Jessica Dimmock. Credit: Unknown

Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to make and distribute a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This conversation with Jessica Dimmock is the fourth 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 Five): A Conversation with Ashley Gilbertson

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Prison Photography (PP): In the first two interviews of this series, I’ve spoken with Ed Kashi and Ron Haviv who followed Ronald Day. You collaborated with Ashey Gilbertson to tell the story of Mercedes Smith. Tell us a little about her.

Jessica Dimmock (JD): Mercedes spent 20 years in prison. She was 24-years-old when she was convicted. She has been out for only two years and she is in her late forties. Her energy is pretty amazing; if you met her you’d have no idea she’d spent so long in prison. She’s the perfect subject in that people ask, ‘what does a person who has been in prison look like?’ and she overturns the stereotypes.

She’s so warm. There’s a giddiness to her energy which, to me at least, indicates a lack of bitterness. Whether or not she’s guilty or innocent doesn’t matter. The reality is that she was in prison for 20 years and she is a lovely person to be around. Her relationship with her children is good. She is close with her granddaughter. They are a strong family for sure and it is good to see.

PP: Could Mercedes success not also have been problematic for you as a storyteller? It might be that you’d present a subject and the audience think, ‘Oh, well, people have no problem readjusting, there is no issue here.’

JD: I don’t wish her situation upon anyone, but in terms of her standing in for a large population in similar circumstances – people going through difficulties with housing, employment, family and reintegration – she is a good subject.

PP: What issues specifically is Mercedes dealing with?

JD: Housing. She currently lives with an aunt. She could stay with her mother – who is an amazing influence in her life – but because her mother’s building is where Mercedes was arrested Mercedes cannot live there. So, she has to stay elsewhere, which in her specific case, is probably more detrimental to her wellbeing and to her chances of reentering successfully.

Employment for her right now is good. That employment is not a problem for her but housing is, is in itself very interesting because you can see she is very high functioning with the type of work she does.

PP: Why were you attracted to the project?

JD: There has been a lot of stories and documentaries about prison – about the wrongfully accused and the exonerated – which are all important stories, but I don’t feel like I’ve seen many documentary treatments about the reintegration process.

In movies we often see an opening scene in which the prison gates open, the main character walks out and that’s the beginning of a character arc. It is a trajectory commonly used in fiction. I realized I didn’t know what the real life version of that was, or is.

PP: How did you approach it then?

JD: We wanted to spend some real time with Mercedes. To see how she reintegrates with her family; how she is with her kids, who are great, by the way; and what it is like for her in the workplace.

PP: What did Mercedes want to get out the project?

JD: Overall, she realizes there’s a lot of stigma attached to former prisoners. Now, she works with at-risk populations and with women who are currently incarcerated. She’s really involved in the church. She prays and that is a process tied very much into decision-making for her. She’s an open person. I don’t think she was overly moralistic about it – she was just thinking, ‘that sounds as if it would break down stigma, go ahead.’ We didn’t feel driven by any agenda of hers.

PP: During the project did you discover anything about how male and female populations function differently inside prison?

JD: Yes. There’s not the same amount of educational programs in women’s prisons.

I know a woman who had been imprisoned at Valhalla [Westchester County Jail], which has a very small female prison population of girls that have been, for example, convicted for shoplifting or prostitution. But because it is such a small prison there are no programs. This woman spent 10 months there and didn’t go outside once. It’s not the longest sentence, but could you spend 10 months indoors? I don’t want to do that.

Mercedes talked about how overall Bedford Hills was a pretty supportive environment in terms of the actual women; there wasn’t a lot of drama; there wasn’t a lot of fights; there wasn’t a lot of craziness; they all took good care of each other. That’s maybe the other side of the gender issue.

PP: The project is on reentry. Does Mercedes feel like she has adequate support?

JD: In some areas, yes, but in housing definitely not. She wants to have her own place – she’s a woman in her late 40s who has a job. It’s valid that she wants that and she’s finding it difficult.

She also doesn’t have credit. If you’ve spent twenty years of your adult life behind bars you’ve not been able to build up credit. It’s not that she has bad credit; she just doesn’t have a credit score. Compared to other adults her age, that is a significant disadvantage and that won’t change unless of some direct intervention. Even though it doesn’t seem like the most soul wrenching part of it – maybe the family reintegration stuff is more emotive – there is a reality that makes credit scores an issue.

PP: I am interested by the word ‘stigma’. How would Mercedes characterize her situation?

JD: One of the things Mercedes discussed was that she will always wear the label ‘felon’. She will always have this version of a scarlet letter. She doesn’t get to walk around free of that. It will interfere with job applications, housing applications, and so on.

The paradox for her and the thing that feels very unfair is that she served time and that’s supposed to be the punishment, so to find you’re still being punished for the one act you were told you served time for is a frustrating process. You want to feel like you’ve done the time. But the reality is, you have to go around and tell people all the time that you’re a person who served time. Mercedes’ frustration makes sense to me.

PP: Was it an emotional story to cover?

JD: Not emotional, more enjoyable and that is down to Mercedes’ personality. She was very forthcoming about all aspects of her life. Mercedes has a son who is currently incarcerated – that’s got to be really hard. A son, who several months after she came home – went into prison. As a parent it’s potentially shameful and difficult to discuss but she would totally talk about it. She had received a letter from her soon one night when we went over and she read it out loud to us. She didn’t say, ‘This is an aspect which should stay hidden’, but rather, ‘This is all of me and you can share it.’

PP: VII has done other partnerships in the past? Starved for Attention probably the biggest example. MSF is international. US Aid is national. Think Outside The Cell is a much smaller organization.

JD: If you dive into the VII archives you’d find similarly small or lesser known organizations in addition to big ones such as Human Rights Watch with whom Marcus Bleasdale works.

VII and other photographers are more and more linking up with NGOs. What is less common, and particular to our work with Think Outside The Cell, was that there were several of us doing it.

People are moving toward more collaborative efforts – a) because people are doing more video, and filming is not a solo project, and b) because there is an interest in watching how several people can work together, even on a single subject.

PP: You’re invested in constructing a narrative, dealing with an issue. My angle for the longest time has been political – I believe there are serious structural problems with the criminal justice system. Some times those arguments can be quite abstract. You’ve said Mercedes wasn’t bitter but how did she feel about the prison system in America?

JD: Mercedes is actively involved with programs that support people still inside and about to reenter. It’s about how she wants to lead her life. I think she thinks, ‘If I don’t get weighed down by my past and I continue to engage with it, I’m not in any denial but instead I am emotionally and psychologically moving forward with it.’

That’s the sense that I get; now that her sentence is over, it is a decision to have that time be over. Even though she struggles, her energies and emotions suggest she is not staying stuck in the past.

PP: What do you hope the VII/TOTC campaign might achieve?

JD: I always try to show things as they are. I really try to not say, ‘Look at how outrageous this is.’ My storytelling might come from a place of thinking there is a problem but I try not to show a story in that light.

If people see something that is authentic and they observe the real things that are happening then they will then come to their own conclusions. I don’t have to be moralistic in my telling of the story. And so what I most immediately hope is that people watch it – I want exposure – and but more than that, I want people to spend time in someones elses experience. I hope we convey it accurately so the audience says, ‘Okay, now you’ve just watched that. That’s what her life is like. That’s what her situation is like.’

PP: You’d be really satisfied if people identified the story with someone in their own lives – a friend, family member, or someone on who lives on their street?

JD: Yes, then they have a reference point and they get it. But, if you push people too much to feel bad for this or that person, it might not happen or translate much in their real life. I want the audience to understand the issue; I don’t want them to feel bad.

PP: You don’t want audiences to say of your subjects, ‘Oh, they are different, and I’ve always thought that.”

JD: Right.

PP: Outside of you as a story teller, and instead you as Jessica Dimmock, do you feel the criminal justice system works?

JD: Definitely not. I am a political person but this project on stigma is not overtly political; it comes from my curiosity about correctional facilities. What it is that correctional facilities do to prepare people to come back to society and not fail? What do they do to make sure that after serving time prisoners are better equipped to come out and not repeat their actions? The locking people up part is happening, but the reentry part is not.

All you must do is look at the statistics in populations that the criminal justice system is directly effecting. How many people on the street have gone through a correctional process? Those figures start to go off the charts. If it’s really failing – and looking at the numbers – it is, then we have a massive problem.

PP: Any thoughts on the intersections between prisons and photography?

JD: There is an organization that takes requests from prisoners in solitary confinement …

PP: Yes, the Tamms Year Ten Project organised by activists based in Chicago. They accept photo descriptions and requests from prisoners in Tamms Supermax Prison in the south of Illinois. Fascinating and unique project.

JD: Some of those requests are so sweet. No one at the Tamms Year Ten Project is saying how you should feel about people on death row. All I did was see these requests and it changed everything. “I would like a picture of a horse galloping in the sunset” – words so sweet and that I could never make up. “I want a picture of a woman and I’m on my knee holding a rose for her.” It’s what every woman would want. Sweet and romantic, which was very surprising. If I’ve ever read paragraphs that break down stereotypes, then those requests are them.

PP: Jess, thanks.

JD: Thank you.