BC PEN — open to visitors is a series of black and white photographs made during the BC Maximum Security Penitentiary open house in 1980 just prior to its decommission. These images are from an archive of black and white film negatives shelved for forty years, and working on them brought back both questions and memories. I wondered what would draw me to visit a place that contained memories of excruciating suffering, knowing that I do not release the emotional residue of these experiences easily. Revisiting the BC Penitentiary through my photography brought back memories of the 1973 Riot followed by hostage-takings in 1975 and 1976. My mind resurrected countless news stories about deplorable conditions, high staff turnover and the unforgettable friendly fire killing of Mary Steinhauser, a social worker who was outspoken about solitary confinement. Curiously, I was compelled to be among those who visited and witnessed this closing chapter in British Columbia correctional facility history and the end of a century of draconian prison conditions.
As I moved through this series of negatives I remembered how I was struck by the artificial presentation of the BC Penitentiary as a museum, explaining intake, routines, education opportunities and the transition to release. The kitchen displayed spotless counters and sparkling aluminum cooking equipment. The infirmary displayed specialized accommodations for inmate medical care. Most of the damage and debris from the final riot had been cleared away, and the cells were spotless. I was much more curious about the remains of the series of holes bored through cell walls by the inmates, preserved for visitors. In the end, what remained was the architecture of confinement pierced with slants of light that reflected on anything bright, and still the film grain is a collection of marks made by 102 years of anger, despair, and fear.