Democracy Dies in Darkness

In Sight | Perspective

A correction officer’s view inside New York’s Rikers Island

May 2, 2018 at 9:31 AM

A correction officer assigned to the Transportation Division prepares to take detainees from court appearances in Manhattan back to Rikers Island. (Jamel Shabazz/)
In-house workers pose before starting their daily detail, Rikers Island, 1985. (Jamel Shabazz/)

The work of Jamel Shabazz was featured this spring in Aperture magazine, which devoted the edition to taking a closer look at prisons and jails throughout the United States.  “Prison Nation” posed the question:

At a moment when 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., 3.8 million people are on probation, and 870,000 former prisoners are on parole, how can images tell the story of mass incarceration when the imprisoned don’t have control over their own representation? How can photographs visualize a reality that, for many, remains outside of view?

In the magazine, Shabazz, who worked as a correction officer for 20 years, described how he came to photograph New York’s Rikers Island prison complex.

My father, who was a professional photographer, instructed me early on to carry my camera everywhere I go. From the moment I was called to be a corrections officer, I had my camera. At the academy, I had my camera. At the range, I had my camera. I wanted a visual diary of my journey.

Shabazz was born and reared in Brooklyn, and he used his camera to document his surroundings.

“It’s important to note that a number of corrections officers often come from the same communities as those that are incarcerated. Seeing people I knew personally was always very troubling, especially during the crack epidemic,” he told In Sight.

He noted that the photography work he did in Rikers Island would not be possible today, as officers would not be allowed to carry cameras unless they are assigned by the department. But in Aperture he explained how he built trust and gained access during his time there.

I would often share my photographs with the young men, and it started conversations. It strengthened the relationship between me and them. I recognized that photography could serve as a form of visual medicine, and it could also help to heal them. I eventually became known as “the photographer.” I think it’s very important to show this work to help people see the human side of those incarcerated. We hear about prisons. But what is the face of the inmate? What does the inmate look like?

Modern day shackles, Manhattan Courts, 1997. (Jamel Shabazz/)
New prisoners prepare to be searched by correction officers at Central Booking in Manhattan 1990. (Jamel Shabazz/)
A young female detainee returning from a court appearance in Supreme Court, Manhattan, 1997. (Jamel Shabazz/)
Two adolescent pretrial detainees coexisting on separate levels of power, Rikers Island, 1985. (Jamel Shabazz/)
A court-appointed attorney discusses the circumstances surrounding his client’s case. Supreme Court, Manhattan, 1997. (Jamel Shabazz/)
A pretrial detainee enjoying a brief moment of solitude in the housing area day room. Rikers Island, 1985. (Jamel Shabazz/)

More on In Sight:

The illegal trade of wildlife is one of the great disgraces of humanity

Audacity, humanity and humor: The work of Lisette Model

In this unrecognized republic, it’s not a matter of if the children leave, it’s when

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.


Chloe Coleman is a photo editor at The Washington Post working in Outlook and Foreign news focusing on The Americas, Europe and Russia. She is regular contributor to the In Sight blog. She joined the Post in 2014.

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