California State Prison, Los Angeles County (CSP-LAC), is located next to several other jail and detention facilities in the middle of Lancaster’s high desert. Together they make up a small city of convicts and guards. CSP-LAC has a precarious feel, like a huge steamship dodging icebergs. There is no visible living vegetation anywhere on the prison grounds. Electrified fencing, gravel, and dust surround the perimeter.
The writer, Joe Domanick, and I are led to the prison health clinic, but it’s off-limits to photography. It resembles more of a mental ward for the insane and society’s derelicts than it does a hospital. The cells are mostly hard, windowless rooms with a huge drain in the middle. A couple for the super-contagious are equipped with airlocks, but they are empty for now.
The “reception room” we visit, a huge converted gym with triple bunk beds crammed together in the middle of the room, looks like a modern shanty town. There is no air conditioning, so the air is warm and stagnant. It’s strangely clean and free of graffiti. The bathrooms are a different story. Sedated by the heat and depression, the prisoners complain that they have been on “lockdown” for too long. Most would prefer to be outside in the yard, despite the desert heat. For now they remain inside watching a group TV, the channels voted upon by the different races. The Latinos choose Judge Judy, a prison favorite. Most of the prisoners just read.
The inmates don’t really mind their images being taken. Several ask me to photograph to show the public how overcrowded and poor the conditions are inside the reception dorm. Others show off their tattoos and muscles. No one throws a gang sign. Mostly they just want a break from the day-to-day grind of prison life. The lifers, who wear their hair longer and have nice wrist watches, pose proudly with their artwork and instructors (the fully-attended classes will soon be cut due to the state’s budget deficit), the guards with their guns at the ready.
Our visit is interrupted by several alarms. A prisoner who was being transported from one building to another broke free from his handcuffs and struck a guard in the nose, breaking it. It is reported that only the guard and prisoner know why the attack occurred.
We finally meet the prison warden, who wears a stab vest under his shirt and tie. He looks as hardened as the prisoners. Overall, it feels like photographing inside the belly of a sleeping giant wild beast, trying not to disrespect the inmates or guards, hoping my camera doesn’t breakdown.
Photograph by Ted Soqui
ALSO: Read Anatomy of a Prison