What do Americans really know about the criminal justice system apart from what we see on Orange Is the New Black or re-runs of Law & Order?
The truth is, not much. There’s a popular misconception that people who go to jail are bad, unworthy, and a disgrace to our society. As one former inmate Jerome Wiza described it, “We should all be sent off to space, right?” We won’t argue and say that people who commit unspeakable crimes should go unpunished, but without righting a wrong or giving someone a second chance to do better, to BE better, what good are we really doing?
In Babita Patel’s new book, Breaking Out In Prison, readers are given a rare look at the lives of fifteen men incarcerated through the criminal justice system in New York City through a series of photographs, stories, and direct quotes. During the early stages of photographing in prisons, what Babita quickly discovered was that she had more similarities than differences to the men behind bars than she had imagined. Given the opportunity to learn a new trade, language, or skill it was education that led them to redemption.
We caught up with author Babita Patel prior to the panel discussion.
The Knockturnal: Tell us about your book, Breaking Out in Prison.
Babita Patel: I’m a humanitarian photographer and I photograph inside prisons a lot through one of my clients and through that work I realized there are stories that need to be told that need to be heard by people who don’t know anything about the criminal justice system. I wrote and photographed a book about the stories of fifteen men growing in and around NYC, what happened when they went into prison, how they found education inside and how that changed their values and who they are so when they return to their communities. They’re different people than they were before.
The Knockturnal: Was there anyone you encountered in the process that felt these stories weren’t worth telling?
Babita Patel: I didn’t encounter that kind of pushback because thankfully the conversation is changing these days around criminal justice, there is an effort both on the left and the right. I think it’s also a conversation most people don’t have a lot of details on, but they are interested in so this is a really interesting way of people hearing about these stories they don’t have access to. The way the media talks about criminal justice is very high level versus hearing one individual person’s life story.
The Knockturnal: You have some very special guests with you tonight on the panel, can you tell us who they are?
Babita Patel: There is going to be a panel conversation with me and three of the men who are in the book. They were chosen for various reasons. The person moderating the panel is also formerly incarcerated, he came home after the book was done and he knows the men really well since he’s lived with them for years so he seemed like the perfect person to have moderate this conversation.
The Knockturnal: Where can we go to learn more about organizations actively working with the criminal justice system?
Babita Patel: There’s a few organizations working specifically inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility on programming and rehabilitation work, Hudson Link for higher education in prisons who actually introduced me to this work, RTA, rehabilitation through the arts, and then there’s a lot of other organizations throughout the country as well that work on different parts of this.
Organizations like Hudson Link are providing the resources to educate incarcerated men and women in New York City. Currently there are 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States alone.
Breaking Out In Prison is now available wherever books are sold.