Monday, November 21, 2011

Prison: Reflections on the Exhibit of Chicago photographer Lloyd DeGrane

Monday, November 21, 2011

  • A wide angle view of the inner atrium of Stateville Correctional Center’s F House, the prison’s old roundhouse, with four floors of cells facing a central watch tower
  • The scarred face of an inmate who’s been knifed and shot to the skull. His claim to fame? He’s never gone down.
  • A display of weapons made by inmates on the premises.
  • An intimate portrait of an artist inmate, looking defiant but introspective, his painting of a black Jesus on the wall behind him.
These are some of the provocative images taken over a decade by Chicago photographer Lloyd DeGrane and now on display in a stunning exhibit at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery. The exhibit includes letters that inmate Simon (“Sam G.”) Gutierrez wrote to DeGrane over the course of many years, detailing life in the prison. The pictures document how inmates are herded through a Chicago holding cell and moved to the Joliet receiving cell (“a parade of buses every Friday morning between 9-10 a.m. on Interstate 55 surrounded by state police cars”). Once inside, prisoners are shackled and assigned a state facility.
At the opening, DeGrane addressed the crowd.  A few takeaways:
  • As a photographer, he carried just one medium format camera and lens, a light tripod. He always asked permission and walked slowly, never moving fast, around the prison.
  • The prison environment stands out for its sounds (“People yelling, screaming, blurting things out.”) and the smells (“Human waste, sweat, blood, rotten food. The things that thousands of men leave behind.”)
  • This isn’t about an innocence project, or about the wrongfully convicted or unjustly sent to prison, DeGrane said.  These people were murderers, rapists, child molesters, all walking around with you. “This project is about the people you want to see locked up,” he said. “The people you don’t want to see late at night when it’s you and nobody else around.” 

DeGrane used data to illustrate the vastness of the prison system. The U.S. represents 5 percent of the world’s population, he said, but has 25 percent of the world’s prison population. There are now 2.25 million people behind bars, plus 5 million out on parole (“the equivalent of Chicago locked up, suburbanites on parole”).
He wants viewers to walk away with a better understanding of where their taxes are going. “I want you to know what happens behind the 32-foot wall, and of the journey that people – especially the poor – go through in these places.”

The exhibit is at 18 S. Michigan Avenue and will be up through Feb. 4, 2012. For more information, go to

–Mark Hallett, senior program officer

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