They sit tightly packed and sleep in shifts. They hunch their backs because they can’t hold them straight, or don‘t have enough space. The faded, waxen faces indicate lives without sunlight and sufficient nourishment. The courtyard, in which they stand, is narrow and high like a shaft.
Everyone awaits judgement or has been judged. Who has committed the gravest crime? Isn’t a mild glance a hint? Doesn’t the punishment torture more those who carry it out unjustly, or because of a minor mistake? Who is cleansed? Is a feeble tender smile an expression of great cunning? Single pictures make judgement impossible. Involuntarily, we size people up. It’s different with even a couple of seconds of film, but with stills, various contradictory presumptions keep us uncertain. We don’t condemn the crime. We don’t open our mouths to pass judgement on other beings that we only partially understand.
Antje Majewski photographed the images for her painting series from the television documentary Die Hölle von Moskau (The Hell of Moscow). The camera wanders into the cells. A frontal camera light and coarse pixels flatten the image, colour it brown, and make much of the multi-sided turmoil indistinguishable. Through a high rear window unexpectedly beams in a white garland of sunlight.
At best only those interviewed were asked for their agreement. Some inmates move forward, into the picture. You can’t tell if someone is hiding in the beds. He could be sleeping.
If you want to photograph a person, it promises more success not to ask for permission. Probably it would be too troublesome, to take legal steps against the photographers, or to forcibly hinder them. If a subject realises anything at all then, they might be flattered. Although, had they been given the right to refuse then, they would have thought about the worst possible things that might happen with the pictures.
It isn’t forbidden to create a picture from memory. An eyewitness is less valid than a photograph. Notwithstanding that it is harder to lie imperceptibly, than to manipulate a photograph. You don’t distrust the truthfulness of an eyewitness, rather their reliability. Painting a document turns it into a testimony. Someone gives testimony that would not have been granted access. You could name no reason, and so seem voyeuristic or foolhardy to yourself. Was the camera team allowed to give the prisoners anything? Has that distorted their documentary? Could the prisoners be helped from a distance? Then again there are others who are even worse off, and who have given no reason to be interned.
The State limits the possibilities of those who presumably have done wrong. It confiscates their property, driving licence, passport, and freedom of movement unto death. Vengeance is given and direct retaliation is prevented. Victims may not punish a criminal, that task is reserved for the State. It is supposed to be neutral and powerful enough to pronounce and execute a judgement.
The penalty should demonstrate to all that crime isn’t worth it. Punishment is separated from compensation of the victim. Crime should not pay for the victims or the State either. Although those in custody work for a minimum wage, imprisonment costs more than social security – to the extent that there is any. Therapy and hospital beds are more expensive by the day.
The State may only pass judgement on individual cases, but it can still lock-up large parts of the poor population by severe punishment of minor offences. The risk is high. When you can be incarcerated for a lifetime for a little shop theft, you might just as well commit an armed robbery, and at worst will be punished by death. Explicit torture by the State is prohibited. It can do no more than delay the death penalty, and commute the sentence to lifelong imprisonment with subsequent execution. The prisoners have no right to vote, and aren’t registered as unemployed.
As a rule prisoners get enough to eat. Is it better to be a slave than to starve? If you get slaves free of charge, and in inexhaustible quantities, you can also let them starve. It can be an incentive to have more than nothing-at-all to eat. If there is enough manpower, that must not be trained for long, and who are expended by the work anyway then, it is more effective to give them not enough to eat. They can’t escape, because they lack energy and money. They remain in debt with those who were prepared to enslave them.
Perhaps you get enough to eat in prison, but get forced by other prisoners or the guards give them a share. In communal cells it is hardly possible to lay hands on someone without witnesses. But should anyone give evidence about an incident, then, several could testify to the contrary. There is no need for a fake alibi because companions are always present. In crammed prisons there is no escape for laggers. When they are moved to another cell, the inmates know why.
In no other place are more crimes committed than in a prison. Within the framework of maximum State control, prisoners follow their own unwritten law. Their food is prepared, they work under instruction, but in their cells they evade continuous State supervision. Their private sphere is smaller than that of a family, but the inmates are grouped against their will. You can run away from a family, in which several persons that don’t dare to flee are presided by one that would never even want to.
Prisoners are lead astray by crime and drugs and perhaps, it is to them that they abandon themselves outside prison – thereby curtailing their new stay in freedom. The guilty are deprived of vitality which the effort to rehabilitate hardly restores.