Whilst working on a project in Los Angeles on Gangs, I managed to get permission to photograph inside the California state prison, gaining access in itself was a real challenge, and then getting permission to photograph was to say the least a real bonus to the main project, on arrival at the heavily guarded entrance I signed in and was taken to see he Warden, he was very interested in photography, we had exchanged e-mails during previous months regarding access to the facility, I had to be security checked through various agencies European and stateside to make sure that I had no affiliation to any groups that might pose a threat.
We discussed the project in detail, I got the impression that this was not the norm to allow photographers in to photograph inmates, and as the prison housed maximum security prisoners, safety was key, I was given a briefing on what I could and couldn't do, I was then assigned to a California correctional peace officer, who would be my guide and protection if need be, after leaving the Warden it took around 25 minutes to actually get into the secure units of the maximum security prison, this was due to checks at each secure gate, My camera was a custom built large format bellows field camera, similar to those of the 19th century, dark cloth over the head, the whole 9 yards, it was slow and cumbersome, a talking point if nothing else.
We finally passed through the last gate, and crossed the yard to the maximum security unit, as I crossed the yard surrounded by inmates working out and talking in small groups, it suddenly struck me that I was inside being looked at by murderers and rapist and that this was the real deal, there was no exit through the gift shop if you felt a bit scared, and correctional peace officer, means just that, they don’t carry firearms due to the risk of being overpowered by an inmate, the interior of the living area is built around a single tower with a control room high above the floor, similar to air traffic control, this houses the firearms if required, and is only accessible by Guards.
The image above is Anthony Majoy, (standing, back right ) sentenced to life for Murder along with brothers Neil and Stewart Woodman,(not pictured ) who hired Steven and Robert Homick to murder their parents, Gerald, and Vera Woodman for a $500,000 insurance policy, the two hired Killers were aided by, Anthony Majoy and Michael Dominguez all eventually received life sentences for murder in early 1990, the case was very high profile and they were nicknamed the Yom Kippur murderers, as Gerald and Vera Woodman were returning home from a family celebration of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur in 1985, later called the Ninja murders because the hitmen Were dressed as Ninja warriors when they gunned down the Woodmans in the garage of their Los Angeles condominium.
As Majoy looks on at the card game , the inmate ( center back ) covers his face with the cards, he had no problem with the picture being taken, he just didn't want to be recognized, I was later told that many convicted inmates, may have warrants for arrest in other states, when the Guard told me this, I thought why would they care, there here for life, but it seems that some states with the death penalty of which there are 31, have different criteria on successful conviction of the crime, and what may apply in the state of California for life incarceration may be qualify for the death penalty in the state of Nevada or any of the other 30 states.
The unit that I had access to house a large number of prisoners, the Majority of which were two to four prisoners per cell, and at any one time 250 inmates could be in the yard area exercising, some would be held in there cells, if there was a possibility of trouble between prisoners.
California State maximum security prison
I set up the large camera, and within minutes of finishing, 4 or 5 inmates had come over asking what I was doing, it was then that I realised my correctional peace officer was having a chat with another officer, great, I’m fine don’t worry about me, I wasn’t getting the non diegetic narration of Morgan freeman character in Shawshank redemption, more like don’t run they’ll smell your fear, so calmly I explained that I was shooting a gang related project and needed to conclude the project with one possible outcome of gang crime if you survived gang life, these guys were not monsters, they may have committed monstrous crimes, I have to say that my 2 hours in the unit and in the yard were a mix of emotions, the inmates that allowed me to photograph them had all been very polite, and as one of the don’t do’s was “ to not ask What are you in for “but I couldn’t help thinking it, it was after leaving the secure unit that I requested a criminal RAP sheet ( record of arrests and prosecutions ) , but the project and the experience for me, made it clear that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for which all who were photographed were serving, that they had made peace with their demons, and that this was a paradox, life without life.
The other inmates photographed were all sentenced for either murder and other heinous crimes that carried the sentence of life, as I left the unit back to the unsecure world of civilian life, I felt privileged to have been admitted into an environment that seldom innocent people will ever see first hand, but also relieved that the business of criminal containment was so precise and effective.