Andrew Lichtenstein's photographs of the Texas prison system are an anthropological study of life behind bars.
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“I’m trying to show what prison looks like to people who’ve never been there,” says photographer Andrew Lichtenstein, who began taking pictures in Texas prisons in 1995. His initial assignments came from European magazines and newspapers, feeding the Old World’s fascination with Texas justice, especially the death penalty. But Lichtenstein soon found a much richer world—one that is captured in the photographs that follow. “The story is so much bigger than death row and the death penalty,” he says. “The death penalty gets ninety-five percent of the media attention, but there are another 149,000 people in the system.” Indeed, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system has expanded massively in the past fifteen years, going from 19 units to 114. Its population tripled from 1993 through 1995 alone. Lichtenstein found himself going back on his own time, making a couple of trips a year to record life in various units. “As a photojournalist, you get the feeling that there’s so much more going on,” he says, “so you want to keep coming back. Plus, I felt that nobody was paying any attention to prisons.”
Some of Lichtenstein’s most intense experiences involved shooting in the Trinity River bottoms area in East Texas. “You see guards on horseback and prisoners picking cotton, and you realize how far we’ve come, how incredibly brutal it used to be. Life was very cheap before the federal government took over—you feel that. Nowadays if it rains, they don’t go out, they don’t have to pick one hundred pounds of cotton a day, and the guards don’t shoot prisoners at will.” But for all the reforms, Lichtenstein despairs at the growth of large “administrative segregation” units, where predatory inmates, who are often gang members, are housed away from the general population. “I understand the impulse for separating troublemakers. But the consequence of its overuse—for example, prisoners could end up getting twenty-three-hour-a-day lockdowns for ten years—we’ve not begun to realize.”
The native New Yorker says that Texas has one of the most open prison systems for media access. “I worked under two conditions: I would ask every person for permission to use his or her photo, and if there was ever a ‘use of force,’ I wouldn’t record it.” He saw plenty of that—and fought his photojournalist’s instinct to record it. “I was always doing a balancing act. I made it clear to people that I was a guest of the warden but that I was not there as a TDCJ photographer.”
For all the bleakness his photos reveal, Lichtenstein knows that they can take an outsider only so far. “You’ll never be able to see or capture how it really is. The only way to really see prison life is to not be able to leave.”