonnie and Clyde, had served time as a young man. He had been brutally treated, raped by the turnkeys, the prisoners who were left in charge of all the other prisoners. That is why when he was on the run, chased by every ranger in Texas, he returned to shoot the place up. Anyway, I was in the yard and saw two prisoners holding hands. Gay relationships are very common in prison—some men, by inclination, others by coercion, become women. I took a picture of the couple and didn’t think anything of it because it was something I’d seen and photographed many times before.
But my escort gave me a funny look.
Shortly afterwards, I was ordered to a special trailer while the prison staff tried to reach the warden. They demanded all my film. I gave all of it to them, but it was clear they thought I was hiding some. I was left alone in the locked trailer, I guess while they decided if it was worth it to strip-search me. No explanation was ever given to me, as to what I had done, or why the film had been taken, or how I could get it back. But after about an hour, they let me go, and I just tore the hell out of there, glad to see the barbed wire in my rearview mirror.
Not much time, an hour. But I guess I could say that in the years I spent photographing in prison, that was the only time I really felt it, the helplessness, the power of the administration. It was an awful feeling.
After many years photographing inside prisons, I’d had enough. I just did not want to go back anymore. But having documented the more difficult part of the story, in terms of access, I felt free to pursue documenting the horrible effects of our prison system on people, prisoners getting out, families torn apart.
In many ways, it is two bodies of work. Which is why the pictures inside are almost all color, while most of the stories I worked on the outside, I photographed in black-and-white. In many ways, I think the later pictures, of people outside of prison, are deeper, more important. But they are also more subtle, less shocking, and so harder to draw the viewer in.
People are people
People are people, and it is no different in prison. I’m sure there are mean, sadistic, power tripping guards, but the ones I met were decent working people just doing a difficult job. And no doubt there are sick, violent psychopaths locked up. But the vast majority of prisoners I met were trapped in the viselike clutches of a system that was more interested in keeping them locked up than helping them to better their lives, and in turn, all of society.