My hometown—Auburn, NY—is host to a maximum-security prison. The prison sits directly in the middle of the city, nestled between busy roads and residential neighborhoods, yet somehow its thirty-five-foot high walls manage to become largely invisible. However, these very same walls are a visual and psychological reminder of two distinctly different worlds that inhabit the same space.

The people in these photographs are members of my community—some live across from the prison’s walls, and others have worked behind them. Still others live in the prison full-time. As a struggling, post-industrial community with a population of less than 30,000, the residents of Auburn have become increasingly reliant on one of the town’s oldest remaining industries. Indeed, the prison is one of the largest employers in the county, meaning it has (paradoxically) provided financial and professional security to generations of community members, pulling them behind the prison walls for employment.

My photographs explore this relationship and also exist to question the histories and correctional practices that have traveled well beyond the walls of Auburn’s prison.

Indeed, Auburn is also distinctive because of its unique place in penal history. In the 1820s, Auburn Prison implemented what became known as The Auburn System: a series of corrections that included lockstep, solitary confinement, and complete silence. The prison was also home to the first execution by electrocution. Many of the practices that began in Auburn have led to the ”prison-industrial complex,” a term that describes the overlapping interests of government and industry, and how they use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.

Numerous systems and correctional practices, including those originally implemented behind the walls of Auburn Prison, have created and perpetuated traumas and injustices that are now shared by many people and communities nationwide. These histories and practices, along with their traumas, have led to the systematic oppression and mass incarceration of many citizens in the United States.

My work brings these histories into close contact with features of modern-day mass incarceration to document and explore how a community—one with imprisonment in its bones—manages this dichotomy. This work attempts to piece together these traumas, the history of Auburn, its prison, and its community to question the prison industrial complex and its modes of operation.

This work is an ongoing portrait of Auburn, both past and present.

—Joe Librandi-Cowan