As soon as I saw Ashley Stinson‘s photographs, it was a priority for me to publish them. How many prison environments or programs can we confidently describe as wholesome?

On the evidence, of Stinson’s images from Women’s Western Kentucky Correctional Facility in Fredonia, Kentucky, the female prisoners are given ample space and activity to forge their own purpose. Are these images sugar coating their experiences or faithfully depicting transformative hard-graft?

To close in on the truth, I asked Stinson a few questions. Scroll down for our Q&A.

What attracted you to the subject?

I wanted to start a project on female farmers around the Louisville, KY area because I continued to run into women who were pursuing it as profession and I thought it would be an interesting subject considering that it is historically a male dominated field.

A friend’s mother was a nurse at the prison while it was still an all male prison and she suggested that I look into the prison’s agriculture. So, what was initially a project about the surge in female farmers quickly turned into a project about this large-scale prison farming program.

Tell me about this seemingly unique program.

It currently has one of the largest farms in the nation run by female prisoners. It’s a fairly new program for the women; the prison was an all-male prison until a few years ago. The state is really proud of the work the women have done – they tend the crops, maintain the farm machinery, and take care of a large number of beef cattle. It’s a really positive program and I am reminded of that every time I travel to Fredonia to photograph.

What are these ladies locked up for?

Western Kentucky Correctional Facility is a minimum and medium security facility and to participate in the farming program the women have to be in the minimum security portion which naturally means that they have been convicted of lesser crimes. Mostly substance abuse or robbery with a few cases of manslaughter.

In your photographs, they seem like they’re enjoying themselves. Is this the case?

Absolutely! They certainly work hard but it is a fun atmosphere and I have never encountered a tense moment with these women. They are happy, healthy, and truly working on bettering themselves and I am trying to convey that through my photographs.

They have formed really solid friendships because farming can be incredibly dangerous and a lot of what they do requires looking out for one another and trusting co-workers. I believe that the biggest benefit of this program has been the relationships these women have formed. Not just with each other but also with animals that they have cared for, the crops that they tend and the employer/employee relationship they have with the farm management team.

I do not know the women’s backgrounds but I get the impression that these are whole new situations for them. They are  held completely accountable for their daily tasks, and they can literally see the positive results of the hard work they are doing. The program taps into their ability to nurture and care for others which is such a positive experience. Also, it’s hard not to have fun when you are bottle-feeding a newborn calf or driving a huge tractor.

Beyond daily purpose and building self-esteem (which I take as a given in programs such as these) are these ladies hopefully they are acquiring skills that will sustain them in the job market when they’re released?

They are certainly acquiring a number of skills that could be applied to other jobs once their time has been served – car maintenance, welding, gardening, composting, etc. The farm managers are extremely experienced farmers, not police officers or trained guards, and I believe that creates a work dynamic that is much closer to what the women will find outside of prison if they decide to pursue a career in agriculture. Some of these women may continue farming in the future but they will ALL leave with a positive work experience and a sense of accomplishment which will serve them well when the re-enter the job market.

Who owns the farm? Who owns the products of the farm? Who eats the crops?

The state owns the farm. I am assuming the state or the prison “owns” the products of the farm. Most of the corn is used to feed the beef cattle and other crops are either used for food at this prison or the male prison in Eddyville. Extra veggies and fruit have been donated to the local food-bank and local churches.

Do the crops go into the prison system or onto the open market?

They have discussed selling surplus produce to the community in the future.  A portion of the cattle stay on the farm to reproduce and the majority are sold at auction, with the money going back into the prison.

Is this project complete?

It is ongoing. I have clearance at the prison until August and then my next step will be to visit these women once they are paroled to take photos of them after incarceration so I may have some more photographs in the future.

View the work here.