I personally know 56 men who are currently incarcerated in Michigan prisons. It may seem like a lot, but it is just a drop in the bucket considering the thousands incarcerated in the state. Getting to know these few men has given me an appreciation for the people inside our prisons. Their lives are not so different from ours. They appreciate the small things in life much like I do: being outdoors, spending time with family and friends, reading a good book, eating good food, or playing an instrument—even though their experience of these things is restricted by their incarceration.
Recent Black Lives Matter protests have focused the nation’s attention on reforming the criminal justice system in unprecedented ways, but do the calls for reform consider the number of people who are already confined by our state’s over-incarceration? Here in Michigan, we have nearly 36,000 people in prison at an annual cost of almost $2 billion.
We must make reforms not just for those who will come in contact with the criminal justice system, but also for those who have already had their lives changed through their ongoing incarceration.
Protesters are drawing attention to the brokenness of the criminal justice system in our communities—people are not treated as equal under the law. However, an important voice is missing from our public conversation on race and criminal justice: people who are currently incarcerated. Men and women who are incarcerated have valuable stories to share, and until we hear their stories we cannot understand the full impact of the criminal justice system. Meaningful reform can only come when we consider the voices of people in prison.
Inmates do not have the same ability as free people to share their experience in the criminal justice system because the carceral state is largely a silent one. It inherently silences those within it. Even under normal conditions, the prisoners’ communication with the outside world seems outdated: mail, phone calls (with time-restrictions on calls, limited phones, and the high cost: 16 cents a minute in Michigan), or a self-contained app for online messages (here in Michigan it costs about 20 cents per message, and both parties must use the app). This silencing effect of the carceral state means that unless you have close connections with people who are dedicated to amplifying your message, it is nearly impossible to share your story with the free world.
For 30 years the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan has done groundbreaking work, facilitating arts workshops in Michigan prisons. They use art to build connections between the free and imprisoned worlds and amplify the voices of people who are incarcerated.
For five years, I have taught collaborative photography workshops through the Prison Creative Arts Project, providing men incarcerated in Michigan with a rare opportunity to use cameras for creative expression. The photographs from our collaborative workshops extend the voices of men incarcerated in Michigan beyond the prison walls, acknowledging their unique stories and thoughtful perspective on the world.
The title for the collaboration is Humanize the Numbers—this title came from men in prison who said that bringing cameras inside prisons could do just that: humanize the numbers of mass incarceration. Behind the statistics are 36,000 individuals with unique personal histories. While I have the joy of building relationships with the men during the workshops, the photographs from our collaboration bring those individuals to life for people who never set foot inside a prison. The stories behind the images are equally compelling: One participant said that he never finished high school, but graduated “from foster care to prison,” while another found that his prison sentence gave him a chance to survive and mature—unlike many of his family members who died in their teens and early 20s. Although they were made over several years reflecting the unique individual participants, these photos speak directly to our current circumstances.
Getting to know other people and their unique stories can help us as we continue struggling to see any deeper than skin color, over-policing communities of color. It will help us see the child rather than incarcerating children like Grace for failing to do their homework in the middle of a pandemic. With support for prison reforms on the rise, it is easier to accept and welcome difficult reforms at a distance, but we still struggle to welcome a neighbor on the sex offender registry—it’s only when you get to know your neighbor as a person that can you see beyond the label.
When prison reform comes up, some people may raise concerns about ensuring justice is done—this is indeed a concern shared by the recent protests calling for justice for Ahmaud Arbery, justice for Breonna Taylor, and justice for George Floyd. However, justice does not mean that we can simply write people off by locking them up and throwing away the key. Justice is far more complex, as you quickly find out once you get to know the people so often hidden behind the numbers. It is only when we begin to enter into their lives that we start to understand just how complicated justice is.
How can we better listen to the voices of people in prison? There are lots of ways you can get involved in Michigan: the Prison Creative Arts Project, Humanity for Prisoners, and Youth Arts Alliance are just a few of the many organizations working with people inside Michigan prisons and detention centers. You can even build a relationship with someone from the comfort of your home through the American Friends Service Committee’s Good Neighbor Project, which trains and matches up free people with Michigan prisoners serving life and long indeterminate sentences. Through letters or emails, the Good Neighbor Project enables the free-world to hear the voices of our incarcerated neighbors. Only when we hear and see them can we start to imagine how our country can become a nation with liberty and justice for all.
Isaac Wingfield teaches photography in the Residential College at the University of Michigan and is the Visual Arts program head. His current research explores the impact of mass incarceration through images. The collaborative workshop, Humanize the Numbers, can be followed on Instagram @humanizethenumbers.