Prison Landscapes

I know about real gardens in prisons, but it was only when I was browsing in a second-hand art book shop in London that I found out about the scenes of gardens and natural spaces that are painted in prisons throughout America for prisoners – often with their families – to be photographed against.

The book of these photographs, Prison Landscapes is made even more fascinating by the story behind it. The author, Alyse Emdur was inspired to write it after she found a photograph of herself, aged five, standing in front of a tropical beach scene which had been taken during a visit to her brother in prison. As she says: “since discovering this first portrait in my own family album in 2005, I have invited hundreds of prisoners to send me photographs for inclusion in this collection.” There are also many of the letters she received, nearly all of them making clear how much the family visits, and the photographs, meant to them.

I’m not ashamed to say that this book has made me cry several times already. Not just because there’s something so moving about how the personalities of these prisoners comes across through one simple photograph and the choice of background they pick. The backgrounds that represented a freedom that maybe would never belong to them again. (The book rightly doesn’t give the sentences or crimes.)

But more for the families for whom this one flimsy photograph would have to stand-in for the presence of their son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister, friend. I couldn’t help but imagine how often they might try to pretend it was taken in a real setting and place.

Or indeed time. Time is such a multi-layered word in prison – after all prisoners ‘do’ time and in fact time – and what they can, or can’t, do with it – becomes their punishment. One of my students at LSE wrote a fascinating thesis about how each individual in prison has a different way of counting the passing of each day. So it was fascinating to see how many of the backgrounds seemed to represent a particular passing moment, as if, when it’s over, the people photographed could step straight into an alternative life.

So although not a garden, I think this book – and the concept behind it – perfectly sums up how public gardens provide a ‘time out of time’ and a space that we can return to in our minds whenever we want.

Here’s my poem, but first the photograph that inspired it (although as you will spot there’s no father here, it’s actually a montage of several which allowed me a HUGE dollop of artistic licence. I hope the people involved will forgive me):



Forget the parrots,
waterfalls, sunsets -
he wants to stand
with his father here,
at the foot
of stone steps
leading to a lake,
the path narrowed
by branches sprung
open by blossom,
and after the picture
is taken, photographer gone,
just the two of them
turning their backs
to walk into the garden,
brushing past the painted wall
as their shoulders
heavy now with pollen,
grow lighter from words
they pick like
out of season fruit
and offer to each other
in a way they’ve never managed.
And later he dreams
of his father telling strangers
that yes, this is my son,
and how he’ll hang
on his father’s wall
in a house he might never
get to visit in time.

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