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Photography in Prisons
Published in "Photography", Volume 1, No.4, June 15, 1884, p.76.
Photography In Prisons.
An article on the title hereof by S. W. Wetmore, of the Joliet penitentiary, published in Photography of May 15th, 1884, was submitted to the attention of the writer.
Being a thing of the distant past in the Nebraska penitentiary at Nobesville, the experiment had at Joliet the narrative referred to above, we should say, caused some forcible smiles to expand upon the countenance of the writer of this paper. Some of the objections of the "old prison officers" and "of officers that had spent their life-time in handling criminals," to the end that photographs of convicts could not be taken, sound so new and fresh as to almost rival the grade of stories and yarns found in papers of the importance of the Youth's Companion etc., etc.
The Joliet penitentiary certainly made a step forward the day (January 1st, 1884) it commenced taking photographs of its convicts; and we certainly recognize Mr. Ws right to be prond of having been the promoter of that step. But we submit that the mere report of the fact would have satisfied Mr. Ws readers a good deal more than coupling with it matter and language decidedly out of place and without claiming the novelty of the innovation as almost exclusively a Joliet improvement.
The question whether either criminal or penal officers have the right to take the photographs of prisoners is, at any rate and to say the least, doubtful. No one will raise any objection when photographs are taken with the view of protecting society in the ferreting out of criminals, nor will any objection be put forth if the penal officers take the photographs of their convicts so as to enable them to recapture fugitives. But from this to parading in every detective or police office in the country a "Rogues' Gallery," we submit that there is a great difference.
Who has not, while visiting detective or police headquarters, heard the wonderful stories from the officer showing them the "Rogues' Gallery?" How many are those, in leaving the headquarters, who have not almost been convinced that all the photographs framed in patent racks, and all the stories connected therewith, are the victorious trophies and valuable mementoes of the officer so gentlemanly volunteering information and courtesies?
The writer has seen in one of these offices an 8x12 photo, representing what at first sight would appear like the inside of a tool manufactory, judging from the innumerable sorts and manner of tools hung up on the background or heaped up on the floor. Yet, in scrutinizing, he found a caligraphic inscription on the back of the photo. We will refrain from copying it here. Let it suffice to say that, under the signature of two well known criminal officers, the broad claim was asserted that all these tools (a car-load of them certainly) had been used in an attempt to rob the bank at R____ , in Indiana.
Photographing criminals is a good innovation, providing common sense and decency are used in connection. Criminals themselves will not object to being photographed, when they know that no undue use of their likeness is made. There are certainly criminals, even if they be few, whom, after paying what is commonly called "their debt to society," mean to lead, and do lead, as honest a life as the average citizen. Why then, in common sense's name throw anything in their road? Why hang them in public places? Why take delight in having visitors to police or criminal headquarters take particular notice of those very men, perhaps, when piloted through the "Rogues' Gallery?"
At the Nebraska State penitentiary, these considerations preside in the photographing of convicts, and it were to be hoped that all penal institutions use the same discretion. At Nobesville the visitor will see no "Rogues' Gallery," no "Prison Album," and neither are boasted of. When the request is made by some visitor that the style of photographs be shown, the photos of dead convicts generally are exhibited. The visitor goes away satisfied, and the officer tendering the courtesy has the inner satisfaction to know he has thrown nothing in any one's way. When photos are called for by criminal officers, no matter whence the call comes, for the purpose of aiding the ends of justice, the call is always courteously responded to, and every facility tendered in all cases.
Mr. C. J. Nobes, the warden of the Nebraska penitentiary (a Joliet boy, by the way), introduced the innovation upon his appointment as warden in September, 1880, and since, the photographs of all the convicts are matter of prison record.
The practice at] Nobesville differs from the practice at Joliet, and we give the following as a result of four years' experience, without claiming perfection:
Two photos of each prisoner are taken. The first as he appears on his arrival, showing three fourths of the body. It is established that the style of dressing and the cut of beard and hair, hat wear etc., are as good a clue as any for identification. The second photograph is taken when the prisoner is clean shaved. On the top of the head, and attached to the iron head-rest, is a card after this style
By that means the photo identifies itself on its face, and furnishes all the information wanted in subsequent years. The number of each convict is simply slid in the card. The negatives are carefully preserved, and no mistake can be made when one particular number is wanted. No writing appears on the photos and they are kept under lock, divided by 50.
Mr. W concludes his article in these words: "The 'Prison Album' of the Joliet penitentiary is destined to become one of the greatest rogues' galleries in the world. It already contains the pictures of nearly three hundred men who have entered the prison this year."
Let him permit us a suggestion right here; he will attain the summit of his ambition two years earlier anyhow: The number of pictures is what he has in perspective. Let him take those of the 1,600 convicts now in Joliet. It will not be long then until the "Prison Album," etc., etc.