This column is in response to an April 30, 2015 Star Tribune story “Behind bars, a news camera ban in Minnesota.”
I don’t know if you have any interest in hearing an inmate’s perspective on this new policy [banning news cameras from prisons], but staying quiet seems like a bad idea. I am an inmate at Minnesota Correctional Facility Lino Lakes, and I am serving a 114-month sentence for possession of narcotics. I work as an editor for the prison newspaper, The Lino Ledger. I also work as the facility’s videographer handling all of the recording, editing and distribution of recorded events.
When I lived in the community I ran my own small business working as a photographer and videographer. When I came to prison, I was fortunate to work myself into the jobs that allow me to utilize and build on the skills I will need when I get released.
But every day here I fear that everything I have worked for will simply be ripped away. I would never be comfortable attempting to publish a response to this policy in our prison paper. First, I don’t believe they would let me publish it because they would consider it too controversial. Secondly, I’d fear being terminated, because the MNDOC [Minnesota Department of Corrections] doesn’t need a reason to fire anyone.
The first feeling I had after reading the story was fear. Taking away society’s ability to see inmates makes them less real, less human. It makes it much easier to ignore the problem of mass incarceration if there aren’t faces attached to the numbers.
It makes it easier to do whatever they please to the people inside prison. It is so easy to get lost behind these walls. It feels like no matter what happens, you are completely powerless, and that is a scary thing.
Society has a perception of what a person in prison is supposed to look like, and that is exactly what the new MNDOC media policy protects. Shouldn’t the public be able to see what it really looks like behind the fences and walls of Minnesota’s prison system?
Censorship is never good for society. News reporters can write an article or do an interview about mass incarceration, sentence reform, or our prison system in general, but does it carry the same weight without any accompanying pictures? Pick up any newspaper or magazine and the first things you see are the pictures. They are what draw a reader into an article.
When you think about what would be considered contraband in a prison, you would probably think of drugs, knives or a gun because they have the ability to hurt people. You probably wouldn’t consider news media cameras in pre-approved, controlled environments contraband.
Giving access to news cameras inside prison is essential to make sure that the people behind the fence are viewed as people and not just the numbers they are given. Prison is an impersonal and very dehumanizing place, and this new policy reinforces that.
If the Star Tribune came into Lino Lakes Prison and wrote a profile about an inmate’s daily life behind bars, many people in society might dismiss it from a bias that all inmates are just criminals who got everything they deserved for their crime. But if this article were accompanied by photographs or video, the article would have more force in humanizing the inmate. Imagine if the photos or video showed:
- The inmate giving a five-second hug and a kiss on the cheek to his mother before telling her everything will be alright and he loves her.
- The inmate and his sister who brought along her one-year-old daughter on a visit so her brother could see his niece walk for the first time.
- The inmate sitting at his desk in an office with pictures of his loved ones taped to the wall in a meager attempt to remind him of home, working a job using all the skills he used in the community where he ran his own business that supported his family.
If these are the images that society sees, their perception of who a prison inmate is might change. It would allow them to see that many inmates look and operate in a way very similar to themselves or others they know in the community; in a word, as real human beings.
Most importantly, this opens the door for inmates to be redeemed and so too promotes reconciliation in society. If the vast majority of people in prison are getting out someday and coming back to the community, it should be encouraged to treat and view them humanely today.
If inmates are correcting their behavior and working towards becoming productive members of society, we shouldn’t be censoring that. In society citizens have rights, including the right to a free press, and in Minnesota’s prisons that right has now been removed.
Taking away the ability to see what happens in prison is dangerous. It removes a level of accountability for how these inmates are being treated.
Many men behind the walls and fences are not the monsters they are perceived to be. Closing off communication has never done anyone any good. I think it is critical for society to understand what happens behind these walls. As prison sentences continue to be prolonged, society must have the ability to see the consequences of these policies.
Aaron David Miller is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.