Here's What The '80s Were Like In America's Prisons

Ionia Prison Ionia Michigan Steve MilanowskiSteve MilanowskiInmates at Ionia prison after kitchen duty in 1985.

The blog “
Prison Photography” recently reported on a phenomenal
Facebook albumof colourful photos of American prisoners in the ’80s taken by
photographer Stephen Milanowski.

Milanowski — whose work is in the permanent collections of MoMA and other museums — gave us permission to publish the images. He took the photos between 1982 and 1986 in prisons in Walpole, Mass., Ionia, Mich., and Jackson, Mich.

The early and mid-1980s were a time when prison populations were exploding. Milanowski’s photos, some of which appear in the book “Duplicity” he worked on with Bob Tarte, provide a vivid look into an experience that has become all too common in America.

“Americans very much ignore prisons and prison life — unless they live near a prison where the prison is the source of some level of local employment. Americans seem to only take notice of prisons when there is a problem, an escape, a prison disturbance (that receives national media attention), or when there is some breakdown in the system,” Milanowski told the Prison Photography blog.

Milanowski added: “I think photography can help — and be an effective tool in informing the public about prisons and who inhabits American prisons; but, I’m not sure at all that our society wants to look at prisons and prison life … it’s too easy to ignore.”

Inmate Rail MilanowskiSteve MilanowskiA maximum-security inmate leaned against a railing at Massachusetts’ Walpole Prison in 1982. From the book ‘Duplicity.’
Prison Bed Steve MilanowskiSteve MilanowskiMilanowski showed a medium-security inmate at Walpole reclining in his cluttered room in this other 1982 photo, his jeans hanging above his bed. From the book ‘Duplicity.’
Prison Steve MalinowskiSteve MalinowskiThis inmate, in the same prison that year, proudly displayed his ability to do push-ups on his thumbs.
Prison Office Steve MilanowskiSteve MilanowskiAn office at Walpole in 1983, pictured here, looked desolate and somewhat dingy.
Inmate Steve Milanowski medium-security inmate stood stoically in his cell at Walpole in 1983.
Blue Sweatshirt Prison Steve MilanowskiSteve MilanowskiThis prisoner at Walpole in 1983 stares ahead.
Medium Security Walpole Prison Steve MilanowskiSteve MilanowskiThis image of a medium-security inmate at Walpole in 1983 is particularly striking. From the book ‘Duplicity.’
Inmate and purple shirt and Steve MilanowskiSteve MilanowskiHere’s an imate who just took a shower at Walpole in 1983.
Guard Milanowski SteveSteve MilanowskiHere’s a guard at Walpole in 1983.
After Kitchen Duty Steve MilanowskiSteve MilanowskiAfter shooting photographs in Walpole, Milanowski got access to Ionia Prison in Michigan in 1985. Here are inmates after kitchen duty.
Maximum Security Prison Inmate Steve MilanowskiSteve MilanowskiAnd here’s a maximum-security inmate at Ionia walking around in 1985. From the book ‘Duplicity.’
Female counselor at Ionia PrisonSteve MilanowskiA volunteer religious counselor at Ionia is pictured here in 1985. From the book ‘Duplicity.’
Salute Prison Steve MilanowskiSteve MilanowskiThis one was also taken at Ionia in 1985.
Prison Tattoo Steve MalinowskiSteve MalinowskiThe next year, Milanowski went to Jackson Prison in Michigan, where he captured this inmate smoking alone.

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