e decided to do it on Thanksgiving day. The holiday when everything is closed and everyone is home eating and watching sports. The holiday that gave us the least amount of chances to get caught. It took nearly a month to find it on a map; I’d heard about it from a local store owner who knew I liked to go shoot cemeteries and abandoned homes. He suggested these two spots where he and his friends would hang out and get high in the summer: an abandoned underground silo and a prison camp.
I met Steve and loaded my gear into his car. He had his glock out with an extra clip. “What the fuck?” I didn’t look up.
“You never know. I’d rather be safe.” He lived four houses down from a building that was torched in the ’69 Detroit riots. Safe was not a word I ever used with Steve or his locale.
“Guns don’t make you safe. It’ll make us a target if we get caught.”
“Depends on who’s catching us.”
“Police. They’re going to be the only ones who give a shit.”
“It’s staying, okay.”
“We’ll see when we get there.”
Across from the camp was a house and a trailer on the same property. A small fleet of cars and trucks out front. They were home eating too. Since they could see the entrance, I decided to just let them know. I knocked, a teen girl answered, I smiled and asked if someone was home who owned the house. A woman came up with a towel in her hands. I apologized for interrupting and told her I just wanted to let her know my friend and I were going to shoot photos in the camp. I showed her the camera.
“Oh that’s fine, we see kids on occasion, you know breaking in, getting high. That’s how the fire started. But don’t worry.”
“Ok, thank you. I just thought it would be interesting to shoot.”
She smiled. “I guess, I’ve lived here 20 years, it’s just sorta dead, you know. Go ahead and park by our cars. That way no one will even know. Okay. You’ll be fine.”
I thanked her, probably too many times as she went back in. Steve was happy and decided to leave the glock.
I have two fears: cancer and prison. I never asked myself why, but I think because they both take life from you in unspeakable ways. I don’t really do things that would encourage either. I try to avoid them. But they are ingrained cultural fears on a primordial level. What if I suddenly get cancer? What if I am in the wrong place at the wrong time? What if I end up in prison? I think I’d rather be dead. But here we are, going to shoot photos in a prison.
I hop the gate along with Steve and we dart for the first building, just to make sure we’re not visible. We really don’t know what to expect. It’s big, 40 to 60 acres I’m guessing. A lot of buildings. A lot of ghosts. It’s cold, that late November damp cold with a razor thin bit of frost to cut deep past the gloves and boots to bleed you of your heat.
Making our way from building to building I realize we were really not ready for this. No flashlights, no way to mark if we’d been past this or that spot, nothing to help ease open a door. But this is our one shot and I’m pulled deeper into this place. I want to see them. I want to feel the echoes. It’s another place that I find horrific, yet I just could seem to look away. This isn’t death, it’s not a car accident, it’s not a shock. It’s a small society. There were places to eat, places to gather, food prep, life skills, bunks and bosses, recreation and punishment, and then… then it was gone.
I did a bit of research, it was closed when we moved from a society that tried to rehabilitate for minor offenses to one that felt they were as heinous as capital crimes. That all crime meant you were not just punished, but had to pay for the rest of your life. Here was a place that men were not stripped of dignity forever, they had a chance to learn a new trade or skill; a chance to not ever come back. I know it had to be hell living here, at least my fear tells me so. But it did offer hope. And one day they just walked away and left it to be swallowed whole.
There’s a storage area with, easily, 5,000 unused shoes. Prison issue that fell out of style after they left. There are rooms of records, just left for the mice and those kids who get high. Lockers that still swing open. Rows of showers. Rooms that had tools and trades. A gym and chapel. Everything you would need to make a small city. Now it’s just filled with that cold wind that whispers of the coming snow.
I guess, like cancer, it takes from me a bit more than I was willing to offer. Maybe I needed to have a goal. I wanted a story. I wanted to know about them. Driving back Steve mentions how exciting that was. He’s talking about the breaking in part. But we got to park our car safely I mention. He chuckles and says: “Yeah, but we still didn’t know what we were gonna find.” I realize that the lack of story is exactly what I found. That, even in this place that was a better option than we have now, it stripped everyone, guards and prisoners, of their story. There wasn’t hardly any trace left behind. And in my lifetime, the rest will be swallowed up. It makes me realize that no matter what, I’m no different. I’ll be gone and my traces swallowed. At that time, this chilled me deeper than the late November sun. It would take years for me to go back and revisit that camp in my head. It would take finally editing the photos to find the things I did like to realize just how much freedom that it had shown me. That prison taught me that my freedom was rooted firmly in knowing my mortality.
We drove in silence for quite a way and watched as snow started to fall.