Empty Cells, Empty Souls by Mike Boening

Editor Shenyah Webb, Photography, June 26th, 2015

"...hung out on a stone wall until ice formed on their skin"


The crumbling corridors of The East State Penitentiary have been abandoned for nearly 45 years, one of the pioneering prisons to practice a separate system. Rather than physically torturing the inmates, they were completely isolated from the any human contact, just the word of God (The Bible), intended to move them towards spiritual reflection and change. It was strongly believed that the inmates would become genuinely penitent when faced with their sins in absolute isolation. Individual cell blocks had private courtyards, central heat, running water, flushing toilets and even skylights to let in the light of heaven while they worked and ate alone in complete silence. To maintain the silence, the guards even wore socks over their shoes when making rounds.

Most of these early inmates were petty criminals, purse snatchers, and horse thieves sentenced to a minimum of two years.

This separate system not only became too costly, but also many perceived that the “tampering with the brain was worse than torture on the body.” Hence, the system slowly eroded and converted into a more Auburn style incarceration, where solitary confinement was still practiced but much of the work was done in groups, still masked in silence. Through time the prison became overcrowded with more serious criminals and the physical punishments used on prisoners became harsher, leading to suicide, murder, and madness. The torture that took place is almost unthinkable; an iron gag, in which an inmate’s hands were tied behind the back and strapped into a collar where movement caused their tongue to rip and bleed. They were dunked into a cold water bath in the wintertime and hung out on a stone wall until ice formed on their skin. A chair designed to bind inmates so tightly that their circulation was cut off, leading to amputations. And “The Hole,” a place where inmates were held in solitary confinement underground, with no light, no human contact, no movement, no toilet and little to eat.

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mike boening photography NAILED


Mike commonly finds his inspiration on the streets of his hometown, Detroit, Michigan, specializing in street and urban photography. As the newest Trailblazer in the Olympus Visionary Program, he first caught the eye of Olympus through his work with Out of Chicago and his “Shoot Light, Shoot Often” philosophy. Over the last five years, he has worked with the Detroit Metro Convention Bureau, covering events, taking Fortune 500 company headshots, and shooting sports photography. Mike has shared his love of street photography by teaching and leading groups on urban photography in the Detroit area as well as out of state. When he isn’t behind a camera, he is in front of the camera serving as co-host of the biweekly video podcast, Mirrorless Minutes. He is passionate about what can be accomplished with the Olympus Micro Four Thirds systems, using the OM-D E-M1 for his outdoor shooting exploits. To view more of his work, visit his artist site, here.


Shenyah Webb

Shenyah Webb is a Portland-based visual artist and musician. She has been with NAILED Magazine since its inception in 2012 and has served as the Arts Editor and a Contributing Editor since its launch in 2013. A Detroit native, she attended The College for Creative Studies, where she focused on Fine Art and Industrial Design. She is currently enrolled in a Somatic Expressive Arts Education and Therapy training program, studying under Lanie Bergin. You can learn more about Shenyah here. (Shenyah.com)