The Realities of Incarceration

One man’s goal to educate local youths and communities about the criminal justice system.

 Lorenzo Steele Jr., 49, worked as a New York City correctional officer on Rikers Island from 1987 to 1999. While he was a CO, he was also in charge of taking photos at retirement parties. “I’m a photographer from birth,” he said. His passion for photography led him to document life inside Rikers, all without official approval, and he eventually turned the images into a photo exhibition called Behind These Prison Walls. For the past five years, he has taken the mobile gallery into neighborhoods such as Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York to educate the youths in these communities about the criminal justice system. With over 25 years of experience in working with the adolescent population, he also serves as a vendor for the New York City Board of Education, where he provides services from gang awareness to bullying to schools in troubled neighborhoods.

Q&A With Lorenzo Steele Jr.

What don’t people tell you about being a correctional officer?

What they don’t tell you as a correctional officer is the day-to-day torment that you go through. If you can imagine being responsible for 100 different inmates, that’s 100 different personalities trying to get into your mind and trying to find your weakness. If you’re a weak officer, or a weak individual, you allow them into your head. Your only weapon in prison is your mind.

You were 22 years old when you first started working in Rikers. What made you leave the job after 12 years?

Truthfully I got tired of the job. I was planning my exit strategy in my seventh and eighth year. I did a lot of reading in prison. I read a lot of conscious books about African history, politics and social and economic issues. I didn’t realize poverty was a major contributor to the inmate population I was dealing with.

What did you do after you left corrections?

When I left corrections, I didn’t realize I was sitting on tons of information the average person didn’t know. I used to go and volunteer in schools located in high-crime areas. One of the principals asked me if I knew that I could become a vendor and provide a service to the board of education. That turned into me creating a power point with the prison images. And with the same images, I had them framed and I put them on easels, which I bring into high-crime communities.

 

An image from Lorenzo Steele Jr.'s "Behind These Prison Walls," photo exhibition. Photo by Marina Liao.

An image from Lorenzo Steele Jr.’s “Behind These Prison Walls,” photo exhibition. Photo by Marina Liao.

What has been the greatest impact in presenting Behind These Prison Walls in high-crime neighborhoods?

When inmates who were incarcerated look at the images and tell me this is what the kids need because no one is telling them what is going on inside. I remember in Brownsville, I was talking to a 14 year old who had a gun charge and he went to Rikers Island for a little bit of time, but he really didn’t see the impact jail can have on him. By me walking him through those images of the cuttings and stabbings, however, he said, “You know what, I’m going to try my best to stay out of there.”

What are your thoughts on the issue of raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18?

I feel that if you break the law, I won’t even say punish, but you owe something back because you did something wrong. When we talk about punishment, are we talking about rehabilitation? Early prisons tried to rehabilitate someone, but now it’s just a warehouse, a billion dollar industry that’s not going anywhere. Sometimes the kids come from single-parent homes, drug abuse families and there is no one to help them. Lets say they get locked up, who is dealing with these issues? All we’re doing is locking them up and hoping they’ll change when they get out. They’re not going to change.

Do you believe programs and rehabilitative methods work on the adolescent population who are already in jails and prisons?

In the early ‘90s, I had a good friend of mine who was a deputy warden at the time who created a program called Institute for Inner Development (IID), where you had select officers who worked with select inmates. When we had announced this program, inmates said, “Yo Mr. Steele, we have our own program.” Their program was cutting and stabbing people, raping people. And when we implemented IID, we went from 50 stabbings to zero for years, this tells me program do work.

I know for a fact, programs do work, if the system wants them to work. But if it works too well, people won’t come to prison. And if people don’t come to prison, you have  hundreds of people who are unemployed from your correctional officers to police officers. I’ll never forget what an inmate said to me. He said, “If it wasn’t for us inmates you wouldn’t even have a job.” And I said, “You know what? You’re right.”

Enclosed in a plexiglass case are confiscated shanks - weapons that were used on Rikers Island in the '90s. Shanks can be made from materials found in the jail. Photo by Marina Liao.

Enclosed in a plexiglass case are confiscated shanks – weapons that were used on Rikers Island in the ’90s. Shanks can be made from materials found in jail. Photo by Marina Liao.

Rikers recently ended solitary confinement for teens, what are your thoughts on that?

I wish they had done it sooner. I was surprised it happened, but it shows you what advocacy can do if you put enough pressure on officials. When you’re a correctional officer, you don’t think about those issues because you’re apart of it. When I removed myself from the criminal justice system as a CO, I sat back and realized those were 14 year olds locked in solitary confinement. Sometimes they didn’t even get mental health officials to see how they were doing.

What are you working on now?

I am getting ready to take the same exhibition and put it online. If you’re home or on your smart phone, you can see the exhibition on your mobile.

Follow Lorenzo Steele Jr. at @PrisonTales.