Elainaise Mervil. Source: The Tallahassee Project via VICE

I was recently speaking with an advocate who visited women’s prisons in California to learn about their circumstances and build cases for release. She said to me, “There needs to be more media in prisons. The women with whom I have conversations totally complicate peoples’ ideas about who a criminal is.”

Unquestionably, photographic media plays a role in telling stories. Some photographs better than others. If storytelling is about connection and about empathy, then what better photographs than the family snap or the amateur portrait?

This week, the unavoidable ordinariness of prisoners’ portraits was in evidence on VICE.

Jamie Lee Curtis Taete did us the service of republishing images from the book The Tallahassee Project: One Hundred Prisoners Of The War On Drugs, by John Beresford, M.D.

“The majority of the women shown in the book were charged with ‘conspiracy’ based on the statements of informants who spoke to authorities in exchange for reduced sentences,” says Curtis Taete.

From a woman whose old phone, still in her name, was used by a drug dealer to a women who drove drugs across state lines. Yes, there may have been a poor decision or lack of inquiry involved but there was also coercion (usually by a male friend or family member) and the result is a long, long mandatory-minimum sentence. Such is the War On Drugs which has been largely responsible for an eightfold increase in the female prison population in the U.S.

It’s likely many women implicated in drugs investigations are mere runners and may not even possess the information needed to bargain with the authorities. The result is destroyed families and ruined lives. 16 years, 24 years and even life for a failure to cooperate with authorities. How do these numbers even make sense? They don’t. They are shameful.

Below, I include a particularly insightful contribution to The Tallahassee Project book [my underlining] by Elainaise Mervil (pictured above).

Inmate ID Number: 20982-018

Sentenced to 20 years for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base and cocaine hydrochloride

Estimated release date: 08-07-2014

I am a Haitian lady who has left 4 minor children behind to do this mandatory sentence. I have no criminal history. I am a first-time non-violent offender. It seems the government is tearing families apart and the children are the ones that are really made to suffer for this “War on Drugs.” P.O.W.

I fell into the wrong crowd in Orlando, Florida. I have never had any problems with the law and only am now learning to read and write the English language. I am a native of the beautiful country of Haiti. I love America, but I believe that the judicial system needs some change and review.

Conspiracy is such an all-encompassing category that if no other charge may be brought forth, one is charged with conspiracy and subjected to the 10-year mandatory minimums which increase rapidly in direct proportion to hearsay evidence whether true or not true. It appears that a person who is found in possession of narcotics will receive less time than a person who was not found in possession of anything, since conspiracy seems like the only viable charge.

Conspiracy was originally designed to target “king pins” who are usually sheltered by runners, etc. But what has happened instead is that the king pins are the ones who receive the most favorable deals since they have the most to provide to the government for substantial assistance motions as they possess many many contacts. The “little man” who does not know as much suffers since his assistance is not as valuable; hence, falling victim to the harsh treatment under the law by being required to serve a decade-plus in prison.

I applaud this use of photography. Let’s see more activists and journalists in prisons gathering such image and word to amplify the voices of those callously thrown away by our society.

Go to VICE to read more criminally injust stories and to see pictures of women who look like your neighbours, your sisters and your mothers.