Mercedes Smith, a formerly incarcerated person, reads a letter from her currently imprisoned son, at a relatives house where she lives after working all day on July 13, 2012, in Manhattan  New York. Ms. Smith is not allowed to live with her family while she is on bail because her mother still lives in the same building as where the crime took place. Ms. Smith served 20 years for 2nd degree manslaughter and was released in 2010. (Photo by Ashley Gilbertson / VII)

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Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to create a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This conversation with Ashley Gilbertson is the final part of a five part series, ‘Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.’

(Part One): Think Outside The Cell / VII Photo Partnership
(Part Two): A Conversation With Ron Haviv
(Part Three): A Conversation With Ed Kashi
(Part Four): A Conversation Wtih Jessica Dimmock

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This text has been edited from longer conversation.

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PP: In part four I spoke with your colleague Jessica Dimmock. How was it working with her?

AG: It was easy. Jess is a photographer as a primary, so she knows how photographers move. We went back to Mercedes’ home one night and Mercedes went into her room and opened a letter. I looked through the door and I saw that it was a handwritten letter and I knew that her son was in prison. It was from her son. She started reading, I took some frames and moved out the way and Jess could shoot. That was an isolating scene that was very poignant – reading a letter from your son, while you are on parole, in a house that you’re trying to get out of.

PP: Why should we care about prisons and their aftermath?

AG: In the aftermath of prison, ideally, prisoners are changed members of society. Prisons are a place where people can at least try to signify to society that they have made recompense for crimes they’ve committed. Why is it important that we pay attention? The size of it. Until I met Mercedes Smith, I had no idea of the intensity of the problems former prisoners are facing.

PP: What type of problems?

AG: Housing. Mercedes living with a family member in housing projects in Manhattan. She wants to move on from that, but housing is so expensive that for her to actually afford something is really hard. And this is where all these elements that former prisoners face come together; she’s working two jobs part time and she’s looking for a third job. But it is very difficult for her to find any type of third job because she has curfew hours. Getting back to her apartment after curfew means she’ll break her terms of parole and potentially face going back to prison. For her to get an apartment she needs a third job.

Say if she wanted to move to New Jersey where housing is cheaper, she can’t. Her terms of parole require her to stay in New York State.

PP: Does she have good support?

AG: She was in a fortunate position because when she came out of prison to a very supportive and loving family. It is not quite accurate to say that Mercedes is fortunate because, in fact, she has worked very hard to get to where she is. Her children had been cared for by her mother and they visited her regularly while she was in prison and they had relationships. So, even after having done 20 years in prison, she had a warm and supportive environment to come back to and that’s something that – as I came to understand the issue better – a lot of people are lacking.

Mercedes is a really supportive mother who is doing everything she possibly can for her children. Two of her children live with her mother, one is down South and one is in prison. I saw her speaking a couple of times with her son that is in prison and it was a really warm and loving exchange – the tone of conversation that we all wish we could have with our mum.

PP: What did Mercedes hope of the project? Why did she go in front of cameras?

AG: Mercedes never said she felt like a role model, but she has figured out how to get out of the hole and she wants to save other women time and energy as they try to do so.

Both of Mercedes’ jobs work around her existence today as a parolee and as a former prisoner. She works with Women On The Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH), a group that lobbies for women who are imprisoned and particularly women who are giving birth in prison. The work plays directly into Mercedes’ experience, as she gave birth to her youngest child in prison, I believe.

Her other job is working with women just out of prison and giving them advice about what they have at their disposal; what organizations that might get in touch with. It is a mentor role. And she works at that second job with her own mentor.

PP: Your work is always about America.

AG: I research ideas and become interested in issues at a concept level, then I’ll start meeting people – community leaders in Pontiac, Michigan, for example, or in the case of Bedrooms Of The Fallen, family members. Everything I do is about America.

I see America as this sort of social experiment. I grew up in Australia; in the Commonwealth. I’ve lived in America for nine years, yes, but it remains so foreign to me. I hadn’t met a large group of Americans until 2003 when they marched into Iraq. I learnt more about America in Iraq than I did in America over those first few years [of the War on Iraq].

Working on different issues, here in America, is to continue to look at this experiment. The way Americans wave flags. It’s the same as how Australians wave flags, but in many ways it is very different.

The way Americans carry guns, the way they incarcerate people – it’s the world leader in so many poor statistics, but then in many great statistics too. I find it so bizarre to work here. There’s just an endless wealth of material. I don’t work on things I have a passing interest in. I have to be actively engaged … and, usually, angry.

Each aspect of American culture I look at, whether that’s politics, incarceration, war, treatment of veterans at home, suicide, post traumatic stress disorder, the auto industry, the economy – each thing adds to this tapestry that I’m trying to understand, and I want to, I just don’t know if I ever will.

PP: Why has VII pursued a partnership with TOTC?

AG: This partnership appealed because it was looking at a project in a way that offered solutions, with stories of people who were actively getting out of the problem, trying to create solutions to it. That is compelling.

I’d say it is a traditional approach to go to a prison and photograph the scenes and problems there. Or, to go to “convict alley” in Harlem, where there is the highest concentration of parolees living within a certain numbers of blocks in Harlem.

I was reading about speech-writing the other day and they were saying at the end of strong speech is a call to action. Both Ronald Day and Mercedes stand as a call to action. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been convicted of crimes because they’ve gotten beyond that and turned into people who empower those around them.

PP: VII wants to extend the project. Do you think you’ll continue involvement?

AG: I hope very much that the project goes on, and that it goes national. Think Outside The Cell is an incredibly powerful approach to this problem, so to see it produced on a national level would be compelling. I’d like to be involved, but I’d like more to see other photographers brought in.

It turned from an issue that I cared about into something that I all of a sudden became involved in. For a lot of us working in the press, it takes a significant amount for us to be shocked by certain things we see people come up against.

The opportunity that I’ve had to meet these inspiring people who are working to get out of this rut and try to change it at a policy level – that should be regarded by as wide a swathe of people as is possible.

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