Artists and prisoners imagine life beyond solitary confinement

Artists and prisoners imagine life beyond solitary confinement

What do those held in long-term solitary confinement want to see?

The exhibition “Photo Requests from Solitary,” currently on view at the Brooklyn Public Library through July 1, centers on this question, bringing together requests from inmates held in solitary confinement around the United States with artistic interpretations created by volunteers based on these wishes.

Responses to the prompt hang from the library’s ceiling and line its walls, with requests including, among others, “A dove”; “Front side of Cypress Hills housing project in Brooklyn”; “My three-year-old daughter, ‘Daddy’s Angel’”; “Instead of a picture, just try talking to me.”

Installation view of "Photo Requests from Solitary" at the Brooklyn Public Library. Photo: Gregg Richards. Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library.
Installation view of “Photo Requests from Solitary” at the Brooklyn Public Library. Photo: Gregg Richards. Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library.

“We are thrilled to bring this timely project to Brooklyn Public Library and through it to invite the people of New York to come create artwork for people held within prison walls, to help them see what those people in extreme isolation can now only imagine,” said Cora Fisher, the curator and manager of the Library’s visual arts programs, in a statement to ALL ARTS. “It’s a poetic project with real impact. It cultivates empathy and raises awareness around prison reform.”

Facts about solitary confinement are also featured in the exhibition, providing grounding insight into incarceration practices within the States. The wall text reminds viewers of the data driving the project and includes statistical figures like “approximate number of people held in solitary in U.S. prisons and jails: 80,000”; “average size of solitary confinement cell, in feet: 6×9”; and “hours a day people in solitary confinement spend inside their cells: 22-24.”

Installation view of "Photo Requests from Solitary" at the Brooklyn Public Library. Photo: Gregg Richards. Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library.
Installation view of “Photo Requests from Solitary” at the Brooklyn Public Library. Photo: Gregg Richards. Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library.

The participatory project has been exhibited in various forms and has been shown in locations such as Brooklyn’s Photoville and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the birthplace of institutional solitary confinement. The “Pennsylvania System” adopted by Eastern State was sold as a way to “reform” inmates through deprivation and was subsequently folded by the prison in 1913 — though its influence on modern incarceration practices lingers.

“They believed that isolation here was going to bring about the best of these inmates. Change them for life. Make them penitent,” said Eastern State’s Sean Kelley in an interview with NPR in 2013. “There is a lot of evidence that that is not what happened.”

On Friday, New York state announced that it would not go forward with a recently proposed bill called Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act. The legislation aimed to set a cap of 15 consecutive days for the duration of time that an inmate could legally be kept in solitary confinement — a number drawn from the Nelson Mandela Rules established by the United Nations in 2015. Instead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the state would pursue changes “administratively” and has vowed solitary confinement will “ultimately be capped at 30 days.”

Currently, New York does not have a limit on the amount of time that a person may spend in solitary.

Photo created by Keisha Scarville representing a request from Keith, held in solitary confinement in New York State prison. Courtesy: Photo Requests from Solitary.
Photo created by Keisha Scarville representing a request from Keith, held in solitary confinement in New York State prison. Courtesy: Photo Requests from Solitary.

Top Image: Detail of a photo created by Keisha Scarville representing a request from Keith, held in solitary confinement in New York State prison. Courtesy: Photo Requests from Solitary.