James_KP-24_Mural in double sized cell

My friend, the great photographer Geoffrey James, was able to get an all-access pass to Kingston Penitentiary, including the Segregation Unit and those cells only moments before occupied by such murderous sexual deviates as Saul David Betesh, Paul Bernardo and Russell Williams.

As with all great art there is precedent and tradition. Prisons are not a common subject in the societal lexicon or dialogue – they should be but they’re not; in photography or in life. But the formidable American shooter Danny Lyon has done it before, in the 1960s.

In Lyon’s case, he somehow talked his way into a number of operating prisons in Texas and got loose on the ranges and among the work crews. The results are quite remarkable. Not so easy getting access here. As Geoffrey is quick to point out, “Americans are different, they have no shame.”

Years ago, shortly before it was scheduled to close, Geoffrey tried to talk Eastern State Penitentiary officials in Philadelphia into a similar project but the vagaries of bureaucratic thinking denied him the necessary timely permissions and, as Geoffrey also said to me “once they say no, it’s forever.”

“So the trick this time was to never let anyone say no.”

Ironically, Eastern State, transformed into a successful tourist attraction, now encourages everyone to bring a camera. Bringing his camera, a digital Leica Rangefinder and taking pictures inside Eastern State now would be completely pointless for James. The part Geoffrey needed to capture is gone. Very soon after an institution like a prison or an asylum closes, it irrevocably changes and thereafter, “it too is gone forever.”

In a process that is somewhat magical what was once a Gothic house of horror becomes a tourist trap and just as they arrive in droves at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater so to do tourists attend prisons like Eastern State and the Ohio State Reformatory (the 250,000 square-foot facility where “The Shawshank Redemption was shot in 1994) by the tens of thousands. Snapping pictures is what tourists do; it is not what Geoffrey James does.

Geoffrey has well learned over the years what all good investigative journalists know: “Never rush in and get a no.”

Chains of command must be learned. There are far more people in a bureaucracy that can say “no” than “yes. You have to know, literarily and figuratively, from whom you are seeking permission and what they may require to say “yes”.

In Geoffrey’s case he found his way to the right Regional Commissioner of Corrections, who he understood to have been the warden of the Kingston Prison For Women (K4W) where Karla Homolka was housed for the first 4 years of her sentence. It was similarly closed by the correctional authority for good when the last prisoner was transferred out in May 2008. The walls have been demolished and the property now belongs to Queen’s University.

The Commissioner understood implicitly what Geoffrey meant when he said the work had to be done immediately before the renovators moved in, while the laundry is still undone, because once closed and tampered with, the prison part of the facility evaporates.

She was predisposed to Geoffrey’s project because she knew exactly what he meant when he talked about evanescence and immediacy, to get in and start shooting right away even before all the prisoners had been relocated.

A prison is evacuated according to the incarcerated individual’s assessed risk level – the most dangerous first the least last. There are other considerations but that is the main criteria.

Some of the portraits of the inmates that were still there waiting to be moved (to where God and the prison authority only knows) are among the most haunting in the book.

Change is very difficult for the institutionalized – think about Brooks (James Whitmore) the old con in The Shawshank Redemption and the most gentle, wise and kind character in the movie.

When released after 50 years, Brooks hangs himself.

Shortly after they learn of Brooks’ fate, contraband smuggling con Red (Morgan Freeman) explains what it means to be “institutionalized” to Brooks’ best friends, fellow con Heywood (William Sadler) and convicted murderer Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), the protagonist of this thoroughly compelling picture: “The man’s been in here fifty years. Fifty years! This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. Outside, he’s nothin’! Just a used up con with arthritis in both hands….These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.”

The thirty-foot high, 10 foot thick limestone walls of the historic Kingston Penitentiary are those walls

The Shawshank Redemption was filmed on location in the famed Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. As did Eastern State Penitentiary, the Ohio State Reformatory has been transmuted into a tourist magnet that has helped boost the economy of Manifield and the surrounding counties. Last year, the O.S.R. had 80,000 visitors. The 250,000-square-foot fortress, first opened in 1896, a number of years after the Kingston Penitentiary, has become a state landmark. Today it is as important to the local economies of the three or four surrounding counties as it was when it was a functioning prison.

Geoffrey James new book “Inside” about the historical Kingston Penitentiary has achieved his goal. All kinds of institutional cruelty as well as accomplishment, the troubling ambiguity that characterizes North American penal history, is palpable in many of the un-peopled photographs that otherwise appear to be, on the surface, explorations of architectural accents and angles.

It is thoroughly evocative collection that fully captures the spirit of place.

In many of the photographs the claustrophobic cells look like their occupants have just gone out to the canteen. Much of the prisoner’s artwork (some of it truly remarkable,) old-timey pin-ups and newspaper clippings still cling to the walls. Bunks appear just slept in with unlaundered blankets askew. The resulting collection of photographs, captions and short revealing endnote written by James is a disturbing, thought-provoking, completely original narrative that elegizes at the same time as it eulogizes… and indicts.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” That has been my direct experience and its truth is manifest in Geoffrey James “Inside.”

This book of photographs, captions and short essay is exactly what Geoffrey James is all about: Composing narratives with magnificently rendered still photographs that capture both the past and the future.

He did this with his first published collection in 1989. la campagna Romana which appears to be a fine suite of beautifully framed landscape photographs taken with his “primitive, shoe-box panoramic camera.” It is, in fact, about the same thing “Inside” is about: the photographer’s search for something ineffable, in the case of la campagna Romana, the famed Roman countryside and whether it actually still exists.

In the preface to la campagna Romana Geoffrey James says “my journey, rather than leading to any kind of understanding of this landscape, brought only a dawning sense of the labyrinthine complexity of Italian life, of the manner in which the political permeates everything… at Castel di Leva, just south of Rome (Plate 17), I talked with a shepherd’s wife while staring across the GRA at a vast Eurosprawl of radio towers and supermarkets and military barracks – a vision, if ever there was one, of the future of campagna.”

Change a few nouns and verbs the same could be said about “Inside”. It’s about his search for the truth about prison, about it’s soul, no matter how dark, and what it says about our civilization.

Because he sees in this world – as it is immediate and inexorably captured by the lens – another world, perhaps one more real, with some vestige of truth, the one jagged piece of the jigsaw puzzle that allows for a multi-diminsional, integrated apperception. He thinks this might be it and that’s why he bothered.

Greater than the sum of its parts, “Inside” will be published on September 18 by Black Dog Publishing, London, England with support from the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, On.

native  ground



James_KP-24_Mural in double sized cell

I had not heard from Geoffrey James for years. His is a hand-made, civilized life. He’s a man of the world with refined tastes so he got my immediate attention with his opening gambit: An invitation to come up to his studio and see a picture he recently took of Paul Bernardo’s prison cell literally hours after it was vacated.

“Got my attention” is a gross understatement. I was gob smacked. Geoffrey is one of the world’s great photographers. And not one I would ever imagine having any interest in taking a picture of such a feckless sex killer’s cell. I really had no interest in Bernardo, I couldn’t imagine that Geoffrey did. And I was right.

Over a light lunch of crusty fresh bread, cheese, pate and chilled white wine he explained that he couldn’t resist because he knew such a invitation would cause me considerable psychic dissonance.

He knows that I was one of the very few journalists in history ever allowed singular entry to Kingston Penitentiary for the specific purpose of interviewing an incarcerated sex killer.

It was a long time ago.

Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister. And the degree of difficultly was such that I had to ultimately get a ministerial directive from then Attorney General Jean-Jacques Blais because there was no way the warden or the Regional Commissioner of Corrections was going to let a journalist cause as much discord and tension inside the institution that such a visit would precipitate. Because the prisoner in question was high-profile and isolated in the Segregation Unit – he would not have lasted a day in general population – they had to lock down all the other inmates to safely facilitate the interview for as long as it took. It was the rare exception to an unwritten bureaucratic rule where a “no” meant “no” forever. It was an institutional nightmare and no one was happy about it.

My interview subject was the Shoeshine Boy Killer Saul David Betesh.

Circa 1977 – 79 I was assigned to write a long piece for “Toronto Life Magazine” called “Sympathy for the Devil” which, among much else, documented exactly how Betesh and three of his cohorts kidnapped, raped and murdered a twelve-year-old Portuguese immigrant named Emmanuel Jacques.

The warden and the prison staff were not the only ones who saw me as a duplicitous pirrahea. It was a controversial case in part because the killers had taken a series of over three hundred Polaroids documenting virtually every moment of the rape and murder.

In those days, homicide detectives often liked journalists and were inclined to cooperate and talk. I managed to get a hold of all those Polaroids without much difficultly. When flipped like a deck of cards, what the photographs depicted came magically alive like Helios‘ racehorse-in-motion. It was without exception the most horrifying spectacle in my life and indelibly imprinted on my psyche.

Geoffrey understood something about that article, it’s motivation and all my subsequent work that most people (including many so-called learned men and women in the fields of criminology let alone the myriad hacks on this continent that call themselves journalists) do not. While that article and others I’ve written and my books may have been read, few have really read them.

He knows that I am not particularly interested in crime per say rather the effect unusual and bizarre criminal behavior has on our institutions of law and order and their purveyors and practitioners such as police, prosecutors, including attorneys general, court clerks, expert witnesses, defense lawyers, the correctional service and its minions: All bureaucracies that are secretive and otherwise imprevious to scrutiny.

High profile over the top crime tends to create cracks in their otherwise impenetrable carapace of power, privilege and paranoia.”

As Leonard Cohen wrote “cracks are where the light gets in.”

Mr. James’ interest was not in Paul Bernardo about whom he could give a rat’s ass, it was the penitentiary.

Geoffrey James also knew that since those days and that experience I maintained an abiding interested in that particular institution and its history.

He well knew that I did not consider Bernardo an “important” or “interesting” figure any more than I did Betesh – perhaps even less than Betesh who was, like Bernardo, a monster and a most disagreeable interlocutor because, like most monsters, he is mundane and infantile.

The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction have become blurred by our unfettered interest in serial offenders of all descriptions. It is why “Criminal Minds” is one of the longest running shows in television history. And wildly popular. Has anyone noticed that it’s not very good, repetitive and boring?

Remember people, Hannibal Lecter is a fictional character. Silence of the Lambs is a great movie, even better book but Thomas Harris made it all up. Neither is there anyone in the Behaviorial Science Unit of the FBI that even remotely resembles Clarice Starling.

So is my other favorite. John Doe (played by Kevin Spacey)in the chilling 1995 “Seven“. Even a little bit of study will tell you how far these serial fiends are from real serial fiends.

The telephone call was Geoffrey’s opening gambit to set me up for a full preview of his latest project called Inside which documents, at some length and compelling detail, the recently closed Kingston Penitentiary, the most famous prison in the country.

A few years after it was opened Charles Dickens toured the facility in 1842 and pronounced it “an admirable gaol.”

In the tradition of transforming historic correctional institutions into tourists’ traps, as Pennsylvia did with Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, the government decided it was high time that Kingston’s doors be closed to its original purpose which it was on September 30, 2013.entrance to inner compound

And the moment those massive doors were closed they opened for Geoffrey James and he became the first photographer in history ever allowed inside – at least the first with his camera and equipment and a full mandate to document what it had become since Dickens’ had his look about. (To be continued).