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The closest that most inmates in the nation’s prisons can come to seeing the outside world is usually a photograph.
For the tens of thousands of prisoners in solitary confinement, where as many as 23 hours a day are spent in isolation, connecting to the world outside their cell is all the more important in maintaining what over time can become a more tenuous link to reality.
That’s where the idea for Photo Requests from Solitary – a project to create photos of people, places, or dreams requested by prisoners in solitary – originated.
The project was conceived of by members of Tamms Year Ten, a non-profit based in Illinois named after the Tamms Correctional Center, a 15-year-old super-maximum security prison in southern Illinois that was recently shut down. The photo program was aimed at its 500 prisoners in solitary confinement (Tamms also housed 200 prisoners in minimum-security). The prisoners were not allowed receive visitors or phone calls and ate all their meals alone. They were allowed out for only one hour a day of exercise in a walled-off yard, topped with netting.
So in 2008, when artist and activist Laurie Jo Reynolds and a group of volunteers asked prisoners if they’d like photographs depicting anything they wanted, most jumped at the opportunity.
“Photography always implies there’s a real element,” said Reynolds. “It’s the real light. That’s part of the appeal. The photographer was there as a witness [to the outside world].”
The Tamms project was about more than photos. It sprung from a political movement made up of families of prisoners, activists and artists who together formed Tamms Year Ten to mark the tenth anniversary of the prison’s opening. Within months, human rights groups nationwide took notice. Amnesty International said Tamms flouted “the international standard for humane treatment.”
But Tamms Year Ten’s mission was also to bring a little bit of relief to prisoners.
Under prison rules, each prisoner was allowed only a few photos, sometimes as few as 15. In order to receive a new one, they had to give one up. Volunteers from Tamms Year Ten asked each prisoner what he wanted and then commissioned an artist to make a photo.
By creating photos that reflected prisoners’ desires, Tamms Year Ten was able to make a powerful statement about the lives these prisoners were denied by being placed in solitary.
“They have to replay their memories over and over again,” said Reynolds. “It’s a way of surviving solitary confinement. You can tell how carefully how each person considered (their photo choice).”
The resulting images range from mundane street scenes of prisoners’ former neighborhoods to elaborate dream sequences that had to be made with Photoshop.
Volunteers from Tamms Year Ten was still fulfilling prisoners’ requests when, in 2012, Governor Pat Quinn said he would close Tamms. Quinn said the closure was a budgetary decision, but activist groups – including Tamms Year Ten – argue that they played a part by exposing inhumane conditions inside the prison.
Tamms Year Ten is a relatively small organization, but its photo project drew national attention. By revealing the desires of those the government had deemed “the worst of the worst,” Reynolds says, Photo Requests from Solitary was able to humanize the prisoners and convince people they were being treated inhumanely.
The prison officially closed on Jan. 4, 2013, after the last inmates were transferred to other prisons. Some remain in solitary confinement but most, according to a report from the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois Springfield are now in less restrictive environments.
But activists’ fight against solitary is far from over. Photo Requests from Solitary is now in the process of expanding to New York and California. Reynolds said they hope to not only change people’s minds about prison, but to create a record of something many people rather not think about.
“It’s an anomaly of human history that we’d think to keep people alone in boxes,” Reynolds said. “When (the photos) are taken as whole, I think they are a really important, rare archive of what people in super-max prisons were thinking, and how they were surviving.”
Below is a selection of photographs requested by prisoners who were housed in Tamms. Captions were provided by Tamms Year Ten, and edited and by Al Jazeera America for brevity and clarity. To protect their privacy, only the first names of prisoners are used.
MYSELF WITH BLUE SKY — Robert S., 2012
Prisoner Robert S. requested to have a photo of himself, taken from the Department of Corrections website, placed on an alternate background. “If you can place my picture on another background, nothing too much please. Something simple like a blue sky with clouds or a sunset in the distance would be fine,” Robert wrote. “I want to extend my love to you, for you, as you have already done for me. Because genuine, authentic true love is when you do for others just because you can, and you hold no preconceived notion that you will be getting anything in return.” Reynolds says she was particularly humbled by this request.
“Even exercise is done in a concrete pen. They never have access to the sky,” she said. “I looked through hundreds of pictures of blue sky and clouds and found this hay bale picture…It became really haunting and eerie and beautiful.”
MOM, MONEY AND MANSION — Robert T.
Robert T. sent Tamms Year Ten a photo of his mother, who had died the previous year. Robert had no family that visited him. He wrote on his request form that he wanted an image of, “my mother standing in front of a mansion, or Big Castle, with a bunch of money on the ground. OR if you can’t do that, THEN a substitution is a big mansion or castle with a bunch of money in front of it and a black hummer parked in front of it. I truly appreciate this a lot… Now I know somebody out there in the world cares about us in here.” Reynolds sees the photo as a memorial to Robert’s mother. “She was poor and this was his way to put together his mother with the things she never had,” she said.
STAINED GLASS WINDOW — Terrell, 2012
Terrell, like many prisoners, wanted to find out what his old neighborhood looked like, especially the Robert Taylor public houses in Chicago. Demolished in 2007, the housing projects were comprised of 28 high-rise buildings stretching two miles. Photographer Greg Ruffing took five photos to fill the request: an empty lot with the old foundation still visible, new condos, a community garden, and this image from the neighborhood of a stained glass window behind a rusty screen. Knowing the conditions of isolation that Terrell experienced, Ruffing said he looked for sensory details in composing the images: “The orange glow of warm sunlight, the sensation of brisk morning air, the way the city radiates color in the dusk and dawn hours.”
AUNTIE’S HOUSE ON THE BLOCK — Darrius, 2012
Many men, including Darrius, asked for scenes from their old neighborhoods. Darrius wanted a picture of his aunt’s house, located in Englewood, Chicago.
SOUTH KING DRIVE AND E. 63RD STREET — Charles, 2012
Charles, who had been in prison for 22 years at the time of his request, asked for pictures of four intersections on the south side of Chicago that he used to hang out around. “I feel forgotten, cast away but God uses this time to show how he never forgets about us no matter what,” he wrote in his request.
CLOWNS — Humberto, 2012
Chicago animator Lisa Barcy, Dutch photographer Harry Bos and Baltimore filmmaker Stephanie Barber each orchestrated a version of Humberto's detailed request for a lovesick clown: "A lovesick clown: holding a old fashioned feathered pen: as if writing a letter: from the waist up: in black and white. As close up as possible: as much detail as possible: & the face about 4 inches big."
CHICAGO FOG — Richard, 2012
“I would like to see The Downtown Chicago or the Lake of Chicago it will bring me happiness to see a real nice picture of the downtown,” Richard wrote in his request.
PUERTO RICAN FLAG — Adolfo, 2005
Artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz helped fill the request for a Puerto Rican flag by asking photographer Thais Llorca for a photo of the burial of Filiberto Ojeda, whom she calls “a nationalist hero to some, anti-hero to others.”
TWO CHILDREN AT THE PIANO — Cary, 2013
Cary wanted his request to be a present for his wife—a photo of a boy and girl sitting side by side on a piano bench dressed in their Sunday best with a single rose on the keys.
TAMMS YEAR TEN GROUP PHOTO — Tyrone, 2011
Several men asked for photos of the people of Tamms Year Ten. One prisoner said, “I’d just like to be able to put the faces to the names we’ve seen over the years so the humanity of each can shine forth—a name or a paper at the end of the day is still just a name on paper!”