by David M. Reutter
Over 2,000 photos taken by staff at Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility paint a graphic picture of violence in the prison that was previously described only in words. But after the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) received the leaked images in early 2019 – from someone claiming to be a guard at the facility – a controversy erupted over whether to publish them.
The anonymous guard said the photos were downloaded from prison computers onto a thumb drive, which also included a document titled “READ ME FIRST.” In that file, the self-described “concerned officer” at St. Clair said the “very disturbing” pictures “represent only a small portion of the injuries from inmate on inmate violence in the past three years.”
The Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) is operating St. Clair under a settlement agreement in a lawsuit brought by the Equal Justice Initiative and SPLC. But the anonymous guard said the “agreement stands little to no chance of making this a safer place to work.”
“The day to day treatment of these men does nothing but foster anger and despair,” he wrote. “Until major changes take place in our sentencing and housing of these men it will only continue to get worse.”
In March 2019, it was reported that there were four stabbing deaths at St. Clair in the previous seven months. Prison officials conducted a contraband search at the prison in February 2019 and found 167 makeshift weapons. A September 2019 search at the Fountain Correctional Facility uncovered over 600 weapons and 51 cell phones. The DOC’s prisoner death rate is among the nation’s highest.
On April 2, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report that found violence in DOC facilities violated prisoners’ constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment. [See: PLN, Sept. 2019, p.44]. The DOJ described one incident where a prisoner was killed while his hands were bound behind his back and he was kneeling as if in prayer. Pictures of that homicide and six others were in a folder titled “Murders” on the thumb drive.
The two media sources that received copies of the photos took different approaches to their publication. More than 50 appeared in Splinter News in March 2019, while just five ended up that same month in the New York Times,based on its concerns about prisoners’ privacy as well as “audience sensibilities, and our inability to provide more context for the specific incidents depicted.”
“[It is] hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication,” wrote the Times, stating the photos were “full of nudity, indignity, and gore.” The newspaper added, however, “It is also hard to imagine photographs that cry out more insistently to be seen.”
“The photos are incredibly dehumanizing and incredibly gory,” stated Shaila Dewan, who wrote the article accompanying the images in the Times, “so from the point of view of the people in the photos, we have no way of knowing how they would feel about having those published.”
But Hamilton Nolan, a senior writer at Splinter News and author of the story that accompanied the St. Clair pictures the publication posted online, insisted that “there’s a public value to people being able to see behind those walls.”
“One of the biggest problems with mass incarceration in America is that it’s completely hidden from public view,” Nolan noted.
The photos from St. Clair depict one prisoner who was stabbed 10 times while another shows a prisoner with a shank about an inch wide impaled between his shoulder blades. The images were apparently taken for investigative purposes, depicting dead prisoners, injuries resulting from fights, and pools of blood smeared on floors and walls. Others were of prisoners who committed suicide.
Pete Brook, a writer with the Prison Photographyblog who researches the history of prison photography, asked his students to weigh in from a class he teaches at California’s San Quentin State Prison.
Prisoner Mesro Coles-El advocated for publishing the photos because he agrees with social justice activist Bryan Stevenson’s thesis that “the first step in fixing the problem is to get proximate to the problem.” Quoting Stevenson, Coles-El added: “Attitudes toward incarceration would change if the public were asked to execute the condemned themselves or, at least, to lock us up every night.”
Another prisoner, Chan Lam, disagreed, contending that “society has become desensitized to violence” and “prisoners are not people that are easily sympathized with.”
“‘Bad people’ hurting or killing ‘bad people’ doesn’t affect good people,” Lam said. “If anything, people might think it makes the world a safer place.”
Brook also doubted the effect such images may have on public opinion, “because the public has seen images of violence before, and in the past it’s not been enough to change the course of mass incarceration.”
SPLC attorney Maria Morris said she has been engaged in prisoner rights litigation for over a year, work that often forces her to seek a place in her mind where she can imagine that her clients’ stories are not as bad as they sound.
“Seeing what had been done to those people’s bodies – it just stripped away all of the numbing,” Morris stated. “It was very painful to see that all of the suffering that I’ve been hearing and trying to relate to the court – how deep it goes.”
Prison Legal News has obtained copies of some of the photos from St. Clair, and believes they should be made public so people can see the reality of life – and death – behind prison walls. PLN welcomes pictures from inside detention facilities, which we will post on our website. They can be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: The New York Times, Montgomery Advertiser, Mother Jones, splinternews.com, wsfa.com, apr.org, aclu.org
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