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

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Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to make and distribute a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This is part-two of a five part series, Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PP: How often did you photograph Ronald?

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

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

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

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

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

RH: Correct.

PP: What have you learned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Image: Ron Haviv / VII Photo

UPDATED: 06/27. 4:25am EST

Following the September launch of VII Photo/Think Outside the Cell’s collaboration, Prison Photography will roll out four related interviews with each VII photographer to capture first hand the journalists’ perspective on reentry, on the images and video they made, on the stakes at hand for subjects who are navigating a precarious time following their incarceration and on the relevance of image to public attitude.

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On Saturday afternoon, I listened to Michael Shaw’s lecture about how governments and corporations are increasingly influencing flows of images through strategic releases and staged ops. In a time of shrinking budgets, especially among printed media, we are all aware of how the modified – or sometimes not so modified – press release is quickly reworded and passed off as news. It goes without saying that this is a sad state of affairs. It goes with saying because below I am  presenting an unmodified press release from VII Photo.

I should also add that I have spoken with a few representatives of VII Photo over the past few days and my decision to post this was also shaped by my keen personal interest in their professional pursuits as well as the personalities working away in VII’s Dumbo headquarters.

When I started blogging, I was a Billy-Nobody … and I rarely knew the photographers or organisations I was writing about. As time has passed, however, I am more frequently in the position of writing about the activities of people I know or with whom I may have shared a drink or meal.

Such a growing fraternity may not be unusual for anyone wending her or his way through any field – and this might be a disclaimer of unusual length – but I wanted to say that things feel different now.

I am not invisible anymore.

PRESS RELEASE

VII PHOTO AGENCY ANNOUNCES VISUAL COMMUNICATIONS PARTNERSHIP WITH THINK OUTSIDE THE CELL FOUNDATION

VII Photo Agency today announced a new long-term partnership with the Think Outside the Cell Foundation to produce documentary film and photography features that raise awareness about the experience of formerly incarcerated persons.

Think Outside the Cell is a non-profit organization founded in 2010 that works with the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and their families to help end the stigma of incarceration. Through personal development workshops, storytelling and other creative approaches that provide building blocks for productive lives, the Foundation helps those affected by the prison system to create their own opportunities.

The first documentary feature project of this partnership will include a short film and photography essays that capture two subjects in New York City as they experience the daily challenges of reintegrating into society after being released from prison. The project will be launched Tuesday, September 18 on the Think Outside the Cell website and screened nationally at conferences, education forums, debates and in policy circles addressing legislation related to mass incarceration. The imagery and film will be syndicated by VII Photo internationally.

Each year, an estimated 700,000 people are released from prison in the United States, including approximately 26,000 in the state of New York. Often, people are branded as felons for life, and the stigma creates societal barriers that make successful reentry unattainable and staying out of prison with limited access to resources unsustainable.

VII photographers Jessica Dimmock, Ashley Gilbertson, Ron Haviv and Ed Kashi are collaborating as a team shadowing the subjects day-to-day as they deal with the challenges of reintegrating into society.

The partnership launches a long-term collaboration between VII Photo and Think Outside the Cell. VII will act as the Foundation’s exclusive visual communications partner with the aim of raising awareness about incarceration’s stigma and the local, state and federal laws that prevent formerly incarcerated persons from accessing the resources necessary to establish a stable and productive life.

“Think Outside the Cell is delighted to work with VII Photo in tackling head-on the stigma of incarceration,” said Sheila Rule, the Foundation’s co-founder. “Countless men and women who’ve been to prison have extraordinary potential, yet this crippling stigma has led to laws and policies that make it legal to deny them the essential components of full citizenship; employment, housing, educational opportunities, public benefits and the right to vote. Our visual partnership with VII Photo will open hearts and minds to the true impact of the long shadow of incarceration.”

Contact:
Kimberly J. Soenen
, Director of Business Development
Tel: 718.858.3130
kimberly@viiphoto.com

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