Following a statute passed in 2012, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has instituted major changes to its visitation policies, including a rule banning inmates and families from taking photographs on family visitation days. This may seem like a small thing, but the change has come as a devastating shock to many families.
In making this change, Mississippi became one of only six U.S. states that comprehensively prohibits all photography during visitation sessions throughout the year. The majority of states recognize that family photographs are an essential tool for inmate rehabilitation. A policy removing the right to such photographs is shortsighted, counterproductive and cruel.
Mississippi inmate families have been working in conjunction with the ACLU since 2012 to combat this policy change. Viable alternative solutions exist and have been presented, but without public pressure and outcry, MDOC seems unlikely to consider them. So allow me to present you with a few reasons to provide that outcry and pressure.
To begin with, the vast majority of people that this policy hurts are free citizens who have never been charged with a crime. The impact of incarceration on parents, siblings, spouses, children, and other family members left behind is a painful and devastating. These are human beings guilty of no crime or wrongdoing who, through no fault of their own, have lost a close family member for years, or perhaps for life. Their loss is immeasurable, and the negative impact on their lives and livelihoods is massive. By further removing their sense of connection, this policy only adds to their pain and increases the likelihood that younger members will continue the cycle of incarceration. Moreover, abundant data show that a strong connection to family is a crucial part of any inmate's successful re-entry into society. Family visitation and photographs that preserve and memorialize that time and those connections is critical to any genuine attempt at rehabilitation.
As a professional photographer, I have witnessed firsthand the incredible power and impact that family images can hold. I've photographed tearful brides carrying a treasured portrait of a deceased parent. I've photographed anxious teenagers clinging to photographs of older siblings deployed in battle, as though the image is a talisman against future harm. I've photographed countless spouses who have been separated by work or deployment, seeking anything tangible, no matter how small, to make the distance seem a little bit less. A photograph is never just a piece of paper. It's a symbol of love, hope, commitment and connection between people.
MDOC has stated budget concerns and efforts to restrict contraband (such as cell phones used to take photos) within their facilities as the impetus for this decision. These concerns are valid and must be addressed. However, prohibiting photography entirely is not the answer.
On Thursday, Nov. 10, I sent an official statement to the office of MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher offering to "volunteer my time and expertise, free of any charge, to capture photographs on family visitation days for those inmates desiring one ... and to provide a copy of said images both to the inmate in question and to the outside family group." This solution involves no additional cost to MDOC, nor will it allow inmates access to any contraband equipment. I have yet to receive any response from Commissioner Fisher's office.
If, like me, you are touched by the human suffering in this situation, you can take action in multiple ways. Inmate family members Jennifer Bynum and Stephanie Martin have created a petition on change.org to bring back photography during visitation.
Additionally, Mississippi residents can contact Fisher's office to express support for my solution, or other alternatives, and for the petition.
Meghan Garner is a professional photographer in Jackson.