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In the sea of literature about the injustice and capriciousness of the death penalty, few books make a clearer or more viscerally affecting argument than Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian’s “In This Timeless Time.”

The book, released a year ago to ecstatic reviews from across the prison and civil rights community, is the product of Jackson and Christian’s 1979 visit to the Ellis Unit near Huntsville, Texas, where the state’s death row prisoners were held. Its title comes from a poem written by one of the convicts the authors interviewed, who captured one of the book’s central themes: that on death row, time as we know it ceases to exist and the only solid concept to grab onto is one’s impending death.

The book is remarkable for many reasons. One is the unexpected warmth of the photographs and their subjects. Another is Jackson and Christian’s clear-eyed descriptions of life on death row: “His sentence was reduced to life September 24, 1982, and he has been eligible for parole since November 19, 1980, two years and two months before his current sentence began,” they wrote of convict Mark Moore. “No one cares.” The crystalline lucidity with which they explain the incontrovertible arguments against the death penalty is also a great achievement. But mostly the book is remarkable because it was allowed to happen in the first place.

Such a book could never be written today, a time when prisoners’ experiences on death rows across the United States – though their numbers are slowly dwindling – is worse than it was in the late ’70s. And much more tightly sealed off, lest the public catch wind of the daily horrors which occur therein.

That sense of limbo and the thick layers of bureaucracy even Kafka could not have dreamed of come across so strongly that reading this book becomes a harrowing, unforgettable experience.

Something similar applies to “Inside the Wire,” a collection of Jackson’s earlier photographs of Texas and Arkansas prisons from 1964 through 1979, with a few stunning mugshots of prisoners he discovered in 1975.

The book contains his best body of work, a series of panoramic photographs he made of the Cummins prison farm in Arkansas which might as well be pictures of the slave plantations of the preceding century. They work as stunning landscapes and social commentary. Interspersed with photographs of life inside the prison walls, portraits of individual prison workers and other glimpses of daily life, these scenes evoke a sense of menace and hopelessness that is indelible and chilling.

Colin Dabkowski