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KAREN, 69, in a homeless shelter four weeks after her release. East Village, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: April 2017
“When I made parole plans, I thought I was going to have a good re-entry situation in the house I paroled to. I realized almost immediately that it wouldn’t work out, so I left, without anywhere else to go. Parole sent me to a homeless assessment shelter in the south Bronx. The quality of the bedding and the food was a lateral move from prison. But factoring in my freedom, there’s no question that it was an improvement. Now, I’m in a shelter run by the Women’s Prison Association. I feel safe and secure. The room is spare, with not much in it, but it’s mine. In this room, I find comfort, privacy, safety, and peace of mind.”

 

Working as a public defender, Sara Bennett has met a great many women who have faced struggle and hardship. Many serve, or have served, long sentences. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has increased by 800% in the U.S. There are nearly 100,000 women in state prisons and federal penitentiaries. A further 110,000 are in county jails, 80% of whom report having been the victim of sexual assault during their life time. Women who have been convicted of serious crimes have, more often than not, been the victims of serious abuse themselves. Irrespective of crime, I have consistently argued that mass incarceration does little to improve or heal. It does the opposite. It damages.

When facing conservative opposition, prison reformers often resort to arguments against the incarceration of non-violent people, women included. Reformers attempt to find sympathetic groups within the prison system for whom the public may be persuaded to support. This is all well and good, but it comes at a price; people convicted of violent crimes are left to rot, so to speak. For advocates such as Bennett, it is clear that long sentences achieve little and that the abuses of the prison industrial complex are wrought on all who it swallows. The Bedroom Project humanizes women who have recently re-entered society after serving long, multi-decade Life With Parole sentences.

Bennett has created a space for each of these women to reflect upon their post-release situation. They regale personal tales and they are photographed in their most personal spaces–their bedrooms. In some cases, a bedroom might be the only place some of these women can claim as their own.

Bennett is a former criminal defense attorney who most frequently represented battered women and the wrongly convicted. She uses photography to amplify her observations of the criminal justice system. Her first project, Life After Life in Prison documented the lives of four women as they returned to society after spending decades in prison. Bennett decries the “pointlessness of extremely long sentences and arbitrary parole denials”. The Bedroom Project is currently on show at the CUNY School of Law in Long Island City, New York until March 28th.

Keen to know more about Bennett’s process and motivations, I approached her with a few questions about The Bedroom Project. Scroll down for our Q&A in which we discuss the meaning of the work for both subjects and audiences.

 

EVELYN, 42, in an apartment she shares with a roommate five years after her release. Queens, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 20 years
Released: April 2012
“Look where I am now. Five years ago, I came out from a little cell, started out in a halfway house, moved to an apartment, back to a transitional home, and now I’m in my own room in an apartment I share with a roommate. What can be better than this? This is happening.”

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Many of the women you photographed are living in a room in a community house, or an apartment building for returning citizens, or in a one bedroom apartment. So, they have a single room that is their own. While imprisoned, they may or may not have had a cellmate, and the degree to which they could personalise their cell would differ. No matter, they lived within walls for long periods. You’re photographing them also within walls. Tell us about why you focused on their bedrooms.

Sara Bennett (SB): It’s not the similarity to the prison cell that I’m trying to highlight, but the contrast. It’s true that most of the women now live in shared spaces, but still there’s a sense of intimacy, self, and pride. They all have items on display that would have been contraband in prison, including stuffed animals, wooden picture frames, patterned sheets, cellphones and computers. For decades, their cells were randomly inspected, they were locked in every evening, and they were forced to move at a moment’s notice. Now these bedrooms are their own.

 

TOWANDA, 45, in her own apartment five years after her release, with her daughter, Equanni. Bronx, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: almost 23 years
Released: October 2012
“I was in the shelter system for the first four years. It was about the same as prison. You’re confined, you can’t do anything, you don’t have your own thoughts, you’re always stressed out. It’s good to have my own apartment and pay my own bills. It’s peaceful and I feel safe.”

 

PP: What was the dynamic between you and the women.

SB: For many years, I was the pro bono clemency attorney for Judith Clark, who was serving a 75-year-to-life sentence for her role as a getaway driver in a famous New York Case—the Brinks robbery of 1981. All my subjects know her and my first photography project, Spirit on the Inside, is about the women who were incarcerated with her and her influence on their lives. (Spirit on the Inside book.)

The reaction to Spirit on the Inside—viewers were surprised that the formerly incarcerated women were just regular women—sparked my second project, Life After Life in Prison. I followed four women in various stages of re-entry, and I spent so much time with each of them that we really got to know each other. At the same time, I began work on The Bedroom Project, and the four women put me in touch with other potential subjects. So before I even walked in the door, my new portrait subjects were open to me. They’d seen my previous work; they knew some of my former subjects or clients; and they’d been told that I could be trusted.

I’ve ended up being a mentor or friend to almost all the women I’ve photographed.

PP: Why did you choose to include the women’s handwriting?

SB: My goal in all of my photography work is to show the humanity in people who are, or were, incarcerated. I believe that if judges, prosecutors and legislators could see lifers as real individuals, they would rethink the policies that lock them away forever. I want viewers to know what these women are thinking. Including their handwriting emphasizes that these are their words, these are their thoughts.

I asked all of them the same question: “When you see this photo I took of you, what does it make you think?” Their answers are varied and lead the viewer to all kinds of issues—from what it feels like to live in a cell, to educational and employment opportunities inside and outside prison, the difficulties in getting parole and being on parole, finding housing, and issues of remorse, regret, and forgiveness.

 

TRACY, 51, in her own apartment three-and-a-half years after her release. Jamaica, NY (2017)
Sentence: 22 years to life
Served: 24 years
Released: February 2014
“I imagined coming home, living in a one- or two-bedroom apartment, where one was a master and an extra room for guests. Here I have that. I call this room my “doll house,” my safe haven. I feel at peace. I’ve finally unpacked. I spend a lot of time in here. I take pride in everything. I put more into this room than into the kitchen. I know I need to eat, but my room is my nutrition.”

MIRIAM, 51, in transitional housing two months after her release. Corona, NY (2018)
Sentence: 20 years to life
Served: 30 years
Released: December 2017
“This room is my room. A place of my sanity unlike the one in prison. No one will bother me if I’m heard talking to myself. I can think clearly, I can breathe, I can live my way, dress my way, look at things my may. Move my furniture around my way. I love my room. It’s mine—all mine and no one can say anything about it.”

 

PP: What were the main victories for these women post release? What were their main challenges?

SB: Each woman’s circumstance is unique and so their challenges and victories are different. I’d say the biggest and most immediate challenge is finding housing. There are some re-entry programs that provide housing that is either temporary (up to six months) or semi-permanent, and many of the women were lucky enough to get into one of those programs. Some of the women ended up in homeless shelters and some have bounced around from place to place. I know two women who went home to live with family but both ended up moving to housing programs, in part because those programs offer a community that feels familiar and supportive.

Some of the women have completed educational degrees since coming home, some have found rewarding jobs and relationships, and unsurprisingly, the longer a woman has been home, the more stable she becomes.

But most have difficulty finding a job, let alone a decent job, and almost all of them have financial struggles. Many get benefits but that amount is paltry.

It’s mind boggling how quickly the women seem to adapt, how resilient they are, and how they take challenges in stride. Remember, my subjects spent anywhere from 15 to 35 years in prison. The outside world changed radically in that time. As Aisha, one of my subjects says, “It’s like putting a kindergartner in college”.

 

AISHA, 45, in a house she shares with 5 other women 14 months after her release. Flushing, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 25 years
Released: June 2016
“When I was released, I didn’t feel overwhelmed; I felt as though I was right where I was supposed to be. Later though, the feeling of being overwhelmed came as I found myself on the business side of life: food shopping, rent, bills, metrocards, etc. That was all new to me because I lived at home with my mom until I was arrested. My children were one and three years old when I left them and I felt as if they were one and three the whole time I was away. I feel that way about myself now. I was arrested when I was 19 and being in this big, unfamiliar, advanced world makes me feel like a 19-year-old trapped in a 45 year old body. I am both happy and grateful to be out here, but it’s like putting a kindergartener in college.”

VALERIE, 62 in an apartment she shares with a roommate. Bronx, NY (2018).
Sentence: 19 years to life.
Served: 17 years (granted clemency by Governor Andrew Cuomo).
Released: January 2017
“I got my freedom. That’s true! But it’s not the same as being free free. I like to travel. I used to go to VA, to PA, and the casinos and the boardwalk in Atlantic City. I love the beach. But I can’t go anywhere without my PO’s permission. If I want to go to a play or a concert, I need my PO’s permission. Until I get off parole, my life is messed up. I can’t do what I want.”

 

PP: Release from prison is not easy thing. Many of the women were given “numbers-to-life” sentences. Some got out on their parole date, others years after their first parole eligibility. What has been the situation in NY state for releasing persons who’ve served long sentences? Has parole and release become more common recently?

SB: When I first became an attorney in 1986, there was a presumption of parole. If, for example, a person had a sentence of 15 years to life, then she’d likely be released after serving her 15 years, provided that she hadn’t been in serious trouble in the few years prior. But when Governor Pataki took office in 1995, that presumption changed. And no matter how people spent their time in prison—working in trades, earning college degrees, setting up programs, having excellent disciplinary records, living in honor housing—they were repeatedly denied parole based on the one factor that will never change: the nature of the crime they committed.

I like to think that the parole system in New York State is starting to change. In the last six months, the number of parole grants has steadily increased, in part because Governor Andrew Cuomo has had the opportunity to appoint new parole commissioners and in part because of a culture shift that recognizes that, we, as a society, lock people up for far too long. Still, we have a long way to go.

 

CAROL, 69, in a communal residence four years after her release. Long Island City, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: March 2013
“When I was inside, I dreamed of getting out, getting a job, travelling a little bit. But by the time I got out, my health was bad. Basically, that changed all plans. I wish I could do more, but I’m at peace. I have my grandson, Cecil. He’s precious.”

 

PP:  What have been the audiences’ responses to the work?

SB: The photos are currently facing out onto a busy street in Queens, NY and I’ve eavesdropped as passersby have studied the portraits and talked to each other. I’ve never heard anyone say, “you do the crime, you do the time.” Rather, passersby seem sympathetic, drawn in, and incredulous at the amount of time that the women have spent in prison. I’ve also moderated more than a dozen panel conversations with my subjects, and the audiences have been very responsive to the women. No matter what the women’s pasts might have been, today they are hard-working, loving, resilient, optimistic people, and the audience seems to understand that they have earned second chances.

PP: Do prisons work?

SB: That’s such a loaded question that I’m not sure how to answer it. Suffice it to say that in this country we incarcerate way too many people for way too long under conditions that are dehumanizing and obscene. In other countries, imprisonment itself is the punishment, but the conditions themselves are not punitive and abysmal.

PP: In extension of your photos and the women’s own testimonies, what would you like to impress upon members of the public about improvements in the criminal justice system?

SB: For a long time, most of the conversation around changing the criminal justice system has focused on non-violent felony offenders. President Obama talked a lot about non-violent felony offenders and low-level drug offenders. I’m concerned about people with really lengthy, or life sentences, those who are either repeatedly denied parole or don’t even have that possibility. That’s why my only criteria for The Bedroom Project was that the subjects had a life sentence. (A life sentence doesn’t really mean life in prison unless it’s life without parole. A sentence of say, 25 years to life, means that after 25 years a person becomes eligible for parole.) I wanted to really drive home the point: people with life sentences are ordinary (in the best sense of the word) human beings. They deserve second chances.

 

MARY, 51, with her niece, Trish, in her own apartment 19 years after her release. Brooklyn, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 15 years
Released: May 1998
“I’ve been home 19 years, but re-entry is a lifetime process. In many ways prison is with you forever. Still, the impact is a lot less than it used to be. For years, everything I did, everything I thought about, reflected back to prison. It was about 15 years out—I did 15 years in—that I stopped connecting to that girl I was in prison. Maybe you have to do the same amount of time outside as you did inside until you feel FREE from it.

”LINDA, 70, in her own apartment 14 years after her release. Albany, NY (2017)
Sentence: 17 years to life
Served: 14 years. Granted clemency by Governor George Pataki
Released: February 2003
“I love my apartment. The building is clean. I feel safe and at peace. I been here 10 years. I been out of prison 14 years. It’s so hard when you get out. I just stayed strong. With a friend’s help I got a job as a housekeeper in a hospital. I stayed there for 9-1/2 years. Then I retired. As of now I have to try very hard to stay on my budget finance wise. I have a good family & friends in my life. I thank the life I have now. And I thank God everyday that I am alive and safe. Thank you God.”

 

PP: What effects (positive and/or negative) do prisons and reentry have on women? What are their needs that often get overlooked?

SB: One of the saddest things to me about prison is that it can be the first time a woman has found safety in her life. Most women in prison have been victims of gender-based violence. I’ll never forget a client telling me that she got her first good night’s sleep when she went to prison, no longer subject to abuse by her boyfriend. So, in that sense, prison initially brought some peace as well as a sense of community and self awareness to some of the women I know. Of course, that came at the extremely high cost of the loss of freedom.

In general, women have fewer outside contacts than men and lose touch with their families much quicker than men do. So they are very isolated from the outside world and come home to a world that has moved on without them. They find a society that puts up a series of hurdles: they are required to attend state-mandated programs, barred from inexpensive public housing and banned from voting. In addition, they face travel limitations and curfews that make visiting family and working more difficult. When they eventually become eligible to be released from parole, they are often denied without explanation.

I hope the stories of these women remind us of the countless people still in prison who, like them, deserve that same chance to build a life on the outside.

PP: Thanks, Sara.

SB: Thank you.

 

 

 

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Answer by Torsten Schumann, from Germany

 

How do you describe your culture, your nation? Would you describe it differently to someone overseas? Would you describe it differently to someone in prison overseas? What if that prisoner overseas asked you not to use words but to use images in your response? These are not hypothetical questions, at least not for the men at Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) in Portland, Oregon. Nor for their collaborators scattered across the globe who are involved with Answers Without Words.

Answers Without Words is a collaborative photography project by artists Anke Schüttler, Roshani Thakore and the Free Mind Collective (a group of currently and formerly incarcerated artists) based at CRCI that engages photographers and prisoners in a visual exchange.

Men in the Free Mind Collective have devised questionnaires for photographers in specific countries (see examples below). Participating photographers are requested to answered with images instead of text: Answers without words.

 

Questions for the former Yugoslavia and Switzerland.

Answer by Torsten Schumann, from Germany

 

You are invited to join in! Answers Without Words is currently looking for artists and photographers in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Poland, Israel and North Korea particularly, but are interested in collaborators anywhere in the world. (See details below.)

Answers Without Words functions, in some ways, as a protracted, connected non-digital version of Google searching.

“The internet is a research tool we usually take for granted in our daily lives,” explain Schüttler and Thakore. “That access is lost in incarceration; prisoners are restricted in terms of what they can learn online. On the other side, not many people on the outside have access to direct information or a good understanding about what happens behind prison walls. Answers Without Words seeks to re-establish an analogue and personalized version of internet image research.”

“Answers Without Words creates a personal experience directly tailored for me, that enables my mind to take a trip abroad,” explains Tom Price, a participant in CRCI.

 

Questions by Tom Price.

The Answers Without Words team assesses collaborators “answers”, CRCI, Portland Oregon

 

The questions and photographs will culminate in two exhibitions, one inside the prison and one publicly accessible in Portland, Oregon in Fall 2018. A public lecture will be presented in conjunction with the exhibition as well as a publication about the project that will be available publicly.

“In collaboration with overseas artists, this project supports marginalized artists, consisting of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, building ties between them, their communities, the world and art,” says J Zimmerli, a prisoner at CRCI.

In return for your images, you can then ask questions of your own about the men’s lives inside. A photography workshop in prison will create a counter round of answers without words from the prison back into the world.

“People always want to know what it is like in prison, we can share this information with them,” asserts Musonda Mwango, a participant from CRCI.

 

The Answers Without Words team workshopping image “answers” of their own, CRCI, Portland Oregon

 

“We want to create awareness for the issue of mass incarceration all the while focusing on one person at a time to make people feel human again. With our exchange we challenge our expectations of a foreign country and our expectations of prison and create artistic opportunity for both artists at CRCI and the photographers abroad,” say Schüttler and Thakore.

 

——–

 

If you’d like to collaborate, email answerswithoutwords@gmail.com with the following information:

– your name.

– the country you are currently located at and from which you’d participate.

– examples of your photographic work (a website URL or 5-10 images).

The prisoners in the Free Mind Collective will send 5 to 10 questions.

Time is ticking though! You have 4 weeks. All materials must be sent to Answers Without Words by March 31st.

 

——–

 

Answers Without Words is a project done in conjunction with the Portland State University MFA in Art + Social Practice and funded by the Precipice Fund, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the Calligram Foundation.

 

 

 

(Untitled) © Petey, 2016. From the Humanize the Numbers Workshop.

 

In the Exposure Magazine interview It’s Time to Talk Social Justice, Isaac Wingfield lays out the strategies, challenges and successes of facilitating a joint prisoner/college student photography workshop in prison.

Through the support of the University of Michigan, Wingfield coordinates the Humanize the Numbers project, which began its work in late 2015 at the Thumb Correctional Facility and has since moved to another prison after a leadership change at Thumb.

Humanize the Numbers began from a conversation with the incarcerated men about what they wanted their photography to do. Suspecting that many representations of prisoners dehumanize, they wanted to change the script; they wanted to take the unfathomable and depressing statistics that dominate commentary about prisons, locate their position in relation, and then go beyond mere numbers. The men wanted to focus on the personal and the individual. They wanted to be accountable and to represent to themselves.

There’s a lot of common sense in the article. Wingfield covers everything from diligent planning, to acknowledging that the department of corrections is a key partner. From understanding that any in-prison program is vulnerable to abrupt changes of rules by prison administrators, to an honesty that Michigan students gain as much through the program than the men on the inside.

Critically, Wingfield and his collaborators discussed who their audience was. They decided to get the work into the hands of lawmakers in Michigan. Having that intention can direct and galvanize art making. Below, in italics, I’ve pulled what I believe to be the article‘s most important talking points and points of departure for further discussion.

“Skill building with cameras was popular among a group that was mostly preparing for reentry, but telling personal stories was more important among a group of lifers.”

“I wanted to avoid the traditional service-learning dynamic with students coming in to serve a needy population by providing something that well intentioned outsiders (professors or students) thinks the community needs. Power relationships are often neglected in these traditional service-learning courses…”

“This project is ultimately about humanizing people, acknowledging their individual stories and skills. If that doesn’t happen in the workshop itself, how will it ever happen when the resulting photographs make their way beyond the workshop?”

“It is helpful to recognize the lurking collaborator in the project: the MDOC is often silent participant but still an essential partner.”

 

In-process workshop, courtesy Humanize the Numbers.

(Untitled) © Jamal Biggs, 2016. “Me along with my brothers and cousins when we were younger. Half of them have since passed away at young ages. Of the others still living, only one of them has remained in contact with me since my incarceration. The pain and blessing of prisonseverely straining and often severing family relationships, but also giving me time to grow up and saving me from the same fate of dying young which has befallen my other family members.” From the Humanize the Numbers Workshop

In-process workshop, courtesy Humanize the Numbers.

 

“After discussion in one workshop about the intended audience for their photographs, we mailed photographs to two Michigan advocacy organizations, the MDOC Director and to every Law and Justice Committee member in the Michigan state House and every member of the Judiciary Committees in the Michigan state House and Senate. […] we never saw any responses from the policymakers who received images, [but] simply getting the images in front of them and sharing the perspective and the stories of the incarcerated men from the workshop made it a success.”

Despite only positive feedback “the new warden unexpectedly denied our request for a third workshop […] a few weeks before we were scheduled to start I was on the search for a new facility to host the workshop/course.”

“For those students (and there are many) who have never seriously considered the criminal justice system, getting to know the men inside the system is perhaps the most transformative part of the course.”

 

Read and see more: It’s Time to Talk Social Justice: Isaac Wingfield & the Humanize the Numbers Prison Photography Workshop

Visit the Humanize the Numbers website.

 

For the purposes of social media, I highlighted these same main talking points in a Twitter thread too.

 

 

PRISON ART LIBRARY IN THE MAKING

If you’re in or near Portland, Oregon and if you’ve art books you no longer want on your shelves, please consider donating the to the Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) Art Book Drive.

This Wednesday, December 13th, from 12-7pm, the CRCI Artist In Residence Program is holding a Book Drive at the 9th Annual Publication Fair held at the Ace Hotel Cleaners space.

The book drive seeks titles related to: conceptual art, social practice, collaboration, critical theory, film, painting, sculpture, art technique, artist monographs, art history, performance art, and curating.

Go on. Donate your books!

The CRCI Art Book Library began in April 2017 as a way to expand access to art books, art writing and documentation. The art library is one component of the Artist in Residence Program, which is open to prisoners at the Columbia River Correctional Institution, a minimum security prison within the Portland city limits, run by the Oregon Department of Corrections. The residency is facilitated by a rotating faculty of artists and students from the Art and Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University.

PUBLICATION FAIR

After you’ve donated your books, go check out the booths full of paper goods from these lovelies:

4341 Press

Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books

Anthology Booksellers

Antiquated Future

Book Arts Editions

Container Corps

Couch Press

Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery

Floating World Comics

Forest Avenue Press

Future Tense Books: A Micro-Press

Gobshite Quarterly

Impossible Wings

Independent Publishing Resource Center

Microcosm Publishing

Mixed Needs

Monograph Bookwerks

Octopus Books

Passages Bookshop

Perfect Day Publishing

Personal Libraries Library

Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Quotidian Press

Sunday Painter Press

Sidebrow

Tavern Books

Tin House

Two Plum Press

University of Hell Press

URe:AD Press

Volumes Volumes

YesYes Books

 

 

 

There are countless numbers to keep youth out of custodial settings, not least the threat of waste and violence jail brings.

In New York, one group is using art, photo and video as an alternative to jail. The Young New Yorkers intervenes at the juvenile court, and with sanction of the judge, allows children who are convicted of non-violent misdemeanours (turnstile jumping, graffiti, public disturbance) to embark on 3-day or 8-week art programs instead of heading to jail for 3 months or taking on a long community service stint.

The Young New Yorkers (YNY) uses art to help children imagine different lives for themselves, to conjure new possibilities for their neighbourhoods and to interrogate what community justice is and might be.

Yesterday, YNY kicked off its #ArtNotJail campaign to raise funds for 2018’s programs.

“We are raising $10,000 to cover the costs of the next 6-months of public art projects,” writes YNY on its IndieGoGo crowdfunding page. “The next generation of Young New Yorkers will then use art to advocate for themselves, and advocate for a transformed criminal justice system.”

This humanising program listens to children, it opens up new potential and I’m a huge fan. Please consider giving to The Young New Yorkers.

 

Follow YNY on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter and Vimeo.

 

 

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Over a period of six months, between the summer of 2014 and the winter of 2015, Amber Sowards shot 20 rolls of film in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The series of portraits she made is called Captured.

“The series hopes to expose the general community to what life is like for incarcerated youth in Dane County,” writes Sowards. “While at the same time creating a visual narrative that documents and puts a face to what racial disparity looks like in present day Dane County.”

The population changed over the months. Many young people left the facility during the project’s run. Others arrived. Some weeks, Sowards saw three teens. Other weeks she worked with 25.

Sowards’ directions to the youth were minimal.

“I asked if I could photograph the youth and then I picked the location of the shot,” she says. “Then we just had a conversation and photographed naturally. Most of the teens really liked having their photo taken; it made them feel valued.”

The conversations were so striking that it soon became evident that teens’ voices were central to portraying their life as those “in an unnatural environment”. The voices in aggregate challenge the audience to imagine alternatives to incarceration, something more natural.

They were collaged into a 5-minute track which you can listen to here.

“We did not intend to pair the photographs with audio [at first],” says Sowards. “That decision came later.”

As with most other portrait series of incarcerated youth, anonymity is a prerequisite. The genre of portraiture becomes a hell of a lot harder when you don’t have facial expression and eye contact to work with. The thing that strikes me about Sowards’ work (and it might just be the softer edge of analogue photography) is that the children seem to adhere to the palette of the place. The images are diffuse with the blues, beiges, grey and white light of the facility. The chess board and the green ball are sharp punctuations of color.

There’s an noticeable degree of civility in the environment too. While the interiors and hardware are unmistakably institutional there’s clearly an array of activities at the teens disposal. The viewer is left in no doubt that these prisoners are children and therefore, I hope, viewers carry with that an expectation and optimism that this is a space that will help the teens in the long term. If this seems a modest hope then consider that in many photographs of (adult) prisons a complete lack of care, protection and nurturing is most evident, and is the norm.

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Sowards says some staff at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center were fine with her presence and that of her camera. Other staff members were uncomfortable. This too suggests that the juvie depicted here might be for some therapeutic. In facilities where cameras are not welcome, where they are a considered a threat, one assumes that not all is right. Fortunately, for these teens, not the case here. Captured is a pleasant, modest look inside a previously unknown microcosm of Madison, Wisconsin.

 

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Captured was sponsored by GSAFE and delivered through its New Narrative Project. GSAFE increases the capacity of LGBTQ+ students, educators, and families to create schools in Wisconsin where all youth thrive. The New Narrative Project aims to foster self-determination through custom-designed workshops that help incarcerated youth access their potential and think analytically about the social justice issues they are impacted by.

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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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Angelo on his cell bunk

Marc and Brett of Temporary Services shared a tribute to Angelo this week. They collaborated together on Prisoners’ Inventions, and although I never knew (very few people did) Angelo (not his real name, his artist name), I wanted to mark his passing here on the blog.

Prisoners’ Inventions started as a collection of more than one hundred annotated illustrations of inventions that Angelo made, saw, or heard about while incarcerated. From homemade sex dolls, salt & pepper shakers to chess sets, from privacy curtains and radios to condoms and water heaters–all “attempts to fill needs that the restrictive environment of the prison tries to suppress,” writes Temporary Services.

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Battery Cigarette Lighter

It seems so long since Prisoners’ Inventions landed on my radar and even then, I was years late to the project. Someone showed me a copy of the book in 2011. But the first edition of the book was published in 2003, and new editions followed. In 2003 and 2004, Prisoners’ Inventions was presented as an exhibition at MassMOCA, complete with a full replica of Angelo’s cell, and later travelled to numerous venues. Around that time, international press blew up around the originality and the cheekiness of it all. This American Life did a bit.

Prisoners’ Inventions set a standard in many ways for artists and incarcerated individuals working in tandem–the way Angelo insisted on anonymity; the way Temporary Services held the space; the way together they let the illustrations do the work; the manner in which they (despite the barriers and censorship) communicated transparently and studiously; the way they fired public imagination with recognitions of human spirit, ingenuity and agency among a prison population so frequently vilified; the way Angelo and Temporary Services resisted any over-politicization of the project; I could go on and on.

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Coat Hanger

Too often we think of art as being things not doings, as objects not relationships or as things that can exist on a shelf instead of in our hearts and minds. While Angelo and Temporary Services made objects based upon the drawings, objects were never the goal. Prisoners’ Inventions existed to demonstrate the innate creativity we all hold and also the potential in even simple written (and drawn) correspondence. It was about meaningful relation and understanding of people in very different circumstances. Temporary Services call Angelo their greatest ever collaborator, which is a huge statement from an art collective known for it communal underpinnings.

“Angelo’s writings and drawings about the creativity he observed in prison collapsed the distinctions between art and everyday survival,” said Temporary Services. “He transformed our thinking in ways that have influenced everything we’ve done since.”

In truth, Prisoners’ Inventions has influenced many an artist’s thinking and methodology since.

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Steamer Cooker

A common problem with artwork that deals (even tangentially) with the issue of mass incarceration, or with prisoners directly as art makers, is that the art can often fail to break down the inherent power imbalance; that the prisoner is packaged by the outsider for outside public consumption. Furthermore, some art and language can’t help but fall into patronizing stereotypes about how the artist is helping the prisoner … and that the prisoner is helpless. Prisoners’ Inventions never trivialised, infantilized or boxed Angelo’s work. Nor did Temporary Services and Angelo ever try to argue it was something it was not which I think is a reflection of their trust, equity and confidence.

“People seem willing to accept the inventions of prisoners as creative objects that merit our attention and thought without us having to force them into goofy critical constructs like *Outsider Art*,” said Temporary Services in the book Prisoners’ Inventions: Three Dialogues (PDF). “These objects don’t need critical help to become interesting. New terminology does not need to be invented to create a niche market or new genre for a stick of melted-together toothbrushes and bits of metal that can be used to make apple strudel in a prison cell.”

If you can take the time to read Prisoners’ Inventions: Three Dialogues, please do. It lays out the origins, conversations, adaptations and logistics of the multi-year project. It elaborates on subtle concepts. It shows that good art rests on a solid idea and no-bullshit presentation of the idea. The way Prisoners’ Inventions moved through cultural space, both IRL (galleries, vitrines, fabricators’ hands) and virtual (image, video, online featurettes, audience mind and assumption) and through real economic systems is fascinating. The way Temporary Services discuss the negotiation of these things in relation to their promises and shared goals with Angelo is grounding and, I think, instructive.

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Stinger (Immersion Heater)

Marc and Brett explain that since Angelo’s release in 2014 he lived quietly in Los Angeles, keeping to himself, catching up on TV and films he missed while locked up for 20 years. They also mention that Angelo had to wait until release before he could see and hold a book of his drawings; the prison administration banned any copies entering the prison because (and you can’t help but laugh) the drawings would show Angelo how to jury-rig objects and homebrew solutions!

The threat was imagined and the logic flawed, of course, but this brings me to a final point. Prisoners’ Inventions did not advocate for Angelo. Never did he and Temporary Services get involved in discussions about his case or legal matters. Not once did the work threaten prison security or reveal anything unknown to nearly every prisoner locked up in America. Opportunities for meaningful, collaborative and non-combative artwork within the prison industrial complex are few and far between. I think it is vital that we recognize art and activity that amplifies the existence of some without ignoring that of others; that we seek projects that lift us all. Mass incarceration is a depressing thing, but there are moments of humor, surprise quirk and enlightenment. Be ready for them! Prisoners’ Inventions succeeded in closing the gap between us and them without forcefully or uncomfortably insisting on the defining terms of us and them. Prisoners’ Inventions occupied a rarified space and we do well to learn from it.

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I’ll close with a story about when, during a cell search, guards found photos of the full replica of Angelo’s cell.

“Stunned and angered that an inmate had somehow acquired photos of his own cell, the guard demanded information on how he got the pictures. When Angelo pointed out the fabricators’ subtle discrepancies in the cell recreation and explained a little about the exhibition, the guard’s anger quickly turned to wonder and amusement.”

Angelo, you mined your memory, you humbly shared your knowledge, you made drawings that confounded expectations and shifted minds. You never wanted fame or fortune. You made a thing that will last. RIP.

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