"Who Speaks for Me" by Gabriela Bulisova, Taylar Nuevelle & Mark Isaac

One of the most shocking injustices associated with mass incarceration is the fact that our prisons have become a dumping ground for people who have experienced severe trauma, resulting in mental health issues. Instead of receiving needed treatment, they are subjected to additional abuse and mistreatment. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population, increasing 14-fold since 1970, and two-thirds report a mental health problem. Prior to incarceration women experience an extremely high rate of trauma due to violence, physical and sexual abuse, and poverty.

This project is a collaboration with a woman affected by trauma, mental illness and incarceration to create revealing portraits with intimate stories and memories. Taylar Nuevelle served four and a half years after she was charged with breaking and entering the house of a former girlfriend and attempting to commit suicide. Taylar was diagnosed with PTSD, trauma, and severe anxiety disorder, and a pre-sentence report recommended that she be treated rather than sent to prison, but the judge overruled this recommendation. In prison, rather than receiving treatment, she was raped, locked in solitary confinement and placed on suicide watch.

We adopted a novel visual and storytelling strategy that allows her to personally represent her experiences. First, Mark Isaac and I photograph her and create digital negatives. She takes the negatives and distresses them to represent her memories of abuse and mistreatment, both as a child and in prison. For example, she used bleach to distress one negative as a means of depicting the abuse she suffered as a child when her mother scrubbed her skin with a metal brush and bleach. She also brings the negatives to her therapy sessions, where they are used as a means of achieving healing. We pass the negatives back and forth, working on them until we have fully represented her pain. Some of the photographs also incorporate text from court papers and personal diaries. This emphasizes the manner in which our courts and our prison system have dehumanized those with mental health issues.

By telling the stories of multiple women who have been incarcerated instead of treated, we will call attention to a critical aspect of the mass incarceration crisis. By sharing their deeply traumatic and painful experiences with me, they are opening the door for others to find their voices, challenge societal stigma and bring about much-needed reforms.