Inside the Wire
Inside the Wire comprises photographs I took in two southern prison systems—Texas and Arkansas—from 1964 through 1979; it also includes seventeen very old prisoner identification photographs I acquired in Arkansas in 1975, and, for technical reasons, was able to restore only recently. The book is about a prison culture that is a direct descendant of the nineteenth-century slave plantation, a culture that still exists.
I've taken a few photographs in other prisons when I've been doing research projects or visiting as a tourist or guest (some of which were Indiana State Prison in Michigan City; Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola; la maison centrale in Poissy, just outside of Paris; Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay; Oregon Penitentiary in Salem), and I've done research in or visited others where I wasn't allowed to take photographs, or my movements were so constrained there was no point even trying (Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Walpole; Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City; San Quentin and Corona in California; the Bronx House of Detention for Men; and Attica in New York). I also have many photographs taken from parapets, the catwalk, and later on from the ground by shooters and others at Attica on September 13, 1971, the day of what has been called "the turkey shoot." I came by those in the course of the prisoners' civil rights trial in 1991.
Double-coil concertina razor wire has replaced the old triple-strand barbed wire atop prison fences in the 1960s and 1970s. Both Texas and Arkansas now have far more prisons and far more prisoners than when I looked at them. All American prison systems grew fatter in those years—largely because of the continuing failure to deal with illegal drugs and the reasons people use them, and the spread of the so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws, which, in New York and many other states, put minor drug offenders behind bars for far longer than violent criminals.
Otherwise, I think little has changed about the prisons themselves. They continue to be grim places where American society hides its failures. Some villains surely need to be kept away from the rest of us, but they are a minority of the men and women behind the wire. Save for them, the two primary functions, I think, shared by most American prisons now, are providing jobs to people in rural counties who would not otherwise have jobs, and keeping off city streets people the cities don't know what else to do with, about, or for, or just don't want to look at.
I began my research in American prisons in 1962 at the Indiana State Prison, which is in Michigan City, close to Lake Superior and not far from Gary and Chicago. I only took a few photographs there and I did them with no purpose in mind. My project then was music and conversation. I took some photographs of people, and one or two of the wall with its gun turrets because it was so much like the walls I'd seen in the films of my youth. The second time I visited ISP, the guards told me I could bring my audio gear in but not the camera, so I never got to take any more pictures at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, nor at Indiana Reformatory at Pendleton, where I did audio interviews about the same time.
A year later, I made the first of my visits to Missouri Penitentiary in Jefferson City. The guards took my camera away the first time I went in and I never got them to loosen up on that. At Missouri, I could talk to and tape record anyone I liked, but no images were going out of there. That penitentiary was more like the prisons in movies of the 1940s and 1950s than Indiana State Prison had been, and, save for not having portraits of the people with whom I spoke about life in prison and in crime, and one sequence of images involving a badly-built wall that tilted when I first saw it and subsequently collapsed, I still don't much mind the guards having confiscated my camera. Those guards and their prisons had been nailed in the movies: if you've seen Brute Force (1947) or Canon City (1948), you've seen Missouri Penitentiary in the 1960s.
There was still a lot of rubble around the place from a riot that had occurred in 1954. Four prisoners had been killed, scores had been injured, and the National Guard and state police were called in to put an end to it. One man with a bad limp told me he'd caught a bullet in the foot during the retaking. The police, he said, didn't beat him up afterward the way they did the other guys in the block; instead, they stepped on his foot a lot. It came, he said, to the same thing.
Going to Texas
In early 1964, I decided to undertake a study of black convict worksongs in southern prisons. I was then a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, so my research expenses would be covered and I could afford all the time the project needed.
Not only were southern agricultural prisons based on the structural model of the American slave plantation, but many of them occupied land that had literally been slave plantations before the Civil War, and secular plantations on which work and living conditions were not much changed after it. I might have found the material I sought in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama, but I had friends in Austin and Beaumont and family in Dallas, so I started with Texas. It turned out to be a fortunate choice.
I wrote the director of the Texas Department of Corrections, George Beto, and told him about my proposed study, including a list of the Texas prisons I wanted especially to visit. Beto had a PhD in educational administration from the University of Texas and was an ordained Lutheran minister. Before being appointed head of the Texas prison system, he'd been president of Concordia Lutheran College in Austin (1949–1959) and then Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield, Illinois (1959–1962). He was a minister and an academic, not a cop. He wrote back immediately, saying, Come on down.
On my way there, I stopped and visited banjo player Hobart Smith in Saltville, Virginia, and recorded him and a lot of his friends and family. I drove west to Jefferson City and visited Missouri Penitentiary one more time. When I got there, I first visited the warden, E. V. Nash, in his office out front. We chatted a while, then he asked if I intended to do what I'd done previously, just wander around inside and talk to people. "Yes," I said. "Is anything wrong? Are there any problems with that?" Not at all, he told me, everything was fine, just fine.
I went from his office to the gate that let you go from the public area of the prison to the prison's main corridor, from the outside world to the inside world. Two white convicts I'd spent a lot of time interviewing on my previous visit were waiting for me when I came through. I asked how they knew I was there.
"Grapevine," one of them said.
"I thought that was just in the movies," I said.
"Here, too," he said.
They picked up my recording equipment and we started down the corridor.
"You hear about all those niggers got cut up?" one asked.
"Three died," the other said.
"When did that happen?" I said.
"A few days ago."
"The warden didn't mention it," I said.
"Guess he wouldn't."
I asked what it was about and they told me that the prison administration had decided to integrate, so they moved a few black convicts into a white cell block or dormitory.
"That was just asking for it," one of the convicts said. "That was saying to the guys in that block, 'We're testing you.'"
"You don't ever want to do that in a penitentiary," the other said. "You don't want to say you're testing them."
"You know what people in these places are like," the other said. I said, yes, I did, and we all nodded, and then walked on to a place where we could sit and talk.
I was supposed to leave the prison by five p.m. each day, but I noticed that the guard shifts changed at four, so I started staying later and later. One night, well after dark, I was crossing the upper yard alone when I heard machine gunfire and a loud siren. My first thought was about the 1954 riot and the man with the bullet in his foot whom I'd spoken with on my previous visit. My second was that I should have gotten out of there by four, as I'd been told to do. Then I heard applause and cheers. I kept on walking and came around a corner, where I saw several hundred convicts sitting on folding chairs, watching a cops and robbers movie on an outdoor screen. One of the guys saw me and came over. "Them guys," he said, "they know how it's going to end. Just like the Indians. Our side never wins."
I went on back to the motel. The next day, when I came back into the prison, that same convict said, "You should have stuck around last night. It got interesting when the movie ended. Everybody got up to go back to the cells but one guy. Somebody got to him when all that noise was going on. The sirens and the machine guns, you know?"
After a week or so there, I drove due south into the Ozarks, where I visited a bronc rider and singer named Glenn Ohrlin in Mountain View, Arkansas, and did some recording. Then I drove due south again into Little Rock (where the neon signs at motels said "colored" or "whites only"), and then east through Texarkana, then on to Garland, just outside Dallas, where I spent the night with a cousin I hadn't seen since we'd been kids in New York City. Her husband ran a Resistol hat shop in Dallas, and, before I left, he gave me a pearl grey Resistol Self-Conforming Western hat. "You'll need this, where you're going," he said. (I had that hat for years and even wore it a few times when I was in Texas.) Then I drove south to Huntsville, to the home of the Texas prison system.
When I got to his office in Huntsville that summer of 1964, Dr. Beto asked me why I had picked the particular Texas prisons I'd written him that I wanted to visit. "The last Osborne Association report said they were the worst prisons in the United States," I said, "so I thought they'd be a good place to start."
That report, he said, was nearly thirty years old. "The prisoners you want to talk to—the men doing the longest sentences and who have been in and out of here the most times—are at Ramsey, Retrieve, and Ellis. The most violent ones are at Ellis, which didn't exist back then. It's only been open a few years. There are some old-timers at Wynne Farm who will talk to you. And some at the Walls in Huntsville. You can go anywhere you want, but why don't you start with those places, and if you don't like them you can go to the places on that list of yours."
I said that was fine with me. I thought that he, like most bureaucrats, was sending me to the prettiest prisons. My plan was to do what I'd done in Michigan City and Jefferson City: to first go where the warden wanted me to go, and then, when they forgot about me, go where I should have been going.
This time, I was wrong. Beto was sending me to the places most appropriate for what I was up to, and there was nothing pretty about any of them.
He picked up the phone and called Sidney Lanier, warden at Ramsey Unit, sixteen thousand acres on the site of five former plantations located forty miles south of Houston, 112 miles south of where we were sitting. "Warden," he said, "I'm sending someone down there, a Mr. Bruce Jackson. He may look a little strange to you and he may have some strange requests. Give him whatever he wants and don't let anybody interfere with him. He's a Harvard Fellow, which to me is just under God." He hung up the phone without waiting for an answer and said, "He'll take care of you." Then he said, "You and the warden might have other things to talk about. He's named for his grandfather." That would have been Sidney Lanier, the nineteenth-century musician and poet from Georgia who died in 1881 at the age of thirty-nine, by which time he was teaching English Literature at Johns Hopkins University.
Beto asked me where I'd been on this trip, and I told him about Missouri, and the race killings there. "I heard about that," he said. Then he said just about what the two white convicts had said to me when I came through the gate in Jefferson City: "That's no way to do anything in a penitentiary. People feel you're testing them and they have to respond. If you're going to do something, just do it. Go all the way. With integration, everybody knows it's got to come, so they'll accept it if you just do it." Which is what he did when he started integrating Texas prisons a short time later, and there was, so far as I know, no violence connected with it at all. He started first with the line, the field workers, and then moved into the buildings.
The last thing he said before I left his office was, "That warden up there in Jefferson City—Nash—did you ever see him inside the building? I don't mean in his office. I mean inside, where you were working."
"No," I said, "I don't recall that I ever did."
"That's what I heard," Beto said. "He never goes inside." He shrugged or nodded, as if to say, you can't run a prison from outside, from an office.
Several months after my first time in Huntsville, I heard or read that E.V. Nash had shot himself at his home, a day or so after a Christmas party.
Beto's nickname among the Texas convicts was "Walking George" because he'd turn up in the fields and, sometimes late at night, in the buildings. Nobody—convicts or staff—knew when he'd do that. One night, on one of my visits, I was staying in a motel in Huntsville and the phone rang about ten thirty or eleven and it was Beto. He didn't even say hello; he just said, "I'm going out to the Eastham. I'll pick you up in ten minutes." In the car, I asked him what was going on out there. He said, "Nothing, I hope." We went out to Eastham State Prison Farm in Lovelady, Texas, maybe forty miles from Huntsville. We walked the halls for a while, talked with people who were up, working night jobs, then went on back to town.
No one in New York would say "the Attica" or "the Sing-Sing," just as no one in California would say "the Alcatraz" or "the San Quentin." The names of the prisons in most states are self-enclosed and want or take no definite article, like Cincinnati, or Harvard, or General Motors, or Shirley, or Fred. But everyone in the Texas prisons in the years I worked there used a definite article when referring to the units: it was always "Down on the Ramsey," not "Down on Ramsey," and "Up on the Ellis," not "Up on Ellis." It made no sense to me until I realized that nearly all of those prison farms had been plantations at one time, so it was like an abbreviated way of saying "I'm going to the Smith family's plantation," or "I'm going to the Smiths'." Just as the agricultural work model was a direct descendant of slaverytime, so was the prison nomenclature. Even if the prisons no longer carried the names of the families that had owned the nineteenth-century plantations on which they sat, the definite article carried the culture on.
Years after my first visit, I asked Beto why he had given me free range of the place. I'd never found that kind of freedom in a prison in the North before (or, as it turned out, after). "How do people in my position find out what we're doing wrong if we don't let people like you in to tell us?" he said. He paused, then added, "And I thought we might have interesting conversations." Which, over the years, we did. Beto was an ethical man caught up in an industry in which words like that have far too little currency.
Someone wrote in a book that I'd been coopted by Beto. That wasn't it at all. I wasn't coopted. George Beto and I were friends. We worked in very different political worlds and inhabited different political universes, and never, so far as I know, trivialized those differences. We had things to talk about, so we talked. We disagreed about some things, and that got in the way of nothing. We both, I thought then and I think now, understood our relationship and our differences perfectly.
My interest at first was primarily in music and the spoken word—I was continuing the work I'd begun in Indiana, Missouri, and Massachusetts that would become In the Life: Versions of the Criminal Experience (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972)—and I was beginning the work on black convict worksongs that would become Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs in a Texas Prison (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972) as well as several records and CDs and two films.
The first film happened because Pete Seeger, whom I'd known from our work on the Newport Folk Festival board, telephoned in late 1965 or early 1966 and said, "There aren't any films of those black convict worksongs you've been working on in Texas. Somebody should make one before it's too late, before they're gone." I told him that I didn't know anything about making movies and nobody was going to give us any money to do it, anyway. NEH and NEA had just been established and weren't giving money to people making movies about folk music yet, let alone people like us. Nobody knew me, and Pete was still persona non grata in Washington because of his politics. We couldn't wait, Pete said. Those songs would not be around much longer and it was important to document them now. He said he would pay for the film himself. Which he did. The film we made, Afro-American Worksongs in a Texas Prison, is, to my knowledge, the only film of its kind. Within a year, those prisons were integrated and the worksongs were gone forever.
The whole time I worked in Texas prisons, I took photographs, but at first only as aides mémoires. I wasn't trying to make pictures of the place so much as I was making pictures to help me when I set about writing about it later. I took photographs primarily so I wouldn't have to write a lot of notes about what I was seeing. My first interest in those initial visits (1964 through 1968) was in sounds: what people said and the music they made. Then it became the communities they inhabited and built. And once I got there, the photographs were no longer peripheral but central.
In the late 1960s, after I'd left Harvard and had moved to the University at Buffalo, I got a phone call from someone who told me his name was Danny Lyon and he was calling on the recommendation of our mutual editor at Macmillan, Alan Rinzler (Danny had just finished The Bikeriders and I had just finished A Thief's Primer; Alan had been editor at Macmillan for both). Danny had told Alan he was trying to get access to Texas prisons to photograph them, but the director of the prison system, George Beto, told him he would let him in only if I said it was okay. Danny said it seemed weird that a Texas prison director should tell him to get clearance from an upstate New York English professor. Alan, Danny said, told Danny to talk to me and I'd help him. Danny came up to Buffalo for a few days, we talked, connected, I wrote to Dr. Beto, and Danny got to spend a year there with the same kind of walking-around privileges I had.
The reason Dr. Beto wanted my okay wasn't because he wanted me to vet Danny; he could do that perfectly well himself. It was just what he thought was professional courtesy—or maybe it was territorial: he'd given me run of the place to do some work and he wanted to make sure Danny wasn't going to walk on or screw up my project. At that point, Beto didn't know what I was actually working on in addition to the worksongs; it was the principle of the thing. (Danny tells his version of this story in "Doing Life," an interview with Nan Goldin in the September 1995 Artforum.)
I visited Danny one time when he was working around Huntsville and staying on a ranch he'd rented there. He was photographing at the Huntsville Unit, which everyone called "the Walls," since it was the only prison in the Texas prison system enclosed by walls instead of a fence. He was also photographing at Wynne, Ellis, and the other prison farms in that area. We went out to the prison rodeo one day and photographed convicts trying to stay on bulls and bucking broncs, and we photographed each other.
Later on, I visited him when he was in an apartment in Houston, working on Ramsey and the other southern units of the system. We went out to Gaido's, a seafood restaurant near the Astrodome that I'd been taken to on my previous visit to Houston by Jack Heard, a former prison official who had in the interim become the high sheriff of Houston. We talked about what we'd been up to since we'd last met, then I asked Danny for advice about taking photographs.
"You're a writer," he said, "you don't need to know how to take photographs."
"I'm getting to a point where I think I have to," I said.
"You're a writer," Danny said. "Stick to that. I'll take the photographs."
We talked for a while about Alan Rinzler, the New York editor who had made the connection between us. Alan had recently moved to Holt, Rinehart and Winston, thereby orphaning our books at Macmillan. We spent a long time bad-mouthing him for being a rat (but we would both do our next books with him at Holt, whereupon he would orphan them as well when he quit that job and went to work for Rolling Stone's Straight Arrow Press in San Francisco). Danny and I spent a while talking about problems with publishers and editors, as writers do.
The woman Danny was with said, "Why are you guys talking about things like that?"
"What should we be talking about?" one of us said.
"Art," she said.
"What do you think happens with the stuff we make?" Danny said. "We have to do something with it."
Then Danny told me something I've thought about a lot in the intervening years: "The difference between us is you're always looking for the intelligent convicts and I'm looking for the beautiful ones."
At first I thought that was indeed the difference between us, but then I didn't, so I said, "No, that's not it. The difference between us is you fall in love with them and I don't."
At the end of the meal I went to pay the check but realized I'd left my wallet back at Danny's flat. So I just signed it and wrote my office address on the back, the way I'd seen Jack Heard do the time he took me there. The waiter looked at me, looked at the tip, thought about it a minute, then thanked us all for having come in. A few months later, I got a bill for the meal and for years I had a personal account there, and perhaps still do.
I still think what I said to Danny about the difference between us is correct. He kept meeting guys who were, in his sense of them, innocent; who were bum-rapped, who had been betrayed by fall partners or lovers or lawyers. No doubt some of it was true (Kerry Max Cook, whom I would meet on Death Row in Texas in 1979, was proven innocent by DNA evidence twenty years later; there are some people in the penitentiary who have been railroaded), but when Danny and I had that lunch, I was four prison systems past taking that as a given. One of Danny's most recent books—Like a Thief's Dream (powerHouse, 2007)—is about someone he met in Texas whom he believed entirely, until he didn't, which was long later. He did two other books about his time in Texas: The Autobiography of Billy McCune (Straight Arrow, 1973) and the book for which he is best known, Conversations with the Dead: Photos of Prison Life, with the Letters and Drawings of Billy McCune #122054 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), about which I wrote a long article in Rolling Stone immediately upon its publication.
I continued working in the Texas prisons through the late 1960s, spending most of my time at Ramsey, Ellis, and Wynne. I also worked at the Walls, Eastham, Goree (the women's prison), and a few of the other prison farms. Sid Lanier died young of a heart attack and was replaced as warden of Ramsey by Terrill Don Hutto, whom I'd first known when he was a schoolteacher on the unit.
In the summer of 1971, I was driving to California to spend a Guggenheim year at Berkeley. Just before I left, I learned that Don Hutto had been made commissioner of the Arkansas prison system. Arkansas had only shortly earlier been the first prison in the United States found unconstitutional in a federal court (Holt v. Sarver I, 1969, and II, 1970). Conditions there were just so awful they violated the constitutional provisions against cruel and unusual punishment. Hutto had been appointed commissioner to bring that brutal system into the twentieth century. To do the job, he brought with him a lot of the Texans I'd known for years.
I wrote him and said I was driving from Buffalo to San Francisco that summer. I asked if I could stop by for a few days to see what they were up to there. At that point, I was just curious to see what the new worst prison in the United States looked like. He wrote back, "Sure."
So on my way to Berkeley in August 1971, I spent a week in Cummins prison. The first time I drove up to the road barrier, the armed man in khakis who asked me if I had any weapons in my car was a convict; during that visit, everyone I saw carrying a pistol, rifle, or shotgun was a convict guard. You could tell a person's role from the clothes he wore: ordinary convicts wore white, trusties wore khaki, and the few civilian employees wore whatever they had. But just about everyone carrying a gun was a convict.
I drove around, I talked to people, I lurked. My dog—a fyce named Lulu—and I walked along the levee and looked at the squads working. I shot nine rolls of film, then I drove on to Huntsville, visited George Beto at Wit's End, his ranch, and talked about what I'd seen, then kept on going to Austin, visited friends there, then went on to California.
A year later, on my way back east, I visited the same friends in Austin, then drove on to Cummins and spent another week there. The convict guards had been replaced by free-world guards, most of whom had blue uniforms. The trusties still wore khaki and all the other convicts wore white. But this time, most of the guns (not all) were carried by civilian employees.
I again had Lulu with me, and also my ten-year-old son, Michael, who, most days, hung around the building where we'd been put up while I was out in the fields with the line taking pictures. This time, I shot twenty-nine rolls of film.
One late afternoon, I came back to the house and Michael was sitting on the grass eating the heart of a watermelon. Lulu was sleeping not far away. The watermelon had been neatly sliced in half and Michael was reaching in with his fingers pulling out chunks of the heart, the narrow core without pits. "Where did you get that?" I asked him. A line of carts towed by a tractor had come by, he said, and they'd stopped and one of the men had jumped off, brought him the watermelon from a truck that was full of them, chopped it in half with a huge knife, then had gotten back on the cart, and the tractor and carts and truck had gone on. He pointed toward the wire and the building. The men in the carts had waved to him as they'd gone on and he'd waved back to them.
"The man with the big knife," I said. "Was he wearing a white uniform?"
"Oh, yes," Michel said, "they all were." He'd never had an entire watermelon to himself before, one of which he could eat only the heart and have quite enough, so he was really happy.
When I went to Cummins with Michael and the fyce on that second trip, I was thinking about doing an article for the New York Times Magazine about what the Texans had managed to do with the mess in Arkansas, or what a mess Arkansas made of the Texans.
But something happened: I found I was far more interested in the images I was making than in the words I might eventually write. If I was going to document what was happening in Cummins prison, it was going to be primarily through images.
And that, I think, was when I became a photographer. I was reading the world not in terms of what it sounded like, and making some images to illustrate or gloss that, but rather I was documenting the world in terms in what it looked like—in its forms. Instead of images being adjunct to the words, it was the images telling the story, and the words glossing them. Which is what you have in this book: words here and in the notes at the back of the book, and in the middle, the photographs. I think the story I saw in Texas and Arkansas needs both.
The next time I visited Cummins, all the guards had blue uniforms and there was a separate maximum security unit. Over the next three years, I visited the prison five times more—eight visits total—shooting more than four thousand photographs there, not much at all for eight long shoots in these digital days, but a fair number back when each roll of film held only thirty-six frames and some rolls held only twenty-two.
Don Hutto would go on to become one of America's first prison moguls. He left Arkansas to be director of the Virginia prison system for a while, then he was one of the cofounders of Correctional Corporation of America, which describes itself as "a company that owns and manages private prisons and detention centers" populated by state and federal prisoners on a fee basis. It also operates "others on a concession basis," which is to say, it staffs and operates prison facilities owned by government agencies. CCA is the device that many states and the federal system have turned to as a way of ignoring obscene prison overcrowding. In theory, the agencies aren't running all those extra prisons; they're just writing checks to CCA. The last time I saw Hutto was at George Beto's funeral in Austin in 1991. Corrections Corporation of America now actively lobbies for legislation that will force the incarceration of illegal immigrants; one of its specialties is private prisons holding illegal immigrants.
Save for the very old or very sick, or those locked up in isolation or on Death Row, all the prisoners I saw in Texas and Arkansas worked. Some worked in the building in the kitchen, or as turnkeys in the hall, or on the cell blocks and in the dormitories. Texas did a lot of industrial work, so many prisoners made mattresses, license plates, and false teeth for other convicts and patients in state hospitals; they repaired school buses and they converted sugarcane into molasses; they kept the buildings clean and the fence posts plumb-bob straight. Some spent part of the day in school. But most Texas and Arkansas convicts worked the fields in what was called "the line."
In the old days, the line in all the southern prisons worked from what they called "can to can't": from when there was enough light for a high rider (a guard positioned a ways off from the working squads and armed with a rifle) to shoot someone running off or assaulting a closer guard armed only with a pistol, to when there wasn't enough light for the high rider to make that kind of shot. By the time I started in 1964, the workday was far shorter: the actual time in the fields in both prison systems, not counting travel to and from the building, was about eight hours. So in the heart of winter it was still "can to can't," but nobody went out then; and in the summer it wasn't even close.
In nearly all the Texas prisons, and in the Arkansas prisons (Cummins, the prison for adult men and women, where I spent most of my time; and Tucker, the prison for younger offenders, which I visited only occasionally), the line would come out of the building in the early morning and move in groups through the back sally port gate. Every maximum security prison I've worked in has such gates. Before the end of the Cold War, if you went from West Berlin to East Berlin on the S-Bahn, you had to pass through a grim sally port gate before you could get to the street. If you go in and out of high security areas in federal reserve banks now, you go through a sally port gate. They all serve the same function: to make sure nobody gets through unless the people controlling those gates want them to get through.
A sally port gate is an enclosed space with a lockable gate on either side. The two gates are never open at the same time, so the people controlling the space can limit how many people pass through. There was a sally port in the front of the prisons that controlled who got from the public area, where the offices were, to the interior of the prisons; the back sally port was for large groups of convicts and for trucks taking things into and out of the prisons.
The field guards in most of those prisons would wait, just outside the gate, for their squads to come out the sally port. They'd count them off—you'd see them lined up on their horses, counting with their fingers—then each guard would follow his squad to the trucks or wagons that would carry the line to the field. The work area was sometimes miles from the building: the farms I worked on ranged from twelve thousand to seventeen thousand acres. The guards would ride alongside and behind the wagons, and then, when they reached the work area, each guard would follow his group to where they were working. All day, the convicts would work and the guards would sit on their horses and watch them.
Sometimes I'd drive out to where the field crews were working; sometimes I'd ride out with them in the wooden carts pulled by tractors; sometimes I'd borrow a horse to ride out on my own.
The convicts worked with hoes and spades, except when they were picking cotton with their hands. They did an astonishing range of work with the hoes, from weeding to building roads, and the spades were used to move large amounts of dirt around. The convicts who worked with livestock were pretty much on their own during the workday; the others were constantly under the gun.
In Texas, convicts grew their own food and the cotton from which other convicts would make thread, then cloth, and then their white uniforms (white because of the extreme heat in summer and, they said, because it made for better targets when someone ran off). They bred and raised their own livestock, which provided meat for the dining hall and leather for boots and belts. The system was, like the largest of the slaverytime plantations, nearly self-contained. Only metal objects, shotgun shells, and fuel for vehicles had to be brought in from outside. Arkansas, when I first visited, had minimal industry, but the convicts, as in Texas, grew their own food and produced their own clothing.
The guards working with squads in the fields carried only a pistol—a weapon accurate, and therefore dangerous, only at close distances. If a prisoner jumped a guard and grabbed his pistol, he couldn't do very much damage beyond the guard. At the periphery of every work area were the high riders, guards on horses or standing on high ground, armed with rifles. Their job was to watch the line and to shoot anyone who grabbed a field guard's pistol or who ran off and was out of pistol range. A halfway decent rifleman could pick off a running man at two-hundred yards, sometimes more.
The last weekend in October, they'd have a three-day prison rodeo at Cummins prison farm in Arkansas. I don't know if they had them before the Texans took over the prison. There had been a rodeo on summer Sundays at the Huntsville Unit of the Texas prison system for decades—some of the featured performers were Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and George Strait. Arkansas was seriously into the Texas rodeo model by the time of my third visit in 1972.
Most of the southern agricultural prisons and most prisons elsewhere in the southwest had convict rodeos because they were good PR and they made a lot of money since just about all the labor was free (the convicts) or already on salary (the guards). For political and insurance reasons, most of them are gone now.
There was the same problem (or attraction) in Arkansas as in all the other prison rodeos: the convict riders were enthusiastic because it was something interesting to break the monotony of prison life, but hardly any of them had free-world rodeo experience and there were no broncs or bulls to practice on. The convicts made a mechanical bull out of a ratty, rolled-up mattress and a bunch of ropes—but it was nothing like the real thing, or even like the mechanical bull you maybe remember Debra Winger sexily riding in Urban Cowboy back in 1980. Guys who rode like champs on the mattress would be airborne in seconds once the gate opened in the arena. Even the convicts who had rodeoed in the free world hadn't done it for a good while, so pretty much all of them got thrown from the bucking broncs and bulls and some got banged up pretty seriously. Once the chute opened and the horse or bull exploded into the arena, most of the riders spent as much time in the air as they'd spent astride the animal they'd just been sitting on.
So on rodeo days, the convict riders would come out in one place, and the other convicts would sit in bleachers, and on the other side of the arena would be bleachers for free-world people. A lot of people came: some because relatives were riding in the mounted sheriff's posse, or the girls' barrel race, or were among the competing convicts; some because they liked rodeos, however incompetent the performers; and some for the same reason people who like accidents go to amateur stock car races—they know they're going to see a lot of good wrecks. Sometimes the governor came down from Little Rock and sat in the shaded VIP area with other big shots behind the announcer's table and everybody told stories and posed for pictures and did some politicking.
At Cummins, there was always a free-world band and a convict band, and they'd fix some of the women convicts up in gingham skirts and what looked like Fredericks of Hollywood brassieres. The women would jump up and down, playing at being cheerleaders: real women convicts with what appeared to be huge, pointed breasts in the hot summer sun. People cheered for them as much as for the convict riders flying in the afternoon air or being carted out on stretchers.
One of the most popular events was "Mad Money." Convicts who wanted to be in the rodeo but who didn't know how to sit a horse or ride a bull would try to grab a bag containing twenty-five dollars in cash (rather than prison script) suspended between the horns of an angry bull. The convicts and bull would run up and down the arena. Almost always, one or two convicts would get stomped or gored by the bull, and while the stomping or goring was going on, another convict would reach over the bull's horns and grab the bag with the money. In the prison economy, where convicts did not get paid for their labor, twenty-five dollars of green money was a lot of cash. The crowd would cheer wildly, either for the guy who just got gored or stomped, or the one jumping up and down with the bag of money, or the women convicts in their gingham skirts and pointy bras.
In the parking lot, free-world visitors would talk and hang out and sneak beer and booze from the trunks of their cars, just like at football games now where there are signs saying "No alcohol permitted."
Convict rodeos were the only times I ever saw any prisoners anywhere wearing stripes.
There are two groups of photographs from the Cummins visits I could do nothing with until this century. One is a group of early twentieth-century prisoner identification photographs that came into my possession on the last day of my last visit to Cummins, in October 1975. The other is a group of photographs I took with a camera called a Widelux during my final two visits to the prison.
That last day in 1975, I was walking along the corridor leading from the outside world to the interior of the main building of Cummins Unit when one of the convicts who took the identification photographs for the prisoners' jackets (their prison records folder) beckoned me into the room where he worked. I went in. He looked both ways in the corridor, then shut the door. "This will interest you," he said. He opened a drawer. In it were hundreds of small, loose, prisoner identification photographs. I could see they were old. "Help yourself," he said.
"Don't they belong to somebody?" I asked.
"Just the state. Fuck ’em. Help yourself."
I did as he suggested. I stuffed photographs into my jacket pocket and stopped only when a guard came into the room, sat down at the desk, and began smoking. He gave no sign of leaving, and I had no particular reason for being there, so after a while I left. I later realized I could have continued stuffing my jacket pockets while he was there—these were unneeded duplicates of photographs in files that hadn't been opened for decades, and the guard knew I had been allowed to go wherever I wished in the prison without supervision or oversight, so he wouldn't have interfered with my theft—but that didn't occur to me in the moment. If I'd been a more experienced thief I'd have scooped up far more of those photographs.
I planned on coming back later during that visit to grab the rest of the photographs, but I got busy with other things and didn't get to it. No matter, I thought. I'll get to it next time. But there was to be no next time: I was never inside Cummins prison again. No one stopped me from going back: I finished my book on Cummins (Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary, Cornell University Press, 1977) and I'd moved on to other things.
I had picked up ninety-eight loose photographs and two small, brown envelopes, one containing sixty-one photographs of women, the other containing nineteen photographs of men, some of them duplicated in the loose photographs. Among the loose photographs, one was of a black woman. All the other loose photographs were of men. All the women whose photographs were in the women's envelope were white. I don't know if there was another envelope in that drawer, with photographs of black women convicts, or if their photographs had been kept somewhere else. Most of the men's photographs were three inches wide; many of them were front and profile, so those were six inches wide; the women's images were a little smaller, and most were just frontals. So the photographs I came home with weren't so much a representative collection of what was in the drawer or what had been gathered over the years as they were of what I stuffed in my pockets before the guard came in and, without his knowledge or intent, cut off my theft.
The sixty-two women's photos—which I think date from 1920 to the mid-1930s—have, by and large, a look different from the men's photos, and many of the women in them offer a different gaze. Some of the women smile; more seem to engage the camera, the way most people do in ordinary life—but in a way that few of the men in these prisoner identification photographs do. The men, for the most part, are there, and their photographs are being taken, and they are looking into the lens. They seem to engage neither the lens nor the photographer behind it; the women, many of them, seem to have a place in the world, and the camera is photographing them in it.
The faces are fixed and unmoving, long-dead men and women when they were in their youth and middle age. Time has altered the color of the paper and the density of the images, and many show physical evidence of moments when they weren't left in a drawer waiting to be found: the red rust of a onetime paper clip, the bright steel of a staple, the deliberate or accidental mark of a pen. One of the things these fixed images are about is time itself. Each one is an object that has come to us through time, and many show some mark of that passage.
I put the photographs in a cigar box and for a while forgot about them. It was obvious from the few that had dates on the signs hung around the prisoners' necks, or written on the backs, that they had been made long before anyone I'd met in Cummins had ever been a prisoner there.
Over the years, I'd remember and sometimes look at them. I long thought they ought to be printed large, but I didn't have the technology to do it myself or the money to have it done by someone else. Small, they were artifacts, antiques, faces without names, names without contexts. They were originally printed small because each was destined to be a fact in a bureaucratic process. Bureaucratic processes trivialize and reduce human life and experience; they discard everything but what concerns the bureaucracy creating and maintaining the process.
I've included seventeen of those images in this book—one here in these introductory remarks, the other sixteen throughout the rest of the book. Each of them was made to be part of a convict's prison dossier. The photographers who took these portraits were, in all likelihood, untrained in photographic arts. Some may have been photographers outside the wire (everybody was something outside the wire), but they could, and most probably did, learn all the necessary techniques from the prisoners already working in the room where the pictures were made. They had no need to learn how to use filters to bring out features in different kinds of skin or to make the sky or clouds lighter or darker; they had no need to learn about different photographic emulsions or printing papers; they had no need to learn how to change the mood of the lighting to fit the desires or personality of the sitter. The ultimate consumer of these images was the dossier, and making them required as little variation or art as possible.
You'll know them when you come upon them. I've done very little meddling with them. I haven't tried to remove the scratches or the stains. These images are of photos I found, so the stains and scratches are part of the historic objects they are.
They're mug shots from a prison in the South from three-quarters of a century ago. But if you look at the faces printed here bigger and more clearly than the prison officials that had those photographs made ever thought they would get to be, they look like people you know. They look like you, or like me.
The Widelux Images
The Widelux is a 35mm camera with a 26mm lens mounted in a rotating turret. It exposes a frame just a little bit smaller than two ordinary 35mm frames. On an ordinary roll of 35mm film, it makes twenty-one or twenty-two images. The effect is like shooting with a wide-angle lens perhaps 12mm or so—about 140 degrees. A wide-angle lens that extreme works like a funhouse mirror: people in the middle are big and fat and people at the edges are tall and skinny, and nothing looks the least bit real. But the Widelux lens exposes the film through a thin, rotating, vertical slit across the film plane, so people at the edges look as normal as people in the center. Everything is photographed by the best part of the lens—its center—and nothing is photographed by the periphery, where things get weird. The only distortion you get is with horizontal lines, which bend, and with bright lights, which have a trailing effect, like a comet tail, a function of the movement of the lens.
The Widelux covers a field of view fairly close to the field of view of a pair of human eyes, but with one important exception: our eyes see clearly and specifically only in the narrow center of our field of vision; a little off that and we see gross shapes and field of color, no details at all; and at the periphery, we don't even see color. The Widelux sees with the same acuity across its entire field of view, sort of like the world we've always looked at but have never been able to really see.
What I particularly like in many of the interior Widelux photos is that in the center, I have an ordinary image, such that I might make with my Nikons or Leicas, but then there are people who would otherwise be outside the frame watching—me and whomever I'm photographing—and beyond them may be people not paying attention to any of us. So those photographs provide some of the information documentary photographers and ethnographers most want but can almost never get: what the people you're not looking at are up to.
In the darkroom days, I could never print the Widelux photographs big enough to do them justice: if I printed them in the same trays as the regular negatives, they came out only half as high, since they were composed of almost double the negative width. And I made an error developing six of the rolls that put dark spots on them that I couldn't fix in the darkroom. They were unprintable. In the digital age, it's possible to make prints any size one likes, and extraneous dark spots need be corrected only one time in Photoshop—a few seconds' work—and they're gone forever.
I was in Austin in 1974 for an exhibit of some of my Arkansas prison photographs at the Texas Union. Walker Evans was in town for an exhibit of his FSA photos arranged by Bill Stott at the Harry Ransom Center. A mutual friend asked if I'd like to meet Evans. I said of course I would. So we went over to Stott's house and Evans and I talked for a few hours, and we took photographs of each other and of everyone else in the room with the SX-70 camera Polaroid had given him, along with all the filmpacks he could use, in the hope he would help make that camera respectable. Then we all went over to the Ransom Center for the opening.
On the way, Evans asked why I was in Austin and I said I was delivering fifty prints to the Texas Union for an exhibit. He asked me to bring them by Bill Stott's house first so he could look at them. So the next day, we met again, and he looked through the prints, one by one. He didn't say anything for a long time, then he said, "I really like these," and it was like I'd just passed a major exam, which I guess I had, though I can't remember any exam during which I'd been so nervous.
One photo of a page from a convict's scrapbook he liked so much he took it from the box, saying, "I've got to have this. I'll send you one in exchange." I said it was part of the exhibit I was delivering, so when I got home I'd make him a print and mail it to him. No, he said, he had to have that specific print because photographers always promised to send you a print and never did.
"You just promised to send me one," I said. He was different from other photographers, he said; after all, wasn't he the one who had just told me about that gambit? I gave him the picture.
Walker's print never came. I told that story in 1997 to Bill Ferris, just before Bill left Ole Miss to become head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Bill had known Evans well at Yale and had stayed in touch with him after his move to Oxford. "Walker did that with everybody," Bill said. "He got everybody to give him photographs and he never mailed anybody one. He had a great collection of prints."
That same year—1997—Jeff Rosenheim, curator of the Walker Evans collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, asked if I could provide any information about the provenance of a certain photograph from the Arkansas prison in their Evans collection. It was the one Evans had taken that Sunday in Bill Stott's house twenty-three years earlier. "Yes," I told Jeff, "I could."
I got another good lesson from Evans that Sunday at Bill's house in Austin. When he got to the image of the man sitting by his lockerbox (plate 58), he asked me to explain it. I said the lockerboxes were the only personal space most of the prisoners had. "Did many of them do that to their lockerboxes, decorate them like that?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, "most of them."
"Do you have other pictures like this?" he asked.
"Oh yes," I said, "I shot several of them."
"I would have shot them all," Walker said.
I don't know whether or not that was true. But sometimes, now, when I'm out shooting, I take more shots than I otherwise might, because I still hear him saying that. And so, just in case . . .
The first group of photos I made in Texas was when I was working on the convict worksongs and the ethnographies. There are two more groups of Texas prison photographs in this book. One group was made in 1978. George Beto, who was then retired from the prison system and was acting director of the Center for Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, had asked me if I would give that year's Distinguished Speaker lecture at the center. While I was in Huntsville for that event, Billy Macmillan, whom I'd first known as a field sergeant on Ramsey, and later as a field major at Ellis, and who then was the system's deputy director, asked me if I would testify in Ruiz v. Estelle, an upcoming case in federal court, about changes that had taken place in the prison since my first visit, in 1964. Billy knew that I'd often written articles attacking American prisons and that my politics were far to the left of anyone we knew in common. Nobody had ever denied me access to anything when I worked at the prison, and they'd given Danny Lyon full access because I'd told them I thought he'd present a fair and honest picture of the place. There was no way I could refuse Billy's request. I said I'd do it, but I would have to see the prisons again. He said they'd arrange that. So over the next seven or eight months, I visited nearly all the Texas prisons, this time taking photographs with whatever skills I'd picked up doing the work in Arkansas or elsewhere.
During those 1978 visits, I went to Death Row for the first time. In my earlier years in Texas, and in Missouri and Indiana, I'd been offered tours of the execution chambers and death rows. I'd always refused. I had no legitimate reason for being in those spaces; it would just be voyeuristic. But this time I thought I ought to see everything, so I did visit the Row.
In the summer of 1978, at a conference in Sun Valley, I said to Carey McWilliams, my editor at The Nation, that someone ought to do a film about the Row because it was a prison like no other. He asked how it differed from the rest. I told him it was the only place in the penitentiary where time didn't count, the only place where nobody talked about "doing time." Carey said that I ought to do the film. I said I knew nothing about filmmaking, I was a writer, writers work alone, filmmaking is communal. Carey said I had to do it. His reason had to do with no special skill of mine: "Why do I have to do it?" I said. "You have to do it because," he said, "you have the access."
He was right. I did. It was an artifact of my relationship with George Beto. The then-present director of the system, James Estelle, having heard me say I never intended to do any further work in a penitentiary, had said several months earlier, "Any time you want to do anything more here, you have the same access you had under Dr. Beto." After the conversation with Carey McWilliams, I called Jim Estelle on that offer, and Diane Christian and I, in 1979, did a film and a book about living on the Row, both titled Death Row. That same work resulted in a broader work on capital punishment published last year (In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America, University of North Carolina Press and Center for Documentary Studies; in addition to the text, that book includes 106 photographs and a DVD of our Death Row film). The work also produced the small group of Death Row photographs, all published here for the first time, that are, save for the image of the death house, the closing group of this book.
The work Danny Lyon, myself, and later, Ken Light did in Texas prisons, and that I did in Arkansas prisons, would be impossible now. Louisiana, I hear, lets people in, but not Texas and not Arkansas. In 2011, Texas gave filmmaker Werner Herzog very limited access to make a documentary, Into the Abyss, about two Texas killers; but that kind of access is extremely rare, and what Herzog was doing was very focused and specific. He was tightly controlled the entire time he was there, he was given little time to work, and he never got to wander around and hang out at all. His camera stayed in the visiting room. The only prison I've been able to wander around at will with camera in hand in the past three decades has been Alcatraz—which is now a National Park.
Most American prison systems are now wrapped too tightly to let people like Lyon and me, or a German filmmaker like Werner Herzog, wander around and hang out. A few years ago, I tried to get back into the Arkansas prison system to revisit the places I'd documented forty years prior. After a lot of back-and-forth, and with the intercession on my behalf of an assistant warden (a former field major) and a cousin of the commissioner, the closest I got was an invitation to join a high school class on a tour two months after the time I'd requested for my visit. It was even colder in Texas, where I was totally stonewalled. The administrator controlling outsider visits in the huge system now running Texas prisons answered none of my of my e-mails or letters, nor did she take any of my telephone calls. Two former officials of the system asked her at least to respond to my requests for a visit. She didn't respond to them either.
Those places do not want witnesses. They don't want us to see what occurs inside the wire. I can't show you what happens inside the wire now. But the images in this book will, I hope, give you an idea of what happened not so very long ago. I doubt that world has changed much in the interim, other than that it is even more crowded and more mean.