Jail Inmates Given Photography Classes

Jail Inmates Given Photography Classes

Photography is not commonplace in America's jails. However, an article recently published in the Greenfield Recorder reports on photography courses given to inmates in Massachusetts and the reactions of the students.

From the original article posted, it seems that the inmates were mostly making creative composites in Photoshop, which sounds like a decent lesson in using layers to create fine art. It’s reasonable to wonder whether the classes contain any instruction in business aspects of photography, the lack of which is a major deficiency in most liberal arts college programs. Photography classes (as with most professional arts classes) should educate students in technical skills and business skills. In the real world, you could even argue that business skills provide the more crucial foundation of a photographer’s livelihood.

The inmate students are taught on Nikon Cameras and Mac computers. Assuming the students aren't familiar with both Mac and PC operating systems, it might be more realistic to teach them on PCs. According to PrisonPolicy.org, jailed inmates have an average annual income of $19,185 prior to incarceration, 41 percent lower than their non-incarcerated peers. That's hardly a salary one can afford a Mac computer on, let alone a DSLR camera system.

It’s always challenging to weigh correctional costs against social benefits, but this investment in photography eduction for inmates seems to be potentially a worthwhile one. A great follow-through to the program would be to provide released inmates with basic cameras and editing tools. It can already be difficult for ex-cons to find work, let alone afford the equipment needed to start their own business. If inmates were to show good grades in their courses and a genuine commitment to pursuing a photography business, maybe they should be given a provisional chance through loans or a well-regulated program.

Having a creative outlet has the potential to be therapeutic and constructive for people, especially people trying to get their lives straightened out. From the quotes of the students listed in the article, it appears that many of them have found inspiration in a new passion, which of course is a positive for those who’ve had trouble with the law.

Do you believe photography can be a therapeutic asset as well as a professional asset?  Do you think such classes can be useful for inmates moving on into the working world? Please share comments and opinions below.

Lead image by Les Haines, used under Creative Commons.

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21 Comments

Marlo Smith's picture

I'll be honest, not sure how I feel about this.... what I know of photography is self taught. I can't afford classes etc.. so to see someone benefit from crime kinda bums me out. I do want them to change and better themselves, but learning photography doesn't mean it will change their hearts. Humm...

I don't know that I would equate this benefit to the crimes they've committed. And the benefit is nothing compared to the discomfort of incarceration they've gone through and will continue to do so for a while.

Craig Gagnon's picture

Im not sure I understand what your issue is. Are you upset that the Penal system is actually finding ways to rehabilitate criminals? Are you upset that someone who has been incarcerated is allowed to learn a craft you maybe feel you have exclusive entitlement to? The reality is, if you are even remotely put off by this idea than I am afraid it speaks volumes about what must have been a very sheltered and entitled life for you. Wow.

That was pretty harsh. :-/

I disagree. I can't presume to speak for Marlo but can understand having mixed feelings in this case. The fact is, I don't know anything about her or her experiences and neither do you or Craig. For some reason a story about a harlot and a bunch of "stoners" comes to mind. Just a thought.

Scott Mason's picture

I have to agree with Craig on this one. I don't feel that these inmates are being handed a luxury service for their bad deeds to society. You can walk into a local art center or photography/print store in many cities and take photography classes quite inexpensively. The one I used to teach at had photography classes for something like $200-$300, and crash courses were even cheaper.

Also, this is happening in a jail and not a prison. Some of the people in a jail are awaiting trial or serving short sentences for lesser crimes than prisoners/felons. You can safely assume the rest are in for misdemeanor and low-level drug crimes.

Jail inmates are human too, and if they can find a new purpose in life and turn things around then I say let's encourage them. I'd love to see the results of this program.

I agree with his empathy for convicted criminals but you can't call for understanding on one person's behalf while offering none for another.

Scott Mason's picture

I understand the opposing argument, I just don't agree with it.

I get it, a lot of people don't like paying taxes (who does) and believe that social programs should be slashed. However Marlo's stance seems to come from some form of jealousy or feeling of injustice. Prisoners learning a skill seems quite insignificant compared to the many injustices in the world.

That is just my opinion, though. I don't mean to gang up on her, but share my take on it. I don't think anyone should feel compelled to take both sides in a debate, maybe that's not what you're implying though.

Just a nit but "Marlo" is a she, or at least the photo and name seem to indicate that being the case.

I'm the last person to advocate taking both sides in a debate. Experience has taught me, however, the best way to give directions to the right "place" is to *understand* where someone is coming from. Further, you're unlikely to convince anyone of anything if you excoriate them. I try to present an alternate view point. Over time, they'll understand it or (and this happens all too often) I'll be proven wrong.

Of course, if the goal is merely to be right and claim moral superiority, break out the whips! Just a thought.

Scott Mason's picture

Oops, fixed the name in my previous comment. Thank you for that, and to Marlo my apologies.

I agree that not only do you alienate others by not at least attempting to see through their lens, but you also can make a more compelling argument by trying to understand both sides and/or acknowledging the opposing side's feelings/ideas as being legitimate.

I think everything we're saying here is extremely relevant right now. I appreciate the thought-provoking discussion, Sam.

Marlo Smith's picture

I can't afford classes that cost that much, not right now anyway.... and my name is Marlo not Mario I'm a she not a he...just fyi. Also I didn't know this was a debate.... good to know. I just saw these replys or I would have replied myself sooner. Sorry to cause a stir with my visual pondering, I was under the mistaken belief that we are free to have thoughts and opinions here with adult conversation. I tried to reply to Craig but it didn't go through, you doged that one buddy.... Well you all have definitely misjudged me except for maybe Sam... I never had a problem with rehabilitating but someone didn't read my whole comment I think... ah well its futile to converse with those who can't listen but only want to speak. So for the record not that I owe anyone my thoughts but I don't care anymore if they get free classes etc... if it means a gift in their life that they've needed and its the birth of a new amazing photographer that brings heart and soul into this world...then awesome! I needed time to think and I'm glad I didn't see Craigs comment sooner, cause I can be stubborn too.

Scott Mason's picture

I'm sorry that you feel that way, Marlo. Of course are free to discuss your ideas and opinions but just as anywhere else on the free and open internet, someone at some point is bound to disagree. I think everyone so far has been fairly mature in the conversation.

That being said, I found your follow-up comment much more thoughtful and I see where you're coming from now. I just don't think rehabilitation programs that deviate from the norm means criminals are benefiting from crime. That is all.

I think it's a good thing. To me, the larger potential benefit is for them to find beauty in the world. When you think things can't get worse, every option becomes a possibility. If you know things can be better, much better, everything is different.

Lorretta Clarke's picture

Any creative thinking from criminal thinking is a good - reprograms the mind - don't you think that benefits all of us?

yeah let them paint us a picture of their f'ed up criminal mind.

convicted rapist learns photography and shoots young girl models only. uhm,.i just hope they learned from their mistake and switch from rap music to the art of photography. never know, hope they learn and prove all of us wrong.

Interesting comments.

I would argue that almost anyone has the capacity to change who they are. Good guys go bad and bad guys good. Why not use the art of photography to get cons to think creatively and express themselves in a new way?

In a lot of ways, being a great photographer isn't much different from being a great marksman.

Johnny Rico's picture

Look up the percentage if USA general population that are sociopaths and percentage that are psychopaths, and how many of that group are incarcerated. There is a good chunk that cannot be rehabilitated.

norman tesch's picture

took a couple classes in photography. you do get a buisness degree, they really wont teach you about photography untill your 2 or 4 years are up. they will tease you with little bs photo assignments but for me when you have to explain hdr to the instructor ...run

Scott Mason's picture

Norman, I'm curious which school had a program like this. Mind sharing?
For me it was the exact opposite - all technical/photo classes with a weak afterthought about business near the end. I wish it was commonplace to have an even mix of both technical and business education.