Albert Einstein once said, “Never lose a holy curiosity,” and that was debatably the mantra running through the mind of New York-based photographer Serge J-F. Levy as he walked into Green Haven Correctional Facility in 2002. No, Levy was not walking in to do time for a crime, nor was he bailing out anyone who had been; rather he entered the prison in the same bearing as would a kid in a candy store: pure fascination.
Levy’s path to enlightenment took place in the halls of jail cells where he chose to photograph inmates from six different maximum security prisons embracing their spirituality in this most—seemingly—unlikely environment.
“Without having any personal predisposition to any religious activity but having a fascination with how people can work on their spirituality and healing their souls, I was interested in how this was happening in an environment that seemed to be everything but conducive to that,” Levy said.
For 2 ½ years, Levy traveled from one facility to another through states such as Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Louisiana to capture the array of religious practices that go on behind bars, where someone on the outside would least expect it. Levy wanted to discover the souls of those whom he recognized have souls, though they were uniformly dressed in orange jumpsuits and called criminals. Visiting Christian, Jewish, Wiccan, Muslim, and Buddhist inmates, he partook in the rare opportunity to see emotion and vulnerability behind their pale skin.
“There’s this sincere desire on the part of many inmates to try to understand the state of their soul,” Levy said. “They’re trying to understand their predicament, and I think that spirituality in prison not so infrequently dovetails with a form of analysis or therapy. I think there’s a sense of introspection and evaluation of one’s life that happens within these religious environments.”
Upon witnessing a baptism involving inmates dunked into a laundry cart filled with water, Levy, who commits himself to no particular faith, professed that the joy and heart emitted from that moment was the “quintessential religious experience,” that although that sort of sentiment could carry in any religious environment, it was there within a prison cell that it peaked. It was perhaps the joy of redemption, the joy in thoughts of gratitude to God amid an atmosphere of punishment, regret, and perhaps loss of hope.
Still, some moments were too tender for Levy to capture. Within a women’s facility as he sat through a conversation in which prisoners described their experiences with rape, his angle changed from that of one behind the camera to one inside the very hearts and histories of these inmates. It was at that time that he could see their humanness.
“I had to put down my camera. I was incapable of working because it was just too much,” Levy said. “It really brought together what the story was about. We don’t know how people arrive in prison until we start to listen to how they arrived there. There’s no excuse for the damage a felon criminal has done, but there is possibly an explanation.”
Levy captured these photos to encapsulate the freedom inmates find in spirituality—they who are confined not only by everyday worldly culture, but also by the bars that surround them.
“I wanted to really get everything from that public experience all the way down to the private experience. Because that’s the breadth of what religion and spiritually means to people.”