Ending Solitary Confinement Through Viral Art

12.30.13 Rhett Jones

Imagine spending year after year in solitary confinement, isolated from all human interaction and visual stimulation 99% of the time. Most of us have never committed a crime that would land us in jail for a decade, but it’s clear this condition — by far more destructive than it is rehabilitative — could make anyone insane.

The ongoing Photo Requests From Solitary project, profiled in the video above, deals with this issue differently than most causes.

PRFS began as an offshoot initiative by the Tamms Year Ten grassroots activist group, dedicated to closing the infamous all-solitary Tamms Supermax Prison in Illinois. PRFS reached out to its long-term prisoners and asked, if they could have a picture of anything, what would it be? Then, the requests were staged and Photoshopped. A selection of the fulfilled requests went viral around the time of the Photo Requests From Solitary exhibit at Photoville earlier this year, when we conducted initial interviews with co-curators Laurie Jo Reynolds and Jeanine Oleson.

As the project expands to New York and California, we’re looking deeper at how collaborative new media art within the visually-oversaturated internet culture can, in some way, help the people cut off from all of society.

There are at least 25,000 prisoners serving long-term sentences in solitary confinement in the US. You’d expect they are provided some reading material or basic stimulation within the constant confines of a bare cell, most of the time they aren’t. The library cart might roll around once a month, if you’re lucky, but otherwise you have to have people send things from the outside. Given that many of these prisoners are either indigent, mentally ill or just guilty of committing a particularly bad crime, they simply don’t have anyone on the outside to send them anything.

Most prisons limit inmates to 10 or 15 personal photos.

Prolonged, extreme isolation like this does not rehabilitate the prisoner or deter criminal behavior — it destroys a person’s psyche. You can see it in the particularly erratic, sometimes violent and mythical nature of some of these requests.

The video above shows some of this, as visualized through crowd-sourcing and created specifically for this report. (See them animated to the harrowing words of William Blake who spent 26 years in solitary confinement, as read at an event organized by PRFS at 2:29.)

The campaigning of Tamms Year Ten eventually helped close the prison, after it was deemed counter-productive and dehumanizing. This is “Legislative Art” in action. Laurie Jo Reynolds, an artist and professor at Chicago’s City College and a co-founder of the project, received a Creative Capital Grant in 2013 for her “Legislative Art” efforts. According to Reynolds, the practice is focused on enacting concrete political and legal change. Rather than just raising awareness or hoping that the artwork inspires others to act, Reynolds uses the legal system itself as part of the artistic process. It started with letters, grew to photo requests and now, there’s net-enabled image making and participation.

And then there’s the viral aspect, like this image, which has been the most popular online.

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 substitute in a big mansion or castle with a bunch of money in front of it and a black Hummer parked in front of it.

“I think part of the reason it has been kind of a meme photograph is the way it looks,” Reynolds tells ANIMAL. The compositional opulence, the corny HDR sun filtering through, and this mom in a sport jersey surrounded by these No Limit style rap album cover accessories. All clip-art-like totems of wealth… It’s a Reddit dream. And it’s sweet. “I think also it’s because it has heart,” Reynolds adds. “I think these are really special memes for that reason.”

The staff of PRFS emphasize a poignant irony of the recent attention they’ve received through the interconnectedness of the web, when so many of the prisoners they work with have never even used the internet.

Often, prisoners ask for photos of themselves in various situations. Their photos have been taken from pixelated jpegs on the prison’s web site and transplanted into a fantasy Photoshop. Others are interested in specific places — like views of streets in their old neighborhood, some simply asking for a Google Street View print out.

The web-facilitated crowd-sourcing part of the project is also poignant. Most submissions have been from people who were invited to participate, but there have been random fulfillments of requests by people who’ve discovered the project online. You can also participate.

There’s more to do to keep the project going. Now that the activists accomplished their goals at Tamms and are expanding to New York and California, they need coders to help with a better automated website and they need people to fulfill the new requests from prisoners.

“There’s no way of making the experience of solitary confinement better through visuality,” Oleson tells ANIMAL, but she emphasized that there are creative solutions to these social issues, against injustice. “It’s a part of citizenry and ethics to do something about it.”

Contact TammsYearTen@gmail.com to get involved. 

(Video: Rhett Jones/ANIMALNewYork, lead image: Marina Galperina/ANIMALNewYork)