Crossing the Border: An artist’s experience of a super-maximum security prison

by Treacy Ziegler

Chris Shira’s interpretation of a horizon in prison

As a landscape painter, I explore the interior and exterior configurations of space. In my own painted landscapes, boundaries between interior and exterior are porous and the line between landscape and dwelling is fluid; the sea does not stop at the door—it comes in.

If prisons are defined by how space is contained, then there are two kinds: interior-oriented prisons and seemingly exterior-oriented prisons. The first type of prison usually has maximum or super-maximum security and the second, referred to as a “campus style” prison, is for minimally secured prisoners.

When I took my son to a “campus style” prison, surprised, he exclaimed, “It’s just like my high school!” Yes, just like a high school wrapped in three rows of barbed wire fences marking the very limits of its exterior presentation.

But on this particular day, I enter an interior-oriented, maximum-security prison and walk through the first gate separating it from the world. Some prisons refer to this initial space as the pedestrian trap. This trap leads further into interior space where corridors link the different facets of the prison. Hallways telescope out and are connected, segment-by-segment, with a series of locked gates, like the locks on a canal. I enter the standing space between the two gates and wait for the first gate to close before the second gate can be opened. I then proceed down the corridor to the next set of gates. In some interior-oriented prisons, these gated sections have no bars. Instead this space is a small room with one door leading in and another leading out. I feel the confinement of not being able to see beyond this room.

Walking down the corridors of this interior-style prison, I am struck by a confusing sense of spatial infinity. There are windows in the hallway and I see the bands of sunlight streaming across the corridor floor. These bands of light recede into the distance becoming less distinct.  

I often tell my prison art students to observe these bands of light to experience one-point perspective as they walk down the hall. This is when all space and everything in that space is visually organized by a distant single mark that can never be seen. One-point perspective assumes that we are all oriented to that same single point. Of course, one-point perspective is not how we see the world unless we happen to be blind in one eye—like my son’s friend who shot out an eye while playing with a potato gun, crushing all the bones, weaving potato with eyeball. I see evidence of many injuries in prison from different sorts of guns, scars from gunshot wounds, stabbing, ripped earring holes. Boys can get rough; some end up in prison and some don’t.

My prison students and I have two eyes and do not usually see the world as one-point perspective. We see with two eyes that are always moving, never fixed on a single spatial point unless we are walking down this prison corridor or looking at a Canaletto painting of Venice.

The corridors of this prison are cinder-blocked. A yellow line is painted on the floor dividing traffic. When movement occurs—the prison term referring to when prisoners travel from one point to another in a controlled fashion—the men walk in single-file. Usually one guard is in the front of the line and another brings up the end. The incarcerated are not to cross the yellow line into the ongoing traffic of the non-incarcerated.

When I am the oncoming traffic, the prisoners on the other side of the yellow line are required to stop and allow me to go through the set of gates first. Sometimes, they do this on their own without being told. I smile as they go by not knowing whether I will get in trouble with the guards for doing this. Sometimes I recognize a student and we say something familiar: How are you? Have you been drawing? Many of the men show curiosity and smile, and most seem friendly.

There are prisoners helping others who cannot walk on their own, men wheeling men in wheelchairs. The prisoners help one another in this way. I have not seen a guard assist a prisoner who has a disability.

Sometimes the prisoners are filing out of chow hall or going to the yard. A few prisoners walk separately from the line. These prisoners have been given specific passes to walk independently. Some are going for their medication, maybe to their job. In this prison, there is a time-block schedule programming the day into five periods—much like the classroom times scheduled in a high school. There are two periods in the morning, two in the afternoon, and one evening block, structuring time as if it is a block of space. Most everyone is scheduled to be in some kind of program. In some states, a prisoner will not be freed until he gets his GED.

While I walk the corridors of this prison, there is little sense of the exterior world except what I see through the small windows. The prisoners have 3-foot by-3-foot recreation pens outside their cells—like those exterior cages connected to a dog kennel allowing the dog to go outside. From these pens, the prisoners have the potential to see the pretty landscape that surrounds the prison. But when I ask my students to draw this landscape, I get in trouble with the prison authorities. The guards consider looking at the landscape as tantamount to developing an escape plan. Drawing that landscape most certainly confirms the plan.

The smells are strong in these interior-oriented prisons; odors of bodies, sour sweat, and soap. These smells are consistent in all the prisons that are oriented to the interior. They are the smells of many people forced to live together with limited movement in small spaces.

On another day, in another interior-oriented prison, I follow the director of treatment down a series of corridors to what is called the “school.” I don’t know if this is a super-maximum or maximum security prison. It has been referred to as both by different people. It houses prisoners designated as most violent.

In this prison, the corridor walls are painted with horizontal pink lines on the cinderblock as if urging the walker to go further inside. I have heard of the supposed effect of this color, referred to as Baker-Miller pink, on prisoners. Some research concludes that pink has a calming effect while other research shows that after 15 minutes, prisoners scratch the paint from the walls with their fingernails.

The pink in this corridor makes me think of a birth canal. I am reminded of my son’s birth by cesarean section, when nothing worked except a scalpel. This memory stands in contrast to other women screaming through labor and delivery and gives me the feeling that sometimes the knife is kinder, more direct, and less painful.

Here in prison, I cannot speak of birth canals or of knives as both would be totally taboo. All prisons are vulnerable to the effects of knives, but particularly so in this prison where the superintendent has recently been stabbed in the face. That another guard has also been stabbed makes for a constant reminder of the prison’s violence.

In this prison there are two sets of prisoners, some dressed in grey uniforms and others dressed in green uniforms. When I ask why the prisoners are dressed in different colors, I am told that they live in different parts of the prison. The division has nothing to do with security rank. It is merely based upon geography.

This division results in fights between the two sets of prisoners. If wearing different colors provokes such violence, then I wonder why officials do not just give everyone the same color uniform. It seems to be such an obvious solution to the fighting. I cannot help thinking that it might serve the prison in some way to maintain violence between prisoners.

I am finally led to a classroom on the second floor. I arrive by elevator. I do not know how the prisoners get from one floor to the other. I assume they do not have the luxury of riding the elevator. One luxury of this prison is its air-conditioning. No other prison I have been inside has air conditioning. During some summers in other prisons, the heat gets so bad that the men become sick from it.  

The classroom I am in is small with little desks like ones in a high school class. There is a teacher’s desk and a whiteboard. When I come into this prison, I am required to eliminate many art materials that I usually bring into other prisons. Chalk is forbidden, as it is feared that it will be jammed into the locks to make them fail.

I sit waiting for the prisoners. Sometimes, the guards fail to tell the prisoners that I am here and do not issue the call pass. One time I sat for an hour without students.

In the first class that I teach at this prison I have about 10 students. After they arrive, the guard comes into the room and announces that he is going to lock the door. This surprises me. Although, I never have a guard with me when I teach and I am never issued a panic button, this is the first time I am locked in the room. It is a locked room at the end of a locked corridor. The guard station is located on the other side of these two locked doors. There is no window in the classroom.

I ask the guard what I should do when, as is always the case, a prisoner needs to use the bathroom. The guard answers my question by giving me a telephone number I can call.

After an hour of class, Anthony needs to use the bathroom and I call the number given to me by the guard. Instead of the guard’s voice, I get a pleasant but recorded voice of a female saying that she is very sorry but I got the wrong number.  

It is the first time I feel uncomfortable in prison. I do not know if my rising sense of panic is the result of being locked in the room with the prisoners or merely the claustrophobia of being in a locked room and totally unable to get out.

I look at Anthony who, at almost 300 pounds, is much too large to fit into the diminutive chairs we are given. I am about to tell him that we cannot get out of this room until I realize that Anthony and the rest of the men already know this. They knew from the beginning of class that there was no way to get out of this room until someone decided it was time for us to get out.

I think about a warning I read on page after page in my volunteer handbook. It is a warning advising me never to trust a prisoner. I look at Steve with whom I was just having a heated discussion on the merits—or lack thereof—of Bob Ross, the formulaic public television artist. Dismayed with me, Steve asked, “You mean, you don’t like Bob Ross?”

Looking into Steve’s face, I realize that by being locked in this room with these men who have been designated as violent, the prison is demanding quite the opposite from the warning in the handbook. In this locked room with these men, the prison is instructing me that not only do I need to trust these prisoners, I need to trust them with my life. And so I do.

The next time I return to this prison, another guard comes to the room. When I ask this guard if he is going to lock the door, he looks at me incredulously, “You mean you want me to lock you in this room alone?!” I realize that the first guard played a joke on me; the guards often challenge volunteers.

But the joke is not on me. Because unlike the guard who cannot cross over into this room alone without being hurt, I can sit with these men. And together in this room, we can create a fluid place where the sea comes in.

About the guest contributor: 

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.

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.
.
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.

A Perspective on the Texas Arts for Justice Forum

By Johnathan Kana

He calls himself “a musician with a message”— and for good reason. A few pithy lines from SaulPaul’s rousing performance at the Texas Art for Justice Forum perfectly encapsulated an entire day’s worth of thought-provoking dialogue:

Ain’t no way around it,

If you’re tired of the same,

And you want to make a difference,

It’s time to BE THE CHANGE.

The award-winning, formerly incarcerated hip-hop musician “free-styled” on audience-selected words like “hope,” “Jesus” and “sex trafficking” during an inspirational midday break for an energetic group of artists, legislators, reform advocates, and system-impacted individuals who assembled in July at the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC).

These individuals had come from across the state—some from considerably further, including at least one from as far away as Nigeria—for a collegial day of networking, fellowship, and frank conversation about the role of the arts in advancing criminal justice reform.

But if any of us in the room expected merely to be entertained by Saul Paul’s performance, we were in for a surprise.

The song SaulPaul, who went from prison to the University of Texas at Austin to chart-topping musician, taught us was a provocative call-and-response requiring audience participation. Though our part seemed easy enough—we were to sing the words “Be the Change” during the refrain—the music moved quickly, and many of us struggled to keep up. After fumbling several cues, the audience broke into uncomfortable laughter as SaulPaul abruptly halted the music.

“See, this is when we need leaders to step up,” he quipped, paraphrasing something Houston Arts Alliance CEO John Abodeely had said earlier in the day, challenging arts organizations to “really throw down” as change leaders in their communities. When the laughter died down, SaulPaul seized upon a teaching opportunity afforded by this awkward moment, summoning all the musicians in the room to raise their voices and show the rest of us how it’s done.

“If you got this and you know it,” he said, “then now’s the time to be heard.”

The energy in the room shifted as he kicked the beat back to life on his loop pedal. As he began leading us through the refrain again, about half a dozen voices confidently rang out: “Be the Change!” The second time, half a dozen more joined in. By the third chorus, we were all singing so enthusiastically that an outsider would have never guessed that we had only learned the song a few minutes earlier.

Changing perspectives

That’s the power of art in action. SaulPaul’s performance that afternoon was more than just a concert. It was a rallying cry—and a microcosm of the very work that had brought us together that day.

Most of us in that room had been personally touched by the brokenness of our nation’s criminal justice system. All of us shared a sense of legislative urgency regarding the blight of mass incarceration. But none of us had come merely to complain about it. Both as artists and as activists, we had come to discover new ways to unite our voices and leverage our talents toward casting a more restorative vision of what it means to be “tough on crime.”

“A lot of the folks who are incarcerated are risk-takers,” Alma Robinson said during the Forum’s opening remarks. “They were trying to do something creative with their lives, but they didn’t necessarily have a vision or opportunities to explore other venues for their creativity.”

Robinson is Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts (CLA), an organization dedicated to supporting artists and arts organizations as “agents of democratic involvement, innovation, and positive social change.” Together with Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts and a grant from the newly formed Art for Justice Fund, CLA convened the Texas Art for Justice Forum as one of six nationwide reform events aiming to stimulate greater participation from local artists and arts organizations in helping to solve the problem of mass incarceration.

“If we had more investment in arts education,” Robinson continued, “perhaps we wouldn’t have so many people to ‘correct.’”

That’s a provocative thought, to say the least—particularly at a time when popular educational philosophy centers so strongly on the value of STEM learning. Could it be that our “need” to imprison more individuals per capita than any other nation in the world stems, in part, from a degenerative cultural insensitivity to the role the arts play in pro-social human development?

Some of the people at the Forum certainly thought so.

“Art is not a commodity,” guitarist and educator Jeremy Osborne emphatically remarked during a theme-setting early panel discussion. “It’s something essential to everyone.”

Osborne teaches guitar to at-risk and system-involved youth in Austin as part of an innovative educational outreach developed by Austin Classical Guitar. Now in its eighth year, the program leverages the accessibility and relative affordability of the guitar to introduce these students to the character-building discipline of music performance while helping them finish school and stay out of the adult justice system. After explaining how various curricula his group has developed are now used as a benchmark for similar programs worldwide, Osborne expressed sincere gratitude for the audience’s willingness to give up their Saturday to gather together and talk about justice reform.

“When you do this kind of work,” he said, “you really feel like you’re on a desert island.”

Sadly, that seemed to be a common theme among the people I talked to throughout the day.

Fortunately, the Forum also demonstrated that voices like Osborne’s  are beginning to reach key influencers in the halls of power.

“[Art] is about the human condition,” Texas Representative Garnet Coleman explained. “This is how we learn. This is how we know about something bigger than who we are.”

Coleman was one of several state legislators who staunchly advocated for the continuation of the Texas Commission on the Arts when it was on the chopping block for budgetary cutbacks several years ago. Another supporter, State Representative James White, was also present for the panel discussion. He spent some time describing how the arts have historically functioned as a “cultural softener,” tempering our more disruptive human tendencies by connecting us to one another at the heart level. Art, he explained, has a way of enlarging our worldview, celebrating a diversity of perspectives while revealing our deficiencies and inspiring us to work together for the common good.

The dismissal of the arts hurts so many people. That’s why many of the artists present at the Forum challenged their peers to begin stepping up their game.  And, like SaulPaul, tell themselves and everyone else “Be the Change.”

 

About the guest contributor: 

Johnathan Kana is a freelance writer, musician, and Christian cultural critic who enjoys probing the intersection of faith, justice, and pop culture. As a restored citizen who once spent 25 months in prison, he believes in the transformative power of a meaningful second chance. He is a volunteer Justice Ambassador for Prison Fellowship and a contributing writer for their quarterly newspaper for prisoners, Inside Journal.

He is also co-author (with Dr. Mary L. Cohen and Iowa prisoner Richard Winemiller) of a forthcoming book chapter about the Oakdale Community Choir and the healing power of community music-making in correctional contexts (to be published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in a volume provisionally titled Walking the Boundaries, Bridging the Gaps: How Community Music Engages Those in the Margins of Society). 

Johnathan works in manufacturing and lives with his wife and two children in central Texas. He is an avid filmgoer, a passionate armchair theologian, and an aspiring kayaker.

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.