Visual Arts

Gallery Hop: Photographer documents prison farm program that's 'actually working'

32 Years is among the photos in Stinson's Fredonia exhibit.
32 Years is among the photos in Stinson's Fredonia exhibit.

Before photographer Ashley Stinson walked into the Western Kentucky Correctional Center in Fredonia, she was warned about what she might see.

"They were telling me, 'Be careful,' and "Don't let these women fool you,'" Stinson says of the advice she received from people who had heard about her project to photograph female inmates in the prison's innovative farm program.

"The perception they had was completely not the experience I had," says Stinson, a Louisville photographer whose exhibit Fredonia is at Land of Tomorrow Gallery.

The gallery will not be open during regular Gallery Hop hours Friday, but it will open at 11 p.m. Friday featuring art and live music as a part of the Boomslang festival. The exhibit continues through Oct. 14.

Stinson spent a year driving to the women's prison in Fredonia, a tiny town between Madisonville and Paducah, to document the experiences of the female inmates as they raised cattle, tended an orchard and grew vegetables on the prison's 2,300 acres of farmland.

The 17 photographs in Stinson's show aim to put a human face on statistics while highlighting a rehabilitative program that appears to work.

Food grown by the female inmates is served in the prison cafeteria, and money made from selling cattle and other crops contributes significantly to the prison's bottom line. In 2009, the program brought in more than $200,000, according to estimates.

What's more, the opportunity to be in nature and learn valuable skills is said to help prepare the women for life after incarceration.

Perhaps it's the pastoral setting or the fact that only certain inmates, those deemed minimum-security risks, may participate in the program, but Stinson was surprised at the positivity and warmth she encountered during her visits.

"I never heard an unkind word from any of them," says Stinson, who got to know about 20 of the women on a first-name basis. "They were very supportive of each other and of me and of what I was doing, and just really kind.

"I made a lot of good friends," says Stinson, adding that the majority of women she encountered were in prison for drug offenses.

"It all stems from poverty," she says.

An unintentional benefit of Stinson's project was that it allowed the prisoners to better connect with their families.

"I would take all of the unedited photos and put them on Flickr so their families could see them," she says. "It was so nice, because a lot of them don't have families in the area. Their kids could see their moms in that setting."

Stinson hopes her project will spark a discussion about the value of programs like the prison's farm program, which she describes as "a completely different world than the rest of the prison."

"If the photos are used correctly, then they could help create more programs like this in other women's prisons," she says. "Of all the other things going on at the prison, this one was actually working."

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