I was in the midst of a long process of photographing portraits inside San Quentin in May 2011 when the Supreme Court declared the overcrowding in California’s prison system unconstitutional and ordered the population lowered by 133,000 to achieve 137.5% capacity. My project began in 2008, when I petitioned the prison to allow me inside with my cameras. A year and a half later I was granted limited access and began a series of brief one-hour visits with the men. I was allowed inside once a year between 2009-12.
When I first arrived at San Quentin with my cameras, the prisoners were seated facing one another in a circle of metal chairs arranged for a gardening class. Fluorescent lights reflected off the tile floor onto their faces. The warden was present and guards were scattered throughout the room. I was given 45 minutes. Rushed and constricted, I struggled to find resonance. A man with a hand-sewn cap caught my attention, and I isolated him in my viewfinder. As I took in the scene, it occurred to me that I could capture individual qualities of the men from behind while they were participating in the class. By approaching it this way, I could also reference the lives they lead, locked up inside the prison, hidden from view.