/21 Crime

Lloyd DeGrane


Sometimes, when I look through the photographs I made while working on my prison project, I wonder, ‘Why did I do this?’

The answer eludes me now.

I was more of an adventurous explorer then, of worlds that were foreign and sometimes frightening to me. I knew nothing of the people living or working behind prison walls. But, looking back, realizing I was living in what would eventually become the most incarcerated nation on the planet, I had an intense desire to somehow climb over those walls and experience the world within.

These photographs tell my story as well as the experience of the inmates and officers that I photographed. We were all on a road together then. This road started in the menacing lock up cells in Cook County Jail in Chicago and ended at Stateville, a maximum security prison near Joliet, Illinois.

For the completion of this project, I was in and out of ‘the Illinois Correctional system’ for 10 years, photographing from 1989 to 2000.

This particular journey included a riot so up front and personal I came away with blood on my shoes. It also included a private photo session with a mass murderer. More than anything, it involved countless days throughout the years and seasons spent in the company of rapists, thieves, armed robbers, sinners of the highest order and even a few saints, tormented minds turned artists, and people falsely accused – all doing ‘hard time.’ In all of this I realized that most of us still wanted the same things, freedom and the light of the outside world.

As I see it, the road I chose to follow started and ended in Hell. Along the way, the emotional signposts that registered with me and the subjects I documented were: fear, bravado, recklessness, compassion, love and hate. Sometimes there were glimmers of hope, but unfortunately, hopelessness pervades.

This realization made its mark on me, and sometimes when I really think about it I can feel the scar.

Even so, how I interpret these images or the experience of gathering them is less important than the assertion that they may provide important insights both for the general public and policy makers.