Maya Schenwar is Editor-in-Chief of Truthout – an independent social justice news website – and the author of the recent book Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. On Monday, March 7th, she will discuss her book when she visits EPL as part of the special program Unlocking America: How to Change Our Broken Prison System. Cosponsored by Chicago Books to Women in Prison and Cabrini Green Legal Aid, the program will also feature Dr. Crystal T. Laura who joins Schenwar to explore the impact of prison on families and advocate for a sweeping overhaul of our criminal justice system. In anticipation of this important discussion, we recently spoke with Schenwar via email about how her sister’s incarceration inspired her activism, the goal of “decarceration,” the crucial work of community groups like Curt’s Cafe, and how to achieve true lasting safety.
Pictures From a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture by Bruce Jackson
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and paging through this simple yet riveting book breathes a powerful new breath of truth into the tired old adage. The book is comprised of old prisoner identification photographs of inmates housed in Arkansas’ Cummins prison during the first half of the 20th Century. Writer, photographer, and filmmaker Bruce Jackson discovered the faded photos in a drawer in 1975, and these many years later using today’s advanced photo restoration technology he has restored the images and presents them here in large, portrait sized prints. The tiny mug shots he found were originally taken as prisoners entered or exited the prison system, but Jackson says, “I always wanted to make them big. The whole purpose of photographs like this is to make people small, to make people part of a bureaucratic dossier. They’re nameless.”
But Jackson has done powerfully right by the subjects here–they still remain nameless, but he has restored to them some of their humanity and their dignity. And to look upon their inscrutable faces and to return the stares of these long vanished human beings is to be sucked into a dark and teeming well of human emotion, surrounded by every permutation of grief, anger, fear, defeat, and defiance imaginable. These photographs are haunting and absolutely mesmerizing, capturing not just visible light on the film’s emulsion, but also burning the lives and stories of these lost individuals onto the images.