Thanksgiving in Prison

Last Saturday I spent the morning with 12 mothers, their children and other family members, enjoying a Thanksgiving meal together, just like many of you will do this week; there was chicken instead of turkey, the potatoes appeared to be more scalloped than mashed, and there was no pumpkin pie in sight, but there was some kind of spice cake, and the kids seemed happy with that.

Just like you and me, these moms, despite loving their children fiercely, have made some mistakes. But unlike me, and more than likely most of you reading this, their mistakes landed them in prison. Without diminishing the impact of their actions that got them to where they are now, I’d like to set their histories aside, because that is not what this is about. If you want a little back story, I’ll give you mine.

Before I became a family photographer I was a criminal paralegal, and before that, I got my degree in Criminal Justice. I went into college pro-death penalty, and came out pretty convinced the system was broken and everyone in prison was innocent of the crimes they were convicted. Nearly 20 years later, I’m somewhere in between those two extremes (and so grateful to no longer be in my 20s!). One of the things that made the most impact on me in those impressionable years was a visit I made to our local women’s penitentiary, and the women I met there, mainly because many looked like me and my friends, and others like they could easily be my aunt, my sister, my mom. I learned at that time that 80% of incarcerated women are mothers. I did what you do in college when something sparks a fire in you, a research project on programs available for mothers in prison. And then I graduated and went on with my life.

Fast forward to my life as a family photographer, in which I am constantly surrounded by beautiful loving families, and have the honor of capturing their lives and creating archives for them. This work has been a gift above and beyond anything I could have dreamed, but those incarcerated mothers never left my mind or heart. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to marry these two worlds that I feel such a passion for, but I never knew how to get into a prison with my camera. Who do I even ask? What were the programs available to moms in Oregon prisons? I’d find what I thought might be a path in, I’d send a few emails, hear nothing back, go on with my day-to-day… rinse and repeat.

Until earlier this year when I got a response to one of my inquiries. She was director of one of those programs I’d done research on back in the day, one at our local women’s prison that I had visited, and the program specifically aimed at maintaining the relationships between children and their mothers during their time of incarceration. That person was Jessica Katz, and the program is called The Family Preservation Project. (It’s an incredible program and you should definitely take some time to learn more about it, just after you’re done reading this!) Jessica was quick to tell me that “photos are everything” to the moms she works with, and I knew right away I had found my way in.

There were still hoops to be jumped through, permissions, handlers, and a background check that made me nervous even though I was pretty sure I didn’t have any terribly large skeletons in my closet. But I was invited (and cleared!) to visit with the women and their children earlier this year, and was finally able to bring my camera in last weekend, as they celebrated Thanksgiving with their children and the family members who act as caregivers to their children while they’re inside. It was beautiful, heart wrenching, and both completely extraordinary and very ordinary - in the way that a mother at a table feeding her little one is the same whether that table is made of polished oak set with cloth napkins, or a folding table in an institutional cafeteria setting.

I have always held tight to the idea that some day the children I photograph will be grown, and will have these treasures to hold in their hands, to trigger memories of their parents love for them. And I knew there was/is this whole population of children in our country who will have huge chunks of their childhood without photos with their mamas. Being able to change that - even if just for these 12 moms and their kids - well that’s a hard one to put into words, but it felt very easy, and natural to do it.

I want to be clear that initially I had no plans of sharing these photos. This project idea has never been about getting published or gaining any type of accolades. My intention has always been, and remains, providing photographic evidence of the love and bond these children have with their mothers despite the awful situation they’re in. That right there was reason enough to make the time and effort to see this through. But as it unfolded, I grew more and more excited about the reality of the project. So when one of my dearly loved longtime clients asked what my next big thing was, I told her about my “secret” project. Her immediate response was an offer to pay for prints for one of the families. This generous offer blew me away, even though I really shouldn’t have been surprised - I mean, I really do have the. best. clients. EVER - but it made me realize I might have to share this work, if it means I can provide even more to these families.

So that’s where you come in, if you’re still here (sorry/not sorry for all the words, but I had to make up for 2+ years without blogging!). One of the many beautiful outcomes of this program is the relationships the women build with each other, and the friendships and bonds that grow between the children (they get to see each other for 3 hour periods twice monthly). In many ways they are one big family. What I would really like to do is create a photo book of their Thanksgiving celebration, and gift one to each family. That’s 12 photos books, and even going the discount route and ordering in bulk, it’s going to cost me around $1,000. So in the spirit of the season, between Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, I’d like to raise the money needed to print these books. Should I receive anything over the $1,000 goal, I will use it for future photos/prints for the families (I plan to go back in the spring).

Thank you for reading this. If you’re able, please contribute, and even if you’re not, it wouldn’t hurt to share this with someone who might!

Happy Thanksgiving,


UPDATE: Thanks to all of the beautiful people who responded to my request, I was able to raise nearly twice my goal in under 24 hours! I am thrilled to share this news with the moms in the program when I visit with them next month. I will be setting aside all additional funds for future photos/prints/books (I plan to do something with them around Mother’s Day). THANK YOU!

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