Secret Histories | Jamel Shabazz: Tour of Duty on Rikers Island

Photograph by Jamel Shabazz.

Despite the surging growth of the prison industrial complex, very little is known of what goes on inside prisons and jails aside from what is shared with us by the people who have actually done time or worked in them. Photographer Jamel Shabazz worked as a Corrections Officer for the New York City Department of Corrections. He joined the force in 1983, just as the crack epidemic hit the streets, and worked inside the belly of the beast for 20 years. Shabazz spoke with Crave about the complexities of life inside the prison industrial complex.

Why do you think this subject is kept, for the larger part, out of the mainstream media? Why is it important to you to speak about your experience as an NYC corrections officer?

I think that the mainstream media has been mute for far too long on this issue primarily because, the overwhelming majority of those who are incarcerated are young black and Hispanic males. It is a known fact that the prison industrial complex is a multi-billion dollar corporation and Wall Street investors have gained great returns in their ventures regarding prisons. In all actuality, numerous businesses and organizations have profited from mass incarceration. As a witness to this, I feel the need to offer a different perspective about the system, as all too often Correction Officers are viewed in a negative light.

Photograph by Jamel Shabazz.

You said that being a corrections officer was an assignment you were given. What would you like people to understand when they look at the photos you’ve taken of the officers and prisoners in your photographs?

The majority of correction officers I know did not grow up wanting to work in a jail. Many of us saw civil service as a stepping-stone towards upward mobility. A number of us came from the very same communities as those we maintained custody of and at the same time we were also not exempt from being racially profiled, and discriminated against nor were we immune from falling through the cracks. Officers got murdered, committed suicide, and some fell victim to substance abuse. We were ordinary people just trying to make a better way for ourselves and our families. Regarding the detainees in my photographs, many of them were disenfranchised, battling from some form of substance abuse, or mental illness. Some were guilty, while others were innocent. The reality is that everyone has the ability to change with the proper guidance. Sadly we live in a nation that concerns itself with the freedom of foreign governments, but often neglects its own.

Photograph by Jamel Shabazz.

You described prisons as survival of the fittest. Can you speak about how you adapted to these challenges, and used diplomacy as a means to maintaining peace to whatever extent?

My first assignment was at C74, one of the most renowned jails on Rikers Island. On any given day, it housed about 2,000 detainees between the ages of 16-19 years old and was looked at by many as “Gladiator School.” It pained me greatly to see how the conditions of mass incarceration had fostered a predatory and prey mentality. Violence was an everyday occurrence involving numerous stabbings, slashings, racial unrest, and vicious beatings. A number of detainees could not deal with the hardships of this environment, attempting and at many times succeeding in committing suicide. I realized early on that I had to be empathetic and not judgmental. To stay grounded, at times I would place myself in a vacant jail cell and imagine the possibility of having my freedom taken away from me. This occasional practice kept me humble and grounded.

Photograph by Jamel Shabazz.

Please talk about how you handled the stress of working corrections by using the camera to reconnect to people.

When I first started working in Corrections, the job was considered one of the most stressful occupations in the country, second only to Air Traffic Controller. Photography became one of the main tools I used to combat stress. Incorporating photography and mentorship, I was able to connect with a number of young people on the street and in the local high schools. My objective was to encourage them to have goals and aspirations, and be mindful of the pitfalls of incarceration. I would often tell them what I did for a living and that; the only way to go to jail should be as a correction officer. I found that many would take my advice and I would later see them in the ranks, rather than in a cell.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.