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This is a story about how one photographer went from documentarian to facilitator of a camera workshop inside a women’s jail.

The FAIR (Future Achievers In Reentry) program, run by Welcome Home Ministries, at Las Colinas Detention and Rehabilitation Center helps women prepare for a successful return to society. A few years ago, Sheriff Gore of San Diego County was keen to promote the program. It does appear to be a shining light in a department that has had significant troubles.

Sheriff Gore approached photographer Michele Zousmer, who he knew from past involvement with a local foster care agency, and asked if Zousmer could, through her images, help “change the perception of the female convict.”

“I jumped at the opportunity not knowing how life-changing it would be for me,” says Zousmer. “I was confined to the small room in which the women lived. I started by photographing the women while they were in group with their facilitator.”

Zousmer has collected her own images in a series titled Making the Invisible Visible (more here). She has made slideshows of her photographs for Welcome Home Ministries and conferences on the FAIR program. Here, in this article, only images made by the women prisoners are featured. They can also be seen on Zousmer’s website in the blogpost Photography as Healing Art.

The images were made in the old Las Colinas Detention and Rehabilitation Center. It closed in August 2014. It held over 1000 women. The few dozen women in the FAIR program were selected by the administration through an application process. If selected, they lived in a separate dorm.

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At first, Zousmer visited with her own camera to document the group and their progress. She wanted to show the softer side of the women.

“I wanted to capture the victimization, sadness, remorse, and despair, but also the beauty and transition they showed in group. I wanted others to look at these women and see them as ‘us’! Media portrays people in prison as people unlike ‘us’. I quickly learned these women were very much like ‘us’. My heart opened.”

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Gripped by the FAIR environment of positive change, Zousmer soon upped her level of involvement. She coordinated, with a friend, a Women’s Empowerment group once a week.

“When people feel better about themselves,” explains Zousmer, “they take better care of themselves, and do not allow bad things to happen to them. They begin to have hope and want things for themselves and their children. The women started to feel better about themselves. They recognized how to deal with their triggers. They opened themselves up and released their shame and bonded with others. They learned to trust again!”

Soon thereafter, Zousmer wondered if cameras in the hands of the female prisoners had therapeutic potential.

“I broached the idea with the women about learning basic photography and taking photos of themselves and their experience in the FAIR dorm,” she explains. “They jumped at this.”

Zousmer put a call out to friends on Facebook for donations of old point-and-shoot cameras. She got 15. After a basic camera lesson, the women made images.

“I impressed on them I wanted them to express themselves and their experience.”

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The women were as comfortable behind the camera as they were in front, reports Zousmer.

“Photos were limited to inside the FAIR dorm and in the front yard. The one thing off limits for them, and for me, was taking photos of their food! Interesting?” says Zousmer. “They only had access to cameras for the two hours I was there.”

Back at home, Zousmer would upload the images and make an edit of the most useful images. She’d send files to a local store to make prints. Zousmer has always approached photography – hers or others – as a means to advocate. In this case, she believed these photos could help these women tell their stories. Unfortunately, these weren’t images the women could fully own.

“They were not allowed to keep any of their photos,” explains Zousmer ruefully. “I would have liked to have put them up in the dorm. The women were proud of what they had done but authorities said no. The women did own photos from their families, but our images were not allowed. I thought it was punitive and another means of control.”

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The photo therapy class led by Zousmer had only a short life. In November 2014, there was a security breach (unrelated to the FAIR program) at the new Las Colinas facility and she was never let back in again.

“I tried to go back as a guest to visit some of the women I couldn’t say goodbye to and was treated like a criminal. I was not allowed in main area but had to visit behind glass,” she says. “I kept writing to my ladies and most are out now. I still maintain relationships with some of them through Facebook.”

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Despite being short-lived, the program left its mark.

“Getting close to these women in this way allowed me to feel their pain and realize they all are victims of abuse on some level. Most of these women do not need to be locked up. To me, being in a good treatment program and not separating them from their children would have greater impact.

“Removing people from bad environments and allowing them time to see and feel the difference, surrounded by people who are compassionate and caring, has a bigger influence on them then being locked up.”

Now, Zousmer runs a Women’s Empowerment group at a long term offenders pilot program for the WestCare group. She has a proposal in the pipeline to introduce cameras there too.

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Imprisonment frequently dehumanizes people and can cause anger and depression, says Zousmer. Punishment has a place for people who have transgressed and abused but we, in freer society, forget all too often that the majority of women in prison have suffered abuse also. In many cases, horrendous degrees of abuse. They need healing, not warehousing.

“Incarceration won’t change,” asserts Zousmer, “until the many administrators and legislators change their mindset and realize the long term [negative] effects prison and jail causes to these women’s psyches.”

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