Ronald Day at his home in the Bronx, during a Father’s Day barbeque, held on June 17, 2012 in New York City. © Ed Kashi/VII Photo.
Inside and out of prison, people may think that to keep ones head down, survive America’s overly punitive prisons, and wait for release is enough. Unfortunately, it is not; for those looking to reenter society new struggles emerge. Each year 700,000 men, women and children are released from prisons and jails to face modern day laws and attitudes that marginalize them and limit their abilities to build new lives.
New York based non-profit Think Outside The Cell, a young but impressively effective organization, is bringing light to the struggles of former prisoners.
“The issue of stigma is not discussed enough but it is the issue of our time. The effects are so widely felt,” says Sheila Rule, Think Outside The Cell co-founder. Convicted felons are routinely denied employment, housing, access to college, the right to vote, and public benefits.
“The oppressive legal barriers and sanctions that undergird the stigma are the building blocks of modern-day inequality, keeping millions of deserving Americans on the fringes of mainstream society,” writes Think Outside The Cell.
Think Outside the Cell has partnered with the renowned VII Photo Agency to produce a multimedia campaign that will raise public awareness and educate media and policy wonks with persuasive storytelling.
“I knew about VII and their credibility,” says Rule. “It was a natural fit. We are both driven by storytelling. Stories change hearts and minds.”
In September 2011, Think Outside The Cell hosted A New Way, A New Day, a national symposium about mass incarceration. Speakers included Dr. Khalil Muhammad, director of Schomburg Center; Jason Davis, former Bloods gang leader and community activist; Jumaane Williams, New York City Council-member; Hon. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ; Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow; Jeremy Travis, President, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin, director of operations, reentry services, Women’s Prison Association, among others. (View videos of the panels and presentations here.)
In the audience was Kimberly Soenen, a recent hire and Director of Business Strategies at VII Photo. Soenen knew that the issues of families, communities, criminal justice and inequality were of paramount interest to VII photographers. Rule, a retired New York Times journalist who knows the power of well-told and widely distributed stories, was open to Soenen’s approach to partner.
Soenen and VII focused on the immediate area and assigned New York and New Jersey based photographers to tell the stories of Ronald Day and Mercedes Smith. (With further funding, VII hopes to extend the campaign to other states.)
Mercedes Smith was released from prison two years ago. She begins college in January 2013 and although she struggles to find housing due to the rules of her parole she is making progress toward a stable life.
Ronald Day, 43, was incarcerated for 12 years, serving time in five NY institutions. Since his release, he has studied steadily, is employed connecting other former prisoners with access to services, is enrolled in the Criminal Justice PhD program at CUNY/John Jay College, and teaches criminal justice to graduate students at John Jay College.
Both Day and Smith have excellent relationships with their families.
Ronald Day’s story is not the typical tale, but that was precisely the point. VII and Think Outside The Cell wanted an optimistic view of how people can succeed in spite of the system.
“We’d always thought we’d follow someone as they were released and see them through the first weeks and months of difficult readjustment in the free world,” says Rule. But after some thought, Joseph Robinson, co-founder of Think Outside The Cell, Rule’s husband of 8 years, author, and current prisoner in Sullivan Correctional Facility, NY, suggested featuring someone who was, for all intents and purposes, succeeding, “Someone who everyone would think is doing okay, but who we could still show was facing Stigma,” posited Robinson.
While both imprisoned, Day and Robinson met at a National Trust for the Development of African American Men event. And, to this day, Rule often calls upon Day’s “dependable” organization skills to help plan Think Outside The Cell events. He was an obvious “messenger”.
However, for Day, the scrutiny of photojournalist cameras not surveillance cameras was a new experience.
“I’m not used to being followed by cameras continually. I guess that what reality TV is like. Children in the neighborhood called Ed and Ron ‘the Paparazzi.’ I thought that was hilarious!” says Ronald. “It’s good to know that my initial discomfort was a means to a higher purpose.”
Day’s motivation and higher purpose was to advocate for others.
“I want people to have a greater opportunity. You need to convince others that someone involved in a system has potential provided they’re given a chance. We need to take a second look at the individual, at the system, and the policies in ways which is fair and in ways which will change the laws,” explains Day. “I went online and looked at VII’s model for producing media. I realized it was a powerful way of producing journalism.”
And the issue is pressing.
Over the last 20 years, the number of major employers who screen for criminal records has grown to 90%. Laws that prohibit voting by people who have felony convictions deny an estimated 5.85 million Americans a visit to the ballot box. For people convicted of a drug felony, Congress has passed federal laws that place a lifetime ban on food stamps and cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). While states can opt out of or modify the ban, most states enforce it in full or in part, says the Think Outside The Cell website.
Discrimination in the workplace is no better described as the experience of a young man who lived in D.C. and worked at a temp agency. “He was so diligent he was bestowed the Temp of the Year Award and the firm wanted to hire him full time, but when they found out he was formerly incarcerated, they fired him,” says Rule.
Furthermore, this story reflects how the stigma and laws disproportionately effect people of colour.
“Trying to figure out ‘Why’ is common to the African American experience. Was it race? Often it’s not always clear, but in some instances the reasons reveal themselves,” says Rule.
The daily limitations on former prisoners leads directly to cycles of incarceration, Robinson believes.
“It’s a cycle of stigma, collateral consequences, exclusion, and recidivism,” says Robinson. “The collateral consequences are enormous and they are not theoretical; millions are effected and it results in social, political and emotional exclusion.”
“People on parole, probation and even people 10 or 15 years out encounter difficulties achieving the basic things needed to live life – things central to being American, such as working and supporting oneself,” he says.
“High hopes and dreams can often lead to disappointment,” says Robinson. “You may have a guy who has developed a business plan, but when he goes to the bank they won’t give him a loan. There are hundreds of business licenses felons are barred from. Prisoners acquire skills in electrics, masonry, metalwork, but they can’t get construction licenses so they’re relegated to working off the books. [They are not permitted] licenses in accountancy or real estate even if their crime had nothing to do with money.”
Imprisoned for 21 years and four years from eligible parole, Robinson says he has lots of time on his hands to “develop creative ideas around social entrepreneurship.” Rule puts them into practice on the outside.
“I wouldn’t be where I am, if it weren’t for Joe,” says Rule. Although physical separated, Robinson says he and Rule are “joined at the hip” in their values.
“Social entrepreneurship is not a profit driven enterprise,” says Robinson. “I’m not saying making money is a bad thing, but the goal of social entrepreneurship is to achieve maximum impact while caring for ecology, society, people. If we focus only on profit, we can do more harm than good. NGOs, businesses, councils and governments can collaborate in social entrepreneurship.”
Specifically, Think Outside the Cell has launched a End The Stigma/Break The Cycle campaign to involve incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people; probation and parole officials; legislators and government officials; civil and human rights advocates; business leaders; labor union members; private and public employers; nonprofit administrators; students; and teachers.
Robinson and Rule are also keen to engage print and screen advertisers, which shows a canny regard for how social attitudes are shaped.
“While we are building a coalition of those who effect what we decide – legislators, officials, voters – we also want to involve people who decide what we think – those in media and advertising,” says Rule.
Meanwhile, the onus is on imprisoned individuals themselves. Day often quotes to a 19th century saying he discovered in Scott Christianson’s book With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America.
‘Very few individuals are ever rehabilitated in prison, and none are truly rehabilitated by prison. But some may rehabilitate themselves in spite of prison.”
The key to Day’s shift in fortunes was education and it is a subject he speaks passionately about.
“One intervention in the cycle of crime is access to education,” he says.
But access was curtailed in 1994 when Federal law prohibited prisoners from access to Pell Grants. State laws replicated the Federal laws. And there are other laws to reverse, too. Mandatory minimum sentencing, particularly for drug crimes, was hugely damaging. Day describes the sentences resulting from new 3-strikes laws in the 1990s as “cruel” and “disproportionate” punishment.
“The war on drugs failed,” says Day. “As Michelle Alexander points out, if you put someone into a drugs program instead of imprisoning them, you get better results. You can’t incarcerate your way out of the problem. Even conservatives recognize that. This is an ideal time; this is the most pressing of times.”
His role as a VII photographers’ subject is not without its complications for Day, but the ensuing wider conversation is worth it. His students and fellow PhD classmates do not know of his former incarceration.
“Once the VII Photo begins its series, there’s a chance they’ll find out and then we’ll have that conversation,” he says. “Often people say, ‘I’d never had guessed’ and then pepper me with questions. I often find I become a resource and that really effects the conversation.”
Bring on the conversation. With wide-eyes and courage.
“Society likes to imagine these problems don’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind. We have to deal with this. Yes, these are people who have breached the social contract, but we need to think about how we treat people after they’ve served time in prison and their debt to society,” concludes Robinson.
Rule and Robinson both acknowledge their work is in its infancy but have faith in, and knowledge of, how to tell compelling stories.
“It’s been a long and enriching experience. I have no illusions, but when most people hear our stories, they say, ‘I didn’t know’. I hear it over and over again, and then I hear, ‘What can I do to help?'” says Rule.
“Some people hold the ‘Once a convict, always a convict’ attitude, but others – and I’d say this is the majority of people – don’t know about the issues for the formerly incarcerated,” says Rule. “Think Outside the Cell campaigns and describes experiences creatively. The standards methods have no effect; creativity moves the dial.”
Ultimately, VII Photo is continuing Think Outside The Cell’s track record of telling stories with compassion.
Editor’s note: This article is the first of a five-part Prison Photography series which will examine the nature of the VII Photo/Think Outside The Cell partnership, canvas the photographers’ thoughts and hopefully add to the push toward a fairer treatment of former prisoners.