Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three articles that investigate what images do in relationship to criminal justice reform. (Read part one here). Do images inform? Do they distract? Do they complicate or dumb-down the issues? We’re asking people in the photographs — people whose lives have been shaped by policing, courts and prison — what they think of the images. Read Part One: Listening To Those Who Are Photographed and Part Three: Prison Is Where Families Go.
The toxic fallout of prisons seeps far and wide into families and communities. The impact is 40 years in the making and is presently finding it’s way into the conversation on mass incarceration. In September 2015, the report Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families revealed the overwhelming debt, mental and physical ailments, stresses and severed family bonds among the friends and family of prisoners.
Among the many loved ones of the United States’ 2.3 million prisoners in is Candis Cumberbatch-Overton, a mother of two living in Brooklyn, NY. In late 2009, Candis met John who has been imprisoned since 1992. She and John married in 2011 and had a baby girl together in 2012 (New York State is one of four states that allows conjugal visits). Throughout their relationship, John and Candis have relied on daily phone calls and monthly in-person visits. Photographer Jacobia Dahm introduced herself to Candis on a bus on the return journey of one such visit.
“Initially, I was a little unsure of Jacobia,” says Candis. “When you’re dealing with a person that is incarcerated, the backlash that comes with it is not usually positive. So, I was leery about the whole thing.”
Dahm had chosen to document the long bus rides as a way to explore the issue of mass incarceration and to describe the lives of those outside the walls.
“As I spoke to Jacobia more and more,” recalls Candis, “I learned that she had a deep interest in the whole bus trip — how hard it was for mothers, wives and particularly children.”
Every weekend, overnight buses transport family and friends from New York city to Upstate prisons. Buses typically leave Manhattan at 9pm on a Friday night, dropping off at prisons between 6 and 7 am. Visitors begin processing some time after 8am and are out the prison by 3pm. At 3:30pm, the bus leaves the parking lot. If traffic is kind, the bus rolls into NYC at 11pm. Candis describes the journey as long, aggravating and uncomfortable. But worth it.
“To be honest most people just see desperate women taking these trips, dragging their kids along to see their boyfriends not really understanding that we make these trips so that we can keep our families together,” says Candis. “Despite what might have put them in this situation, they remain our family members. As women, mothers, spouses, sisters we try to keep our family together as best as possible.”
Jacobia made these photos while Candis was visiting John at Wyoming Correctional Facility which sits directly adjacent to Attica Prison, 9-hours north of New York City. (See a wider edit of The Prison Buses: In Transit at Jacobia’s website.) John has since been transferred from Wyoming to a minimum security facility two hours outside of NYC. He has outside clearance and tends the prison grounds. John will sit before the parole board for the first time this month.
Candis and Jacobia’s conversation about the photos
This has been edited for length and clarity
Candis Cumberbatch-Overton (CCO): If people don’t just look at the surface of photos they’ll see what’s behind them. The photos are just the start. Nine times out of ten there’s gong to be text attached to published photographs, so ask the questions!
A lot of photographers, and a lot of people don’t take that extra step to ask the right questions. Since your photo essay, Jacobia, I’ve seen a lot of photos about incarceration and all of a sudden it’s like “Oh, it’s a movement now!”
Jacobia Dahm (JD): This is the Brooklyn bus stop where Candis would have gotten on. The bus stops in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Usually, I’d board in Manhattan, but I thought it important to photograph at the stop in Brooklyn. Candis told me where it was.
CCO: There were times we’d wait for hours. There was no exact time. You know that at the Port Authority buses leave on schedule, but these buses kinda got there when they got there. Whether it’s raining or snowing we have to be out there, just standing.
CCO: In this photo, Camryn is probably around a year. I didn’t realize until I saw this photo, that we both have pink pants and a tan jacket!
JD: I think this is February or March. In other pictures, Candis has a fleece blanket wrapped around her.
CCO: My daughter slept well on the bus when she was young and she was strapped to me. What was difficult was feeding Camryn. I’d have to take a thermos of boiled water. Formula needs to be mixed with hot water and cold water. Of course, there’s no hot water on the bus so I brought a thermos and I’d buy water and mix her milk on the bus.
Once my husband’s friend’s wife accompanied my on a trip just because I needed help with the baby. You do diaper changes on the bus. When you’re at the prison, you’re allowed only to take a certain number of diapers into the visiting room.
CCO: My face is trying to brave the wind. I think it was snowing.
JD: It was 7am. It’s still night when you arrive. An hour before the visiting room is even open. The light changes in the morning, but it’s obvious that most of the time, during these trips, it is very cold and very dark.
It was difficult to photograph in darkness. The bus was pitch black but you can do a few amazing things with digital cameras these days and it’s okay if you have a noisy image in such a difficult project.
CCO: When Jacobia was graduating she showed her short film. I took photos of the video while it played and then printed them out and sent them to my husband. He saw them and he asked me to stop coming for a while. To see me struggling, holding her, and the bags, it was a bit much and he didn’t think he could ask his wife to struggle that way. He knew the process. He knew what we went through to come on a visit but to see the journey in raw images … He asked me to take a break from the trip.
JD: I’ve never seen Wyoming Prison. This is all you can see from the bus. Wyoming is surrounded by Attica. This is the only view you have.
CCO: It’s a walk to the visitor center and then a walk up a long the hill to the facility where you get processed with your bags, with your child. No cars, no trolleys exist. The only help is if someone offers to help with your bags.
JD: As for the visitor center, I was allowed to get in the visitor center only because staff thought I was a visitor. I wasn’t allowed to photograph there so I have a small number of images that were taken sort of secretly with a silent camera.
CCO: This is a picture of my husband and I, from a visit. It is in my home.
JD: It’s amazing because you’ve only ever known your husband during a time when he has been incarcerated, but this doesn’t look like a picture from a prison. That’s why I was drawn to it.
I knew I was never going to be able to get a picture of John in prison but I needed to bring him into the story.
CCO: He has his wedding ring on and we got married in August of 2011 so some time after that. We make photographs at nearly ever visit. I have a box full of pictures.
They call the picture taking “Click-click.” It’s prisoners operating the camera. Even during trailer visits, the prisoners buy the film and they bring the camera out to the trailer area.
CCO: In this image I’m just trying to get my things together and ready for the trip back home. The suitcase is easy because its on rollers. If I am holding Camryn in my arms I can still pull the suitcase. Most people use suitcases on wheels.
This was a room we used to get dressed and cleaned up and things like that. It gave us a little bit of privacy and comfort in an uncomfortable situation. At one point, we weren’t allowed to use this room any more.
CCO: If I was going to Wyoming, the bus was $65 for round trip. A child was $35. Rest stop snacks. A food package, to leave, is $200. Monthly. [Visiting room] pictures are $2 each. And then food from the vending machine. A bag of chips that is 50 cents outside is a dollar inside. I’d usually spend between $25 and $40, depending if I am with the children. Sometimes as much as $400 per trip.
CCO: In this picture, we’re just leaving the prison. I don’t really tell Camryn much about John’s situation. She says “I want to see my daddy, I want to go to dad’s house.” I don’t explain that he’s incarcerated. My son on the other hand is older and understands. But Camryn just thinks of it as daddy’s house.
Back then she wasn’t used to him. She’d cry. One, John didn’t want her coming up that much because she was so young. Two, she was young and she had a close bond with me and my mother, but she didn’t see John often so she didn’t have that bond with him. It hurt him. She was hurt because she didn’t understand who he was.
But now it’s so funny because everything is “I’m going to see my daddy.” Every time we put on coats, she asks, “Are we going to my dad’s house?” This is a child that didn’t have a relationship and now everything is “My daddy.”
JD: Theres’ something very subdued about the visits. People keep very much to themselves, on the way up even more than on the way back. On the return, there’s a sense of relief and joy also, but people very much keep to themselves. It’s not like people have strong bonds with other visitors.
CCO: Trusting people is a big thing in general but when it comes to incarceration there’s so many things. Some visitors bring in narcotics, for example, so even associating yourself with someone you don’t know [can bear risks]. People keep to themselves because they don’t want to risk being involved in something like that.
Another person might keep to themselves because their spouse has told them not to talk to anyone. There’s a lot of reasons. Some people simply don’t like others in their business and having a loved one inside is not an easy thing. People are judgmental.
When Jacobia’s photos were first published I shared them on Facebook and a lot of people did not know I had a husband in prison. They knew about my brother in prison but not John. They said “Wow, you’re a brave person to share this.” Prison happens. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Most incarcerated people aren’t locked up for something they did yesterday. They’re locked up for something they did years and years ago; things they did when they were young and not thinking. Yes, you must pay for your mistakes, that’s part of it but I’m not going to be ashamed. It’s growth.
CCO: I could be talking to my husband here.
JD: You talk on the bus after your visit?
CCO: One of the good things is that we can talk almost any time of day. During the week, the [prison] phones usually go on around 8am and are on until 11pm. The last call you can make is at 10:59pm but it’ll stay on past 11:20, because calls are in 30-minute increments.
John works. He keeps the ground outside the facility. He’s in school too; he’s almost done with his Bachelor’s degree. He’ll call in the morning on his way to work and then when he’s coming back he’ll call to ask how my day is going. That’s usually around lunch time.
Then, he’ll call me when I’m going home from work just to ride with me. He goes to classes in the evening and then when he comes back, after the kids are prepared for bed, he’ll call back at 10:30. We try to get the last call, just as I am settling down and getting in bed and our voices are the last thing we hear.
A 30-minute call costs $1.67. It doesn’t seem much but there’s a connectivity fee. They just changed the systems. When it first stared the phone would hang up but it would still eat up your money. Sometimes it’s choppy. It’s quite expensive. Also, everyone uses credit or debit cards to pay, and every time you do there’s a fee; an $8 fee. So if you pay on $60 you only get $52-and-change worth of phone time. It goes very quickly.
The phone calls keep you connected. They keep you part of something. That routine of calls in the morning at lunch keeps us together as a family. It’s the price you pay.
CCO: If I was to choose a favorite of these ten photos by Jacobia, it’d be the one of me holding the Polaroid. That’s our life in my hands. That’s us.
JD: It was important to take a photo of this picture because it’s the only [type] of picture that you have of your loved one. For years.
CCO: These things mean so much. Even my husband, this week, was saying on the phone how he was looking at his photos. You reflect. From pictures of Camryn as a baby to how big she is now.
Sometimes it’s these photos that are the only thing that keep them going [inside prison]. They look forward to the next visit and the next opportunity to take a Polaroid.
It shows how far we’ve come over the years — pictures keeps memories alive.