1980 : Jackson State Prison Expose Launched

December 14, 2018 all-day

Over seven days in November 1980, the Free Press ran 52 of Yamasaki’s remarkable photographs, which would later win the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. They managed to reveal not just the power (and weakness) of the state, but “the power of the inmates in the prison over the other prisoners,” Yamasaki says. “That’s an extremely important part of it.”

In the summer of 1980 there was a lot of violence in Jackson and guys were stabbed. TheDetroit Free Press prison writer wrote a story saying that the police were rounding up gangs in Pontiac and Detroit and the young gang guys were going into prison and terrorizing all the old guys. That’s pretty much the story the warden and the assistant warden gave this reporter.

This was not what I had heard about prison, that the young guys were terrorizing the old guys, because it’s always the other way around. You go into a prison and you’re called a fish, because of the way you wiggle around and look nervous. Guys will start challenging you immediately. They’re usually the guys who’ve been there awhile and gotten power by intimidation, really.

It’s all about power in a prison. Especially when the funds are low, and the funds were low in Michigan prisons, there’s not a lot of rule of law. The guards, I hate saying this, but the guards are trying to keep an outward level of calm, but basically they don’t want anybody to escape. And it seemed to me at least that there was very little being done to protect the inmates and not a whole lot to protect the guards. There are very few guards that were enforcing the rules that I saw, because of the consequences when they tried to enforce the rules. And the consequences are, there would be active attempts to eliminate the guards who tried to enforce the rules.

Most prisoners carried hidden weapons hidden. This photo ran on the first day of the Free Press series.

Most prisoners carried hidden weapons hidden. This photo ran on the first day of the Free Press series.


“Jackson Prison: Armed and Dangerous”, Detroit Free Press, December 14, 1980, starting on 1C (a weeklong look inside the walls at Jackson State Prison)

Taro Yamasaki and life inside Jackson State Prison“, NiemanStoryBoard, August 30, 2016.  The photojournalist talks about how he got unprecedent access — and images — inside the world’s largest walled prison.

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