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“What happens when a 75 year old who has spent his last 50 years behind bars gets released?” This is the questions Sarah Bones asks in a careful study of Earl. Earl has no plans, no money and no destination. He makes this clear to those in positions to aid his assimilation into society and yet, after he leaves prison, he predictably turns up homeless and seemingly alone.
Bones does an excellent job with the captions pointing out the realities of Earl’s modest life – keeping warm in the library, eating at soup kitchens, avoiding queues at the health center, unable to find work, wearing the same prison jacket – only with his name crossed out. Earl explains over coffee that living homeless is tough and he wishes he was back inside. Bones’ photography is evidence that for a lot of former inmates the common experience after release is homelessness. Being outside the prison walls is to be outside all walls.
Earl is unable to wrap his head around his imminent reentry into the free world so he shuffles and hides around the prison hoping the prison authorities will forget about him. I think the same denial would strike pensioner who hadn’t walked free since the early 1950s as a young twenty-something.
After Earl’s release Bones searched for him. She found him in his home town a few hours from the prison. He had taken greyhound. For three months, Earl lived on the streets. He fell down some stairs, and thereafter was admitted to Reading hospital. Earl was hospitalised for 8 weeks and then taken into permanent nursing home care. During his three months on the street, Earl often showed his prison ID to people he met. His institutional identity was one of the few things he had, and when he ended in up in permanent nursing care one feels that a return to an institution, without the stresses of life outside, was a positive result for Earl. Maybe.
There have been several photo essays done about prison release, but often they feature men with a story to define based on their own choices. These men are younger prisoners who usually return to complex communities, daily decisions, and family interaction. Or the inmate is the exonerated after an overturned sentence. Vance Jacobs did a great series covering Alan Crotzer’s story of exoneration after 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit.
Earl’s case seems very different. It doesn’t seem Earl had many choices … or ones that he was aware of. Sarah Bones completed this series in 2002/03. Earl died in July 2005.
Of Bones’ other work, I am particularly struck by three photographs from East Africa which includes two heart-wrenching portraits of AIDS sufferers shunned by their families and a top-drawer portrait which deserves an essay in itself. Please view Bones’ other photo essays on Rwandans lives 15 years after the genocide and her Lightstalkers gallery which includes her work for the Sierra Leone Global Action Foundation.
Sarah S. Bones is a self-taught, award-winning, internationally-exhibited photographer. Sarah saved for her first 35mm camera at age 13. She has documented peoples’ stories in Cuba, Guatemala, Kenya, India, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Tanzania. In the Pennsylvania area, she has photographed in prisons, homeless shelters and on political campaigns. Bones tells the stories of men, women, and children who are voiceless and too often ignored by the popular media.