Dana Ullman, a Brooklyn-based photographer, has in recent years traveled back-and-forth to California; to Los Angeles’ Skid Row, to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and to the San Joaquin Valley. The series’ title Another Kind Of Prison references the fact that many hardships of prison continue post-release and, furthermore, new challenges emerge. Ullman followed several women as they left prison and readjusted to life on the outside. For Ullman, the choice to go to California was logical.
“California is home to the world’s two largest women prisons and has an annual corrections budget of 10 billion dollars, the highest in the country, yet has limited reentry programs,” she says. “In California, there are about 12,000 women on parole. Unprepared once on parole, without money, housing or resources, institutionalized and isolated, these women find it difficult to regain hold of their lives.”
Over the past 15 years, the number of incarcerated women in prison increased by 203%, as compared to 77% for men. With such a rapid increase in prison populations, services within prisons have inevitably suffered. Ullman reports a lack of training, preparation and rehabilitation for the women she photographed.
Ullman is also keen to emphasize the common factors particular to female prisoners.
“62% of women in prison have children under 18. Many suffer from mental illness and have histories of sexual and physical abuse – 73% of women in prison have symptoms or are diagnosed with a mental illness compared to 55% of men in prison. 65% of women in state prisons are incarcerated for nonviolent drug, property, or public order offenses. Nearly one in three reported committing their offense to support a drug addiction. Many are battered women serving time for crimes related to their abuse,” Ullman writes.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Ullman wants to communicate the strength of the women who – at a particularly difficult junctures in life – have kindly let her into their lives.
“While some women have had difficult transitions, others have become inspirational community leaders – I want to show both sides in an effort to break stigma associated with incarceration.”
Dana Ullman and I share a belief that prisons are increasingly defining our society and economy.
“Another Kind Of Prison is more important then ever in exploring new strategies to better address the complex needs of present and former women prisoners who are often left out of the conversation,” says Ullman. “These stories, the needs and dreams of each woman in their own voice, illuminate the ‘revolving door’ created by poor public policies and lives fragmented by ignorance, poverty and by years, even lifetimes, of abuse. They will also help the public understand who these women are.”
Scroll down for a brief Q&A and a dozen more images. All images and captions by Dana Ullman.
Top image: LaKeisha Burton, 38, a poet and reentry advocate, was convicted as an adult at the age of 15. Ms. Burton served 17 and a half years in prison for shooting a gun into a crowd at the age of 15. She was convicted as an adult for attempted murder and received life plus 9 years. No one was killed or injured. The victim (with whom LaKeisha reconciled while both were serving time in prison), who killed someone, was released from CIW after 9 years. LaKeisha’s story represents the beginning of the disturbing increase in juveniles being tried as adults when many are completely capable of rehabilitation.
Above: On any given day women are paroled in California with a box of personal items, $200 or less in “gate money” and a bus ticket to Skid Row. Unprepared once out on parole, with no income, housing or resources, institutionalized and isolated, many women find it difficult to regain hold of their lives independently.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Clearly the success of a former-prisoner reentering society has a lot to do with their experience while locked up, but I feel in the past – for most people – dialogue about prison reform issues have been lumped in with dialogues about re-entry issues. That is to the detriment of both. It does seem though that, recently, re-entry has been recognised as its own vital step with its own set of issues to be explored. I’m thinking here of Convictions, Gabriela Bulisova’s excellent work in Washington D.C. and the forthcoming VII Photo’s documentary project and partnership with Think Outside The Cell.
Dana Ullman (DU): I am aware, too, of the increased focus on reentry [in photography] that really wasn’t there a few years ago. It is a difficult, complex and fragile issue to document because there are so many factors that lead to former prisoners’ success and failure, especially depending on where they live.
I am really happy to see Another Kind Of Prison getting some light because reentry is where one sees the emergence of all the issues that were not addressed while serving time, the societal factors that underline much of the mass incarceration today – sheer poverty, histories of abuse, racism and mental health. Once men and women are locked up and out of society, they are simplistically labeled “criminals” and the stigmas attached to poverty, abuse, race, mental health and crime are once again enforced.
PP: What are your hopes for the work?
DU: I envision, with some support, that Another Kind Of Prison will travel as an exhibition in community spaces such as libraries or ideally in county jails/state prisons where so many of these women (with very little support) are planning their release. There is one woman I interviewed who had no plan for even a place to sleep the night she got out. It was a random TV show featuring a transitional house that she saw one night, not her parole officer or a reentry prep class, that connected her to where she is now living. Women outside can really speak to those inside about their experiences. I have been making audio recordings of each woman’s story. I want the project to create a forum for discussion, rather than merely point out the problem.
PP: What’s next?
DU: I am not done with the project by any stretch. Documentary photography is tricky (and I am not a master of it by any means). I am following several, very fragile lives over time and waiting patiently for that “visual” moment that doesn’t always come. There is also so so much more I could do with some kind of funding, but that has been difficult, so I have to work with what I can. So for now, I hope to increase awareness of this experience shared by thousands of women in the USA with the general public and keeping plugging away at it making the work stronger.
In San Francisco, I was working very closely with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners who have used my work to support their own causes. I was very happy about that because the CCWP do a lot of direct services and support for these women. In New York, I am expanding the project to look a young 28-year-old upstate woman’s reentry process after being incarcerated at the age of 14 to try and get a younger person’s perspective.
I am going to Uganda this Fall where I will be working with the organization African Prisons Project documenting women in prison. I’ll also be collecting stories of people incarcerated and indefinitely-detained for homosexuality (for which the highest penalty is death). My work is quite capable of being a cross-cultural look at women and prison.
Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California is one of two of the largest women’s prisons in the world; the second, Valley State Prison, is directly across the street.
Mary Shields embraces a long-time friend and advocate one week after being released from Central California Women’s Facility. Mary served 19 years for a crime related to domestic violence.
Mary Shields a week after her release from Central California Women’s Facility laughs with a friend after she had trouble understanding how to use a cell phone, which were not widely used twenty years ago.
LaKeisha Burton performs a spoken word piece at Chuco’s Justice Center, which serves as a youth and community space in Inglewood, California. Today, LaKeisha shares her story through spoken word performances and is dedicated to working with at-risk youth susceptible to gangs and the same injustices as she once experienced.
LaKeisha watches a youth group perform at Chuco’s Justice Center in Los Angeles, California. With her infectious optimism and self-determination, LaKeisha Burton displays almost nothing of her past; she lives, works and dates, as any women like her. Yet, these things are exceptional for someone who had lost, some might say had stolen, nearly two decades of the most developmental period in one’s life and with very little preparation thrust out into society. Ms. Burton says when she was released it was as if she were still 15 going on 16.
In the United States over 1.5 million children have a parent who is incarcerated.* 75% of women in prison are mothers and over half have children under the age of 18. Many children suffer lasting emotional effects of a parent’s incarceration, which can affect all areas as they develop into adults.
After cycling in and out of jail for crimes related to substance abuse, Jean Waldroup, 39, has found “home” at A New Way of Life, a transitional home for formerly incarcerated women that emphasizes keeping mothers and children together. For the last six months, Jean has maintained both her sobriety and role as mother to her son and daughter. Jean is the primary parent and she maintains a relationship with the children’s father.
A New Way of Life purchases homes in residential neighborhoods, giving a quieter, less institutional environment for families to rebuild relationships that may show signs of wear and tear after experiencing incarceration. Community-based organizations like A New Way of Life operate mostly under the radar with few resources and little public recognition despite their critical role in offering rehabilitation, family reunification and successful reentry.
Following her release, and to give her life structure, Molly volunteers to make lunch for clients at the behavioral health clinic she attends in San Francisco. Molly stills battles with drug addiction.
Molly on the bus. To avoid the caustic environment bubbling outside her building, Molly will ride Muni lines between Bayview-Hunter’s Point and Downtown San Francisco for hours. She tends to hide from nouns, that is people, places, and things. Molly’s mental health and substance abuse maintain instability and isolation in her life, some days are good, others hard.
A friend embraces Molly at a local community center.
Molly’s room at the Empress Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The first stable living she has had since the cycle of incarceration began in her life.
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*The advocacy group Children of Promise estimates the number of U.S. children with incarcerated parents at 2.7 million.
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Dana Ullman grew up in Portland, Oregon. She studied photojournalism at the Danish School of Journalism and holds a B.A. in Journalism from San Francisco State University. Dana currently lives in New York City photographing assignments and personal projects.
A New Way of Life Reentry Project is a non-profit organization in South Central Los Angeles with a core mission to help women and girls break the cycle of entrapment in the criminal justice system and lead healthy and satisfying lives.
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) is a grassroots social justice organization, with members inside and outside prison, that challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex. CCWP prioritizes the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement.
The African Prisons Project (APP) is a group of people passionately committed to improving access to healthcare, education, justice and community reintegration for male, female and juvenile prisoners in Africa.