No one knows exactly how many people are held in solitary confinement throughout New York State. There’s the SHU, or Special Housing Unit, a special unit dedicated to locking people away from other. Then there’s keeplock, where people are confined to the cells in their housing units. There’s also protective custody, where people fearing or at risk for violence, are confined. In each of these, people are held in their cells for at least 23 hours each day. Often, their only human contact is with the guard that brings them their food or handcuffs them before bringing them to the shower three times each week. Some have spent years, and sometimes decades, in isolation.
While Rikers Island records the numbers of those who are isolated isolated, no data is compiled from jails throughout the state. As of September 1, 2017, state prisons held 2,886 people in SHUs. Approximately 1,000 people are held in keeplock, where people are confined to the cells in their housing units.
A group called Photo Requests from Solitary asks these people held in isolation what they would like to see. Volunteer artists then take on these requests, sometimes creating original images, sometimes digging through their existing works to find one that fits.
That’s how New York City photographer Noelle Theard became involved. After returning from Timbuktu and Mali, she saw the request from an inmate for a sunrise over the Sahara. She knew she had an image that fit perfectly and dug through her negatives to send it in.
Though Theard is no stranger to prison reform issues, she was particularly inspired by the project’s participatory and practical nature. “The best part was that the photos could be of use to someone,” she told Gothamist. “Sometimes we get caught up in the overarching narrative [of an issue] that we forget that people are living these realities.”
Some of the works provided to prisoners through Photo Requests from Solitary are currently on display at Photoville in DUMBO. On Wednesday night, Johnny Perez and other volunteers from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement greeted visitors examining the pictures.
For Perez, the issue of solitary confinement is personal. During his 13 years in prison, he spent an accumulated three years in solitary confinement, often in cells less than half the size of the 20' x 8' foot container. In one prison, the six-foot-tall Perez could touch the cell walls on either side whenever he stretched his arms. “That’s how big some of the cells are,” he said.
Perez was released before Photo Requests from Solitary reached New York’s prisons. But he knows the value of an image. Being in prison, he explained, means “never crossing the street for 13 years. Not seeing trees or grass. Solitary is a space so deprived of sensory stimulation. It’s easy to get psychologically boxed in.”
Photos prevented Perez from detaching from the outside world. “Pictures bring you back to reality. They give you hope. They allow you to continue,” he said.
Photo Requests from Solitary originated in Illinois when a group called Tamms Year Ten organized letter-writing campaigns to connect with men held in indefinite isolation at Tamms, a supermax state prison. Campaign member Laurie Jo Reynolds remembers that, at one letter-writing session, a photographer asked to send photos to the men in isolation. Knowing that people in solitary are only allowed a certain number of photographs and other possessions, Reynolds suggested that they first ask the men if they wanted photos and, if so, of what.
Three years later, on January 3, 2013, after a protracted campaign, Tamms was shuttered and the men moved to less restrictive prisons. Reynolds, now a professor at the University of Chicago in Illinois, partnered with Solitary Watch, which monitors solitary confinement throughout the country, to spread the project to prisoners in New York and California.
At the same time, the Photoville exhibition is a call to action. Perez and other CAIC volunteers pointed visitors towards information about solitary confinement and urged them to sign a petition supporting the Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, limiting isolation to 15 consecutive days and creating alternatives if inmates are separated for longer periods of time. The act, which has 70 sponsors in the Assembly and 20 in the Senate, is currently in committee.
At times, photos provide the only window. Roy Waterman, a founding member of the food truck Drive Change, spent a year in a windowless solitary cell at the Albany county jail. The only light came from the overhead lightbulb, which was never turned off. “They say a picture is worth 1,000 words,” he mused as he leaned over to examine a photo of frogs. “In prison, it’s worth 10,000 words.”
Photo Requests from Solitary can be seen at Photoville until September 24.