Human beings are social animals. We crave attention and interaction. Isolation is, in the words of one man who was held for years in solitary confinement, “life negating emptiness.” When an individual is kept in extreme sensory deprivation for years or decades, what visions come to their mind’s eye?
This semester, a group of students from divisions around The New School are finding out, and helping to make them come true, as part of the class Photo Requests From Solitary. In the process, they’re getting a crash course in how art and design can impact social justice problems. The class is co-taught by Jeanine Oleson, assistant professor in Parsons’ School of Art, Media, and Technology, and Jean Casella, director of advocacy group Solitary Watch, and is made possible through a partnership with Laurie Jo Reynolds at Tamms Year Ten. The class focuses on a project Oleson has been developing for six years.
In 2007, Oleson began working with a group of activists and artists to improve the conditions for solitary confinement prisoners at Tamms Supermax Prison in Illinois, spearheaded by Reynolds and Tamms Year Ten. At first, says Oleson, the group wrote poetry and mailed it to the inmates. “Eventually the inmates were like, this is great, but could you maybe help us a little?,” she says.
The group then began doing more conventional advocacy work—legislative outreach and lobbying. As a way to draw attention to that work, they asked prisoners, many of whom don’t see another human being’s face for days or weeks on end, what images they would like to be sent. They then contacted artists and designers who fulfilled the requests.
“The requests are really specific and strange,” says Oleson. “Mostly people are just happy for some attention.” Inmates have asked for pictures of sad clowns, roaring lions, flags, buildings, loved ones, and much more; you can view a few examples in the gallery above.
A 2005 study from The Vera Institute of Justice reports that more than 80,000 people are being held in solitary confinement in the United States. These men and women are kept in cells, totally isolated from the outside world, for 22 to 24 hours a day, according to Solitary Watch. They spend time outside of their cells only to shower or exercise, both of which are also done alone.
“The thing that’s the most damaging isn’t lack of access to images,” says Oleson, “it’s lack of access to people. That’s what’s considered torture.”
Tamms Supermax closed in January of this year, but Oleson has continued the project, along with Solitary Watch and other partners, in New York and California. Students in her class have helped put together an exhibition of the photos, are helping to fulfill more prisoner requests, and are learning about the issues around solitary confinement. “Students are encouraged to think about social responsibility as a part of art and design,” says Oleson. “With this project, you have to.”
BALD KNOB CROSS—Willie
Willie requested a picture of a vigil at Bald Knob Cross on top of a mountain in southern Illinois to pray for his deliverance from Tamms and to be granted parole from prison. In order to take this photograph, TY10 caravanned down to the cross, held a litany of song and prayer and celebrated with a dinner. Photo by Rachel Herman, May 6, 2011.
MOM, MONEY AND MANSION—Robert T.
Robert, a man with a serious mental illness, sent Tamms Year Ten a photo of his mother, who had died the previous year. Because he had no family and no visitors, he was hopeless and desolate. He asked for 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.” Photo by Jeanine Oleson, 2013.
Tamms Year Ten received numerous requests for temples—including the Kaaba (sacred house) in Mecca, a Muslim mosque, a Moorish Science Temple in Chicago, Mecca or Africa and this one for the Masonic Temple in Washington DC. Photo by Allan Callander, 2013.
A PHOTOGRAPH WITHIN A PHOTO OF ME + WILD LIONS—Ike
Ike’s photo request read: “5. A photograph within a photo of me + The Lake Front. 5. A photograph within a photo of me + The Navy Pier. 5. A photograph within a photo of me + wild lions. 5. A photograph within a photo of me + wild wolves. 5. A photograph within a photo of me + Chinese Dragon, for next Christmas mailing of cards. Please place me in the right, upper corner of the photos within a photo + make copies of them 5 each. Thank you very much + Many Blessings.” Some of his photos were censored due to restrictions on prisoners being able to see their own ID photos, but others have gotten through. Photo by Jesse Avina, 2013.
PUERTO RICAN FLAG—Adolfo, Photo by Thais Llorca
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.” Santiago Muñoz wrote to the Tamms prisoner, Adolfo, “When I read your request, I immediately thought of the gigantic flag that is unfurled during protests and marches here…. The Puerto Rican flag blue is supposed to be azure blue—azul celeste—but it has slowly transformed into the U.S. flag blue. Only people who remember this, or who hold onto to old flags for personal reasons, know this and insist on the right color. I’m usually partial to azul celeste, but I hope you will agree this one wins for bombast.” Photo by Thais Llorca, 2005.
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.
Humberto: “Lovesick Clown.”
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."