23 Aug 2017

Developing Leaders Behind Bars

Behind the scenes at a prison program that turns inmates into entrepreneurs
by Robert Bochnak


Photo by Chris Michel

Chris Michel (MBA 1998) has taken photographs all over the world. He recently had the opportunity to visit the Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California to document the graduation ceremony of a unique business program for inmates of the only supermax prison in the state. See a slideshow of his photos and read his impressions from the experience below:

How did your trip to the prison come about?

Defy Ventures runs high-impact entrepreneurship and career training programs at prisons throughout the country. They were running a business plan competition and graduation program at Pelican Bay maximum security state prison and asked me to come along to document the event.

What were your goals going into the prison?

My objective as a photographer was to help humanize these incarcerated entrepreneurs-in-training and bring their story (and the story of Defy) to the broader public.

Personally, I was also there to learn more about the population of incarcerated people – now up to 2.2 million just in the United States.

What surprised you most about the prison and the people you met?

After an hour of security processing, I was led into a gymnasium, where music was blaring. I entered walked down between lines of 70 prisoners high-fiving me. The smiles on their (often-tattooed) faces were ear to ear.

During the course of the weekend, I would personally interact with over 100 prisoners. Every single one of them was kind, polite, thoughtful and articulate. Every one. Even in solitary confinement. So, I’d say I was most surprised by how much these people wanted a better life and how hard they were working to get one.

Chris Michel (MBA 1998)

How was this trip different from other photo shoots you've embarked on across the globe? How was it similar?

My area of focus as a photographer is environmental portraiture – especially humans in extreme environments. I mostly shoot in polar regions, but when I was given this opportunity, it occurred to me that humans in prison have a similar element. We don’t thrive locked behind bars – and to help tell the story of people coping in such extreme circumstances would be important.

What change, if any, did the trip have on you?

I no longer think of people behind bars as “them,” but as one of us. They are real people with real families and real hopes. We should be thinking about how to help them not punish them. If we don’t help them, they will likely not break the cycle of recidivism. And the cost will be much more than dollars – it will be the lives of them and their families.

What were the most challenging parts of the visit? How did you overcome them?

When you visit solitary confinement, the inmates are kept in large, white cells behind perforated metal doors – some up to five years (and, until recently, some much, much longer). Their only physical contact with other humans is the occasional pressing of hands against the perforations, so that just the tips of the fingers can touch another. It’s heartbreaking.

What do you hope people take away from seeing the photos?

The smiles. The heart. The compassion. I hope that these people will not remain forgotten – they deserve our love, compassion and help.

Did any of the inmates have a particularly strong impact on you?

So many. One moment, in particular, stands out. At the graduation ceremony, Jose donned his robe, received his diploma, and held is daughter for the first time in 17 years. Not many dry eyes after that.

Full the set of photos: http://www.christophermichel.com/Travel/Pelican-Bay-State-Prison

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1998, Section H
follow @chrismichel

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