Pete Brook is the author of prisonphotography.wordpress.com. He has spent the best part of the last ten years focusing on the problems of mass incarceration in the US. His project, focusing on photography of prisons (though not a photographer himself), aims to bring to light issues of social justice, ethics and also question how we view the prison system through media and politics.
The prison population has quadrupled in America since 1980, and the States have the highest proportion of prison inmates to population in the world. I caught up with Pete a little while ago to talk about the prison system. In this first part of the interview, we discuss the American system, Pete’s work, and also, why the problem has ignored up until now.
When did you first get into your work on Prison Reform?
PB: Being an activist in Prison Reform doesn’t pay the bills really so my first few years in America was working as a photo researcher to pay the bills. So I didn’t start writing about prisons until 2008. But the issue first came on my radar in 2004 when I was writing my dissertation at the University Of Manchester.
I always say if I was an American kid myself I would be as interested in the issues of prison reform, because it’s common sense that you would care about something that’s so agrieviously wrong, broken and ignored.
I was at a conference recently and everyone was saying they were inspired and surprised really, by the passion and the clarity that myself and other panellists have towards their work with in prisons and prison communities. But to me it’s far simpler than any other type of work. When the problem is so obvious, it’s quite easy to remain convinced about it, engaged with it and explore it time and time again.
Why is the problem ignored so much if it is so obvious? Why aren’t more people concerned, or been concerned in the stages up until now?
PB: There is no incentive really for any group to push prison reform discourse. If the people really cared about it then politicians would chase those votes. But people don’t care about it partly because you know, frankly it’s one of many issues. People are gonna care about education and healthcare before they’re gonna care systems that affect people outside of their families. So you know, I don’t expect that everyone would care about prisons or be advocates for reform. But in a lot of cases, people either don’t know a lot or are misinformed about prisons. So that goes in my mind, back to the media. I don’t think the correct type of images or discussions are being had. And I don’t think people understand what prisons are like.
It just takes quite large leaps of imagination for people to put aside strong emotional responses…understandable…understandable emotional responses to crime and violence and fear. So those are quite large hurdles. People don’t need to….if they don’t think that the prison system affects them and they’ve decided they don’t really have anything to do with those that the prison system does affect, then they’ve got no incentive really to look at what’s going on.
So it’s not that people are bad. It’s that there’s this perfect storm of bad media, bad politics, bad information to a degree, in some states, money and lobbying activity, that’s a corrupting force that’s coming from labour union unfortunately. I think labour unions are great, except when they get involved in making or pushing bad legislation which has happened.
But I am hopeful. I do think that’s changing. For whatever reasons, well, for economical, both Republicans and Democrats have started to question whether prisons make economic sense. The answer is obviously no. Because they don’t work and they’re expensive. And there’s been more discussion in national and international platforms.
I think it’s becoming more of a debate in the public sphere and I think that’s a good thing.
How do Prisons differ across America? [Pete visited some prisons as part of the book he is writing on Prison Photography]
PB: I actually didn’t got to as many prisons as I had hoped because they’re quite difficult to get into I found.
I can certainly talk to you about different systems. Within a given state there’s County Jails as well, so if you’re sentenced to two years or less, generally, you’ll go to a County Jail. More than that and you can go to a State Prison. There’s differences between states but generally that’s how it breaks down.
Jails, because the populations are more transitory, they tend to be a bit more hectic, noisy, filthy. But that said, if you can improve the conditions, jails are better places for people to serve time if they have to serve time, because they are close to their community. When you put someone in a State Prison you can put them in a facility ten-twelve hours away. It’s very beneficial for families if they can maintain a relationship as well.
On the coasts and in the North prisons tends to be…there’s a lot of old prisons which are shitholes. Big drafted Victorian stone buildings and they’re slowly being replaced but not necessarily with anything better sometimes with something that is so punitive and brutal and stark. I don’t know what’s best for the inmates. I think architectures only one of the conditions.
Anyway what you will put in your piece is that when you go down to the South, prisons are totally different. I visited Angola. That place is operated like a thief-dom. The warden there has total autonomy. He’s gone on the record trying to bribe journalists in the past and he’s still in a job. Basically anything he wants to get done, he’ll just do it. He started the prison rodeo, and the crafts fair and the programs. Prisons there are very busy but it stands to reason that you would keep people busy. You don’t have to be a man of God, which this warden is, to know that it’s good to keep people busy. With food and rodeo he can generate his own income and then he can put in for programmes I would say are beneficial, but all this very like loose autonomous administration in prisons you wouldn’t be able to do in the Northern states. People are divided. You know, at least the guy’s accountable. Or seemingly accountable. He only shows you bits of the prison he’s happy to show you though. He’s very media savvy also.
Then just to talk briefly about another, not a warden in this case, but a Sheriff. Sheriff Jo Arpaio in Phoenix, Arizona. He is fantastic at using visual clichés to dictate narrative. Arizona now has become a centre for immigration issues, criminal justice and Sheriff Joe Arpaio who calls himself the toughest sheriff in America has managed to use his jail system to conflate all of these things and to excise the right and dismay the left. It’s really divisive politics that’s going on. That’s a jail system operated for as alike a warning to the public at large. It operates like a circus and it’s meant to scare and perversely entertain people. And that sort of behaviour also you wouldn’t find in other parts of America.
Your work must involve you quite deeply on a personal level. Where does this leave you? Is this your issue now? Is there an end-point?
PB: My activities are always changing a little bit. But I think people gravitate others if they have a passion. So there’s gonna be a lot of people who don’t wanna hear me yap on about prison reform but they’ve already made their minds up. I think there will be a lot of people who are just curious because I’m just talking about stuff that doesn’t always get talked about. I’ve been told that I can talk about these really dark and depressing issues with humour which I think may be a talent.
But yeah it has become my issue, especially talking about it through looking at people’s photography. I’m asking questions about society about a capitalist society reward of selfish behaviour, I’m talking about politics, I’m talking about media, I’m talking about our responsibility as public and consumers and those topics are inexhaustible really. So I don’t foresee an end point, yet.
But as I say I’ve diversified since the road trip. I did newspapers, I’m doing a book at the moment. I’m going to be applying for some large grants to write and there’s the photography show which is going to New York next month. I’m always doing college lectures. So it’s just a case of always trying to keep myself honest and engaged and also trying to be imaginiative about different ways I can engage the public.
Like this conference I went to at the weekend which was full of MFA Art students and art faculty and hairy liberals, but they still had quite a limited knowledge of the prison system. I’m always amazed by how shocked people are when I present stuff that I don’t suppose is novel to anyone but it obviously still is.
Follow Pete’s blog at: http://prisonphotography.wordpress.com/