America is number one — in incarceration. Over the past several decades, the country has built the largest prison population in the entire world, with the second-highest prison population per capita behind the tiny African country of Seychelles.
Like many towns around the country facing economic hardship, a string of job losses in the 1980s and ’90s led Galesburg, Illinois, to embrace the construction of a prison on what was previously nearby prairie land. Galesburg is where Boston-based photographer Stephen Tourlentes grew up, and on a visit back there nearly two decades ago, he became fascinated by the new prison facility and the way it lit up his old hometown at night.
Tourlentes photographed the local state prison on that trip, and the more he thought about what he’d seen, the more he wanted to know. After his father, a former state psychiatric hospital director, mentioned that some of his old patients had ended up in the new prison, the photographer began a journey that has since taken him to penitentiaries all over the country.
He’s not done yet, but 17 years worth of the resulting photographs can be seen in Of Length and Measures, Tourlentes’ haunting collection of the U.S. prisons he’s shot at night, usually from afar. While the photographs are visually interesting on their own, Tourlentes says he now knows that these facilities, often built on the periphery of small towns with weak economies, say something much deeper about the odd relationship between economic development and the judicial system in the United States.