In 1959 Robert Neese's scripto-visual book, Prison Exposures, appears, opening with the claim that it contains the "First Photographs Inside Prison by a Convict" (this contention is erroneous, if Lawson's attribution of the Joliet Prison photographs to inmates is correct). Published in Philadelphia, the site of early Quaker prison reform, this book purports to expose through film exposures life inside the historic Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison (hereafter ISP). The author of the imagery and extensive supporting text is one Robert Neese #24933, inmate-photographer on the staff of the (at the time) monthly prison journal, the Presidio.
The 135-page publication is introduced by "The Prison of Tomorrow" a reprint of an address by Erle Stanley Gardner, then at the height of his notoriety due to the success of the "Perry Mason" television series. Gardner, speaking as a sympathetic voice from outside, notes that first sentences are often "completely out of all reason," relating a factual case of a man convicted of a felony and serving time in a state prison for appropriating a 35-cent pair of pliers to take a nail out of his shoe; he observes that recidivism can be blamed on the "purely negative aspect" of carceral punishment and the fact that such punishment has become "simply an occupational hazard" to many criminals. He goes on to encourage penologists to "speak up" about the failures of our penal system and warns that society "had better listen carefully to what they have to say." The necessity of the latter remarks are better understood if one recalls that at this time the United States was still just coming out of the repressive atmosphere of the McCarthy era when anyone speaking out against social ills might be labeled a subversive.
Given such an introduction, the reader is enjoined to also listen carefully to Neese's voice, to peruse his visual records with attention, and to expect an exposé of the cruelties of the prison system (akin to Alexander Berkman's or Paul Warren's) from one who has suffered the strong arm of the law. But such a critique is not forthcoming. My contention is that a particular "strategy of containment" (Jameson) is inscribed in Neese's text. The strategy pertains to the positional Neese adopts vis-à-vis his fellow inmates and deflects any abolitionist arguments, while permitting some reformists' claims to enter.
Before examining how Neese's narrative functions as such, I need define the concept "strategies of containment" in terms of how Jameson describes it. As anticipated by Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire,and later developed by Louis Althusser, Jameson sees ideology, not so much as "false consciousness" (as illusion) as "ideological closure" (as repression); that is, in the words of William Dowling who glosses Jameson's remarks in this area, ideology is "the approximation of some truth about the totality that, given the limitations always imposed by the historical process, stands in for the deeper truth it exits to deny." Dowling continues:
As creatures of the economic systems that enclose them, human beings are forever denied the means of understanding their plight — as we will see, it is the very essence of systems of domination to hide the truth from those, both oppressors and oppressed, who are implicated in them — and yet there remains a drive toward some form of the comprehensibility that alone makes existence tolerable [my emphasis].
Here a strategy of containment at once denies "intolerable contradictions that lie hidden beneath the social surface" and constructs "on the very ground cleared by such a denial a substitute truth that renders existence at least partly bearable." Dowling makes a final point especially pertinent to the discussion of Neese's text by noting that "the notion of strategies of containment applies likewise to works of literature and art, both in the way they incorporate ideology into themselves and in the way the formal unity displayed by works of art represents structural limitation and ideological closure on the aesthetic level. . . . [Which is] the attempt of art as such to shut out or deny the intolerable reality of History."
Similarly, Neese's text — how it positions Neese as speaker— detours us away from his own plight, constructs him as detached from the other inmates, and frequently sends the message that carceral life isn't too harsh, given the offenses the men committed. The inmate's overseers are viewed as, on the whole, fair and just, "tough and knowing." But Neese does attempt a critical voice at times, albeit subtle and indirect as Neese is keeping one eye ahead on his next parole hearing. For instance, Neese ironically constructs the prison experience at ISP in terms of the old-style boardinghouse, flip-flopping the usual convention of speaking about a boardinghouse (the school boardinghouse being the most obvious and Neese once refers to the inmates as children) as if it were a prison. Neese's strategy here is a species of "planned incongruity," or "perspective by incongruity" (Kenneth Burke), that is, taking a word from a certain category and "by rational planning . . . wrench[ing] it loose and metaphorically apply[ing] it to a different category." Irony — saying the opposite of what is mean t— is produced by this perspective as the chapter headings bear out:
1) "Home Not-So-Sweet Home"
2) "Welcome Stranger"
3) "Meet Our Boarders"
4) "Our Apartments Are Small"
5) "These Are Our Housekeepers"
6) "Boardinghouse Smorgasbord"
The first title is not fully ironic, the "Not-So" spoiling the full ironic turn of phrase as exemplified in "These Are Our Housekeepers"; however, it clues us into reading the remainder of the chapter titles as an ironic application of quaint, folksy terms to the impersonal warehousing of society's rejects, a contrast that plays upon the difference between inside and outside, a key antinomy in Neese's narrative. In addition, the irony functions to symbolically propel Neese outside the inside from which he speaks. Some comments by Soren Kierkegaard, who meditated profoundly on irony, make the point, "With irony . . . the subject is always seeking to get outside the object [the prison], and this he attains by becoming conscious at every moment that the object [for him] has no reality," and ". . . it is by means of irony that the subject emancipates himself from the constraint imposed upon him by the continuity of [carceral] life, whence it may be said of the ironist that he ‘cuts loose.' " But this instance is not the sole instance by which he attempts to symbolically step outside his position inside. This desire is "overdetermined" in Neese's text.
In another instance, his opening remarks to chapter one — "I live in a house at the end of the road" — plays outside against inside by taking advantage of the ambiguity of the phrase "at the end of the road." It may be taken literally — as outside among free citizens — or figuratively — as inside with society's outcasts. But this is immediately qualified, "In movies and novels, it's usually called the ‘big house' . . . it is a prison." Retrospectively, the reader now understands the figurative interpretation was "correct" without, however, fully discounting that first folksy impression, that expression of desire on Neese's part to place himself in free society. In linguistic terms, Neese, as the "subject of the enounced," figuratively escapes, via a turn of phrase, the fate he literally suffers as the "subject of the enunciation."
Yet again, in an analogous splitting of the self, the author's first-person narrative situates him narratologically in relationship to his object of commentary as a subject who is both contained inside prison and yet speaks from a privileged position outside the general prison population, "I am a convict. My job at this house is to record on film the activities of boarders [1,300 murderers, thieves, and rapists] for use in a prison-written and prison-printed magazine, the Presidio. For 3 of the 8 years I've lived in a cell, I've been pointing cameras at every conceivable type of criminal." Here Neese unwittingly describes himself as a carceral version of the middle-class flaneur. Susan Sontag in On Photography (1977), after noting that the flaneur's predilections, his alienation from life around him, is a "sensibility . . . so accurately charted by Baudelaire," goes on to conger up such a creature, a creature now endowed with a camera, "The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. . . . the flaneur finds the world ‘picturesque.' " She then adds that "the photographer ‘apprehends' a subject as a detective apprehends a criminal." A detective of the criminal-picturesque, Neese is a double-flaneur, seeking en abyme the neglected/ rejected populations within the neglected/ rejected population of the prison. It is in relation to this population that Neese constructs himself as outside.
This population contains a group of young, refractory individuals — such as Melvin Twagg, and Jack Loghry — whom Neese terms, in prison slang, "hard-rocks," "the bad ones among us, the 25 per cent." Other convicts are categorized as either homosexual ("Molly" the "prison queen"); as childishly defiant newcomers ("Smith" who spits his defiance upon entering the main gate); as eccentrics ("Tommy-the-Sparrow" with his trained sparrow, "Fred the Prison Minstrel" with his miniature violin, "Pete" with his trained cockroach, "Hermes XXIV," used to ferry messages between cages, and "Harold Lobe" builder of miniature gallows in which he executes insects, "Stavely" exiled because of his "free-world" philosophy); as the exceptional ("Skeeter Earl Hall" and his superb leatherwork, "Robert Poindexter" an obsessive runner, "Bob Cooney" a rich boy gone wrong, "Harold Wesslink" who raped a 14-year-old girl and is now a skilled draftsman); as the "accidentals" (men who stumbled into crime, those not deliberately criminal, such as "stool pigeons, sex offenders, and petty thieves"); or, as the notorious ("Warren Nutter" who killed a cop in trying to break his friends from jail). Neese himself never tells us his crime, only his occupation as observer of this microcosm of (to borrow news photographer "Weegee's book title) "The Naked City."
A closer examination of the text will flesh out other types of contrasts Neese uses to structure his narrative; these, I will show, embody the basic dialectic between inside and outside that is suggested by the subject matter of the book itself, and which, while underwriting reform and better understanding of the convict's plight, still maintain narratological (and ideological) closure of the text.
In the first chapter, Neese attempts to gain sympathy for the convict maintaining an equivalence between inside and outside, "Like people outside our stone horizons, we convicts love and hate and get lonely." And, like Morrie Camhi does later in The Prison Experience, Neese challenges the B-movie stereotype of the con held by many people, "Though movies and novels often color stories of prison life with the red of convicts' blood on blades of other convicts' knives — with brutality and sadism — there is another side of our lives, a little-known side." It is this other side of the inside he wishes to show those on the outside. Neese describes the obstacle set between outside and inside not only in terms of the sheer physical obdurateness of the "big house," but also in terms of its social and psychological construction out of the conventional beliefs and modes of behavior which Neese calls tradition: "Tradition — mutual fear— has built those high walls and cells and security gestures which convince outsiders that we are screaming maniacs held down only by those safeguards."
As he continues his discussion, Neese persistently constructs "the prison experience" as a "place of contrasts": it is "static in some ways, while changing tremendously in others"since the old days. The old prison has become, according to Neese, newer, but also stronger (he doesn't specify if he means physically and/or disciplinarily stronger, we assume both). The facility mixes together tougher prisoners with mild offenders, "It is a place of good and bad and indifferent men affected by good and bad and indifferent conditions." Then follows a series of sub-contrasts stemming from the aforementioned master contrasts.
The vermin-infested, two-man cells have been, he writes, replaced by clean, single-man units which are 6 feet wide x 9 feet long (due to overcrowding since Neese wrote this, the situation has reverted to the former conditions and a prison riot in 1981 indicates the unrest of the prison population in recent years). The "silent system," says Neese, is still invoked in the dining hall, but not in the recreation yard. Although the old-time sweatshops have largely been eliminated, vocational training is not functioning to rehabilitate the inmate. The contrasts are evident in the people within the institution. Upon arrival, a new convict is greeted with both "traces of cruelty" in the guards' faces and "incuriously friendly glances." The inmates also present a dual aspect, "Although many of us are as tough and cold-appearing as the bars which hold us, we are actually children; emotionally immature, greedy grabbers of baubles who ignore the vegetables of life." The contrasts are carried over into the effects of cellular confinement: the cell "can turn a shy person into an extrovert, twist an extrovert into a hermit, and drive a sensitive person into insanity. . . . The cell can be hell one minute and our sanctuary the next."
The second chapter, "Welcome Stranger," ironically plays this folksy greeting against the actual treatment of the newly arriving inmate. At first the narration is structured akin to Life magazine's "a-day-in-the-life-of . . ." style of direct reportage. The guard with the chained convict arrives at the formidable gate, the convict spitting defiance; induction and shakedown completed, the inmate is escorted to his cell and chills to the clang of the heavy cell doors shutting behind him; but later, at night, this "hardrock" softens. Defiance turns to introspection. The convict experiences, claims Neese, "loneliness, regret, anger at self." Neese captures this moment of remorse, as opposed to the earlier straightforward reportage, in the visual rhetoric of film noir: a close-up shot, the convict lies on his bed cigarette in hand as the lighting casts dramatic shadows, darkening his face (the convict's appearance is uncannily like John Garfield's in the 1939 film They Made Me a Criminal).
Neese — the older, more mature and seasoned inmate — uses this induction scenario to take umbrage at the new type of criminal just beginning to fill the prisons: the "leather-jacket-and-sneer breed," with their persona "drawn straight from the movies," (akin to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) who, not being seasoned, professional criminals, often merely commit gratuitous violence.
As Neese's commentary progresses it becomes apparent he is constructing himself as already-reformed, the antinomy of the younger "hardrocks" upon whom he heaps contempt. This new arrival Neese plagues with his ever-present camera is a 22-year-old delinquent who is "too young for our house of older offenders," and who exemplifies the generation gap that so worried cons and law-abiding citizens alike in the mid-to-late ‘50s. These "hardrocks" are positioned as "Other" to Neese's "good convict" persona: they "kill time by talking from cell to cell — which is forbidden — or by yelling and burning rags until guards drag them out of the cells and take them to the ‘hole.' " In other words, the "hard-rocks" haven't yet learned to acquiesce to the disciplinary regime of prison. Neese has accepted the terms of his incarceration and now adopts the mentality of his warders in criticizing those unwilling to knuckle under to the rules of order and discipline.
The third and fourth chapters introduce the carceral-picturesque already alluded to above. The fifth chapter, "These Are Our Housekeepers," describes the guards, even the warden, in pairs of contrasting terms. Neese observes, the masters are also the slaves, they must follow the rules set down by penal authorities. In addition, some of the guards are "as childish as some of the men they watch." Warden Lainson is a reforming penologist, a "salty individualist," who "gets mad enough to chew up one of his ‘do it yourself' cigarettes at talk of more punishment for his ‘boys.' "
Lainson opened up his institution to public inspection and became the first warden in the world to allow prisoners to carry cameras around the prison and sell any pictures they took. (However, the latter gesture is not so liberating as one might suppose; it "caused both prisoners and guards to start thinking a little before acting"; more precisely Lainson cleverly re-enforced the regime of surveillance by including warders and inmates in an exchange of mutually deterring gazes.) But, "on the other hand," Neese says, continuing his antinomic description of the warden, "he can get as rough as the roughest if there's reason to settle someone down."
The machinations of the parole board are also discussed as evolving between opposing poles: that of gender — a two-man, two-woman panel composes the board; that of mood — in a photograph of the board, two members are depicted smiling, the other two maintain sober expressions, while the inmate, situated between these extremes, appears bewildered. The contrasts depicted in the photograph are re-enforced by the caption below which interprets these subjective contrasts as signifying a deeper, objective contradiction in the actual conditions that result in an injustice, "The prisoner standing in front of the board seems confused, and he is. For, in spite of the fact he has been well recommended by prison officials, in spite of the fact that he is a rehabilitated long termer, the board has just refused to listen to him," writes Neese. "Like the prison, the board is interested primarily in security rather than rehabilitation." Moreover, Neese mentions that the board's meetings, once held inside the prison, had to be moved to a locale outside due to inmate hostility over its rulings.
The final chapter, "Boardinghouse Smorgasbord," begins with a reprise of the opening lines of the book, re-emphasizing the prison's structure as a constellation of oppositions — "This house at the end of the road is a full circle of contrasts and contradictions" — and ends with a full-page photograph of a man about to be released, "grinning happily" (the caption is redundant) while he "selects a hat to wear out." The narrative has come full circle — from outside-to-inside to inside-to-outside — a dialectic of In/Out that underlies — in various guises — Neese's complete text.
In his use of binary oppositions, it is as if Neese were a naive example of what Umberto Eco has called an "ontological structuralist," someone who views abstract terms and combinatorial possibilities as having a timeless validity, as mapping out the actual logical structure of reality. With these oppositions, Neese obtains narrative closure, but in so doing unwittingly contains his critique within the safe, predictable limits of prudent reform without every questioning the authority exercised over him and his fellow inmates. David Papke, in Framing the Criminal, remarks apropos my observations on Neese's narrative by noting that "Overall, the criminal memoirists most likely overstated that collegiality of their relationships with police and businessmen and also the professionalism of their own operations." But this overstatement in itself, "is less intriguing than the strategies it suggests. Successful yet illegitimate, the memoirists supply images designed to garner respect. Lacking uniforms, badges and societal stamps of approval," he writes, "they place themselves and their work in a positive light. Echoing the dominant prescriptions of a modern social order," he concludes, "they champion efficiency, organization and rational, photographic objectivity. As ironic as it may seem, the sophisticated property criminals want the reader to believe they are criminals who may be trusted."
Neese's treatment of sex in Prison Exposures — a clever title that refers both literally to the photographs this inmate-author made inside Iowa State Prison and figuratively to the exposé — is revealing. He notes that the penitential regime asserts its power, targets the inmates' masculinity, by restricting their access to the "privileges" of the "male gaze":
The greatest punishment is, of course, segregation from the opposite sex, and prison officials go to ridiculous extremes to carry it out. Outsiders are permitted to attend prison ball games on Sunday, but there is a canvas screen on the side of the grandstand to keep us from watching visitors. Men's magazines are prohibited if they contain suggestive "pinups."
(Obviously, this obstruction did not always exist as further in the book Neese provides a photograph of one convict "staring hungrily at his wife in the bleachers.") Under the surveillance of the guards the convicts are disempowered, becoming the object of another's gaze, coded as "women" under the patriarchal thumb. So that the inmates may not reassert their masculine desire, they are subject to restrictions on contact-visitations; a caption under a familiar picture of the typical prison visitation reads:
To make certain there is no contact with the opposite sex, even the visiting room has a double thickness of screen wire plus a guard. Man and wife are not permitted to touch hands. While officials claim the screens are used to prevent smuggling, we know better. We know searches could easily be made of prisoners after visits.
The author probes the contradiction that the prison officials want, on the one hand, to encourage family ties, but on the other, to deny inmates the physical contact that would support such ties. Neese goes on to claim that most convicts' wives file for divorce within two years of their husband's confinement, or start living with other men. As a remedy, he suggests the more liberal plan of private conjugal visitations. Apropos the control of the inmates' gaze, Neese relates a personal incident that occurred when he was permitted, camera in-hand, to go to the city of Fort Madison with a prison guard:
He was a decent sort of fellow, one of the better guards, so he took me to the boat docks on the Mississippi River as a Naturally, I was more interested in the water maids than in the water, particularly a pert blonde stacked neatly into a red swimming suit. I pointed a camera, she turned and smiled and posed, then there was a hand on my arm [the guard, forbidding the taking of the woman's picture] ... ‘Regulations,' he muttered sheepishly.
Further into the book, Neese finally manages to capture a permanent record of his desires: Jane Pohlmeier, the warden's secretary. She was, writes Neese, "anything but cold-faced," yet she was also "cold-nerved," a description in line with Neese's formulation of prison as a site of contrasts (see chapter three in Neese). The caption is revealing. Pohlmeier, "the pretty miss," told Neese, "I have no fear at all of you men. After all, you are just men, even if you are dressed differently. And you are much better behaved than many men out here [for they are ‘castrated' by the state]." Neese adds, "I've always wondered if she knew we are not allowed to be wolves."
However, when the topic uneasily hedges near relief of sexual tension via masturbation, Neese becomes vague. For instance, early in his text Neese makes a reference to an event, to stimulation to onanism by young girls' voices along the river nearby. Expressing his meaning indirectly, Neese writes:
There are nights when a full moon is slashed into hard, bright bars by harder, black bars of a prison cell; nights when a girl's laughter is carried into the prison on a breeze miraculously scented with green things and freedom. Those are nights when we ‘hardened' criminals writhe and curse and don't sleep.
Those "hardened" criminals who "writhe and curse and don't sleep" are couched in the discourse of the open secret; as such, they may be envisioned literally, so the "polite" reader need not be scandalized, or taken figuratively by one willing to read between the lines, or by one who is familiar with prison literature. But masturbation is not only veiled, it is connected, by Neese, to the perverse. "We are forced to live with characters like old Joe, a rapist who used to work in the same shop as I," writes Neese. "He had a hobby, too, other than the one that sent him to prison. He spent his spare time in the shop, making replicas of female sex organs from sponge rubber used to make cushions." Finally, he was "sent to isolation when officials discovered one of his gadgets buried in the mattress in his cell." Neese excludes himself from such activity, failing to mention the similarity of Joe's device to the common prison practice of employing a "hank rag" or "fee fee bag" to catch the ejaculated semen.
Concerning homosexuality, Neese is quite frank, "There all always some ‘boy-girls' in all prisons. And there are always men who act as their lovers." His own toleration of homosexual activity, however, is still written in the stereotypical terms of inversion/ perversion: put men behind bars and there will be, "perversion among men removed entirely from the opposite sex," but he adds that "there is hatred and contempt of perverts or simple toleration on the part of the rest of us." This statement is followed by a captioned photograph of "a well-known prison queen," "her" back to the camera as Neese attempts to describe "her" peculiar gait both photographically and verbally: "'Molly,' wears his hair as long as permitted, walks and talks like a girl," and is coded as the "Other," being "the most fantastic of several fantastic prison characters." Neese is critical of them — as he is critical of the juvenile offenders, the "hardrocks" — saying that although these "perverts" make up less than 10 per cent of the prison population, they create 30 per cent of the trouble in prison, "'Boys,' start fights by flirting with different ‘owners,' and are often bought and sold like cattle."
During his scripto-visual description of the processing of incoming prisoners, Neese unwittingly makes a revelation. His photograph of a handsome man — shirt off, gazing downward, vulnerable to the camera's gaze as he prepares to don prison garb — elicits his own ambiguous desires in the form of a caption under the image of this youthful new arrival, "It's odd, but the majority of younger prisoners are muscular and well-built, and he was no exception [my emphasis]." Here Neese just barely permits himself to recognize his desire; later he tells of one guard who exhibited exceptional skittishness over the sight of bare chests, placing 26 men on report for "indecent exposure" because they had their shirts off in their cells
In the same chapter, Neese hints at the heterosexual deprivation suffered behind bars and describes the use of "girlie" pin-ups as imaginative — Proustian — compensation where the taste of a madeleine is replaced by the sight of a mademoiselle, "And we are young men who also look backward into memories, because the future is an unthinkable distance away. Paul Busher, four-times convicted forger, dreams of women he's known, tries to visualize them through pin-ups." Neese's example is inmate "Busher, who is shown gazing fixedly upward at a large pin-up, items brought inside from outside by guards or by inmates who work outside the walls. The woman who gets Busher's undivided attention lifts her skirt to reveal gartered stockings as she bends forward to expose cleavage; in this drawing she unwittingly permits her rather startled pet dog a view from below — a viewpoint Busher attempts to duplicate by hanging the poster above his eye-level. An adjacent pin-up depicting a young woman sitting on the floor is hung lower, putting Busher's face at the level of the woman's hips. Neese, in framing the composition, places the back of Busher's head in between the shapely legs of the "girlie" posters, forming a dark triangle of bushy hair frame-center. Here woman stands as signifier for the male "Other," bound by a "symbolic order" in which Busher "can live out his fantasies and obsessions" within fetishistic scopophilia, imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as "bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning."
Obviously, Neese's aestheticizing of Busher's desire is an attempt to legitimize, to soften, the objectivizing nature of the scopophilic male gaze. Yet Neese himself qualifies his own interpretation — "And Paul doesn't even have much in his memory treasure chest to search through. His criminal career started early, wound through reformatories and prisons, with only months of freedom between ‘falls' into other institutions." — largely subverting his exposé made two sentences earlier. Neese tries but fails — here and elsewhere in his text — to contain the fall into the raw pleasures of the gaze.