Professor of Sociology and Director of the Project on Restorative Justice
Two pictures, dated 1998 and 1999. Two men incarcerated at the East Carroll Parish Prison Farm in northeast Louisiana. One man is Zack K. Oakes (Date of Birth: 9/20/73). The other is James Willis (Date of Birth: 7/27/77). That’s what we know. Who are these men? What is their story? Why were they in prison? Where are they now? Prisons are humanity made invisible. These photos make them visible, but not known.
Deborah Luster took these and many other portraits for her project One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana (1998–2002). Her motivation is connected to the murder of her mother: “I have come to understand that, while it was the fear and anger generated by my mother’s murder that in great measure ignited this work, it is the loss and hope I feel—that we each feel, one and all—that has fueled it.”(1) Making sense of tragedy. Confronting loss. Finding hope. Seeking humanity.
A murder victim’s daughter was compelled to photograph prisoners. She was looking through her lens to see something about them and to reveal that for others. What can be seen? Luster suggests, “These photographs belong to the eyes of the free world viewer—citizen, voter, gallery goer, broker of social policy.”(2) As a sociologist, I see their stories reflected in cold facts.
East Carroll Parish Prison Farm was a minimum-security prison for men. It is now closed. It housed just two hundred men, most for less than five-year terms.(3) When Luster took her photographs, Louisiana ranked number one in imprisoning its citizens.(4) Note the geography of the top five: Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama. Compare that with the states incarcerating the least: Minnesota, Maine, North Dakota, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. There is something special about the American South. It is the front-runner in crime and in punishment.
Sociologists measure incarceration by comparing the number of prisoners to the number of citizens. In 1999, 776 of Louisiana’s citizens were incarcerated for every 100,000 people living in the state. Minnesota’s incarceration rate was 125 per 100,000 Minnesotans.(5) Not much has changed. In 2016, Louisiana was still number one at 777. Minnesota’s rate rose to 196, and Maine, with 132, replaced it for the lowest rank.(6) Would these men have been imprisoned in Minnesota or Maine? Maybe not, or, at least, not as likely.