When Lorenzo Steele Jr. was 5 years old, his mother put a camera in his hands for the first time.
“I can still remember the feeling of it in my hands. It felt like something that was taken away for many years and it was found again. Staring at it and pressing the shutter button for the first time. I feel God gives everyone a gift that they have to find, and the camera and photography was my gift.”
Many years later, Steele would turn his passion for photography into a vehicle for social justice, exposing young people to the horrors of prison life, taken during his time at Rikers Island, where he worked as a guard from 1987-1999.
Steele’s portfolio shows a cornucopia of snapshots in time, ranging from joyful pictures of his fellow officers to more disturbing imagery, including a photo of two teenage inmates wrapping a noose around a fellow prisoner, one depicting several men sharing a 6-foot-by-8-foot cell, and a shot of a toilet used to store snacks as well as human waste.
Years of seeing the worst in human nature inspired Steele to catalog these images and use them to inspire others to turn away from — or altogether avoid — a life of crime. Witnessing firsthand the unjust nature of the American criminal justice system, Steele has spent the 21st century fighting to raise awareness about the realities of prison life in hopes that he can steer at-risk youth away from landing in its clutches.
“We must never forget, the criminal justice system has never been just for Black and brown people,” Steele said in an introductory video for his podcast, Behind These Prison Walls. “There are many that ask why am I doing what I’m doing. The answer is I don’t know, but I know I have to do it.”
Steele spent years displaying his photos in pop-up exhibits on street corners and parks in New York City, then after moving to Charlotte in 2018, he decided to hit the road. Then a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employee, he bought a decommissioned school bus and inside it built the Mobile Prison Art Museum.
“The project just kept growing and I needed a bigger vehicle,” Steele told Queen City Nerve. “I was tired of begging art galleries and museums not responding to my emails for an exhibition.”
Born in the Bronx before moving to Queens around 1970, Steele started his career as a teacher’s aide after earning a degree in criminal justice. Then one day he received a letter in the mail asking him to consider applying for a job as a corrections officer at Rikers. Seeing that it offered better pay and benefits than the job he had, he applied. Once offered the job, he accepted, not knowing how that decision would affect the rest of his life.
Much of Steele’s time on Riker’s Island was spent working in the Adolescent Reception and Detention Center (ARDC), which housed incarcerated adolescents ranging in age from 16-21 years old. He estimated that someone was cut with a razorblade, a shank or homemade weapon, was raped or physically abused in some way every day for the entire 12-year span that he worked there.
His role was to protect incarcerated people as much as possible while they made trips to court, and he was regularly tested. Looking back, he estimates that he witnessed 40 to 50 razor slashings a month.
Steele also saw acts of compassion while working in the jail. When a 17-year-old inmate refused methadone for his heroin addiction, other incarcerated people looked after him as he went through withdrawal. Several incarcerated people created Christmas cards for him one year.
He also saw men change for the better when a special housing unit was created to stop the violence in jail. The program was called IID, or Institute for Inner Development, for which Steele was one of the first officers. The unit was filled half with adults and half with teens, all of whom shared a ward where the older prisoners mentored the younger, living incident-free for three years.
The older men in the jail received training and counseling as they mentored and were required to rise at 5:30 a.m., pray, and make group meetings. Officers shared personal stories.
“It was amazing and threatened the system which depended on violence,” he notes. “Imagine detainees, some rival gang members, sharing three phones and a television.”
Healing through art
At some point during his tenure, Steele began taking his camera into work and documenting what he saw, a mix of photojournalism and artistic expression.
Steele left the department after 12 years because he felt a responsibility as an artist to share his photographs and story in the hopes that doing so might help give individuals a realistic look at prison and deter them from entering the criminal justice system, he said.
“I can still see the faces of thousands of young Black and brown individuals coming into the receiving end for the first time encountering a system with no rules and justice,” Steele told Queen City Nerve.
When asked about his artistic process, Steele mentioned five steps: preparation, inspiration, percolation, creation, and reflection.
Upon leaving his job at the ARDC, Steele began setting up pop-up displays of his photos on sidewalks in economically challenged neighborhoods where he knew many of the incarcerated youths he saw going in and out of the jail lived when they weren’t locked up.
“Statistically, Black and brown people just do not attend museums and art galleries like others,” he explained. “I would load my caravan with the artwork and easels and display the work in front of housing developments and subway stations because I knew there would be traffic of people going back and forth.”
Steele relocated to Charlotte following a divorce, where he kept the project going. He wasn’t as familiar with Charlotte’s neighborhoods, and the ones he did know didn’t have nearly as much foot traffic as New York City streets. He tried asking around for a chance to show inside some local museums but his calls went unanswered.
“One day an idea came to me that I should buy a school bus and convert the vehicle into the first mobile prison art museum,” he recalled.
The bus includes graphic images depicting the realities of life in jails and prisons, but it’s about morethan fear-mongering. Along with those photos, the bus includes educational info, including critiques of mass incarceration comparing the prison industrial complex to America’s past institution of chattel slavery.
Steele said that not a day goes by he doesn’t think of his fellow officers and those who were and still are incarcerated on Rikers Island — the pain and trauma and friendships they all went through.
The bus made its first stops in 2022, beginning with a vigil for a young girl who was killed by a gun and a program called TreSports, a mentoring and support organization for young individuals who have run into issues with guns and gangs.
From there the bus has also made the rounds at schools such as Mallard Creek High School, West Charlotte High School and Invest Collegiate, where Steele currently works as Dean of Students.
Steele said he hopes to go from a bus to an actual museum someday, but this display is just a piece of the work he does through his non-profit, Behind These Prison Walls, through which he provides workshops to public schools, community organizations, churches and universities regarding bullying and conflict resolution. In-person or virtual services are available.
He has self-published a couple books, one titled Behind These Prison Walls: Inside Rikers Island and another called Survival Skills for Black and Brown Youth, both of which can be ordered through his website.
Everything he’s done since leaving his post in the jail is in the hope that he can deter someone from walking through those barred doors and having their life changed forever.
“Many organizations wait for someone to die before they act or wait for someone to knock on the door to administer some type of service,” he said.
For him, however, prevention is key.
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