Images of life behind bars that will surprise you

Powerful words and pictures from four photographers showing real life in prisons

From A Poor Imitation of Death, by Ara Oshagan

Avenal State Prison, 2003 – Ara Oshagan

The majority of society will never see or experience life behind bars. Perceptions of incarceration, in particular, can be skewed by films that glorify them and media that vilify the inmates.

But these institutions are of course inhabited by humans. Below is a collection of words and pictures from four photographers who have gone behind the scenes to show you a side of prison life you haven’t seen before.

Humanising children again

The following images by Ara Oshagan comprise photos and words handwritten by the subjects of the young offenders in the pictures. Oshagan explained what inspired him to compose the collection, A Poor Imitation of Death, in this way:

The writings — and it is important that they are hand-written — add an element of emotion, reflection to the images, that human, personal element, what the youth are really thinking about underneath it all.

From A Poor Imitation of Death, by Ara Oshagan

Efrain, 21 years old, Avenal State Prison, 2003 – Ara Oshagan

They allow a certain insight below the surface, allow the youth to be human, and most importantly the handwriting allows them to tell their own story. They do not own their physical lives but their story is their own. 

From A Poor Imitation of Death, by Ara Oshagan

Sandra, 20 years old, Chowchilla State Prison, 2003 – Ara Oshagan

Through my project they are able to tell some part of it, each with their unique voice (the handwriting). The prison system is geared towards dehumanisation. My work is an attempt to re-humanise them.

From A Poor Imitation of Death, by Ara Oshagan

Avenal State Prison, 2003 – Ara Oshagan

We worked with the toughest kids — the ones who were convicted of violent crimes and were facing long sentences, some even life. I had expected them to be confrontational, difficult to deal with. But they were not. They were deferential and polite.

Liz, 20 years old, Chowchilla State Prison, 2003 - Ara Oshagan

Liz, 20 years old, Chowchilla State Prison, 2003 – Ara Oshagan

A lot of the violence that people believe happens in prison actually does happen. But also the incarcerated are not the monsters that the public thinks they are. Many of the kids I met were very smart and capable. They had made mistakes and ended up on the wrong side of the law.

I could have ended up there myself. Or my son. Or like Myra had no real choice in her neighborhood but to join a gang. It is important to humanise these incarcerated kids and allow us, the public, to see them as one of us. That shift in attitude, I think, is critical.

Investigating the elderly prison population

It was the documentary The House I Live In that first sparked Andrew Burton‘s interest in prisons. He wanted to know more about effect of the era of tough-on-crime laws in the US; the three-strike rule and mandatory life sentences. These images capture the people who are behind bars because of such laws.

What surprised me most was how kind the prisoners were and how difficult the correctional officers were. I was dealing with elderly prisoners, many of whom had done horrific things when they were younger but had been softened by time – many of them were simply kind old men by the time I visited them.

Embed from Getty Images
Anthony Alvarez, 82, waits for the daily prisoner count while sitting on the floor of his cell at California Men’s Colony prison. Mr Alvarez has been incarcerated for 42 years for burglary, possession of illegal firearms and escapes from county jail. Eventually these convictions led to him receiving a life sentence due to three-strike laws.

“I never shot anyone,” Mr Alvarez said, “I had the chance, but I could never shoot anyone.”
Embed from Getty Images
Edward Crawford, 54, sits in his wheelchair and reads the newspaper while spending free time inside his cell block at California State Prison. Mr Crawford was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in 1988 for murder. He claims he murdered a man who had molested his step-daughter.

His first bid for parole was denied. His next chance will be in 2024.

The trials of being in prison revealed

In 2003 Andrew Aitchison started photographing prisons on a project at HMP Wandsworth. He is still in touch with some of the inmates he met there. Prison staff today work under extreme pressure, he said:

Going onto a four-floor wing of 200 prisoners and they are looked after by two or three officers  it just seems ridiculous. They are dealing with all sorts of problems: fights, application forms, lack of toilet paper or prisoners dealing with family bereavement. There is just not enough time or officers to deal with all the normal day-to-day stuff.

A young male prisoner stands on D wing of HMP Wandsworth prison - Andy Aitchison

A young male prisoner stands on D wing of HMP Wandsworth prison – Andy Aitchison

Until someone has a connection with prison they don’t really give it a thought. The tabloid media in the past has portrayed it as an easy life in there, but the reality isn’t like that. People make the best life they can in the situation they are in, moving up the ranks into work and onto an enhanced wing helps. Then it might be slightly easier, but you’ve still not got your freedom.

UK - Justice - Prison - Andy Aitchison

The moment a man is reunited with his family after two and half years at HMP/YOI Portland, Dorset – Andy Aitchison.

Spotting everyday moments

When Mark Harvey, a former Royal Marine, started photographing prisons, he spotted many similarities with his former career: discipline, all-male, hierarchy, humour, controlled environment, security, uniforms. But there were also many things that surprised him:

One of the things I found most shocking was, in vulnerable prisoners’ units (e.g. for sex offenders), the relaxed, calm atmosphere and the type of prisoner. I saw a few Guardian or Times newspapers there that I hadn’t seen in other prisons.

Young Offenders’ Institutes were very noisy. And the number of prisoners with psychiatric problems. A governor told me they get some prisoners that they know will commit suicide whatever they do. 70 per cent of prisoners are illiterate.

Prison education rehabilitation class Mark Harvey

Civillian education tutor helping inmates in a class – Mark Harvey

Some prisoners I have spoken to liked it [prison]. There was none of the pressures of everyday life like food, bills etc. They get fed, accommodation, work, and sometimes drugs and sex, so life would be hard for them on the outside. Some would treat it as a natural part of their career, think of it as a sabbatical! And some hated it and couldn’t wait to get out. You do become institutionalised quite quickly.

Mark Harvey - Social Issues Photogrpahy - Prisons

Young Offender using the compassionate telephone on a prison landing – Mark Harvey

Do you know of any other great photos showing real life inside prison? If so, please tweet or email us at

TWITTER: @prisonwatchuk 

3 Comments on “Images of life behind bars that will surprise you”

  1. Mark Bond says:

    Reblogged this on e-Roll Call Magazine.


  2. Pop Pop says:

    America can boast having more of its citizens in prison than any industrialized country in the world. Nevertheless, the majority of society can’t even imagine living on a campus and in a world of perpendicular and parallel bars.

    People get perceptions from films and other “reality” media that glorify prison life and vilify inmates. There is nothing – nothing – out there that accurately can depict prison life. I was a Deputy Sheriff for twenty-two years and thought I understood prison. I knew nothing. My colleagues know nothing. Even corrections officers who go home after eight hours working in a prison have no idea of the truth.

    Who knows, then, what being in prison is really like?

    People who know prison life have lived in prison. They have slept on the floor in preference to their mattress. They have walked with their back to the wall to avoid being stabbed with a homemade knife. They have been forced to fight to avoid having to fight again. They have been beaten by gang members, hid from gang members, or aligned with gang members. They have gone to sleep with their boots on so they can be better prepared to fight in the night. They have been beaten by multiple staff members who enticed the friction. They have drunk the brown nasty water that comes from their sinks. They have gone weeks without hygiene of any kind. They have had stolen the few little trinkets and possessions they have. They have traded something of more valuable for anything with protein. They have learned to live in a perpetual state of hunger. They have watched the most innovative inmates marinate old discarded fruit and turn it into a potent wine for weekend parties. They have watched correctional staff bring drugs, cell phones, cigarettes, and other paraphernalia into prisons and exchange these for “favors” (having someone hurt, sex, money, etc.). They have seen inmates use makeshift needles and homemade bulbs to inject drugs in their arms, their groins, between their toes. They have lived with a cohort among which seventy percent are illiterate; or perhaps they too are illiterate. They have seen men convert to the role of women in sexual relationships either for sex, for “things”, or in order to survive. They have been rejected by doctors and nurse practitioners for medical help.

    This and more, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and many, decade after decade.

    The above is a portion of a book I am writing about an innocent man in prison. The book is titled, “A Modern Joseph”.

    Comments and other thoughts solicited.


  3. Debra says:

    I think it’s a good thing you are doing,giving the inmates a voice,and I feel we all want someone to listen to us when we speak so good job i wish you much success.


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