â€śPhotograph me, because it is the only way I can leave here,â€ť an inmate told the photographer Patricia Aridjis. And that request for help, that desperate attempt to flee from the circular life imposed by prison, is the best summary of The black hours, the essay that appears in Nuestra Mirada. During her countless visits to a women’s detention center, Aridjisâ€”who works independently for various publications in Mexico and has participated in dozens of individual and group exhibitionsâ€”dedicated herself to rescuing the inmates through the only means available: by portraying them with great delicacy and depth, and with a respect strengthened by not only the absence of prejudice, but also a lack of political agenda.
Text and photos by Patricia Aridjis
The women’s prison is more than the place where society hides its errors and repairs its failings. The prison holds hundreds of stories of abandonment, abuse, unconditional love; stories told repeatedly, painful litanies that cannot be let go.
To enter you pass through a long tunnel that empties into a feminine world, but one without the vivid colors of everyday life; here itâ€™s just beige and navy blue uniforms. An invisible stamp distinguishes those who are visiting, those serving long sentences, and those who will never leave. “Iâ€™ve been here seven years, four months, and two weeks.” Exact, interminable counts. Time passes slowly. Black hours.
After crossing the fence, objects acquire a different value, either because they are not allowed, such as scissors and perfumes, or because, without money, theyâ€™reÂ very difficult to purchase â€“ basics like soap, deodorant, or a roll of toilet paper. Photos and cameras are prohibited as well. The only references for the transformations that the prison has marked onto their faces are memory and mirrors.
A phone card is gold because the phone is one of the few available means of maintaining contact with the outside. The family visit is a special event. It is fresh air, freedom that comes from outside: a hug-wrapped gift. Although, as moral judgments on her acts, itâ€™s common for prisoners to be forgotten by their partners and sometimes by their closest family members.
Often love comes from the nearest person, the one who understands because they are in the same situation. Silvia and Claudia met and fell in love in prison. They loved each other day and night, according to circumstances, for intimacy in confinement is very public. Silvia completed her sentence shortly after the relationship began. She couldnâ€™t stand to be without the one she considers the love of her life. So she decided to fake a robbery. She asked a friend to accuse her so she could return to jail and be back with her partner.
There are children born here, whose eyes have never seen any light other than that which passes through the bars.
Motherhood, without doubt, creates a substantial difference from prisons for men. But the role of women as a cohesive element in the family is broken, sometimes permanently, by their being locked up. Those with small children face a dilemma: should they keep the child by their side, though the prison environment is not the best for a child to grow up in, or should the child be left to families, acquaintances, or the social service system, as will be necessary, sooner or later, when children reach the age limit allowed by the prison? Sometimes mothers lose their children, if not physically, emotionally. After being released, they discover they can never reclaim their role from the influences of relatives or strangers.
The misfortunes of many inmates started well before prison. That is clear simply listening to them talk about family, relationships, their lives on the street; their stories spiral down. Prisons in Mexico are full of poor people. Lupita Ramirez was imprisoned for eight months for stealing four deodorants, three drinking glasses, and three packages of markers.
Without monetary resources, thereâ€™s no easy way out. Belonging to a low socioeconomic status and being female is a double whammy, since judges in Mexico often give harsher punishments to women. This on top of the severe justice the society already metes out against them.
The desire to leave is always present. “If I have good behavior, work in the laundry, and do my chores, I can cut my sentence almost by half.” And a refrain, almost a prayer, heard everywhere is: “Iâ€™ve got to get out of here.” However there are high rates of recidivism.
For some women the prison is a surrogate womb where they receive shelter, food, and affection, where they have an identity and a metaphorical family. And though prison isnâ€™t typically thought of as a nurturing environment, itâ€™s a safe place to live. One example is the way a woman treats the cell which she recognizes as “home.” She decorates it, feminizes it, makes it her own.
Outside the women feel lost. Their past stigmatizes them, and itâ€™s with difficulty that they ever find employment. They return to “viable” ways to get money. Return to the same social circles. They are easy prey to their addictions. They reoffend again and again often with increasingly serious crimes that carry longer sentences until they cannot possibly leave the only place they are safe from society and themselves.
This photo essay includes stories revealed by coexistence and the passage of time. The testimonies let us glimpse what the prisoners experience starting from the moment they enter, when the process of assimilation is so intense and the separation from family is so raw, when there are feelings of helplessness and frustration from trying to resolve their cases from within, and they exchange their own colorful clothing for a drab uniform and begin to co-exist closely and daily with women with different ways of thinking and acting.
In forming relationships with the prisoners there were incredibly important moments, during which I set the camera aside to simply listen as they expressed their wants and distresses: loneliness that sometimes brings them to the brink of losing the will to live. The wounds on their wrists are mouths that have opened themselves to clamor for affection. There are drugs taken for escape; and there is religion as a means of finding an answer to imprisonment. This project, in the end, offers a chance to see those who few notice, to give voice to the voiceless. In prisons emotions are openly visible; they run deeply and directly to the heart. The intention of this work is to share that reality through photography.
The Dark Hours is a journey, from the inside out. The images and phrases come out of prison as a form of freedom.
My reason for doing this work found the right words while photographing a woman in her cell. “Take my picture because itâ€™s my only way out of here.”