In the era of social media, outdated technology is still a prisoners link to the world. Sometimes that means using a payphone in incremental limits. Other times it means posting a stamp on an envelope then waiting weeks to receive a response. Prisoners exist in the world pre-internet. Likewise, friends of prisoners quickly become acquainted with this archaic world. But I’ve noticed one aspect of antiquity often neglected by those in the free world, a medium that connects prisoners to freedom in a way words never will: pictures.
Everyday your phone screen is bombarded with images – family – friends – beautiful places – memes. You see them so much that you hardly notice them anymore. For many, even pictures of atrocities have lost their power. And I believe that is the reason why people in the free world don’t understand how important pictures are for prisoners.
Pictures are political. They are freedom captured in pixelized form. The images they convey can transport a prisoner from a lonely prison cell to any part of the world. When I take out my photos, I’m no longer locked in a cage. Instead I’m at the backyard barbeque with my little sister. Or I’m with my comrade protesting against the police. Photos remind me, in the most depressing of conditions, that I am still human, that I am still loved.
Once when I asked a comrade for photos, their reaction made me feel like I did something wrong. Later, after we had gotten to know each other better, they confided that at the time they were worried I was going to look at them in some objectifying way. That’s when I understood that a belief exists: when prisoners ask for photos, it means they have a sexualized intention. And I also understood that free world comrades don’t understand the significance of a photo in prison.
When someone likes your photo on IG, your not offended. And a profile picture is intended to be examined by the unknown public. When a prisoner asks for a photo, they are simply asking for a glimpse into your world. Imagine how disorienting it is to build a relationship with someone and not be able to conjure an accurate image of that person. Now imagine it being that way with the majority of comrades and friends you have. On top of all that, imagine enduring that inside of a prison cell. It’s not comfortable.
Of course you should be concerned if a prisoner asks you for some erotic poses. That’s an obvious red flag. But if a friend asks for a photo, to believe that it is because of sexualized intent shows that you’ve absorbed some of the stereotypical mythology that surrounds incarcerated people. A physical picture is the closest a prisoner gets to Instagram. Getting a friend request is a good thing.
If you have a comrade in prison, send them some pictures. It could be a beautiful sunset. Or a good time out at the park. Maybe it’s one at that protest you struggled through. Or the cup of coffee on your way to work Whatever it is, it’s a glimpse of freedom. And on those lonely nights, when my heart is hurting, and I feel like the world is a weight, I look at those photos, and they give me hope for a better world. Then my thumb taps the picture twice and I give you a like.