A supermax prison isn’t the best place to sit for a portrait, but Peter Charlap’s subjects have no other choice.
CHRIS YOUNG, A DEATH ROW INMATE at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, is an avid chess player who can manage multiple games at once without using a board, just by calling out the moves to prisoners in neighboring cells.
Will Speer, another inmate, converted to Judaism in prison and worked tirelessly to get officials to let him wear the Star of David on a chain.
Eugene Broxton, a third inmate, became skilled in the art of origami, sending his creations to people all over the world until the mail room guards began unfolding them before they were sent out, leaving their recipients scratching their heads at flat sheets of colorful paper lined with traces of tiny folds.
“Unless you know how to do it, you can’t fold it back,” says one of those recipients, Peter Charlap, sighing. “So he stopped doing it.”
Over the past few years, Charlap has traveled to Texas to complete a series of five portraits of men on death row at the Polunsky Unit, a supermax prison that houses all of Texas’s male death row inmates—more than 250 of them, each kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day—among its population of several thousand.
An artist and fine arts professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Charlap lives in a state that ruled the death penalty unconstitutional more than a decade ago. To him, Texas is no doubt a bit of a foreign country. But it’s one where, today, he has friends.
Charlap began the first portrait in the series, of Young, in 2010. It took months to get on the prisoner’s visitor list. Inmates are allowed two special four-hour visits per month, speaking through phones across a layer of thick glass. Security doesn’t allow cameras, or even pencils or paper, so Charlap began the sketches of Young back at his hotel room, from memory.
“The first time I went there I remember thinking, how am I going to talk to this person I don’t know for four hours?” Charlap says. But to his surprise, the time flew by. “One of the things that Chris said the first day was, ‘Ask me anything; there are no boundaries.’”
Source: Houstonia, Roxanna Asgarian, April 28, 2016