Former prisoner Jack Davis points out his favorite work at...

Former prisoner Jack Davis points out his favorite work at the exhibit in the Gallery at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, of images requested by prisoners who spent time in solitary confinement, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Jack Davis, released in 2013 after nearly 30 years in New York prisons for robbery, knows the photograph he would have picked for his cell wall while in solitary confinement.

It would be the montage of a changing New York City, from the subways and Times Square to the World Trade Center site, juxtaposed with the unchanging Statue of Liberty.

“That’s the Apple, man,” he said Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, gesturing to the photograph by Sylvia Hardy delivered to an inmate named Raymond.

On Sunday, the congregation displayed two dozen photos sent to those in solitary confinement through the program, Photo Requests from Solitary.

There’s a camel’s silhouette at sunset, and scenes of everyday life in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Another inmate, Dan, requested “a photograph of a black female with hazel eyes in black leather pants with the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink, all of which define her figure, with a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powder blue) in a park.”

The photographer, Jason Altaan, did not disappoint.

Other requests are more simple.

“I would like to have a painting of the outdoors, maybe a wooded scene, with maybe a doe and twin fawns,” wrote Hershel on July 20, 2013.

“You can look at that and see someone is more than their worst act,” said Jean Casella, co-director of Solitary Watch, a web-based watchdog group aimed at raising public awareness about the widespread use of solitary confinement. “It’s a reminder that even though they’re surrounded by gray walls, they have a complete inner life going on.”

The exhibit, part of a campaign to change how New York handles solitary confinement, shows the imagination and memories of those locked in solitary confinement for weeks at a time, prison reform advocates said.

The program invites inmates to request photo images. “Anything in the world, real or imagined,” said Casella. It started in Illinois in 2009 by a group of artists. The program expanded to New York and California prisons in 2013.

About 40 images, produced by volunteer photographers, have been sent to New York inmates so far. Another 80 have been sent to those incarcerated in Illinois and California.

Alicia Barraza and Doug Van Zandt, who spoke at the exhibit Sunday, imagined that their son, Benjamin Van Zandt, would have liked the photo of a white wolf at night, with a full moon shining off the snow.

“Kind of eerie,” Barraza said.

Van Zandt was serving a sentence for burning down an empty house when he was 17. He killed himself while in solitary confinement on the same day he was told he faced more of the same punishment. His parents said that he was mentally ill with auditory hallucinations and severe depression, and not receiving proper care in prison.

Barraza and Doug Van Zandt, who live in Albany, said they were advocating for the state Legislature to pass the “Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement” or HALT Solitary Confinement Act, in Albany this year. The bill, which state lawmakers have considered in recent years, would prevent inmates from being in solitary confinement for more than 15 days in a row, among other reforms.

A representative of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, which has defended solitary confinement as an effective tool to discipline inmates and curtail violence, could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Claire Deroche, social justice coordinator for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, said her group w

The exhibit will be open through Feb. 13, with a special event with speakers at 7 p.m. on Jan. 23. Other opening times vary; for details call (516) 472-2977 or email

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