Washtenaw United: 'Humanize the Numbers' photography project gives the incarcerated a face and a voice
Isaac Wingfield grew up in the mountains of Western NC. During his undergraduate education at Appalachian State University (Boone, NC), he completed a two-year interdisciplinary program through Appalachian's Watauga College. This interdisciplinary approach deeply altered his way of thinking about the world, and photography as part of that world. After spending a year in New York City working for the photojournalism agency Magnum Photos he completed his Master of Fine Arts at Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, RI).
He is currently based in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and teaches photography in the Residential College, an interdisciplinary liberal arts program at the University of Michigan. His interests include landscape culture and outdoor recreation, roads and highways, prisons and mass incarceration, and using the photographic process to obscure rather than reveal.
Former juvenile lifer—went to prison at age 16 with a “life without parole” sentence. Came home at age 43, after serving 27 years.
Criminal justice reform advocate; member of ICAN (Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network); member of NLC (National “Life Without Parole” Leadership Council) working towards ending life without parole sentencing.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And, here at the station, we've often discussed the communal importance of art to our quality of life. Today, we're going to look at that through a bit of a different lens. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. It is our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity. It's often difficult for any of us to find our purpose and path forward. Imagine exploring those options while behind bars. How do you access those opportunities--those dreams--while incarcerated? Well, it takes a different mindset and avenue. The Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan is working with some who are incarcerated and has a program called "Humanize the Numbers." And we have two guests with us today. The first is with us in studio. Isaac Wingfield is a lecturer in photography at the University of Michigan and with the Humanize the Numbers Project. And thank you for being here, Isaac. I appreciate it.
Isaac Wingfield: Yeah, thanks for having me.
David Fair: And our second guest today joins us by phone, José Burgos, who's a reentry specialist with the Michigan State Appellate Defender's Office. José is also a member of the Incarcerated Children's Advocacy Network and National Life Without Parole Leadership Council. That works towards ending life without parole sentencing. And, José, you came to this line of work the hard way, didn't you?
José Burgos: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. And thank you for having me.
David Fair: Well, José is a formal juvenile lifer, having been sentenced to life without parole at the age of 16. But he was released after serving 27 years of his sentence. And, José, how did you come to the Humanize the Numbers project?
José Burgos: When I was at the facility, I was at the Thumb Correctional Facility, they had actually put up a posting in the unit--in the housing unit there--about the program. They didn't have a lot of details of what the program was. But, just that, you know, with the program, there was, you know, through PCAB at the University of Michigan. And so, they asked the participants who signed up. And so, I signed up. And a lot of people signed up, but it was a limited number of people who actually got into the program.
David Fair: So, Isaac, if you could describe the broad mission of the project for me.
Isaac Wingfield: Humanize the Numbers is really about allowing the voices of the men in prison to, I guess, allowing them to express themselves, allowing them to share a little bit of their story with the hope that folks outside of prison will begin to see and understand what's kind of hidden behind prison walls a little bit better.
David Fair: Specifically, there is an external and public facing component to this project and an internal component for those that are incarcerated themselves. How do you give to both sides of that?
Isaac Wingfield: Yeah, well, I think when the workshop's happening, the focus is really on what's happening in that space, You know, working with the men who are in prison, giving them a space to kind of exist for a brief moment, a little bit outside the kind of normal confines of how prison day-to-day life operates. That's, I think, when we're in, when we're making pictures, when we're working together, when we're having conversations, that's really our focus is on doing what we can to make that experience and the opportunity to be creative and to do something out of the ordinary, really as meaningful as possible. And then, once that's done, we start thinking about, you know, where those images can go. And that's some of the conversations that we have during the workshop is who is it that the men that are there making images, who do they think these images need to be seen by? Who do their stories need to be heard by?
David Fair: And, José, through this project and through your participation, did you learn something about yourself that perhaps you hadn't recognized before?
José Burgos: I guess more so, like, the creativity of it. So, when we first got into the program, we went to the visiting room and, you know, once they explained that we were using photography, but, you know, you're so limited to what they can bring in. So, we were, like, "Well, what are we going to use? What kind of products are going to use?," since we didn't know the extent of how these photos were going to come out. So, I guess just the creativity, you know, how to, you know, speak or send a message out just based on, you know, seeing photography. Know what I'm saying? And so, we never looked at it from from that standpoint to be able to send a message to photography. You know, for us, it was just, you know, we take pictures, and that was just it. But we didn't know how powerful images can be into stories that images can tell.
David Fair: Upon reflection, what message do you think you were sending with the pictures you chose to take?
José Burgos: Um, you know, because I was a juvenile lifer, I think one of the things that I wanted to do was I wanted to tap in to the 16-year-old who went through what he went through. Know what I'm saying? And, you know, my message to the world was like, "I'm more than just a number." I'm just like the name of the program Humanize the Numbers. Like, I wanted the world to see me for who I was as a person, opposed to just that number that I was given based on, you know, a 15-second mistake that I made in my life at an early age. So, that's basically the message that I was trying to convey.
David Fair: This is Washtenaw United on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with José Burgos and Isaac Winfield about the Humanize the Numbers project that comes out of the University of Michigan's Prison Creative Arts project. And, Isaac, this is also an opportunity to take University of Michigan students into a prison system. What reaction and what impact does that have?
Isaac Wingfield: It's a really profound impact for those students. The class is small, so there's only a few students going in each time. But for those students that do go in, you know, some of them have experience in photography and some of them have experience studying the criminal legal system. But it's pretty unusual to have students who have had that kind of direct experience with it going in and talking face-to-face with people who are living that as their day-to-day experience and have for years, if not decades.
David Fair: And, Isaac, you get to take these photos and these artworks out into the community in a variety of different ways and venues. I know some of the photos and artwork created by those in the project were on display at this summer's Ann Arbor Art Fair. What was the reaction at the booth from those who stopped to take a look?
Isaac Wingfield: It got a really great, positive reaction. There are folks--a lot of folks--who came through and saw it, and I think there are a number of folks every day that were brought to tears as they're looking through the images there and reading some of the stories. So, I think it's really profoundly impactful for folks to be able to see and to start to think about something that they probably have not encountered before.
David Fair: Have you had that personal reaction yourself? Have you been brought to tears or moved deeply by the stories that are told?
Isaac Wingfield: Yeah, definitely. I mean, the class itself is a lot of work. It's so much easier to teach a course on campus at the university than it is to take it an hour and 10 minutes into a secure facility. But, for me, getting to see and getting to know and hear the stories of the men who are in prison, that's a huge part of why I continue doing it.
David Fair: Once again, we're talking about the University of Michigan's Humanize the Numbers project with Isaac Wingfield and José Burgos. And I do want to get a little more personal with you, José . While you were incarcerated, did you feel seen or did you even feel human in your 27 years locked up?
José Burgos: Not really, because just the way, you know, your day-to-day are, you know, in prison. One of the things, you know, staff there, you know, they're to do a job. They definitely disconnect themselves from, you know, from having any type of human compassion for those that they're they're with. And I wish it wasn't that way, but it was. Know what I'm saying?
David Fair: What was the crime you were convicted of?
José Burgos: It was a homicide case.
David Fair: So, understanding that we are looking to humanize this entire experience, the family and friends may very well resent that you did not have to serve out your life sentence. Clearly, you've made a turn, and you're contributing to community in valuable ways. But, perhaps, they feel like now your actions reduced their loved one to a number or statistic. How do you come to terms with that and move forward?
José Burgos: I think, really, you know, the person who I become, the work that I'm doing, like, literally, when I went back as a juvenile lifer and got re-sentenced, I told the judge that I wanted something good to come out of this bad situation that we got into. And I'm doing it. I'm doing it. You know, I've been home now going on five years, and every single day of my life since I've been home, this is what I've been doing. I've been helping others who are coming from prison to make sure that they have everything they need, so that they don't go back. S,o that keeps our community safe. I mentor other other juvenile lifers who have already been out here, but, periodically, may need a phone card, you know, to keep them on the right path or just some encouragement. So, I'm living my life. I know that what I did, I'll never be able to, you know, undo what would have happened. Know what I'm saying? But I am in charge of what happens afterwards. You know what I'm saying? And so, I wanted something good to come out of that situation. And I think I'm doing that on a daily basis.
David Fair: And, Isaac, as you work in this project, do you see art as a viable bridge to helping society change some of its perception of the men and women in our prison system?
Isaac Wingfield: Absolutely. I think that any time we can start to be exposed to other people's perspectives and see things through someone else's eyes, that can open our own way of thinking about, you know, what it is that we're doing when we're sending people off in to the prison system without thought for the rest of their lives. And it's easy to do that, as a society, without necessarily thinking about the personal impact on not just the people who are being sent to prison, but also their families, their communities that are being torn apart in the process.
David Fair: Well, I think we have a lot to think about after our conversation today. I'd like to thank both of you for coming and sharing your stories.
Isaac Wingfield: Thanks so much.
José Burgos: Thank you. Thank you very much.
David Fair: That is José Burgos and Isaac Wingfield. José is a reentry specialist with the Michigan State Appellate Defender's Office, and Isaac is a photography lecturer at the University of Michigan working on the Humanize the Numbers project. For more information on the project and to see some of the artwork, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County and presented every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station 89 one WEMU.
Our Criminal Justice System is known to be made up of several inequities and injustices. Criminal legal reform addresses structural issues in criminal legal systems such as racial profiling, police brutality, overcriminalization, mass incarceration, and recidivism.
These structural issues result in Black and brown people, people with low incomes, and people with mental illness being incarcerated at higher rates as compared to the general population.
Why criminal legal reform? The United States incarcerates its citizens more than any other country (source). Today, nearly 10 million Americans—including millions of children—have an immediate family member in jail or prison. More than 4.5 million Americans can’t vote because of a past conviction.
And each year, we lose $87 billion in GDP due to mass incarceration. In Washtenaw County, those numbers are smaller, but the impact on opportunity and life potential is real. According to recently available data, over 1,000 people are incarcerated in our local prison; these individuals are predominantly Black and brown.
Watch this panel discussion from the Dispute Resolution Center and Friends of Restorative Justice in Washtenaw County about the intersectionality of mental disorders, incarceration, and restorative justice featuring Derrick Jackson of the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office and State Rep. Felicia Brabec.
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
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