Photo Requests from Solitary (PRFS) is a participatory project that invites men and women held in long-term solitary confinement in U.S. prisons to request a photograph of anything at all, real or imagined, and then finds a volunteer to make the image. The astonishing range of requests, taken together, provide an archive of the hopes, memories, and interests of people who live in extreme isolation.
On any given day, at least 80,000 people are held in solitary in the United States prisons and jails, either in supermax or other segregation units. Some will remain for months, years, or even decades in conditions that have been shown to cause deep and lasting psychological and physiological harm.
They spend at least 22 hours a day in a cell that measures on average of 6 x 9 feet, either in supermax prisons or in segregation units in other prisons and jails. Meals usually come through slots in the solid steel doors of their cells, as do any communications with prison staff. Exercise is usually alone, in a cage or concrete pen, for no more than one hour a day. People in solitary may be denied contact visits, telephone calls, television, reading materials, and art supplies.
The goal of PFRS is to fulfill each request to exact specifications for the person who requested it, with images that—through some combination of form, content, composition, design, and/or sheer commitment—are compelling enough that someone would want to return to them for repeated viewing. (People in solitary are sharply limited in the numbers of photographs they can have, so every image is important.)
In addition to sending completed photographs to the people in prison, PRFS uses the project to provide public education about solitary confinement and support campaigns to limit its use. Working in partnership with local advocates, we tour exhibitions of the request forms and photographs, hold events and discussions, and encourage media coverage on the subject of solitary confinement.
PRFS offers audiences a direct and powerful connection to people in solitary confinement, either by contributing photographs or by simply reading their requests and visualizing the images they have described. Making these often elaborate descriptions into images, which can then be sent back to the people who conceived of them, completes an artistic collaboration that acknowledges the shared creativity and humanity of individuals on both sides of the prison walls.
PRFS was started in 2009 by Tamms Year Ten, a grassroots campaign to close Tamms Correctional Center, the notorious supermax prison in Illinois. Requests and photos from Illinois were displayed at the Statehouse in Springfield, at Sullivan Galleries at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and at other venues around the state. PRFS was used to gain press attention and build support for the campaign, in tandem with advocacy directed at the state legislature and at Governor Pat Quinn, who made the courageous decision to first reform and then close Tamms.
In 2013—the year Tamms was finally shuttered—PRFS became a project of Solitary Watch, and the organizers expanded the project to include people in solitary in California and New York. In New York, where rates of solitary use are double the national average, PRFS has partnered with the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement to support advocacy efforts in the state, including the push to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. In 2017, a selection of photos and requests from individuals held in isolation in New York was displayed at the Legislative Office Building in Albany. Since then, PRFS has been exhibited at Photoville in Brooklyn and at venues on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley. In the spring of 2019, PRFS had a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Our current installation at Eastern State Penitentiary brings PRFS to the birthplace of solitary confinement. The two-cell exhibit features a slide show of fulfilled requests and photographs, and new requests from people in solitary in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. For the first time, the project is crowdsourcing the requested images—inviting all viewers to become participating artists. The PRFS exhibit is on display at Eastern State along with many stunning artist installations.
Closed as a prison in 1971, Eastern State Penitentiary is now a historic site that interprets the legacy of American criminal justice reform. It is the first prison where individuals were systematically held in complete and prolonged isolation. These conditions were meant to help them contemplate their sins and become “penitent.” The model was initially copied by prisons around the world. After it was observed to cause suffering and mental deterioration, however, the practice of solitary confinement was largely abandoned—only to be revived in the late 20th century during the age of mass incarceration.
As part of our work at Eastern State, PRFS is partnering with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture as well as local advocates on public education and organizing campaigns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The Brooklyn Public Library will host the first New York exhibition featuring photos and requests from all five states where PRFS has worked. This site-specific exhibition will cover multiple spaces in the beautiful, landmark Art Deco Central Library, adjacent to Prospect Park and the Park Slope and Prospect Heights neighborhoods. Viewers are welcome to fulfill open requests, and will also have the opportunity to learn about the campaign to end long-term solitary confinement in New York’s prisons and jails. Free and open to the public during library hours through July 1. For more information and details about filling requests and special events during the exhibition, visit our BPL Exhibition page. Supported by a grant from the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.
Facilitators—including artists, designers, and advocates—will be on hand at this event to help scan and design images with you using Photoshop, and draw with you.
Please come having selected a request that speaks to you and if possible, any source images you may have. We will also have requests on hand for those who have not pre-selected theirs. While a limited number of computers and art supplies will be available at the library, please bring your own laptop and/or sketchpad if you can.
All participants at this event will be eligible to present their finished work at the exhibition finale event on Thursday, June 20. All are welcome!
For our exhibition’s finale event, come present the photo or drawing you made for someone in solitary confinement. Artists, designers, advocates, and a survivor of solitary confinement will be present at this event to discuss their experiences with solitary confinement and to celebrate the imagery made by co-creators outside of prison walls.
RSVP at www.bklynlibrary.org/exhibitions/photo-requests-solitary. Click to event listing.
For media inquiries, please contact email@example.com.
Is There Such a Thing as an Activist Photographer? Colin Pantall, Witness
What Do People in Solitary Confinement Want to See? Doreen St. Félix, New Yorker
Visitors to Eastern State Penitentiary Can Create Art for Prisoners in Solitary Confinement, Sinead Cummings, Philly Voice
Photos for Prisoners in Solitary Confinement on Exhibit, David M. Schwartz, Newsday
Congregants Push for Prison System Reform with Solitary Confinement Art Exhibit, Amelia Camurati, The Island Now
What People Locked Up for 23 Hours a Day Yearn to See, Victoria Law, Gothamist
These Images Capture the Dream Life of Prisoners in Solitary Confinement, Hanna Kozlowska, Quartz
Photo Requests from Solitary (interview with Jeanine Oleson), Mia Lewis, Hammer Museum News
Photographs Connect Inmates in Solitary Confinement to Outside World, Megan Fincher, National Catholic Reporter
Ending Solitary Confinement Through Viral Art, Rhett Jones, Animal New York
With the help of Solitary Watch, Tamms Year Ten, and other advocacy organizations, Photo Requests from Solitary has reached out to men and women held in solitary confinement in state prisons in California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. We sent each of them a letter explaining the project and a form to fill out to make their request.
Solitary confinement (which can also be called Restricted Housing, Special Housing, Administrative Segregation, or Disciplinary or Punitive Segregation) means living confined to a small cell for 22 to 24 hours a day. They may leave to be escorted, in shackles, to the shower or to exercise alone in concrete pen or a fenced-in cage. They may not be allowed phone calls, contact visits, congregate religious services, or any other contact or communal activity.
Solitary confinement cells generally measure from 6 × 9 to 8 × 10 feet, smaller than the average parking space. Most have solid metal doors, with a slot for passing in meals and communicating with prison staff and medical and mental health personnel. Within these cells, people are in a state of enforced idleness, without work, education, programming, or social activity. Many are banned from having televisions, radios, art supplies, and even reading materials.
The isolation and sensory deprivation of prolonged solitary confinement has been shown to cause lasting psychological damage in many who endure it. Effects of solitary can include hallucinations, paranoia, panic, despair, psychosis, self-mutilation, and increased risk of suicide.
We do not ask—and rarely know—why people have been placed in solitary, or the crime for which they were convicted to be put in prison. All people held in solitary are eligible to request photos from PRFS.
In general, people are sent to solitary not by a judge or jury, but solely at the discretion of prison staff. In many prisons and jails, solitary confinement has become a control strategy of first resort, although it has never been proven to reduce prison violence.
Incarcerated men and women can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not only for violent acts, but for possessing contraband (including too many pencils or postage stamps), testing positive for drug use, ignoring orders, or using profanity. In some states, anyone who is believed to belong to a prison gang can be placed in solitary indefinitely. Other people end up in solitary because they have untreated mental illnesses, are children in need of “protection,” are LGBTQ, are people of color, are Muslim, have unpopular political beliefs, or report rape or abuse by prison officials.
An estimated 80,000 men, women, and children are in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons on any given day. They may remain there for weeks, months, years, or decades.
We will make prints of photographs submitted and send them to the people who requested them, in accordance with prison rules regarding size and any other restrictions. Photos are generally also posted on this website. Photos have been shown in exhibitions in several states, featured in media stories, and will be used as part of future exhibits.
Because there are limits on the number of photographs people in solitary confinement are allowed to have, as well as the capacity of our site, we may not be able to send or display photos that do not fulfill the project’s goal (see About PRFS), or that are too similar to other submitted images. Photo exhibitions are curated with different themes and audiences in mind.
PRFS reserves the right to reject any photos we believe to be libelous threatening, or discriminatory toward any person or group. All other submissions are deeply appreciated and will become part of the permanent archive of Photo Requests from Solitary.
First, choose a request from this website that you would like to fill. Make sure to carefully read the long version of the request so you can meet all the specifications. Although your interpretation will be a vital part of the process, we do not send or display images that don’t very substantially fulfill the request as written.
You can use the Search Requests feature to filter by state, or to find unfilled requests. (You are welcome to submit an additional photo for a request that has been filled before, but we hope you will choose an unfilled request.) The Save to My Requests button allows you to make and email a list of Saved Requests, but once you leave the site, it will disappear.
Once you have made a choice, then simply take or make your photo in the highest resolution possible for you. Because some requests require images of things that don’t exist, or that can’t be orchestrated, it is fine to use any other tools or methods of image-making to best fill the request (such as Photoshop, drawing, collage, etc.) The goal of this project is to take or make original images for people in solitary. We do not send or publish copyrighted images unless the request specifically requires it.
When you are ready to send in your photo, please begin by preparing your image file. Since we often use the photos in exhibitions/public programs and may want to include your photo, please submit a high-resolution image, in tiff or jpg format at 300 dpi and at least 10 inches on the long edge.
Please only submit original images. If the request requires a found or copyrighted image, instead email the image to firstname.lastname@example.org to consult with us before uploading.
In the file name, include the request number and your name as you would like it to appear on the website and in any exhibits for which your photo might be selected. We may also share just your first name (not your last name) with the person in prison who made the request. An email address is required, but will not be shared with anyone except the PRFS project staff. Please read the submission terms before submitting your photo. (By submitting, you are agreeing to these terms.) If you have any comments or questions, feel free to contact us at email@example.com.
PRFS is run by volunteers, and it takes time to review, send, and post the images. We will get back to you fairly soon, but your patience is appreciated.
Solitary Watch, the organization that hosts the PRFS project, has a website devoted to information about the use of solitary confinement. You may want to start with Solitary Watch’s own list of FAQs. To read stories by people in solitary confinement, click on Voices from Solitary, or check out our new book.
Advocacy organizations and grassroots campaigns around the country are working to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement beyond 15 days—the limit recommended by the United Nations—and to ban it altogether for children, people with mental illness, and other vulnerable individuals. They are pursuing these goals through public education, legislation, lawsuits, community activism, and pilot projects promoting alternatives to solitary inside prisons and jails.
To get involved, check out this list of organizations. You can also help by donating to support the work of Solitary Watch, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, or any of the other groups on the list.
By submitting your photograph or other work of art (image) to Photo Requests from Solitary, you agree to the following terms:
We will send the image you have submitted to the person who requested it. While you are making an image for a person in solitary confinement, by participating in the project you also grant Photo Requests from Solitary the the rights to distribute your image, unchanged, for non-commercial purposes with your credit, as explained in the Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives. Possible uses of your image include, but are not limited to, the following: Your image may be exhibited to a wider audience online, or at any museum, gallery, legislative assembly hall, house of worship or other space. Your image may also be reproduced in newspapers, magazines, videos, exhibition catalogues, or books by or about the PRFS project and copied on flyers, poster, or postcards. It will be posted on the web at the PRFS site and may be posted on other sites. It may be used as a premium in fundraising campaigns by PRFS or Solitary Watch. The image may also be exhibited or used by our project sponsor and partners, including Solitary Watch, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, or other organizations with campaigns to end prolonged solitary confinement.
All rights to use the image granted above are non-exclusive. You will retain perpetual copyright to your own artwork and can use it for any purpose you wish. Unless you have otherwise instructed us, your name as provided on the submission for will be included as a credit with any and all public uses of your image. Your first name only, as provided to us, may also be shared with the person in prison who requested the image. No other information will be shared without your written authorization.
We are grateful for the role you are playing in this project. We will assume all costs associated with transmitting your image to the person who requested it, and for the exhibitions we organize and other uses of your image. Because we are a nonprofit, volunteer project, we cannot offer payment or other compensation for the photos. By submitting your photo, you understand that you: 1) are responsible for all costs and liabilities that may arise in the making of the requested artwork(s), and 2) waive compensation for fulfilling a request, or from the use of your image in any of the ways described above. Any proceeds from the above uses will be used for nonprofit purposes to support and expand the PRFS project.
Thank you for being part of Photo Requests from Solitary!
Photo Requests from Solitary is a collaboration between individuals in solitary confinement and imagemakers on the outside. PRFS began as part of the Tamms Year Ten campaign, and now operates as a project of Solitary Watch.
The project organizers are Laurie Jo Reynolds, Jean Casella and Jeanine Oleson, with the assistance of Valerie Kiebala and Jesse Egner. Past assistance was provided by Julia Steele Allen, Marlies Talay, Elizabeth Harnarine, Shannon Finnell, and Lauren Denitzio.
The PRFS installation at Eastern State Penitentiary was designed and fabricated by Jennie Shanker.
This website, as well as all exhibit graphics, were designed and created by Platform.
Photo Requests from Solitary depends on donations from the public to support the project and related educational and advocacy work. Please click here to make a tax-deductible gift to Solitary Watch, and write “PRFS” in the Message field. We are grateful for your support!
The current exhibition of Photo Requests from Solitary at Eastern State Penitentiary is made possible by an Artist Installation Grant from Eastern State, as well as funding from United States Artists and from individual donors. PRFS’s upcoming show at the Brooklyn Public Library is made possible by support from the library and by a grant from the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.
PRFS has received past support from the Open Society Foundations Documentary Photography Project, Puffin Foundation, Rema Hort Mann Foundation, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Fund of a Just Society of the Unitarian Universalist Church, New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, and Sullivan Galleries at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as individual donations.
The project has also benefited from the time and creative energy donated by its volunteer artists and organizers; from in-kind support provided by Parsons The New School for Design, Tamms Year Ten, and Solitary Watch; and from grants to support Solitary Watch’s work from the Langeloth Foundation, the Overbrook Foundation, and the Vital Projects Fund.
Feel free to get in touch with us if you have questions about Photo Requests from Solitary or about fulfilling requests and uploading your photos.
For general inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
For questions about image submissions: email@example.com
For media inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org