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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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Owen at a community outreach service, near Brisbane, that provides free meals. Owen had been out of prison and in Australia for three months when this portrait was made. © Cory Wright

A BOY OF GREAT PROMISE

What happens if you’re released from prison in one country and deported to another? What happens if you’ve no recourse? What happens if your so-called “home” is not at all a home but a place you’ve not seen for 30+ years?

These questions can be answered, partially, by looking at the experience of Owen, who was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 32 in the United Kingdom. In late 2013, after serving 19 years, Owen was released aged 51.

“As an Australian citizen Owen was released as part of a scheme devised to reduce taxpayer expenditure and ease prison overcrowding in the U.K. by deporting foreign national prisoners,” explains photographer Cory Wright who met Owen in January 2014 a few months after his return.

“Owen was taken from a maximum security prison to a detention facility and then to the airport where he was flown back to Australia under guard escort,” continues Wright. “After clearing customs at Brisbane International Airport, he went his way and the guards went theirs.”

For his first few nights in Australia, Owen camped out in a wooded area behind a university campus. Having no family in Brisbane, he headed a local church to get some help.

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Owen on faith and imprisonment: “In prison, I could actually feel the strength when I walked into the prison chapel and it helped me a great deal. I don’t get that feeling now. When I walk into a church sometimes I feel as though it could be any other room.”

It was at a prison ministry conference in Brisbane that Owen and Wright first met. After striking up a conversation and learning about their recent histories and their need to unpack disorienting experiences. Owen and Wright decided to work together. For one year, through image-making, conversation and archives, they reflected upon Owen’s institutionalization, the social stigma of incarceration, repatriation and reentry.

Soon, Owen moved from Brisbane to Melbourne where his ailing  mother lives. He cared for her for a while until she has since moved to a nursing home where he expects her to stay from now on. She was in her 60’s when Owen was sentenced to life in prison and over 80-years-old when he was released.

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Owen’s mother lived in Bundaberg, a small town in northern Queensland for many years. She was a well-known member of the community, but she moved to Melbourne shortly after “Owen got into trouble” because it was too difficult to stay once members of the community learned of his offense.

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A scan of Owen’s year 3 report card. The series takes it’s title from the first sentence of the teacher’s remarks at the top left. “Owen is a boy of great promise…”.

Wright titled the project A Boy Of Great Promise, a phrase taken from Owen’s year 3 report card, written by his then teacher.

Wright and Owen could not help becoming friends.

“With empathy and attention afforded to the victim, little thought is given to the lives of those who have “paid their debt to society”. The stigma of the crime is often residual as is the label it caries. It is difficult to be known as anything other than an ‘ex-con’. Furthermore, the lasting effects of prisonisation often make reintegration back into society especially difficult,” says Wright.

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During his time living in Brisbane, Owen often relied on free amenities provided by community shelters.

“While A Boy Of Great Promise offers no firm resolution, it starts discussion among those who, all to readily, apply this stigma and rely on assumptions to judge those who have been convicted of a crime.”

I wanted to know more. I sent Cory Wright a few questions. But he replied saying he wanted to share the repsonsibility with Owen. And so I sent a few more questions and Owen and Wright explain the project jointly.

Q & A

How did you meet?

Owen (O): We met at the Uniting Care Prison Ministries Conference in Brisbane, March 2014.

Cory (C): I was encouraged to contact a local prison ministry in Brisbane, Australia and invited to attend the conference, which led me to meet Owen.

Due to the restraints outlined in the Queensland Corrective Services Act 2006, I was unable to photograph or interview any Australian individuals who were on parole as it is forbidden under the act since they are still classified as ‘prisoners’ by the state.

Owen’s circumstances were unique because he was incarcerated in the UK and therefore not considered a ‘prisoner’ under the Act.

I remain very grateful to Owen and members of his family for allowing me into their lives over a period of time.

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Serving his sentence in the United Kingdom, Owen did not have many visits from family. During the 19 years he was in prison his mother did not visit him and his father visited only once.

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A card Owen bought for his mother whom he hadn’t seen since before he went to prison.

Why did you both agree to document this transition?

O: Cory approached me with the idea, explaining he needed a subject for his university assignment. I’m always willing to help people. And I like the idea of prisoners/ex-offenders getting positive exposure.

C: I wanted to spend period of time documenting post-release transition. I wanted to learn more about life post-incarceration with specific focus on individuals who had been recently released. The term ‘paid their debt to society’ has always interested me and I wanted to know if it was ever ‘paid’ or whether it was something that individuals continue to ‘pay’ following their release.

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Owen in his rooms surrounded by past family photographs, mainly from his childhood.

What did you hope to get out of the project?

O: I do see myself as a kind of ambassador for ex-offenders. I wanted positive exposure for ex-offenders. I like art. I like turning life into art. There’s a freeing up and a cleansing that comes from it.

C: I hoped to learn more about life after prison. It’s not something that is discussed, certainly not in mainstream media. In Australia specifically, there seems to be a focus on vilifying criminal behaviour in order to support a tough on crime political approach. I’m not condoning crime, but I think there needs to be more thought and discussion on what happens after prison, which may lead to more consideration about what prisons are for.

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Owen on the long term effects of prison:“It’s like going to war. When you come home you have PTSD just like those soldiers coming home from war in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Owen, do Cory’s photographs reflect your emotional state during this time?

O: Yes. I was happy and at peace, very happy to be released and enjoying my new found freedom. I think that is captured.

Cory, were you trying to reflect Owen’s emotional state?

C: I was documenting what I saw over a period of time, which was Owen gradually become more comfortable in Australian society. I saw happiness and relief yes, but I also saw Owen’s struggle to regain his place in a society from which he’s long been absent.

Owen repeated told me how relieved he was to be free, but he also said that he was worried he would be sent back to prison. There was a certain level of anxiety that the other shoe would fall and somehow he would be locked up again.

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Shortly after Owen moved to Melbourne, he entered a romantic relationship with S. Initially, S was unaware of his past and Owen was reluctant to tell her. Here, Owen and S. during a camping trip in northern Victoria. During the time they were together Owen helped S. learn English (which is not her first language) for her studies in a masters program. They would buy two copies of the same book and take turns reading aloud to one another.
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The garage of Owen’s mother’s townhouse where Owen and S. had sex when his mother was home.

Owen, what preparation did the UK government give you for the return trip to Australia?

O: None at all.

Owen, what has worked and what has not worked in your transition back to civilian life?

O: Australia is an easy country to live in, which has made the transition easy. None of my former friends welcomed me back and hardly any of my family, which has been the hardest thing to accept. I found I needed to start again and accept that people wouldn’t generally be accepting of my circumstances. I don’t tell people about my criminal past any more.

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A list of email addresses to reach out to for support after his release. Owen compiled the list using internet access at a public library.

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The view down the street from Owen’s mother’s townhouse in a suburb of Melbourne. After four months living in Brisbane, Owen relocated to Melbourne to live with and care for his mother.

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Owen’s booking image provided and partially redacted by the Ministry of Justice.

Why was the mugshot redacted?

C: I’m not sure why the Ministry of Justice decided to redact the image, especially since all of the consent forms and signatures they requested were provided.

In one of our discussions Owen told me that being released after serving a long-term prison sentence is like returning from war in the middle-east with regards to the effect on the person. Your identity is effectively stripped away from you and you become a number. I felt that this redacted image reflected that.

How common is the removal of non-UK citizens from UK society after their release?

O: It’s only relatively recent that lifers have been returned to their country of origin after their sentence. The TERS (Tariff Expired Removal Scheme) agreement began three years ago. Fixed-termers get sent back regularly.

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Prison diary and address book.

Owen, did you have any right of appeal?

O: There is an appeal system, but I doubt if a prisoner would have much success with it. I wanted to come back to Australia.

Owen, if you could be anywhere where would it be?

O: At the moment I’m still happily settling into life in Australia. I probably will travel when I get some money together – in Asia or Africa or South America.

Owen, why do you camp?

O: I like the freedom of it. After being locked up for so long I like not having four walls around me.

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Owen during a camping trip to the south coast of Victoria. Since his release, Owen has spent a lot of his time outdoors, mainly camping in rural areas of Victoria.

What would you like the world to understand through this project?

O: Good things can always happen.

C: I would like the people to give more consideration to a part of society that is largely ignored.

Cory Wright is a photographer based in South East Queensland. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram.

All images: © Cory Wright

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First Meal: Everything bagel with veggie cream cheese and a medium coffee from Dunkin Donuts. “I was craving a really good bagel,” said Keri Blakinger, 30, who served 21 months in female correctional facilities in NY. Blakinger, a vegetarian, subsisted mostly on canned vegetables and granola bars, which she received in packages from her parents. Since getting out, her diet has not changed much because she grew accustomed to not having to cook for herself. © Julius Motal.

There’s no shortage of projects about meals in the small corner of photographic practice concerned with prisons and human rights. Specifically, the final meals of condemned prisoners have stoked the macabre and outraged intrigue of artists.

Julius Motal‘s photographs of “first meals” are therefore something of a departure and a welcome addition to the visual narratives trying to convey the transitions out of prison and into society. Instead of an end point, Motal suggests a starting point (although the quality of help for reentry is up for question in many jurisdictions). Still, this work is simple and hopeful. Returning citizens cannot make it on their own. They’ll need to carry resolve and hope and see that reflected back from society. Perhaps Motal’s series with its extended captions helps humanise former prisoners?

The startling thing for me is the similarity in the types of food choices made by people about to face execution and people making a more inhibited choice once they’re outside of prison — almost without exception they go for fast food. Do returning citizens opt for fast food because they’re poor, have for the most part been poor, and eaten the cheapest and most accessible food? Or is it more simply a case of reaching out for easy comfort (supposing fast food equates to comfort) in times of relief?

There’s a reflection of class in Motal’s work, which is a good thing. It’s a healthy reminder how the prison industrial complex functions; hoe it brutalises communities of lower economic standing. Very few prisoners are like the middle class, liberal arts college educated Piper Kerman — or the TV show equivalent Piper Chapman — from Orange Is The New Black. Most people going to and leaving prison are poorer than the average American.

Currently, Motal’s series First Meals: This is What Freedom Tastes Like is only six images deep. I hope he’ll extend the survey and continue to ask ex-prisoners about their relationships to food. There’s many different directions in which this work could go not only in terms of interaction with subjects but in terms of public education to tie in with reentry services, food deserts, mother and child nutrition programs, and so on and so forth.

It’s significant that more than one caption refers to the overwhelming choice within — and paralysing nature of — grocery stores for former prisoners who were unaccustomed to variety and decision making power for extended periods. One caption reads:

For Stacy Burnett, the choices at the Burger King in Montrose, PA were overwhelming, so much so that she couldn’t make a decision. “I could feel the energy shift behind me,” Burnett, 39, said of the growing restlessness behind her. She finally told the cashier that she’ll have what the woman ahead of her ordered, which was a whopper, fries, a shake and a soda. For the first six months after her release, going to the supermarket was tremendously difficult. There were simply too many choices, and if she didn’t get anything in the first 10 minutes, she would leave without getting anything.

Last meals are a captivating topic but direct us only to the plight of 3,500ish people on death row in the country. Motals’ work about “first meals” directs us to the tough realities of the millions of people leaving jails and prison every year in America.

 

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Washington, DC – 2012. “Even though it was a split second decision that caused those women their lives, it was not just one decision. My life pretty much sprouted out of control as far as me being teen mother, high school drop out, unemployed, drug addicted, alone; I was just immersed in the life of crime,” says Lashawna Etheridge-Bey.

This blog post is long overdue. Gabriela Bulisova is a committed multimedia storyteller who, for the past few years, has shaped stories about post-prison lives and focusing often on the experiences of women re-entering society.

In the excellent Convictions (2012) — a video about Our Place, a D.C. non-profit assisting currently and formerly incarcerated women as they transition out of the criminal justice system — Bulisova notes that over 1 million U.S. women are under correctional supervision (prison, jail, probation or parole) and that the female prison population has ballooned by over 830% in the past 30 years. Yes, you read correctly; an eightfold increase in the number of women locked up since 1980. There are 200,000 women behind bars.

Bulisova’s latest piece Time Zone “portrays the story of Lashonia Etheridge-Bey, a 39-year-old resident of Washington, DC, who spent half of her life in prison for a double murder and was paroled in December 2011. It focuses on Lashonia’s personal transformation while in prison, her difficult yet highly successful reentry into society, and the conflicts that remain within herself and with family members,” says Bulisova.

You can view a gallery of stills from Time Zone here.

When she was 16, Etheridge-Bey shot two teenage girls dead. She spent 20 years in prisons and due to her self-discipline and model behaviour was granted parole at the first hearing.

What is interesting about Time Zone is that it doesn’t focus on the systematic problems of the prison industrial complex. Instead, it focuses on the details of Etheridge-Bey’s own story. By exploring family ties, Etheridge-Bey’s feelings of guilt (at one point, she asks, “Do I deserve to forgive myself?”) her support systems and her coping strategies, Bulisova weaves a tale full of complex issues and challenging questions.

I almost feel like Time Zone should be screened in prisons and jails as an example of how extremely difficult circumstances are surmountable. If an incarcerated person has the right discussions, strong resolve and faithful allies in dealing with the past and future then

Etheridge-Bey credits prison — or more specifically, the fact it extracted her from society and a tough life — as a turning point. Prison forced her to examine her life. She took the opportunity and is undoubtedly a success story.

To say that prison is “good” by any definition is difficult for people such as I who advocate for prison-reform. But, of course, prison is only good if an incarcerated individual develops their own skills to make the most of limited resources available. All the while, prisons should meet basic health and safety needs, which is not always the case.

Through tenacity and discipline, Etheridge-Bey propelled her self-improvement. She maintained strong relationships with her family (her daughter’s words in the video are impressive, realistic and hopeful); she accumulated college credit while she was inside; she has beaten the hurdles to employment and study that many post-release felons face.

Reentry can be very difficult. The stigma of incarceration can be very difficult. Not every former prisoner will be as successful as Etheridge-Bey. The question we must ask is how much do we want to invest in people who have made mistakes — sometimes terrible, life-costing mistakes? If people must be locked up, how can we think imaginatively about maximizing the opportunities for prisoners to find a new track?

If you share the notion that prisons should be about rehabilitation and not warehousing, then how far do we push those efforts? For example, with 85-90% of all incarcerated women having suffered a history of domestic and sexual abuse, where is the line between their responsibility and society’s responsibility to break them from entrenched cycles of victimhood? Do we expect women to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps, regardless of their situations? I hope not.

If we must incarcerate people, we should expect and demand a change for the better. We must demand that institutions are imaginative and reflexive enough to match prisoners’ efforts toward self improvement. And to nurture those efforts, instead of stymie them.

I applaud Etheridge-Bey’s efforts. Unfortunately, her great advances are not typical of incarcerated women in America.

I don’t think prisons are invested in recognising the skills and potentials of individuals. Access to meaningful programs and relevant pedagogy varies widely, state-to-state, so I must be careful not to over-generalise, but often, personal advancement is achieved in spite of the system and not because of it.

Clearly, the use of incarceration only as a last resort would go a long way to maximising resources for prisoners. Improved and robust education, easier family visitation procedures, smaller facilities, better mental-healthcare, and better nutrition to name a few factors, prisons can do more, much more, to assist prisoners — both men and women — to realise their full potential.

Sondheim Artscape Prize

Along side Larry Cook, Caitlin Cunningham, Nate Larson, Louie Palu and Dan Steinhilber, Gabriela Bulisova is currently shortlisted for the Sondheim Artscape Prize.

The six finalists for the Sondheim Artscape Prize have their artwork installed in Special Exhibition Gallery of the Walters Art Museum, 600 N Charles St, Baltimore. (June 29 – August 31). The award announcement and reception is this coming Saturday, July 13th, at 7pm.

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Ronald Day en route to work, NYC. © Ed Kashi / 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 the third 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 Four: A Conversation With Jessica Dimmock
Part Five: A Conversation With Ashley Gilbertson

Ed Kashi, together with Ron Haviv, photographed and videoed Ronald Day‘s story. Ed and I chatted about his experience and the issues at stake.

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Editor’s note: On September 27, 2012, Ronald Day was discharged from parole. He has since obtained his passport and registered to vote. On November 6, he will vote for the first time in his life. These interviews were conducted prior to September 27.

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Prison Photography (PP): When the idea of this partnership cropped up, how was it that yourself, Ron, Ash and Jess became the first four photographers?

Ed Kashi (EK): To some degree we were chosen on proximity to the subjects. Proximity to New York … and budget. We sense that we’ll expand this work dramatically into a bigger documentary series – not only in terms of going more in depth with our two subjects but with two more subjects.

EK: I’ve done a lot of work on prisons and similar subject matter. I don’t know about the other three. I am driven by examining social and political issues and increasingly it is frustrating to be able to do that for publications and the editorial world. I can speak confidently for all four of us and say our hearts lie in examining social and political issues, but it is so hard to get the funding let alone the interest and the buy-in of the editorial world, so whenever the chance to partner with NGOs or foundations or organizations and go out in the world and do honest and good visual reporting and know that the work will be used in an effective way to advocate for these issues, we take it.

PP: Can you give us a brief background on those stories you’ve done on prisons before?

EK: The first project that I did was in the late 80s. I pursued a personal project on the issue of private prisons looking at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) based in Nashville. I was fascinated back then by the issue of privatization that began under Reagan and Bush Snr. I was concerned that we were privatizing such a critical function of society. I went to four facilities around the country.

Over the years, I’ve also had assignments to go to San Quentin or Folsom to do one or two day shoots for TIME magazine, that kind of thing.

The next really big encounter with prisons was during my aging project. During the very first stage of what became an eight-year project on how America is growing old, I did a story on aging prisoners. I went to a couple of prisons with dedicated geriatric facilities. I did the fieldwork in 96 and 97 and the story eventually ran in the New York Times Magazine in 1997. It seems to be an issue I’m always bumping up against in one way or another.

PP: Compared to most photographers, your experience with and within prisons is incredibly wide and involved. Most photographers if they touch on the subject – and sometimes it might be accidental – might do do only once. Repeated visits to prison across the states is unusual. Access to private prisons is very unusual.

EK: I’d be amazed if CCA would give me or another photographer access again. They let me go to a juvenile facility in Nashville, an immigration facility in Houston, a maximum security prison in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a prison in Panama City in Florida. That the early operating years of CCA and maybe they were seeing it as a PR/marketing effort. I mean, I wasn’t even on assignment. To think that CCA would allow in the late eighties a freelance photographer from San Francisco to photograph in their facilities figuring, ‘Well, we’ve not had bad publicity yet, we’re just getting started, this is a way for people to know what’s going on.’ In the state of California, years ago I believe, they set down a policy in which journalists are not allowed in any of their facilities. More and more today, things are really shutting down. Access is in general shutting down for journalists in many ways. We’re perceived as having lost our neutrality and are now considered partisans!

PP: Well, we hear the term “liberal media” constantly. It is one of the most meaningless slurs I can think of. NPR is not liberal.; it’s journalism organization and it is neutral.

EK: The fact that anyone would call Obama a socialist is ridiculous. You should be sent back to school!

In terms of media, the type of person to go in to journalism should have an open and progressive mind. And I don’t mean progressive in a political sense; I mean you’re looking at the world trying to find out what’s going on; trying to figure out how to move forward; seeing the problems and then looking for where there may be solutions. By the nature of this work, you should be progressive and open minded, but unfortunately that has been translated into, ‘You’re Liberal.’

Quite frankly, I think there is something much more venal and dangerous this represents. What we’re now experiencing is something that was begun under the Nixon White House in the sixties and Pat Buchanan was very much behind it … and truthfully Cheney and Rumsfeld and the older Bush were part of it. It is in many ways, no different to what fascist and authoritarian regimes have done – which is to debunk and attack the media. If you don’t kill them physically, you delegitimate them. Really, that’s my very firm feeling of how these political movements work and it is very sad to me to see that this is happening in America.

I don’t see it happening in Europe, but America is such a huge country, a huge swathe is under-educated or naive. I think it is the nature of a large country. It is not that these are bad people, it’s just that they are not educated. It pisses me off and it scares me.

PP: Let’s talk about how that relates to this partnership. Does that landscape you just described, does that imperil the way potential this work and it’s products could be seen, interpreted or understood? Or do you look at it another way, a more positive way, that there wouldn’t have been a pressing need in the past to reach down and give a helping hand to a young, fledgling NGO. How does VII Photo, Think Outside the Cell and Sheila Rule anticipate that this work will be consumed?

EK: The way I look at this advocacy journalism, which is what I call it, is we gain access to subject we would otherwise have trouble getting access to. That’s number one. Number two, we’re doing it in cooperation with an organization that we know will disseminate the product to the policy makers and the people and organizations who can make a real difference and drive change – be it on a legislation for funding level.

Then, VII or the photographer can take that work and have a free hand to distribute it in the media landscape. The difference is that in the past I’d have to convince New York Times magazine or whoever it is [ahead of time] to give me time and money to go and do the work. Theoretically, I’d have been able to gain access because of the guarantor of a reputable organization and then the work would be funneled through that media organization for good or bad effect. In a sense, I prefer this [way of doing things] which sounds kind of weird. Just so you understand, on a process level, I’d rather just be working all the time for New York Times magazine or National Geographic or whomever, just because I love that being a journalist and having the support and protection of a media organization, but given the way things have changed and given the reality – both economically, politically and structurally of media in our society today, this is an exciting development that is taking place. As long as it is done in the correct way, where there is no slanted or biased reporting.

PP: You’ve been liberated but not compromised? And you use the phrase ‘advocacy journalism’ which is the most fitting term I’ve heard.

EK: On a deeper level – and this is definitely a product of my age and the stage I am in my life. Being mid career in terms of my work and certainly being mid career in terms of my life span and being a parent of teenagers and being engaged with the world not just as a journalist but as a citizen – I want this goddamn work to make a difference.

It’s not just about, ‘Hey, look, I got the cover of National Geographic magazine’ or ‘Hey, I’m on assignment for the New York Times Magazine.’ Its not that those things don’t have value any more, it’s that they are not the purpose. The purpose is, ‘How do I make work that makes a difference. How do I make work that can be utilized to make positive change?’ I think it is critical for us to find ways to tell stories that give optimism and a belief that there’s a way forward. We need to bear witness to the worst things that are going on in the world and not sugarcoat them. Obviously we need that objective first hand view of things. Whenever we can tell a story that exposes a problem but proposes a solution, I think that is the height of journalism.

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

PP: That’s what you want out of it. What do you think your subject, Ronald Day, wanted out of it?

EK: That’s a great question because it cuts through to the potential naked ambition of the photographer or the journalist. You’re getting points by shooting in a prison because it is gritty and it is edgy and it is tough and cool. You know what I mean? Characterized in that warped way the professional can work. Whereas, I am at a point now where I wouldn’t want to go into a prison or do a story on Ronald or anyone if I were to hurt the subject in any way.

What does Ronald want? I think he wants his story to be told, and it is common among people who agree to cooperate with journalists – it’s a little bit of vanity and a little bit of hope. At the very least, their situation will improve and for those who are a little more magnanimous, telling their story may help others in similar positions. I believe Ronald is a selfless man. He’s a pretty brilliant dude; he’s a smart and totally impressive. He is a poster-child for this particular issue. He is not your average ex-prisoner. I left the project missing him.

PP: How long have you lived in New Jersey?

EK: I moved here Christmas 2004, so eight years. I was born in New York city and raised in the New York area. In 1979, I moved out to the Bay Area.

PP: What did you learn, as a resident of the region, about New York State? VII and Think Outside the Cell intend to expand the initiative to other states. At that point the stories will change because each state carries different laws. But did you learn anything through Ronald peculiar to New York State when it comes to the stigma of reentry.

EK: I was surprised to learn about how a one size-fits-all nature of bureaucracy ends up shafting extraordinary guys like Ronald. The probation rules are a central theme of Ronald’s psyche and story.

PP: I’m presuming you think he should’ve had a faster track through probation and been able to take on student loans and start his PhD and make international travel.

EK: Yes, and for instance, now he is in this position where because of the job he has and the teaching at night, it forces him to break his curfew rules. He has to get up a 5 in the morning, to catch the bus to the train at 6:30, so he gets to Brooklyn in time for his work, but technically he’s not supposed to be out of his house until 7am. He could potentially be penalized for that. Or he has to go to some event in the evening, where he is teaching or speaking or taking a class and technically then he’ll get back home after his curfew. I understand that with tens of thousands of parolees in the state of New York you can’t have tens of thousands of different sets of rules, but it would be great to find a way to bend and accommodate for people when it is so clear they are on the right path. That might seem like a minor thing, but it is not minor to him.

PP: Anything else?

EK: I don’t know if I expressed this adequately but ultimately the goal of this work is to further break down the stigma of people who have been in prison and – as is the case with any journalism – to educate people. We have to look at the formerly incarcerated in a different light and in a sense we need to look at how the structures of our society deal with the formerly incarcerated. At a functional level, that is more important for former prisoners – so that when they go for housing or employment, they don’t face hurdles that basically leave them in a self perpetuating negative cycle.

PP: Do you think your media of choice, photo and video, are entirely appropriate? Inasmuch that you are battling stereotypes and many misleading stereotypes that have been created through mass media images, TV and film.

EK: That’s where this partnership with Think Outside The Cell is different. In a perfect world scenario, the work gets presented through big outlets, but ultimately this work will be used by Sheila Rule and her organization to advocate in the trenches. Progress occurs when a few minds who actually have some influence on the system are changed. So, they go into their next hearings, congressional meetings or classrooms and they open up others’ eyes. It is something I believe in – even despite all the cynicism and the over-mediated world we are living in, I absolutely believe in that, because I’ve seen it happen. You change one mind and then there is a ripple effect.

PP: Hear, hear. Thanks Ed.

EK: Thank you, Pete.

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.

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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.

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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

Dana Ullman, a Brooklyn-based photographer, has in recent years traveled back-and-forth to California; to Los Angeles’ Skid Row, to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and to the San Joaquin Valley. The series’ title Another Kind Of Prison references the fact that many hardships of prison continue post-release and, furthermore, new challenges emerge. Ullman followed several women as they left prison and readjusted to life on the outside. For Ullman, the choice to go to California was logical.

“California is home to the world’s two largest women prisons and has an annual corrections budget of 10 billion dollars, the highest in the country, yet has limited reentry programs,” she says. “In California, there are about 12,000 women on parole. Unprepared once on parole, without money, housing or resources, institutionalized and isolated, these women find it difficult to regain hold of their lives.”

Over the past 15 years, the number of incarcerated women in prison increased by 203%, as compared to 77% for men. With such a rapid increase in prison populations, services within prisons have inevitably suffered. Ullman reports a lack of training, preparation and rehabilitation for the women she photographed.

Ullman is also keen to emphasize the common factors particular to female prisoners.

“62% of women in prison have children under 18. Many suffer from mental illness and have histories of sexual and physical abuse – 73% of women in prison have symptoms or are diagnosed with a mental illness compared to 55% of men in prison. 65% of women in state prisons are incarcerated for nonviolent drug, property, or public order offenses. Nearly one in three reported committing their offense to support a drug addiction. Many are battered women serving time for crimes related to their abuse,” Ullman writes.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Ullman wants to communicate the strength of the women who – at a particularly difficult junctures in life – have kindly let her into their lives.

“While some women have had difficult transitions, others have become inspirational community leaders – I want to show both sides in an effort to break stigma associated with incarceration.”

Dana Ullman and I share a belief that prisons are increasingly defining our society and economy.

Another Kind Of Prison is more important then ever in exploring new strategies to better address the complex needs of present and former women prisoners who are often left out of the conversation,” says Ullman. “These stories, the needs and dreams of each woman in their own voice, illuminate the ‘revolving door’ created by poor public policies and lives fragmented by ignorance, poverty and by years, even lifetimes, of abuse. They will also help the public understand who these women are.”

Scroll down for a brief Q&A and a dozen more images. All images and captions by Dana Ullman.

Top image: LaKeisha Burton, 38, a poet and reentry advocate, was convicted as an adult at the age of 15. Ms. Burton served 17 and a half years in prison for shooting a gun into a crowd at the age of 15. She was convicted as an adult for attempted murder and received life plus 9 years. No one was killed or injured. The victim (with whom LaKeisha reconciled while both were serving time in prison), who killed someone, was released from CIW after 9 years. LaKeisha’s story represents the beginning of the disturbing increase in juveniles being tried as adults when many are completely capable of rehabilitation.

Above: On any given day women are paroled in California with a box of personal items, $200 or less in “gate money” and a bus ticket to Skid Row. Unprepared once out on parole, with no income, housing or resources, institutionalized and isolated, many women find it difficult to regain hold of their lives independently.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Clearly the success of a former-prisoner reentering society has a lot to do with their experience while locked up, but I feel in the past – for most people – dialogue about prison reform issues have been lumped in with dialogues about re-entry issues. That is to the detriment of both. It does seem though that, recently, re-entry has been recognised as its own vital step with its own set of issues to be explored. I’m thinking here of Convictions, Gabriela Bulisova’s excellent work in Washington D.C. and the forthcoming VII Photo’s documentary project and partnership with Think Outside The Cell.

Dana Ullman (DU): I am aware, too, of the increased focus on reentry [in photography] that really wasn’t there a few years ago. It is a difficult, complex and fragile issue to document because there are so many factors that lead to former prisoners’ success and failure, especially depending on where they live.

I am really happy to see Another Kind Of Prison getting some light because reentry is where one sees the emergence of all the issues that were not addressed while serving time, the societal factors that underline much of the mass incarceration today – sheer poverty, histories of abuse, racism and mental health. Once men and women are locked up and out of society, they are simplistically labeled “criminals” and the stigmas attached to poverty, abuse, race, mental health and crime are once again enforced.

PP: What are your hopes for the work?

DU: I envision, with some support, that Another Kind Of Prison will travel as an exhibition in community spaces such as libraries or ideally in county jails/state prisons where so many of these women (with very little support) are planning their release. There is one woman I interviewed who had no plan for even a place to sleep the night she got out. It was a random TV show featuring a transitional house that she saw one night, not her parole officer or a reentry prep class, that connected her to where she is now living. Women outside can really speak to those inside about their experiences. I have been making audio recordings of each woman’s story. I want the project to create a forum for discussion, rather than merely point out the problem.

PP: What’s next?

DU: I am not done with the project by any stretch. Documentary photography is tricky (and I am not a master of it by any means). I am following several, very fragile lives over time and waiting patiently for that “visual” moment that doesn’t always come. There is also so so much more I could do with some kind of funding, but that has been difficult, so I have to work with what I can. So for now, I hope to increase awareness of this experience shared by thousands of women in the USA with the general public and keeping plugging away at it making the work stronger.

In San Francisco, I was working very closely with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners who have used my work to support their own causes. I was very happy about that because the CCWP do a lot of direct services and support for these women. In New York, I am expanding the project to look a young 28-year-old upstate woman’s reentry process after being incarcerated at the age of 14 to try and get a younger person’s perspective.

I am going to Uganda this Fall where I will be working with the organization African Prisons Project documenting women in prison. I’ll also be collecting stories of people incarcerated and indefinitely-detained for homosexuality (for which the highest penalty is death). My work is quite capable of being a cross-cultural look at women and prison.

Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California is one of two of the largest women’s prisons in the world; the second, Valley State Prison, is directly across the street.

Mary Shields embraces a long-time friend and advocate one week after being released from Central California Women’s Facility. Mary served 19 years for a crime related to domestic violence.

Mary Shields a week after her release from Central California Women’s Facility laughs with a friend after she had trouble understanding how to use a cell phone, which were not widely used twenty years ago.

LaKeisha Burton performs a spoken word piece at Chuco’s Justice Center, which serves as a youth and community space in Inglewood, California. Today, LaKeisha shares her story through spoken word performances and is dedicated to working with at-risk youth susceptible to gangs and the same injustices as she once experienced.

LaKeisha watches a youth group perform at Chuco’s Justice Center in Los Angeles, California. With her infectious optimism and self-determination, LaKeisha Burton displays almost nothing of her past; she lives, works and dates, as any women like her. Yet, these things are exceptional for someone who had lost, some might say had stolen, nearly two decades of the most developmental period in one’s life and with very little preparation thrust out into society. Ms. Burton says when she was released it was as if she were still 15 going on 16.

In the United States over 1.5 million children have a parent who is incarcerated.* 75% of women in prison are mothers and over half have children under the age of 18. Many children suffer lasting emotional effects of a parent’s incarceration, which can affect all areas as they develop into adults.

After cycling in and out of jail for crimes related to substance abuse, Jean Waldroup, 39, has found “home” at A New Way of Life, a transitional home for formerly incarcerated women that emphasizes keeping mothers and children together. For the last six months, Jean has maintained both her sobriety and role as mother to her son and daughter. Jean is the primary parent and she maintains a relationship with the children’s father.

A New Way of Life purchases homes in residential neighborhoods, giving a quieter, less institutional environment for families to rebuild relationships that may show signs of wear and tear after experiencing incarceration. Community-based organizations like A New Way of Life operate mostly under the radar with few resources and little public recognition despite their critical role in offering rehabilitation, family reunification and successful reentry.

Following her release, and to give her life structure, Molly volunteers to make lunch for clients at the behavioral health clinic she attends in San Francisco. Molly stills battles with drug addiction.

Molly on the bus. To avoid the caustic environment bubbling outside her building, Molly will ride Muni lines between Bayview-Hunter’s Point and Downtown San Francisco for hours. She tends to hide from nouns, that is people, places, and things. Molly’s mental health and substance abuse maintain instability and isolation in her life, some days are good, others hard.

A friend embraces Molly at a local community center.

Molly’s room at the Empress Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The first stable living she has had since the cycle of incarceration began in her life.

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*The advocacy group Children of Promise estimates the number of U.S. children with incarcerated parents at 2.7 million.

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DANA ULLMAN

Dana Ullman grew up in Portland, Oregon. She studied photojournalism at the Danish School of Journalism and holds a B.A. in Journalism from San Francisco State University. Dana currently lives in New York City photographing assignments and personal projects.

A New Way of Life Reentry Project is a non-profit organization in South Central Los Angeles with a core mission to help women and girls break the cycle of entrapment in the criminal justice system and lead healthy and satisfying lives.

California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) is a grassroots social justice organization, with members inside and outside prison, that challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex. CCWP prioritizes the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement.

The African Prisons Project (APP) is a group of people passionately committed to improving access to healthcare, education, justice and community reintegration for male, female and juvenile prisoners in Africa.

Greg Kahn documented Douglas Bolden, 52, following his release. Bolden lives in Fort Myers Florida, cares for four children and at the time of the photo-essay was struggling to find work.

I have featured stories on the difficulties and shock of reentry into society before – in one case with an elderly man following a 50 year sentence and in the other a wrongfully-convicted, consequently exonerated man.

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