Breaking Out In Prison: A Conversation with Author Babita Patel

Babita Patel is on a mission to deepen the world’s understanding of each other through storytelling. As a freelance humanitarian photographer documenting social impact issues around the world, her work has appeared on ABC, Al Jazeera, HBO, MSNBC, NY1 and PBS; featured in Forbes, The Guardian, The Marshall Project, The New York Times, Slate and The Washington Post; and exhibited in multiple countries. She is the founder of KIOO Project, an NGO that advances gender equality across the globe by teaching photography to girls who, in turn, teach photography to boys.


Babita is the fresh(wo)man author of Breaking Out in Prison, which introduces 15 men who were locked out of society long before they were locked up — men who got an education inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility and used it to break out of the cradle-to-prison pipeline. Today, their lived experiences make them credible voices in the quest to invest in communities that spur equality. The book puts a human face on effective solutions to ending systemic racism and the epidemic of mass incarceration in America today.


This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.



Q&A


1. Can you tell us what your book is about? What do you want people to take

away from reading it? 


Breaking Out in Prison introduces 15 men who were locked out of society long before they were locked up—men who grew up in neighborhoods intimidated by the police, food deserts, underfunded school systems. As a result, they were funneled into the criminal justice system. Thankfully, they got a college education inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility, and used it to break out of the cradle-to-prison pipeline. Today, they are role models for our community with first-hand knowledge on effective solutions, such as a social worker joining the team answering a domestic violence call, a homeless man entering drug rehab rather than spending the night in a jail cell, a restorative justice program reducing gang tensions in a tough neighborhood. Through lived experience stories and photographs, the book explores the topics of systemic racism, incarceration and community investment.


While the US incarcerates a greater portion of its citizens – more than any other nation – it affects very targeted communities: mostly Black and Latino men from usually urban communities. The remaining Americans get their understanding of the justice system not through personal experience, but through external forces, like the media, Hollywood, politicians and society in general, all of which have their own agenda in feeding the machine for their own gain. This book changes that. On the pages of this book, you can meet someone you probably never met before, hear his story and look him in the eye as you learn about his circumstances that could vary so greatly from your own. By hearing another person’s heartbeat, you can find empathy, even commonality in his lived experience, that can challenge your preconceived misconceptions about him, ultimately changing our “us versus them” way of thinking into an “us and them.”


Photographic excerpt from Breaking Out in Prison.



2. Your book is told through the first-person voice of the men you interviewed

and photographed. Why did you take that approach?


I grew up in an Indian, immigrant, suburban family. My future included college and a job. And more importantly, I knew that that was my future. I had never met someone who had been arrested, let alone served a maximum security sentence. My views of what it means to be incarcerated came from external forces like the media, Hollywood and politicians—all of which fed me stories of boogeymen who deserved to be in locked cages with lost keys.


And yet, my work as a humanitarian photographer led me inside prison, where I saw first-hand the injustice of the criminal justice system. I learned of this injustice by meeting and talking with people directly affected by the system: those currently living inside prison, the women and men who returned home, the parents who supported them, and the children who grew up without their parents.


When I sat down to interview the men for my book, I heard stories of childhoods that greatly differed from mine and lived experiences that I did not have. That is when I realized that while I was the one sharing these stories with a greater audience, they were not my stories. I did not want these stories to be heard through my filter. Because the voices of the formerly incarcerated are already unheard from in the US, I wanted people to hear these stories as I heard them—directly from the men themselves.


According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a quarter of formerly incarcerated people do not have a basic high school diploma or GED. And at least 33% obtained GEDs as their highest level of education in lieu of traditional diplomas. Together, these two groups make up the 58% of all formerly incarcerated people whose traditional high school educations were cut short.



3. What is the cradle-to-prison pipeline? 


For the majority of the men in the book – not all – school inside prison was the first time they paid attention in school. Growing up, school was not a stepping stone towards a future. Most did not see college or a job as a next step. When I asked one of the men, Markey, what influence his high school guidance counselor had on him, he asked “What’s a guidance counselor?”


My family are immigrants, and while my parents were educated in their home countries, their experiences did not prepare them to navigate the college admissions process in the US. My sister and I were fortunate to have a high school guidance counselor who worked with us from freshman year on with picking our classes, SAT prep and college applications. Without Mrs. Curry, it is hard to imagine how our family would have built a future for my sister or me. When I explained my experience to Markey, he quietly commented, “Yeah, we did not have anything like that.”


That is the essence of the cradle-to-prison pipeline. Under-resourced communities in which people lack good schools, healthy foods and personal safety do not see college or employment as a viable option for them. Instead, our society funnels them into prisons. And over time, this has become an epidemic that spans generations. As one man told me, “my grandfather went to Sing Sing. My father, my uncle, my brother went to Sing Sing. I went to Sing Sing” – making the cycle that much harder to break.


According to the Citizens Budget Commission, NYC will spend $327M to place police officers inside public schools under the budget line item of “School Safety”. At the same time, the city is proposing to cut a $12M program that places social workers and counselors in schools within underserved communities.



4. In the U.S. and globally, poverty and systemic discrimination go hand in hand--playing an enormous role in access to justice. How can we ensure that marginalized communities have the resources and support they need to dismantle the cradle-to-prison pipeline you discuss in your book?   


Some major cities in the US spend more money policing inside public schools than mentoring in public schools. Most states spend more money on sending people to prison than on sending people to college. The federal government spends more money on weaponizing our military than on investing in our citizens.


All of us spend money on what is important to us. As individuals, we will prioritize eating out every night or saving for a big vacation. As a nation, we prioritize how to spend our tax dollars based on our values. When we as a country acknowledge our budgets are actually our moral documents, we can take a look at what our priorities truly are. Only once we start spending our money to match our values will we dismantle the institutions that uphold things like the cradle-to-prison pipeline.


Since colonial times, the death penalty has been abolished and reinstated several times in New York State through various legislative measures, court rulings and the whims of then-ruling Governors. In 2008, after the Court of Appeals declared lethal injection unconstitutional in New York State, execution equipment was finally removed from all state facilities.



5. What are some ideas you had about incarceration that changed as you followed the lives of people incarcerated at Sing Sing? 


A few years ago, I was driving through upstate New York on the way to photograph inside a prison with my client. We started talking about the arc of his life. Despite being a self-proclaimed liberal, up to that moment, I believed in capital punishment.


On that drive, my client told me if New York State still had the death penalty at the time of his crime, he would have been eligible for it. Everything stopped for me. I realized if this man had gotten the death penalty, he never would have gone to school while serving his sentence, reprioritized his values, come home, met his wife and had the family he has with her. Nor would he be running an organization that has already changed the lives of hundreds of incarcerated women and men in New York, thousands of their family members, and hundreds of thousands of citizens in the communities they come from--all while saving millions of taxpayer dollars.


My views on capital punishment flipped simply because I met someone and heard his story. I realized I was not the only person who could benefit from such an experience: challenging preconceived notions about someone by looking him in the eye and hearing his story.


According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a Black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime, and a Latino boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 6 chance of going to prison in his lifetime, while a white boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 17 chance of going to prison in his lifetime.



6. Throughout your international work and travels, what have you learned about

the cradle-to-prison pipeline in other countries? How does it compare to the

U.S?


The US has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population. Percentage-wise, we incarcerate more of our citizens than any other Western democracy. We also incarcerate more of our citizens than countries the UN has accused of human rights violations, like Russia, China and Iran. Our sentences also vastly outpace those of other countries: applying the death penalty usually along racial lines, condemning minors to life in prison without the possibility of parole, seeing incarceration as a punitive measure rather than a rehabilitative opportunity.


The roots of the cradle-to-prison pipeline can be traced all the way back to slavery, journeying through state-sanctioned practices like Jim Crow and work-for-prison after the Civil War. It comes as no surprise then that systemic racism and blatant racism are the mechanisms feeding the pipeline. Each country and culture is dealing with its own racial justice reckoning as witnessed this past summer when the Black Lives Matter movement went global. Using incarceration as a tool of racial oppression is unfortunately practiced around the world, but such high rates of incarceration, divided so clearly along racial lines, is a uniquely American practice.