The prison system in the United States gives a hard meaning to the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Just as the prison keeps its inmates out of public view, the buildings themselves are placed well off the main roads in what are often economic dead zones. Few ever go by the place, and no one ever needs to go inside unless you work there, are making a delivery, or want to visit with an inmate. And most of those people won’t be allowed to see anything like this:
This stunning photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein shows a prisoner’s hands being held out in order to be handcuffed before he is taken to a shower. I find the image deeply disturbing–as if it were something I would see because I was already insane, looking down the asylum hallway and still accosted by hideous visions distending reality. The hands lie there as if the body is a corpse, worse, as dismembered body parts. The sickly green color scheme, hard surfaces, and sharp, metallic fixtures are a nightmare of institutional authority gone horribly perverse. The red stains on the wall and the white stains on the linoleum floor look like traces of bodily fluids, and the yellow lines suggest a steady traffic in gurneys and terror always rationalized by official procedures.
The image doesn’t tell only one story, however. Those hands may be murderous. Tattoos are commonplace today, but in this tableau the heavily tattooed arm seems demonic, as if the outer sign of snakes writhing within. There seems to be no place for innocence in this world, which can only provide further justification for rough justice, inhumane conditions, and policies that do more to perpetuate violent crime than prevent it.
This marked, abject body waiting to be shackled is a fitting reminder of the cesspool at the end of America’s criminal justice system. (“Criminal justice system”–a phrase in which each term twists the others.) The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world; only Russia is even close, and the European states are far, far below. The causes include both excessive income inequality and the disintegration of the family. Given that both conservative and liberal arguments are proved correct, you might think that a strong bi-partisan effort could be made to keep millions of Americans out of prison. Think again, for why would anyone bother to fix something they never see?
This image and others like it can be seen in the exhibition “Behind Bars: Photographs by Andrew Lichtenstein” through January 4, 2009 at fovea in Beacon, New York. Lichtenstein’s portfolio includes the eloquent book Never Coming Home, which documents the funerals of eight soldiers killed in the Iraq war. You can see one of those heart-rending images in an earlier post at this blog on Shared Suffering in Iraq and America.