Instead of pointing to a social problem, Laurie Jo Reynolds solves it. Hers is a politics of doing.
In 2008, Laurie Jo launched Tamms Year Ten – a grassroots, all-volunteer coalition of inmates, the formerly incarcerated, families, lawyers and concerned citizens advocating the closure of Tamms Correctional Center, a ‘supermax’ prison in Illinois. To say Tamms was notorious for inhumane policies would be an understatement: the conditions met the international definitions of torture. Every man was held in solitary confinement, leaving his cell only to shower or exercise alone in a concrete pen. It was initially conceived as a yearlong behaviour modification program; yet one-third of the prison’s population was held at Tamms for a decade without opportunities to appeal.
Laurie Jo engaged those inside Tamms by creating penpal and poetry programmes, setting up a frequent-flyer-mile cash-in that could purchase magazine subscriptions for inmates and honouring inmates’ requests for photos of sights they were longing to see. These efforts helped ease the real suffering of inmates at Tamms. It was the grassroots organising, letter-writing campaigns and active and ongoing testifying in front of legislative and political bodies that led to measurable statewide policy change: the implementation of an improvement plan for ‘supermax’ prison conditions, enhanced living conditions that occasionally resulted in permanent release and a paradigm shift in how those incarcerated are perceived in deeply impersonal and destructive ways.
Thanks to the efforts of Laurie Jo and an army of collaborators, just this January, Tamms Correctional Facility was closed for good. It isn’t every day that artists make significant changes in social justice efforts, let alone legislation. Laurie Jo (a video artist) dreamed big, attempted the impossible and revealed the invisible. In the words of one inmate, Laurie Jo and those she worked with are heroes: “We [inmates] were a part of the struggle out of necessity, but you chose to be a part of it. I… equate it to people in a burning building… [with] firemen… rushing in to… save us.” Laurie Jo’s practice should reinforce our belief that artists matter in our society, and prove that there are profound ways for us to step closer to power with bravery, determination and results.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue.