Mother Jones this week revisited Bruce Jackson’s 16-year project to photograph prison work farms in Texas and Arkansas, which eventually produced a book, recounted to coincide with a new book on private prisons and prison labor. Hard to imagine such access for a photographer at Arkansas prisons today.
n his book Inside the Wire: Photographs From Texas and Arkansas Prisons, Jackson recalls his initial visit to Cummins:
The first time I drove up to the road barrier, the armed man in khakis who asked me if I had any weapons in my car was a convict; during that visit, everyone I saw carrying a pistol, rifle, or shotgun was a convict guard. You could tell a person’s role from the clothes he wore: ordinary convicts wore white; trusties wore khaki, and the few civilian employees wore whatever they had. But just about everyone carrying a gun was a convict.
Despite Hutto’s mandate to improve Arkansas prisons, everyday life behind bars and in the cotton fields remained harsh and monotonous, as Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer writes in an excerpt from his new book on the intertwined history of private prisons and prison labor:
In a federal hearing on prison conditions in Arkansas, inmates testified that failure to pick one’s quota of cotton was grounds for a punishment called “Texas TV.” A prisoner would be forced to stand with his forehead against a wall and his hands behind his back. He would be left there for up to six hours, often without food, sometimes naked. […]
Another inmate testified that he had been beaten with blackjacks, stripped, and left naked in an unlit “quiet cell” for 28 days for refusing to labor in the fields. Guards blasted air conditioning into his cell without giving him a blanket and fed him only bread, water, and a pastelike “grue,” causing him to lose 30 pounds.
In 1974, a federal court ruled that under Hutto, Arkansas prisons continued to hold prisoners in “sub-human” conditions and subjected them to “torture and inhumane punishment.” It also called out the continued use of armed inmate guards.
I see some irony in the lasting exposure given to Arkansas prisons by prison boss Terrell Don Hutrto’s decision to grant access. The Arkansas Correction Department is locked down. Scant access is given to reporters and virtually none at all to photographers. The Correction director, Wendy Kelley, most often sends subordinates to even legislative committee hearings, such as the one last week on prison death from illegal drugs smuggled in mostly by prison employees.