How visiting the a Northern California prison has changed me

I have always considered myself pretty much of a law and order kind of person. I support our state and local police and the thankless job they had to do. I’ve also spent most of my adult life looking at crime and law enforcement as simply police and criminals; never really looking much deeper than that. In my harder-hearted days, I would think of people in prison simply as criminals, and allow the only information that I know of them – the public information about a crime they were charged for – be the definition of who they were. Returning to the Catholic Church 12 years ago helped me to bring these views into balance. Two recent visits to a well known prison in Northern California have shown me how I’ve overlooked the human side of the people convicted of crimes and the impact on their families. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that those who commit crimes should be punished and that these people should be rehabilitated. I’m now also seeing the human side of incarceration much more clearly.

In 2012, I volunteered to join a bus trip to a Northern California prison for Father’s Day. The program was run by Get On The Bus (http://www.getonthebus.us), a California non-profit organization that brings children and their guardians or caregivers from all over California to visit their mothers and fathers in prison. The bus that I was on was taking children and their caregivers to the prison for Father’s Day. The bus worked its way from places like San Diego and San Bernardino, northward through LA and Orange Counties to pick up families waiting to see their loved ones in prison. Some of these families were seeing their fathers or grandfathers for the first time, while others were on a repeat visit. Inmates have to be on extra good behavior to qualify for this program. My understanding from speaking to other volunteers is that many of these men don’t want to lose this privilege, so their behavior and cooperation is very good.

My primary function on this trip was to be a photographer for Get On The Bus. During this trip I was given special access to families and inmates that members of the press could not get. This is because the families are given the choice of whether they can be photographed for news or other publication. I can tell by the markings on their name badges whether I can publish their photos or if they have opted for privacy.

During my first ride up to the prison I was helping out with the bus during the stops, helping people get on and loading supplies from that stop onto the bus. I met some of the families, but what I was going to experience at the prison was not something I could have anticipated. It was a joy to meet some of the families on the bus. I could see the excitement as well as the anticipation in some family members.

When we arrived at the prison, we went through security and entered the visiting area. The security here was a sobering reminder that pulled me out of field trip mode and into a curious and guarded entry into the prison. I had never been to any active prison before, and being at this particular prison is not something I ever thought I would do. I entered the visiting area and all of that washed away from me quickly as I saw families greeted by the men who awaited them. The joy in the room was incredible. For the next four to five hours I photographed these families as they reconnected, played games, ate, had their faces painted and enjoyed valuable time together. Families and especially inmates were put-off by the presence of my camera. Once I introduced myself and explained why I was there, they were largely very welcoming. Experiencing the visiting time was a real rush for me. I enjoyed meeting and interacting with the families as I made my rounds through the visiting room. I was doing what I enjoy most; I was photographing families.

After I had made my way through the main visiting room, I was asked to go to the front entrance, where a death row inmate was waiting in a special holding cell. He had just met his two grandchildren that day and was visiting with other family as well. I was photographing from outside of the cell, but getting good shots was tough. A prison guard was speaking to me about this and eventually asked if I would like to go inside of the cell. I immediately said yes, and he made arrangements with the family and the inmate. With everyone’s approval, he let me into the cell and locked the door behind me. Once inside the cell, any fear I might have had was either on the back burner or gone completely. My focus was on being a family portrait photographer. I captured a variety of shots; some with family members posing for the camera and many candid moments while they were focused on each other.

At the end of the visiting hour, I experienced something else that I could not have anticipated. The emotional 180 degree turn as I saw the inmates say goodbye to their families. The room was full of powerful emotion as families had to depart and inmates had to return to the prison. Anyone who couldn’t see the humanity of everyone in the room at that point simply had their eyes closed.

Working with Get On The Bus this past year has been an incredible experience that I wish to repeat every year. I hope that I have been able to give as much as I have gotten from volunteering.

For information about Get On The Bus, or to find out how you can help, got to http://www.getonthebus.us/