Prompted by the question – What is the purpose of imprisonment? – as well as the experiences of people close to me I began connecting with women incarcerated in California and photographing the lives of some of these women after they were released. This project became a deeper investigation of the impact of incarceration on families and communities: the pervasive social constructs outside prison walls, in communities disenfranchised by race, class, poor education, scarce housing, violence and lack of resources are clearly and inescapably societal issues and require a community response. Within each testimony is an opportunity to explore new strategies to better address the complex needs of present and former women prisoners who are often left out of the conversation.

There are compelling stories about life on the inside, yet few pass the barbwire fence into life after incarceration. The project explores the dynamic experiences of several women as they reenter their relationships with their families, environment and community. While some women have had difficult transitions, others have become inspirational community leaders. I want to show both sides in an effort to break stigma associated with incarceration.

These stories, the needs and dreams of each woman in their own voice, illuminate the revolving door created by poor public policies and lives fragmented by ignorance, poverty and by years, even lifetimes, of abuse, but can also help the public understand who they are.

Over the past 15 years, in the United States, the number of incarcerated women in prison increased by 203% (77% for men). Incarcerated women are unique in that they are mothers (62% of women in prison have children under 18), largely suffer from mental illness and have histories of sexual and physical abuse (73% of women in prison have symptoms or are diagnosed with a mental illness compared to 55% of men in prison), and almost 65% of women in state prisons were incarcerated for nonviolent drug, property, or public order offenses. Nearly one in three reported committing their offense to support a drug addiction. Many are battered women serving time for crimes related to their abuse.

Crime is often seen as an individual pathology, not a social issue. Stories and images can help the public see the face of incarceration and illuminate the revolving door created by poor public policies and lives fragmented by ignorance, poverty and by years, even lifetimes, of abuse. Incarcerated women disproportionately serve time for nonviolent crimes stemming from mental health issues, sexual and physical abuse. Locked up and left out of the conversation, these women slip through the cracks, often convicted as perpetrators, not survivors of violence. How does the criminal justice system influence the status and value of women in society?

This project humanizes faceless statistics and illuminates often invisible ripple effects of incarceration on communities and families revealing a system that perpetuates abuse, recidivism and broken communities. The circumstances leading to incarceration (substance abuse, poverty, race, domestic violence, lack of education) are imperative to gaining a better understanding of women within the criminal justice system. I believe this project can expose the unjust treatment of women in criminal justice systems modeled for men and address the unique, but universal needs of these women internationally. With the perspectives of these women, I want to explore new strategies that address the complex needs of present and former women prisoners left out of the conversation and provoke viewers to think differently about how incarceration affects our society, how social constructs and stigma around crime affect us, and become aware of how sentencing laws and public policy can hinder lives rather than serve them.


Dana Ullman is an international photographer and writer based in New York's Hudson Valley and Ærø, Denmark. Her work explores the intersection of labor, agriculture and human rights globally, with a particular focus on North America, Scandinavia, and East Africa.
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