This month, we are highlighting artist, poet, activist, public speaker, and nonprofit founder Kenneth Reams. We were lucky to connect with Kenny through his work with the Prison Story Project. Kenny was one of the 11 men incarcerated on Arkansas Death Row who wrote PSP’s “On the Row,” a film that JAC screened with our Create+Connect series back in May. After getting to know Kenny and his work, we were honored to host a workshop with him on June 25. Kenny shared his story and thoughts on racism, the injustice of the ‘justice’ system, and capital punishment, and told us how he manages to be such a prolific and powerful creator from his solitary confinement cell, which he calls “the box.”
Kenny is a visual artist– he draws, paints, collages, sculpts– and a poet, though he enjoys and appreciates all forms of art and media: music, movies, and dance. Anything that tells a story. Kenny says he creates with the objective of educating the public about the criminal justice system, and of changing some of the issues in society that he has seen from his position in solitary confinement.
It’s a different picture watching society from solitary confinement than being in society. On the sidelines you get to see the picture a little different.
Kenny has been in solitary confinement and on death row for close to 30 years. “Over
half my life, over half my life I’ve been on death row now,” Kenny says. He was sentenced to death at just 18 years old for his involvement in a robbery, with his friend, who shot and killed the victim. Kenny and his friend were trying to get money to pay $40 for his cap and gown for high school graduation. Although he was not directly responsible for the death, he was charged with murder and asked to take a plea for a Life without Parole sentence. Feeling the injustice of this, Kenny refused the plea and went to trial. Represented by an overworked public defender, Kenny faced what he understands to be an unfair trial, decided by a nearly all-white jury. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Though his death sentence was recently commuted after long legal battles, Kenny is still incarcerated on death row in solitary confinement.
Kenny’s experiences of the injustice of the criminal legal system prompted him to learn more and fight for change, even from solitary confinement. When he was first incarcerated, he “didn’t realize [he] was an activist.” As his own consciousness grew, Kenny realized that many people did not know, understand, or care about these issues. And so he sought out ways to raise awareness; one way is through his art.
He also co-founded Who Decides Inc, a nonprofit organization which aims to educate the public on the history and current reality of capital punishment in the United States. He envisions a national museum to “talk about the history of what we have been doing in America when it comes to capital punishment.” Kenny clarifies: “This is not an institution… where we try to tell people to think about the death penalty in certain ways, this will just be us keeping the history of this alive for generations to come. Whether we have the death penalty in 50 years or not, we should have an institution built in this country on the history of the death penalty, whether you are for it or against it. Because these things are things that shape our views.” The museum will be about the “history and effects” of the death penalty, presented through different forms of art.
Kenny has managed to get his perspective, vision, and voice out into the world beyond the walls of solitary confinement, but he recognizes that not everyone in his position is able to do the same. “I am only one of thousands,” he says. Kenny wants us to begin to “have these conversations openly, have them through art.” We were honored to be part of such conversation, and are looking forward to future collaborations with Kenneth.