Prisonscapes: Scenes from the Carceral Frontier
“Frontier.” Defined variously as “a territory that forms the furthest extent of a country’s settled or inhabited regions;” “an outer limit,” “a borderland” (in turn said to be “an indeterminate region”). These phrases aptly describe prisons, scattered as they are on the outskirts of geographical space and delineated by physical boundaries meant to conceal and disappear. Like many fantasies of place, prisons loom large in our individual and collective imagination but are rarely located in the physical world. New Mexico is fixed in the national imagination exclusively as a landscape. By using ‘The Land of Enchantment’ as a case study this project complicates iconic scenery and insists on a (re)location of prisons from the illusory to the real. The borderlands that are our nation’s prisons are nether regions where people reside in interstitial spaces—between citizen and exile, between constant surveillance and forgotten invisibility, where the work of punishment, done in all our names, is hidden from our view. Prisonscapes: Scenes from the Carceral Frontier presents a new visual language of correctional facilities one that refuses to traffic in fear or titillation but instead generates a realistic pictorial prism from which to (re)view, to surveil, incarceration. These prisonscapes, a term I coined that marries the artistic tradition of landscape imagery with my aim to place prisons in a material and geographical context, reveal concealed truths, challenge myths, and pave pathways for empathetic informed socio-political awakenings.
Prison imagery is not uncommon. However, what may not be understood is that most penal images are created by the state. These are highly selective in what they display and more importantly in what they obscure. A variety of carceral scenes are so ubiquitous they have become synonymous with the institution itself: an intimidating stone guard tower, cell bars with hands reaching through them, the wide-angled frame of tiered cells, the long shot of interminable razor wire against the open sky, endless bunk-beds filled with idle bodies, and inevitably the melancholic men or women in striped uniforms or orange jumpsuits. Peculiarly journalists’ pictorial efforts tend to follow suit though as a rule their access is limited, highly controlled, and exceedingly rare.
Of late, artistic focus on incarceration, in many respects a welcome phenomenon, is surging. These suddenly proliferating images (magnificent photographic portraiture is popular), often evocative and creative, are typically aesthetically gorgeous, breathtaking even. What does it mean to make beautiful, attractive, prison imagery? I know that these photographers do not mean harm. Quite the contrary, there is humanity and beauty in their images and it means something to pay attention, to bear witness, and to ask people about their personal stories. But will this disrupt the status quo? What does it mean to present these photos without historical or geographical context? It strikes me as problematic and leaves me uncomfortable. I am still working though my ideas and intend here not to discredit but to initiate conversation; however I suggest that such photographic representations, superbly curated and marvelously formatted, made by people with tremendous command of the medium (employing extraordinary lighting and captivating design) romanticize prisons and exoticize prisoners. Eyeing or cataloging the inhabitants of prisons is not a novel or radical enterprise. In my experience such images and presentations traffic in the long-standing, pernicious narrative of the prison, expressly that it is an enigmatic place filled with mesmerizing ‘others.’ Are these artists gaining attention by leveraging a daring or adventurousness in their exploration of the forbidding prison? Is the titillation factor what curries this newfound favor?
Who are these images for and to what purpose? Quite often it is white spectators (and white funders and custodians, or white scholars and activists such as myself) that are consuming these typically highly racialized photographs, as the imagery tends to focus on bodies of color or prison as the ‘new’ site of racial exploitation. Whose bodies are in these photos? Are they characters in a story? What is the story? Where is the social body in such images? The fact of the white eye seems to me a central, but overlooked, element of the exchange. Are the viewers to feel guilt or shame? Does observing supplant social action or rather become the political act? Do the images invite an exploration of complicity and an understanding of the structural elements at play, or does the seeing (merely of the photo or the exhibit) release us from responsibility? There are insidious, unmarked, deeply seeded beliefs embedded in the public consciousness about prison; if we do not confront them with alternate narratives any visuals will be folded into, and thus reinforce and retell, the existing story: prisons are necessary for public safety, prisons are filled with people who are different and more menacing than those not in prison, and thus buttress the socially constructed idea of the dangerous Black or Brown body. I submit that prison, in particular prison imagery, has become the new ‘dark continent’ (a term coined by colonists to describe and name Africa trading in colonial ideas of savagery, the primitive, exotic, and hyper-sexualized racialized bodies) and the prisoner the ‘noble savage’ of the 21st century. When prisoners are the focus the prison, the system, is obscured.
There are intentionally no people in my photographs. Though prisons are full of bodies they are principally empty hidden spaces. Correctional institutions occupy a tremendous amount of acreage; yet the vast majority of square footage is not inhabited but rather comprises the machinery needed to disappear people, manage bodies, and conceal the social institution of punishment. The images here expose everyday penal realities from stockpiled uniforms and colossal stores of cleaning fluids to carefully detailed corporate logos adorning the cinder block walls alongside inane sayings intended to boost morale. However, the quotidian is macabre when on the inside. Because they are out of sight few ever think of the mundane functional necessities, the scale of infrastructure and bureaucracy, associated with the operation and maintenance of penal institutions.
Prisonscapes: Scenes from the Carceral Frontier focuses on the apparatus of control. In the 1990s a prison opened in the rural United States every 15 days. If you are prisoner on planet earth there is a 1 in 4 chance you are in a U.S. prison. Yet, most people only imagine these luminal places. Most of what happens in prison is routine and driven by functionalism. Drama, violence, and high-handed ideas of justice or injustice may be what animate the public’s mind but in actuality managerialism rules each prison day and night. The daily practice of controlling bodies en masse, on a scale unprecedented in human history, requires corporations, expediency, penny-pinching, specialized architecture, food service, germ defense, and adroit staffing. Prisons are disappeared cities that function as large-scale round-the-clock surveillance factories manufacturing custody 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. These images enable a reconnaissance of these veiled metropolises. The objective here is beyond witness; it is to foster dissent and inspire voices to call for the abolition of prisons, to demand that the dollars spent on punishment be rerouted toward community-sustaining institutions and practices.
In 2013 I was granted a security pass, unprecedented, unfettered access, to photograph each of New Mexico’s adult correctional institutions, six state-run and five privately operated prisons. The process to obtain this clearance was complex and there are details I cannot share. There are no secrets in prisons. Everyone and everything—prisoners, staff, equipment—are always watching. Hence the idea of a camera on the inside as ‘dangerous’ is in many respects absurd. Yet, there were parties that considered the permanent record these images would generate as a risk, as intruding. Indeed it is; but the anxiety was induced because of who would be doing the watching. I travelled over four thousand miles across rugged rural terrain. Using a hand-held digital camera I spent three days at each site aiming to capture all aspects of penal infrastructure—to gather the view from inside. The corrections officers and prisoners I met were deeply engaged by my enterprise though all expressed shock to see a person holding a camera. They excitedly guided me and they gladly stepped out of my way. They wanted me to see and share the disappeared places where they live and work. I’ve amassed an archive of over 17,000 photos that encapsulate prisons and their geographic locales. All photos are in color. I do not crop, retouch, or edit the images in any way.
Prisonscapes: Scenes from the Carceral Frontier subverts surveillance by rotating the lens of persistent visual scrutiny back upon the panopticon itself. These prisonscapes enable viewers to traverse the perimeter and eyewitness shrouded sites within the U.S. penal archipelago. The intention is for viewers to build an understanding as to what a prison is and to fathom the substructure and magnitude necessary to warehouse well over two million people. My academic training leaves me conversant in penal history. I organize and contextualize images to disrupt and transform the penal story buried, but unmarked, in the public consciousness. The project’s structure intends to cultivate fresh narratives, disrupt the status quo, and ultimately activate change. Prisons will only come down from the outside. What follows are photographs organized by theme: Landscape & Place, Conjugal Visits, Workplace, Food, Storage, and Cleaning. Each subject area is preceded by attendant text providing the viewer with historical and contemporary context. I hope this project questions the morality of prison.
Prisons in Place: New Mexico
New Mexico has certainly captured the imagination of those beyond its borders. Whenever I cite my location most people perk up and quickly tell me of a delightful past visit or of their strong desire to explore the state. They mention the beauty of the land, the infamous light, or their enchanting time in Santa Fe. This is the consequence of tourism and public relations. The Land of Enchantment is a deceit, a story cleansed, (white)washed, of history and dimension.
New Mexico is a poor rural colonized territory. It became the forty-seventh state in 1912 and is home to the Manhattan Project and White Sands Missile Range, where the Army and the Department of Defense test and evaluate the nation’s weapons. According to the Census Bureau over one-fifth of all New Mexicans live below the poverty line. With a population of just over two million the state has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, is ranked forty-ninth in both education and overall child wellbeing, and one in four New Mexicans is food insecure. Heroin addiction and prescription drug overdoses are notoriously endemic. The state is considered to be one of the top three food deserts in the United States. The high school ‘push-out’ rate (what too often is called a drop-out rate) averages fifty percent. In dollars, the state, incarcerating just over seven thousand inmates, spends 4.7 times more per prisoner than it does per public school pupil. Most of the state’s prisons are located in rural economically troubled locales. The prison is generally the best paying job in town, often the only one with benefits, and generally is a well-liked, welcome employer. As train routes dried up and the mines shut down, small towns all over New Mexico collapsed. The prisons arrived in the eighties and nineties with the promise of keeping these places alive. In my travels I did not see evidence of economic resurgence. I saw boarded up main streets peppered with multiple payday quick loan storefronts. This is New Mexico.
On February 2, 1980, at the Penitentiary New Mexico (PNM), known then as the ‘Main,’ just outside of Santa Fe, on Highway 14 along the famed turquoise trail, one of the nation’s most violent prisoner uprisings jumped off. It lasted thirty-six hours and ended when governor Bruce King called in the National Guard to retake the prison. During the mayhem thirty-three prisoners were tortured and killed by other inmates with another two hundred raped and assaulted. No corrections officers were slain though a number were taken hostage some of whom were brutalized. The exceptionally vicious event shaped the course of corrections in New Mexico. All eleven adult prisons currently in use were built after, and in response to, the events of 1980. The five private prisons are run by three different corporations including Geo Group, responsible for building and running three institutions, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which operates the only women’s prison in the state (and it is full), and Management and Training Corporation (MTC), which recently added state prisoners to their already brimming facility in Otero County (that sits alongside their immigration detention center). These corporate wardens energetically emphasize their commitment to their ‘clients’ (the state) and in one case point to the housing board as “revenue.” The images presented here are quintessential New Mexico with their red earth, open vistas, and the southwestern themed landscaping. The intention is locate prisons in the geographic world.
Conjugal visits were first allowed at Mississippi’s Parchman State Penitentiary, a 20,000- acre former plantation that became a penal farm in 1901. It is still in operation. In the wake of the civil war the South lay in ruins and new allegiances were forged between whites across social classes. They used the criminal law and newly conceived punishment practices to reinstate the economic and social conditions of slavery. The Black Codes (racialized criminal codes that long preceded Jim Crow) criminalized the behavior of newly freed African-Americans. Acts such as owning a weapon, being homeless, or killing a pig became state punishable crimes (whites were free to engage in any of the actions) and thus began the structural creation of a Black ‘criminal’ class in the United States. Convict leasing, chain gangs, and the penal farm emerged to ‘manage’ the now growing ranks of Black prisoners. The south had very few prisons before the war (and they had primarily been filled with whites) and none were left standing. In the early 1900s, the warden of Parchman Farm began bringing in prostitutes on Sundays to, in his logic, keep the prisoners sated and compliant. But this practice was only for Black convicts, reflecting and reinforcing the white fixation on Black male sexuality. White inmates were not allowed conjugal visits until the 1930s.
Each state eventually constructed its own distinct set of rules and regulations regarding such visits but overnights or time alone with a loved one (people sanctioned as visit-eligible by the state) are not a simple or easy matter anywhere. Though the term conjugal lives on in the public imagination, and is used here intentionally to keep the history front and center, family visit is more commonly found in contemporary correctional parlance.
Alice King, wife of the governor at the time of the 1980 rebellion, was the champion of conjugal visits in New Mexico. She campaigned for their implementation in the riot’s wake. The practice was structured in a highly controlled manner. To be eligible a prisoner must have one year clean, meaning no write-ups (disciplinary reports), and must be in programming (work or school). The first visit lasts 6 hours, the second 12 hours, the third 12 hours, and then a 24 visit can be scheduled. Four months between visits is requisite and the inmate is responsible for a twenty-five dollar clean-up fee. All of this is at the warden’s discretion. If an inmate is written up at any point the process is suspended. As of May 1, 2014, following a national trend, conjugal visits in New Mexico were suspended. The Albuquerque Journal quotes Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel “who said the change in New Mexico’s policy came after a two-year study, and officials concluded that allowing inmates evenings with loved ones had almost no effect on recidivism rates….Instead, Marcantel said, the conjugal visits were producing unwanted children, spreading sexually transmitted diseases and being used to introduce contraband into prisons” (Contreras 2014). However, in my discussions with corrections officers at each site I was informed that most visitors, about 80% by their guess, were parents and siblings. Washington, California, and New York are the few states that still allow for conjugal visits. The following images lay bare the nature of these locations: razor-wire views from every tiny window, spaces with little natural light, a curious attempt at homey charm, and a general ambiance of outdated, cheap motel rooms with a sterile, almost clinical atmosphere. The standardization illustrates that the same company built these units, a corporation at work. They now all sit idle in monsoon rains and unrelenting sun.
Prison as workplace
Corrections officers (COs) are doing time too, in eight or twelve hours shifts, though with routine overtime regularly it is a double. We habitually forget that prisons are also sites of paid labor. Punishment is someone’s job. There are close to one million corrections officers in the United States, working-class people who pay a steep price for a steady paycheck. COs have high turnover rates, along with above average incidences of alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and divorce. Studies show they experience truncated life spans after retirement and that they typically hide their jobs from others. With the decline of manufacturing in the United States many politicians and counties have turned to prisons in the hope of revitalizing local economies. The data are clear: prisons deter other industries and the jobs they bring are unsustainable with attendant social problems that weigh heavily on communities. The story of prisons is also the story of disappearing jobs and wage stagnation across the United States. The work of corrections tells an economic history of place and locates prisons in the broader story of labor and economics in America.
New Mexico has 964 corrections officers. Those working at public facilities are unionized while privatized corrections is non-union work (this is true nationwide). The turnover rate in New Mexico is quite high and under-staffed prisons are the state norm. In order to run the prisons each corrections officer in the state commonly does two or three overtimes a week. They are written-up if they do not comply, overtime refusal is not an option. Think about what this might mean for their personal relationships and physical well-being. Anecdotally wardens told me that NM prisons lose half their staff each year. Eye these photos with an exploration as to what ugly and barren workplaces prisons are. Consider who does the strip-searching or who does the watching when someone is suicidal.
Food is a central issue in prison, as it is everywhere. A substantial number of prison uprisings follow the disruption of food service (e.g. meals put on hold or commissary suspended). In order to deliver three meals a day to each inmate, prisons often serve at peculiar hours (e.g., dinner at 4pm or breakfast at 4am). Correctional institutions in New Mexico are mandated by law to have enough food on site to sustain the facility for two weeks should it be necessary to go without deliveries because of a long-term lockdown.
Kitchens must keep a tray of all food served for up to 72 hours so that testing can occur should someone become ill. In prison argot these are ‘dead man trays.’ Most folks, incorrectly but persistently, imagine food to be largely responsible for the high cost of prisons. In reality, states spend relatively little to feed their inmates. In New Mexico, wardens confirmed, food generally comprises 8 or 9 percent of the prison’s budget. Each meal, they told me, averages about a buck fifty but this figure, they were careful to note, is inflated due to the cost of a handful of special dietary plans, typically diabetic. Unbeknownst to most people, prisoners pay for a great deal of the food they eat out of their own pockets, buying it from the commissary, the prison store, or soda and candy machines placed throughout the facilities. A rough anecdotal estimate, garnered from interviews with administrators, is that half of what inmates eat comes from these self-financed sources.
As the images illustrate prisons warehouse enormous amounts of food. There are stockpiles of both dry and perishable goods in cold storage, commissaries, and canteens. The logistics of food distribution is a serious penal issue, due in part to its volatility as well as the directives associated with legal mandates. Many facilities configure their mess halls to hide the identity of the server and the receiver. The extent of food infrastructure in prisons is remarkable and a colossal part of prison life (for staff and prisoner alike). Consider what you see here and then amplify it nationwide.
Just outside the parameter, at each prison, I saw vast areas of detritus, including heaps of wire, piles of wooden flats, and masses of porcelain toilets. This expanse is commonly referred to as ‘the boneyard.’ It is where all manner of debris is amassed in the interest of eventually being repurposed, usually by inmate labor, in service of building maintenance. This speaks to wardens’ constant focus on the facility and the necessary crafty means employed to keep it serviceable and within the established budget. Bear in mind, virtually all of the labor ‘employed’ to maintain the physical plant is inmates. Prisoners literally sustain that which incarcerates them.
Prisons are indeed fantastically expensive but the public rarely understands the ever-growing logistical expenditures that are associated with running a carceral municipality. The costs are the building and the staff. Money is not being poured into a prisoner’s quality of life but rather endlessly streamed into the creation and upkeep of the institution. As each warden I met mentioned, if they are to go over budget it will most likely be a building repair issue. Plumbing, for example, is a serious and expensive issue, and as it is always a problem it requires ongoing preventive attention. They confirmed that expenditures associated with preventive building maintenance are more than double that of the food budget, typically, in New Mexico comprising between 20 and 25% of the institution’s overall financial plan. Everyday something needs fixing. All tools, and prisons are filled with tools of all kinds, must be kept in a shadow box and inventoried each day. Toilet paper, uniforms (prisoner and officer), armory weapons, inmate property (as they move through security levels what they are allowed to have fluctuates), bedding, pliers, mops, and supplies—from government issued toothpaste to paper that classification officers use—are just the start of the extraordinary volume of items stockpiled throughout a prison.
Every warden I spoke with lamented a shortage of space and estimated that one-fifth of the prison is utilized to store stuff. Keep in mind that the majority of prison square footage is not used by inmates nor is it for ‘living.’
Prisons stink. However, the odors might not be what you imagine. The stench, and it can be overwhelming, is that of cleaning fluids. A walk through a correctional facility is a walk through a panoply of ever-wafting chemical smells emanating from surfaces recently wiped down, mopped, or scrubbed in addition to the buckets, spray bottles, and cloth laying about waiting to be put back to use. To the eye prisons characteristically appear spotless and remember free labor is abundant and no warden wants idle prisoners, so a cleaning staff is always on shift. But the effort to control germs, serious microorganisms from streptococcus to tuberculosis, is a constant administrative concern. It is difficult to convey, with words, the volume of cleaning supplies both in use and on deck throughout each and every prison. The images more effectively illustrate this prison reality.
Contreras, Russell. 2014. “Conjugal Visits to End in NM.” Albuquerque Journal, April 17. Accessed January 11, 2015. http://www.abqjournal.com/385172/news/conjugal-visits-to-end.html.