In all the conversations and policy debates over our criminal justice system, it can be easy to get caught up in the sheer numbers of inmates in our prisons and jails. When that happens, we lose sight of the people in those prison cells – people who bear the same fears, hopes and longings as anyone on the outside.
A unique program called “Humanize the Numbers” is bringing University of Michigan students and state prison inmates in an effort to address this oversight.
Heather Martin is program manager of the Prison Creative Arts Project. She helps to organize Humanize the Numbers. The program’s co-organizer, Isaac Wingfield, is a lecturer in the Residential College of Literature, Science and Arts at U of M.
Martin tells us the goal from the very beginning was to put narrative power back in the hands of these inmates. She explains that the only photos on file for many people in prison are their mug shot or pictures taken during visitation hours, all of which are regimented and restricted by policy.
“Our goal was really to allow the people inside to curate their own images to represent their own narratives and stories,” she says.
Wingfield tells us that every week, students meet with the same group of inmates for a workshop at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer. He says the students work with the inmates to create different sorts of images inside the prison, and also receive direction on images to take outside the prison on the inmates’ behalf.
“Even though there’s different people pushing the button on the camera to actually take the picture, from our perspective, it’s important for that power of the image-making process to be held in the hands of the inmates that are directing the process,” Wingfield says. “So whether they’re inside or being made on the outside, they’re the ones that are kind of directing the project.”
Martin tells us she’s seen all sorts of interesting photos come out of the project, and specifically mentions that of one young man who wanted a picture of his mother in his own self portrait. He appears to be around the same age his mother was when her picture was taken.
“There’s, like, very intense reflection that happens as the people in the workshop made decisions about the photographs that could speak to their lives, to what they value,” Martin says. “I don’t think we know these individual characteristics of the folks inside. We know that the numbers are grotesque and huge, and I think that’s why the folks inside called us to action. To say, make us human, individuate our experiences, and let people know more about us.”
Johnnie Trice is one of the inmates who’s been taking part in the workshops, and Wingfield says Trice was excited about the program from the very beginning.
Wingfield tells us Trice has been an artist for a long time, and sees this program as an opportunity to expand his skill set in ways that wouldn’t normally be available to him inside prison.
“He was one of the more specific artists in relation to, ‘This is exactly how I want you to do it, this is exactly how I want you to use the camera,’” Wingfield says. “He had a really clear artistic vision, and it was very specific to his own experience and kind of using this as an opportunity to tell his story, which I thought was really what the project was about.”
Trice tells us the program has been a “great and positive experience” for him. He sees it as an opportunity to show the world that he’s “more than the 'perp walk' images from over 30 years ago.”
“Unfortunately, when I was 18, I committed two murders,” Trice says. “They were just poor choices, you know, very poor choices. And for many people … that person was the last person they saw in pictures and newspapers and on television. So I just felt, you know, 30 years later, this was an opportunity for me to just show that I’ve grown. I have grown as a person.”
Martin and Wingfield hope that the students and the inmates they work with will all come away with a broadened perspective and a deeper sense of the humanity that exists behind bars.
“There’s complexity, and there’s difference, and the stories are unique,” Martin says. “Maybe engaging and collaborating and coming together and learning more about each other as people is the greatest gift you can give to both yourself and another person from a different experience.”
“[The inmates] are in these systems that are kind of very dehumanizing,” Wingfield says. “That’s my hope, is that they’re getting some kind of a restoration of their humanity and of their dignity as people and as individuals.”
The student-inmate collaborative photos are on display now through April 8 in the Residential College Art Gallery on U of M’s campus.