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Image source: Growing Up Through Pictures (an unrelated program to Anathema Arts)

Prison arts organisation Anathema Arts is petitioning for a photo day program in the state of Illinois. Anathema Arts will provide the supplies necessary — the printer, photo paper, and digital camera. Anathema is at pains to state the program will not cost the taxpayers of Illinois.

“A photo can heal, promote positive thinking, maintain bonds, and enhance memories,” say Anathema Arts. “Photos of loved ones have long been used in psychology to reduce grief and pain, but just as they can provide comfort, the lack of current photos can cause negative consequences for both the incarcerated and their loved ones.”

As the majority of prisoners will be released back in to society it is in all of our interests to enact simple steps that maintain self-esteem among the incarcerated class. More importantly, the one factor that determines most a prisoner’s successful reentry into society is close family relationships during imprisonment. Photographs play their part in aiding those bonds.

“Friends and families of incarcerated people often do not have current pictures, and do not get to see how their son, daughter, friend, brother, or sister looks as their sentence passes over the years,” says Anathema Arts. “For those family members that can visit … portraits provide a positive focus during visits, and remind loved ones and prisoners of happier times.”

As I see it, the biggest potential problem with Anathema Arts’ proposition is how it is perceived. Might prison administrations be reluctant to accommodate the (sensible) suggestions of an arts organisation with stated sympathies for incarcerated peoples? Maybe, I’m problematising? Or maybe, I am not? After all, many members of the citizenry consider anything beyond punishment as being unwarranted or not needed in our prisons. Short version: prisons don’t want to appear soft and a photo portraiture program may be seen as fluffy and coddling.

But, surely, there can be no harm in allowing prisoners and families ready access to a recent photo portrait?!

A knee-jerk reaction would be to reject the FAMILY PHOTO -> BOND STRENGTHENED -> REDUCED ALIENATION -> SAFER SOCIETY theory of causation. I understand why some might think it a stretch but, let’s be honest, photography is often wrapped up in unexamined theory. So, why would we dismiss this well-meaning program specifically? Instead, let us consider the fact that prisoners are probably the demographic in America with least access to self-representation — they do not have the standing, nor the tools to create, share and replace images at will.

I’ve signed the petition because I think it’s not only a useful pilot program (that could be repeated in other prisons and other states) it is also a test to see what the Illinois Department of Corrections can accommodate. Is it flexible enough to host a volunteer-run photo program? It absolutely must be, for if it is not then what else can it not — will not — provide for those in its custody?

Go on. Sign up if you dare to imagine the possibilities.

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