Prisoners have annotated images through the decades some brutal, some charming in an exhibition in Berkeley, California

Was he pushed or did he jump? is scrawled in the margins of a black-and-white photograph of four dark figures surrounding the chalk outline of a body. In the image, there are patches of stained asphalt encircled by inky black pen marks.


  • Four dark figures surround the chalk outline of a body in a 1964 image.

Taken at San Quentin state prison nearly 50 years ago by a correctional officer (CO), the photograph is one of 30 archival images on view at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (Bampfa).

The artist Nigel Poor, who is best known for the acclaimed prison podcast Ear Hustle, which she co-created with Earlonne Woods and now has over 10 million listeners, uncovered the images in 2011 .

cage rage images
  • Left: An on-duty guard and incarcerated man meet the photographers lens head-on creating an unnerving sense of tension in an otherwise clinical photo.

  • Right: Another photo in the same series. The hand holding the cuff seems uncommonly loose, yet control can be seen, writes Kevin Tindall, who was formerly incarcerated.

A year later, she dusted off nine bankers boxes that were stowed underneath a high-ranking COs desk and encountered thousands of four-by-five-inch negatives from the 60s and 70s. It was like a treasure hunt, says the artist, who scanned and printed the most evocative photos. Id find really amazing and surprising images, then horrific, charming, funny, or scary ones. And then theres incredibly brutal photos that really cement you in the reality of being in prison. Images that I find disturbing seem to be more about humiliation, though, than outright violence.


  • Mesro Coles-El, another of Poors students, selected this photo of a man in Native American costume adding his own questions about the event, cultural tradition, and intended audience for the ritual.

In a photography course that she still teaches through the not-for-profit initiative Prison University Project, Poor engaged her students incarcerated at San Quentin with visual mapping exercises encouraging them to write and draw directly on to the found photos. Adding poetic musings, facts and speculative theories to the works, the students interpreted a range of scenes from visiting-room weddings and ice sculpture-carving contests to family visits and attempted escapes. Presented without context, the diagrammed images are time capsules that chart how the culture of San Quentin has evolved from the 60s to the present. (In the 60s, prisoners werent required to wear uniforms; in the 50s, an elementary school for prison staff families was almost entirely composed of white children.)



  • Right: This image from 1966 captures the fall-out from a fight in one of San Quentins school buildings.

  • Left: A 1975 image titled Fish Caught at Ranch. The black-and-white film cant hide the colors of the mind, writes Tindall.

In the mapped images, life at San Quentin is shown to be rife with contradictions quotidian and unusual, peaceable yet marked with violence and trauma. Inspired by the artists Jim Goldberg, Bill Owens, and Sophie Calle, Poor sees the photographs as collaborative projects in which her students perspectives are at the focus, while she still plays an active role. (On gallery signage, she and her students are equally credited as artists.)

I always remember that I can walk out of prison but the people I work with cant, Poor says.

Throughout the series, there are clear-eyed observations of panopticon-oriented surveillance methods, including mounted cameras, barbed wire, and gun towers. In some cases, the students notes read as damning indictments of the prison staffs cruelty or negligence. Other notes are heartfelt and reflective, upending cliches around prison life as necessarily brutal and those incarcerated as one-dimensional individuals.


  • In this era, staying fit was key to survival behind these walls / if not, youll become a victim, writes Harold Meeks, who is currently incarcerated, about this image from 1975.

While some men at San Quentin can now wield cameras for their internal newspaper, if supervised by guards the majority dont have access. The person with the camera has all the control, Poor points out. This project therefore explores a redistribution of power by questioning who has the authority to capture personal narratives and institutional histories.

It blows my mind that correctional officers were using these four-by-five cameras up until the early 80s because its such a cumbersome camera to use, Poor says. The negatives are really beautiful. It makes me think: how many other prisons have these archives? I dont think San Quentin is unique. I would love to be able to do this inside of other prisons like in juvenile facilities or working with women.



  • Top: One of Poors students, Ruben Ramirez, reimagines this mans body as a castle and the outstretched arms holding him up as two buttresses.

  • Bottom: Shadeed Wallace-Stepter, who has since been released from San Quentin, observes that its difficult to discern which man is incarcerated because none of them are in uniform. The photo was found in an envelope marked Mothers Day 1976.

I do wish more prisons could be like San Quentin, with good programming that had more than AA and NA. Here, theres yoga classes, a Shakespeare group, meditation groups, a newspaper, radio program, gardening, and cooking classes, she says. Guys try to transfer to San Quentin from other prisons because of its reputation. Its not a war zone, which is how Ive heard guys describe a level 4 prison, where every time you leave your cell you dont know if youll make it back. (San Quentin is a medium-security, level 2 prison.)

Yet, the project also raises the question of whether its possible for a prison, even one with programming as progressive as San Quentins, to be a dignified place to live.


  • This photograph of a man playing chess was selected by Mesro Coles-El for visual mapping exercises.

Maybe this programming is deceptive, because San Quentin is also where death row is housed in California, she explains. Even though the governor, Gavin Newsom, signed an order in March that imposed a moratorium on Californias death penalty, 737 men are still on death row in San Quentin prison, which is about a quarter of the total number of people on death row in the US. As of this summer, four of the men that participated in Poors classes are out of prison and working janitorial, tech, and security jobs while the rest continue to live behind bars.

The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive until 17 November



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