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Saturday, Sept. 27, 2008 | Susan Lankford’s life as a photographer couldn’t have taken a more radical swing.

A portraitist by trade, Lankford was adept at bringing out the beauty in her subjects, while tucking their flaws behind big studio lights and darkroom techniques. Now, she’s been capturing a lifestyle that is more real and grittier than any studio portrait could ever be.

The San Diego photographer spent two and a half years documenting the women locked up at the Las Colinas Detention Facility. Her experiences there are unveiled in a new book, “Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes.” In hundreds of pictures and interviews with inmates, Lankford captures life inside the detention facility and offers a vivid account of what it means to be behind bars.

The book was released this month by Lankford’s own publishing company, Humane Exposures. Next week, she begins a university lecture series to bring her message to the country’s young minds.

We caught up with Lankford to talk about her earlier project with the homeless, prison reform, getting access to Las Colinas and what maggots and sweet potatoes have to do with society’s view of prisoners.

The first thing I’m curious about is where the title of your book came from.

Well the title came from one of the inmates in the housing yard. And that’s minimum security, where they have lots of inmates and they’re outside and they’re behind the Cyclone fencing, for the most part. … So the women gather out in their patio and kind of clamor at the fence when they see somebody coming through who is not a chaplain or talking about AIDS or something like that. And I was becoming a regular feature, because I’d been there many many times by this point in time. It was probably about four months into my journey going back and forth at Las Colinas.

And a woman was saying, “Hey Susie, Susie, come here, I’ve got to tell you something.” So I went up to the fence and she said, “I had maggots in my sweet potatoes last night.” And I went to the kitchen and I discovered there weren’t any maggots in the sweet potatoes — there weren’t any sweet potatoes. It was the wanting to be involved, the wanting to develop some type of communication with the outside that this woman was creating this little drama.

So anyway, that said, what bothered me after that was it kept lingering in my mind. I knew that the kitchen didn’t have maggots in the sweet potatoes, but at the same time, something meant more about this. And what it meant to me was that we kind of look at inmates, and people who break the law, as maggots in our sweet potatoes. So I’m using it metaphorically, really. I’m not using it because there were maggots in her sweet potatoes.

Women clamoring at the fence every time you walk into the prison. That must be sort of a jarring experience.

Well by that point in time, I was used to them and they were used to me. You know they commented on what jeans I had on. They’d want to know something that was going on in the outside world because the TV that they had would be restricted. And of course, I couldn’t tell them what the latest news was, but it was just an effort on their part to communicate with someone that maybe they could develop some kind of trust with.

On what level could you connect with these women and was there ever a point that you thought you wouldn’t possibly be able to understand everything that they had been through?

The women in Las Colinas for the most part, and I’d say the majority of them, emotionally were suffering. And women have a tendency, when they go to the jail, they try to bond with one another, either against the guards, or against society, or against drugs or against whatever it is that they are in jail for doing.

To some extent, I tried to understand how they got into this situation, because as far as I was concerned, it was sort of a mess to be locked up away from your children. And that was my duty, was to try to understand that.

I didn’t realize it was going to take me so long after the two and a half years of interviewing to research and to talk to outside professionals to put that together. And in many cases emotionally they are not developed. They’re teenagers. They’re looking for babies or love objects. Relationships that they have that are out in public are sick relationships. That’s what they’re used to.

The jail, as toxic an environment as incarceration provides, is a place for them to bond and to come together and “Hey what’s happening to you?” and “Oh that’s happening to me” and “So and so did this to me” and “So and so dissed me.” And, no, I can’t relate to that. But I could listen to them, and I’m not suggesting that, how should I put this, I didn’t look at myself as being different than they were from the standpoint of being human and having thoughts and feelings and needs. But I think in terms of levels of education, I thought I had benefited from having a higher level of education and for being able to provide work and be able to have nurturing skills for my children. And, it just made me hurt to see that there was so much of this going on.

What was the statement you were trying to make with this book?

There are lots of statements. It’s not a simple work, it’s very comprehensive. First of all, there are too many women that are finding themselves in situations that they’re having to be incarcerated. Secondly, if they’re being incarcerated, why are they being stuck in the system? Is this a flaw of our society that once individuals get into a jail environment that they are stuck in the criminal justice system or is this something that has to do with a lack of parenting and a lack of tenacity in your development?

To find out for me what my goal was, I was assuming the majority of the public doesn’t know any more than I did about jail when I went in. And I was interested in it, after the project I’d done on the streets with the homeless — all of them went to jail. And I thought jail was for these really serious tough criminals. Why are all these homeless people going there? Why don’t we have a place for the homeless to go and get some kind of help? And I’m not saying this in an altruistic do-gooder nature, because there are a lot of homeless who probably don’t need to be homeless. But what’s missing?

When you think about reforming the jail system and the prison system, is there another model you look to in another part of the world that you think works better? Is there a solution that you see out there?

Well, we’re a young country. There are a lot of countries that have done things that have a lot more severe punishment that I wouldn’t look toward. But there are also other countries that in their maturing culture, they’re used to certain forms of behavior and they treat people in a different manner.

Now, I’m not experienced to that. I’m not a globally world traveled individual. All I can talk about is what we have and the situation we have right now. We have way too many people we’re supporting in facilities for extended periods of time. And, we passed legislation that I don’t think the public is well educated about. I know I wasn’t. I didn’t completely understand Prop. 36, I didn’t completely understand three strikes.

I know that whatever the beat was in the media about “Hey get these criminals off the street” sounded good to me. I didn’t realize what the repercussions were going to be. And going through this period with the jail, you see that the individuals who really should be in there for three strikes, that’s 3 percent of our prison. In California, we have 176,000 individuals in state prison. Only 3 percent of them are three-strikers who won’t be coming out. The rest of them are going to keep coming out and going in. And each time they come out and they go in n unless they have had some kind of treatment n they’re going to be recidivating and going in and the court costs and the same process keeps going on and on and on. And, we just have to build more prisons. We build more prisons, we build fewer schools. We build more prisons, we have to have more individuals who are taking care of those prisoners.

Why did you think that photos were a compelling way to tell this story?

Well, initially, I didn’t have any other way to tell it. It’s one of the ways I talk. So to me, it’s a natural thing to pick up a camera — I don’t care if it’s a polar bear or a bird or if it’s a human being — I can evoke some emotion or something out of taking an image.

I just intuitively felt that I could go from doing the street project to going inside the jail to find out something that could possibly open up some awareness.

Now undoubtedly there were some challenges there to access, right?

It was tricky. I’m sure they didn’t want me in there.

Who, the prisoners?

No, the Sheriff’s Department initially didn’t want me in there, but, I had written a letter to (Sheriff) Bill Kolender and the letter was passed off to his assistant sheriff. … And Assistant Sheriff Ben McLaughlin called me at my studio and said, “I’m responding to the letter you wrote, this isn’t something you do.” And I told him a little bit about what I’d done and he said “come on down, I’ll talk to you.” I think he was just being nice to me.

And I went down and he saw my photos and he said, “I know some of those people.” And they were the photos I’d done of the homeless. And, so he asked me some more questions about it. And then he had a phone call come in that one of their former deputies had just bludgeoned his wife to death and the wife was a clerk at Las Colinas. And, he had bludgeoned her with a baseball bat in front of their 13-year-old son. And Ben was quite taken. And he hung up the phone and he told me what had happened. And he looked at me and said, you know what I don’t know what can be done, but if you can do something and you can tell stories the way you’re doing with the homeless, he said, lets go for it, lets start touring some jails.

How did Humane Exposures come about?

First I had rented the Seaport Village jail down here. I was transitioning from doing portraiture to doing some serious black and white photography, and I thought, well, I’ll do a few commercial shots down there too, because it’s kind of trippy renting a jail.

And I was interested in, how do people live behind bars. And I was terribly interested in how these homeless people go off to jail and come back looking healthy happy, but telling me how terrible jail had been, only to get on the street, get dirtier and dirtier, thinner and thinner, until they made another trip to jail.

How much of an impact do you think your books can have?

Well, I hope people will read it.

I’m not in there to say these women should not be locked up — they’ve done something wrong. … When I first came out of doing the project, from the jail itself, I went to a conference on child abuse and child trauma and neglect. And that’s where I could see the devastating things that I had heard had taken place to many of these women. And it is real. I mean, individuals get into prostitution because they have been molested as children but they don’t know how to talk about it. And so, I heard and I saw what some of the effects are. And some of that material is in the book. It’s devastating when you see the size of a child’s brain is actually altered from severe neglect, to discover things like what happens in the first two years of life if there’s no attachment or bonding.

These things are huge. And yet, at the same time, these women are not able to attach and bond to their children that they’ve having — they end up in foster care. I think this is devastating. I don’t think its good enough for you young people to be accepting and having to support a criminal justice system that isn’t aware of the effects of what can happen if we don’t have really solid parenting.

— Interview by SAM HODGSON

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