In the summer of 1964, Bruce Jackson—then a junior fellow at Harvard—arrived in Texas to record work songs on several state prison farms. He was researching the music and folk culture of incarcerated men – a project that had earlier steered him to Indiana State Prison and Missouri Penitentiary. Landing in Texas was essentially dumb luck – Jackson had family there – and knew that the Lone Star State claimed many of the country’s harshest prison farms.
Besides audio equipment he also brought a 35mm Nikon – with which he intended to create a visual diary of the inmates he met. Fifteen years and thousands of photos later the diary had become more like an encyclopedia—portions of which you can now read.
In his new book Inside the Wire: Photographs From Texas and Arkansas Prisons – Jackson documents a society and economy whose roots were entwined with the antebellum South. Many prison farms were converted slave plantations that still bore the family name of long-buried landowners: Ellis – Ramsey – Cummins – Wynne. Sprawling across thousands of acres these were agricultural purgatories – where prisoners harvested much of their own food – spun cotton into clothes – and staged annual rodeos for the amusement of each other and the locals – all while living under the long shadow of death row. (The state prison system’s psychiatric unit – Jester IV – is located on the site of a former prison farm called Harlem Plantation – but that’s another story.)