The stigma of mass incarceration: prison and the American landscape
Stephen Tourlentes began to notice prisons, especially after dark, when they broadcast their location through the use of surveillance and lighting. He spent 17 years visiting these detention facilities after dark.
The rural location of many of these prisons keeps them on the periphery of our consciousness
Never going dark
WE ARE LIVING IN THE ERA OF mass incarceration in the United States of America. I discovered this by chance when a new prison was built in the town I grew up in in Illinois. On the outskirts of town, the night sky was punctuated with a brilliant glow that changed my perception of the horizon. This transformation of the landscape revealed an unseen human cargo held in time and place.
The presence and location of these institutions of exile paradoxically reflect back upon the society that builds them. Prisons are highly complex systems designed to contain and punish the burgeoning population presently incarcerated in the US.
Since 1980, the number of prisons in America has quadrupled. In 2017, the American prison system held over 2.3 million people, incarcerated in state and federal facilities. The United States of America has less than five percent of the world’s population, but it accounts for almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
The prison population is primarily culled from communities at risk, representing the statistically poor, undereducated and predominantly male, and is reflective of a higher percentage of minorities being prosecuted and incarcerated. The danger of normalizing the prison experience as a rite of passage within certain communities may have already come to pass.
The rural location of many of these prisons keeps them on the periphery of our consciousness. Newly opened prisons utilize modern high technology to control their population in contrast to the stone castles that preceded them. The rapid constructions of new prisons (a result of overcrowding caused by tough mandatory sentencing laws) are then sold as economic development programs for depressed communities vying to host them.
Host communities have become dependent on the economic engine of the growing corrections industry. Publicly traded corporations are running private “for profit” prisons that contract with government for the overflow capacity sent by the courts. Jobs lost in traditional industries make the growing prison economy an unfortunate economic lifeline for some communities.
Never going dark, these institutions permeate beyond their physical boundaries. This encroachment symbolizes a powerful tension that implicates the very nature of social priorities.
“There are no towns for miles around, and come sundown the world goes inky black, and the only way you can tell the earth from the sky is the sky is where the stars begin. But out on the horizon I could see an incandescent glow where no lights should be. After a while it occurred to me that what I was seeing was not the light of some forgotten town, but the glow of a new American city.”
— From Joseph T. Hallinan, Going up the River
I hope that stripping the image down to mostly light and shadow will entice viewers to engage their own imagination about these places, rather than averting their eyes and ignoring them
Behind the scenes
I ACCIDENTALLY fell into this work; it was not something that I had a clear plan for or path to follow. I feel it started to germinate from my early childhood, where I grew up living on the grounds of a large state psychiatric research hospital in Illinois, where my father was the director. We grew up in an institutional environment as part of normal everyday life in our family.
As funds for social services began to be cut, support for the hospital slowly diminished and it eventually closed down. The town suffered the loss of jobs from this closure as well as many manufacturing operations that started disappearing during the 1980s.
Like many people, I considered the world of incarceration as something pushed to one’s periphery, until a prison was built in my childhood hometown in Illinois.
This new state prison was proposed and built in our town as hedge against lost jobs for the community. On a visit home, when my father picked me up from the airport, I noticed the lights of the new prison on the horizon. As a photographer, I was struck by how they changed the horizon at night when illuminated. My visual curiosity was piqued but my education was just beginning. My father told me that many of his former patients that had lost their care had ultimately ended up in this prison and many others like it built in rural Illinois.
I began to notice other prisons, especially after dark when they broadcast their location through the use of surveillance and lighting. Some had been converted from state psychiatric hospitals into prisons. Most were springing up in towns that were suffering economically, and were being filled with those the courts sent there from other economically challenged communities.
The enactment of strict sentencing laws coupled with a declining investment in social services and education in the U.S. has resulted in an explosion in the prison population in this country.
The lack of humanitarian social investment is a main contributor to this increase, impacting disproportionately those most vulnerable through color and class divisions.
My exploration began in my hometown and prompted the activist side of me to get involved. The architecture of many of these prisons is similar in design, so where they sit in the landscape is important.
The different laws state by state evoke an extended boundary culture beyond the walls of the prison itself. I see the light which is designed to confine escaping the boundaries of the prison, while the human population remains inside. This light reflects back on the society that builds these institutions like an echo.
I use film and an 8x10 view camera in my work. The long exposures and difficulty in accessing prison sites offer many logistical challenges. I hope that stripping the image down to mostly light and shadow will entice viewers to engage their own imagination about these places, rather than averting their eyes and ignoring them.
Stephen Tourlentes is a Boston based artist where he teaches in the Photography Department at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
He is the recipient of artist fellowship grants from various organizations including the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Artadia the Fund for Art and Dialogue, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony and the Banff Centre for the Arts.
His work has been exhibited in many museum and gallery venues and is held in many public and private collections. He has been a long time advocate for implementing alternatives to mass incarceration.
• His website