Jeanne Selander had never worked in a jail before she came to save the zoo at the Stock Island Detention Center.
But she knew animals and their habitats: the palm trees forming lush circles around the jail, the hot concrete roads running past it, the humidity that would blanket the whole island before relenting in the early afternoon and the creatures that wandered Key West in search of a home.
The zoo formed in 1994, when a deputy noticed a group of ducks occasionally losing one of their flock to passing cars. A group rounded up the ducks and placed them in a new home — the space where columns, built to raise the jail off the ground and brace for flood, had formed an empty space underneath the building. As word went around Key West that the jail was taking in animals, more and more people began dropping them there.
“We call that the coconut telegraph,” Selander said.
Several years later, the zoo, having been cited with multiple USDA violations, was ready to shut down. But Selander, who had a degree in marine biology and extensive experience with animals, saw potential in the space. “I told the sheriff I would make it something special if he would give me the reins,” she said. “He gave me the responsibility to do what I could to bring in new animals and bring it back up to code.”
Ten years later, the zoo has 150 animals, including a sloth, a lemur, kinkajous, exotic snakes and lizards, rabbits, ducks, geese, pigs, miniature horses, birds and more, and a thriving program to place inmates in work positions there.
This is where photographer Kim Raff entered the picture. Raff, who is based in Salt Lake City, was applying for an artist’s fellowship in Key West when her friend, who lives there, told her about the zoo. Having worked on projects around the subject of incarceration before, she decided to visit with her camera.
She was surprised at how accessible the jail was, and how creatively the inmates and Selander had put the space to work. “Visually, it was so amazing to see that stereotypical, industrial looking building, very white walls, not a lot of windows — to see that juxtaposed with these animals running around,” she said.
The zoo works with a staff of four or five inmates, plus Selander, and runs purely on donations, not taxpayer money. The inmates get assigned to the zoo through the jail’s inmate worker program. Violent offenders, or anyone who has abused children or animals, are not eligible for the job, she said.
Over the past decade, the crowds that come to see the animals, and interact with the inmates, has grown thirty-fold. The first Sunday after Selander arrived, about a dozen people showed up. Last Sunday, more than 300 people came to see the animals, she said.
While photographing the space, Raff spent time with some of the inmates working there, including Mike Smith, who struggled with substance abuse for years. Talking to him, she said it was clear that the zoo had played a positive role in his rehabilitation. “He was already there and ready to clean up his act, but the zoo really helped him stay on the right track,” she said. “[It] gave him a way to keep his mind busy, to keep him on the right path until he could get into treatment.”
Raff said she wants the photographs to show something unexpected — and in the process, help people reconsider stereotypes about jail and people who are incarcerated, she said.
“I think people are starting to take a look deeper into how we’re rehabilitating people,” she said. “I was really happy to be able to do a story about something that’s working, that’s a positive thing that’s good for the community, good for the people, good for the inmates, good for the animals.”
Selander said she has seen the work have a positive effect on the inmates. “For the most part, it’s very good for them. Instead of sitting upstairs in a cell, they’re actually doing something productive and something that gives them some meaning and some purpose,” she said. “They often will get out and bring their families back to show them what they did.”
You can see more of Raff’s work below.