Dana Ullman started pursuing her documentation of women after they were released from prison by writing letters and building relationships with female inmates in California.
“I'm a photographer, but I'm also a person,” Ullman said. “My interest in women’s issues and incarceration came from being an activist.”
She wanted to spark conversation about the support for convicted women after they leave prison.
Some women bounce in and out of the system for substance abuse, such as Molly Britton, a mentally ill crack user. Britton had been cycling through the San Francisco County Jail for five years when Ullman started working with her. She had support from social services and agencies but was placed in an area of the city not ideal for overcoming drug problems. Of the women incarcerated nationally, 65 percent are in for nonviolent crimes, such as property and drug crimes, according to the Women’s Prison Association.
“A lot of these women fall through the cracks,” Ullman said. “People don’t pay attention in a positive or a negative way.”
Other ladies were institutionalized for a one-time offense and only serve one term. LaKeisha Burton, 38, was convicted as an adult at age 15 for shooting a gun into a crowd as a gang initiation. She didn’t hit anyone, but she served more than 17 years in the state prison system. Burton, who entered the free world as a woman in her 30s with the same understanding of it that she had at 15, is now a poet and reentry advocate. Burton had gotten to a point where she wanted to share her own experience to help others.
Three years after starting the project, Ullman is still good friends with Burton and several other women.
She has lost touch with some, though. In one instance, Ullman recognized that a woman was acting like she had it together when Ullman was documenting her but would be smoking crack right after she left.
“I thought, maybe I am putting more stress on your life as a photographer than I am helping you,” Ullman said.
These women work through the shame and remorse while in prison, she said. Outside, they need help adjusting.
“It’s very relational,” she said. “You need your family, your children, you need support for transitioning out of the system.”
Many of her sources she found through A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a nonprofit in Los Angeles that provides housing and reentry support for women and children, and California Coalition for Women Prisoners.
She hopes this will change people’s perspectives to see the faces of the women who have served time.
- Lauren Russell, CNN