Richard Lawson was serving a sentence for marijuana possession in 1969 when he was assigned to serve as an inmate photographer at the Joliet Stateville Prison. During this time, he discovered a cache of glass plate negatives produced by inmates at about the turn of the century. Years later, when he became a professor at Southern Illinois University, he conserved and put together an exhibition of the images in 1981. So far, more than 100 images have been preserved and printed.
The inmate photographers, working under the direction of prison staff, produced this portfolio of images taken inside the prison beginning in the late 1800s. We do not know the names of the inmates who took the pictures, but their work to produce identification photos, public relations images, or to gather photographic evidence provides a rare glimpse into late 19th/early 20th century prison life.