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Southern Cultures 13.2 (2007) 112-129

Texas Death Row and the Cummins Prison Farm in Arkansas
Bruce Jackson

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[End Page 112]

I began taking prison photographs as aides-mémoire—as visual notes I could draw on to help me remember what I'd seen when I was home from the fieldwork and at my desk, writing about black convict work songs and prison social structure. Then I understood that some things could be said better in images, so I started taking the photography more seriously.

I visited Cummins, the Arkansas penitentiary, eight times between 1971 and 1975 and took about five thousand pictures there. At that time Cummins was in Federal receivership because the place had been so brutal up to the late 1960s. The first time I visited it, the only armed men were convict guards, mostly murderers doing life sentences. Things improved considerably over those four years, but that meant simply that Cummins was now a prison farm like those in most other southern states: prisoners did forced labor in the fields, supervised by armed guards on horses, and they lived in large tanks or dormitories. Medical care improved, as did the food, but the heart of the prison was always the field operation, particularly the cotton. The last time I visited Cummins they had some cotton picking machines, and the men got to spend part of their time in school.

In 1979 Diane Christian and I decided to do a documentary film and a book about Death Row in Texas. When we weren't shooting or setting up to shoot the film or doing audio interviews, I shot 35mm stills. A few of them appeared in the French edition of the book, but I never paid much attention to them until last year, when I began digitizing all my prison photographs. I found I had shot maybe a thousand images, and just as the book and film envisioned life on Death Row from very different perspectives, so too did the still photographs.

The Texas and Arkansas prison work was possible only because I had complete access. The directors of those prisons—George Beto, Jim Estelle, and Don Hutto—let me go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted. I was living in Boston and Buffalo in those years, and no prison director in either of those states ever let me beyond the sally port without a guard watching me every moment and listening to every word I said or that anyone said to me. Neither of those states let me bring a camera inside, and now Texas and Arkansas wouldn't give anyone that freedom to observe either. No place would. Everyone is so worried about lawsuits and security, you only get to see what they want you to see, when they want you to see it. [End Page 113]

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Figure 1
Name board. The small slips list each occupant of each cell in the block's three tiers; the 3 × 5 cards remind guards of prisoners to be kept locked down. All photographs by Bruce Jackson.
[End Page 114]

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Figure 2
When Texas killed by electrocution, some new prisoners were brought in, saw the barber chair, and freaked out, thinking it was The Chair. Now Texas kills by lethal injection. Some new prisoners come in, see the barber chair, and have the same reaction.
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Figure 3
Prison is a world of converging and intersecting lines. Curves are not permitted.
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Figure 4
Everybody has a mirror, or a piece of one. It's the only way you can see beyond a small trapezoid in front of your cell.
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Figure 5
Hands reaching through bars, a partial liberation from the almost-total confinement of the narrow cells.
[End Page 118]

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Figure 6
If you're lucky, you cell next to someone you can talk...


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pp. 112-129
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