Johnson County Justice Center

Photo Exhibit in Old Polk County Iowa Jail Features Children of Incarcerated Parents

[Source: “Old county jail hosts an arresting art exhibit,” Des Moines Register, 13 September 2013, by Michael Morain]


Photographer Ben Easter’s portraits of children whose parents are incarcerated hang this weekend in the old Polk County Jail. / Ben Easter / Special to the Register

Artists display their work in all sorts of everyday places — parks, coffee shops, city buses and so on.

But in jail? That’s a new one and, technically, the most everyday place of all.

Des Moines photographer Ben Easter’s portraits of Iowa kids whose parents are incarcerated are on display today and Sunday in the old Polk County Jail, just west of this morning’s farmers market.

Visitors can twist through the narrow hallway — “just like you’re getting booked,” Major Joe Simon of the sheriff’s office said — and then ride the elevator to the top floor, where Easter’s photos and videos are displayed in the stark cells and no-nonsense lounge formerly occupied by female inmates. (The jail still houses criminals on weekdays, before and after their trips through the courthouse tunnel, but they spend nights and weekends at the newer facility on the city’s north side.)

Easter created the exhibition, called “Confliction,” with help from several nonprofits that work with inmates’ families. The project emerged out of an assignment he did last year for DSM Magazine.

“When I met these kids, I felt like I was punched in the gut,” he said. “It was pretty powerful.”

He photographed 14 kids in all, ranging in age from 5 to 21 or 22. When some of the younger ones visited the jail cells for the shoot, they asked if they could open the windows. Others stood on tiptoes to see their reflections in the steel mirrors.

“It was kind of overwhelming,” Easter said.

As you might expect, the kids are full of mixed emotions. One of Easter’s partners, Jolene Pfaff, helped publish a collection of essays they wrote during workshops. It’s called “What Did I Do?”

“Children are so honest,” she said. “You could feel their pain and confusion.”

Some of the kids heard only bits and pieces about their parents’ crimes. Others suffered abuse firsthand.

“The children still love their parents no matter what kind of hell they’ve been put through,” Pfaff said.

The photographer formerly lived in Los Angeles, where he met a French filmmaker who will take the show next week to Paris. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, may remount the display there next spring.

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