How photos helped incarcerated mothers survive the pandemic in prison

Courtesy of Antu’Nesha Taylor

Antu’Nesha Taylor and her mother Sharonda Miller in 1999, on her first birthday. Miller was arrested for the murder of Assistant State’s Attorney Steven Jett when Taylor was 4 years old. During the Covid-19 pandemic, when in-person visits were suspended, Taylor stayed connected with her mother by sending her photographs at Logan Correctional Center, where Miller is serving a 30-year sentence.

CW: This story includes a mention of sexual assault.

There were long periods in Antu’Nesha Taylor’s childhood in which she would forget what her mom looked like. If her mom didn’t or couldn’t call from prison, her voice would fade from memory, too. After school, she would sit cross-legged in front of her grandmother’s television in her Oklahoma home and watch “America’s Next Top Model” and imagine that host Tyra Banks was her mother.

“I would tell myself that was my mom because I didn’t remember what she looked like, how tall she was,” Taylor said. “But I knew she was a Black woman, and she was pretty.”

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Taylor was 4 years old when her mother, Sharonda Miller, began serving a 30-year sentence in the Illinois Department of Corrections. In 2003, a Williamson County jury convicted Miller of first-degree murder in the death of Alexander County Assistant State’s Attorney Steven Jett. Miller, who was then in her early 20s, said she fired a shot in the dark in self-defense after Jett attempted to rape her at gunpoint in his home.

As she got older, Taylor and her mother remained close through biannual visits and near-daily phone calls. But when the corrections department locked down prisons at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic last March, ending in-person visits and making calls more difficult, Taylor began documenting her life in 4-by-6 photographs that she sent to her mother to stay connected.

Before Taylor gave birth to her first child in February, she sent scans of ultrasounds, selfies of her rounding belly, and shots from the obstetrician’s office. But she also sent photos of the more mundane parts of her day: her plate for lunch, a funny meme that she saw while scrolling on Facebook, or her newest hairstyle.

“It’s kind of like taking her along with me a little bit, somehow, someway, through these photos,” Taylor said.

While photographs have always been a lifeline between incarcerated people and their loved ones on the outside, they’ve been an even more critical tool to maintaining this bond during the pandemic. In a year when in-person visits were impossible, photos allowed loved ones to break through the prison walls, even if it was in a small way and for a moment. The power of a photo is in its portal effect: its ability to transport people to a different place and time.

But sending photos to someone in prison can be costly and difficult, especially for young children. Recognizing this need, several local advocacy groups teamed up in November to make it easier for loved ones to send photos to incarcerated women during the pandemic. Organizers handled the cost of printing and shipping of pictures, so children and other loved ones didn’t have to worry about going to a drug store to print the images or pay one of the handful of websites that charges per print to send photos to people in prison.

Photos and a card hanging on a clothesline

Courtesy of Tiffany Morse

Tiffany Morse hangs pictures that her family sent her while she was incarcerated and a name card from her doula training with Chicago Volunteer Doulas in her mother-in-law’s basement, where she’s been staying since she was released from prison in December. “Prison really is the loneliest place,” she said. But “being able to look at them pictures, because I wasn’t able to hug them, it gave me warmth.”

“The pandemic increased fear for everyone but especially for people inside prison who didn’t have access to information or know what was going on,” said Alexis Mansfield, the lead organizer of the Covid-19 Photo Project who works at the Women’s Justice Institute, an organization that supports incarcerated women and their families and advocates for reducing the number of women in prison. “Knowing that their loved ones and their children were OK was important.”

Within days after Mansfield posted about the photo project on social media and distributed flyers at women’s prisons and the Cook County Jail, photos flooded in of graduations, pets, first cars, and Thanksgiving plates. There were selfies and ultrasounds, pictures of freshly swaddled newborns, and open caskets. At the end of two months, the project had sent nearly 3,000 photographs to 270 people at Logan Correctional Center, Decatur Correctional Center, and the Cook County Jail.

Mansfield said seeing the images was “overwhelming and emotional” because they represented the separation of incarcerated loved ones from their family members and, in turn, missed milestones.

“It’s such a small thing sending a photo,” Mansfield said. “But it is so significant for families.”

Pictures are another way they say ‘I love you’

A collage of photos sent to Charlis Harris, an incarcerated mother, through the Covid-19 Prison Photo project

Courtesy of Charlis Harris/Women's Justice Institute

Charlis Harris’ daughter sent her mother pictures of her siblings, her boyfriend, and her new apartment as part of the Women’s Justice Institute’s Covid-19 Photo Project. “Being able to visually read the biographies of my children’s lives through photos not only made me feel loved, supported, and a part of my children’s lives, but it made me feel a sense of freedom, made me feel human,” Harris said.

About seven out of 10 women in Illinois prisons are mothers, and most of them were their children’s primary caregivers before they were incarcerated, according to a 2016 study by the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women and the Women’s Justice Institute. Research shows that maintaining relationships with loved ones on the outside can reduce recidivism and ease reentry for incarcerated people, help children form stronger bonds with their incarcerated parents, improve self-esteem, and do better in school. Incarcerated mothers at Logan Correctional Center told researchers at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago last year that regular contact with their children is vital to their mental health.

Charlis Harris hasn’t seen her three children since June 2019, when they last visited her at Logan. After her roommate received photos through the Covid-19 Photo Project around Christmastime, Harris said she “stalked” the mail in the correctional officer’s hand daily, hoping that she’d receive her photos next.

In early January, when a white envelope stuffed with photos from her daughter finally arrived, Harris ran down the hall to a friend’s cell screaming, “I got them, I got them!” They sat together to look through the photos.

In one photo, she saw her two sons standing shoulder to shoulder, peering back at their mom. Through its glossy veneer, she could feel the bond between them. In another photo, she saw her 18-year-old daughter’s first apartment with her boyfriend, decorated with dove-gray couches.

“Being able to visually read the biographies of my children’s lives through photos not only made me feel loved, supported, and a part of my children’s lives, but it made me feel a sense of freedom, made me feel human,” Harris said.

Over 200,000 children in Illinois — one in every 20 — have ever had a parent incarcerated in jail or prison, according to estimates from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It’s a group equivalent to the population of Aurora, Illinois’ second-largest city. Black and Latinx children are disproportionately affected by incarceration. Nationally, Black kids are more than six times as likely as white kids to have an incarcerated parent, and Latinx kids are nearly twice as likely. Parental incarceration leaves children with significant trauma, according to Illinois’ Task Force on Children of Incarcerated Parents. They are three times more likely than their peers to have depression and often suffer from developmental delays and poor school performance.

Erika Ray remembers that it was tough staying in contact with her daughter, who was 7 years old at the beginning of Ray’s incarceration in 2007. At the time, she had a rocky relationship with her daughter’s father after their breakup. She said she tried to stay in touch through letters and phone calls, but it was difficult.

A picture of Jada Lesure and her newborn son visiting her mother in prison

Courtesy of Jada Lesure

A picture from the first time Jada Lesure brought her son to visit her mother, Erika Ray, at Logan Correctional Center in 2019. Ray thought about this photo while she was receiving treatment for Covid-19 in December. “The damage caused by the system’s dismantling of families can not be healed or replaced, but our families and friends do what they can, and pictures are just another way they say ‘I love you,’” Ray said.

In-person visits and the subsequent photos from those fleeting moments together had always been a balm to survive. Those photos became even more important when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and Ray contracted the virus, she said.

For eight days in December, Ray said she was in the medical treatment unit at Logan without phone calls, her messaging app, or a shower. She had night sweats and a cough, her appetite wavered, and she had to force herself to eat while her taste and smell went in and out.

During that difficult period, Ray’s mind drifted back to a photo taken during her grandson’s first visit to Logan in 2019. It was the first time that she was able to see her daughter, Jada Lesure, as a mother. Picturing the photo in her mind, Ray recalled her daughter’s loving gaze at her grandson during their visit.

In January, an envelope of photos arrived from Lesure as part of the Covid-19 Photo Project. In one of them, Lesure sported bold red hair. In another, Ray’s grandson celebrated his second birthday, a moment for which she wished she had been there. Ray said receiving the photos made her hope for change in Illinois’ prison system.

“The damage caused by the system’s dismantling of families can not be healed or replaced, but our families and friends do what they can, and pictures are just another way they say ‘I love you,’” Ray said.

‘Prison really is the loneliest place’

Photos Tiffany Morse brought home from prison

Courtesy of Tiffany Morse

When she was released from prison in December, Tiffany Morse hung up the photographs that her children and family members sent her while she was incarcerated. “It’s so I don’t fall off and end up back in there,” she explained. In a year when in-person visits were suspended, photos helped incarcerated mothers stay connected with their loved ones on the outside.

Tiffany Morse has been out of prison since December. Life feels almost normal: She goes to school for welding, does her homework, and spends time with her three children. She makes drug treatment meetings and checks in digitally with Chicago Volunteer Doulas, a group of birth workers who trained Morse to provide peer-to-peer support to pregnant and postpartum people inside prison.

Some mornings before classes, she stands under a clothesline in her mother-in-law’s basement, where she hangs up the photos she brought home from prison and looks at them.

“It’s so I don’t fall off and end up back in there,” Morse explained. “Because last time I was released from prison, I didn’t really think of the consequences or anything or leaving my children again. So now I just look at the pictures.”

There is one of Morse and her nephew, clasping each other in laughter in front of a camper in the balmy heat of Midwest summer after her first release from prison. Another photo captures her beloved aunt and her wife, who stare back at Morse in front of a bright Christmas tree. Then there is Morse and her fiance, his denim button-down shirt open, arm looped around her shoulders, her round pregnant belly pressed into his bare stomach. There is a photo of her oldest son smiling while brushing his long blond hair from his face.

When she was in prison, she would stare at the photos five times per day to remind herself that she was still their aunt, niece, fiancee, and mother.

“Just knowing that I have them while I’m here in prison, and being able to look at them pictures because I wasn’t able to hug them, it gave me warmth,” she said. “Prison really is the loneliest place.”

In November, Morse and a friend saw flyers at Logan about the photo project. Her friend’s family had largely cut her off from her children because of her struggles with addiction to methamphetamine and subsequent second incarceration.

Morse remembers that her friend wished she had “somebody that could do that for me.”

So the day after Morse got home, she got on Facebook and pulled up old images of her friend’s two children. She then sent the photos to the Women’s Justice Institute in the hope of bringing her friend some joy in a challenging year.

“Just getting the pictures, period, even if they’re not updated, means somebody, somewhere is thinking about you,” she said.

Sarah Conway (she/her) is a reporter in Chicago. She covers the intersections of gender, health, incarceration, and abolition in Illinois.