Jessica Earnshaw is a Brooklyn-based photojournalist, who focuses her pieces on criminal justice, health care, and music. Using funding from the Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation Fellowship & Grant, Earnshaw was able to gain unrestricted access into Maine and Indiana State Prisons, in order to photograph aging within American prisons.
Earnshaw’s prime reason for documenting this particular story was her interest in what happens when you are cut off and isolated from society, after being imprisoned for decades. Earnshaw’s piece focuses on aging inmates, who are either on death row, or have been serving long prison sentences for crimes committed nearly 30+ years ago.
Earnshaw first began to contact multiple prisons across the country, and as a result, two Maine state prisons, one a women’s and the other a men’s correctional facility were among the first to grant her access.
Earnshaw essentially shadowed four inmates, one of them being Norma, who at 74 years old, is the oldest female inmate in Maine. Norma is serving a 70 year sentence, and has a shocking 56 more years in the Maine prison system. Norma has three children, all of whom have ceased contact with her, and she hasn’t had any visitors in the 14 years that she has been imprisoned.
Prison sentences this long, especially when the inmate is as old as Norma, piqued Earnshaw’s curiosity, and mine as well. Yes, someone who committed a heinous crime 20-30 years ago at the time was violent, but the real question is, are they still violent today? When they are old and senile is it really imperative that they continue to spend the rest of their days in a penitentiary? Earnshaw questions this, and also wants to know how these inmates are doing after spending so much time in prison.
Before visiting Norma and the Maine Correctional Center, Earnshaw visited Maine State, where she spoke to Robert and Albert. Robert, (above) is 70 years old and has served 30 years in prison for murder. When Earnshaw left the prison, he told her that speaking to her about his time in prison was the best day of his life.
Albert (above), is the oldest inmate in Maine State prison at 82 years old, and has successfully escaped from prison four times. He has been in and out of prison since the age of 16, and has served a 10 year sentence in solitary confinement. He says that he spent that sentence reading, writing, and designing a home.
Overall, Earnshaw’s experience within the prisons was smooth, considering major factors: the inmates have been imprisoned for so long that they missed the new technological advancements which in turn gave them “no reservations or self-awareness about being photographed”. Also, given that many of them are alone most of the time, human interaction, especially with someone who wants to know about their lives, was easily a highlight of their lengthy prison sentences.
Earnshaw hoped that her time in the prisons, and her subsequent article, would help to humanize those who spent so long in prison, and show people that they are humans as well.