When Jessica Earnshaw first visited the Maine State Prison in late 2015 as part of her Aging in Prison photo documentary project, she thought she was prepared for what she’d see and experience.
“I had spent so much time doing research on prisons and getting ready, but had not spent any time thinking about how I would feel walking in until I was actually walking in,” Earnshaw said in recent phone interview from her Brooklyn, New York, home. “All of a sudden I was really nervous.”
Earnshaw spent close to two weeks over two months in late 2015 and early 2016 photographing aging inmates at the Maine State Prison in Warren and the Maine Correctional Center in Windham for her project funded by the Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation.
Her images — and the stories around them — have since been published by National Geographic, Photo District News, Huffington Post and several magazines in Europe.
The online media outlet BuzzFeed named Earnshaw’s Aging in Prison project among a 2016 weekly “11 Most Interesting Photo Essays” and her Aging in Prison Instagram account has close to 1,400 followers.
Earnshaw, 33, who often focuses on issues related to criminal justice and healthcare, said her initial plan was to follow aging inmates and produce a photographic account of what it’s like to grow old behind bars.
“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “I was not aiming to shoot in Maine but when I was calling around the country to get access [to prisons] Maine is where I was let in first and they were really amazing and receptive to the project.”
Earnshaw was granted access to the prisons by the Maine Department of Corrections where she spent up to 12 hours a day for a week in December 2015 at the Maine State Prison “shadowing” three elderly male inmates.
She came back to Maine in February to spend three days photographing Maine’s oldest female inmate at the Maine Correctional Center.
“I would there around 6 a.m. and just stay with them until they went in for their first evening count around 6 or 7 p.m.,” Earnshaw said.
“I thought this was a unique project,” said Amanda Woolford, director of women’s services at the Maine Correctional Center. “The issue of aging in prison is definitely worth a conversation and [Earnshaw] touched on a lot of issues.”
Woolford said the photographer was very respectful of the inmates and wonderful to work with.
“She picked up on a lot and really blended in,” Woolford said. “She was always cognizant of what was going on and of the fact this is the inmates’ home and was respectful and never intrusive.”
All of the inmates Earnshaw photographed are facing decades-long or life sentences.
“When you are talking about sentences like that, you are dealing with people who have committed violent crimes,” Earnshaw said. “I had no relationship with [violent crimes] in my own life but I was nervous going in because everything I knew was from growing up watching horror movies or from media accounts.”
But those jitters vanished within the first minutes of walking into the jail.
“Everybody I talked to was like anyone I would meet on the outside,” she said. “They were not scary [and] in some ways [the inmates] seemed more nervous to meet me.”
Earnshaw was never left alone with the inmates; at least one corrections officer escorted her at all times.
Going in, Earnshaw said she knew the stories she would develop would not be her’s, but those of the inmates.
“I did a ton of research before I started and talked to a lot of people including defense attorneys in Brooklyn,” she said. “One of the public defenders I talked to told me he felt people were constantly going into prisons to tell stories through their lenses and not let the inmates tell their own stories.”
From that point on, Earnshaw was committed to being the conduit through which the aging inmates stories passed.
“Along with my cameras, I brought along wireless mics to record conversations so their stories would be in their own voices,” she said. “I created the Instagram account to be interactive so that audio and their voices are over the photographs.”
While in Maine Earnshaw photographed 82-year-old Albert, the oldest and longest serving inmate in Maine who has been in and out of prison since he was 16; Robert, 70, who has spent nearly three decades in prison following a murder conviction and who now helps younger prisoners battling drug addiction; Steven, 63, who works out daily and buys his food from the commissary to avoid prison meals; and Norma, 77, Maine’s oldest female inmate who spends her days playing cards, knitting and counseling younger inmates.
“One of the things that really hit me is that yes, these people are in for violent offenses and are judged by society based on that original offense,” Earnshaw said. “But I learned that is not who they are and that they are so much more than that original offense [and] they have spent decades coming to terms with what they did.”
All four of her Maine subjects, Earnshaw said, are remorseful for their crimes and continue to work toward being better people within the microcosm of the prison population.
“Part of what I was doing was exploring ‘Are these people a threat to society at this point?’,” she said. “I am not trying to say they should not be punished — of course they should be — but our system really has this ‘eye for an eye’ component.”
When she sat down to talk to, record and photograph the elderly inmates, Earnshaw said something unexpected happened.
“I felt they had not had a connection to anyone for so long [and] I could see that in their eyes,” she said. “The fact I was asking so many questions about their lives meant so much to them.”
For Earnshaw, that also meant a lot.
“Sometimes as a photographer you feel you are taking more than you are giving,” she said. “I have not always felt comfortable with that [but] inside the prison I felt it was a very equal exchange.”
In fact, on her last day with Robert, the inmate told Earnshaw their time together had been the best days of his entire life.
“These people were thirsty for a connection with another human being,” she said. “Their whole world is behind walls.”
The aging process is hitting all three inmates she photographed a bit differently, Earnshaw said.
“Some of them were more dependent on the medical system,” she said. “Then there was Steven who told me he did not consider himself old until he was approached for this project.”
But there is no denying people age at a faster rate in prison, Earnshaw said.
“From what I read, 55 is considered elderly in the prison system,” she said. “I definitely felt that from what I saw in Maine.”
“It’s a stressful environment and people just age faster,” she said. “There is a constant turnover of people, you don’t know who is going to be sleeping in your room, or when a door will slam or an alarm will go off [and] that all takes a toll.”
Inmates like Norma, Woolford said, just do the best they can day to day.
“She colors and she is an amazing knitter who makes these doilies that are very intricate,” Woolford said. “But her hands are starting to lose that ability so she is starting to lose that self-identity and is not able to do a lot of things she once could and that is scaring her.”
Norma does not have a prison job, Woolford said, but does interact and offer advice to the younger inmates.
“And she’s pretty ornery,” Woolford said.
Those are the very real, very human stories Earnshaw wants her images to tell.
“My goal is to create compassion for these people,” she said. “There is a real perception in this country that people in prison don’t deserve anything if they are in for committing violent crimes, but what if they are more than what they did? I think they are and I just hope other people will see them as human beings.”