Sending photos to solitary confinement so prisoners 'don't lose their humanity'

If you could have a photo of anything, what would it be?

For thousands of prisoners in solitary confinement in the USA, a service which produces photo requests is a lifeline to the ever-changing outside world outside the confines of their cells.

From sunrise over the Sahara to the rebuilt New York World Trade Centre, and a picture of a prisoner's mother with a luxury car in front of a mansion, are among the requests received by Photo Requests from Solitary.

An estimated 80,000 people in the USA spend up to 23 hours a day alone in solitary confinement, often for seemingly arbitrary reasons, such as having too many postage stamps, campaigners say.

Solitary confinement isn’t mandated as part of a prison sentence; it is instead an additional punishment handed out at the discretion of prison staff.

'Spending three years in solitary confinement breaks your spirit'

Now released from prison, Perez has got on with rebuilding his life. Credit: Allegra Abramo

As a result of solitary confinement, Johnny Perez has spent three years of his life with minimal human contact.

He was first sent to prison at the age of 16 for gun possession, then sentenced for a second time at the age of 21 after holding up a shop with a gun and being found guilty of robbery in the first degree.

"I was sentenced to 15 years for robbing a convenience store. It was about not having the means to take care of my family and using criminal solutions to solve my problems. I was arrested two days after my daughter was born.

"At 21-years-old and getting sentenced for robbery, you know, your world turns upside down. It doesn’t click overnight, you think: 'they’re just gonna let me out one day'.

"I tell you this: if you’ve never smoked a joint before prison, there’s nothing like getting 15 years in prison to make you want to smoke a joint.

"The first time I landed in solitary was exactly for that. I got 10 months."

Sending photos to prisoners so they 'don't lose their humanity'

Request #63: Otis, a prisoner at Kenn Valley State Prison in California, requested this image of a cat at dusk. Credit: Photo Requests from Solitary / Ellie

To combat the lack of stimulation, a group of campaigners have set up a project in a bid to help prisoners who find themselves in solitary confinement.

Photo Requests from Solitary researches people sent into what's often referred to as restrictive housing within the US detention system. It sends them simple form, which allows them to ask for a specific image based on whatever they can imagine - so long as it is within prison rules.

"The photo project started in Chicago with a group of artists and activists. It was part of a campaign to shut down a supermax prison," says Jean Casella, Co-Director of Solitary Watch, which helps curate the images.

The institute she is referring to is Tamms Correctional Centre, the only supermax prison in the USA to open and then be subsequently closed.

"People were going in sane and coming out having lost their minds."

Request #60: Jose requested this image of sunset over the sea. Credit: Photo Requests from Solitary / Matthew Leifheit
Request #114: New York-based Ramon requested an image of a man not sure which road to take. Credit: Photo Requests from Solitary / Alyssa Romano

The idea was to raise public awareness of the number of people in solitary confinement, whilst using the ideas of people in solitary "so they don't lose their humanity".

"We have a form that goes out to prisoners. The forms are as much part of the art as the photos are.

"The fun photo requests get a big response from members of the public," she said.

But many requests, especially ones which are more specific, go unfulfilled.

"It's the idea that people exist, solitary makes them feel invisible.

"Giving people that acknowledgment that people are making their lives better and thinking about them; what they think about, dream about and what they are interested in."

Prisoners thankful for contact with the outside world

Request #125: 'Ordinary woman, full of love and compassion, with a smile as bright as the sun,' was the request from Sonny. Credit: Photo Requests from Solitary / Rod Goodman

One of those who has responded to the organisation from their cell is Sonny.

Having spent years in solitary confinement in California, he was approached by the Photo Requests from Solitary with a view to providing an image to fit his imagination.

He requested a image of a woman smiling at the camera; but was more specific than just that.

He wanted a woman "as bright as the sun".

Request #125: Sonny showed his thanks for the photos with this letter, in response to his fulfilled requests. Credit: Photo Requests from Solitary / Cathy Lee

Furthermore, the photo to was to be of "not a model type but an everyday ordinary woman who enjoys every moment of life".

A handful responses were sent to his prison cell, each receiving a response from him.

He said in a handwritten letter to Jean Casella: "I think it's people like you who will change the world one issue at a time. Who else is going to speak up for lost and broken people incarcerated every day?"

He added: "We all know once we enter the system we lose most of our rights. Once a human being loses their basic rights they're reduced to a level lower than an animal because even animals have basic rights.".

Request #202: Marcus requested an image with autumnal colours and sunflowers. Credit: Photo Requests from Solitary / Alex

Solitary Watch, the organisation that backs the photo project, aims to expose the practice of detaining people alone.

Its work has prompted a sea change in the US, with several counties in California reducing the amount of time inmates spend alone in their cells, and only using it in extreme cases and with violence inmates.

Some 25 per cent of US prisons are reportedly now looking at reducing the need for so-called restrictive housing.

Campaigners in New York have urged state lawmakers to pass legislation which would further limit solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days.

Despite repeated attempts, the bill did not cross the line ahead of the end of last year's session.

Request #94: One prisoner request requested 'anything but the devil' and received several responses. Credit: Photo Requests from Solitary / Shabby Foo Foo / Ahmed Ayoub
Request #115: Raymond, who is incarcerated in New York, requested images of sunrise over the Sahara. Credit: Photo Requests from Solitary / Manoma / Amy

Casella insists its goal is not to make people sympathetic for those who may have committed some of the worst crimes imaginable.

"The position we take ourselves is that solitary confinement is a form of torture, its not about what they did outside. They're not in there because of their crime, they're there for the prison system.

"We don't want to be a country that tortures people, we don't want to be a country that runs a prison system that sends people out more damaged than they went in.

"We dehumanise ourselves when dehumanise people in that way."

'Not a great deal has changed' since 1820 in US prisons

A view of Eastern State Penitentiary, now a museum, and a solitary confinement cell at Rikers Island. Credit: Chris Hitchings / AP

Perez was housed in cells modelled on those originally designed in the 1820s at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary. The sprawling 12-wing prison, which at one point housed gangster Al Capone, was the first of its kind in the world and became a global model for detention centres.

"The penitentiary was built on the belief people were inherently good, that they would look into their hearts and become penitent," Vice President and Director of Interpretation Sean Kelly told ITV News.

Tall walls and an arched ceiling, with a single sky light known as a ‘dead eye’ at the top of the 8ft by 12ft cell, were thought to give prisoners time to reflect on their crimes and prevent re-offending.

"That was their life. People who ran the system thought it would improve the lives of the inmates. It was designed to minimise contact between inmates.

“But the effects on people are documented, albeit in a primitive way. The records kept are, by modern standards, useless. There were suicides, reports of people becoming agitated, people becoming desperate," said Kelly.

Despite time passing "not a great deal has changed," he added.

'When you’re sleeping you’re not incarcerated. I could be anywhere'

Johnny Perez returning to a cell similar to the one where he was originally held. Credit: Joseph De La Luz

"It really breaks down your spirit," reflects Perez on his time inside.

"There’s psychological damage, there’s physical damage - I went in and I think I lost about 20lbs when I was in solitary.

"You lose track of time.

"You start imagining things; you imagine scenarios that could have happened, what should have happened.

"You talk to yourself out loud because you’re probably the only voice you’re going to hear for a while.

Request #188: A prisoner from Philadelphia requested an image of his home city for his cell. Credit: Photo Requests from Solitary / Steven

"The lights stay on all day. You sleep all day, you learn how to cope.

"When you’re sleeping you’re not incarcerated. I could be anywhere. When I’m sleeping, I’m dreaming; I’m home with my mother, I’m in school, I’m just living life and back to reality.

"The problem with sleeping all day is that you’re up all night, so at some point you have to deal with the reality.

"With little to no mental stimulation, I used to read 600-page books in one day. You get two books a week, I would read both those books twice.

"In many states, people get released from this sensory-deprived environment and directly into the streets, back into the community."

Life on the outside

Now released from prison, Perez has been successful at rebuilding his life.

He works as a prison reforming advocate with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, is a part of his now-teenage daughter's life and planning to get married.

"The public has yet to reconcile and fathom if they truly, truly want safe communities they have to look at what the conditions inside these prisons look like.

"I think Einstein said it best: 'If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you’ll be disappointed every time'."

Perez and his teenager daughter spending time together after his release from prison. Credit: Johnny Perez

Solitary confinement was originally used to make prisoners reflect on their crime, although there is much scepticism about whether this works.

Perez said he has mixed thoughts on its effectiveness.

"Reflection came in the way of how I should have gotten away. Reflection, nonetheless, but not in the direction of fixing a harm," he told ITV News.

Despite being out six years, the effects of solitary confinement remain present in his everyday life.

He said he prefers an office cubicle to an enclosed room; it makes him feel less like he's in prison. There are still sounds and smells that remind him of the experience.

"Today, I have a diagnosis for trauma and also for PTSD because of the confinement."

To help treat the conditions, he has been prescribed cannabis - the very substance which saw him placed in solitary confinement in the first place.

"You can imagine the irony of being placed under those conditions for that behaviour, and then later on that same behaviour will help you manage the effects of it."

Perez now spends much of his time fighting to halt solitary confinement. Credit: Johnny Perez

In the UK, the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement is thought to be significantly smaller.

A parliamentary question asked last month by Stretford and Urmston MP Kate Green found Whitehall's Department of Justice holds no centralised figures on people held in solitary confinement in the UK.

British legislation mandates prisoners may only be held in isolation for a maximum 14 days before review, where as there are fewer restrictions in the USA.

In January, a report highlighted concern over child criminals being held in cells alone, with some let out of their cells for just 15 minutes a day.

ITV News approached the Washington's Department of Justice with regard to the use of solitary confinement in US prisons.

In a statement it said: "The Bureau of Prisons is committed to ensuring the safety and security of all inmates in our population, our staff, and the public.

"It is the practice of the Bureau of Prisons to use restrictive housing only as necessary to ensure the safety of staff and inmates in the general population.

"An inmate’s removal from general population may become necessary because continued placement in general population poses a threat to self, staff, other inmates, the public, or to the security or orderly running of the institution.

"Inmates in restrictive housing are continuously monitored and reviewed to ensure that continued placement is necessary; including being seen by psychology staff on a daily basis.

"Inmates are returned to the general population as soon as it is appropriate to do so. Inmates are generally housed in the special housing unit two per cell unless a security concern has been identified."