Inside Jackson Prison

Southern Michigan State Penitentiary, commonly called Jackson Prison, is the largest walled prison in the world. Over 5,700 inmates are housed in maximum-security cellblocks in the 52 acres inside the walls and medium security camps around the perimeter.  Because of serious understaffing and inmate overcrowding many regulations cannot be enforced. Inmates and guards say it is often easier to obtain weapons, drugs and alcohol inside the walls than out on the streets. These photographs are from a weeklong series in the Detroit Free Press, which I reported, wrote and photographed.  The story was awarded the 1981 Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for Feature Photography.

Backlit cells of 7 Block, the protective custody cellblock. Inmates that cannot survive in general population seek asylum here. They are only allowed out of their cells for meals, exercise or showers. But they never leave the cellblock.

Danny (J.C.) Aliff, left, and James Blackburn wait outside the cells for a count. Aliff is serving life for first-degree criminal sexual misconduct.

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Joseph Hawley, serving life for murder, shows some of his scars from a knife attack in a stairwell in 4 Block.

This prisoner trustee bought this knife when he was accused of cheating another inmate in a marijuana sale.

An officer watches activity in the yard from his post on top of one of the cellblocks that surround the prison.

Card players show me what they did when a group of inmates tried to rob their table in the yard the previous day.

A “shank” is shown at a card game in the yard.


Phillip Hanley in his protective custody cell in 7 Block, “It’s a madhouse out there. I rather be locked up.”

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An inmate stares out from his cell in 5 Block, the 24-hour lockdown, and punishment cellblock. Prisoners that are caught breaking regulations are locked up in the prison within the prison.

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Corrections specialist Yale Jenkins monitors activity in 5 Block from gun turret G 5.

A general population inmate serves meals to prisoners in the 24-hour lockdown, punishment cellblock, 5 Block, known as the Hole.


As the same inmate comes back down the gallery with the drink cart, a “lockdown” prisoner stops him.


By allowing the 5 Block prisoner to toy with his moustache instead of retaliating, he is totally submitting, acknowledging that when the tattooed prisoner is released from the Hole, he will “own” him, body and soul.

John Sams in his protective custody cell in 7 block.


Looking up in 3 Block. Guards constantly watch the upper galleries as they walk down the cell blocks to avoid objects that are often thrown at them – from urine and feces to much more dangerous objects.


Inmates in 4 Block return to their cells several times a day for a “count.” Most of the day they are allowed out of their cells for jobs, school, meals or general recreation.


An inmate put out $500 contract on correction officer Mike Kelley’s life because he was successfully stopping organized illegal activity in 4 Block. One night he was hit in the head and shoulder by a heavy steel mop wringer thrown off the 3rd or 4th gallery, almost killing him and putting him out of work for almost a year.

Inmates hold a shank and a sharpened steel rod outside a cell in 4 Block.


Corrections Officer Randy Seguin is called “Horse,” prison slang for knife, because he is one of the few guards at Jackson that aggressively confiscates knives and other weapons. He displays a few of the approximately 77 prison made knives he confiscated the previous 5 months, on the couch in his living room.


Inmate #1521167 standing in the doorway of his cell in 4 Block.

Harold Pike who rode with the Outriders, in his cell in 8 Block. Over half the doors in this cellblock can be opened with a flat object such as a can top.


A bag of marijuana in a cell in 3 Block. Some guards acknowledged that certain illegal drugs are unofficially tolerated because they are considered “management aids.”

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Otha Ray Jackson watches a television he bought in the prison store, in his cell in 8 Block, lit by a single red light bulb.


Corrections officer Steve Barber was stabbed in the chest with a broken broom handle during the riot that rocked the prison about 4 months after this series appeared. The pen protector that he wears in his chest pocket probably saved his life.

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