by Cynthia Garcia, Hillside High School Art and Leadership Teacher, Upland Unified School District
Hillside Continuation High School 11th and 12th grade students in Upland Unified School district in Southern California had the opportunity to connect with an incarcerated artist using their own art thanks to the Justice Arts Coalition pARTner project. The idea was inspired by the stories of students who have shared their own personal hardships. Many of these hardships revolved around having a family member, friend or themselves being incarcerated. Since I have family members of my own in the prison system, I felt it would be a great opportunity for students to have a chance to reach out and learn how to connect with other people who understand their circumstances. It would also help the students find hope, reach out to the community, and to think about making better choices.
I stumbled upon the Justice Arts website while researching prison art programs and was inspired by the stories and art of the incarcerated artists who were trying to use art to help them cope with prison life and give them opportunities to learn new skills. Around the time I discovered the website, the students were working on creating six artist trading cards inspired by the artist Steven Quinn and learned what it means to create a narrative by repurposing images from old dated history books and modern magazines. The idea behind the cards was to allow students to trade, collect, and give away cards to other students, family and friends. I had the students create digital artist trading cards, due to restrictions in the correctional facility, to be printed and sent out to our pen pals to trade and collect amongst each other. The theme was open for the most part, but I reminded them that the purpose was to tell a story that has some type of significant meaning to their own lives.
I had previously reached out to Wendy Jason, the managing director of the Justice Coalition, about my interest including Hillside art students in the program. She gave me all the information we needed to reach out to one of our pen pals, Mr. Cromwell, who was both shocked and very excited to receive our letter. In our first letter we let him know a bit about the school and the project we were currently working on. He was completely on board to help inspire and motivate our students and answer any questions the students had about his life in prison.
After the students finished up their final trading cards, I asked them what questions they would be interested in asking Mr. Cromwell in our next letter. Below are a few of the long list of questions asked by the students:
-Do you find being in the prisons unsafe? I have a brother that is also in prison.
-Do you have a family?
-Do you get commissary?
-How do you make a spread?
-Do you play sports?
-What is your ethnicity?
-What were you sentenced for?
-Would you take back what you did?
-Do you like art and what type do you like?
-What do you plan on doing when you get out?
-How old were you when you got in?
-How tall are you?
-Do you get into fights?
-Are the prison guards nice?
-Do they let you watch TV?
-What are the hours of your phone calls?
-Do you get visits from your family?
-Where you born in Louisiana?
-Were you the only one involved in the crime you commited?
-Is prison punch real?
In the letter I let Mr. Cromwell know he was in no obligation to answer any question he was uncomfortable with and explained that the students were curious to know these things. I felt as their teacher it was necessary for them to be honest with their questions. Included in the letter was a large set of our trading cards for him to distribute, collect, and spread around the correctional facility. Below are a few examples of the student’s work using a free online program called Pixlr.com:
It took a while before we got our letter back from Mr. Cromwell due to him relocating to a new area in the facility. Inside the envelope was not only his letter, but artwork from him and another incarcerated artist named Mr. White. It was a surprise for the students and myself since we only expected one letter back.
In his letter, Mr. Cromwell shared that he loved the trading cards and decided to share his cards with his friend Mr. White. Mr. White was interested in being a part of the exchange after seeing our cards and letters. He wanted to contribute by answering questions the students had and included his own artwork. As we read Mr. Cromwell’s letter he did leave some details out of his responses to the students questions including what he was sentenced for, but he did share words of wisdom and encouraged the students to stay in school, finish their education, stay out of trouble, and stay positive even if times get tough.
In Mr. White’s letter, he was more open about sharing his experience and told us that he has been incarcerated since he was 19 and is now 44 years old. This elicited a big response from the students and prompted some to share their own stories about their families in prison. One student asked about violence in prison which Mr. White replied, “Yes, but you only fight when you need to. Getting into a fight only means you couldn’t think your way through a problem.” We spent some time talking about this particular question. I asked the students what happens when they get into a fight and the majority of them said they would “black out” and not remember what happened because they were full of anger.
Before we worked on sending our final letter, I wanted to get more in depth with discussion about art in the prison system. I had the students watch a small segment called Prison Art Thrives in Mexico. We watched the video in class and afterwards I had the students answer the question, “Do you agree or disagree with allowing prisoners to create and sell art? Why or why not?” The following are responses from the students:
“Yes I agree with prisons allowing inmates to create and sell art. Not all prisoners have family to support them while in prison so if they are able to make money it will be able to help them keep up with their art. Also it’s a good distraction for them it can keep their mind off of things as in trouble or as in keeping their minds of their time.”
“I say no because they decided to give their rights up when they decided to break the law.”
“I agree with the prison allowing inmates to create and sell art because there are a lot of people in the prison that want to express themselves and fulfill their goals and dreams through art. They should be supported and even provided with materials. They can explore themselves and express their emotions.”
“I agree because some people are locked up for uncertain reasons. Not everyone should have to struggle to make money in prison because no one knows the full story. Art can help prisoners make money while escaping the prison walls through their imagination.”
The majority of students responded positively and felt that inmates creating and selling art would help them to minimize stress, build new skills, and focus on staying out of trouble.
For their final letter we let Mr. Cromwell and Mr. White know how much we appreciated their honest responses and that their words will help to educate our students about making better choices and that making mistakes is a part of learning. We also included motivational posters created by the students. They were asked to pick a quote that uplifted them in a time of need so they could spread the message to other incarcerated individuals inside the correctional facility. Below are a few quotes chosen by the students:
At the end of our last letter I included these final words to Mr. Cromwell and Mr. White:
“With these final words said, thank you for inspiring our youth and showing them that despite our mistakes, we can learn from them to help use make better choices. These students just need another chance and someone to listen and guide them on the path of success. I will leave you with a quote from my favorite educator Rita Pierson, “Every child deserves a champion, an adult that will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insist they be the best they can possibly be.”
Overall it was an eye opening experience not only for my students but for myself as a teacher. It showed us that art can create powerful connections with the community and help to show support to those in need. I plan on continuing to work with the Justice Arts Coalition project and I’ll have my next group of students reach out to more incarcerated individuals through different art projects. I hope this post will encourage other educators and individuals to get involved and reach out to more incarcerated artists. I look forward to another great year working with the Justice Coalition Project and our artist pen pals.