Chuckawalla Valley State prison is located 210 miles East of Los Angeles in Blythe, California, a remote small town located in the heart of Southern California’s unforgiving desert. Temperatures are often in the 100s and regularly soar to 120 degrees. The prison is a medium-security facility and has a design capacity of 1,738, however the current population is over 2,500.
Photographer Pep Williams recently travelled to Chuckawalla to meet the inmates, hear their stories, and photograph these men and their surroundings. We caught up with Pep and got to talk to him about the project and his experiences…
How did your Chuckawalla Prison project come to be?
For about 4 years l tried to shoot inside of a prison because it is almost impossible to get into one as a photographer. l have numerous friends that work with the California state prisons so l was trying every angle for years. My good friend Dennis Martinez who does so much for prisons all over the world finally gave me the opportunity l was looking for. Forever thankful to my bro Dennis Martinez. l just had to come up with a reason why they would allow me inside to shoot. I did and it was truly a life changing experience.
What preparation did you make before entering?
For me preparation was very easy. Just me and my Leica Monochrom camera. We had many others who came out to speak to the inmates and some had bags and equipment but the officers there were very nice and let us through the gates with no hassle.
What are your thoughts on how the “justice system” works in this country?
When I was inside I had free rein to shoot on the yard so I spoke to numerous inmates. Many were lifers and most were doing 20-25+ year sentences. The knowledge these guys had on life is so deep. If I could change something in the California justice system it would be to allow the youth to come into these prisons and have the inmates speak to to them to have them talk to them so hopefully they can learn from their mistakes. Not through fear like the Scared Straight program but through love and truly caring about the person. I learned a lot over those 2 days.
How has the experience changed you as a person and as a photographer?
The way it changed me, is that I was preparing myself as for the prisons we see on tv. I was ready to shoot some OG cats and some tattooed gangsters. But to my surprise when I asked to shoot them, they would put their shirts on. I asked why and they said, “This is my past.”
At that moment I realized these aren’t tattooed gangsters but men. To me that was a very powerful statement because they have risen above all that. I kind of had to check myself as well. So my whole reason for going there had changed from wanting to shoot tattooed gangsters to actually shooting men.
Of all the people you met in Chuckawalla, who had the biggest impact and why?
There were 2 who actually moved me. The first was a huge Latino guy with a fully tatted face. He said “Hey you come here.” I was like oh boy here we go. We’ve all seen prison movies so I didn’t know what to expect, so I just walked over and politely said “hello how are you?” He looked at me and said would it be ok if we prayed together. I said of course we can. He starts to pray and I’m blown away at what he is praying for. He’s praying for my safety, but not my safety inside the walls of the prison. Because, he said, you are safe here in my home. On the outside is where it is dangerous… all they want is to get you in here.
To be on a yard full of inmates with your eyes closed holding hands praying with one of the prisoners is something I would never would have imagined doing, but at that moment I felt safe and at peace. A beautiful thing.
The second was a guy who I met and I found out he was to be released soon. I said to him I’m happy for you, are you excited to be getting out? What I didn’t realize is that he had been locked up since 1979. He just gave me a look, and kind of looked off to the side. Then I caught myself. He’s been in jail for the past 38 years. Everything he knows is inside. His friends inside are pretty much the only people he has ever known and now he will be thrown into a new world. I can imagine so many mixed emotions he must have had. I wish I hadn’t asked him that question.
What surprised you most about your visit?
Many things surprised me, but one was the brotherhood you felt inside. We all hear about the race problems in prisons and how everything is separate– blacks on one side, whites on one side and Latinos on the other. Well, I’m sure many are like that but here what I saw was completely the opposite. Everyone was playing handball, working out, and just being social. It was a community, I took a minute to observe it and it totally made sense. Why would you want to live the rest of your life in a place where the color of a persons skin is a factor? Knowing you will be here for the rest of your life, I would want less drama as possible. Other things are more important. But you won’t hear or see that in the news. The images I made show community, not separation. A lesson I wish the people on the outside would learn.
One last cool thing is my bro Dennis Martinez is a former world champion skateboarder so you will never guess what the California State prison allowed us to bring…….”SKATEBOARDS!”
Yes because of Dennis the prisoners were allowed to skate a bit. Skateboarding on a prison yard… so crazy! And some could really skate. Some of the inmates were young so they skated on the outside. To think that this could possibly have been the last time they will ever touch a skateboard… Let’s hope not. Dennis Martinez is a man with experience and vision and what he brings to the lives of inmates around the world is a beautiful thing.
Huge thank you to the California State Prisons for allowing me to shoot inside Chuckwalla Prison. Huge thanks to Leica Camera USA and Leica Store Los Angeles for supporting me on the shoot. And of course to my Big big brother Dennis Martinez for believing in me.
Catch up with Pep Williams on Instagram.