Making Meaning: a caged bird sings

by Page Dukes

I was released from prison last May, after serving ten years for a crime I committed as a heroin-addicted teenager. I have spoken publicly many times since, about the decisions and circumstances that led me to the criminal justice system. However, at the Art for Justice Forum held at Emory University Law School, I was asked to talk about the role music has played in my life, how it both kept me free on the inside and has helped me to have confidence and livelihood in my newfound freedom.

I was around music my entire life. The daughter of musicians, I toured the country and sang on stage with my mother from as early as 3 years old. I played the cello in elementary school, switching to the guitar when I discovered punk rock. My best friend and I formed a band when we were 13 and played on stages (with big black X’s on our hands) all over Atlanta. It was around that time that I began to “experiment” with drugs— my ambition to use matched and eventually surpassed my ambition to play music. By 18 I was shooting a deadly mix of heroin and cocaine daily, and by my 21st birthday I’d committed armed robbery.

In the jail, I got clean for the first time in many years. I realized all I had given up, all I had to lose and to live for. At the Art for Justice forum, I remembered the time a volunteer let me play her guitar after a jailhouse church service—how grateful I had been to her, how I probably scared her with my weeping, and how that moment was the first time I had felt anything in a long, long time. That was perhaps the first in a series of releases—in which I opened up a little at a time, and began to grow, in the darkest, dankest of places: the basement of the Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice Street.

There were long years when I didn’t get to play at all. I sang a lot when it was all I had. I remember finding spaces where the acoustics carried and amplified my voice— in the dungeon below the courthouse, where we sat shackled, anxiously awaiting an uncertain fate, or to be sent back without any answers at all; or in the visitation room, where we waited to be “shaken down,” having watched our families leave crying, trying to reassure them that we were okay.

It was in that room that I last saw Kelly Gissendanner, who was killed after 18 years on death row, having turned her life around and become a pillar of hope and encouragement in the prison community. She’d been visiting with her children in the room where they kept her quarantined from the rest of us. After her death warrant was issued, they had stopped letting her attend church and classes with us. I knew it may be the last time I would see her, so I sang for her. I cried, and she cried, and she thanked me. In Kelly’s last hours, she sang “Amazing Grace.”

Music is something that could not be taken from us. In a place designed to dehumanize you, where you’re told you are worthless—a uniform, a number, a discarded sub-citizen—you must make your own meaning. The system is not designed to rehabilitate, but to “correct–” to punish. I knew where my meaning was—music was my first religion—and I also believed that I would survive and thrive no matter how large the obstacles I had placed in my way.

How many others bought the view that their lives were worthless? That they were defined by their crimes, that they will never be anything more than a number, a statistic, an “offender.” The system will strip you of everything, even your humanity, if you let it. And once that happens what do you have left to lose?

The first panelist, Rachel May, a co-founder of Synchronicity Theatre, hosts theater workshops, where they give young girls in juvie the platform to tell their own stories. I remembered young girls who were in solitary confinement until their eighteenth birthdays. I remembered the ones who felt they had nothing to lose, facing long sentences, longer even than the one I had faced in my youth. And I hope that they find the freedom I did in music and in art and in words, that they will inspire others inside, and one day speak to an audience who wants to know how they made it through.

Another panelist had been making art since a childhood teacher had encouraged him to do so. In prison, he honed his portraiture skills, capturing the character of each person who lived in his unit, in graphite on paper. Like music, it was more than just a talent. It helped him to know who he was, and how he could serve a purpose in a void of meaning. It also helped him to develop his skill—one that would sustain him when he faced the task of finding work with a record.

I sang and played in the chapel services for my last three years at Lee Arrendale State Prison. I’ve since met women who tell me they remember hearing me sing in church— and they thanked me. It humbled me, that my voice and my music could have such an effect, could be a conductor for the same peace, beauty and transcendence that it brought me.

I talked and talked and talked at the Forum, until I realized I had taken up all the time. It was strange and wonderful to be asked about my experience with music in prison. The transformative power of art is no new idea—everyone has felt it, and yet we forget that the people who have been condemned, hidden out of sight and out of mind, need it too. The artist in a world without color, the musician in a room with only her voice bouncing off cement walls, the writer stripped down to the basics of pen and paper and his words—they are bound and confined, but their inner lives are rich, and they matter.

About the guest contributor:

Page Dukes is a formerly incarcerated writer, musician and college student. She grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of a touring singer/ songwriter who brought her along on the road during school breaks. She experienced life on the road with her mom and played in her own band back home, but started using drugs in her early teens, and by the age of 18 was hopelessly addicted to heroin. She committed armed robbery at 20 and served the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison. While incarcerated she taught writing classes in the GED program, studied theology with the Atlanta Theological Association, trained and re-homed shelter dogs with the Forever Friends Canine Rescue, and performed with the Voices of Hope Choir. She was released last May and since has studied journalism and philosophy, worked as a reporting intern at the Marshall Project in New York this summer and the publications chief at the Roar, Piedmont College’s student media. As a founding member of the Athens Reentry Collaborative, she and several post-incarcerated peers work with academics and advocates to provide resources and support to reentering citizens in Athens, Georgia. She recently celebrated 11 and a half years clean.

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.

The 2018 New York Art for Justice Forum at Columbia University

by Philip Hall

In 2018, the creation and discussion of art is widely acknowledged as a vehicle for social justice. Years ago, such a concept would have been largely ignored. Current tightened state budgets, plummeting crime rates, as well as an examination of mass incarceration, is prompting the investigation and support of art as a vehicle for social justice.

New partnerships are helping to force that change.

On November 16, 2018, I attended the New York Art for Justice Forum. This event was presented by Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, Kernochan Center for Law and Media and the Arts at Columbia Law School in collaboration with California Lawyers for the Arts and the Center for Institutional & Social Change at Columbia Law School.

The Art for Justice Forums, convened in five other states (Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia and California), and attended by government officials, educators, teaching artists, advocates, policy makers, and lay persons, was an impressive effort to examine how art can further the national conversation to end mass incarceration by improving rehabilitation services, delinquency prevention and community reentry.

The daylong event had a good turnout, despite a snowstorm that hobbled travel across the state. When I arrived, Katherine Vockins, CEO of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, greeted me. I met Katherine in 1996 at Sing Sing and joined the Theater Workshop program she started with some of the men serving time. Later during the morning, Katherine spoke passionately about the benefits of arts programs in prisons and how she believes that the arts can transform the language around criminal justice.

Anthony J. Annucci, Acting Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the Keynote Speaker, expressed how programs such as Rehabilitation Through the Arts enables the corrections system to reach its goal of improving the institutional and post-release lives of men and women. Commissioner Annucci acknowledged the “traction” rehabilitation has gained as a “penal philosophy,” and the importance of putting a “human face on every incarcerated individual.”

Elizabeth Powers, State Policy Advocate for the Innocence Project, moderated a panel discussion on the impact of the Criminal Justice System upon youth. Panel members took questions from the audience and spoke of art as a bridge to help young people cope with trauma, and to be empowered through sharing their personal narratives. JoAnne Page, Chief Executive Officer of the Fortune Society, led the Arts in the Community discussion. She told the audience how a play written by an incarcerated man in the 1960s, about brutal, dehumanizing prison conditions, became the conceptual pillars for the Fortune Society. Panel member, Piper Anderson, writer, educator and Founder of Create Forward and Mass Story Lab, spoke about her belief that the restorative power of storytelling can be utilized to address the harms of crime, punishment and mass incarceration. She shared the positive impact of storytelling upon the life of Mass Story Lab participant, Lewis Conway, a formerly incarcerated Austin, Texas resident, who became a community organizer, City Council member and mayoral candidate.

After lunch, three breakout sessions were formed: “Youth,” “Adults in Prison” and “In Community to discuss strategies for supporting and gaining recognition of the arts as a viable tool in the struggle for social justice. Forum members reassembled and presented the following ideas:

  • Helping formerly incarcerated persons to sustain interest in the arts after release
  • Surmounting the funding challenges for jail/prison-based arts programs
  • Creating value for arts programs inside correctional facilities
  • Advocating for the recognition of teaching artists as valued professionals in the correctional setting
  • Creating a coalition of arts organizations to share ideas, resources and support
  • Influencing law makers and governors to share resources
  • Demonstrating how arts programs save money
  • Artistic engagement with correctional staff
  • Supporting the artistic work of community engaged practitioners
  • Creating justice for youth as a model
  • Utilizing art to address the anti-social and dehumanizing power of the Prison Industrial Complex
  • Engaging the services of a public relations expert to gain wider support for criminal justice Reform
  • Creating a documentary film about the transformative power of the arts

“Art as a vehicle for social justice” is part of a national discussion that is both timely and overdue. Because it is not a new idea, its advocates must find innovative ways to chart its course. Failure to navigate the current swelling tide of public interest will find the concept receding from focus.

One idea that impressed me called for the creation of or use of an existing documentary film about the transformative power of the arts to be submitted to a film festival. This generated a discussion about the support such an effort could garner. I immediately liked the idea because I have always been awed by the power of film.

Throughout the day, I thought about the power of words as I listened to speakers use terms like, “justice-impacted,” “criminal justice involved” and “returning citizens” to refer to men and women impacted by the Criminal Justice System. Words are loaded with powerful ideas. The old language is stigmatizing and dismissive. But there’s something about the new lexicon that I don’t like; the clinical sound of it all. Those shiny, officious terms always give me the impression that great effort is being made to appear sensitive. Hearing them at the forum made me want to stand up and say: “Your intentions are good. You are invested in the human dignity of the populations referenced. What’s wrong with saying ‘men,’ ‘women,’ ‘children,’ or ‘persons’ when discussing those impacted by the justice system?”

As a playwright, I often consider how we are born into complex social systems that, much like the world of a play, influence our thoughts, sense of self and behavior. Writers like to believe that their characters act upon their own volition, pursuing their needs, sometimes tragically, independent of the story’s context. Undoubtedly, there are social determinants of criminality: poverty, social exclusion, income inequality, racism, and economic factors, to name a few. Neither I, nor the men I knew on the inside, who have taken responsibility for our actions, believe that we have been victims of inexorable social forces, or actors without agency. Instead, we examined our lives, wrestled with our pasts, and took steps to change.

During my incarceration, art was a catalyst for change that compelled me to accept responsibility, develop empathy, a broadened perspective and a sense of myself as more than my past.

As the conference drew to an end, I reflected upon how my friendship with David Rothenberg, Fortune’s founder, began after he attended a public showing of a play I wrote during my incarceration.

That play, “The ‘Nigger’ Trial,” was performed at New York University in 2001, and in 2005 at Sing Sing. I will always appreciate David for taking the time to see the play and recommending it to the public as he hosted his Saturday morning radio show for WBAI. The playwriting skills I developed as a member of Rehabilitation Through the Arts continue to factor into every meaningful, supportive relationship I enjoy today. They gave me what Katherine Vockins referred to as an “honestly earned self-esteem.” That’s a wholesome way of seeing myself. Yes. Art works.

About the guest contributor: 

Philip Hall, 52, born August 17, 1966 in Brooklyn, New York, is the youngest of the five children. In 2016, he was released after a 30-year period of confinement and continues to write. He thanks God for the opportunity he was given to rejoin society.

While incarcerated, Philip participated in numerous rehabilitative programs. He developed his love for plays and playwriting after joining Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) at Sing Sing. In 2001, his play, “The ‘Nigger’ Trial,” was performed at New York University, and in 2005, he was transferred to Sing Sing from a medium security prison to attend the run of the same play.

Several of Philip’s other plays, “Front & Back” and “Corridors” have been performed at Sing Sing and at Playwrights Horizon in New York City to support the work of RTA. Today, Philip works as a Health Counselor at MetroPlus Health of New York and has been accepted into The Fortune Society’s transitional housing program.

Charlie Ghost

by Chelsea Garner-Ferris

I first met Charlie on a humid, London summer’s day in June 2016. A true mountain of a man he was tall, broad, and covered from shaven head-to-toe in elaborate tattoos. We were meeting for the very first time to begin our Mentor/Mentee relationship at a crowded museum café, amidst crowds of people chatting over their designer coffees and overpriced baked goods. I remember being nervous; not because I was meeting someone who had been to prison, but for more common and rational reasons such as: Would he like me? Did I have enough experience to help him? Who was I to think I was in any position to mentor someone else, someone older than me, especially someone who had been in, and then out of prison?

As soon as we started talking, we hit it off. Charlie is smart, charismatic and confident. He presents himself very professionally and is well-spoken. He is a talented artist. He proceeded to show me some of the work in his portfolio as well as the many tattoos that cover his legs, arms and hands that he designed himself. The ultimate goal is to graduate, earning a BA degree in Contemporary Art and Professional Studies, and to also be an exhibited and selling commercial artist. Anyone who has spent time working in the lucrative art world knows, this is no easy feat for anyone in the industry regardless of background, connections, means, etc.

La Vie en Rose
La Vie en Rose, Posca paint pen on card

Over the next year we would meet once a month, usually somewhere in London. We would traverse the city, visit museum and gallery exhibitions, discussing our findings over lunch at Pret-A-Manger. We would work on his Artist Statement, Biography and CV, research the launch and use of a website, as well as integrating social media to try and get his name and profile out into the art world. We would canvas, critique his work, and usually end up discussing rugby or American football at least once every session – he’s a big fan.

I think I was always most impressed by Charlie’s drive and entrepreneurial spirit. He has sold spray-painted shoes, tote bags, T-shirts and canvases locally and at Camden market stalls. He was always the first to strike up a conversation with gallery owners or fellow artists. He had cards and stickers made, which he designed. He entered (and was often selected for) countless exhibitions and art contests. He bought an old VW caravan and restored it for use as a traveling studio space. He is, and always was motivated and keen to succeed.

Tea for Turk
Tea for Turk, spray paint

The next few years were not always easy for Charlie. He faced criticism, had trouble finding steady employment because he legally has to disclose his past, and put himself through school which was a financial strain. All the while he persisted and maintained this intense, but also very assertive positivity. He was always incredibly grateful for my time, but in all honesty I think I probably learned more from him than the other way around.

Dead Ringer
Dead Ringer, Charcoal on Fabriano Paper

There are moments in Charlie’s past that he is not proud of… events that occurred that if given the chance to do over, he would behave differently. But don’t we all have those moments in life? I realized that we were more or less the same, he and I, one life-altering difference being that I have never had my mistakes made public, my dirty laundry hung out for everyone to see. I made the decision then that it was not within my rights to judge him. As part of the mentoring program’s privacy and security, the details of their participants’ offenses, and their legal names, were never disclosed.

My time working with Charlie through the Koestler Trust program came to an end after about a year of meetings, and a couple of years later my husband and I moved back to the US. We keep in touch though, via email, and I try and check in on his website from time to time to see what he’s been creating. Recently we were in touch and he had some great news to share: he recently graduated and completed his degree with First Class Honors (the highest level of achievement in the UK’s degree system); his artwork was recently shortlisted, making it through to the final round of the juried Royal Academy’s 250th Summer Exhibition in London; he is employed full-time at a local Tattoo Studio, some of his recent work can be viewed on his Instagram feed; and he has been selected as one of Posca Pens/Uniball’s sponsored artists for their upcoming marketing campaign.

If Horses Were Wishes, Beggars Would Ride
If Horses Were Wishes, Beggars Would Ride, charcoal on Fabriano Paper

I wanted to write this post and tell his story because I believe his efforts, and his artwork deserve recognition. To this day, I do not know what Charlie was convicted of or why he served time, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is his unwavering determination to use his love for art, and his talent and skill to create a fulfilling life for himself and his family moving forward. I hope by sharing this, it will inspire and encourage others. I am immensely proud of his accomplishments and to know him, and wish him every ongoing success in future.

Charlie resides in the United Kingdom and goes by his artist’s pseudonym Charlie Ghost, his mural tag is Ghost13 Murals. You can see further artwork on his website, http://charlieghost.wixsite.com/cghost and his Instagram handle is @charlieghost1886.

About the guest contributor:
Chelsea Garner-Ferris resides in Florida after spending nearly a decade in London, UK. She holds a BS degree in Interior Design from The Florida State University and an MA in Art History and Visual Culture from Richmond, The American International University in London. Chelsea has experience in the contemporary art market, artist liaison and mentoring experience through the UK-based Koestler Trust. She is also a freelance writer, editor and published author. Chelsea can be contacted via email at chelsgarner@gmail.com.
In Crust We Trust
In Crust We Trust, acrylic on wall
In Crust We Trust
In Crust We Trust

All artwork by Charlie Ghost.

 

A Day of Hope: a report from the Alabama Art for Justice Forum

by Leasa Brock

The day began with a cool breeze and overcast sky that let us know fall had arrived at Auburn University. Upon entering the elegant Jule Collins Museum of Fine Art, staff members of the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project welcomed everyone to the Alabama Art for Justice Forum. It was warm and inviting. We were here to discuss challenges and opportunities of improving participation and access to arts and education. Representatives from higher education, corrections, advocates, policy makers and interested members from the community came from Alabama, California, New York, Tennessee, Florida and elsewhere.

I was honored to be here by invitation from Kyes Stevens, founder and director of the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project. I came to know her when I was incarcerated at Julia Tutwiler prison in Wetumpka, Ala. Her group APAEP came into the prison with classes for prisoners. I was lucky enough to get a spot in the class and it was an amazing experience. It combined writing and some movement exercises. It brought me closer to my classmates. We developed trust and friendship – something not found in prison. I have since gotten out of there and continue to correspond and follow her and the program through social media. I came to the forum to listen and maybe get involved with her work.

I was excited to be here and felt a little out of place with these notable people.

The APAEP hosted the forum with partners such as the Art for Justice Fund, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Hancock Fund, and the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art and the Auburn College of Architecture, Design and Construction. It was also made possible by California Lawyers for the Arts through their groundbreaking national project funded by the Arts for Justice Fund, which is administered by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

Opening remarks by Stevens acknowledged the diverse and talented group in attendance and she thanked her staff and others for bringing the forum together. She encouraged forum attendees to listen, feel free to ask questions and give personal comments after each session. Taffye Benson Clayton, inaugural Vice President and Associate Provost for Inclusion and Diversity at Auburn, welcomed everyone to the campus and made clear that Auburn University supports and will continue to be at the center of efforts for arts for justice in Alabama.

Moderator Mark Wilson, Coordinator of Community and Civic Engagement in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn, began the first session by introducing Barb Bondy, a visual artist and Professor of Art in the Art & Art History department at Auburn University and the artist Sonia Turley-Landers of Panama City, Florida.

Bondy has taught 12 classes for APAEP. She told of her experiences in prison classrooms and the changes and transformations she witnesses as students gain the ability to express their own ideas. She said that there is a spark of confidence to learn and create that carries over into her own experiences as a teacher.

Sonia Turley-Landers, a former APAEP student at Tutwiler said the program is a ‘light’ in the darkness. It helped her gain confidence and positivity. She thinks art, poetry, and English classes in prison change and build trust among prisoners. She said the opportunity to take these classes affected her day to day behavior for the better because she didn’t want to jeopardize her chance to go to class. Reciting a poem she wrote in a class, she said she believes that education is a great equalizer. She is now a sought-after artist in Panama City, Florida.

A Q &A was then moderated by Wilson. The audience asked about the non-grading aspect of the classes in prisons and the possibility of a community art show.

Th next session was moderated by Joan R. Harrell, a lecturer and the Diversity Coordinator for the College of Liberal Arts School at Auburn University. She introduced Carol Potok, Director of Aid to Inmate Mothers, and Al Head, director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Potok has been with Aid to Inmate Mothers for 21 of the 31 years it has existed. She discussed her program and said she has seen a healing effect that the ADAEP classes have on students. She believes the classes help mothers connect with each other.

Al Head said arts and education for inmates is an investment for the future. He said he has learned a lot through years of working with Kyes Stevens at APAEP and with programs for youthful offenders. He said the programs help make our communities safer in the long run. We all agree. He referenced Birmingham’s “Studio by the Tracks.” and recommended partnerships with any and all groups to help reach out.

Next, successful Tennessee artist Omari Booker talked about his experience with art education programs in Tennessee. He gave his story and journey through slides of his artwork. The presentation was lovely – murals, mixed media and paintings that addressed his belief in art in justice. The Q & A moderated by Harrell included discussion of college courses in prison and opening doors for ex-offenders in transition.

An introduction to the round table luncheon discussions was made by Alma Robinson, executive director for the California Lawyers for the Arts, a co-sponsor of the Forum. It was a pleasure and honor to meet Ms. Robinson. She is a dynamic person who believes deeply in arts and education in justice. She was so welcoming and warm as she encouraged attendees to sit at the table with topics they needed to know more about.

Lunch table topics were:
Art and College Education
What Policies Can Shift for Reform
Juvenile Justice
Re-entry for the Incarcerated
Arts on the Inside
Restorative Justice
Program Evaluation
Art as Pathway for Change for Alabama
Need vs. Public Perception for arts/education for incarcerated people.
Facilitators were Shaelyn Smith, Frank Knaack, Kate Owens-Murphy, Jeremy Sherer, Connie Kohler, Frankie Lanaan, Donna Russell, and Kyes Stevens.
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After a beautifully catered luncheon and lots of good conversation, the next session was concerned with ‘National Perspectives on Making Change’ and was moderated by Donna Russell, Executive Director of the Alabama Alliance for Arts Education. Included was Terrell Blount, Program Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City. Blount discussed the national push to provide ‘Second Chance’ Pell grants for prisoners. He emphasized expanding education in prison through Pell grants. His presentation was very factua1 and showed the number of colleges across the nation that already have classes for the incarcerated to be around 65. He said Vera Institute seeks to increase those numbers through APEAP and others groups. Ending his talk, he said he hoped the day inspired the audience to create new solutions, and remain active in helping our nation, state and communities.

Alma Robinson then discussed the outreach way to set up programs for the incarcerated through state and national resources. She was very passionate about the subject. She told the audience to seek out partnerships as well. She encouraged everyone to communicate with their state representatives and make them aware of the programs for the incarcerated. She encouraged all to “make a pitch” and highlighted some of her work through the forum. It was very inspiring.

Dena Dickerson spoke next. She is the director of Offender Alumni Association in Birmingham, Al. She said the APAEP classes helped empower her and others to change and help others. She now works to engage ex-offenders to contribute to their community much the way she did. She is a great inspiration.

At closing remarks, Kyes Stevens encouraged everyone and expressed hopefulness that the day inspired the audience to consider and create new solutions.

I’m so glad to have been part of it!

About the guest contributor:

I am an ex-inmate of Tutwiler Prison. I had a psychotic break with reality and did some illegal things that landed me there. I will never forget my friend Jaimie, who was the first person I could talk, really talk to. She encouraged me to sign up for one of Kyes Stevens’s classes. Thank goodness I was chosen out of so many to take the class. She and her teacher filled us in on what we were going to cover during the class. Some writing and some acting movements. Everyone was given good writing utensils. It was great to have all that clean paper. I wrote a lot during that time. It was an amazing experience.

My son, Noah, and I live in a small home in Cullman, Alabama. He is a computer genius and recently graduated from Wallace State Community College in Computer Science. I write a lot. I’m a care-giver for some elderly people that I’ve come to love. I also volunteer at a local food bank. I like to help people sort of behind the scenes. I’m a little bit Agoraphobic. It is hard to be an ex-offender in a small town. The Forum gave me hope and courage to help others in a more productive way.

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.

The last forum in the series 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 aic@calawyersforthearts.org.

It’s a start, but we’ve got a ways to go, still

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: kennethehartman@hotmail.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 aic@calawyersforthearts.org.