Editor’s Note: Wobneb Magazine is honored to welcome this contribution by writer and criminal justice reform advocate, Chandra Bozelko.
Readers might assume I write about prisons because I’m so passionate about conditions inside correctional facilities and injustices in the criminal legal system. I am passionate about changing these realities. I also do it because there are so few visuals available. Prison wardens often restrict photographers and cameras from entering their facilities allegedly for the sake of security, but from my experience, the only people who receive protection from this opacity are abusive staff. If the public had more, and more consistent photographic access to prisons and jails, I feel journalists wouldn’t need to persuade so much. I personally wouldn’t feel I need to pepper moral arguments with logic and economics in order to appeal to people who simply don’t seem to care.
A picture is worth a thousand reasons to call your congressman.
In the absence of these necessary images, writing became my way to convince the general public that citizens’ human rights are violated every day in state-sanctioned facilities. I avoided rallies, marches and protests about criminal justice, police brutality and the ways Black Lives should matter – and not because I’m part of the establishment. Even pre-pandemic, I didn’t like being in close-proximity to others. Living 56 people per room in a prison dorm will shatter the textbook-ideal of closeness and packing in, even if it’s for a noble purpose.
The real reason I ‘pooh-poohed’ protests in the past was because I doubted they were effective in changing the minds of policymakers. If all the people who marched had dedicated themselves to explicit, written storytelling, through journalism or testimony on pending legislation, then surely that could convince people in power to act in everyone’s best interests? The real reason meaningful social change eludes us. People who vote, whether on the Senate floor or behind a musty curtain in a rural town hall, simply don’t have all the necessary facts. They haven’t heard all the stories bearing witness to the issues at hand.
Our outgoing president’s fixation on the number of people attending his inauguration, or the ‘Stop the Steal’ March in Washington isn’t entirely without merit. The number of attendees are an argument in themselves for support. So, of course the number of people who turn up for these events matter, no matter which side you’re on, and aerial photos provide evidence to calculate densities in crowds. Journalists and photographers will continue to help preserve and protect democratic and humanistic norms through their efforts.
When I was assigned to cover the Women’s March on October 17, 2020 in Washington DC, I began to understand that a march isn’t limited merely to persuasion. Persuasion might be a byproduct of the march, but the event itself is about visuals and the images of people liberated by what is happening around them. Some experts who study tyranny and fascism agree that autocratic rule placed upon a democratic society causes its citizens to fall in line with the masses; to freeze. They don’t go along because they’re weak or they don’t understand, but because they don’t know what else to do, and if they see others not reacting against the autocrat, they’ll just blend in with those around them. Conformity equals safety. Marches and protests unfreeze people – and the thaw extends beyond the participants. My experience of viewing a march through a lens convinced me of this.
And I admit, I wouldn’t have accepted the idea that rhetoric has its limits unless I showed up.
Chandra Bozelko is a freelance opinion writer whose lived experience of being incarcerated informs her work. She was the first incarcerated person to have a regular byline in a publication outside the prison. That column, named Prison Diaries, is now an award-winning blog. She has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, Reuters, US News and World Report, among other publications. Bozelko was a 2017 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Criminal Justice Reporting Fellow, a 2017 Journalism and Women Symposium Emerging Journalist Fellow, a 2018 JustLeadership USA Leading with Conviction Fellow, and a 2018 Pretrial Innovation Leader with the Pretrial Justice Institute.
See more at her website: www.prison-diaries.com