Archive for October, 2000

Ron Levine

October 22, 2000
Law enforcement officials, victims rights groups, and proponents of harsh sentencing measures have a legitimate concern recidivism (repeat offenses). In some states the amount is as high as 85 percent, especially in drug and sexual assault cases. The emotional damage of a violent crime affects more than the individual; it strips away the confidence that our society is orderly, safe, and governed by laws that are fair and just. It is easy for us to rationalize the idea that if someone takes a life and is not given the death penalty, they should never be allowed into the general population again. And yet, what we are only now beginning to realize is that incarcerating criminals for life, or keeping them on death row through a flawed and lengthy appeals process, takes a heavy toll on the system, both in dollars and in the swelling numbers who crowd our jails. If, for instance, a person receives a life sentence at age 25 and lives to see 75, the cost to the state is, on average, $60,000 per year. Compare that figure with the per-pupil spending rate at an inner-city high school such as Newarks Central High School (one of the poorest in New Jersey), which is about $7,500 per year, and one can start to see how the cycle of poverty, crime, and corrections is rapidly becoming the nations top social problem of the new century.
From this environment comes a surprising new book entitled Prisoners of Age, self-published by photographer Ron Levine and designer Michael Wou. The premise is simple. It asks the question: What becomes of an inmate when he is too old or too ill to stay in the general prison population? Of course, the answer put forth in the book is a complex, often disheartening combination of social commentary and visual poetry. Levine asserts, We thought it would be fascinating to photograph these aging and sick prisoners. Our hope on a visual/creative level was to make it thought provoking. Four years in the making, Prisoners of Age is the brainchild of Levine, a Canadian who has built a career on photographing the Deep South. He is intimate with the region, having examined the people and places with two major exhibitions, South of the Mason-Dixon in 1996 and Portraits of Floridas Alligator Hunters in 1995. For Prisoners of Age, Levine had access to the McCain Geriatric Prison Hospital in North Carolina, the Hamilton Institute for the Aged and Infirm in Alabama, as well as other smaller facilities that house aging and sick prisoners. The photographs depict many of the prisoners in an angelic, almost ethereal light. Indeed, its not hard to envision some of the figures presented in a lush fashion spread until one begins to read the countless interviews Levine and Wou conducted with their subjects over the course of their journey. The chilling accounts of murder, rape, and violence are astonishingly similar.
Driven by rage, alcohol, drugs, and hopelessness, their damaged lives have, through myriad circumstances, brought them in the latter years of their incarceration to what Levine calls nursing homes with barbed wire. While one cannot help but think that these men deserve to be in prison for the horrific things theyve done, it is equally apparent that the majority of them are no longer physically capable of endangering society. Looking at their worn, beaten faces and crumbling bodies, one almost feels sorry for them. And therein lies the dilemma. By portraying the inmates in a way that is artistically stunning, Levine and Wou have left themselves open to criticism by victims rights groups, as well as the political right, who has once again resorted to the oft-repeated mantra getting tough on crime for this years congressional and presidential election campaign.

One could argue that the photographs, exquisitely lit and composed, along with the accompanying text, evoke sympathy for the prisoners. Yet there is no shortage of horror stories included in Prisoners of Age, and the litany of offenses does give the reader pause.

And what would relatives or friends of a victim think if they saw the offender portrayed so beautifully in the book? With- out the perspective of the victims in the interviews that were conducted by Levine and Wou, is the reader getting only one side of the story? It is a dichotomy that both Levine and Wou recognize. We didnt start out to make a political statement, explains Levine. What were saying is that these are images of the future. Wou, whose layout adds depth and meaning to the photographs and text, agrees. First and foremost it is an art book. We arent specialists. We dont know anything about criminal law. The book is designed to demonstrate our talents. Levine adds, Socially, you do feel bad for these guys. At the same time, I dont think they should be out. Its hard. Do we really need a guy in a wheelchair in prison? If the guy killed a member of my family, Id say let him rot in prison. But I was trying to photograph these guys to bring some of their humanity out.
Charles David Stanley, bathed in light illuminating his crumpled face and leaning on a cane, was photographed the way one would take a portrait of a grandfathersolemn and serene, wise and knowing. His story tells another tale:

I was convicted of killing my wife for harassing me. My trial lasted five days.

Two days to pick a jury, two days to find me guilty of first-degree murder, and one hour to give me the death sentence. I killed her for harassing me, for wanting more money that I did not have. She had me locked up three different times on account that she wanted more money. I was giving her what money I could afford, because I was only on social security and disability. We was getting a divorce, and I says, you can have it all, just let me go and be by myself. And she would not do this because she wanted more money. And I didnt have no more money to give her. Im hoping one day to get into the Supreme Court, but I dont think this will happen because Im now 69 years old, and a man 69 years old, he dont have too many years left.”

Walker Smith, (shown on cover) age 76, has what he calls a mad passion.

When I get mad, I just go ahead and kill. But now its different. I feel altogether different.” Smith’s crime–murder–occurred while he was receiving instructions from his mother on how to fix a washing machine. Apparently, it was more than he could handle, and in order to stop her from nagging, he took a kitchen knife and stabbed her 47 timesto death. His photograph, one of the more prominent in the book, shows a sad, old mandroopy, ragged, and hopeless. It is hard to imagine the forces inside the age-worn figure that were unleashed the day he committed his crime.

Other inmates who appear in the book are not old, but rather have an ailment that requires special medical attention and thus they are housed with the geriatric population. David Moose Lowry is one such inmate. At age 30, he is incarcerated for murder and attempted murder.

Its a long story and there are a lot of extenuating circumstances to my crime. In a nutshell, I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. I got into a hellacious argument with him (his brother) and before I really thought of it, I pulled out the gun and shot him. Wasted him and proceeded to shoot everyone else who was in the house.

They started screaming and I turned around and told them to shut up. I shot my brother, shot my sister-in-law, shot my niece.”Lowry, like others chronicled in the book, finds the violent life he left has found its way into the prisons. He recalls an incident where his friend was killed over an argument.

Jeff steps up onto his cell and I heard boom, boom, boom–fighting and everything–and when I look up from the table, Jeffs been ripped across here (pointing to his abdomen). His intestines just hanging down to his knees. I look up and just freak out cause here’s this dude who is trying to hold his guts in…and a hand comes out of a steel door and grabs hold of his hair and snaps it back. Wham! And his whole throat fell open.

Twelve years he did in them fucking hellholes, and gets killed for some bullshit.”

Among these tales of violence are cases that seem to defy reason. William Howard Tex Johnson, for example, was sentenced to 50 years for stealing $24. It was 1959, in Birmingham. A lot was going down. We were struggling with the civil rights thing. I snatched the money out of a mans hand. I got 50 years. When they passed it, I didnt even think about it (the racial motive), cause all I was thinking about is, I get the chance, Im gonna escape. And I did. Ive escaped three times. I could go like the wind and they never could catch me. Because of my stroke and cause of my knee I cant run no more.