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Inmates line up for work early in the morning at Estrella jail. © Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Yesterday, the Guardian ran a gallery of Jim Lo Scalzo‘s photographs of a female chain-gang in Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona.

To people who are unfamiliar with the chain-gangs, established by the controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio (the self-titled “Toughest Sheriff in America”), Lo Scalzo’s images may be a shock. Certainly, they are fascinating.

Unfortunately, this is not an example of a photographer gaining exclusive access to an invisible institution. To the contrary, inmates of the Maricopa County Jails are arguably the most frequently photographed prisoners in the United States. Approach Lo Scalzo’s work with caution.

Jon Lowenstein photographed the female chain-gangs in March, 2012 and Scott Houston photographed the all-female chain-gang when it was first established almost a decade ago.* These are only three photographers of hundreds who have visited Tent City, Estrella Jail and followed chain gangs out on to the streets.

The Guardian writes in it’s brief introduction, “Many women volunteer for the duty, looking to break the monotony of jail life.” That might be true, but it is also the message peddled by the Sheriff’s office and it also stops short of asking why these women have been ushered into the jail system. I should say at this point, these are women on short sentences locked for non-serious, probably non-violent offenses, likely drug use, prostitution, petty theft. If I may generalise, they are a nuisance more than they are a danger. They are victims as much as they are victimisers.

What must to do with Lo Scalzo’s photographs – and with others like his – is appreciate how they were made; more specifically we must appreciate the pantomime that is put on display for the public and put on for the photographer.

I have spoken to many photographers who have described how Arpaio directs a “media circus.” I have written before about his press-staged march of immigrant detainees through the streets of Phoenix. He dresses citizens serving time and non-citizens awaiting immigration hearings in the same pink underwear and striped jumpsuits.

Let’s not deny that Sheriff Arpaio is on message, dominates message and understands visual symbols and the power of the image probably as well, if not better, as any of us who make, discuss and revel in photography.

There is certainly a lot more to be teased out about Arpaio’s near 20 years in office and his media savvy, but now I’d like to turn our attentions away from photography and towards a socially-engaged art project of admirable sincerity and complexity which might teach us more about Maricopa County than photographs alone.

Throughout 2011, Assistant Professor of Multimedia Gregory Sale at Arizona State University (ASU), carried forth It’s Not All Black & White a program of talks, installation and interventions at the ASU Art Museum.

It’s Not All Black & White intended to give “voice to the multiple constituents who are involved with the corrections, incarceration and the criminal justice systems.” To establish a discussion around the highly contested issues in a divided community, Sale and his team had to rely upon the trust and input of museum curators, university faculty, students, sheriff’s deputies, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, family of the incarcerated and so on and so forth. It is quite remarkable that under the same banner, Sale was able to invite Angela Davis to talk and in another event invite Sheriff Arpaio to a discussion on aesthetics.

Round table discussion at ASU Museum. Joe Arpaio on the right.

Incarcerated men were brought onto university grounds to paint the stripes in the ASU museum, Skype dance workshops were done to connect incarcerated mothers and daughters; the museum space was repeatedly given over to engagement instead of objects.

At the fantastic Open Engagement Conference, I shared a panel with Gregory. He said that for so long Sheriff Arpaio had controlled how people think of stripes and think of criminality in their community.

Gregory said one thing that really stayed with me. He said that for a brief period while It’s Not All Black & White was in the museum and the programmes went on, he was able to wrestle that control away from Arpaio and open a discussion that focused not on the blacks and the whites, but on the grey areas. In those grey areas are hard decisions and hard emotions. But, also in those grey areas, are solutions to transgression in our society that might look to root causes and solutions that engender hope and spirit-building instead of humiliation and penalty.

When we look at Lo Scalzo, Lowenstein, Houston and the works of countless others from Maricopa County we need to bear in mind the stripes and the spectacle of the chain gang is deliberate. Are the photographs showing us only the black and white of the stripes or are the photographs introducing us to meditate on the grey areas? I suspect they do mostly the former.

*Lowenstein had photographed immigrant detainees in Maricopa County’s ‘Tent City’ a few years ago. I included both Lowenstein and Houston’s work in Cruel and Unusual.

“Curiosity was the initial spur. Surprise, shock and bewilderment soon took over. Rage propelled me along to the end.”

Jane Evelyn Atwood on photographing in women’s prisons.

This is the third and final installment in my series Women Behind Bars. The second part looked ta the writing of Vikki Law and the first looked at the journalism of Silja Talvi. It was Silja who recommended Jane Evelyn Atwood’s work.


When discussing the work of a prison photographer, it is preferable to do so within the specifics of the region or nation they document. Prison Photography‘s key inquiry is how the photographer came to be in the restricted environment of a prison and these details differs from place to place. Such inquiry is complicated by Jane Evelyn Atwood‘s work because she visited over 40 prisons in twelve countries over a period of one decade. In some cases I know the location of a particular image and in others I don’t. I suggest you compensate for this by buying the book Too Much Time for yourself.

Above is a women’s penal colony in Perm, Russia. It holds over 1,000 women – the majority of who work forced hard labour. Here we see women who are in solitary confinement experiencing their yard privileges – half an hour in outside cages. Most women in the prison are there for assault, theft or lack of papers.

Below is a scene from a Czechoslovakian prison. The scars are not the result of genuine suicide attempts but of regular self-mutilation – a problem more common among female prison populations than male populations.


Another reason to pick up Atwood’s book would be that there isn’t much stuff out there on the web – and that which is is low resolution or small-size. You can see a small selection from Atwood’s Prison series at her website; small images at PoYI; and a really good selection of tear-sheets at Contact Press Images.

By far the best stuff on the web concerning Too Much Time is an Amnesty International site devoted to the project. It includes a powerful preface in which Atwood lays out her raison d’etre. Next Atwood provides a “world view” comparing the prison systems of France, Russia and the US (each a five minute audio). Then comes three specific photo-essays with audio (Motherhood, Vanessa’s Baby, The Shock Unit). Finally, Atwood provides six stories behind six photographs. The stories are many and the facts more astounding than the emotions.

While Atwood’s pictures present the many individual circumstances of the prisoners, Atwood has identified a common denominator; “Of the eighteen women I met in [my] first prison, all but one seemed to be incarcerated because of a man. They were doing time for something he had done, or for something they would never have done on their own.”

Atwood qualifies this, “One woman told me her husband forced to set the alarm to have sex with him three times a night. She endured it for years and finally killed the man that kept her hostage. Another woman’s husband was shot by her daughter after he had stabbed her in the arm as a “souvenir”, poured hot coffee on his wife’s head for not mixing his sugar, and urinated all over the living room after one of the children refused to come out the bathroom. The woman was serving time for “refusing to come to her husband’s aid.”


What is most impressive about Atwood’s work is that it predates photojournalism’s wider interest in prisons by a couple of decades. She had at first tried to gain entry into a French prison in the early eighties. Her failure is unsurprising given Jean Gaumy of Magnum was the very first photojournalist inside a French prison in 1976.

It is a scandal that the discussion over shackling women during labor and gynecological examination continues today. Atwood captured the brutality of it decades ago.


Atwood’s work veers consciously between two reality of the women’s situation – the environment and the body.

Many of her photos share a compositional austerity. The hard angles of institutions run according to ‘masculine mathematics’ (dictating sentencing and experience) are repeated. Atwood punctuates this stern reality with flourishes of femininity … and touch.


Some may think Atwood has over-reached herself with a global inquiry and I’d be sympathetic to the point if anyone else had come close to her commitment. Even considering each prison system in isolation, Atwood’s work can hold its own. Her work in Perm, Russia is particularly powerful as it orbits closely around the issue of uniform, identity and the complications it brought to bear directly on her documentary.

At the Amnesty site, Atwood brings up many interesting points of comparison. She identifies the US system as the most sterile with a legal mandate to treat female prisoners in the same manner as male prisoners. But she also says that if there is grievance or complaint to be settled, US prisoners have recourse to do so. Such allowances are not made in France.

On the other hand, children are excluded from all but a couple of US prisons. The security threat is cited as the reason: a child inside a prison is a constant vulnerable life and constant hostage target. The claim seems a little bogus when penal systems of other countries are brought into consideration.


Atwood was interviewed by Salon about the project. She has also worked on landmine victims and talked to Paris Voice about that. Here, she talks about Canon about her work in Haiti.

Jane Evelyne Atwood

Jane Evelyn Atwood

Biography: Jane Evelyn Atwood was born in New York. She has lived in Paris since 1971. In 1976, with her first camera, Atwood began taking pictures of a group of street prostitutes in Paris. It was partly on the strength of these photographs that Atwood received the first W. Eugene Smith Award, in 1980, for another story she had just started work on: blind children. Prior to this, she had never published a photo.

In the ensuing years, Atwood has pursued a number of carefully chosen projects – among them an 18-month reportage of a Foreign Legion regiment, following the soldiers to Beirut and Chad; a four-and-a-half-month story on the first person with AIDS in France to allow himself to be photographed for publication (Atwood stayed with him until his death); and a four-year study of landmine victims that took her to Cambodia, Angola, Kosovo, Mozambique and Afghanistan.

Atwood is the author of six books. In addition, her work has been including the ‘A Day In The Life’ series. She has been exhibited worldwide in solo and group exhibitions. She has worked for LIFE Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Stern, Géo, Paris Match, The Independent, The Telegraph, Libération, VSD, Marie-Claire and Elle. Atwood has worked on assignment for government ministries and international humanitarian organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Handicap International and Action Against Hunger.

She has been awarded the Paris Match Grand Prix du Photojournalisme (1990), Hasselblad Foundation Grant (1994), Ernst Haas Award (1994), Leica’s Oskar Barnack Award (1997) and an Alfred Eisenstaedt Award (1998). In 2005, Atwood received the Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters from Bard College, joining a company of previous laureates including Edward Saïd, Isaac Bashevis Singer and E.L. Doctorow.

This is the first of three posts celebrating the work of journalists/academics/photographers bringing to popular conscience the abuse of women in the American prison system.

I have called this triplet mini-series Women Behind Bars and it was spurred by a couple of news stories this week. In New York state, protesters outside the Governors house drew a promise from David Paterson that he’d sign legislation banning the chaining of incarcerated women who are giving birth.

Also, a class action lawsuit is gearing up in Michigan, which seeks a $100million settlement for over 900 female inmates and former-inmates who suffered harassment, groping and rape between the years of 1993 and 2009.

Women Behind Bars as a name for this mini-series was co opted from the Silja J. Talvi‘s most recent book of the same title.

Talvi, Silja - Women Behind Bars

I had the pleasure of hearing Silja talk at the Seattle Public Library. Silja speaks as she writes – without jargon or polygonal argument. She keeps it simple; she is usually retelling the testimony of female prisoners she has visited and interviewed. No flourish required.

Beyond the physical and sexual harassment of female prisoners, Talvi asks us to reevaluate our understanding of psychological welfare as it is handled by the prison system. The 775% increase in the US female prison population since 1977 is – for want of a better word – criminal. It is double the rate of growth for the male prison population. Talvi is in no doubt that this increase is due for the most part to the war on drugs. Talvi also describes the constituencies entering US womens prisons.

Nearly every woman I interviewed (around 100) had a serious history of trauma or abuse in her life, emotional abuse or sexual abuse or domestic violence. Many had been raped. More than a third of the women entering the prison system were homeless, while 70 percent had moderate or severe mental illness.

Talvi’s work crystallises the fact that the massive incarceration of American women has not been a result of crime on the streets, but a result of criminalisation by writ of political assemblies. In the war on drugs, women are involved but surely we must analyse that involvement. Occupying residence, associating with family drug dealers are indirect misdemeanours that stand to be punished. When a society is blighted by drugs and the dealers are involved in the “war” on the street, usually it is women who hold the threads of family and community – and home – together … despite its faults and its drug use.

Talvi points to another remarkable trend,

There’s also the fact that women are less likely than men to snitch on loved ones. Prosecutors will come to them and say they will go to prison unless they give up the names of three higher-ups, but women usually either say they don’t know those people or will simply decline. Men will snitch and, unfortunately, they often get less time in prison than women who don’t.

The shocking statistics are simply an application of US culture that is too morally bankrupt & class divided to think of more imaginative forms of criminal justice than incarceration.

Prison is a violent, inhumane environment – the modern designations of built with violent offenders in mind. But what proportion of women prisoners are violent? Not nearly as many as our fear-gripped culture would presume.

The prison is a disciplinary tool that has needlessly subjugated women. It has been imposed and it has demolished poor communities.

When Talvi supports prison for violent murderers and rapists and then argues for its non-implementation for female ‘criminals’ she is entirely consistent. The prison has a place, but it is not in the persecution of non-violent females, it’s counter to the notion of justice and it flies in the face of social justice.

As This Is Not A Book Sale put it,

Even readers who believe that the main goal of incarceration is to punish and not to rehabilitate prisoners for successful reentry into society, will be horrified by the treatment that many women have faced behind bars in this country

The book Women Behind Bars was produced as part of the Women Behind Bars Project which:

Works to break away from black-and-white rhetoric on issues of crime and punishment in general – and females in the criminal justice system in particular. The prison crisis has been compounded by the multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar strategy of fighting the American War on Drugs

As a part of the drug war, girls and women have been swept along in ever-greater numbers, owing in great part to the mandatory minimum sentencing, federal “conspiracy” charges, and weighty allocation of public funds for drug-related undercover operations, sweeps, arrests, and prosecutions in both rural and urban areas.


Women Behind Bars. The Book: More and more women—mothers, grandmothers, wives, daughters, and sisters—are doing hard prison time all across the United States. Many of them are facing the prospect of years, decades, even lifetimes behind bars. Oddly, there’s been little public discussion about the dramatic increase of women in the prison system. What exactly is happening here, and why?

Bio: Silja J. A. Talvi is an award-winning journalist with credits in more than seventy-five publications nationwide, including The Nation, In These Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. She was honored as a recipient of the 2005 and 2006 PASS awards for criminal justice reporting by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a 2006 New American Media Award, and twelve regional SPJ awards for excellence in journalism. Talvi’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor, Body Outlaws, The W Effect, It’s So You, and Prison Profiteers. She lives in Seattle.


Fabio Cuttica‘s 2006 photo essay in Nerve from the Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd) Prison, Bogota was brought to my attention via industry-insider Rachel Hulin’s A Photography Blog. She describes a well-rude awakening.

I woke up in the middle of night after dreams of Sarah Palin, and realized that in my subconscious I had placed her into a photo essay I ran years ago as a photo editor at Nerve. She was a beauty queen in the Prisoner Pageant in Bogota, and she was glorious.

If you can get past this description from Hulin’s subconscious, I encourage you to think about the merits of this particular pageant. Despite the obvious interest from media (who are unlikely to refuse such a unique/titillating story) the benefit here seems to be predominantly for the women of the institution.



The pageant in is honour of the Virgin Mercedes, the patron saint of prisoners. Ada Calhoun – in the intro for the Nerve photo essay – hams up the language to sensationalise the event, but I don’t think there is a need. Cuttica’s photographs are brimming with the fun, the nerves, ecstasy and community of the event.

It is obviously novel day. It would seem to me that the opportunity to celebrate femininity and to express notions of beauty normally obscured by the institution would be a welcome relief for many female prisoners; I hope its a hell of a lot of fun.

But, this is a curious contradiction to how I usually feel about beauty pageants. I generally consider beauty contests as shallow, if not ridiculous. They make a whole lot of noise over very trivial matters. To my mind, a beauty contestant on stage is as pathetic as a dog in a sweater; cringe-worthy, vulnerable and compromised.

I suppose an answer lies in who has the power and the organising authority. I may be wrong, but I presume the women of Buen Pastor prison have a huge investment in the pageant – supporting their friends, stage preparations, making costumes and accommodating guests to the prison on their day.

This is, of course, in contrast to the usual female beauty contestant who is likely genderised by her community, normalised into swimsuit & high heels at an early age and conditioned to not question the strange gaze of a town’s older (men) folk.




Fabio Cuttica resides in Bogota, Colombia. His work is distributed by Contrasto & Redux agencies. He has worked across Latin America, recently winning acknowledgment from the College Photographer of the Year for his work documenting the La Maria & their struggle for land rights in the Cauca Region of Colombia. In 2008, Cuttica was honorably mentioned at the National Press Photographer Association’s Best of Photojournalism Awards for his extended essay about gang violence in Barrio Petare, Caracas, Venezuala. He has also worked on assignment for GEO about the Basque Region of Spain and covered the traditional family life and weaving in Valledupar, Colombia.

Copyright: Angela Shoemaker

Copyright: Angela Shoemaker

Angela Shoemaker, visual journalist and graduate of The School of Visual Communication at Ohio University, informs us, “Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) nursery, one of four such programs in the U.S., offers a unique opportunity for female inmates to keep their babies while serving out their prison sentences.”

Angela has also produced Prison Nursery: Keeping Mothers and Babies Together in an audio slideshow format Prison Nursery.

© Patricia Aridjis

"Karla Liliana" 2005. Women's Prison "Reclusorio Oriente", Mexico City. © Patricia Aridjis

Patricia Aridjis spent over seven years on The Black Hours Project. She documented incarcerated women in the Mexican penitentiaries of Santa Martha Acatitla, Tepepan, “Reclusorio Norte & Oriente” and Michoacan Prison in Mexico City.

It is not only the photographs that Aridjis uses to tell the women’s stories with familiarity and sensitivity. Aridjis also compiled a video archive and a correspondence archive; I urge you to listen, read and pause.

I contacted Patricia and she generously gave permission to publish works from The Black Hours. It gives me great pleasure to do so, as her motivation bear striking similarity to a core principle of Prison Photography; to present imagery that jolts viewers into reassessments about prisons and the lives and stories therein.

Aridjis has been described as one of the photojournalists most committed to social issues in Mexico. It has also been explained that this project was a point of revelation in her career; Aridjis [coming to] understand prisons as only reflections of outside society:

The female penitentiary is more than a place where society hide its errors and cleans its faults; inside there are hundreds of stories of abandonment, abuse and even love.

Exhibition Board, Nacho Lopez Hall, INAH National Photographic Library

Aridjis’ photographic philosophy is clear, “To Make Visible, the Invisible”. Mexico’s penal system exerts control over what can and can’t be seen mimicking the practices of parts of the American penal system.

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

Photographers Statement

To do this photo essay I thought about being for long hours inside some women’s prisons in Mexico City. I considered that that was the only way to capture the feelings that go around the cells and corridors of these places. Loneliness, lesbianism as a way of satisfying affective needs; self punishment and suicide attempts are like gaping wounds in the wrists that cry for help. Drugs to escape reality, maternity, solidarity. Life is limited by watching towers, guards, gates and schedules. The black hours. My commitment found its exact words when I took an inmate’s picture in her cell. She asked me to be photographed because that was to be her only way out of there.

Patricia Aridjis, Mexico 2004

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

"Mario (Maria) and Eli" 2000. Tepepan Women's Prison, México City. © Patricia Aridjis

"Mario (Maria) and Eli" 2000. Tepepan Women's Prison, México City. © Patricia Aridjis

Where is Jail?

“What would you do if I mugged you?” Natalia asked mischievously.

“You wouldn’t.” I answered. When Juan Carlos the inmate’s five-year old son over heard us he screamed, “Don’t do it mom! Don’t! Or you’ll end up in jail!”

“Jail does not exist.” she said after a brief silence.

“Where is jail?” I asked the boy who was inside his mother’s cell. “Outside, where the policemen are” he answered, pointing out to the window.

Talking with Natalia & Juan Carlos
Womens Prison, Tepepan, Mexico City, 2002.

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis


To enter you have to walk through a long tunnel which leads to an almost completely feminine world, a world with no living colors, but beige and navy blue of the uniforms.

“I have been here seven years, four months and two weeks.” Exact, endless counting. Time that passes slowly and suddenly has turned into years ‘the black hours’.

Visitors are special; they are a breath of fresh air, freedom that comes from the outside.

"Cereso", 2004. Mil Cumbres, Prison Michoacan, Mexico. © Patricia Aridjis

"Cereso", 2004. Mil Cumbres, Prison Michoacan, Mexico. © Patricia Aridjis


Some children have been born inside and their eyes have not seen any other light than the one that passes though the bars, especially those that have no one to take care of them. If such is the case they remain under the custody of government institutions until the legal system says otherwise.

“Dulce, Why are you in for?”
“How many years did they give you?”
“Where did they get you?”
“At the airport.”
“How much did you have on you?”
“Two kilos.”
“What is your cause?” [sic]
“My mom… Maria.”

These are the words that Dulce, a four year-old girl memorized. She was born during her mother’s conviction.

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

Objects, People, Spaces

Objects acquire a different value once they pass through the gate. Either because they are not allowed, such as scissors, perfumes in glass bottles, mirrors, or because they are outrageously expensive, like soap, deodorant or toilet paper. A phone card is like gold; the telephone is one of the few ways to keep in touch with the outside world. Family visits are another, but it is common that their partners or even their closest relatives abandon the inmates.

Beds have to be earned. Each cell houses about 15 inmates and is no more than 9 square meters. There are people sleeping on the floor and under the beds. As they leave, the ones that have been there longer get the beds. Other way to obtain this privilege is to buy it from someone who has been there more time.

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

Love in the Time of Jail

Silvia and Claudia met in prison, they fell in love. They have loved each other night and day … intimacy is a very public thing in prison. Silivia did her time, soon after the relationship began. She could not bear to be free without Claudia – the love of her life – and planned a simulated burglary. She asked a friend to press charges so that she could be in prison again, and together again with Claudia.

"Silvia and Claudia" 2004. Women's Prison, "Reclusorio Oriente", Mexico City. © Patricia Aridjis

"Silvia and Claudia" 2004. Women's Prison, "Reclusorio Oriente", Mexico City. © Patricia Aridjis


In 2006, Aridjis obtained the sponsorship of Revelaa Spanish organization which supports social justice photography. In 2002, she received a Grant for the Encouragement of Cultural Projects from FONCA (National Fund for Culture and Arts). That same year she won 1st place in the Anthropological Photography Contest awarded by the National School of History and Anthropology. In 2001, she received 1st place in the 5th Biennale of photojournalism. In 1994, Aridjis obtained a Grant for Young Creators (FONCA). She has been part of over sixty group & solo exhibitions.

Aridjis has recently been praised for her project The Sickness Behind Every Flower, which examines the use and toxic side effects of pesticides in agriculture.

I came across this image on a ‘free media web hosting site’ where I lazily put in the term “Prison” to the search. I am unwilling to name the site as I do not wish you to suffer the same banner ads and unedited content.


Women prisoners working on road, Tanzania. circa 1901. Source: Unknown

The search returned the usual images of pets in crates (1st-person caption optional), macro-shots of rusting locks and/or bars, stock images of barb wire, and photos from Eastern State Penitentiary (which does many photography workshops). There were three images that were worth a second glance – the other two being images WWII prisoners of war.

Despite having no means to confirm its authenticity or the accuracy of the caption, I thought the image worthy of a quick reflection. The image is contrary to the usual representation of incarcerated peoples – the era; the gender of the subjects; the continent; the anonymity of the photographer. De facto, this becomes a visual source in its most naive understanding; all we have to go on are the women depicted. The photograph wriggles away from all the contextual information one needs to assess its political purpose.

The responses of the women to the camera (pride, defiance, awkwardness, subjection – and even laughter from a lady in the background) compel me to presume nothing of this picture. I question the authority to which they are subject, I question the legitimacy of the charge by which they are held prisoner, I certainly can’t reconcile hard labour with a mode of justice for grown women. This is a depiction of slavery more than it is of criminal justice.

If the date in the caption is accurate, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) was under German rule. “Tanzania as it exists today consists of the union of what was once Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar. Formerly a German colony from the 1880s through 1919, the post-World War I accords and the League of Nations charter designated the area a British Mandate (except for a small area in the northwest, which was ceded to Belgium and later became Rwanda and Burundi). British rule came to an end and Tanganyika became officially independent in 1961.”

I rarely harp on about “the power of photography” because it is a subjective assessment, but I will vouch for that personal reaction to imagery that can stop you in your tracks and get you thinking.

I have been supremely busy lately. I have eight projects in various stages of draft, but want to throw up some quality images, accompanying words and give a general shout out to Bangladesh’s photographic community.

Through my day job, I am familiar with Shahidul Alam‘s fine photography. I am more impressed by his stewardship of his nation’s photojournalist community, here, here and here. It was at Alam’s Blog that I discovered the images of Momena Jalil. I’ll simply repost the photographs and let them and the text speak for themselves.

Mother and Daughter in Cell, Momena Jalil, 2008

Mother and Daughter in Cell, Momena Jalil, 2008

They were some 21 women. Some with with children who were free but had nowhere to go. So they stayed with their mother in captivity. It was a rare chance for us; it was the opening of the new women’s prison on eight acres of land situated on the Western edge of Kashempur. We were allowed because we were women and in those ten minutes we learnt what we could not have learnt in a lifetime. Losing one’s freedom strips us of the right to live. It is the strangest feeling, a chilling feeling. Freedom denied is freedom lost in the cradle of the life.

Cell, Momena Jalil, 2008. Having spent a year in prison already, 25-year-old Rahima still cannot reconcile with her living conditions. "The air, the walls, the people, the place- all of it has been a shock for me", she says. She struggles to wear the blank and emotionless expression that the rest of her inmates wear every day, yet every time she speaks of her experience in jail, she fights back tears.

Cell, Momena Jalil, 2008. Having spent a year in prison already, 25-year-old Rahima still cannot reconcile with her living conditions.

‘It is difficult to cope with all that goes within the walls of a prison,’ she says. ‘There were times when the prison guards molested me…they do sexually abuse women,’ she says softly, hiding her face behind her white saree. As soon as the guards walk in her expression changes and she mutters, ‘we have no problems at all.’

From Jalil’s post it is obvious the system has affected the women very differently.

‘How can you not love the darkness, the stench, the suffocation and the crowds?’ asks fifty-year-old Khaleda in her raw husky voice. Her big eyes and rough expressions complement her loud and dominating voice. ‘After spending twenty-five years I don’t think I would ever want to go back. I get a taste of everything here – be it having tonnes of friends or being tortured, all of it is ‘fun’, she says sarcastically.

Khaleda knows the secrets of the prison, yet she refuses to speak up. ‘You know why I came here? My husband married another woman for no reason. He brought her home with her two children. I had done nothing. But he still did that. So I ate the two kids,’ she laughs aloud. ‘And then I got involved in a trafficking case and a lot more.’

In twenty-five years, Khaleda has seen the darkest sides of the prison. She has lived inside crumbled cells with no space to even sit or breathe. ‘I don’t like the idea of being moved to this new unit of the women’s prison. I love the people there. The Dhaka Central Jail is overcrowded, stinky, a torture hole but it’s still been my home for the past so many years,’ she says.

Khaleda is one of 200 women who are waiting to be shifted to the first female jail in Kashempur that recently opened.

Women in a Cell, Momena Jalil, 2008

Women in a Cell, Momena Jalil, 2008

She was a mother, a daughter, a sister, a home-maker, a beloved wife but today she is only a prisoner behind bars serving a life sentence. She could have been many things but situation, time, circumstance and fate took all her rights to live free in society. Society finds them unfit because they cross the line of the law; they were not born to be criminals but time took them where they committed crimes… some killed step-children, some were found trafficking in-between borders, they were too many and we had too little time to know what crimes they were in for. We had ten minutes, the guards were rushing us, it’s unthinkable to let journalists roam inside a prison. But we have been there, my colleague and I; we saw faces up close, people who live among us, their faces hold the rumours of sisters, mothers…


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