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Images Locked in Time

A photo exhibit at Alcatraz Island brings viewers face to face with a rapidly growing segment of prison life--elderly inmates.

October 02, 2000|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Despite its infamous past, Alcatraz has always been good for an easy guffaw. In the busy Cell Block 41 tchotchke shop at the foot of Pier 41 are boxer shorts, shot glasses, aprons and black and white striped T-shirts, all stamped in screaming boldface: "I've Escaped Alcatraz."

But for the cluster of people lined up this evening for the 1 1/2-mile boat ride to Alcatraz Island, the photo exhibit opening they are about to witness will most certainly take the punch out of any stale one-liners.

"Prisoners of Age," a photo documentary project six years in the making, is a sobering and sometimes shocking examination of what life is like for infirm and aging inmates in prisons across North America. Geriatric inmates--with assorted ailments that often accompany declining years--are a rapidly growing population in penitentiaries across the United States.

In undertaking the exhibit and an accompanying book, commercial photographer Ron Levine and graphic designer Michael Wou have set out to demystify what "life sentence" really means.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 3, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong credit--In some editions Monday, Ron Levine's photograph of William Howard "Tex" Johnson, part of a photo exhibit at Alcatraz Island, was mistakenly credited to another photographer.

Tonight when the Harbor Emperor docks at Alcatraz, the 152 invited guests and park rangers make their way up a steep incline, through crumbling archways and husks of buildings--now just silhouettes--to the old cell house. They wind through Cellblock A and down a flight of narrow stairs to what was once the shower room.

There, 23 of Levine's 4-foot-by-8-foot prints unscroll from pipes and beams crisscrossing the low ceilings. Atop the images, open to public viewing during regular Alcatraz tour hours, Wou's distinctive, tightly spaced fonts allow the subjects to tell their own stories. Above a disintegrating toilet and a crumbled sink, photos and stories fill wall space. The more intimate size of the smaller photographs and the text requires the viewer to step closer, taking it in.

The images almost seem to whisper: There is James Blaylock, 66, with his Father Time beard, eyes downcast, his image, indistinct, made up of tones of gray. Serving a life sentence for drug trafficking in North Carolina, he reflects, "How can I go about getting a time cut or getting a clemency act 'cause, as you can see, I'm eat up with emphysema, I'm on three sprays a day, and a pill three times a day. That's just for respiratory breathing." Or Alabama murder inmate Thurmon Jetton, 68, whose face is a web of wrinkles, mouth slack, eyes astonished. "I feel like I played in hell, is what I feel like."

Sentences of 150, 198 years. Clusters of 88-, 79-, 62-year-olds. Murder, sex crimes, trafficking drugs, robbery are among the worst. Among the most poignant is William Howard "Tex" Johnson, 67, who is serving time for snatching $24 in 1959 in Birmingham, Ala. Some inmates while away their hours into days into years in infirmaries. Their ailments range from tumors to kidney disease.

In the course of the last six years, Levine and Wou, both Canadians, say they interviewed and photographed hundreds of prisoners. They were curious, they say, about men who are confined to a finite space for an infinite amount of time.

"Rage, guns and alcohol almost invariably were the things that led them into prison," Levine emphasizes. "Take those things away, and many of them wouldn't be there."

As states pass tougher crime laws, and sentence more defendants to mandatory minimum terms or life without the possibility of parole, penitentiaries are bursting at the seams.

"It's a relatively new trend," says Jennifer Walsh, assistant professor of criminal justice at Cal State Los Angeles. "In the '60s and '70s, prisoners were paroled. They were given an indeterminate sentence--like six months to life--and then their case would come up with the parole board, and they would meet and decide to release if it was determined that they [the prisoners] were no longer a threat."

But that began to change in the 1980s and '90s, says Walsh, as voters demanded stiffer sentencing laws. "Prisons are now having to look into areas of geriatric wards and hospice care. This phenomenon is still quite new."

Levine conceived the project after listening to a radio documentary about a prison in Alabama, which has a growing elderly population.

"I picked up the phone and said, 'Mike, you wanna go to prison?' " Levine laughs now.

The duo, who have known each other for almost 10 years, since Wou hired Levine for a commercial job, set out with a photo assistant to visit the Hamilton Institute for the Aged and Infirm in Alabama. The warden there "told us that his prison was quickly becoming a nursing home," Levine says.

The photographer set up his 4-by-5 camera in the conference room. At first the reception among the inmates was rather cool if not icy, recalls Wou. "They kept asking us: 'You boys federal marshalls? We know you boys are federal marshalls." But in five days, there were lines of men on IVs, with walkers, canes and rolling oxygen tanks, waiting to be photographed and then interviewed by Wou.

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