Shedding light on a dim situation in prison systems

Pete Brook shows what is going on in prisons through photography.

In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Prisons has reported that inmates are seeing increases of both physical and emotional abuse. The incarcerated have limited resources, from medical to mental benefits.

Pete Brook has dedicated his life to bringing these problems to light. Although he is from Lancashire, England, his work focuses on the occupants of the U.S. prison system.

Brook is the editor of “Prison Photography,” a blog that advocates against prison abuse. His next project is visual – he’ll be curating a photography exhibition called “Prison Obscura” at Haverford College to spread truth about America’s prison system.

“At this point in America, prisons don’t have as much to do with crime and danger as much as economics and politics,” Brook said.

Brook’s experience and interest goes back to less than a decade ago while he was getting a master’s degree at the University of Manchester in England. He was working on his thesis when he started to read about the American prison system and discovered that in 2004, things had “reached desperation.”

Brook found that this topic tied to his interests strongly. Whether they were his political, economic or media-related interests, he said he wanted to figure out whether the nation was responsible for the worsening state of the incarceration systems, as well as explore the idea that America was the “land of the free.”

Brook stands firmly on the idea that prisons demonstrate how strong or weak citizens’ commitment to their communities really is.

He refers back to the Nelson Mandela quote, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Believing that prisons are often ignored, Brook said the prison system needs a complete turnaround because of the amount of money the government spends on the institutions and for the little rehabilitation that prisoners are given.

“There are a lot of people in America who are sensible who are outraged, and they can see that the prisons are failing and expensive,” Brook said.

Brook is hoping to get more people to notice this problem that is largely ignored. He said prisons are often tucked into places where people will never see them due to “the embarrassment they bring – nobody wants the taxpayers to see this.”

Now, Brook is bringing things that were hidden from sight into the open with the “Prison Obscura” exhibition. The exhibit will show surveillance images and rarely-seen prison photographs to prove what is really inside a prison complex.

The exhibition will have many aspects, one interactive piece being a map that people can search through.

“One guy makes black and white portraits and we are only allowed to show those as we show the audio because the audio is the heart of the project – prisoners are given a voice,” Brook said.

The exhibit wasn’t put together until the event coordinator, Mathew Callinan, reached out to Brook after hearing him speak at the Open Engagement conference in Oregon. Callinan said he realized Brook was informed on the topic and thought it would be a great fit for Haverford College.

“It was a no-brainer for me to take the opportunity,” Brook said.

This will be Brook’s first time as a solo curator.

“My hope is that [visitors] have a similar experience to my own in working with [Brook] and the various faculty, students and staff who have helped to realize the exhibition,” Callinan said. “I have learned a great deal more than I previously knew about prisons themselves, but also about the various individuals, industries and social concerns that surround prisons. And through the process of working on the exhibition, I have come to realize that there is more I need to be informed about and engaged in, and so I intend to follow that up. My hope is that the exhibition will serve to spark such interest, discussion and engagement in viewers of the exhibition.”

“Prison Obscura” will run until March 7 at Haverford College. The exhibition is presented by the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities.

Chelsea Finn can be reached at

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