This article was originally published in our sister paper, U.S. 1 Newspaper.
Imagine you’re standing still, virtually frozen in time and far away, while your family, friends, husbands, wives, children, and even pets go through their lives as normal. Imagine 20 to 40 years passing, and how many loving smiles, embraces, and tears you’d miss.
Think about who might die while you’re away.
This is how photographer and writer Diane Bladecki came to understand and empathize with the subjects of her project, “I Am Innocent (Photographs and Stories),” on view at the Princeton Public Library from Friday, April 6, through the end of May, with a meet and greet reception Monday, April 16, at 6 p.m.
As a longtime volunteer and now marketing director for Centurion Ministries of Princeton, Bladecki uses her camera and listening skills to help seek freedom for the innocent in prison.
She began taking pictures of and speaking with the wrongly convicted more than 10 years ago, and this experience has evolved into some of her most distinguished work.
In turn, the work has led her to places, relationships, and emotions that have been life-changing. With camera in hand, Bladecki has connected the wrongly convicted and their families in a way that allows her to share their stories, capture their emotions, and give a voice to the voiceless.
Her collection of photographs and interviews features portraits of formerly incarcerated individuals who were exonerated by Centurion after serving time for crimes that they did not commit.
“Most of these folks were arrested when they were young, and after spending 20 to 40 years in prison, it is difficult for them to make even the most simple decision,” Bladecki writes. “They did not have a chance to grow up, really. There is a sweet innocence and longing to feel accepted that frames their lives today.”
In addition to the April reception, there will be an art talk in the library’s Community Room on Thursday, May 10; among the guest speakers will be Kate Germond, executive director of Centurion Ministries.
The exhibit, which ran last October in a different permutation at the Arts Council of Princeton, is part of Migrations, Princeton’s community collaboration led by the Princeton University Art Museum investigating the far-reaching theme of migrations.
This version of “I Am Innocent” will be a more self-guided experience than the one at the ACP, but visitors will encounter Bladecki’s same central thoughts and questions: “Have you ever been accused of something you did not do? Imagine being innocent, convicted, and stuck in the system with no one to turn to. It happens more than you know.”
Bladecki says her goal is to give the exonerees a relatable voice so that viewers can put themselves in their position and feel what they’re feeling.
She adds that these souls had been wrongly convicted of crimes such as murder and rape, and were thus doing time in maximum security facilities, for long, long periods of time, even life. In addition, they were imprisoned with those who really did commit these heinous acts.
“So they were in prison with really bad people — although a lot of the guys I interviewed said ‘the worst part of prison was the guards,’” Bladecki says. “We could go on and on about prison systems and the reforms that are needed; it’s terrible.”
‘I was in there when lots of folks got executed. The guards walked them through the hall. Like ghosts. The worst part was that you could smell the execution. It made me sick.’
At least one of the men Bladecki interviewed and photographed was on death row. In fact, thanks to Centurion, Clarence Brandley was the first person ever to walk off Texas’ death row after a decade there.
Bladecki’s interview with Brandley after his release recounts his experience: “‘I was in there when lots of folks got executed. The guards walked them through the hall. Like ghosts. The worst part was that you could smell the execution. It made me sick,’ said Clarence in the home of his lady friend who cares for him now.
“Twice, Clarence came within six days of being executed. You can sense the part of him that let go and was prepared to die. His home in the backwoods of Conroe, Texas, is falling in on itself. So is Clarence. He was freed from prison in 1990, but Clarence never got the chance to become whole again.”
Bladecki says, “We have this collection of photos and stories to help build this awareness. Look at the faces of some of these people, for example, the man who went to prison when his kid was a baby, and now that child is 30 or 40 years old.”
“You take their lives away and it’s heartbreaking,” she continues. “Look at the photos and stories from the perspectives of the children, the mothers, etc., and you realize, it could happen to you. Think about it: how do you defend yourself from behind bars?”
So, essentially, a person is tossed in prison and “the key” is thrown away by the system.
As Bladecki points out, “Often justice is about what you can afford. Sometimes the evidence is lost, hidden, or not disclosed, or a witness has given a false identification. One woman told me, ‘When I went to court, I had faith. I never imagined that I would be convicted.’”
“Exonerating an individual is a lengthy and intense process, because Centurion works via investigation and research as opposed to using DNA and other high-tech methods for proving a person’s innocence.
“In contrast, the Innocence Project uses a more corporate style to exonerate, so it’s a much quicker process,” Bladecki explains, adding that the Innocence Project’s co-founder and director, Barry Scheck, worked with Centurion before launching the IP in 1992.
“With us it easily takes five to ten years once we take on a case because the court system works so slowly,” she says. “DNA (technology) didn’t exist when some of these folks were convicted.”
“Centurion is different,” Bladecki continues. “These are cases that nobody wants, the ones others leave behind, and we really dig in — we knock on doors. We talk to people. We find the original (lost) evidence. We study old files, etc.”
Centurion’s website states, “We are a small but mighty organization that goes boots to the ground … convincing a coerced witness to come forward with the truth, overturning false confessions, and sometimes even finding the real criminal.”
Yet, “It’s so hard to free someone even with all the evidence,” Bladecki says. “This is a really intense process, and we get 1,200 to 1,500 letters a year asking for help.”
Centurion is currently developing more than 150 cases of wrongful conviction, according to its website. The organization points out that the people they work for are often indigent from years of exhausted appeals and lost funds, and Centurion, a 501 (c) 3 organization, bears all costs of its work.
Founded by Jim McCloskey, Centurion was the first organization in the world to tackle the work of proving the innocence of the wrongfully incarcerated.
“We give the people a gift because we give them the opportunity to finally tell the truth after all these years,” Bladecki says. “People are relieved to be able to tell the truth and turn things around.”
Bladecki began as a volunteer for Centurion, but her work has grown with them and even helped transformed the organization.
‘My goal in Centurion is to help people tell their stories without feeling ashamed, and there is always a certain amount of shame.’
“I’ve been with Centurion for 14 years, and I started out taking photos at events,” she says, adding that she had years of experience in graphic design and marketing, as well as doing food photography, taking family portraits, and even selling photos to greeting card companies.
“(Executive director) Kate Germond took me to see the play, ‘The Exonerated’ in New York,” Bladecki says. “I felt the photos in the lobby made folks look guilty, and I told her so. Kate said, ‘If you can do better, come to our next event and take photos.’”
“I started out that way, and then I began to rebrand Centurion,” she continues. “I helped them create a new look and image, giving them stationery items, other materials, little booklets, etc.”
Centurion’s website says Bladecki “has become the photographic historian for Centurion; rebranded the organization, created marketing materials, newsletters, planned and executed annual and bi-annual events, and contributes to outreach and fundraising campaigns.”
“But my passion is really telling the stories (of the exonerees), and asking ‘how did this happen?’” Bladecki adds. “I really dig in and try to meet with the individuals’ families, ask who they were as children, as well as who they were before, in and then out of prison. As you can imagine, 20-some years later, everything has changed.”
“My goal in Centurion is to help people tell their stories without feeling ashamed, and there is always a certain amount of shame,” Bladecki says. “Think about it, your family has been damaged and feels the shame. You’re in prison, and you can’t provide for your family, so there’s that kind of shame, too. Unfortunately, even after exoneration, sometimes people still doubt the truth.”
Bladecki is originally from Indiana, growing up with first-generation Polish-American parents who owned a large farm and cultivated a variety of livestock and grains.
“My parents really lived the American dream,” Bladecki says. “My dad started with a small piece of farmland while he was working part-time for Studebaker (the auto maker), and that small farm grew into a big farm.”
Her abilities as a biographer came naturally, as Bladecki says she is the designated keeper of all the family photos “and a good listener. I ask a lot of questions. I’m just naturally always curious. I think we grew up in a time when life was really rich with great stories, too.”
With her natural abilities to listen and sell, Bladecki became a valued employee with the former Anna Perenna gifts and collectibles company, when she was just in high school.
‘You just listen and you realize that person could have been someone you care about, just stuck in the wrong place at wrong time.’
She attended Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, but switched majors several times and left before earning a degree, thanks to what she calls “an incredible job offer” from Anna Perenna.
“They offered me a job, and I was ready to see the world,” she says. “I was their sales manager, and before I came to Princeton in the late 1980s I had spent some time in New York City.”
“The owner of the company was German, and was attracted to my ability to talk to people and write up a lot of orders,” Bladecki adds. “So life took me on an amazing journey. My job was to travel to all the gift shows in all the states and manage sales. It was a great company, and it was more of an education to me (than staying in college).”
While living in Princeton Bladecki had a gift shop on Hulfish Street. “That was when Princeton still had a lot of small, family-owned shops,” she says. “That’s when I started selling images to card companies like Avanti, and was pretty successful — one image of our dog was Avanti’s best seller for years.”
Bladecki lived in Princeton for almost 20 years, but relocated to Newark with her partner, Susan Spikes, a restaurant industry executive in New York City. The couple’s son, Tyler Spikes, is an up-and-coming actor, who also does support for the exonerated at Centurion.
“We live in a great little area in Newark. There are fantastic houses there at affordable prices, and the taxes are much more reasonable than (Princeton),” Bladecki says. “We have a big garden and nice backyard with lots of room to entertain. We both have a big love for food.”
Bladecki says everyone in her family has been supportive of Centurion, and in fact, Tyler was already volunteering there by age 12.
“He’s grown up with the exonerees, and they are like his family,” Bladecki says. “So part of his job is helping them out, and that means everything from helping to write a resume, to just lending a friendly ear or checking in with them.”
“For special events he goes around to businesses in New York and New Jersey and collects all kinds of goodies for the exonerees,” Bladecki adds. “Susan helps raise money, too, and sometimes she helps the guys get work; she mentors them, trains them to do interviews, and whatnot. We’re fully involved in this.”
At first, Bladecki’s mom in Indiana was worried about her involvement with Centurion, saying “mom things” like “be careful, Diane.”
But then, “Tyler bought a car in Indiana and took one of the exonerees with him,” Bladecki says, adding when that person met her Midwestern family and friends, he easily won them over.
“It was very enlightening,” she says. “All of our friends in Indiana have become donors (to Centurion), just by meeting one of the guys.”
“That’s all it takes,” Bladecki continues. “You just listen and you realize that person could have been someone you care about, just stuck in the wrong place at wrong time.”
I Am Innocent (Photographs and Stories), Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. April 6 through May 31. Reception Monday, April 16, 6 to 8:30 p.m. Art talk Thursday, May 10, 7 p.m. Free. 609-924-9529 or princetonlibrary.org.
Centurion Ministries: centurion.org.