One Nation, Behind Bars: Examining Prison Culture Through Photography

Forty years ago the situation in U.S. prisons was still, in some ways, normal. The War on Drugs was yet to begin (1982); federal mandatory minimum sentences were not yet in place (1986), though some states had gotten a jump on the concept — notably New York, where the Rockefeller Drug Laws took effect in 1973. Since then, the U.S. prison and jail population has ballooned fivefold, reaching some 2.3 million people now (of whom 40 percent are Black and 19 percent Latino), plus many more on parole or probation. Mass incarceration — and the explosion of related businesses that make up the prison-industrial complex — is entrenched in American life. In the late Seventies, by contrast, in some facilities and if you looked the right way, prison life could seem borderline quaint.

When Jack Lueders-Booth ran a photography workshop at the Massachusetts women’s prison in Framingham, from 1978 to ’85, the institution still allowed inmates to wear their own clothes. The velour sweaters and layered hairstyles in his portraits of the workshop participants give away the era. The women wear makeup, pose in cells decorated with memorabilia, or in pairs of friends. One holds the book Mick Jagger: Everybody’s Lucifer. It is still a prison. There are cold brick walls, peeling pipes. But these are warm, soulful portraits that express individual personalities and bespeak a fundamental human dignity.

Lueders-Booth’s is one of fourteen photo-based projects that make up “Prison Nation,” an exhibition now on view at the Aperture Foundation gallery in Chelsea, and the theme of the spring issue of Aperture, the foundation’s quarterly. The initiative addresses a dilemma: The U.S. has, by far, the world’s highest incarceration rates. Yet little about prison life is widely known outside — the fictional portrayals of Oz or Orange Is the New Black notwithstanding — and authorities have, if anything, bottled up access over the years. The exhibition’s crisp, effective wall text poses the problem: “How can photographs visualize a reality that, for many, remains out of view?”

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