Teaching Artist Spotlight: Gabriel Ross

JAC recently spoke with Gabriel Ross, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Gabriel (MA Catechetics and Liturgy, University of St. Thomas) is the founding director of Creative Spirit, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring spirituality through the arts. Gabriel has facilitated adult education courses and intergenerational programming for over 25 years. She leads women’s spirituality groups and teaches courses on comparative religions, eco-spirituality, creativity and spirituality. Gabriel designed and leads the Soul Journal programs for incarcerated women and Befriending Creation camp for girls. Her unique program offerings include drum and ritual groups and Mystics at the River.

The goal of the Soul Journal program is for the women to leave prison stronger than when they arrived. Prison Mother’s Soul Journal invites the participants to a deeper level of self-understanding, leading to more positive ways to communicate with and parent their children. Creating the journal gives incarcerated women a unique and creative way to see their lives as a process of change and transformation, which is vital to the rehabilitation process. The process itself has transformative power that is extended when journals and new knowledge are shared, helping to heal wounded relationships with children, other family members, and the broader community. The mothers in this program learn positive parenting techniques and new ways to share their values and hopes with their children. Prison leaders see the positive results of creating new circles of support within the prison.

Gabriel is generously sharing the Soul Journal Curriculum for Mothers in Prison with the JAC network as a resource to use once it is safe to go back into prisons. It can be accessed here and under Practitioner Handbooks/Curricula in the JAC Resources tab. 

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

GR: I founded a small non-profit called Creative Spirit that is dedicated to the imaginative expression of spirituality through the arts. Part of my work was teaching Soul Journal Classes to women in the general public and one of our board members thought it might be a good fit for women in prison.  Our board member had a friend who worked at the local women’s prison and she set up the connection to begin the Soul Journal programming.

JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programming you have been creating?

GR: Our Women in Prison Soul Journal Programs use the power of narrative art to explore new paths to heal, become stronger, and find hope for the future. The work is unique because the curriculum has been written specifically for incarcerated women with input from the women.

Since the first Soul Journal class at the prison in January of 2012 we have developed four different courses based on the needs of the women and prison staff requests:

  1. Mother’s program
  2. Program for women with long-term sentences
  3. CIP (boot camp) program
  4. Native American program

JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art?

GR: Teaching in prison has absolutely impacted my teaching practices.  Most of my students have never been given the opportunity to sit quietly and reflect on their lives and their values.  Having the opportunity to explore these ideas and express them with art, poetry and writing is new for the women and can be challenging.  I need to provide engaging exercises, thought provoking material and a variety of strong images to enable their self-expression.  It is also about being able to facilitate discussion about their work, finding safe ways for them to share their journals.  And of course teaching in prison means finding alternative ways to be creative with the limited art supplies that can be brought into the building.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

Seeing what visual journaling can open for them, and the positive effects the program can have for the women.  For the Mother’s program, seeing the women find a new creative way to connect with their child/ren.  For the Native American program, seeing the women discover Native teaching and values and being proud of their tribal heritage.  For the CIP (boot camp program) seeing the women experience confidence and self-worth as they approach graduation. I always leave the prison feeling like I made a difference in their lives and they express their gratitude.  Here are some comments from participants:

From the Native American program:

“Soul Journal helped me reflect on what being a Native American woman means and what it means to me and it also inspired me to want to get more involved in ceremony and be more traditional when it comes to raising my children.”

“This class reminded me not to be ashamed/embarrassed of who I am. It helped me remember how much I love who I am and how beautiful my/our culture is. I cannot wait to start going to ceremonies again and help educate the youth about who they are.”

From the Mother’s program:

“I have learned all the ways to express my love and expectations and dreams to my children.  I loved that this group made me know and feel better to express my dreams and also share and be open to the wrongs I’ve done so my children don’t do or follow my negative ways.  This class helped me to have strength to change and become a positive mother.”

“This was awesome.  I was skeptical – once in the class I was surprised at how much I was able to open up about as well as see even on the inside.  I’m still able to be a positive influence with my children and hear what a good parent I actually have been and will continue to be.  Thank you for this opportunity to do this – it was tremendous.”

From the CIP (boot camp) program:

“Soul Journal has given me a sense of power I didn’t even know that I had. It is the greatest gift I have been given. I’ve been able to find a lot of inner peace and reflect on how I feel.”

“Soul Journal helped me reflect on my life in a less negative way.  I was able to begin the process of letting go of resentments.”

“Soul Journal got me looking at what I want in a relationship and about some things I need to deal with from my past to heal.  I would only suggest that as many squads as possible get this opportunity – it IS an amazing journey.”

JAC: As you know, JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time? 

GR: I have not been allowed into the prison here since the middle of March 2020.

There are no opportunities for on-line or correspondence courses.  About a month ago a group of formerly incarcerated Native American women (I had in classes at the prison) contacted me and asked me to do a reentry Soul Journal program with them.  We have started to meet and hope to continue to gather.  Not being able to go into the prison has been disheartening for me and the prison program director said that the women really miss the Soul Journal programs.  There is no certainty about when the women’s prison will open to program personnel.

JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include? 

A supportive network includes a place to present, discuss and get ideas for this very important work with incarcerated people.  The network might also include the opportunity to connect with other local artists looking toward the possibility of collaboration.

Artist Spotlight: O.G. Blue

By Molly Wooliver, JAC Intern

Marlowe Brown was born in Asheville, North Carolina but moved coast to coast and back again before he was old enough to go to school. He describes having had “a typical childhood of a young person of color”: he went to school, joined the track and field team, and participated in other school-related activities. But things changed, and ‘typical became atypical’ when Marlowe’s classmates noticed he had blue eyes. The girls seemed to like it, but the boys didn’t, resulting in a couple of fights a week. Although the fighting came naturally to him, talking to girls did not. Girls liked him but conversing did not come easily: “I would often get tongue-tied.”

Marlowe Brown first became ‘O.G. Blue’ when a particularly pretty girl passed him a note in class. He wrote back and was able to say exactly what he felt on paper. She shared the note with her friends, and after that, every girl in the class wanted a note from him. He wouldn’t label himself as the smartest kid in school, but his favorite class was English, where, he says, “I did learn one thing, which was that pen and paper are a powerful communication tool.”

Blue’s creative process is simple. “I think of exactly what I want to say, sort of like putting a puzzle together in my head, and when it’s done, I lay down the completed puzzle.” These days he finds inspiration in a lot more things than he was able to when he was younger. When he first started writing poetry, it was only about a particular idea or person, but later in life, he discovered he could turn anything into verse. “Real people inspire me, smart people. A happy situation inspires me; a special lady inspires me, one that you think of even when you’re supposed to be concentrating on something else.” 

Writing has helped him throughout his years of incarceration because, through his text, he can paint a picture with words, whether he’s writing to family, friends, or for business purposes. “When I was in high school, I could actually relate to people and situations better through pen and paper rather than in person, but as I grew, attended a few civic organizations, I can speak and express myself in person, even public speaking now.”

Writing has also helped him in processing his experiences and emotions. He says that a lot of his writing is inspired by real-life: “[Everyone knows that] the sun doesn’t shine every day, and I bring that to a point.”

“Poetry and writing awaken my mind to things that I could only dream of and I wanted to hold onto that thought for as long as I possibly could; therefore, I put it to pen and paper for a lasting reminder.”

Although O.G. Blue’s primary focus is poetry, he is currently expanding his portfolio and writing three thriller novels: High Anxiety, Why Are We Here?, and Never Die Alone. Writing comes to him more naturally now, whether in verse, letters, or novels. The real challenge he faces with writing is when it comes to legal matters, and he says his difficulties in that area exist for a reason. “Most people of color are laymen with the judicial system. After all, it was meant to be that way”. The COVID-19 crisis has made Marlowe feel more aware of life because, for now, the world is in a vulnerable position like never before. He reflects on his personal losses and shares: “An old associate of mine just recently passed due to the COVID virus, everyone that knew him would acknowledge him as Old Joe, he will be remembered”. Things have never been this different. He misses the idea of the ‘old world’ — a world older than COVID, a time with fewer technologies. A simpler time, “when you could tell the make of a car just from its sight, a handshake was prevalent, and when you were invited into your neighbor’s house, you could take your shoes off and sit a spell.”

“The mental picture on the poem, ‘Old Friends’, was how life was in what I consider now, ‘the old world’, when you could leave your windows up on a hot summer’s nite, a handshake between men sealed a deal. When a man’s word represented him even bad things had a reason, not accepted but they were less complicated and demented. When our kids went to school and returned safe and sound.”

“The poem ‘Between Us’ was based on the fact of something all humans long for. In other human-beings which is trust, compassion, understanding and respect. Once these emotions are acquired and acknowledged; it’s like magic. Then you have a relationship as strong as King Kong.”

You can view more of O.G. Blue’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like O.G. Blue, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Judy Dworin

JAC recently spoke with Judy Dworin, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. The Judy Dworin Performance Project (JDPP) is an arts non-profit that harnesses creative expression as a catalyst for positive change. JDPP uses dance, theater performance, and multi-arts engagement to examine social issues, build bridges of understanding across diverse communities, and inspire both individual growth and collective action. Judy founded JDPP in 1989 based on a commitment to the important role the arts can and do play in creating change in our universe – personal, educational, and global. She oversees the entire organization’s activities as well as the artistic direction of the Ensemble and designs the curriculum and programming for the Bridging Boundaries programs in which she is a lead teaching artist.

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

JD: Judy Dworin Performance Project [JDPP] has always had its mission art as a change agent and giving voice. Prison wasn’t necessarily on my radar screen in terms of that mission. Sixteen years ago we were invited to perform at a conference for volunteers in prison and after seeing our performance, Wally Lamb, who is a well-known novelist and led a very successful writing group at York Correctional Institution for many years, asked my colleague, Kathy Borteck Gersten, if we had ever considered working with women in prison. We hadn’t really thought of it but, I asked myself, why haven’t we thought of it? So I called Wally and he put me in touch with Joe Lea, the York librarian and media specialist and self-appointed arts coordinator at York, who has brought so many arts offerings to York in his time working there, and Joe led our way through the bureaucracy so it could happen. The thought was to do a multi-arts residency using spoken word, dance, and song on the theme of ‘time’ as experienced by the women. We had an initial conversation with eight women who were in different arts groups at the prison. We were deeply moved by this conversation—when they told us the amount of time served and left to serve it took our breath away. It was clear that we were going to be there for the long haul. That was how it all started; since then it has grown to include a Moms & Kids Residency; an outreach in Hartford Public Schools to children with parents or loved ones in prison; a Dads & Kids Residency at Willard-Cybulski CI Reintegration Center; an outreach to York CI women who are 18 to 25 titled I AM (Imagination, Arts & Me) and several reentry initiatives including an arts workshop with returning citizens and Trinity College students called New Beginnings and a mentoring program working with the JDPP professional ensemble called Stepping Out. All of these residencies and outreaches culminate in some kind of a a performance.

JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programs you have been creating?

JD: The initial program that we started, the York performance residency which is now in its 16th year, is a very intense and intensive program. We meet monthly, then weekly, then bi-weekly, and then in 4-hour double sessions to collaboratively create a performance piece developed from the women’s original work. The residency is always based on a theme and the performance that is created becomes available to about 200 women on the compound along with invited state dignitaries. There is an evening with outside guests and a performance for families. Approximately 400 people get to see the performance including about 150 to 200 from the community. It’s really unusual that that many people are allowed in– not to the visitors room, but the school of the prison which is where we have the performance. We’re able to take some of the material that is approved by the prison out into the community so that we not only have the community coming to see the performances, but we have the performances going out with returning citizens performing with my professional ensemble. The ripple out of the program has emerged by listening and learning—our experiences teach us about new needs and they then take us to the next steps in this work.
For example, from the families performances we saw the great joy families have in connecting with their loved ones and also the impact it had on the performers, kids and family members alike. So we started a Moms & Kids program. It is unique in that we are allowed to have three special visits with the moms, their children and caregivers, one of which is a weekend in July where the women have four hours each day to be with them. We transform the prison school into an ‘arts mecca’ with stations of activities that the moms have agency in creating. The families are able to stay at a conference center nearby, a beautiful place with a petting zoo and nature trails. At the conference center we have a special caregivers group and a social worker with us who helps in leading that group.
This points to another unique aspect of our Bridging Boundaries prison programming: everything we do, we do in partnership with social work. We work closely with the social worker at York for both the performance residency and Moms & Kids program. The performance work goes very deep and the social worker is there in case something comes up for someone, or if someone on the team feels like a group member is having problems. And she runs a Moms & Kids support group for our moms throughout the year so there is real continuity throughout. We also partner with a social worker from a Hartford social service agency, Community Renewal Team (CRT), to follow up with the families after Moms & Kids and Dads & Kids visits to see if anything needs to be processed. We have found it to be a very helpful and important partnership. We work with kids in schools who have loved ones in prison through the school social worker. And our most recent outreach with the dads at Cybulski is a pre and post family conference with the CRT caseworker, the soon-to-be-returning citizen and the family to set up some shared expectations about coming home and having several sessions of follow through when the dad is released. COVID got in the way of this getting off the ground but we are hoping we can do it via phone.
Our most recent program at York is the I AM program, (Imagination Arts and Me). There is a special unit now at York, the WORTH Unit, for 18 to 25 year olds. It’s the first unit of its kind for women in the country and it provides both activities and support to help prevent recycling into prison time and time again. We received an NEA Grant to start the program and it’s been extremely successful.

JAC: How do you think your program affects participants?

JD: I feel like there’s been a huge impact within the Performance Group. For a lot of the women, they have realized for the first time they have this huge creative potential that in many cases they might never have found otherwise. We’ve had women in our residency for as many as 15 years so there are those who have an enormous longevity and then there are new people that come in. Every year they raise the bar on themselves and keep trying new things and going to the next level, and the bar is also raised for those who come in because the senior members have set a standard. There’s this incredible growth process that happens and the work becomes an anchor point for them – they become a kind of family to each other in both the performance residency and the moms in our Moms & Kids program as well. The dads at Cybulski do as well. There’s a sense of community in a place that so often discourages community. They develop trust and the ability to trust is so hard to do in prison.
It’s so incredibly moving when the women can perform for their families too. That’s not always their best performance if you were looking at it from an artistic perspective, but it’s deeply emotional—hard to get through without tears. I think it has all changed their experience of prison. I know that so many of the evaluations we get say “there’s no program like this”.
The Moms & Kids Program has made it possible for the women to hold their kids, dance with them, eat two meals with them, and create with them. It took us a very long time to get it worked out as to how we could have shared meals and the first time we did, in a group of twenty-two women, six had never eaten with their child before and that’s just mind-boggling. It was so incredible for them to have that experience with their child. Those kinds of things are so important – it makes not being able to be there now very hard.

JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art?

JD: I feel a sense of urgency to bring issues around incarceration out and bring more awareness and understanding. Social justice has always been a big part of my performance work and I’ve felt that the issues that arise in mass incarceration are rarely foregrounded. So I’ve done a lot of pieces that have been developed from material from the inside and from new material that’s written by those who are released and we now have a series of performance pieces that are about the prison experience that are performed by my professional ensemble and returning citizens. That’s been one big impact.
There’s also a style of work that we do in the prison. It’s obviously very pared-down and it combines narrative with song and dance. I’ve always been cross-disciplinary in my approach, but in this case it has been good to stay true to the sensibility of the performance that happens in the prison in the material that we take out. There is an amazing authenticity and honesty that happens there and I try to infuse the outside work with the same sensibility. The women are outstanding and their strength, their stories, their resilience is a huge part of the impact of the work.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists and actors?

This work has been transformational in my life and I think it’s been transformational in the lives of everybody who’s on the team and everybody who participates. It’s very emotional work and I find myself on the edge of tears at times because the women and men at Cybulski hit on such essential things about life, and about people, and about possibility. I have not talked much about the dads at Cybulski which is a newer program (2016 we were invited by the Department of Correction to initiate it), but their work has been equally strong – making themselves vulnerable and growing in self, within their community of dads and with their families. They have fully embraced the movement activities, performing small original pieces for their families at the 3 visits—all of it. It has been beautiful.
I feel very lucky to have dropped into all of this and I feel very committed and driven to be sure it keeps going and it keeps growing. I may not be able to change the system but I can work to affect as many people as possible within it, in the most positive ways possible so that everyone’s life can be better. It’s seeing someone who never thought they could speak out their narrative, tell their story, or deal with wherever they are in their process of healing and growth and with trauma that may be so deep, and they DO it. A social worker that we work closely with at York said to me, “you know, you get to the stories that we can’t get to and then we process it”. I think it’s true there’s a sense of trust and safety in this arts work that allows a kind of growth to happen that doesn’t happen in other situations and I think that’s so incredibly rewarding.

JAC: What is your greatest challenge as a teaching artist in the justice system? Are there any current obstacles you are trying to overcome as an organization?

JD: We have learned through the years how to work with the Department of Correction– to both understand the ways that they’re comfortable with things happening and to gradually build trust to be able to expand that. We look at it as a partnership because we’ve been there a long time and, over time, gradually, we’ve been able to do things that go beyond what would normally be allowed. We are very careful that everybody on our staff is aware of what one can and cannot do. It’s its own training and then within that, how can we preserve and optimize the integrity and the value of what we want to do, and not have that suffer as a result. And expand it along the way. We’re very interested in longevity and seeing it through the long haul so that we keep building and finding the balance of how far we can build each year. That’s been a really valuable learning process and how to be patient and know that all the ideas that one has in the beginning are most likely only going to happen slowly over time and not all at once. I mean, the shared meals are a perfect example. That took six years to happen and it was frustrating. But you have to keep working on it and believing in it and not losing sight that eventually it can happen. The other thing is trying to make sure nothing happens that will jeopardize the program or that nothing happens in other programs at the prison that will jeopardize all programs. You also always have to maintain absolute flexibility because you can drive an hour and 15 minutes to get to the prison and arrive there and find it in lockdown and you can’t go in. But one must be persistent in one’s vision, patient, and it is critical to never give up. If you have an idea, know what the balance of it all is, and know how to present it so that it can move forward, if not right away then in time.
I feel that that if you take a kind of adversarial stance against the prison administration, you won’t last. We are there because of the permission we’ve been given to walk in those doors. One has to honor that; you don’t have to agree with the structures in place, in many cases one doesn’t necessarily, but you need to know that you’ve been given that permission and how can you best utilize that for the betterment of everybody.

JAC: The JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. Has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

JD: All of our programs have been able to continue during COVID. The only one that we have not found a solution for yet is our schools programs for kids who have loved ones in prison, because they need to be in cohorts and they can’t mix in-between classes. We’ve been able to reach out to the kids who are part of our Moms & Kids and Dads & Kids programs. We send them monthly books, art materials, writing prompts and on our Facebook page we have Suzi Jensen on our staff who herself had a mom in prison when she was growing up, reading stories every week. And a social worker from CRT checks in on the caregivers each month to see if any services or help is needed. Pre-COVID we also created a Resource Guide for families who have loved ones in prison that lists all the resources in the six major cities in Connecticut that we hope is helpful during this time too.
We are creating booklets through correspondence with all of our groups in the prisons, sending writing and art prompts via the prison counselors that we edit and get designed by a graphic designer and then printed and distributed to program participants and their families. At the men’s prison, prison admin has approved the dads who live in one unit to meet as a group, guided by the senior members to maintain the connections and collaborative spirit of our Dads & Kids program. But it is still hard not to be there and great when I get their writings and art and get a sense of how they’re doing and where they’re going with their work.

JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

JD: Something that I’ve found very useful is the bi-weekly sharing of how all of us are dealing with COVID-19 in our prison outreaches. We’re reinventing ourselves in so many ways in our lives and in our work and trying to navigate that through the prison system has its own variables and distinct challenges. To hear what people in other parts of the country are doing is very useful and it has also brought me to realize how different situations are– what’s allowed in certain places that we would never be allowed to do. So I think establishing national conversations as opposed to conversations just within one’s own sphere are terrific. Right now it’s COVID, hopefully after it’ll be another more positive catalyst– conversations and idea sharing are so helpful. Each of us has our own way of doing things and we have so much to learn and benefit from each other, so these informal conversations have been really key. Also a national conference would be a great idea to realize.
I feel that if people are allowed to feel the common humanity that exists among all of us, they can feel the wisdom that comes out of the performances that emerge in the prison work that we do and gain a different understanding of who lives behind the razor wire and some of the critical issues that surround mass incarceration.

Guest Blog: Annie Buckley – Final Projects

By Annie Buckley

This is the third in a series of four blog posts for the Justice Arts Coalition, excerpted from the series, “Art Inside,” published by Los Angeles Review of Books. The full series is available here. To read the first two posts in Buckley’s JAC blog series, see: Oasis in the Desert and Art and Healing. Stay tuned for the fourth and final blog, which will be posted on Friday, October 30th.

For this series of posts, I am focusing on our Arts Facilitator Training (AFT) program with Prison Arts Collective (PAC). This is a program that is close to my heart as I developed it with the goal of empowering and giving agency to the hundreds of men and women that we are privileged to work with in prisons across California to develop and teach their own art classes. Initially, I fused elements of my art education classes at the university with skills to support leadership in cultivating creative communities in prisons. Since then, the AFT has evolved with input from peer facilitators in the prisons, my colleagues in PAC, and faculty and students in the four California State University campuses where we have PAC chapters. I am thrilled that the students in our first AFT program have been teaching weekly classes to their peers for the past four years. In addition, at least three have been released and two of them are working full time as teachers of rehabilitative programs in prisons.

photo by Peter Merts

Final Projects

Excerpted from: Art Inside #9, Painted Windows, 10/08/2018

The many men and women behind bars that have honed their artistic practices over the years and have a desire to give back to others have been our inspiration in developing the Arts Facilitator Training. I wanted to expand access to the curriculum our teaching artists learn in college courses and in our Prison Arts Collective training with the peer facilitators in training to empower participants to be leaders and mentors and to support their personal development.

photo by Peter Merts, courtesy of the California Arts Council

Throughout the class, we talk about learning theory and art interpretation. Students reflect on why they want to teach and how they will guide those with different backgrounds and levels of experience from their own. We practice cultivating a positive environment in which everyone feels heard. Prior to graduating and facilitating classes, participants must complete a final project.

Like most students during finals, they are typically nervous. The assignment is to develop and teach a 15-minute lesson for their peers and us teachers. The lesson can be on any art form but must engage the students and include all three elements of our curriculum: art history or culture, creative practice, and reflection.

photo by Peter Merts, courtesy of the California Arts Council

At Prison Arts Collective, we have now taught this class to hundreds of participants across California. Each time, students anticipate the final with nervous excitement. Many have never spoken in front of a group before entering this class. For some, this has constituted their first positive experience in a classroom setting.

photo by Peter Merts

On the day of the finals, we give the classroom over to participants and ask them to lead us through their projects. For at least six hours, they stand up, singly or in pairs, and take us through their planned lessons in guitar or creative writing, painting or drawing. They often surprise themselves with their success in this endeavor.

photo by Peter Merts

Students have led us through a history of choirs and a joyous if tentative round of Row, Row, Row Your Boat; taught us to stretch to find the correct finger placement on improvised guitars, the neck drawn on a sheet of paper with labeled strings; reflected on someone we have harmed and written an acrostic poem in their honor; drew portraits of people we have lost; and learned to make a pop-up card.

Final project day never fails to be one of the most inspiring, eye-opening, and fun class days I’ve experienced in many years of teaching. Despite the nerves, our students pass with flying colors and we are honored for them to be peer leaders.

photo by Peter Merts, courtesy of the California Arts Council

About the Author:

Annie Buckley is a professor and the director of the School of Art + Design at San Diego State University and the founding director of Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. PAC provides multidisciplinary arts programming and peer facilitator trainings in 12 prisons across California through an innovative partnership between California State Universities and state prisons. Buckley’s writing on contemporary art is published in Artforum, Art in America, The Huffington Post, and she is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, where you can find the full series of “Art Inside.”

See JAC’s recent Teaching Artist Spotlight for more about Annie Buckley and her work with the Prison Arts Collective. 

About the Photographer: 

Peter Merts has been photographing California’s prison art programs for 15 years; his images have appeared in the New York Times, The Economist, and The Huffington Post. He co-published, with Dr. Larry Brewster, a book on the topic—Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (2nd ed)—and is on the advisory board of the Prison Arts Collective.

Artist Spotlight: Kenny Collins

Kenny Collins

Kenny Collins is an innocent man who was on Maryland’s death row for 17 years and is now serving a life sentence.  Currently he has been incarcerated for over 33 years.  His death sentence was overturned on a technicality, yet he has never had a chance to have a jury hear either the huge amount of evidence of his innocence or the extensive problems with his original trial which resulted in the state committing to kill him. 

Kenny uses art, poetry, yoga, and writing in his unique style to help him stay above the horrible conditions of unjust incarceration and as demonstrations of what he calls an “Epiphany-Awakening.” He has endured periods of solitary confinement, reprisals for activism, and serious medical issues stemming from poor medical care. This blog post demonstrates his writing artistry and presents a powerful explanation of some of the most important aspects of his case. A quick introduction to his case may help provide some context and we are hoping readers will join us October 12-16 for the Virtual Week of Action to say Free Kenny Collins/Black Incarcerated Lives Matter (details below), and that they will share this post, share his video and facebook page, and sign the petition below.  The movement for Kenny is an important part of BLM and even more urgent in the context of COVID-19. 

Some background:

The crime for which Kenny is serving time was a robbery and murder at an ATM in 1986, which involved both a shooter and a getaway driver. The event was witnessed by an off-duty police officer who got the license plate number of the getaway car, which led detectives to Tony Michie. A search of Michie’s apartment found shell casings like those of the murder weapon. Police also questioned a shooter suspect, Quentin Rice, but did not arrest him. Kenny was not a suspect at all until five months after the crime, when Michie’s trial looked unlikely to give the capital conviction that the prosecution was seeking. 

At that point, Michie was offered a deal to testify against Kenny, but the story he told at Kenny’s trial directly contradicted the testimony he gave at his original trial, which made no mention of Kenny and had very different details. For instance, in Michie’s trial, he claimed the murder weapon was dropped down a sewer, whereas a key part of his story about Kenny was that Kenny kept the weapon after the murder and showed it to others. But Kenny’s jury never heard about Michie’s original testimony, and the weapon was never found or linked with any evidence to Kenny.

In fact, there was no physical evidence of any kind that implicated Kenny, and the eyewitness did not identify Kenny as the perpetrator, nor did Kenny match the description the witness had given. Nonetheless, Kenny was convicted solely on the testimony of Michie and two other people whose testimony was obtained in exchange for a reduction of unrelated drug charges.

Kenny’s jury never learned about the deals the prosecution made for witness testimony, the evidence pointing to the other suspect, contradictory testimony given by Michie to a jailhouse informant, or testimony by friends and family of the other witnesses that cast serious doubt on their claims. 

Kenny’s court-appointed lawyer presented no counter-evidence and called no witnesses, even character witnesses, on Kenny’s behalf, even at the sentencing hearing where Kenny was condemned to die. Furthermore, the judge in the trial told the jury that they only had to be “reasonably certain” in order to convict, undermining Kenny’s constitutional right to have the evidence judged to the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” One of the three trial witnesses has since recanted, but this has also never been heard in court. And in Maryland, lifers who have applied for parole have never gotten past the politicized governor-approval process.

Kenny is a wonderful, loving person and a committed activist from the inside, but we need to get him out so he can finally have the freedom he deserves. Those of us in his support network are working on various aspects of his campaign, including our new petition to the federal judge who has for many years failed to rule on his habeas petition for a new trial. 

Please join us for the week of action and let us know if you would like to be involved in other ways, such as writing to Kenny, or helping with the campaign. Donations are also very welcome.

Petition to federal judge

Video about Kenny’s case


From Kenny:

This Blog was chosen to reveal 1’s Epiphany Awakening unto the WORLD — arisen from 1’s Innocents Wrongful Conviction, illegally threatening 1’s Battle-War-Cry, for Justice…Liberation…Compensation….

Enclosed are various <phenomenons> bestowed unto thee throughout 1’s allotted (32 1/2 yrs.) trapped inside aMERICA’S historical Abyss-Nether-World!  Hopefully the viewing readers <sub-Conscious> will both Awaken OR be Inspired by your chosen <likeness> bestowed beyond Truth VS. Injustice.  

I’ll at great lengths enlighten the viewing readers’s conscious towards “Man-Made-Flaws VS. Human Rights Liberties,” threw the recorded <portal> dimensions of our Time on Earth.  Please acknowledge this factual reality:  We are <born> into a pre-WORLD already plagued with the “Chaos…Corruption…Crisis…”

Now allow 1’s Epiphany Awakening to both educate and stimulate the viewing reader’s Conscious-State on this shared planet Earth, so at the conclusion hopefully you’ll join “1’s Battle-War-Cry!”

“Injustice Politrix”

By:  Abolitionist Kenneth L. Collins

Civil No. DKC-96-3278

Case 8:96-CV-03278

To the viewing reader, as you digress what you’re about to read, remember Maryland was one of 13 Colonies leading the United States <illegal> Chattel Slavery.   The 13th Amendment (Ratified/Politrix Dec 6, 1865) states:  Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a form for punishment of a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the <usurped. United States, or any place subject to their jurisdictions —-  Congress shall have power to enforce this article/politrix by appropriate legislation…

At the top left corner is my <case> numbers for viewing for inquiring-minds, who’re interested in learning more about “1 Innocent Abolitionist Wrongful Conviction” that’s been <illegally> holding me hostage for over <32 1/2 yrs.>, afraid to let society see not only “the Injustice… But Also The Proof!”   There’s alarming compelling Material Evidence establishing not only Innocence — but also “impeaching State’s Witnesses & Recantation Star Witness,” which was in the state’s possession but never <disclosed> by the State to both Trial Defense or Revealed to the 12-Jurors at Trial.  

Unknown to the 12 Jurors, Quentin “Peanut” Rice, Michie’s best friend, gave a written statement to the police, a mere five days after the murder.  In his written statement, Rice stated he was with the perpetrator at the time of the murder… Unlike my description (I am 5’7” in height, Rice matches the the physical description (a black male 5’11”-6’11” tall) of the fleeing gunman <seen> on the night of Dec 7, 1986 by an off-duty police officer who heard gunshots and observed the shooter jump into the vehicle of the other perpetrator, Tony Michie.  When questioned by the police, Rice initially lied about his identity, demonstrating “consciousness of guilt” and “involvement in the crime under investigation.” After initially lying to the police, Rice then signed a written statement stating that he was with Michie, the exact time of murder around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, Dec 7, 1986.  

Sadly, the state of Maryland treated this terrible murder case with “Cover-Up, Corruption & Prosecutorial-Misconduct,” against me, not due to any “Proof of Evidence”…But solely on UNTRUTHFUL witnesses, that made numerous <stories> about the nature of crime, and who was actually involved…

<Newly Discovered Evidence… Andre Thorpe’s Recantation…>

At trial, Andre Thorpe testified that he saw <me> together with perpetrator Tony Michie arrest for the crime, at Michie’s request, he went to visit <me> and that <i> then confessed to him that <i> had committed the murder … in quote….

Once again to the viewing reader, please be conscious mindfully towards the various implement number {13}, being introduced in this topic of discussion entitled: “Injustice Politrix!”

One June 9, 2000, Andre Thorpe had come forward to stat that he lied at <my> trial “13” years ago, after seeing the news press coverage concerning then Gov. Robert Erlich’s grant of clemency to then Condemned Death Row Prisoner Eugene Colvin-El, who the state of Maryland was about to Execute….  Thorpe had called Max Obuszewski, of the “American Friends Service,” and indicated that ‘he had lied’ in his testimony at Mr. Collins’ trial ———  Mr. Obuszewski referred Andre Thorpe to the ACLU, which in turn told Thorpe that my attorney Peter E. Keith Esq. was representing Mr. Collins.  

On June 12, 2000, Andre Thorpe contacted my attorney <unsolicited> by telephone, which was a complete surprise to my attorney, too.  In the telephone conversation, Thorpe told my <attorney> that ‘he had lied’ at <my> trial under pressure from the [prosecution] to protect Tony Michie his cousin, who was being prosecuted for the the Bank Vice President murder.   Thorpe told my <attorney> that in fact, contrary to his trial testilying, he did NOT see <me> with Tony Michie on the day of the murder, nor was there any Confession ———  He then stated to my <attorney> that: hi false testifying had been “Preying On Him For Years, “finally leading him to come forward to tell the TRUTH…”. Thorpe expressed deep concern about the strong possibility that he might be Prosecuted For Perjury, if he came forward to tell the <TRUTH> at this time….

The Supreme Court of the land has stated that district courts must look at ‘Cumulative Evidence’ in analyzing Brady and ineffective assistance of counsel claims in determining “Materiality” and “Prejudice” under Strickland. Ei.g. Kyles v. Whitley 514 U.S. 419, 437 (1996).  

Quote:  Never Allow Circumstantial – Labels Define Your Worth——— Cause There’s Always Space vs. Time To Refine Self On Earth….  By:  Abolitionist Kenneth L. Collins

From the very beginning I’ve maintained my Victimized-Innocence, throughout the entire allotted (32 1/2) years, all the while “Never-Giving-In nor Ever-Giving-Up!”  Instead of its historical-tyranny deceptions, making my ‘Soul-Leak’ in despair.  It Transformed my “Spirit-Strength” into an Epiphany-Awakening, igniting 1’s Ultimate-Battle-Cry phenomenally…

I no longer view our Life-World like a: “Minute-Hour-Glass.”  Instead I see it just like:  “The Galaxy – – Universally!” Far deeper in it’s comprehensionable-state of acknowledgements, is how I’ve truly been Blessed in it’s rewardance.  The amazing ways are expressed through “1’s” unique-stye of writing, as well as examples in “1’s artistries, and lastly 1’s powerful-ode’s too!”

Not allowing this Nether-World to have it’s Dysfunctional-Powers over 1’s Spirit-Strengths is the <key> towards “1’s Longevity Survivalism!” We only get “1 Entity 2 Life,” so it’s vital to listen to “The Inner War-Cries” over all The Outer War-Lies, continuously “tug-of-warring’ with “1’s Life-World,” residing on this shared planet that we proliferated called:  EARTH———

It’s truly been a blessing beyond honors to share this blog with each viewing reader’s subconsciousness, in hopes to unlock “1’s” Inner War-Cries,” to truly challenge “1’s Outer War-Lies” against America’s POLITRIX…

“Stay-Strong II Live-Long!”