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Mercedes Smith, a formerly incarcerated person, reads a letter from her currently imprisoned son, at a relatives house where she lives after working all day on July 13, 2012, in Manhattan  New York. Ms. Smith is not allowed to live with her family while she is on bail because her mother still lives in the same building as where the crime took place. Ms. Smith served 20 years for 2nd degree manslaughter and was released in 2010. (Photo by Ashley Gilbertson / VII)

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

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This text has been edited from longer conversation.

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PP: In part four I spoke with your colleague Jessica Dimmock. How was it working with her?

AG: It was easy. Jess is a photographer as a primary, so she knows how photographers move. We went back to Mercedes’ home one night and Mercedes went into her room and opened a letter. I looked through the door and I saw that it was a handwritten letter and I knew that her son was in prison. It was from her son. She started reading, I took some frames and moved out the way and Jess could shoot. That was an isolating scene that was very poignant – reading a letter from your son, while you are on parole, in a house that you’re trying to get out of.

PP: Why should we care about prisons and their aftermath?

AG: In the aftermath of prison, ideally, prisoners are changed members of society. Prisons are a place where people can at least try to signify to society that they have made recompense for crimes they’ve committed. Why is it important that we pay attention? The size of it. Until I met Mercedes Smith, I had no idea of the intensity of the problems former prisoners are facing.

PP: What type of problems?

AG: Housing. Mercedes living with a family member in housing projects in Manhattan. She wants to move on from that, but housing is so expensive that for her to actually afford something is really hard. And this is where all these elements that former prisoners face come together; she’s working two jobs part time and she’s looking for a third job. But it is very difficult for her to find any type of third job because she has curfew hours. Getting back to her apartment after curfew means she’ll break her terms of parole and potentially face going back to prison. For her to get an apartment she needs a third job.

Say if she wanted to move to New Jersey where housing is cheaper, she can’t. Her terms of parole require her to stay in New York State.

PP: Does she have good support?

AG: She was in a fortunate position because when she came out of prison to a very supportive and loving family. It is not quite accurate to say that Mercedes is fortunate because, in fact, she has worked very hard to get to where she is. Her children had been cared for by her mother and they visited her regularly while she was in prison and they had relationships. So, even after having done 20 years in prison, she had a warm and supportive environment to come back to and that’s something that – as I came to understand the issue better – a lot of people are lacking.

Mercedes is a really supportive mother who is doing everything she possibly can for her children. Two of her children live with her mother, one is down South and one is in prison. I saw her speaking a couple of times with her son that is in prison and it was a really warm and loving exchange – the tone of conversation that we all wish we could have with our mum.

PP: What did Mercedes hope of the project? Why did she go in front of cameras?

AG: Mercedes never said she felt like a role model, but she has figured out how to get out of the hole and she wants to save other women time and energy as they try to do so.

Both of Mercedes’ jobs work around her existence today as a parolee and as a former prisoner. She works with Women On The Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH), a group that lobbies for women who are imprisoned and particularly women who are giving birth in prison. The work plays directly into Mercedes’ experience, as she gave birth to her youngest child in prison, I believe.

Her other job is working with women just out of prison and giving them advice about what they have at their disposal; what organizations that might get in touch with. It is a mentor role. And she works at that second job with her own mentor.

PP: Your work is always about America.

AG: I research ideas and become interested in issues at a concept level, then I’ll start meeting people – community leaders in Pontiac, Michigan, for example, or in the case of Bedrooms Of The Fallen, family members. Everything I do is about America.

I see America as this sort of social experiment. I grew up in Australia; in the Commonwealth. I’ve lived in America for nine years, yes, but it remains so foreign to me. I hadn’t met a large group of Americans until 2003 when they marched into Iraq. I learnt more about America in Iraq than I did in America over those first few years [of the War on Iraq].

Working on different issues, here in America, is to continue to look at this experiment. The way Americans wave flags. It’s the same as how Australians wave flags, but in many ways it is very different.

The way Americans carry guns, the way they incarcerate people – it’s the world leader in so many poor statistics, but then in many great statistics too. I find it so bizarre to work here. There’s just an endless wealth of material. I don’t work on things I have a passing interest in. I have to be actively engaged … and, usually, angry.

Each aspect of American culture I look at, whether that’s politics, incarceration, war, treatment of veterans at home, suicide, post traumatic stress disorder, the auto industry, the economy – each thing adds to this tapestry that I’m trying to understand, and I want to, I just don’t know if I ever will.

PP: Why has VII pursued a partnership with TOTC?

AG: This partnership appealed because it was looking at a project in a way that offered solutions, with stories of people who were actively getting out of the problem, trying to create solutions to it. That is compelling.

I’d say it is a traditional approach to go to a prison and photograph the scenes and problems there. Or, to go to “convict alley” in Harlem, where there is the highest concentration of parolees living within a certain numbers of blocks in Harlem.

I was reading about speech-writing the other day and they were saying at the end of strong speech is a call to action. Both Ronald Day and Mercedes stand as a call to action. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been convicted of crimes because they’ve gotten beyond that and turned into people who empower those around them.

PP: VII wants to extend the project. Do you think you’ll continue involvement?

AG: I hope very much that the project goes on, and that it goes national. Think Outside The Cell is an incredibly powerful approach to this problem, so to see it produced on a national level would be compelling. I’d like to be involved, but I’d like more to see other photographers brought in.

It turned from an issue that I cared about into something that I all of a sudden became involved in. For a lot of us working in the press, it takes a significant amount for us to be shocked by certain things we see people come up against.

The opportunity that I’ve had to meet these inspiring people who are working to get out of this rut and try to change it at a policy level – that should be regarded by as wide a swathe of people as is possible.

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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.

Ronald Day at home getting ready to go to work. © Ron Haviv/VII Photo

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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 is part-two of a five part series, Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.

Part One: Think Outside The Cell / VII Photo Partnership
Part Three: A Conversation With Ed Kashi
Part Four: A Conversation With Jessica Dimmock
Part Five: A Conversation With Ashley Gilbertson

Ron Haviv, one of four photographers on the project, was kind enough to take a Skype call from me. Ron and Ed Kashi photographed and videoed Ronald Day‘s story.

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Prison Photography (PP): How did you become one of the four photographers for the VII Photo/Think Outside The Cell partnership.

Ron Haviv (RH): Ed, Jessica, Ashley and I were brought in after the project was agreed and secured. To be honest with you, we hope this project to be a long term and expansive project going beyond New York.

PP: You want to cover the issue all over the country. Why is that necessary?

RH: It’s important that not all the subjects look alike or sound alike. We must emphasize this is not a New York problem; the stigma of incarceration is a national problem. So, it is imperative that we look to … maybe not in all fifty states … but we look to get to a number of states in order to give the audience a real variety of ideas and illustrate different problems that former prisoners are going through. Some of those problems are going to be state specific; that variety is going to be an important aspect for people to understand.

PP: Let’s talk about your subject, Ronald Day. He works in advocacy and service. He has earned a Masters degree since release. He teaches at John Jay College. He has started his PhD program in Criminal Justice at CUNY/John Jay. This guy is a success story. What sort of a relationship did you develop with Ronald?

RH: Before we started photographing, we went to meet him and he was incredibly open about his life – from very basic things to personal details. When we asked him questions he was very forthcoming.

He is an incredibly articulate and smart man as proven by what he has done inside and outside of prison. Ed and I couldn’t have asked for someone better through whom to illustrate some of the issues. To think that someone of his caliber struggles, means that people that don’t have that same skill set must really struggle.

Ronald Day on his way home after work and a lecture to students. © Ron Haviv/VII Photo

PP: What did Ronald want out of the multimedia piece?

RH: Well, his job is in helping others acclimate to society; people who’ve gone through the same things that he has gone through. His whole life is directed toward helping and informing people; people like myself who know very little about the stigma that felons deal with.

Ronald is informing the public and hopefully trying to have some impact on policy-makers and lawmakers. That being said, he is absolutely not the type to sit down and preach to you. He’s more like, ‘Look at what I’m going through, look at all the hoops through which I’ve had jump to get to where I am,’ and showing us by example [what is practicable], not just railing against the system.

It’s interesting. Usually a photographer will learn about their topic, in this case criminal justice and parole, through research and secondary sources, but here, in Ronald, we had the best resource, a primary resource, someone who has lived and is living the issues wrapped up in reentry to society after incarceration.

I think he is for sure remorseful and recognizes the mistakes he made. It’s not as if he claims he is innocent or was framed, but at the same time, he sees that was a very different person who went to prison 18 years ago. He’s a different man now. He has a son who is very important to him and a mother and a sister and her kids and they’re all living in a three story home in the Bronx – a very lovely place. So he has the family components that are all vital to a successful life.

Ronald Day at home celebrating Father’s Day with family and friends. © Ron Haviv/VII Photo

PP: How often did you photograph Ronald?

RH: We did a week with him over the course of six weeks.

To be perfectly honest, we didn’t spend huge amounts of time with Ronald. We’d see him at work and in the home and for different events but there was no huge emotional crisis that Ronald was going through that Ed or I had to witness or deal with. We were there for fathers day which was lovely – lots of friends and family at his house.

PP: You were paired with Ed Kashi – you making stills and Ed making video. Similarly, Jessica [Dimmock] and Ashley [Gilbertson] followed Mercedes Smith, the female subject. Had you and Ed worked closely on anything before?

RH: No, but obviously, we are business partners in VII. This was our first collaboration, the result of which will be a mixed media piece.

PP: You said before that the issue of stigma among the formerly incarcerated hadn’t been on your radar.

RH: Correct.

PP: What have you learned?

RH: Society *says* that if you commit a crime, you pay for it by time in prison and then, once you are released you are supposed to be able to continue your life.

I’m amazed that prison continues to haunt the people coming out to the point of often driving them back because they can’t get a job or they can’t get housing or it’s very difficult for them to go to school. That was very surprising to me.

With voting [disenfranchisement], you hear a lot about whether felons can vote or not, but I didn’t realize that if you’re filling out an application to rent an apartment or trying to get just a basic job, at McDonald’s for example, that there are boxes felons must check. As soon as they do [check that box], they’re out.

There’s no home, there’s no basic job, and so when you talk about recidivism in America, well, it is very obvious why a large part of it is happening; it is because there is no way to survive on the outside. For me, that was very disturbing and something that on many levels this country needs to deal with.

PP: How did we get to this state of affairs? Is America an unforgiving society? Is it bad policy put in place by misinformed politicians and voters? Let’s be frank, many of these laws have come about recently. How is it we treat the 700,000 released prisoners per year like this?

RH: It’s a combination of a number of things. In New York, the drug laws that were passed were, are, harsh and absurd in relation to the actual crime.

Plus, the break down of the family. Parents going to prison breaks up families. Children who grow up without a father have a much higher chance of going to prison. That’s not a problem for which the system must be blamed. That comes down to individual responsibility and must be taken a lot more seriously. I think it is incredibly important but not something we discuss.

Obviously, there are laws that are causing problems but a huge reality of it is people not being responsible for their children, basically. That is not the main cause but it is a large cause. And that applies to the white community, the Black community, the Hispanic community; it’s not a racial thing, but it is definitely a gender thing. Men are just not stepping up. That’s my personal position.

PP: Do you suspect there is a crisis among men in America? Is there an issue with male identity?

RH: Absolutely. There’s a lot of factors … but, men carry a huge responsibility. It’s probably controversial [to say] but I think there’s a real problem with the use of, and ideas surrounding, birth control.

I don’t understand why people are having so many children or why fathers are so proud to say, “I’ve got three kids with that girl and two kids with that girl.” It’s ridiculous and I’m not sure what the reason for it is but it really comes down to personal responsibility. If you’re going to have children then you need to be able to take responsibility for them, and if not then there are ways to not have children.

PP: Did you have any ideas how you would shoot this story? This is an issue about emotions somewhat but also about intransigent rules. How do you photograph someone being denied food-stamps or housing? How do you photograph bureaucracy?

RH: That’s exactly why Ed’s video element of this is incredibly important. There’s certainly ways to photograph the frustrations that Ronald and other people go through but by having multiple components where you’re going to see him in action, share his voice and hear him not just reading a caption but having a conversation. The combination of audio, video and stills makes it much more powerful and dynamic – compared to a straight up photo essay with captions.

PP: I think it interesting that VII has focused specifically on reentry. My position is to look at prisons and those invisible sites and think exactly how and what power is being played out, whereas reentry goes on in “free” society and so the assumption might be it is a subject more accessible for the photographer.

PP: Is this one of the major, ongoing initiatives at VII?

RH: We have a number of different partnerships, from projects with the United Nations, to Médecins Sans Frontières, to traditional media partners – TIME, the New York Times and Vanity Fair for example, but this is definitely something we think is extremely important and we’re very excited to hopefully take it further. Right now, it is just the beginning.

PP: It sounds like you’d be interested in doing a second stint on the project?

RH: Yes, and I’m also interested in following Ronald some more. I hope to see how he does at university. We’re not going to let him go! We’re going to continue to follow his story.

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VII Photo: “The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world. For the first time US history, more than one in 100 American adults are in prison. China is second, with 1.5 million people behind bars. An estimated 700,000 people are released from prison in the United States every year. Where do they all go?”

Ronald Day at his home in the Bronx, during a Father’s Day barbeque, held on June 17, 2012 in New York City. © Ed Kashi/VII Photo.

Inside and out of prison, people may think that to keep ones head down, survive America’s overly punitive prisons, and wait for release is enough. Unfortunately, it is not; for those looking to reenter society new struggles emerge. Each year 700,000 men, women and children are released from prisons and jails to face modern day laws and attitudes that marginalize them and limit their abilities to build new lives.

New York based non-profit Think Outside The Cell, a young but impressively effective organization, is bringing light to the struggles of former prisoners.

“The issue of stigma is not discussed enough but it is the issue of our time. The effects are so widely felt,” says Sheila Rule, Think Outside The Cell co-founder. Convicted felons are routinely denied employment, housing, access to college, the right to vote, and public benefits.

“The oppressive legal barriers and sanctions that undergird the stigma are the building blocks of modern-day inequality, keeping millions of deserving Americans on the fringes of mainstream society,” writes Think Outside The Cell.

Think Outside the Cell has partnered with the renowned VII Photo Agency to produce a multimedia campaign that will raise public awareness and educate media and policy wonks with persuasive storytelling.

“I knew about VII and their credibility,” says Rule. “It was a natural fit. We are both driven by storytelling. Stories change hearts and minds.”

Below is the trailer of the VII campaign video. The full 10 minute video can be seen here.


In September 2011, Think Outside The Cell hosted A New Way, A New Day, a national symposium about mass incarceration. Speakers included Dr. Khalil Muhammad, director of Schomburg Center; Jason Davis, former Bloods gang leader and community activist; Jumaane Williams, New York City Council-member; Hon. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ; Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow; Jeremy Travis, President, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin, director of operations, reentry services, Women’s Prison Association, among others. (View videos of the panels and presentations here.)

In the audience was Kimberly Soenen, a recent hire and Director of Business Strategies at VII Photo. Soenen knew that the issues of families, communities, criminal justice and inequality were of paramount interest to VII photographers. Rule, a retired New York Times journalist who knows the power of well-told and widely distributed stories, was open to Soenen’s approach to partner.

Soenen and VII focused on the immediate area and assigned New York and New Jersey based photographers to tell the stories of Ronald Day and Mercedes Smith. (With further funding, VII hopes to extend the campaign to other states.)

Mercedes Smith was released from prison two years ago. She begins college in January 2013 and although she struggles to find housing due to the rules of her parole she is making progress toward a stable life.

Ronald Day, 43, was incarcerated for 12 years, serving time in five NY institutions. Since his release, he has studied steadily, is employed connecting other former prisoners with access to services, is enrolled in the Criminal Justice PhD program at CUNY/John Jay College, and teaches criminal justice to graduate students at John Jay College.

Both Day and Smith have excellent relationships with their families.

Ronald Day’s story is not the typical tale, but that was precisely the point. VII and Think Outside The Cell wanted an optimistic view of how people can succeed in spite of the system.

“We’d always thought we’d follow someone as they were released and see them through the first weeks and months of difficult readjustment in the free world,” says Rule. But after some thought, Joseph Robinson, co-founder of Think Outside The Cell, Rule’s husband of 8 years, author, and current prisoner in Sullivan Correctional Facility, NY, suggested featuring someone who was, for all intents and purposes, succeeding, “Someone who everyone would think is doing okay, but who we could still show was facing Stigma,” posited Robinson.

While both imprisoned, Day and Robinson met at a National Trust for the Development of African American Men event. And, to this day, Rule often calls upon Day’s “dependable” organization skills to help plan Think Outside The Cell events. He was an obvious “messenger”.

However, for Day, the scrutiny of photojournalist cameras not surveillance cameras was a new experience.

“I’m not used to being followed by cameras continually. I guess that what reality TV is like. Children in the neighborhood called Ed and Ron ‘the Paparazzi.’ I thought that was hilarious!” says Ronald. “It’s good to know that my initial discomfort was a means to a higher purpose.”

Day’s motivation and higher purpose was to advocate for others.

“I want people to have a greater opportunity. You need to convince others that someone involved in a system has potential provided they’re given a chance. We need to take a second look at the individual, at the system, and the policies in ways which is fair and in ways which will change the laws,” explains Day. “I went online and looked at VII’s model for producing media. I realized it was a powerful way of producing journalism.”

And the issue is pressing.

Over the last 20 years, the number of major employers who screen for criminal records has grown to 90%. Laws that prohibit voting by people who have felony convictions deny an estimated 5.85 million Americans a visit to the ballot box. For people convicted of a drug felony, Congress has passed federal laws that place a lifetime ban on food stamps and cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). While states can opt out of or modify the ban, most states enforce it in full or in part, says the Think Outside The Cell website.

Discrimination in the workplace is no better described as the experience of a young man who lived in D.C. and worked at a temp agency. “He was so diligent he was bestowed the Temp of the Year Award and the firm wanted to hire him full time, but when they found out he was formerly incarcerated, they fired him,” says Rule.

Furthermore, this story reflects how the stigma and laws disproportionately effect people of colour.

“Trying to figure out ‘Why’ is common to the African American experience. Was it race? Often it’s not always clear, but in some instances the reasons reveal themselves,” says Rule.

The daily limitations on former prisoners leads directly to cycles of incarceration, Robinson believes.

“It’s a cycle of stigma, collateral consequences, exclusion, and recidivism,” says Robinson. “The collateral consequences are enormous and they are not theoretical; millions are effected and it results in social, political and emotional exclusion.”

“People on parole, probation and even people 10 or 15 years out encounter difficulties achieving the basic things needed to live life – things central to being American, such as working and supporting oneself,” he says.

“High hopes and dreams can often lead to disappointment,” says Robinson. “You may have a guy who has developed a business plan, but when he goes to the bank they won’t give him a loan. There are hundreds of business licenses felons are barred from. Prisoners acquire skills in electrics, masonry, metalwork, but they can’t get construction licenses so they’re relegated to working off the books. [They are not permitted] licenses in accountancy or real estate even if their crime had nothing to do with money.”

Imprisoned for 21 years and four years from eligible parole, Robinson says he has lots of time on his hands to “develop creative ideas around social entrepreneurship.” Rule puts them into practice on the outside.

“I wouldn’t be where I am, if it weren’t for Joe,” says Rule. Although physical separated, Robinson says he and Rule are “joined at the hip” in their values.

“Social entrepreneurship is not a profit driven enterprise,” says Robinson. “I’m not saying making money is a bad thing, but the goal of social entrepreneurship is to achieve maximum impact while caring for ecology, society, people. If we focus only on profit, we can do more harm than good. NGOs, businesses, councils and governments can collaborate in social entrepreneurship.”

Specifically, Think Outside the Cell has launched a End The Stigma/Break The Cycle campaign to involve incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people; probation and parole officials; legislators and government officials; civil and human rights advocates; business leaders; labor union members; private and public employers; nonprofit administrators; students; and teachers.

Robinson and Rule are also keen to engage print and screen advertisers, which shows a canny regard for how social attitudes are shaped.

“While we are building a coalition of those who effect what we decide – legislators, officials, voters – we also want to involve people who decide what we think – those in media and advertising,” says Rule.

Meanwhile, the onus is on imprisoned individuals themselves. Day often quotes to a 19th century saying he discovered in Scott Christianson’s book With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America.

‘Very few individuals are ever rehabilitated in prison, and none are truly rehabilitated by prison. But some may rehabilitate themselves in spite of prison.”

The key to Day’s shift in fortunes was education and it is a subject he speaks passionately about.

“One intervention in the cycle of crime is access to education,” he says.

But access was curtailed in 1994 when Federal law prohibited prisoners from access to Pell Grants. State laws replicated the Federal laws. And there are other laws to reverse, too. Mandatory minimum sentencing, particularly for drug crimes, was hugely damaging. Day describes the sentences resulting from new 3-strikes laws in the 1990s as “cruel” and “disproportionate” punishment.

“The war on drugs failed,” says Day. “As Michelle Alexander points out, if you put someone into a drugs program instead of imprisoning them, you get better results. You can’t incarcerate your way out of the problem. Even conservatives recognize that. This is an ideal time; this is the most pressing of times.”

His role as a VII photographers’ subject is not without its complications for Day, but the ensuing wider conversation is worth it. His students and fellow PhD classmates do not know of his former incarceration.

“Once the VII Photo begins its series, there’s a chance they’ll find out and then we’ll have that conversation,” he says. “Often people say, ‘I’d never had guessed’ and then pepper me with questions. I often find I become a resource and that really effects the conversation.”

Bring on the conversation. With wide-eyes and courage.

“Society likes to imagine these problems don’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind. We have to deal with this. Yes, these are people who have breached the social contract, but we need to think about how we treat people after they’ve served time in prison and their debt to society,” concludes Robinson.

Rule and Robinson both acknowledge their work is in its infancy but have faith in, and knowledge of, how to tell compelling stories.

“It’s been a long and enriching experience. I have no illusions, but when most people hear our stories, they say, ‘I didn’t know’. I hear it over and over again, and then I hear, ‘What can I do to help?'” says Rule.

“Some people hold the ‘Once a convict, always a convict’ attitude, but others – and I’d say this is the majority of people – don’t know about the issues for the formerly incarcerated,” says Rule. “Think Outside the Cell campaigns and describes experiences creatively. The standards methods have no effect; creativity moves the dial.”

Ultimately, VII Photo is continuing Think Outside The Cell’s track record of telling stories with compassion.


Editor’s note: This article is the first of a five-part Prison Photography series which will examine the nature of the VII Photo/Think Outside The Cell partnership, canvas the photographers’ thoughts and hopefully add to the push toward a fairer treatment of former prisoners.

Part Two: A Conversation With Ron Haviv
Part Three: A Conversation With Ed Kashi
Part Four: A Conversation With Jessica Dimmock
Part Five: A Conversation With Ashley Gilbertson


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