Friday, January 23, 2009

If You'd Have Told Me About This A Year Ago I'd Have Said You Were Nuts!!

The on-line world becomes more splintered and fractured every day. To maintain a proper cyber-presence, I divide my Internet time between two web sites, this blog and a Facebook page. Anyone who wants to keep up with me needs to do a lot of clicking around.

Indeed, if you want to really be up-to-the-minute in life's events, Facebook is a handy tool. I like blogging but it takes a fair amount of time to write a blog post. On Facebook, I can quickly declare what's happening now, like, Joe is getting crushed by the Chicago winter... or... Joe is just back from another C# shoot.

Everyone knows about Chicago winters, but my Facebook pals were (understandably) stumped by the reference to C#s. More than one of them asked, "What's a C#?"

A C-Number is a convict in an Illinois prison whose identification number begins with the letter C. There are roughly 300 C-numbered prisoners remaining in Illinois, typically long-term incarcerations with indeterminate sentences exceeding 100 years. I've spent the better part of the last week photographing former C-Numbers who've distinguished themselves both as prisoners and, recently, on the outside. It's a very interesting project, but if you'd have told me a year ago that I'd be living in Chicagoland and hanging around with C-Numbers I'd have thought you were nuts!

Shortly after I arrived in Chicago eight months ago, a friend of mine invited me to the birthday party of one of her friends. As a New Yorker in a sea of Chicagoans I felt quite out of place and quickly gravitated to the only other obviously different guy at the party, an African-American gentleman who was introduced to me simply as Duffie. As we chatted over the course of a few hours, it became strikingly clear to me how different he was.

Duffie Clark works in, what must be, one of the dingiest offices in Chicago; yet he does what is, arguably, some of the most important, and certainly the most remarkable, legal work in town. One flight up, above the storefront offices of The Uptown People's Law Office, Duffie works well into the night most days fighting for the rights of people that society has long forgotten.

The thing that makes Duffie's work so remarkable is that he's quite lucky to be doing it at all. In 1971 the eleventh-grade dropout was convicted in a Chicago court of the murder of two thirteen year-old boys. Though he doesn’t deny his gang affiliations or mistakes of the past, he adamantly maintains his innocence of the charges that sent him to prison for 34 years. After countless review hearings Clark was finally released on parole three years ago, receiving only $34.14 in an envelope. You might wonder, as he did, “How is a man supposed to make it with that?”

But make it he did. During the time he spent in prison he earned his GED, Associate’s, Bachelor’s and came-up two classes short of a Master’s degree in Political and Social Sciences. He also built one of the best law libraries in the Illinois corrections system and threw himself into defending prisoners’ constitutional rights. With an average load of 140 cases at any given time, he wrote 15 legal responses per week for the next 15 years, on issues ranging from “indifference to medical needs” to “use of excessive force.” By applying pressure on correction officials, his work improved living conditions for his fellow inmates and led to his current job with the Uptown People's Law Center. As a certified paralegal, he continues the advocacy work he began in prison, investigating prisoner complaints, writing summaries, and then turning the cases over to the legal director who shops them for pro bono representation.

My work on the C-Number project continues. I've photographed five C-Numbers to date and I've arranged about a dozen more shoots. I'll show some of the portraits here, some on Facebook. Stay tuned.
Above: Canon EOS-5D, 70~200/2.8 Canon Zoom Lens EF L Ultrasonic, ISO 100


Blogger Tatiana said...

Sounds like a fascinating project ....and isn't it just cool when you meet strangers and they become an impetus...
lovely blog.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Chuck Pefley said...

Very, very cool project, Joe. Duffie does look like an interesting guy. And you're right ... you're smarter than you look ... LOL -:)

6:15 PM  
Blogger Applecart T. said...

Thank you for this story. I like to hear about adjudicated people who spend all their time learning law while incarcerated — actually get someplace with it, like Dennis Fritz (whom I got to meet a few years back).

C is for centum, I guess. When I start thinking about the numbers of wrongfully-sentenced people … I get overwhelmed, so I'm glad there are people who can stick to the cause. Wherever your C# pics are ending up, I hope the story / article / art exhibition gets some more people thinking about sticking to it, too.

4:40 PM  

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