On May 23, 2020, in collaboration with The Prison Story Project, the Justice Arts Coalition will be presenting a premiere screening of “On the Row,” a documentary created by The Prison Story Project that explores the humanity and stories of men currently on death row. As part of our larger Create + Connect: Online Workshop Series, JAC feels privileged to be a part of this vital dialogue, and looks forward to your attendance at this screening. JAC recently spoke to Kathy McGregor, Founder and Project Director at The Prison Story Project. Her profound words are below.
To register for the “On the Row” screening, which will be presented on May 23 @3:00 pm EST, visit this link.
Since 2012, The Prison Story Project has entered correctional centers in Arkansas to give
women and men the tools to tell their stories. We believe that no voice should be silenced, and we hope through staged readings of the women’s and men’s writing that we will help bridge the gap between the incarcerated and the communities to which they hope to return.
In May of 2016, The Prison Story Project gained unprecedented access to the men on death row. We knew that these men had, through violent acts, silenced the voices of innocent lives forever. We entered partly on impulse, partly on faith, and partly because we could. The men on the row initially met us with curiosity and a good deal of resistance. They wanted to know what was in it for us. They feared we would manipulate or exploit them. They didn’t trust us. Over six months, through mailings and visits, we asked them to tell their stories. Many of our proven strategies failed. The men on the row told us they were different from other prisoners and that we couldn’t possibly understand them. However, they kept trying and we kept trying. The magic of looking a person in the eye and treating him like a human being started to take hold, and without a doubt the men on the row were powerful writers with stories that surprised us with their insights and emotional depth. They didn’t dwell on their pasts or blame others for their crimes. Some of them had found an immense peace that eludes many of us in the free world, and they wanted to share it purely out of gratitude for having found it. By facing their crimes, enduring their sentences, and accepting their impending deaths, they each found ways to survive and retain their humanity. Their writing exploded, and by our final class we saw each other eye to eye. They trusted us, they said. We
had just gotten our first glimpse of them, we said back.
We didn’t know how they would react to our presentation of their writing. They had put up resistance all along and doubted that we could properly represent their stories. On October 8, 2016, the day of the inside performance, we showed up with an entourage of two poets, a storyteller, five actors, and a musician. We brought snacks. We chatted. We threw a little party in one of the darkest corners in America. When the performance started, we fell to silence and listened deeply. As one of the men on the row wrote us afterwards in a thank you letter, we were all transformed by the writing we heard that day: inmates, teachers, and actors. The writing, he said, culminated in something that’s bigger than all of us.
The Governor of Arkansas signed orders on February 27, 2017 for an unprecedented 8
executions over 10 days to begin just after Easter. Four of the men scheduled participated in this project. Stacey Johnson and Don Davis received stays. Jack Jones was executed on April 24, 2017, and Kenneth Williams was executed on April 27, 2017. Many of us held silent vigil at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, AR on each of the scheduled execution dates as the defense lawyers and Attorney General filed briefs with the Arkansas Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court literally up to minutes before the death warrants expired at midnight. One participant described the vigils as feeling like silent screams.
The film screening of “On The Row” reminds us all of the humanity of the men on the row and the redemption they have found during twenty plus years of being locked away in solitary confinement. They are profoundly grateful to be heard and share their stories. And we are lucky to be able to hear them.
For more information on the Prison Story Project:
Matt Henriksen, Prison Story Project Creative Writing Director for “On The Row” Kathy McGregor, Prison Story Project Founder and Project Director
Fayetteville, AR www.prisonstoryproject.com
William Carlos Williams’ poem on Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting – Landscape with the fall of Icarus:
On visiting a particular prison for the first time to conduct an art workshop with the prisoners, I averted the inevitable invitation of seeing the prison’s Bob Ross mural – that mural painted by a prisoner in the style of the famous public television personality who taught the world – and prisons – the joy of painting.
“Before you show me the Bob Ross mural, I got to tell you, I don’t like Bob Ross nor am I a fan of his teaching.” The prisoners were surprised I knew of the prison’s mural. More surprising was that I didn’t like Bob Ross’s art, “You mean, you don’t like him?” Most surprising was being direct in saying so. But teaching in various prisons in several states and having a through-the-mail art project with 700 prisons throughout the United States, I’ve learned that many prisons have such a mural, that Bob Ross has become the Godfather of art in prison, and that in teaching, it is best to be supportive but direct.
Unfortunately, in prison there is little art experience beyond Bob. (My complaint about Bob is that he taught art as formulaic and encouraged the world to paint the sky through his eyes and not the individual’s. This lack of visual autonomy supports the incarceration status.) So when Wendy Jason, the site manager of Prison Arts Coalition suggested creating a network of artist-to-artist correspondence, developing a dialogue on art between artists on the outside and artists on the inside via a conversation through mail, I was enthusiastic. I hesitate to speak of it as a pen-pal service. Pen-pal suggests other things. Instead, this correspondence has the potential of offering a dialogue focused on art knowledge, experience, discussing mediums and techniques, and art philosophy. Since by definition a conversation goes both ways, the art experience of both parties can be expanded.
Most artists from the outside will probably not go to prison – there are all sorts of restrictions: time, distance, and so on. But the United States postal service offers another avenue. Developing a relationship focused on art eliminates some of the potential problems of pen-pal correspondence; over dependence upon the person outside, unintended romantic and other potential confusion when the correspondence has no specific focus.
Over the past eight years as volunteer art director of Prisoner Express, a distant learning program, I’ve had numerous writing relationships to prisoners. There are 4500 prisoners in the program and because it is a distant learning program, all prisoners are required to write into the program. We offer numerous projects in which the prisoner can participate. But many prisoners write additional personal letters and inquiries. Many of these inquiries are about art.
Most prison libraries do not have art books. Apparently, they are the first books to get stolen from the library. Beyond Bob Ross, few artists are familiar to prisoners; Michelangelo, Picasso, Van Gogh. Frida has her day in prison, as does M.C. Escher. But other artists, even Rembrandt, are often not understood; as one art student in my prison class suggested, “I wouldn’t give 5 cents for a Rembrandt.” While it isn’t important this prisoner agrees Rembrandt is great, this prisoner’s experience of art might be expanded in understanding why some artists come to the front and some don’t; how art functions within a society beyond aesthetics taste; how art speaks for – or against – a particular race, generation, or class; and how art has influenced the beliefs of society. Art is much more than pretty pictures and self-expression.
I personally receive lots of letters from prisoners and tried through the years to write back to most – a hard task with 4500 prisoners. Sometimes they write after their art was published in the general newsletter, “I’ve been walking on clouds ever since I saw my drawing in the newsletter.” Sometimes the prisoner has a question about one of the art curriculums. Some letters and prisoners stand out.
Raymond first wrote to me six years ago when he was working on a drawing curriculum I sent prisoners who signed up for the course. Raymond seemed excited to work on the different assignments in the curriculum; light and shadow, perspective and other drawing exercises. However, he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to do a successful job because he was currently in solitary confinement and his drawing materials were limited to the single interior cylinder of a pen that is permitted to prisoners in solitary. Pencils are not allowed in the hole. Regardless, he sent me several drawings. From this work, I thought Raymond might be interested in the work of Piranesi, Georges De La Tour and Courbet; sending him photocopies of these artists’ art in my reply letter.
While his drawings were compelling, it was his questions that evoked my interest. The questions suggested a person searching for greater understanding of both art and who he was in relationship to art.There are those letters from prisoners who are not interested in learning. These letters suggest a need for an affirmation of their existing skills; “I’m the greatest artist in prison,” writes Donald. While trying to be as supportive as possible, I am drawn to those artists who are willing to expand and challenge what they are already doing. Of course, the self can be challenged and battered in prison, and re-affirmation is important. But I understand my relationship to the prisoners is not as their counselor. Instead I am a person to whom they can talk about art. It just so happens that in pushing the parameters of art, people learn about themselves and gain strength from this knowledge.
Raymond’s questions seemed to reach beneath the surface exploring a deeper meaning in art. In response to the images of Courbet and De La Tour, Raymond asked, “What is the difference between Courbet and De La Tour?” On a superficial level, it is easily recognized they are both painters of people with the obvious difference of being from different eras. But I realized Raymond was picking up something more fundamental. Assessing their difference, I realized that Raymond was discerning the artists’ use of figures in their painting reflecting the sea change in how art functioned within society. Courbet developed social commentary through social realism while De La Tour focused on an internal symbolism leaving the immediacy of the world.
Raymond’s thoughtful questions were even more surprising in that he had little formal education outside prison. Raymond was incarcerated at 17 years of age and has been in prison for 20 years. He received his high school GED in prison. With no supportive family, he learned through his own means. Perhaps education has little impact on people’s capacity to understand the depth of art. I’ve heard friends with college education speak in superficial terms about a painting, reminding me of Woody Allen’s joke that after he sped read War and Peace, concluded, ”It was about Russia.”
I often focus on paintings/sculpture of early Renaissance when I send art to prisoners – perhaps a little archaic for today’s inclusiveness. But I understand that the prisoners with whom I write and meet in prison are often interested in classical drawing, and although some will argue, no one seems to draw as well – either before or after – as the white boys of the Renaissance. (When Renaissance women and minorities, overlooked by history, are found, they will greatly contribute to this learning.) I am particularly drawn to the paintings of the artists who were struggling to understand form. Raphael gets too perfect for my taste. My painting instructor called him divine because Raphael could draw a perfect circle. But as I wrote to Raymond, “Why draw a perfect circle? – I’m more interested in seeing beyond to where that circle collapses under the burden of being perfect. Hence, I send Raymond, Hans Memling’s diptych of a woman on one panel and a horse with a monkey on the other. Raymond concludes his assessment, “This strange painting is inspiring,” after discussing its awkward-other-worldliness.
Inga Kimberly Brown, another artist writing to prisoners from the PE membership, takes a different approach and sends the prisoners Michael and Manuel more contemporary art. When Manuel sent in art in the style of a silhouette – not knowing of Kara Walker’s work – Inga sent him a packet of her work including the legacy of the silhouette in the history of the American Black and slavery.
Some prisoners only send me their art with no added correspondence. I have enough art from Leroy to have a solo exhibition of his work. While I don’t have intense verbal correspondence with Leroy – often only receiving multiple drawings without a letter – his words on the drawings are humorous. Leroy reaches for the funny side of incarceration in surviving prison. His work has an attractive design quality and I recently learned that Leroy spent much of his childhood accompanying his mother to quilt shows.
Clarence is another prisoner with whom I correspond – although it is mostly Clarence corresponding with me. I receive about five letters a week from him. Clarence is incarcerated in the mental health unit of a maximum-security prison. There is a frenetic quality to his letters and I have boxes and boxes of his letters. I’m not sure when, but at some point of our correspondence, Clarence made me high priestess of a religion he developed. I write this not in disrespect of Clarence or of mental illness. I actually am fond of Clarence’s thinking – he understands things other people find a bit obtuse. Because I can’t always follow his letters, I engage with his letters on a visual plane – finding the marks upon the paper fascinating. Clarence recently sent me a string-bound notebook filled with pages in which every surface is covered with marks on worn paper shredded at the edges – a mysterious artifact. Clarence asks that I keep it safe and so I will.
In his continued letters, Raymond pondered the photocopies of art I sent him with comments and questions about different artists. I sent him Caspar David Friedrich and in response to the painting, Monk on the Sea, Raymond writes:
“First off, the ‘The monk by the Sea’ was considered Friedrich’s most radical composition because he didn’t concern himself with creating an illusion of depth….. This lack of depth gives the piece a flat abstract quality. So my question would be, what separates “abstract” in a painting from just being incomplete.” A legitimate question for someone who has never encountered abstraction in a painting.
Raymond seemed intrigued with the concept of chiaroscuro – those patterns of light and shadows – and drew light as it changed throughout the day in his cell. Light, no matter how little or how much, is always present; even in prison. It becomes an available subject for prisoners to draw.
Exploring light extended to non-artists as when Daniel Perkins became interested in his cellmate’s drawing assignment on light and shadow. Consequently, Daniel spent a month measuring the changing sunrays coming through the window of his cell as the sun moved across the sky:
Later, Raymond asked about that phenomenon artists refer to as lost and found – elements in painting disappearing or becoming more evident; he asked about the difference between an illustration and fine art. In one letter, Raymond asked if art needs to explain itself and to what extent a painting/artist is accountable for being understandable. Even if I have no answers for these questions, they offered the opportunity for a thoughtful correspondence.
Sometimes, I get questionable requests from prisoners. I had been writing to Jimmy for a year or two when he asked if I send him pictures of children in swimsuits. He also asked for images of Sally Mann’s photographs, the photographer who took images of her children in the nude. I have no idea whether Jimmy is in prison for sexual predatory behaviors, but the request seemed wrong.
Perhaps, it was an innocent request. In teaching at a men’s maximum-security prison, I brought several books on paintings; including those of Raphael. In viewing the paintings of Raphael’s baby Jesus, I realized the inappropriateness for prison. I told my class that while I was not directing my concerns to them, there were, in fact, individuals in prison who were confused about their sexuality in relationship to children. Therefore, the rule was made that even little baby Jesus had to wear a diaper in prison.
I’m surprised the prison guards allowed the Raphael painting book into prison. It’s hard to believe that the postal mailrooms in prisons are more diligent than the front gate in the search for contraband. Regardless, rules are constant. Some mail rules are obvious with obvious reasons; no nude children, no frontal nudes; no women in chains; no guns. Then there are some not so obvious rules: no blank writing or drawing paper; no stickers (even stickers on the envelops with the return address); no hardbound books; and so on.
Most prisoners, particularly the above Jimmy who has been in prison for more than 20 years, know what is acceptable and what is not. When I find a prisoner making such a request, I experience it as disrespectful. Reiterating my relationship to Jimmy as not his therapist and it wasn’t my desire to point out the inappropriateness of his request, I stopped writing to him. There are so many other individuals with whom to correspond.
When a recent law was enacted in California stating anyone incarcerated at 17 years of age or younger would automatically be scheduled for the parole board, Raymond asked if I would write a letter of recommendation for his hearing. In his letter, Raymond told me why he was in prison – a 17 year old involved in a gang activity. While the other members of the gang were not incarcerated, Raymond was. He felt it was his lack of legal representation.
The question of a prisoner’s crime is one that people often asked – should the prison volunteer know what the prisoner did? I know what most the prisoners have done. As a realist, I’d rather be confronted with the contradiction of my feelings in order to understand them and move on. What I have discovered is that my feelings towards a prisoner are based upon what the prisoner currently brings to the relationship and not on the crime.
Raymond was denied parole. The board was impressed with him, but thought he was too smart, seeing his intelligence as a threat. I wondered if my letter had been a hindrance. For a second hearing, scheduled in the following year, I again wrote a letter of recommendation. In this letter I describe Raymond’s humility as I saw it through his ability to learn which reflected his ability not to know – that state of being vulnerable in allowing oneself not to know.
Granted parole, Raymond will be released from prison this month. In his most recent letter, Raymond thanked me for what he feels to be my insight and experience in helping him become not only a better artist but also a better person. Of course, his praise is more than I deserve. Raymond success is his own.
Raymond now faces the challenges of entering a world he has very little experience of – he grew up in prison. He writes how exciting but also how frightening this all seems to him. Perhaps through social media, email or even writing, we will continue to discuss the issues of art – that elusive subject giving rise to hope and a structure for understanding.
It is Wendy’s invitation to both artists and individuals with a working interest in the arts to develop friendships with artists who are incarcerated through letter correspondence and the exchange of creative works. In the next couple of weeks, there will be a new page on the Prison Arts Coalition website inviting participation in this art correspondence, which we are calling the pARTner project. You can email Wendy at email@example.com if you would like more information prior to the launch of the project. We imagine that we will very quickly have a long list of artists in prison who are eager to connect with, inspire, and learn from you.
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. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. 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 project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 2,300 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.
It’s been three years since a notebook jot-down outlining the idea for what would become the concept album project Die Jim Crow. I was on the B train to Kingsborough Community College where I was studying history. There was a book in my hand and I was about halfway through it. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
I was twenty-three years old and I wasn’t sure what my truest pas- sion was. Music? Filmmaking? History? Activism? I’m halfway through the book, about two stops from the end of the line and I write down:
“A concept album* called The New Jim Crow (*a la Amused to Death).”
Yes, my title—not too original. We’ll call it an homage. Amused to Death? A concept album by Roger Waters about humans amusing them- selves to death with TV. The album came out pre-internet. Worth listening to. It’s use of repeating musical themes, intense builds between tracks, and dark sociopolitical commentary appealed to me. Later on Pink Floyd’s The Wall (which Waters also wrote) would become a greater inspiration.
I’m a Jew from the Lower East Side of New York City who has not been to prison. Why did I care? To start with, the book in my hand. I was reading about this very current and domestic human rights crisis, so well researched in Alexander’s book, beautifully articulated—but I was lacking the personal stories. I wanted to hear it from the folks who were living the “New Jim Crow.”
I got off at the last stop and waited for the bus. “If I take on this project, I am going to meet people who I will know for the rest of my life. People who will change my life forever.” The bus arrives.
Growing up in L.E.S, I saw a lot—drug dealers, drug addicts, prostitutes, parolees, you name it. In my late teens I met a man who was all of the above at one point or another. He became a close friend. Alexander Pridgen. You can find a movie I made about him on the internet.
I knew others who’d done time as well. A few of them I considered friends. But I had no idea, prior to reading The New Jim Crow, of the scope of the issue: so many affected, so historically rooted, so nationwide, so many things.
I could elaborate on other reasons for becoming obsessed with this project, but I’ll keep it simple and turn these reasons into a question, one I’m still asking today. What is freedom?
Three years and hundreds of prison letters later, here I am — but much more importantly — here WE are. Die Jim Crow has gone from a notebook scribble to a realized project involving artists formerly and currently incarcerated from all over the country. Recordings have been done with formerly incarcerated artists in Wichita, KS; New Orleans, LA; Philly, PA; and Brooklyn, NY. At Warren Correctional Institution, a close-security state prison in Ohio, myself and DJC co-producer/ engineer dr. Israel have worked closely with solo artists on their music, in addition to the prison’s 22-member choir UMOJA (“unity” in Swahili).
From this body of work, we are thrilled to present to you the Die Jim Crow EP — the first sample of what the Die Jim Crow full length album will sound like.
Because digital is how most people consume music these days, we’ve decided to release an accompanying book that honors the many artists and stories on this album. Die Jim Crow is a massive project in scope, and all the energy that went into this EP simply could not be contained in a short digital booklet. And that’s just the six song sample.
The Die Jim Crow LP, a full length double album of 20+ original tracks, will also have a book accompaniment, and hopefully much more. Although the project is still in its early stages (it takes years to lay the groundwork for a project like this, so far three and counting), it feels like a natural and necessary progression for this music to be toured across America, especially in areas hit the hardest by mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow. But why stop there? In order to catapult great change, the music should also reach those of other backgrounds and political leanings—so wide promotion and international touring is also part of the plan.
The LP tells a three act story: pre-prison, prison, reentry. Similar to the LP, the Die Jim Crow EP follows this three act trajectory — albeit in a looser way. The first two songs take place outside the penitentiary walls (with “My Name Be Jim Crow” in some sort of strange farcical history land and “Tired and Weary” in a jail and a courtroom), the next two strictly in prison, and the final tracks back on the streets: wandering, exhausted, in a nightmare, broke, homeless, lost, beat — but not broken.
Also reminiscent of the soon-to-be LP, this album features artists from across the country — often within the same song — both in prison and formerly incarcerated. For example, “Headed to the Streets” was written by B.L. Shirelle during her incarceration, sent to Mark Springer and Anthony McKinney at Warren Correctional Institution for composition, discussed for months between myself, Mark, and Ant over the phone and in letters, then recorded at WCI with a full band and Ant on the first hook and verse. Once B.L. was released from Muncy State Correctional Institution in December 2015, dr. Israel and I drove down to Philly and recorded her vocal there. This unique method of song-making —— a combination of production inside and outside prison walls—is what I’ll call the “Die Jim Crow model.”
The one song on the Die Jim Crow EP that does not feature vocals and/or instrumentation from Warren Correctional Institution is “Plastic Bag,” which was written, co-performed, and lived by Carl Dukes. Dukes spent 31 years in New York State prisons only to return to the streets homeless, even though his parole officer had promised him housing. The powerful outro is the voice of Apostle Heloise, who served four years also in the NYS system.
I hope this project creates constructive dialogue and action. Confronting and dismantling the broken American incarceration machine will take a mountain of work, of which Die Jim Crow is an exciting part. I hope the music makes you feel something real, something deep, something both disempowering and empowering, and puts you in the shoes of the artists who created it.
This piece was re-posted, with permission, from PrisonWriters.com. The author, Lyle C. May, is on Death Row in North Carolina.
In early childhood, writing was this scrawling the symbols of English language with little understanding of their purpose. Large, crooked letters staggered like drunks across the page, jockeying for position and uniformity. My letter R was often backward, the vowels never really touched the bottom line and I couldn’t quite get the hang of the lower case k. Their meaning was a vague thing in my mind. I knew the alphabet made words used in speech and books, but that was all. The power of language, a tiny part of a vast universe, was beyond my experience and unimaginable.
My adolescence was marked by an inability to express my thoughts and emotions. I floundered with how to speak my mind and these unsaid things turned into hungry rats gnawing on my nerves. Communicating as a shy teenager is hard enough, but instead of overcoming my social anxieties and reaching out to those who could help me, I chose less idealistic ways — unhealthy and delinquent ways.
Writing about the difficulties plaguing my life never occurred to me. In my mind there was too much garbage crowding out common sense and good ideas.
My first real understanding of writing as a way of communicating arrived without fanfare. I was locked up in the Maine youth center and had no access to a phone. The only way to reach the outside world was by letter.
Not until my imprisonment on death row at the age of 21 did I begin to fully realize how important writing can be. Initially my letters to friends and family were unclear and fell short of what I wanted to say. How do you explain the situation like facing execution? It took time, a lot of practice, and this overwhelming need to be understood before my writing could evolve enough to help others see from my eyes.
About eight years into my incarceration I was granted the opportunity to enroll in some college courses. Though my education ended with a GED attained when I was 17, I was more than ready to take up the challenge of a higher education. Among the first few things to open my mind was that everything I read had to be conveyed in the clearest possible manner. Demonstrating this in writing went hand in hand with comprehension. Maybe, if I paid more attention in school and didn’t drop out my sophomore year, comprehensive reading and writing wouldn’t have seemed like some new and fabulous skill that swelled my chest with its potential.
It helps that since coming to prison I have fallen in love with reading. I began reading to take my mind away from the things beyond my control. This in turn revealed to me the power of writing to influence minds. Not exactly new, groundbreaking stuff, but to me this was an epiphany. The writing and psychology courses showed me that reading requires reflection and analysis just like our lives do. Understanding the nuances of the English language and value of being proficient with it has greatly improved how I write and think. Writing makes life possible in any circumstance.
In the years since my incarceration I found that writing is a tool more useful than any other, one that’s always existed in my life. Since learning how to use it, writing has become a crucial element of my survival in prison because it’s the only way I can prove my continued existence to the rest of the world. Edward Bulwer Lytton may have said “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but for me it has become the skeleton key for every locked door barring my way. I seek now to find the door it has yet to open, appreciating the power of writing throughout my journey.