Prison Is Where Families Go
If you look close enough at photographs from prisons you’ll see parents, grandparents, partners and kids as much as you will bars, cellblocks and razorwire
Editor’s note: This is the third and final article in a series that investigates what images do in relationship to criminal justice reform. Do images inform? Do they distract? Do they complicate or dumb-down urgent issues? To find out, we asked two photographers to reconnect with the people in their widely-published photo essays. In part one, we met two young brothers from New Mexico who’d been in and out of jail. In part two, we heard from a New Yorker whose husband is imprisoned a day’s bus ride away. Here, to close, criminal justice reporter and Everyday Incarceration co-founder Lisa Riordan Seville considers what we see and don’t see in photographs of prisons.
Even as a visitor
behind plate glass I brace
myself for cuffs.
…I want to stop & embrace
my brother, to hold him close
& pause to inhale the scent of prison,
to tell him what I smell, what I inhale,
is still the body of a man.
— Reginald Dwayne Betts, from “What We Know of Horses”
by Lisa Riordan Seville
Rikers Island, in the crook of the East River, is New York City’s main lockup. Often thought of as a single jail, it is in fact a cluster of facilities, a penal colony of decrepit buildings where about 10,000 people sleep each night. You can see it from from Queens, the Bronx, from the runways of La Guardia Airport. But you can’t so easily see in.
I went to Rikers for the first time last fall. For several years, I have reported on criminal justice, which has brought me inside jails and prisons. But that day, I visited Rikers as a civilian, to attend the graduation of a jail workforce program. For 12 weeks, dozens of men had taken classes designed to help them find jobs upon release. Chairs and a podium had been arranged in an echoing room that felt like a high school gym. Metal legs scraped, men in jail scrubs shifted, laughing, elbowing one another as they waited. The audience trickled in — a few mothers, several wives or girlfriends. Children bounced, restless even before the ceremony had begun. A boy about 10 years old jumped up and ran over to his father, surprising him with a hug. The man broke out in a wide grin, and wrapped his arms around his son. Then he shooed him back over to where the free people sat.
Though rarely captured in photographs of prisons, each time I visit a correctional facility, I’m reminded that prison is a domestic place. It’s true that bloodshed brings some people in, and blood is shed inside, but more often the crimes are less dramatic — theft, parole violations, fights, drugs. Life within is less dramatic, too. Doing time is boring, a grind of days that look the same. Gossip breeds, as it does in schools, old folks homes, office parks — places where people don’t control their fate. Violence can be one distraction. Visiting day is another.
“Though I rarely see it in photographs of prisons, each time I visit a correctional facility, I’m reminded that prison is a domestic place.”
In the mid 1990s, Andrew Lichtenstein began to photograph prisons. At the time, the U.S. prison population was in the midst of the boom. There were about 1 million people in prisons then, double the number imprisoned in 1980. Today there are about 1.6 million, with another 650,000 in jails each day. Somewhere in those years, a chorus of voices began to question both the fiscal and moral wisdom of putting so many people behind bars. But on Lichtenstein’s first trip behind bars in Huntsville, Texas, a halfway to nowhere town with more than a half-dozen prisons, many were still quite sure that the answer to most of our social ills lay in locking people up.
This offered a photographer a certain amount of leeway. While Lichtenstein could only visit at the invitation of the warden, wardens were still, at that time, inviting. They allowed him to make images of the Texas hoe squad lifting their tools in perfect time, and a prisoner hooded and restrained to a chair — stark visions of American punishment.
But the photograph I keep coming back to isn’t a stark vision of prison labor, control or violence. The photograph I return to is of a family, a family divided by glass. On one side, facing the camera, are a woman and two children. On the other side is a man and, though we cannot see him, Lichtenstein making the photo. Lichtenstein’s perspective makes it feel is almost as if he — and we, by extension — were locked up, too.
Maybe it’s the boy’s face. The women and the girl are on the phones, listening to the man speak. A Coke can popped on both sides of the thick glass. The girl is looking down, but the woman seems to have the man’s eye. He, blurry, hovers at the edge of the frame. We’re nearly sitting in his place, looking at his family looking at him. There aren’t enough telephones to go around, so the boy can’t hear the man. He just looks at him. I see in the boy’s face the moment when one realizes adults are fallible — maybe even that they are fuckups. I see that moment after which the world is forever changed. Then I see that this family is being re-formed through shatter-proof glass.
“The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say, ‘There is the surface. Now think — or rather feel, intuit — what is beyond it,’” wrote Susan Sontag. This photograph revives feelings I’ve had when I’ve sat in a visiting room. It feels to me like a kind of truth — that prisons remake families — but that is a truth nearly everyone within prisons has conspired to keep out of view.
To explain what I mean, one must understand the odd nature of prison photography. In the years after Lichtenstein started documenting prisons, it became increasingly difficult for a photographer to get inside. In 1996, California passed a law banning photography in state correctional facilities. Other systems mounted unofficial blackouts, as fewer wardens saw a reason to let the cameras in.
“Lichtenstein’s photograph […] feels to me like a kind of truth — that prisons remake families — but that is a truth nearly everyone within prisons has conspired to keep out of view.”
Yet there are photographs that are ubiquitous in prisons. Family photos. Look again at Lichtenstein’s image, at those snapshots leant against the bottom of the window. Brought to visiting day at the Hughes Unit, these pictures keep the man behind the glass connected to the family he cannot see through it.
Pictures are a way fractured families stay whole. As Candis Cumberbatch-Overton, who has a husband in prison in New York State, reflected in our recent interview, “pictures keeps memories alive.”
Visiting room portraiture
The ritual of making pictures in prison — the visiting day photo — is one of the few moments when a family can stand together for a portrait. These “click click” shots leave prisons tucked in the pockets of loved ones who — for the chance to see their loved ones’ face-to-face — travel far at great cost, pass through metal detectors and stand to be patted down. The photographs they take away weren’t meant for the public. They’re memories bound for private spaces, for fridges and family albums and lonely nights.
The images have a language. There’s that backdrop — a nature scene, or a city, a fantastical place, sometimes rendered so carefully one forgets it’s painted on cinderblock. Men huddle with relatives, or embrace their women. There are mothers with children, and women alone. And then there are fathers and sons.
In 1987, Stanley Jamel Bellamy entered the New York State Prison system. He was 24 years old, and facing a minimum sentence of 62-and-a-half years.
During his decades inside, he has amassed an archive of photographs. There are pictures people have sent him and photos taken in prison. And he has Polariods from visiting day. He ruminated on them as part of a developing exhibit called Growing Up Through Pictures.
Seeing this picture (above) and reading Bellamy’s words, I feeling something similar to the one I felt looking at Lichtenstein’s picture. It’s the feeling of the look, the boy’s look, looking straight-eyed at a world that has not lived up.
Only in Bellamy’s photo, the boy is not staring through glass looking at his father. He stands next to his father, looking at us.
Eight years later, in 2001 (above), his son had another question. “On this day, my youngest son asked me, ‘Why didn’t you snitch?’” writes Bellamy. “I explained to him that when I was involved in the criminal life, I lived by the rules of criminal life. He took this to mean that I chose the criminal life over him and that because of this, he was forced to grow up with out a father. This was the last time he came to visit me.”
His older son, however, came again. In 2006 (below), Bellamy is no longer the lithe young man from 1993. His oldest son is somewhere around the age his father was when he went to prison, and is a father too.
Bellamy’s captions describe what he remembers and how he sees.
Reading and seeing these photos from Bellamy’s point-of-view remind me just how much we do not see, and cannot see, in prison visiting day photos — the prisoner holding the camera; the officer watching the scene; the edge of that landscape where the glassy lake abruptly ends, and we’re again inside the concertina wire.
Beyond the frame
Moments have been edited out of photos not just by the warden, but by those posing for the photographs, because when a picture is all you have to keep a family together, you try your best to crop the pain from the frame.
“These portraits assure us that our incarcerated relatives are alive and managing, but what they cannot reveal is what life is like on a daily basis for our loved ones serving time,” writes scholar Nicole Fleetwood of visiting day photos, considering images of her cousin Allen, who served 21 years in Ohio prisons.
“After one visit to see Allen, my grandmother was so unsettled that she could not return for many years,” continues Fleetwood. “Allen had been in solitary confinement for weeks without a proper cleaning. When they met him in the visiting room, he was unshaven, unclean, talking unclearly. He was not able to make eye contact; he kept fidgeting until they had to cut the visit short. It was too unbearable. They did not take a picture that visit.”
“When a picture is all you have to keep a family together, you try your best to crop the pain from the frame.”
Looking at a photograph, like looking into a prison, we can get only so far beyond the surface. That’s precisely what people behind bars said to Lichtenstein.
“Most prisoners, seeing my camera, were very concerned that I was being given a propaganda tour by the guards,” Lichtenstein wrote in 1997. “I’d never be allowed to be there when they were being beaten or gassed, or if there was a riot or stabbing, they challenged. When I replied that I took it for granted that I would never see the real truth about their lives, and that the only way would be to be locked up with them, without the cameras, they relaxed.”
When a shutter snaps during a prison visit, the scene captured is as constructed as painting in the background of those visiting day photos. Yet fantasy can tell a kind of truth. Prisoners who bristled at Lichtenstein’s camera were willing to have their image made. They just also wanted him to know there were things he could not capture.
We so often turn to established experts to help us interpret our world, in doing so, we overlook the expertise wrought by experience. As I struggled to make sense of a feeling I had about prison photography, I looked to Susan Sontag for wisdom. I found some. Then I read the interview with Candis Cumberbatch-Overton, whose overnight trips to visit her husband in prison were documented by photographer Jacobia Dahm.
“If people don’t just look at the surface of photos they’ll see what’s behind them,” Cumberbatch-Overton said. “The photos are just the start. Nine times out of ten there’s gong to be text attached to published photographs, so ask the questions!”
Sontag urged a viewer to intuit, which has come to mean “to perceive directly without reasoning, know by immediate perception.” The root of the word, however, comes from “to tutor,” which traces, in turn, to the Latin, “to look at.” Prison is not an intuitive place. To understand prison photography requires a tutor. It requires that wardens, prisoners, families be willing to take us beyond the surface.
The mass incarceration of the last 40 years has not only put millions behind bars, it has also put them out of sight, even as they are ever more in the camera’s eye. Those within the walls of a correctional facility are constantly surveilled. Visiting day photos are the only moment when prisoners shape, and make, the photograph. Though we can’t read the nuances, we can see in these images emotional currency and connective purpose among loved ones. They are the lens of love, not of criminality. They are family photographs. When they are shared with the outside world, they are also a declaration. This is who we are.
To understand our justice system requires we see in double, triple vision, because captured in these vernacular family photographs is a truth alongside the one in Lichtenstein’s frames, as true as a mugshot, as true as security footage. To get beyond the surface, to intuit well, must ask questions of those who live these truths daily. That will likely only be done when, to mangle the poet Dwayne Betts’ words, we look at a photo of a prisoner and still see the body of a man.
Lisa Riordan Seville is a reporter, and co-producer of Everyday Incarceration, which brings together current and archival photos that tell the stories of forty years of mass incarceration in the United States.