Art

05.06.13

The One Photo a Prisoner Wants to See

Artists invited the inmates at Illinois’s Tamms supermax prison to request one image of anything in the world, real or imagined—and then they photographed it. See the powerful results.

This story is published in collaboration with Creative Time Reports.

Illinois's Tamms supermax prison, built in 1998, was a scary place. Prisoners were not allowed phone calls and were barred from visits or activities. Men incarcerated there were permitted to leave their cells only to shower or exercise alone. And unlike most prisons, food was pushed through the doors of each cell rather than served in a cafeteria.

Prisoners there became severely depressed: some began to compulsively mutilate themselves; others attempted suicide. The treatment at Tamms became known as the “worst of the worst” in the prison system: long-term solitary confinement, rife with human-rights violations. Amnesty International called Tamms “harsh,” “unnecessarily punitive,” and “incompatible with the USA’s obligation to provide humane treatment for all prisoners.”

According to a powerful new essay on Creative Time Reports, prisoners were initially brought to Tamms from other prisons for a “‘one-year shock treatment’ intended to ‘break down’ disruptive prisoners and make them more compliant.” The only problem? The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) left them there indefinitely. Ten years later, a third of the men had been at Tamms since the beginning—and "for no apparent reason."

Enter the Tamms Poetry Committee, a group of artists and poets who created “Legislative Art” to aide in educating the public about the terrors of Tamms. In 2008, the group formed the Tamms Year Ten committee with the goal of holding the Department of Corrections and former governor Rod Blagojevich accountable for the horrible things that happened there.

Members of the Tamms Poetry Committee sent poems and letters to the prisoners to provide them human contact, which received an overwhelmingly positive response. Soon, members of the committee began correspondences with many of the prisoners there.

Then the committee took their correspondence one step further: they invited the men of Tamms to request a single photograph of anything in the world—real or imagined—and then connected with a network of photographers around the country who volunteered to fill the photo requests for the prisoners.

The requests ranged from the personal to the bizarre. One prisoner asked for a photograph of the house his aunt lived in. “Let the people outside know that the picture is for D-man,” he said. Another wanted a picture of a “lovesick clown, holding an old-fashioned feather 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 four inches big." (This was interpreted by three different artists in 2012.). The photographers executed each request and the final results were then sent back to the prisoners.

Tamms Supermax Prison Project Makes Prisoners’ Dreams Come True
Tamms supermax prison project makes prisoners’ dreams come true. (Laurie Jo Reynolds and Stephen Eisenman, via Creative Time Reports. From left to right: photos by Lisa Barcy, Harry Bos and Stephanie Barber, 2012.)

After years of lobbying with local officials to reform the prison system—and a new IDOC chief who prioritized reviewing the supermax—Tamms was closed on January 4. As longtime Tamms Year Ten activists Laurie Jo Reynolds and Stephen F. Eisenman write, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn became an important ally. “He chose fiscal prudence over pork-barrel spending; evidence-based policies over myth and fear; and human rights over vengeance.”

Read the complete story of Tamms supermax prison at Creative Time Reports here.