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'Cracked Not Broken' Formerly Incarcerated Women Are Captured In Photo Exhibit

Alexandra Vivas
The Compassion Project
The photograph "Christie" was taken underwater and offers a reflection of the same women looking at her self in and outside of prison.

Powerful photographs revealing the lives of 25 women post-incarceration are on display at the Coral Gables Museum until Sept. 23. The exhibition, "The Compassion Project," focuses on women who re-entered society after some time behind bars and portrays these women in a new light.

Some of the photographs are portraits, others are inspired by poetry and one was taken under water. 

While walking from photo to photo, attendees will be able to hear recorded interviews and watch videos of the women through an interactive app that is downloaded upon entry. Sundial producer Alejandra Martinez spoke with Starr Sariego, one of the photographers and the curator of the project. Sariego met many of the women through Ladies Empowerment Action Program or LEAP, a nonprofit that helps women transitioning to life outside of prison. She joined Sundial to talk about the photography and misconceptions of women who were formerly in prison.

This has been edited lightly for clarity. 

WLRN: Tell us about Nancy.

SARIEGO: Nancy and I became very close. She is a 55-year-old white woman. Very sweet. Very lovely. Had a lot of very intense early childhood trauma... I think that what I've learned and what I want everyone to know through this exhibit is that a lot of people that end up in prison are there because they've had early childhood trauma, more severe than what we would hear in a day-to-day kind of setting. She ended up using drugs and alcohol which then led to a lot of crime.

You met her while she was in prison. Seeing her now that she's out of prison, how do you feel about the woman she's becoming outside of these bars?

For a lot of women, they almost feel safer in prison because life is very regimented. They're told when to get up, when to go to bed, walk this line, wear these clothes and to be here at a certain time. I think when you have a chaotic life sometimes that's a safe experience. And I don't mean it's easy or they like it. They all hate it and it's a heinous experience that nobody wants to have. But it's almost easier. So when you come out of prison, and this happened with Nancy, you think you know what you want. But she had isolated herself in this little apartment and I think she really struggled with that. It's of heartbreaking. So to answer your question, I think it's two steps forward, one step back sometimes.

Credit Starr Sariego / The Compassion Project
The Compassion Project
Nancy's photograph was inspired by a poem she wrote while in prison called, "Cracked Not Broken."

Explain her photograph. From my understanding, the thing that inspired this final photograph was a poem from Nancy.

She had written a poem called 'Cracked Not Broken.' She read it and everybody wept because she is a talented writer. So I knew from the beginning that I would use that poem as her narrative to go along with her image. I've asked all the women to write something about them themselves that they want the general public to know about them. And that poem is really what inspired me, this idea of 'cracked not broken.' So, I ended up photographing her with a piece of transparent, translucent paper and I broke it open so that some of the edges are folded back. So you see her face not peering through it, but as if you were looking at her through a broken piece of paper and translucent paper.

How do you hope these photographs will change those misconceptions of women especially in prison?

Mostly I think people need jobs and most employers don't want to hire somebody who's been incarcerated. It's huge (challenge). It's work and it's housing. Those are the two biggest challenges. So if we are able to persuade somebody to consider hiring somebody who's been incarcerated, train them and make it a trial period. Give them three months, see how it works out and then hire them permanently if it's a good fit. A lot of these people are really trying to rebuild their lives. They really want to be different.

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