by Maria Pane
I have never been to prison, nor has anyone in my immediate family. I don’t have close friends who have been incarcerated. The closest I have ever come to prison was in 8th grade when I visited a county jail with members of my confirmation class. I was horrified by the putrid smells, small spaces, and grotesque words we overheard the individuals in solitary confinement speak to each other through the pipes. From that experience, I witnessed a small aspect of the dehumanization of prisoners, but I chalked up the conditions to the fact that they were being punished. I thought that these conditions or worse were okay because the people living in them had committed a crime. In reality, I had no idea why some of these prisoners were incarcerated, and until recently, I had no idea how the system worked. I was not educated about the differences between a jail and a prison. I did not know the history of how the United States prison system was established (directly from the abolishment of slavery). I was not aware of the existence of the private prison industry, or of the fact that black men and women have a greater rate of incarceration in general and of both life and death sentences in particular. I could not imagine how someone must feel when they are sentenced to life, to death, or to any time in prison at all. E Block by Mark Perrott sheds some light on the inner workings of newly incarcerated humans as they wrap their heads around the sudden dehumanization they face in prison.
E Block, a nonfiction photo essay book, highlights the thoughts and feelings of prisoners when they first enter Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Perrott toured the institution during its final days as a maximum security prison in 2005, taking photos of different rooms—including the graffiti on the walls of cells. Starting in 2007, the penitentiary reopened as a minimum to lower-medium security facility; it has since closed in 2017. By taking photos of the graffiti, Perrott archived the personal history of many unnamed, previously unheard, humans who—justly or unjustly—were sentenced to time in the prison.
Perrott begins the book with historical information on the Western State Penitentiary, including the unique history of the block of cells this book follows — E Block. The Department of Corrections dedicated this group of cells on the ground floor as temporary placements for housing returning parole violators and individuals who were first entering a state correctional facility (until they were classified into the system). The cells were second tier, only “five feet wide, eight feet deep, with a low metal bed, a sink, a toilet, and four whitewashed walls.” The graffiti that completely covers the cells is the most unique part of the small holding areas. It features the voices of the thousands of past inmates. These voices echo the cells as their raw and unfiltered words of “shame, rage, bravado, advice, hate, humor, confession, and contrition” depict the intimate histories of the individuals who were once housed within these walls.
The introduction of the photo essay is an excerpt of Adam Gopnik’s article “The Caging of America: Why do we lock up so many people?” previously published in The New Yorker. This essay presents an in-depth history of the United States justice and prison systems, giving further context to the bigger problems at hand within the system. Gopnik presents theories about why the prison system may be the way it is, primarily citing William J. Stuntz, who published the work “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice.” Stuntz analyzes the immediate causes of the incarceration epidemic and gives the reader a deeper look at American history and the Bill of Rights. He argues that the Bill of Rights “emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles.” By including this introduction, Perrott juxtaposes the more complex problems of the institution behind the prison system that dehumanizes with a more intricate and intimate profile of who the prisoners were (and probably still are). He emphasizes their thoughts and feelings upon separation and incarceration through his records of their words and drawings. This perspective is particularly unique when comparing it to academic thought processes on the prison system. By reading the prisoners’ own words, we receive first-person accounts of experience within the system.
In the end, the heart of the book is the photos of graffiti. Reading the words of prisoners—their desperate pleas, stark meditations, cold truths or harsh realities—is chilling, to say the least. Some words and drawings were pornographic and extremely uncomfortable to read or view. Others were simply horrifying for how they revealed how unsafe these people felt entering prison and the hopelessness they expressed. Some saw no hope in reform or change. They saw prison as an epidemic that they were not going to be able to leave. One person wrote, “Write your name on these walls and you are sure to return one day! For I have returned!” Another expressed the thought that it was their destiny to be in prison, writing “This is my family tree” above a drawing of gallows. Others express the despair of prisoners who are sentenced to life. One inmate wrote, “R.I.P. Shane sentenced to death for life and hung up first night here.” Whether the words written express regret, advice, despair or hatred, they all represent the humanity behind the prisoners -- something we can all empathize with.
Frankly, as one inmate expressed on a wall near drips of paint, “these walls are crying from the pain they’ve felt.” Perrott depicts a truthful and well-rounded record of the inmates of Western State Penitentiary through his photographs. The archive accurately depicts the humanity of those convicted. Readers are left to wonder what justice is really about.
This article originally appeared in Volume 7 Issue 2 of Life Matters Journal.