Capturing the Haunting Lights of America's Prisons

One photographer spent 17 years visiting U.S. penitentiaries after dark. Here's what he found.

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Stephen Tourlentes

Like many towns around the country facing economic hardship, a string of job losses in the 1980s and '90s led Galesburg, Illinois, to embrace the construction of a prison on what was previously nearby prairie land. Galesburg is where Boston-based photographer Stephen Tourlentes grew up, and on a visit back there nearly two decades ago, he became fascinated by the new prison facility and the way it lit up his old hometown at night.

Tourlentes photographed the local state prison on that trip, and the more he thought about what he'd seen, the more he wanted to know. After his father, a former state psychiatric hospital director, mentioned that some of his old patients had ended up in the new prison, the photographer began a journey that has since taken him to penitentiaries all over the country.

He's not done yet, but 17 years worth of the resulting photographs can be seen in Of Length and MeasuresTourlentes' haunting collection of the U.S. prisons he's shot at night, usually from afar. While the photographs are visually interesting on their own, Tourlentes says he now knows that these facilities, often built on the periphery of small towns with weak economies, say something much deeper about the odd relationship between economic development and the judicial system in the United States.

"Florence, CO Federal Super Max Prison"

We caught up with Tourlentes via email recently to discuss his project:

What trends in U.S. prison development are especially disconcerting to you after exploring so many of them?

That’s a long list. We are living in the age of mass incarceration and the prison industry is a reflection of a society’s priorities. The prison system in America tends to disproportionately impact the poor, under educated and minorities.

Mandatory sentencing and underfunded public defenders have been a boon to mass incarceration. Overburdened courts and law enforcement are often being asked to be the first line of mental health workers. Capital punishment in a modern society as a deterrent seems more about revenge than public safety. In regards to management, private prison companies have profited by contracting with states to run prisons and allowing investors to trade in the punishment of human cargo.

As the project expanded, what did you begin to notice about America's prisons in terms of the way they look or where they tend to be located?

I noticed this was not an isolated experience for my hometown; a prison-building boom has been occurring in similar towns where the economy has faltered. The placement of these facilities in economically depressed communities creates an uneasy partnership that depends on crime and punishment.

For most, prison resides on the periphery of our consciousness, as do many of the places they are located. At night though, from a distance, these places stand out in the landscape. It is all too common to see these glimmering lights on the outskirts of towns that have seen better days. The landscape they inhabit is important to me because a modern prison often looks quite cookie cutter, it’s the illumination of these hyper-surveilled places that spills back into the folds of the landscape, a form of visible feedback that tends to connect or extend the boundary of the prison to those of us beyond it’s walls.

"Baltimore, MD Death House"

Older prisons are often in the town proper with stonewalls and homes co-existing in a bit of a time warp. The newer ones use razor wire and technology along with light to perform the same function, but are exiled on the outskirts of the community as it’s own self-contained illuminated city.

Was there a particular prison or community that stood out to you?

There are many that stand out so it's hard to pick just one. These images show the residue of a society’s inability to invest in education, mental health and the prevention of poverty, which limits opportunity for too many Americans and creates demand for these facilities. The statistics are very troubling as the US has close to 24 percent of the world’s prisoners while representing only 5 percent of the world's population.

"San Quentin, CA Death House"

There are distinct stories from many of the prisons I've photographed. If I picked one as an example, let's say San Quentin Prison in California, there's a small bird in the foreground that I didn't see while making the exposure. In the background is the prison and beyond the gleaming lights of San Francisco. To me, those are three very different worlds folded together and witnessed through the lens of photography. The camera is capable of describing so much but in my case one's left on the edge of darkness to witness the landscape and prison in a more abstract way. 

Is there one image from this project that especially stands out to you?

The Wyoming Death House in Rawlins, Wyoming. This state prison is nestled inside some hills almost like a crater. When I arrived to photograph it was snowing extremely hard and the prison was almost impossible to see. I felt defeated but was determined to at least make the effort with my large format camera in the wind and snow.

The snowstorm actually helped let the light from the prison reflect up into the sky and create a powerful illumination that referenced the prison without actually seeing much of it. Because many of my exposures verge on failure due to the conditions I was sure this was a wasted trip, but the snow actually brought the sky and the landscape into play in a way that seemed faithful to the power of the place.

"Wyoming Death House Rawlins, WY"
"Camden, NJ State Prison"
"Ft. Worth, TX Federal Prison"
"Auburn, NY State Prison"
"Comstock, NY State Prison"
"Albion, NY State Women’s Prison"
"Smyna, Delaware Death House"
"Lucasville, OH Death House"
"Admore, AL Death House"
"Kentucky Death House, Eddyville, KY"
"Carson City, NV Death House" 
"Grady, AK Death House"
"Florence, AZ Death Row Prisons"

All images copyright Stephen Tourlentes, who's represented by Carroll and Sons gallery.

H/T FeatureShoot

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