This post will be updated with additional quotes and testimonials, as JAC receives further information from the incarcerated individuals within our network. If you have any details that might be relevant to this ongoing work, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Josh Earls: “I wanted to paint something just to add my voice to so many others who are already expressing their love and gratitude for those medical professionals out there who are saving us all. Really, nothing makes you feel more helpless than when you see your loved ones in need and yet you are completely unable to do anything to help them. I don’t get to use my time in quarantine to add my hands to my father’s as he fixes up the house, or to pick up the things for my mother that she needs to make a trip to the store for. I can’t help prepare a meal for my sister who still has to work through this. I can only sit here. And most of all, if someone I care for is sick, I can only rely on these miracle workers to meet their needs and to make sure they are still “home” when I’m allowed to be there. So I just want to, for any who may be listening, say thanks to the good folks on the front lines. May the appreciation and gratitude of our nation point to them in this new paradigm we are moving into. As one who has all but had their voice taken from them by this punitive system, I’ll let my humble art be a voice.”
From correspondence with someone in a federal prison:
Testing is happening in rounds of 150 people per unit. After the first round, 12 people were removed from the unit and told their test was negative. The remaining 138 were left behind, and medical staff would not respond to questions about their status. After many hours of waiting in uncertainty and fear, a town hall was called by medical staff, who conveyed that if their names were not called they could safely assume that they’d tested positive, and that they’re “lucky because we are most likely asymptomatic and thus won’t be in much danger.” Staff went on to say that the BOP’s goal for the institution is “herd immunity,” with a goal of 80%+ infection rate so that everyone who can get the virus will have already gotten it.
“They are past the point of trying to prevent us from getting infected after only 3 weeks of isolation.”
Later that day, 12 more people were pulled out and told they were negative.
“After it being implied that we were positive, we are now even more confused. Maybe they just forgot to call my name? Perhaps they will call me at any minute and move me away. Everyone is frantic and nothing feels safe right now.”
2 days later:
The writer learned that there’d been another town hall on the other side of the unit. Staff told the people held there that they are best off remaining on the unit, refusing the test, staying in their own rooms, not having to move to the tents that have been erected for those who test negative, which would result in losing their property & access to commissary. They might as well “get a virus that we are going to get anyway”. So, many have refused tests.
“I have to wonder, do those people now get counted as positive cases, or since they were never tested does this facility get to hide their real numbers. Does that even matter when the whole plan is herd immunity? That the men who die in here, never knowing freedom again, do so at our governments plan does not sit well with me. I know so many of these people. They just don’t deserve that.”
For further information on the ongoing crisis in prisons, please explore this story from NPR.
Our JAC community is continually expanding, reaching out to artists, activists, and volunteers from all corners of the globe. In the spirit of creation during this period of isolation, as the entire world reacts to this unprecedented moment in time, we feel lucky to share the following message from our friends, Arlene Tucker and Carole Alden, from Translation is Dialogue. Translation is Dialogue is an ongoing project started in 2010, which is based on how the translation process is creating communication and dialogue within itself. This allows transcendence of oneself to another. Regardless of the situation happening organically or consciously it is bound to the subjective state of the translator, yet it is through such discourse where truth or realization is found. Momentum is magic!
The original article, originally published in French, can be found at the following links:
A conversation between Carole Alden and Arlene Tucker was published in Le Journal de Culture & Démocratie in April 2020. Hélène Hiessler translated the article into French from English. Read the publication in French here. Below is the English version.
To learn more about Culture & Démocratie, please click here.
Free Translation is a multi-disciplinary exhibition showcasing international works generated from an open call to incarcerated people, ex-convicts, and anyone affected by imprisonment. Through this platform, artist and Free Translation co-developer Arlene Tucker met artist, Carole Alden. Through art practice, mail exchange and dialogue ideas, preconceptions, expectations, false realities, and forms of expressions are explored. From the exhibition, Free Translation Sessions were born. In these gatherings we make art, interpretations, and view and discuss artworks received. The sharing of personal stories, experimenting with art techniques, and listening to subjective views can help guide one’s artistic process and shed light on different walks of life.
__Arlene Tucker (AT): The work you contributed to the Free Translation exhibition has been an inspiration for more artworks and the dialogue that has been raised through your pieces has been very powerful. Did you ever think that your work would be a source of translation?
Carole Alden (CA): When you create in isolation, you have no concept of your work impacting others. For me it began as a vehicle to turn overwhelming mental and emotional anguish into something survivable. My hope being an evolution from feeling helpless, to a productive plan for my life. In or out of prison, I wanted my life experiences to count for something.
I had no idea that a project like Free Translation existed. Where I live, incarcerated persons are essentially shunned. You feel completely disenfranchised from society. There is no real dialogue between incarcerated and free people.
Prior to my involvement with Free Translation, l had never seen any effort from free people to understand the experience of being in prison or what might happen in a person’s life to precipitate time spent in prison. You were ostracized and ignored. Made to feel as though you were bankrupt of all that made you human.
AT: It was through Wendy Jason at Prison Arts Coalition (now The Justice Arts Coalition) that led us to you and your work. In the end, you made the effort to stay in touch, to share with me. Dialogue is not solitary.
CA: Believe me, I am grateful to be found!
My mother had found The Justice Arts Coalition and urged me to contact them. I was extremely hesitant after being defrauded by multiple entities claiming to assist incarcerated artists. It was a year of corresponding with Wendy before I decided to take the plunge and trust someone with my artwork again. I was thrilled to find an organization that was true to their word and not in the business of exploiting prison artists. Because of the groundwork of trust she laid, I felt very comfortable in sharing my images with Free Translation when she suggested it.
AT: What was this drawing of the Woman Impaled about for you?
CA: The first version I had drawn while still in the original jail, awaiting adjudication of my charges. That was towards the end of 2006.
I had no access to competent legal representation and no one to advocate on my behalf. I literally felt the system was a continuation of the abuse and death my spouse had planned for me. I felt emotionally and physically stripped of anything that allows a person to feel human. My hopes and dreams were disappearing beyond the horizon. I felt my life draining away and nothing but immobilization and overwhelming anguish and pain. I wanted to die. I felt that if my spirit were no longer tied to a physical body, then it could leave this place to go be with my children.
AT: How long were you incarcerated for?
CA: I did 13 years out of a 1-15 indeterminate sentence.
AT: How did people interact with each other? Was there anybody that you felt you could confide in?
CA: The women’s prison in Utah had a very different social dynamic than the men’s when it came to certain things. Long term inmates tended to recreate designations that approximated family relationships. Roles were adopted as mothers, fathers, and children. It was not unusual to hear young women speak of having a biological mother, a street mother, and a prison mom. A larger context had to do with commerce, which encompassed drugs, commissary items, and services.
In all the time I was down, I kept myself separate from most of what constituted prison culture. I watched, paid attention, and discerned that being enmeshed in the social standards and practices were the primary source of conflict both with each other and the officers.
I was determined to remain focused on what I could create in order to be better equipped for the future on the outside. There was really only one other inmate I got close enough to share my hopes and dreams with. She is also an artist and still inside. We were only housed in the same general vicinity for a couple years yet we remain close and invested in each other’s success.
AT: What about solidarity or some sort of togetherness within the prisons? Did you feel like you could come together with others or was it very solitary? How were people separated?
CA: We saw considerable solidarity on the men’s side. They would organize strikes and protest to get policies changed. This did not happen on the women’s. Too many feared retaliation, or would inadvertently undermine their peers by trying to use relationships with certain guards to change just their own circumstances. Some of it had to do with the feeling that we had more to lose than the men. Tenuous contact with our families was a big deterrent to standing up for yourself.
AT: What do you think about the translations, the artworks responding to your original artwork, Woman Impaled? Can you perceive how your painting was translated or interpreted based on their piece of art?
CA: Honestly, I was shocked at how perceptive the participants were. They expressed a depth of understanding and empathy I was totally unprepared for. It had the effect of removing my sense of isolation. For the first time in 13 years I felt a restored hope that there was still a place in the world for me. Prior to this, my anxiety surrounding the eventuality of release was debilitating.
AT: When you don’t know, you’re in limbo and that can be a hard place to be. Would you like to share on what grounds you were convicted?
CA: That limbo of not knowing for sure is probably the most psychologically damaging part of indeterminate sentencing. It robs a person of the ability to create a realistic plan for their future. Everything feels imaginary and moot until you finally have your release date, no matter how close or far off it might be.
I had an indeterminate sentence of I to 15 years for second degree manslaughter. My matrix was 5 years. In other words, the suggested time to be served in consideration of mitigating circumstances.
I waited 4 years to hear when my date to see the board would be. At a little over 5 years I saw the board. The board chose to ignore the reports of domestic violence and evidence of self defense. I had shot the man as I was cornered in a small laundry room. At that moment. I had no other option that preserved my own life or my children’s.
AT: How did you manage to keep making art while incarcerated?
CA: Deprivation is the mother of creativity. I continuously scanned my environment for materials to repurpose in order to expand the possibilities of what I could create. Not getting caught was often a large part of the creative equation. Balancing that drive to create with the institutional directive to remain idle was an ongoing conflict. I did my best to fly under the radar and not attract attention. It was an ongoing occurrence for the SWAT team to come through and throw away any artwork, even if you had written permission to construct it.
I began with drawing as it seemed to be tolerated more than other forms of expression. During the winter I would utilize the snow as a sculpting medium. At my four year mark, the urge to sculpt overwhelmed my aversion to crochet. I taught myself one basic stitch and began to experiment with yarn as a sculpting medium. As I became more proficient, my efforts evolved from largely meditative to a challenge to keep my thought process sharp.
At 8 years down I was transferred to a county facility. With only 70 inmates at a time, the officers took a greater interest in what people did to be productive. They turned out to be far more supportive than any facility I had been in. The last five years have brought multiple opportunities to communicate and exhibit my work.
At the beginning of my incarceration I was told by the caseworker that I would never be transferred to a county facility due to my charges and my medical condition. When I was transferred, the receiving caseworker remarked that it was strange as I did not fit the criteria to be housed in a county jail. Aside from medical issues, I still had seven years remaining. County jails are not designed to keep someone for more than a year. Beyond a year, a person’s mental and physical health experiences marked decline. Whatever Utah prisons are lacking, their jails have a fraction of that. You have no access to a yard, usually no contact visits, no education beyond high school, no exercise equipment, or much in the way of jobs, religious options or a library. You basically eat and sleep. Not a place for long term inmates.
AT: How was it that you were able to be transferred? Do you feel that because it was a smaller facility, the environment was less volatile? Or does it have anything to do with how those officers were being trained and supervised?
CA: Originally I was transferred as a means to disrupt my access to an attorney who had expressed interest in reopening my case. Essentially they moved me in a manner that took away my ability to be in touch with my attorney and separated me from my legal files. Someone did not want my case to be scrutinized and took action to make it impossible for me to continue my appeal at that time. I was separated from all my legal paperwork, contact information, pictures of my children and all my artwork, supplies and personal belongings. Normally they tell you you’re being, “counted out” and you would be permitted time to pack whatever you’re allowed to take, and make arrangements for your family to collect the rest.
They sent me to the opposite end of the state and allowed my things to be pilfered by inmates and officers alike.
I lost a portfolio of work worth about $75,000.00 that I had hoped to start over with upon release. After reiterating my desire to self harm, they transferred me again to the county jail where I remained for the last 5 1/2 years.
I do believe the quality of life in that facility was due largely to the staff and how they chose to treat people. They seemed to be allowed more agency in their personal interpretation of their role as guards. Consequently we had individuals who treated us like human beings and encouraged positive endeavors. This is very rare in Utah Corrections.
I am very grateful for the opportunity and encouragement I received in creating my work.
AT: How are you feeling since your release? What kind of challenges have you been faced with? In the time you have been free, what have you already adjusted to?
CA: Being released, unexpectedly, several years early was a mixed blessing. My over the top elation was tempered by my abject terror over all the things I had no time to prepare for.
Would I flinch if a grandchild rushed in for a hug? Would I freeze and bolt if I felt overwhelmed at a Walmart? How on earth would I support myself at the age of 59 with absolutely nothing?
The thought of trying to understand fractions of words in texting had me in tears. Thankfully, becoming connected with people in this community has gone a long way in helping me forgive myself for the learning curve I’m tackling.
I have had a lot of support in rediscovering that I can still learn whatever I need to and become whoever I choose to be.
AT: We cannot do this alone. Amazing that you could emotionally prepare yourself for your release and apply all of that insight into your current situation. When I read your letter about your release that you sent in May, you had talked about this and I was so impressed with your level of emotional awareness. Who were your go to people, your support system? How can we most efficiently and effectively process our emotions? We all are different, but I think sharing tips is one way to show support. At least it is for me!
CA: Any release is daunting, but after over a decade, there’s really no way to adequately prepare yourself. Too many intangibles that bombard you at any given time with no warning.
I had a couple close friends who had done time over twenty years ago. They were the ones to peel me off the ceiling and encourage me to believe I could do this.
I think patience and encouragement are the biggest things. People want to help and tend to be quick to offer up solutions. At that fresh out stage, even having a bunch of problem solving solutions dropped in your lap can leave you feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed with indecision.
Be loving and open. Give us the space we need to figure out what we need help with.
AT: Now that you are free, what does confinement or imprisonment mean to you? How does that definition differ from prior to your incarceration?
CA: Honestly, for most of my life prior to incarceration, I gave it absolutely no thought at all. It had not touched my life through family or friends. It was as disconnected to my reality as if someone said there was a planet of unicorns I could visit one day.
About 7 years prior to my incarceration I had a friend go to prison for 11 months on a possession charge. That acquainted me with the gut gnawing fear that family members suffer nonstop during their loved one’s imprisonment. Knowing that they are rarely safe, and without adequate medical care, food or housing. Feeling their spirit and engagement in life wither as days, months, and years pass. In some ways, your family suffers even more. Yet support for your families is scant as well. Social judgment and humiliation is the norm.
Being denied the basic dignity of liberty, even if you happen to be somewhere decent, will never be acceptable in my heart. I will never look at a zoo the same way or keeping pets. It hurts to see any living thing denied the choice to live the way they were meant to.
Carole Alden was born 1960 in Orleans, France to American parents. Grew up primarily in northern ldaho and Colorado. Dad was a forestry professor and mother a librarian. Nature and self education were the things I was exposed to the most as a child. They continue to guide the majority of my work. I married young and had five children from two marriages that spanned twenty years. I have no formal education nor art training beyond high school. Drawing was something I took up in prison. Prior to that I was a fiber artist with pieces in multiple museum collections. I taught myself to crochet while incarcerated and continue to create a variety of sculptures and wall hangings for venues ranging from political to natural.Arlene Tucker is an artist and educator. Inspired by translation studies, animals and nature, she finds ways to connect and make meaning in our shared environments. Her process-based artistic work creates spaces and situations for exchange, dialogue, and transformations to occur and surprise all players. She is interested in creating projects that open up ideas and that engage the viewer; that invite the viewer to be a part of the narrative or art creation process. In translation, your participation continues to propel the story. Her chapter, Translation is Dialogue: Language in Transit was published in Translating across Sensory and Linguistic Borders: Intersemiotic Journeys between Media (Editors: Campbell, Madeleine, Vidal, Ricarda, 2019). Tucker developed Free Translation with Anastasia Artemeva. Tucker has been collaborating with Prison Outside since 2017 and is author of Translation is Dialogue (2010). www.translationisdialogue.org
About the guest blogger:Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Before studying art, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University. In this voluntary project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 3,500 prisoners throughout the United States.
I am in the housing unit of a men’s maximum-security prison looking at drawings of a prisoner the others call Columbia.
Most of Columbia’s drawings are cartoons – typical of drawings I see in prison. Among his assortments, I see Sponge Bob, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs, but then I see a drawing of a deer. It is still in the cartoon style but there is something about the drawing making it different and giving it more resonance.
In this mental health unit where individual prison cells line one side of the large room, I go to Columbia’s cell asking about the deer drawing.
Columbia describes how he was a deer hunter and while hunting came upon a deer in the woods; not particularly unusual for deer hunting. But while he placed his scope upon the deer, he was struck by the deer’s returning gaze upon him and in this look, Columbia said, I could see all the perspectives of the deer at once. It was the impact of the deer looking back at him that Columbia attempted to convey in the drawing.
While some may dismiss the magic of deer’s return look as crazy talk – after all, we are in this prison mental health unit – I think otherwise. Instead I think of a statement made by the nineteenth century French painter Cezanne on drawing landscape. Cezanne said, the landscape speaks to me.
As a visual dialogue with landscape, Cezanne does not see a thing-with-facts, but rather experiences a relationship. Cezanne knows not to impose his intention on this dialogue; neither his preconceptions nor what he thinks he should draw into the creative process.
In the flash of the deer’s gaze, Columbia had a Cezanne-moment where preconceived knowledge is abandoned enabling him to draw the deer in all its perspectives and making photographic or geometric logic irrelevant.
In another prison in another state, Nathan draws in the designated corner. I don’t know how long he has been in this prison or for how long he will be here. His is a crime that, I’ve concluded in my years of going to prisons, everyone is capable of committing in the perfect storm of any life.
Mostly, I leave Nathan to his drawings and constructions. Although Nathan draws what he sees from life, he quickly turns his focus upon the drawing paper. While some may suggest that he works from imagination, this doesn’t really describe the process. Nathan is still in conversation but it is now with the marks on his paper pulling him into the world; thus preventing him from falling into the solipsism and visual redundancy that often happens when the artist feels imagination and self-oriented intention reign. Marks and materials have voices of their own and listening to them leads Nathan to new territories in this corner of the prison.
That prison is a closed system makes for reshuffling materials; tattoo becomes drawings, magazines are copies and rarely is the immediate surrounding world – the one that is necessary for dialogue – used as a source for creating art. The world is seen through a mirror darkly and then profusely copied.
Rarely do I see drawings where the prisoner-artist is looking directly at the world without the filters of another’s eyes through photographs. Prison drawings departing from copying photographs are often misunderstood and dismissed by other prisoners and prison staff in the demand for rendering photo-realism.
Perhaps, equating good art with the ability to copy a photograph may not be peculiar to prison. Public opinion as reflected on Instagram suggests the general population also regards ability to copy a photograph as great art.
When the prisoner Daniel in another prison shows me a portfolio of drawings that looks like any other sheet of tattoo drawing, I ask the class, how does a tattoo get authority as art? Daniel suggests skill, someone else suggests ink, and another says design.
None of the above, I say, the tattoo gets authority from the body – from the arm, leg, neck, or whatever body part upon which it exists. Take the tattoo off the body and it becomes a sorry deflated balloon.
Somewhat miffed that I didn’t praise his tattoo drawings, Daniel agrees saying, I’ve been sitting in my cell for 11 years wondering why I couldn’t get the same affect as an actual tattoo.
The artist cannot demand that a medium do what he or she wants the medium to do. As I tell the prisoner-artists, If you ever been in a flood, you know that water does what water wants, and the water in a watercolor is no different; falling and spreading upon the paper as it will. Some of the students have been in floods and all have known falling.
If the artist is but one voice in a larger choir consisting of materials, mediums, color physics, so on, and whose voices are as important as the artist’s, what happens to self-expression?
When I ask my class if there is self-expression, because, after all, each one of them is the sum total of everyone they ever met, quoting some post-modern philosopher I forgotten, Samuel retorts, if I am the sum total of everyone I ever met, then why ain’t that sum total in here with me?! A good question.
However, the question is not whether there is a self, but whether there is individual expression?
If I were intent on expressing myself it is likely my delivery would be more propaganda than expression, more thinking than experience, more hope than feelings; consisting of a visual running commentary of expectations from both myself and others. In other words, it is hard to discern what is truly my individual expression. This becomes particularly true in prison where individual expression may make or break a parole hearing.
Instead of self-expression, drawing becomes an act of listening in which there is no imposed agenda upon what is seen and thus allowing the visual dialogue to emerge. Translating this to the class, I ask them to forget meaning, forget expressing themselves and embark on a descriptive exploration of the world.
The prisoner Kaey takes issue with this. He believes that in order for his art to be significant, he must create meaning in it.
I hear both prisoner and non-prisoner artists say; I want to make something meaningful in my art – not realizing that meaning cannot be created or manufactured; that the construction of meaning leads to something contrived like an insincere Hallmark card.
Meaning is a funny thing. If we are lucky meaning shows itself; meaning that is always there, meaning that is always already, meaning that is always everywhere; meaning that is larger than we, and meaning that we can never reach because meaning continuously extends.
But how is meaning revealed? This was my question when I created the project Dear Self/Dear Other for the prisoners in the through-the-mail art curriculum.
It is my belief that meaning is revealed in the everyday images that make up our lives; personal images not created, not copied but excavated. And when the artist relinquishes control over meaning, these forgotten or ignored images surfaces – not necessarily to be understood but to be experienced.
In my own art, there is a primitive house on stilts that emerges in various forms throughout my paintings, sculpture and monoprints. I accepted its presence without knowing why until a viewer asked about its meaning at an exhibition.
Looking at the painting, I suddenly realized it was an image from when I was six years. This was a time when my family of five lived over a brothel in Little Havana, Miami after my father lost our Philadelphia upper-middle class house in a series of poker games, my baby sister was born dead, and my mom went temporarily crazy.
But on a fun family daytrip to Key West beating the heat of Miami, I discovered a house on stilts that appears seemingly planted over the water. And while the ocean rushed beneath the house creating a sense of magic, I imagined us living in that house above the surf where my mother would be happy. Looking back to the viewer’s face at the exhibition, I realized; oops too much information.
Had I considered the connection myself while painting it, the information would have been too much for me interfering with the process of painting. Free of my awareness, the painting emerged with its own voice allowing it to exist independently of what it meant to me and whatever message I might have imparted to it. Knowing the history of my haphazard child is not a vital factor in experiencing my art.
Knowing that what is seen in the past continues to impact upon the present, I asked the participants in the Dear Self project to draw what they saw at six years of age. But the waters of childhood are dangerous and, often, there is no house on stilts.
Nicholas writes that when he began drawing what he saw at 6 years old, nightmares from the past started to torment me, so I had to stop.
Reggie sends me a drawing of a lynching apparently occurring when he was 6 years old in 1959 in Philadelphia. I am not sure if he saw the lynching or heard about it. In either respect, I cannot help but wonder to what extent this early image of a lynching had upon Reggie whose life subsequently became one of violence; a history including his own violence towards others and, as he reports, being raped by the guards at Eastern State Penitentiary at 17 years old when he was first incarcerated.
Another prisoner writes of beatings he endured by his mother. The many stories from prisoners of being abused and neglected as children make it understandable why copying celebrity photographs may be preferable as the form of art in prison and why Kaey wants to invent meaning rather than to discover it.
But, art is not an escape from living; it is an entry into it; art not as therapy but art as breathing – taking everything in and out, good and bad for the creative gristmill.
When I leave Columbia’s prison, it is night and I drive the mile prison driveway to the main road through the white deer sanctuary that surrounds the prison. I don’t know why the prison is built here although I later learn that the white deer is the symbol of redemption for Native Americans.
I did ask on my initial meeting with the Deputy Superintendent what would happen if I felt compelled to walk the beautiful paths through the high surrounding scrubs. She answers, you will be shot, making me think the vocabulary of redemption does not exist in this prison and the white deer are irrelevant to their programming.
But on this evening’s drive out, the moon is full and when I see its light reflected on the white deer in the scrubs, I see them as shooting stars. And as these deer appearing like stars turn to look at me, I think of Columbia.
Later, I paint a white deer. At the bottom of the painting, I add the following words for Columbia knowing he may never walk the beautiful paths.
At night, when others sleep and the officers are playing cards, I become the white deer blinded in the headlight of the moon, And I am.
About the guest blogger: Elana Pritchard is a cartoonist in Los Angeles. Before she landed in jail she worked as an animator on Ralph Bakshi’s film, Last Days of Coney Island. She is currently doing a Kickstarter to finish her animated cartoon, The Circus: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/341471863/the-circus
It’s been about a week since the comics I did inside the LA County jail system were first published in the LA Weekly, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the response. People from all over the world have written to me expressing their support for what I have done and their contempt for inhumane practices for incarcerated peoples everywhere. I have been in communication with the LA County Sheriff’s department and they have told me that due to these comics they have issued a new policy that all inmates must be given showers within 24 hours of entering the jail. We are scheduled to meet next week to discuss further improvements. And throughout all of this it seems the original, humble message of these comics is sticking: that we were people. Even though we had a barcode on our wrist with a number and were called “bodies” by the staff, we were still people.
Many people in jail are still on trial and haven’t even been found guilty or innocent yet. Many people made mistakes that you or I have made before in private, only they got caught. There were mothers in there that missed their children. There were kind people in there that cared about the arts and cared about each other. I drew these comics to make us all laugh and remind us that even though there was a whole group of of people with badges and better clothes than we had telling us we didn’t matter… we DID matter and we WERE PEOPLE.
In that the comics were successful, and for that I am proud.
All images were first published in the LA Weekly, 2015
This article on Black History Month by Judith Tannenbaum was originally posted on AOLNews.com on 2/4/11
Say how ya doing
Do you remember me?
I’m that intricate part
Missing from the whole
The one y’all decided to forget …
Coties Perry wrote these words 25 years ago at San Quentin. For more than three decades, I’ve shared poetry in public schools and state prisons, and because the youngsters and prisoners I’ve worked with are most often unheard and excluded, I cherish Coties’ poem.
Who do we (those of us with some power) forget when we talk about history, public policy and what it means to be human? Which children do we nurture? Which do we shun?
These questions led me to say yes when Spoon Jackson — like Coties, my student at San Quentin long ago — suggested that we write a two-person memoir.
Spoon grew up in the 1960s in a cement shack in Barstow, Calif. The second youngest of 15 boys, he was beaten both at home and at school, by white teachers and black teachers. As he writes in “By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives,” the book that we wrote on his suggestion, “It was equal opportunity paddling on me back in those days of the Civil Rights Movement.”
I grew up 10 years before Spoon, in a large, extended Jewish family. Los Angeles isn’t that far from Barstow, but we were worlds apart. Our mothers both loved us, and we were both children with lots of curiosity and imagination. But my life was filled with opportunity, whereas Spoon’s elementary school principal pulled the little boy aside to tell him, “Boy, you will never graduate from high school.”
The adults around me talked all the time — stories, questions, musings, opinions — and they wanted to hear what I had to say.
Spoon, on the other hand, writes, “Pre-prison, my life had never been one of words. I could barely read, and I spoke as my father did to me, in one-word sentences, shrugs or by nodding my head.”
During the months I was on trial, I sat stunned by all the words the DA used. I had no idea what these words meant, and I told myself then that I would not let unknown words trap me. I started studying the dictionary in the county jail and reading all I could. I began to awaken the sleeping student inside me and took my first steps on my journey.
Spoon’s journey forced him to “wake up”:
I checked out all the books I could get from the prison library and education department. In one notebook I wrote down definitions. I used my favorite words in sentences in another notebook. I became enraptured with words and reading. I said certain words aloud many times and pondered a word in the way I thought of the garden in front of the prison chapel, or a sparrow singing in the tree by the captain’s porch.
As Spoon says, “All rehabilitation is self-rehabilitation.” But self-rehabilitation is nourished, as Spoon’s was back when our prisons offered a wide range of programming, by opportunities like the ones I was given as a child. Opportunities all children deserve; opportunities that would certainly lead to fewer people in prison.
Black History Month honors the forces and flows that shape a people and our nation. Coties Perry and Spoon Jackson — along with Elmo Chattman, Smokey Norvell and so many more former students — are part of black history. Not only as representatives of statistics about black men in prison, but also as individuals with particular human experience — the child each was, the adult he’s become.