The Prison Issue
At top: Art by C. Fausto Cabrera. The illustration imagines Cabrera as a child holding his later-life mug shot. Image enhancement by Kinga Britschgi.
America incarcerates more people than any other nation. As a result, the stark realities of jails and prisons have a far-reaching impact on society. With this special issue — written, illustrated and photographed by people who have been or are currently incarcerated — our goal was to help readers learn about the experience of imprisonment, something that is poorly understood by Americans who are untouched by the system.
Several of the writers in this issue are established reporters, but many were contributing to a national publication for the first time. To find these contributors, we put out a call for pieces through groups that work with incarcerated writers — Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, PEN America and Truth Be Told — as well as through the classes of writer Piper Kerman. We received more than 100 submissions, and eventually selected eight writers to work with. To find illustrators, we collaborated with four groups that work with incarcerated artists: the Community Partners in Action Prison Arts Program, the Justice Arts Coalition, Minutes Before Six, and Black and Pink.
There are many perspectives and voices that are not in this issue — most notably, those of crime victims. Nothing in this issue should be taken to minimize their suffering. They deserve frequent and prominent coverage, as The Washington Post provides. But at a time when the subject of prison reform is receiving more attention than it has in decades, this special issue seeks to inform the conversation by focusing on American prisons and the lives of the people inside them.
— Richard Just, Alexa McMahon, Whitney Joiner
‘A nation that locks up so many people and creates an expansive apparatus that relies on violence and confinement is a nation in which democracy, over the long term, cannot thrive.’
‘When you find yourself thinking about writing an apology to the family of the man you murdered, you tend to make all kinds of excuses.’
‘During one phone call, [my daughter] asked, “What were you thinking when you did that bad thing?” ’
— Johnny Baker
‘Survival in prison mandates that you walk into a room and size up threats.’
— Lamar L. Walker
‘I wanted to prove people wrong and take ownership of my past.’
— Richard Zobon Baxter
‘I see many birds as I sit on my bunk. The different birds represent how different we all are in here. We’re all cooped up.’
— Mark Despres
Prisons and jails are designed for men. What would a prison tailored to women’s needs and experiences look like?
Scott Ortiz, 58, was just released from prison after serving 15 years. A photographer was there to meet Ortiz at the facility’s gate.
James Baimbridge photographed his experience being electronically monitored by the state of Texas
‘One morning you roll out of a tiny bunk in some decrepit asbestos-filled building bordered by razor wire, and your 20s, where’d they go?’
For this special issue, we relied on the advice and guidance of these individuals and organizations: Brian Ferguson, former director of the D.C. Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs; Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop; Piper Kerman, author of “Orange Is the New Black”; PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program; Truth Be Told; the Marshall Project; Jeffrey Greene, program manager for the Community Partners in Action Prison Arts Program; Wendy Jason, managing director of the Justice Arts Coalition; Dina Milito, executive director of Minutes Before Six; and Reed Miller of Black and Pink.
Design by Christian Font