Shooting – with a camera – has a place in prison.
For EthicsDaily.com’s new documentary “Through the Door” – on prisons and faith – producer Robert Parham and I visited five states. We shot in and around prisons in four of them: Tennessee, Virginia, Texas and Indiana.
Shooting in church is familiar; I’ve done it more times than I can remember.
Shooting in prison – not so much.
Visiting a prison even without camera gear takes time and patience because of clearance and security.
Visiting a prison with camera gear happens only after petitioning, planning, networking, explaining, proving and more. Even so, it still may not happen.
For this project on prisons and faith, we ultimately were allowed to shoot – with varying levels of access – inside three prisons: the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland, the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville and the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Ind.
The Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, would not allow us to shoot inside – or even outside the front entrance. We shot from a nearby corner.
Below are some lessons learned from this project – but applicable to other endeavors.
No. 1: Put your frustration in context.
You know what you are doing – that you’re trying to advance the common good in some way – but others may not necessarily know or believe that. In a prison context, where security is the priority, strangers with cameras and bags of gadgets aren’t necessarily to be trusted.
No. 2: Don’t give up.
You know what you are doing – that you’re trying to advance the common good in some way. So deal with the distrust, which may be warranted, given the context. Deal with the security. Answer questions and follow instructions. What you’re doing matters, and if you don’t do it, no one may do it.
No. 3: Appreciate people.
In the case of prisons, when you go inside the walls, the employees you encounter are performing a civic function. Regardless of the system’s ills, they are working in difficult circumstances, doing a job most people think little to nothing about. That deserves appreciation. The same can be said for many if not most walks of life.
No. 4: Ask questions.
You should not only answer questions (see No. 2) but also ask them. For example, you may eventually figure out on your own what “ad seg” means, but when you wonder, just ask. They’ll tell you it stands for “administrative segregation” – and you’ll likely learn about more than just an abbreviation.
No. 5: Sometimes you can’t be reached.
This is both literal and metaphorical. As for the former, we had to leave our mobile phones outside the prison because they are a premium item on the inside. It’s a no-phone zone. This one is also metaphorical because, sometimes, you have to explore the interior, and you can’t take the outside with you.
No. 6: Prepare to be surprised.
As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” You and I know so little, and what we think we know for sure, wrote Mark Twain, “just ain’t so.” Did I ever think I would meet master quilters in a maximum-security men’s prison? No. Did I? Yes.
No. 7: Listen to the door.
This project taught me that doors speak. Listen, and they will tell you when they like to be opened, where they can truly take you, who has a history of passing through, and why they exist in the first place.