Our justice systems are answers to fundamental human questions that reach as far back as the Bible, and beyond: What should happen to a person who breaks the community’s moral code?
If the question is simple, the answer, and its execution, as Jan Banning’s photographs reflect, is dizzyingly messy. We require laws—but those laws, in their catch-all nature, lack nuance, and can’t always account for context and circumstance. We require judges—but those judges are men and women who, unlike that bronzed Lady Justice clutching her scales, are incapable of absolute impartiality. We require courts and clerks, jails and prisons and guards, and within that matrix are all sorts of mistakes, the structures clogged and overwhelmed. Altogether, it is a system that metes out an imperfect justice at best.
Embarking on a comparative study of law and order, Banning photographed what he calls the three pillars of the criminal-justice system—the police responsible for apprehension, the courts responsible for administering punishment, and the prisons where that punishment is carried out—in four countries: France, Uganda, Colombia, and the United States.
“The more I delved into the project,” Banning says, “the more questions came up. What do we actually want to do with prisons? Are we talking about correction? Is it more about punishment? The more I read about it, and the more I visited prisons, the more doubts I had about whether this system makes any sense.”
When I was growing up, my parents were criminal defense attorneys who ran their operation out of our home, such that I always answered the phone as though a tiny secretary, and quickly learned how to accept a collect call from a federal prison. During elementary school, one of my father’s clients, Michael, who had been arrested for orchestrating what was then the largest shipment of hashish in US history, became my pen pal. He wrote me letters from a federal facility in Pleasanton, California, and then other high-security facilities throughout the country. He’d committed a serious crime; at the same time, Michael had a daughter a little older than me, and a son around my younger brother’s age (one of his cellmates made me beaded earrings for my birthday). I used to picture where he lived, what his days looked like, the aesthetics of his prison cell. “Will you get him out of jail?” I asked my father, a few years into Michael’s sentence. “We want to get him transferred to Canada,” he explained, where Michael was from. Closer to his family, I understood. But also because he was destined to serve time, and the laws in Canada were far more lenient, the prisons far less horrible.
The consequences of breaking society’s criminal code, I learned early, look wildly different depending on where you live, not to mention what you look like, how much money you have in your bank account, and which arbiters of the system you happen to encounter and their proclivities that particular day. Justice is an aspirational human concept, elevated and almost divine—but the ways of it are as imperfect and flailing as the humans who enact them.
Banning’s photographs show us that the diversity of justice’s manifestations can be staggering. One police office looks like a family living room while the other looks not unlike a prison cell, the faded rights of the prisoner hung on crumbling walls. One court looks like set of a colonial satire, another like an eighties procedural. Some prison cells look like bathroom stalls, unfinished basements; others like teenage bedrooms or jungle gyms or recreation centers; others still like schools, or an asylum. Then there are the trappings of the systems we create to convince ourselves of some kind of legitimacy—white wigs, long robes, manila folders, ledgers, uniforms, guard towers, security systems, gilded seals, judges atop podiums on high.
And then there’s the paperwork, lives crammed into files crammed into rooms and computers crammed into buildings, covered in dust and mired in the stuff of resignation (since all people who work too long in large systems end up somewhat resigned and inured, shoulders shrugging—cogs in the wheel, what can you do?)
Gaining access to the dozens of prisons in the four countries Banning visited was, in and of itself, a bureaucratic nightmare that required studying the inclinations of a justice minister, buddying up to those close to those in power, going on Colombian television to pressure authorities for access to prisons, waiting years and years for the right moment, for the decision to shift, for the yes to come through. Even as a bystander, interacting with justice systems is labyrinthine, endless, bewildering, enough to make a person quit early.
And what of the people in the system’s clutches? They survive, they innovate, they build community. They use bedsheets for privacy, top bunks and bug nets for storage, electric wires for drying racks. They learn how to eke out a space of their own, how to eat and sleep, how to entertain one another, forge bonds, survive.
“As an artist, what I’m aiming for is to confuse people,” Banning says of this project. “Because I think that once people are confused, they start thinking, and they put their own thoughts into question.”
Perhaps, with enough provocation regarding the inequities of justice, we might be propelled into action—that is, if the gap between what we’ve aspired to and what we’ve actually rendered doesn’t swamp us, or make us want to give up altogether. Somehow, these photographs suggest, there must be a way to confront the mess we’ve made, dig ourselves out, and build something better.
— Lauren Markham