The Prison Story Project

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

A Message from Translation is Dialogue

Our JAC community is continually expanding, reaching out to artists, activists, and volunteers from all corners of the globe. In the spirit of creation during this period of isolation, as the entire world reacts to this unprecedented moment in time, we feel lucky to share the following message from our friends, Arlene Tucker and Carole Alden, from Translation is Dialogue.  Translation is Dialogue is an ongoing project started in 2010, which is based on how the translation process is creating communication and dialogue within itself.  This allows transcendence of oneself to another.  Regardless of the situation happening organically or consciously it is bound to the subjective state of the translator, yet it is through such discourse where truth or realization is found.  Momentum is magic!

The original article, originally published in French, can be found at the following links:

A conversation between Carole Alden and Arlene Tucker was published in Le Journal de Culture & Démocratie in April 2020. Hélène Hiessler translated the article into French from English. Read the publication in French here. Below is the English version.

To learn more about Culture & Démocratie, please click here.

Picture
Carole Alden, Triptych 1, 2018
Free Translation is a multi-disciplinary exhibition showcasing international works generated from an open call to incarcerated people, ex-convicts, and anyone affected by imprisonment. Through this platform, artist and Free Translation co-developer Arlene Tucker met artist, Carole Alden. Through art practice, mail exchange and dialogue ideas, preconceptions, expectations, false realities, and forms of expressions are explored. From the exhibition, Free Translation Sessions were born. In these gatherings we make art, interpretations, and view and discuss artworks received. The sharing of personal stories, experimenting with art techniques, and listening to subjective views can help guide one’s artistic process and shed light on different walks of life.

__Arlene Tucker (AT): The work you contributed to the Free Translation exhibition has been an inspiration for more artworks and the dialogue that has been raised through your pieces has been very powerful.  Did you ever think that your work would be a source of translation?

Carole Alden (CA): When you create in isolation, you have no concept of your work impacting others. For me it began as a vehicle to turn overwhelming mental and emotional anguish into something survivable. My hope being an evolution from feeling helpless, to a productive plan for my life.  In or out of prison, I wanted my life experiences to count for something.

I had no idea that a project like Free Translation existed. Where I live, incarcerated persons are essentially shunned. You feel completely disenfranchised from society. There is no real dialogue between incarcerated and free people.

Prior to my involvement with Free Translation, l had never seen any effort from free people to understand the experience of being in prison or what might happen in a person’s life to precipitate time spent in prison. You were ostracized and ignored. Made to feel as though you were bankrupt of all that made you human.

AT: It was through Wendy Jason at Prison Arts Coalition (now The Justice Arts Coalition) that led us to you and your work. In the end, you made the effort to stay in touch, to share with me.  Dialogue is not solitary.

CA: Believe me, I am grateful to be found!

My mother had found The Justice Arts Coalition and urged me to contact them. I was extremely hesitant after being defrauded by multiple entities claiming to assist incarcerated artists. It was a year of corresponding with Wendy before I decided to take the plunge and trust someone with my artwork again. I was thrilled to find an organization that was true to their word and not in the business of exploiting prison artists. Because of the groundwork of trust she laid, I felt very comfortable in sharing my images with Free Translation when she suggested it.

AT: What was this drawing of the Woman Impaled about for you?

CA: The first version I had drawn while still in the original jail, awaiting adjudication of my charges. That was towards the end of 2006.

I had no access to competent legal representation and no one to advocate on my behalf. I literally felt the system was  a continuation of the abuse and death my spouse had planned for me. I felt emotionally and physically stripped of anything that allows a person to feel human. My hopes and dreams were disappearing beyond the horizon. I felt my life draining away and nothing but immobilization and overwhelming anguish and pain. I wanted to die. I felt that if my spirit were no longer tied to a physical body, then it could leave this place to go be with my children.

AT: How long were you incarcerated for?

CA: I did 13 years out of a 1-15 indeterminate sentence.

AT: How did people interact with each other?  Was there anybody that you felt you could confide in?

CA: The women’s prison in Utah had a very different social dynamic than the men’s when it came to certain things. Long term inmates tended to recreate designations that approximated family relationships. Roles were adopted as mothers, fathers, and children. It was not unusual to hear young women speak of having a biological mother, a street mother, and a prison mom. A larger context had to do with commerce, which encompassed drugs, commissary items, and services.

In all the time I was down, I kept myself separate from most of what constituted prison culture. I watched, paid attention, and discerned that being enmeshed in the social standards and practices were the primary source of conflict both with each other and the officers.

I was determined to remain focused on what I could create in order to be better equipped for the future on the outside. There was really only one other inmate I got close enough to share my hopes and dreams with. She is also an artist and still inside. We were only housed in the same general vicinity for a couple years yet we remain close and invested in each other’s success.

AT: What about solidarity or some sort of togetherness within the prisons? Did you feel like you could come together with others or was it very solitary?  How were people separated?

CA: We saw considerable solidarity on the men’s side. They would organize strikes and protest to get policies changed. This did not happen on the women’s. Too many feared retaliation, or would inadvertently undermine their peers by trying to use relationships with certain guards to change just their own circumstances. Some of it had to do with the feeling that we had more to lose than the men. Tenuous contact with our families was a big deterrent to standing up for yourself.

AT: What do you think about the translations, the artworks responding to your original artwork, Woman Impaled? Can you perceive how your painting was translated or interpreted based on their piece of art?

CA: Honestly, I was shocked at how perceptive the participants were. They expressed a depth of understanding and empathy I was totally unprepared for. It had the effect of removing my sense of isolation. For the first time in 13 years I felt a restored hope that there was still a place in the world for me. Prior to this, my anxiety surrounding the eventuality of release was debilitating.

AT: When you don’t know, you’re in limbo and that can be a hard place to be. Would you like to share on what grounds you were convicted?

CA: That limbo of not knowing for sure is probably the most psychologically damaging part of indeterminate sentencing. It robs a person of the ability to create a realistic plan for their future. Everything feels imaginary and moot until you finally have your release date, no matter how close or far off it might be.

I had an indeterminate sentence of I to 15 years for second degree manslaughter. My matrix was 5 years. In other words, the suggested time to be served in consideration of mitigating circumstances.

I waited 4 years to hear when my date to see the board would be. At a little over 5 years I saw the board. The board chose to ignore the reports of domestic violence and evidence of self defense. I had shot the man as I was cornered in a small laundry room. At that moment. I had no other option that preserved my own life or my children’s.

AT: How did you manage to keep making art while incarcerated?

CA: Deprivation is the mother of creativity.  I continuously scanned my environment for materials to repurpose in order to expand the possibilities of what I could create. Not getting caught was often a large part of the creative equation. Balancing that drive to create with the institutional directive to remain idle was an ongoing conflict. I did my best to fly under the radar and not attract attention. It was an ongoing occurrence for the SWAT team to come through and throw away any artwork, even if you had written permission to construct it.

I began with drawing as it seemed to be tolerated more than other forms of expression.  During the winter I would utilize the snow as a sculpting medium. At my four year mark, the urge to sculpt overwhelmed my aversion to crochet. I taught myself one basic stitch and began to experiment with yarn as a sculpting medium. As I became more proficient, my efforts evolved from largely meditative to a challenge to keep my thought process sharp.

At 8 years down I was transferred to a county facility. With only 70 inmates at a time, the officers took a greater interest in what people did to be productive. They turned out to be far more supportive than any facility I had been in.  The last five years have brought multiple opportunities to communicate and exhibit my work.

At the beginning of my incarceration I was told by the caseworker that I would never be transferred to a county facility due to my charges and my medical condition. When I was transferred, the receiving caseworker remarked that it was strange as I did not fit the criteria to be housed in a county jail. Aside from medical issues, I still had seven years remaining. County jails are not designed to keep someone for more than a year. Beyond a year, a person’s mental and physical health experiences marked decline. Whatever Utah prisons are lacking, their jails have a fraction of that. You have no access to a yard, usually no contact visits, no education beyond high school, no exercise equipment, or much in the way of jobs, religious options or a library. You basically eat and sleep. Not a place for long term inmates.

AT: How was it that you were able to be transferred?  Do you feel that because it was a smaller facility, the environment was less volatile?  Or does it have anything to do with how those officers were being trained and supervised?

CA: Originally I was transferred as a means to disrupt my access to an attorney who had expressed interest in reopening my case. Essentially they moved me in a manner that took away my ability to be in touch with my attorney and separated me from my legal files. Someone did not want my case to be scrutinized and took action to make it impossible for me to continue my appeal at that time. I was separated from all my legal paperwork, contact information, pictures of my children and all my artwork, supplies and personal belongings. Normally they tell you you’re being, “counted out” and you would be permitted time to pack whatever you’re allowed to take, and make arrangements for your family to collect the rest.

They sent me to the opposite end of the state and allowed my things to be pilfered by inmates and officers alike.

I lost a portfolio of work worth about $75,000.00 that I had hoped to start over with upon release. After reiterating my desire to self harm, they transferred me again to the county jail where I remained for the last 5 1/2 years.

I do believe the quality of life in that facility was due largely to the staff and how they chose to treat people. They seemed to be allowed more agency in their personal interpretation of their role as guards. Consequently we had individuals who treated us like human beings and encouraged positive endeavors. This is very rare in Utah Corrections.

I am very grateful for the opportunity and encouragement I received in creating my work.

AT: How are you feeling since your release?  What kind of challenges have you been faced with? In the time you have been free, what have you already adjusted to?

CA: Being released, unexpectedly, several years early was a mixed blessing. My over the top elation was tempered by my abject terror over all the things I had no time to prepare for.

Would I flinch if a grandchild rushed in for a hug? Would I freeze and bolt if I felt overwhelmed at a Walmart? How on earth would I support myself at the age of 59 with absolutely nothing?

The thought of trying to understand fractions of words in texting had me in tears. Thankfully, becoming connected with people in this community has gone a long way in helping me forgive myself for the learning curve I’m tackling.

I have had a lot of support in rediscovering that I can still learn whatever I need to and become whoever I choose to be.

AT: We cannot do this alone.  Amazing that you could emotionally prepare yourself for your release and apply all of that insight into your current situation.  When I read your letter about your release that you sent in May, you had talked about this and I was so impressed with your level of emotional awareness.  Who were your go to people, your support system? How can we most efficiently and effectively process our emotions? We all are different, but I think sharing tips is one way to show support.  At least it is for me!

CA: Any release is daunting, but after over a decade, there’s really no way to adequately prepare yourself. Too many intangibles that bombard you at any given time with no warning.
I had a couple close friends who had done time over twenty years ago. They were the ones to peel me off the ceiling and encourage me to believe I could do this.

I think patience and encouragement are the biggest things. People want to help and tend to be quick to offer up solutions. At that fresh out stage, even having a bunch of problem solving solutions dropped in your lap can leave you feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed with indecision.

Be loving and open. Give us the space we need to figure out what we need help with.

AT: Now that you are free, what does confinement or imprisonment mean to you? How does that definition differ from prior to your incarceration?

CA: Honestly, for most of my life prior to incarceration, I gave it absolutely no thought at all. It had not touched my life through family or friends. It was as disconnected to my reality as if someone said there was a planet of unicorns I could visit one day.

About 7 years prior to my incarceration I had a friend go to prison for 11 months on a possession charge. That acquainted me with the gut gnawing fear that family members suffer nonstop during their loved one’s imprisonment. Knowing that they are rarely safe, and without adequate medical care, food or housing. Feeling their spirit and engagement in life wither as days, months, and years pass. In some ways, your family suffers even more. Yet support for your families is scant as well. Social judgment and humiliation is the norm.

Being denied the basic dignity of liberty, even if you happen to be somewhere decent, will never be acceptable in my heart. I will never look at a zoo the same way or keeping pets. It hurts to see any living thing denied the choice to live the way they were meant to.

Carole Alden was born 1960 in Orleans, France to American parents. Grew up primarily in northern ldaho and Colorado. Dad was a forestry professor and mother a librarian.
Nature and self education were the things I was exposed to the most as a child. They continue to guide the majority of my work. I married young and had five children from two marriages that spanned twenty years. I have no formal education nor art training beyond high school. Drawing was something I took up in prison. Prior to that I was a fiber artist with pieces in multiple museum collections. I taught myself to crochet while incarcerated and continue to create a variety of sculptures and wall hangings for venues ranging from political to natural.Arlene Tucker is an artist and educator. Inspired by translation studies, animals and nature, she finds ways to connect and make meaning in our shared environments. Her process-based artistic work creates spaces and situations for exchange, dialogue, and transformations to occur and surprise all players. She is interested in creating projects that open up ideas and that engage the viewer; that invite the viewer to be a part of the narrative or art creation process. In translation, your participation continues to propel the story. Her chapter, Translation is Dialogue: Language in Transit was published in Translating across Sensory and Linguistic Borders: Intersemiotic Journeys between Media (Editors: Campbell, Madeleine, Vidal, Ricarda, 2019). Tucker developed Free Translation with Anastasia Artemeva. Tucker has been collaborating with Prison Outside since 2017 and is author of Translation is Dialogue (2010). www.translationisdialogue.org ​​​

 

 

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.