Father’s Day at San Quentin – images of prison parenting

Many thanks to Shaul Cohen for the link to this photo montage of Father’s Day visits to San Quentin, California, US. The website details the annual Father’s Day event, “Get On The Bus” which brings children in California to visit their fathers in prison. According to The Center for Restorative Justice Works, the non-profit organization that runs the “Get on the Bus” programme, 60% of parents in state prison report being held over 100 miles (161 km) from their children. Regular prison visits seem to lower rates of recidivism for the parent, and also have benefits for the children in maintaining a relationship with their parents.

What struck me most about the montage, which includes images of children riding the bus, of parents and children reconnecting, and of fathers doing facepainting with their children, was these two images, of children wearing the purple t-shirts of the “Get on the Bus” programme, having their photos taken with their fathers, wearing prison-issue blue. In the visiting space there’s a backdrop of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and the smiling snapshots are taken in front of it. From the images it seems that the Golden Gate is not the only backdrop option, but its the one they’ve chosen for these images, or perhaps just the one that happened to be on offer on the day.

I’m intrigued about the role of this backdrop for the fathers and their children, and why they chose to have their photos taken in front of it.

Maybe the backdrop is just decorative – more decorative than the beige walls of the visiting space. Maybe it’s just conventional that a backdrop like this is used, like in a photographer’s portrait studio. Or maybe it’s there so that children showing these treasured images to their friends don’t need to explain where they were, or what was going on – although one might anticipate that the backdrop would raise more questions than it obscures.

The backdrop image itself intrigues me too – by using a famous California landmark, there’s a reconnection to the locality, the state, and to the landscape that is familiar to the children and families on the outside. These images look almost like holiday snapshots – families on a day trip having their photo taken in front of the Golden Gate bridge. There’s an element of enactment here, heightened by the ‘stageset’ of the painted backdrop.

It’s a small detail, but perhaps a significant one in terms of understanding what goes on during prison visiting, and the ‘performances’ that are undertaken by both visitors and visited, especially when families are far apart, visits are few and far between, and everyone wants the visit to go well. It also gives a tantalising insight into what happens after the visits are over, and the importance of visual records of the visits themselves, both for parents and children, in terms of the maintenance of a narrative of parenting and family, when a parent is incarcerated.

The relationships between visiting and reduced recidivism, and visiting and children’s well being, have been observed in a range of contexts, but perhaps it is attention to details such as this, seemingly trivial issue of family photographs, that is key to understanding how these things are related to each other, and to enhancing these positive effects of visitation.

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