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An Archive of Images from San Quentin State Prison

“Greetings from the southern end of shit city,” Jon had written, to a friend of mine, from San Quentin. “The tide is out and when the winds blow, one can almost smell the sweet scent of reality.” Although I’m almost certain that no prisoner was allowed to fish when Jon arrived there—in the mid-nineties—Jon’s attention to his surroundings, even if he was just complaining about the natural stench of the tidal flats, forms a continuum with the man holding up his striper. Jon was a fighter and rabble-rouser in prison, and he prided himself on “finishing his business.” He ended up in a unit of San Quentin called the “A/C,” or Adjustment Center—the prison’s solitary—which shares a tier with death row. “I only went along with it because I thought A/C stood for air-conditioning,” he joked, in a letter to a mutual friend. “It’s more like the janitorial suite but I like it. Concrete cell, solo, and a mattress. Most of my neighbors are condemned so the respect level here is pretty good. Except of course for the couple nutters that seem to be standard issue for all tiers. Oh this should give you a laugh: they don’t allow combs back here in A/C so I have to comb my hair with a plastic fork. But I like having the room to myself because I can do burpees. There is a clear sliding partition between my bars and the guards, and if they open it fast it almost sounds like a Bart train heading out.”

Jon was a professional heckler. He made light of every aspect of how the prison guards and administration tried to control him. He believed that the joke was on them, because his resistance to their authority was total, and endlessly renewing. He even located the sound of home—that train a comin’—in the sliding of a scratched sheet of Plexiglas, a barrier that had been installed to protect guards from hurled containers of piss, in a place where forms of revolt get expressed within the possible.

When you look at these images of San Quentin, spanning decades of institutional life, remember that these bodies and their traces, these people—whether humiliated and stripped to their state-issue boxer shorts, or dressed to the nines for a celebratory visit with family, or little more than an outline on a floor—were, are, and will be a surplus of human life that an institution cannot reduce to objecthood, no matter how willfully it tries.

This piece is drawn from an essay and photographs in “Nigel Poor: The San Quentin Project,” which is out in May from Aperture Foundation.


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