The Electric Chair, Monroe Guard Murder, and Monkeys Riding Dogs Herding Sheep: Q&A With Prison Photography's Pete Brook"/>
Photo by Frank McMains via Flickr
Pete Brook recently moved from Seattle to Portland, but he took an extraordinarily circuitous route: he traveled across the country and back again, interviewing nearly 70 photographers and prison reform advocates as part of a project related to his prison photography passion. We decided to turn the tables and interview the prolific interviewer, who is also a former volunteer teacher at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe.
Photo by Frank McMains via Flickr
Brook was previously featured in Seattle Weekly when his students at Monroe contributed art for a gallery exhibit at Vermillion on Capitol Hill. In addition to writing for Wired magazine's photo blog, Brook is the creator of a website with the straightforward name of Prison Photography. There, he posts and deconstructs images from professional photographers who have been granted access to various prisons around the globe, as well as "found photos" shot by inmates and their families.
Beyond offering a fascinating glimpse into a world rarely viewed by non-convict eyes, Brook uses the photos to advocate for prison reform. He has developed something of a cult following (including nearly 10,000 Twitter followers), and, after two years working with University Beyond Bars, he decided to take his show on the road. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, he traveled for 12 weeks, interviewing 39 photographers, and 28 prison reformers, activists, educators, and lawyers. He followed that up by heading to the Netherlands, where he co-curated an exhibition of prison-themed art.
Here's an abridged transcript of our Q&A, in which he offers his thoughts on everything from the death of Monroe prison guard Jayme Biendl, to the bizarre rodeo festivities at Louisiana's maximum-security Angola Prison.
Seattle Weekly: What moment or interview stands out the most from your trip?
Pete Brook: I did an interview with Nick Trentacosta, who is one of the first specially-trained, post-conviction death penalty lawyers in the country [and runs the Louisiana Center for Equal Justice.] We did a 45-minute interview and talked about history of death penalty in America since the civil rights era. It was a great interview, but, as I was leaving, he dug down into his file cabinet and said 'Oh you might want to see these.' He pulls out a handful of photographs, and these are photos of an executed corpse.
Specifically, they were the corpse of Robert Wayne Williams. This guy was the first person to be put to death in Louisiana following the reintroduction of the death penalty. Obviously, pictures of dead people are quite powerful. My first reaction was to question him -- 'Why have you got these?'-- even though he was [Williams'] attorney. The photos were taken by the victim's mother. She took them to describe the horror that is death by electrocution, to describe it as torture, which it is. They had been in Nick's file cabinet for nearly 30 years.
The photos were taken of a dead son, with his skin hanging off his skull like chicken skin where they placed the two electrodes. It was in the funeral home. I asked him, 'Why haven't these ever been seen?' It never occurred to him it would be important. To me, those should be in Library of Congress. They inform everyone's sense of what it means to be executed.
SW: What do Washington prisons do well compared to other facilities around the country, and what is most in need of reform based on your experiences?
Brook: Privilege is the wrong word, but, for want of a better word, I have a privileged position in that I was able to teach inside Washington State Reformatory, which is one of the better facilities in the state because of its close proximity to the greater Seattle area. It has connections to volunteer groups, religious groups -- there's interaction between its prisoners and larger society.
I think people need to take an interest in prisons, and in their communities that send people to prison. And, if they are so compelled, think about ways they can try and dissolve this barrier between them and the prison class that exists in Washington state. It'll break down fear, dismantle stereotypes, and it will expand the idea of community. A lot of these guys are going to get out eventually, and, if they are isolated and forgotten and invisible, I don't think that serves anyone.
SW: Dissolve the barrier is an interesting way of putting it. A lot of people are probably thankful there's a barrier between them and the inmates. You were at Monroe around the time a guard was murdered there last year. What was that like, and what effect did the ensuing lockdown have on the prison?
Brook: It set things back years...It was such an outlying event. It was the first time a corrections officer had been killed in the line of duty in over 30 years, but a murder like that just unleashed fear, and rightly so. It unleashed other things like serious questions about the DOC's management of staff and budget cuts, but that fear extends out into the public sphere.
People in prison have usually led very storied lives. And they've been witness to extreme violence in most cases. [The killer] Byron Scherf's behavior was not novel to them. Extreme violence was not novel to them, and witnessing loss was not novel to them. And so, without wanting to overlook the tragedy, the institution needed to continue and the lives within it needed to continue...it was an atmosphere that we must sort of move on and not forget the strides that Washington State Reformatory has made...toward a prison which has opportunities and relatively little violence and positive engagement and the space for prisoners to improve themselves.
SW: How do you convince the public to invest in the education of inmates instead of simply punishing them?
Brook: The punishment is to have liberty denied for a fixed period. That's what the court decides. After that, you make a decision on what sort of conditions you want prisoners to exist in. You don't put the punishment aside, you accept that [the punishment] is denial of liberty for months, years, or decades. Everything after that is conditions.
Every opportunity you provide is an opportunity for the prisoners to improve themselves and make positive steps. There's all sorts of ways that occurs, but loosely we talk about eduction as being a large step toward that. Sometimes it's work, sometimes it's vocational, sometimes it's moral rehabilitation. I'm not a religious man, but a lot of religious programs exist in prison and they act as a salve, a counsel, a therapy. Those are things people on the outside can get involved in.
SW: What is more appealing to you, "found" prison photography - shots by inmates or their families that perhaps weren't intended for widespread viewing -- or work by professionals who had access behind bars?
Brook: Recently I've been really interested in the found photography, the prison visiting room portraits...Given that the prison population is tens of millions, the prison visiting room portrait has to be one of the most significant sub-genres of American vernacular photography - except nobody sees it. It's a visual culture only intended for a certain type of class. That class will generally and disproportionately be people of color.
If you think about how difficult prison life is, and how emotionally traumatic it is... there's so much weight and emotion invested in these pictures as compared to our shitty snaps from the bar on Friday night. These are truly reflective of the emotional landscape of our culture. The fact that they're invisible is even more intriguing to me. Most people, once they go into prison, are defined by their mugshot. These portraits are their first shot at self-ownership of their image.
SW: So, you visited Louisiana's infamous state penitentiary in Angola -- the so-called "Alcatraz of the South" -- but didn't post a single picture of their incredible rodeo, which involves, among other bizarre spectacles, monkeys riding dogs herding sheep. What gives?
Brook: Well, They gave me a poster, I'm sitting next to it here. It says '46th annual prison rodeo, 2010.'
The most interesting thing I found out about the rodeo is last year it earned $2.5 million for the prison, and the year before that it was $2 million. They expect a similar jump in revenues, so maybe $3 million this year. That is a fucking cash cow right there.
Angola is a strange place. I didn't need to go when the rodeo was happening because plenty of people have photographed it. It's a really a strange place. It operates like a fiefdom. It's got way more men than other prisons, way more land, and way more products off of the land. They said they don't open a single can of food in the kitchen because everything is grown fresh.
I was told 95 or 96 percent of guys there will never be released, and there are nearly 5,400 inmates. My characterization of it would be that it's a facility, an institution on a long leash. It operates on its own rules, and as long as violence is kept down, which Angola has done successfully, then they're free to try things.
I interviewed Burl Cain, the warden. We had a conversation on the steps of his ranch house...At least he's willing to stand up and take full responsibility for everything that goes on there. There's no bureaucracy. Say what you will about the methods and the holy philosophy that exists down there, but we know who is accountable. Of course, if it was never a slave plantation the land just wouldn't be there to begin with, so the prison wouldn't have grown out of that, and we wouldn't be witnessing [what's happening there] in the 21st century. There are 18,000 acres of farmland being tilled.
But what else do you do with 5,400 men? I don't know what the answer is. It's a maximum security prison. They don't have to worry about rehabilitation at Angola because only a small, small portion of prisoners are ever going to get out. Really, reformers can bleat on and on as long as they damn well want, but with 95 percent of people on life without parole it doesn't matter. You can get away with decades and decades of backbreaking labor because [the prisoners] don't have to go back to outside world again.
Once life without parole comes in, it's a really weird status. I spoke to one guy who was locked up for 29 and a half years, and would have been in for life if it wasn't for a weird unique pardon. He basically said, 'Life without parole is a death sentence.' And it is.