Jesse Halpern: Walled In




Photography, Text and Video by Jesse Halpern, Copyright 2017




Since the early 70’s presidents have been preaching about a war on crime. From Nixon through Bush, the victor in the election was the law and order candidate. This war being waged has had no effect on the violent crime rate in America yet our incarceration rates now towers above all other countries. Americans make up 5% of the people on earth, yet the United States houses 25% of the planet prisoners.

The transformation to the system we have today is really rooted in the complex I have photographed, Eastern State Penitentiary. It transformed punishment for crimes. We move away from corporal punishment, to a serving hard time. This was the model of the American Prison, a cruel system. If you were sent to Eastern State the only thing you ever saw was your cell, lit but a thin ceiling slit, and a small exercise quarter.

Racism in the courts and policing was rampant right from the start due to a clause in the 13th amendment which gave slaves freedom except if they were imprisoned.

Race was at the center of the push for the war on crime in the 70’s in retaliation to the Civil Rights Movement. The war on drugs in particular the war on Crack Cocaine was a war on African Americans. A sentence for 1 gram of Crack was the same as the sentence for 100 grams of cocaine.

Economics continues to be at the forefront in prison policy making with a boom in the private prison industry as well as contracts for public prisons being extremely lucrative. Corporations with these contracts and the corporations that own the correctional facilities benefit from incarceration, and lobby strongly to get laws enacted on their behalf.

With Obama we saw what looked like the end to the rhetoric of being tough on crime, and to the long line of Law and Order Presidents. Presidents who enacted due mandatory minimum sentences, sextupled the budget for the DEA, and militarized our police. But in the most recent election, Hilary Clinton, running as the candidate for criminal justice reform, and to end mandatory minimum loose to Trump, a self-proclaimed Law and Order candidate.

Over 5.8 million Americans cannot vote because they have been convicted of felonies. Over 2 million Americans are currently in Jail. The system, these jail structures, do little to curb the rate of violent crimes in America.

Reforms need to be made to this broken system. The Percentage of Americans incarcerated for violent crimes in 1970 is essentially what it is today, but the percentage of Americans behind bars for nonviolent crimes has increased by about 600%.

The dilapidated walls and cells of Eastern State represent the broken state of the American Prison Industrial complex.

The series was photographed in three segments. First, in direct light in the outdoor part of the complex. Second, with indirect natural light for the interior of the building. Third, with fill flash for the cells. Heavy noise was introduced in editing to give the whole series an archival feeling, an aged feeling. I wanted to capture something sturdy yet slowly unraveling which is what I believe to be the current state of the prison industrial complex. The final image is a reflection of the first photo of the prison walls. It is meant to inspire reflection about the cruelty of our criminal justice system, and of the architectural structures that house the largest population of incarcerated people in the world.



About The Author: Jesse Halpern is a Sophomore enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2019. To access additional articles by Jesse Halpern, click here



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