PHOTO DISTRICT NEWS
- November, 2000.
Aging Behind Bars
by Jane Gottlieb
- Consider Woodrow Williams, now 82, and serving a 40 year sentence for a 1959 burglary. Consider Lavon Alford,62, doing time for shooting a bartender, he says, in self defense. Consider Jesse Hatcher, a convicted murderer, who, at 78 said he’d be inclined to cut off the head of anyone who tromped his beloved prison rose garden.
“Some of them belong there,” notes photographer Ron Levine, who asks us to glimpse the faces and stories of 63 men living out their days in state prisoners retrofitted for the aged and ailing. “But for some of them who have been there maybe 50 years, it’s ridiculous. I honestly think people at some point in their lives, they’re 72 or 82 years old, they’re not the threat to the community they were. Are what point are we saying, ‘It’s enough?’ “
With his exhibit, “Prisoners of Age,” and the companion book he published, Levine seeks neither unqualified amnesty nor sympathy for elderly convicts. They come across as warm and repentant, or burly and lethal. But through his stylized portraits and written snapshots, he hopes to fuel dialogue on the appropriate last stop for America’s fastest growing, least studied, inmate population.
“Prisoners of Age,” which includes prints rising four by eight feet, will be displayed through the end of December at Alcatraz, the notorious island penitentiary now part of Golden Gate National Park. Levine hopes for installations at other prison museums. The wish to tell a fuller story has also inspired him to spend $75,000 to publish a 208 page book by the same name, available at www.prisonersofage.com.
While acknowledging the the work is hardly light entertainment, the photographer hopes it joins the social literature. “I really hope high schools and libraries will buy the book because it would be really important for young people to understand how their lives can be wasted,” says Levine, who worked with graphics artist Michael Wou on the exhibit and the book.
A Montreal-born commercial and documentary photographer drawn to less-travelled destinations, Levine made portraits at six geriatric correctional facilities from 1996 to 2000. The work, shot in iridescent hues, is notable for the incongruity of the wizened or crippled subjects with the steel bars or razor wire supposedly keeping them captive, and for the system’s willingness to expose itself. “The wardens and corrections officers are very amenable to letting us in,” says Levine, 43, who lives in New York City. “ They want to get the word out that something has to be done. It’s starting to explode. We’re building a whole new system of prisons.”
At McCain Correctional Hospital in North Carolina, Hamilton Correctional Institute for the Aged and Infirm in Alabama, and three Canadian facilities, including Warkworth Institution in Ontario, Levine had full access, with security, to violent criminals. He photographed them painstakingly, each in both color and black and white. He used cameras ranging from 35mm to 4x5, and a single light, sometimes soft, sometimes sharper. He often shot a man in the cafeteria, his cell block and work yard.
Though never completely comfortable with any of them, Levine’s impressions of these murderers, sex offenders and armed robbers helped him choose how gently, or how harshly, to portray them. “ You’ve got contradictory feelings. You’re repelled, but once you hear the story, you also feel sympathy or revulsion right away,” says Levine, who made it clear his oeuvre is impressionistic, not journalistic.
Every frame includes a prominent reference point to the prison, but there the similarities in the photos end. We see Robert Cowlin, 75, a “classy old guy” who said he sold cocaine to pay for his wife’s doctors, cast in a warm brown and cream palette as he is being groomed in the Hamilton barber shop. William Howard Johnson, 67, who laments the decisions that led him to theft and prison, is bleached in sunlight, clutching his walker as coils of razor wire fill the square of violet sky filling his window.
On the flip side, we see a triptych of sex offender Rufus Rawls laughing and wearing an unearthly yellow pallor. Jesse Hatcher, the inmate rose gardener, is terrifying even while leaning on a metal crutch, thanks to the close-up of his enormous sepia-toned face. Coming across perhaps most diabolical is barrel-chested Marcel Carriere, 73, in a periwinkle shirt matching the Disney-tones of his walls and bed-frame, a sardonic statement on his bloody acts. “He’s a guy who killed twice and (still) has the anger and strength to carry it out,” says Levine. “I guess that’s dark humor. I’m a cynical person.”
The photographer said that critics have likened the portraiture to fashion shoots behind bars. Indeed, the water colors and elaborate composition make Levine’s inmate studies far more arty than the monochrome bad guys of other prison work. These pictures, manipulative perhaps, differentiate.
Levine, a portrait photographer as apt to shoot annual reports as documentaries, periodically breaks away from assignments for such clients as Bell Atlantic and Canadian Pacific to photograph far-flung communities. In 1992 and 1993, he journeyed through the American Southwest, heading a year later to fishing villages of the Canadian Maritimes. His documentary work has been exhibited in Latin America, the US, Canada and Europe.
In 1996, he heard a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation story on the old men filling US prisons and decided to visit Hamilton, Alabama. Once Alcatraz surprised him by consenting to a show, he visited other places with medium security wards, all of them filled with IV drips and dialysis machines.
Levine suggests refining harsh drug laws that keep low-level offenders locked up for decades. He shuns the availability of weapons in the US. Also Levine advocates and idea tried in Canada,where non-violent elderly convicts are weaned from the system by performing volunteer work or transferred to community homes.
He does not advocate freedom for society’s Charles Mansons, nor its sex offenders, who rarely reform. But what about the man serving 40 years for running a gambling house in the 1960’s? Or the one who shot and killed on impulse in the 1940’s? Many spent their adulthood paying for one act under the influence of drugs, alcohol or economic desperation. Some have family who will take them in. These prisoners of age are dying. “ They’ll say, ‘I’m 76 years old, I can barely walk, what (harm) can I do outside?’” says Levine.