by Kenneth E. Hartman
As I sit in the audience of assembled artists and corrections officials, writers and performers, along with a smattering of fellow returned citizens, I reflect on the magical nature of my own journey to this meeting, provoked to reverie by a tale of emotional torture and abuse told by a gentle, kind artist who once walked the same yards and felt the same arid winds of isolation I experienced for 38 years.
The story of a prisoner locked inside a cell, alone with his thoughts and fears, is a trope that defines prison narrative in fiction and movies. There is something both heartrending and heartwarming to consider in these tales of solitary “definement” – this act of finding oneself within the confines of the steel and concrete of a prison cell. While I listened to him recount his own harrowing experience of this, I became lost in nightmarish memories of other places and times. I could hear the clanking sound of heavy brass keys in the far distance. I felt the weight of those decades leaning on me.
But it’s October 16, 2018, on the vast, tree-lined campus of Sacramento State University in a large, windowed room in the Alumni Center. This is the California Art for Justice Forum; this is the place for “Addressing Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform Through the Arts.” Along one side of the room, tables are stacked with breakfast food: bagels and cream cheese, muffins and cut fruit. At the end of the last table, large brown Cambro drink dispensers – the exact size and color of the containers in the chow hall of the last prison I served time in, mere months ago. The coffee is much better here. Throughout the rest of the day a small army of food service workers keep replacing the offerings with new items. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser to serve the participants a box lunch like what prisoners eat every day.
In the opening panel, as the Chief of Rehabilitation in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation bats back requests for more programs, more art, more of anything, California Arts Council Deputy Director Ayanna Kiburi points out that eight million dollars a year is being allocated toward arts in the California prisons by her organization. I whip out my smart phone and do the math. It works out to about 7/1000ths of a percent of the twelve billion dollars pouring into the prisons for all the rest they accomplish for society. Obviously, art isn’t valued that highly.
During the first breakout sessions, I walk around the room, listening when I can, standing back when I can’t, and what I see and hear leaves me with that kind of déjà vu that feels heavy. It strikes me that many people with obviously big hearts and real commitment are having an argument with the past. How do we measure this? How do we get the system on board? I think it’s different now, right? We shouldn’t ask for too much! When I came to prison back in 1980, it was at the tail end of the last rehabilitation surge. In those days, at Old Folsom, no less, whole sections of Five Building were dedicated to painters and sculptors. Art Alley it was called. It vanished into the maw of the “get tough” era that followed.
When keynote speaker Luis Rodriguez, former Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and both personal hero and close friend of mine, takes to the dais to address the crowd he’s vibrating with righteous energy. He compares the current moment to the “birth of a new era,” and I pray right there that he’s right. His poet’s voice rises and falls, emphasizing and exhorting, calling to action all assembled. In what holds personal significance for me, he makes the point that his own troubled youth was rescued by one adult who “cared him straight.” Like most of us who fall off the rails and land on the other side of the law and society, he needed to be seen and heard, to be cared for and nurtured. Instead, the system of mass incarceration had steel and concrete, isolation and suffering in abundance, ready to break us down and destroy our spirits. I discovered a vocation for writing, and I found a way to write my way back to humanity. That my spirit wasn’t destroyed is a testament to the power of the arts, but I am a lucky exception to the rule. A few millions buy a few programs; many billions buy lots of concrete and steel cages.
The second plenary session addresses the convergence of arts education and criminal justice reform. Two of the five panelists are fellow returned citizens. The wise and measured jazz musician, Wesley Haye, and the fiery, impassioned Shakespearean actor Dameion Brown, both provide the kind of experiential knowledge that only those of us who have lived inside the lethal, electrified fences can impart. Dr. Larry Brewster, a giant in the field of arts education in prison, spends a considerable amount of time explaining to the room the Gordian knot of proving to the uninterested that arts matter for the unloved. He is valiant in his commitment and radiates charm.
Breakout sessions again continue the debate from the morning and discuss the various systems and obstacles that hamper the provision of substantial and meaningful arts education within the jails and prisons. The well-meaning and the hopeful confronting the hard end of current reality is on display.
At the closing remarks, the voices of Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts, and Laurie Brooks, executive director of the William James Association, eloquently express appreciation for what change has happened inside the prisons and jails and the fervent, desperate desire for still more that has been evident all day.
My mind drifts back to Henry Frank, fellow returned citizen, and his gripping recounting of being able to draw on a used lunch bag while being held in solitary confinement. I could feel him slip back inside the terrifying isolation of a cell, alone, unsure how long he would be held out of touch, out of the healing rays of the sun. That he could call on his training as an artist is a wonderful thing, to be sure. That he was placed in a situation where all he could do to maintain his sanity was draw on the inside of a crumpled bag is a damning indictment of the system of mass incarceration.
This state, all of this country, still has miles to go to achieve something like a system that values human beings more than the infliction of pain. We must not ever forget that sad truth.
About the guest contributor: Kenneth E. Hartman served 38 years in the California prison system. He is the author of the award-winning memoir “Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars. “His other books are “Christmas in Prison,” and “Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough.” He lives and works in the Los Angeles area as a writer. Ken can be contacted at: email@example.com
About the Art for Justice Forums:
California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.
Additional forums have taken place at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta on September 28, at Sacramento State University on October 16, at the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University in Alabama on October 19, and the last forum will be held at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16 (register here). For more information, please send an inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org.