Coronavirus in Prison

This post will be updated with additional quotes and testimonials, as JAC receives further information from the incarcerated individuals within our network. If you have any details that might be relevant to this ongoing work, please contact justiceartscoalitionintern2@gmail.com

“CORONA”

BLLEEEEEEAAAAAAPP…..
This is a public service announcement.
We are officially at war.
Extreme times — calls for extreme measures.
Therefore,
We are advising all citizens,
As a matter of life and death
To stay home, shelter-in-place,
Wash your hands,
And keep them out of your face.
Because the Invisible Killer from Wuhan,
Who cannot be negotiated with —
Is on the loose
And indiscriminately leaping
Like a wingless flea on a dog
From person to person
All around the globe,
Without a care in the world
If you didn’t already know.
—-
*Coughing sounds can be heard*
—-
19,19….
Is that you?
In that dry cough that I hear in the background?
Identify yourself.
Covid-19….tell me…is that you?
—-
Ssshhhhhhhh…..
Please don’t say my name too loud,
Because it’s now official,
The (W-H-O) is looking for me.
They have labeled me as a viral bandit.
In fact,
Due to my disregard to lungs, organs,
Kidneys, and human life,
I have the whole world
Now shook with panic
And on the lookout for me.
In just a short span of time
I grew from an epidemic, to a pandemic,
And now I’m a full-blown crisis.
The Chinese, Americans, Italians,
And Boris Johnson….
Will tell you without the debate —
I’m the number one Enemy of the State
And living proof of the philosophy
That states:
What effect one of us affect all of us.
—-
My grip on the world is so tight —
I paralyzed Easter and the Olympics,
Now ain’t that a sight…?
I made the Business World shake,
Turned Las Vegas into a ghost town,
Put Paris on lockdown,
And made Wall Street numbers fall down.
Now tell me,
If you don’t think my existence
Isn’t up against the clock.
Tick tick tock, tick tick tock.
—-
The reality is
1 million is already at harm.
Astronomical figures.
Somebody —
Sound the alarm.
We need ventilators and PPE.
People are dying,
We cannot meet the demands
Somebody — somebody —
Anybody.
Please help us.
Send us PPE.
And make it a matter of National Security.
If need be!
—-
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
People of all ages.
Symptoms or no symptoms.
Underlining conditions or not.
Y’all all at harm.
I’m the new norm.
And what you’re witnessing now
Is just the calm before the storm.
—-
6 feet of separation!
Social what!
Social who!
Social distancing.
Is that the best your leaders and the CDC
Can optimistically tell you to do?
To help flatten the curve,
Contain my outbreak,
And hinder what I’m about to do?
—-
They say art imitates life,
But this is not a movie.
The world have seen
Numerous examples of me before.
Have any of y’all read the Bible before???
You see,
Back then,
Microorganisms,
Plagues, and complex molecules
Like me — just wasn’t labeled as Wars.
But today…..
You over sophisticated fools
Labor my dire consequences — as a war.
When I’m only the new influenza
By another name.
Regardless of the factors,
I’m here and banging on Humanity’s door.
—-
BBBLLLEEEEEAAAAAPP…..
Again this is a public service announcement.
We are advising all citizens,
As a matter of life and death.
Stay home, shelter-in-place,
Wash your hands,
And keep them out of your face.
If you’re not taking heed
To these precautions
Then…….
You must already be dead,
Affected,
Or simply out of your mind!
—-
Corona.
—-
Written by Kenneth Reams,
In the wake of the virus,
© April 2020
SIGN THE PETITION ADVOCATING FOR KENNY’S RELEASE HERE!
*****
Viral watercolor by Sam April 2020
Sam Loynachan
Sams Corona Virus Prose April 2020
Sam Loynachan
the miracle worker, joshua earls
“The Miracle Worker,” Joshua Earls

Josh Earls: “I wanted to paint something just to add my voice to so many others who are already expressing their love and gratitude for those medical professionals out there who are saving us all. Really, nothing makes you feel more helpless than when you see your loved ones in need and yet you are completely unable to do anything to help them. I don’t get to use my time in quarantine to add my hands to my father’s as he fixes up the house, or to pick up the things for my mother that she needs to make a trip to the store for. I can’t help prepare a meal for my sister who still has to work through this. I can only sit here. And most of all, if someone I care for is sick, I can only rely on these miracle workers to meet their needs and to make sure they are still “home” when I’m allowed to be there. So I just want to, for any who may be listening, say thanks to the good folks on the front lines. May the appreciation and gratitude of our nation point to them in this new paradigm we are moving into. As one who has all but had their voice taken from them by this punitive system, I’ll let my humble art be a voice.”

From correspondence with someone in a federal prison:

Testing is happening in rounds of 150 people per unit. After the first round, 12 people were removed from the unit and told their test was negative. The remaining 138 were left behind, and medical staff would not respond to questions about their status. After many hours of waiting in uncertainty and fear, a town hall was called by medical staff, who conveyed that if their names were not called they could safely assume that they’d tested positive, and that they’re “lucky because we are most likely asymptomatic and thus won’t be in much danger.” Staff went on to say that the BOP’s goal for the institution is “herd immunity,” with a goal of 80%+ infection rate so that everyone who can get the virus will have already gotten it.

“They are past the point of trying to prevent us from getting infected after only 3 weeks of isolation.”

Later that day, 12 more people were pulled out and told they were negative.

“After it being implied that we were positive, we are now even more confused. Maybe they just forgot to call my name? Perhaps they will call me at any minute and move me away. Everyone is frantic and nothing feels safe right now.”

2 days later:

The writer learned that there’d been another town hall on the other side of the unit. Staff told the people held there that they are best off remaining on the unit, refusing the test, staying in their own rooms, not having to move to the tents that have been erected for those who test negative, which would result in losing their property & access to commissary. They might as well “get a virus that we are going to get anyway”. So, many have refused tests.

“I have to wonder, do those people now get counted as positive cases, or since they were never tested does this facility get to hide their real numbers. Does that even matter when the whole plan is herd immunity? That the men who die in here, never knowing freedom again, do so at our governments plan does not sit well with me. I know so many of these people. They just don’t deserve that.”

For further information on the ongoing crisis in prisons, please explore this story from NPR.

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 ​​​

 

 

The Stories We Save May Include Our Own

by Matt Malyon

 

I. Birdwatching

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.  No—it reels, dizzy in the vibration of its unplanned encounter with steel.  It flaps its huge wings and begins to make sounds that might best be described as cries of terror, as it moves in and out of cars unable to stop their hurtling forward for the sudden and surprising descent of the large white bird.

*

I spend most Wednesday afternoons with youth in orange jumpsuits, holding a yellow No. 2 pencil between my fingers, and leaning over a black-marbled cover notebook.  Our county’s incarcerated youth have landed “inside” for various reasons—gang related incidents like drive-by shootings or territorial violence, domestic disputes, harm to animals, or items involving alcohol and drugs.  Unless they write about their past, which they often do, we leave such matters at the door. I shake their hands and welcome them as equals. After introductions we settle into the work at hand—reading literature together and responding to it through discussion and creative writing.

In the early days of facilitating Underground Writing workshops, I began to notice our tendency to bring literature of a darker vein.  These included, among others, Dante’s dark wood, Sherman Alexie’s poetry of lament, the non-fiction-fiction of Tim O’Brien, the wars and adventures in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the migrant experience of Juan Felipe Herrera, environmental issues in Martha Serpas’ poetry, the tragedy and loss in the poems of Langston Hughes, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Osip Mandlestam, Suji Kwock Kim, and Natalie Diaz, and the darker undercurrents hidden within Robert Frost’s well managed forms.  

I caught myself introducing workshops by saying things like, “I know we discuss a lot of darker stuff, but . . .”  In time, I realized our students did not share a similar anxiety. They recognized their own stories in this very type of difficult literature.  

The truth is that our Underground Writing students, in one way or another, are struggling—the youth in the adult crimes they wake to discover they have committed; our adult students in the physical and mental aftershocks of drug addiction and incarceration; our migrant leaders caught in the intricate web of cultural and familial tensions, in a country seemingly half against them.  Such darkness needs to be named, and the dynamic discussions we’ve been having indicate our students intuitively know this.    

*

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.

The story that opened this essay was a story told during a workshop by my friend and colleague in Underground Writing, Chris Hoke.  Chris has a gift for images, and this one stuck with me for some time.  I could see it. I could hear it. I wanted to include it in a piece of my own writing.  But it wasn’t my story.  

In the days that followed, however, something began to evolve.  

I recalled what came to mind immediately in the workshop when I heard the story—my father in an auto parts store in Anaheim, California in January of 2000.   

Two months before my father’s death—returned home from the hospital after his fifth surgery, and unknowingly a few weeks away from hospice care—he decided to get new seat covers for my mom’s car.  He would have nothing to do with anyone telling him anything different. And so, with a body emaciated from years of radiation, cobalt, and chemotherapy in the 70s, and again during the return of his Hodgkin’s Disease in 1999, my father climbed carefully into his golden yellow Volvo 1800 sports car and drove to the local auto parts store.  He was nearly a ghost by this point. A perfectionist for his entire life, he had only recently given up shaving due to a lack of energy. He weighed less than a hundred pounds.

I was in Iowa at the time, so I wasn’t there to see him walk gingerly down the aisle, past the various car fluids, on his way to where the seat covers were located.  And I didn’t hear the break, as somewhere between the ankle and the knee his tibia simply snapped. My beloved father, a man of dignity and grace unlike I’ve ever known, fell to the floor in agony, surrounded by bottles of motor oil and antifreeze, his brief descent ending as he rolled onto his back, stunned by the white light and the faces above him appearing quickly from all angles of his vision.

*

As Underground Writing has grown, as we’ve journeyed from the adrenaline burst of new beginnings, articles in the press, and T-Shirts into the settled rhythms of a more established program, one of the facets of what we’re doing that has become increasingly important to me is how our stories overlap, how they connect us.

In January 2016, my beloved mom passed away.  It was a grief unlike I had known in years. Part of the intensity was due to the fact that both of my biological parents are now gone.  When I shared this news at various times at each of our sites, invariably the room grew quiet. It was as if I could see in slow-motion-time-release the change in the students’ perception of me—white, middle-class teacher to fellow human in a shared journey.  We were now strugglers together, and with a common language. We sat together in that moment of silence. Mere seconds, usually, but it often felt as if time expanded so as to contain the gravity of death. And I suspect we each sat in that silence with images and stories flickering through our minds.  Stories of blood and lineage and loss and grief, the students unconsciously experiencing a transformation as my narrative merged briefly with theirs then faded into other thoughts based in their lives, their stories.  

*

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole . . .

In the days following my hearing of this tale, I realized that the stories I was hearing in the workshops were no longer easily defined as something other, as “theirs.”  And the stories I was sharing from my life were not exclusively “mine.”  In fact, my friend’s story was becoming mine, or a part of it, as were the stories shared by our students.  In my hearing of them—my taking them in, as it were—they had not been merely received. They had some sort of agency, something that is ongoing.  The stories, I believe, are generating connections with stories from my life. They are intertwined with my own and are changing my perception of my past.  My stories are also becoming part of others’ stories. Located in the Skagit Valley for a little over a year now, I join them. My life now includes these lives.  I am being changed day by day, reeling in the reverberations of such beauty and sorrow.

*

Weeks later, I recalled a photograph famous in our family for its seeming absurdity.  In the foreground my beloved father and his brother are horsing around with their father, my grandfather, on the west-facing, hard brown sands of Manzanita, Oregon, our family’s preferred place of sojourn for four generations.  My cousin is building a sandcastle in the background, and behind the small edifice, the Pacific Ocean in all its glory—deep blue, brightly glistening under the evening sun. The lighting is appropriately the golden hour. My father, who is on the left side of the photo, separated by a human-width gap from his father and brother, has his hand held up and out like one side of a cross.  Far in the background, but clearly visible, and seeming to rest on my father’s fingertips: a gull, its wings expanding, about to take flight.

 

II. Gravedigging

In our line of work, my colleagues and I often talk about bringing life into places of death.  Whatever a literal resurrection might entail, I’m learning most people need first to discover their entrapment.  They also need hope, something that is in scarce supply for many of the students with whom we work. What little remains often needs to be exhumed.

We use creative writing as a shovel.  

It’s hard work, but the willingness to dig is quickly evidenced in the discussions that follow our group reading of a text.  And the soil, prepared by the literature, is pliant. By the time the writing prompts are finished, students—through some grace moving in language itself—have often dug down deep enough into the self to reach a grave.

*

Spaces like these are shelters for decay, narratives of darkness.  I hear such stories on a weekly basis . . . The young man who confesses to me he’s locked up for killing his grandma’s dog and doesn’t know why he did it, who then proceeds to tell me of his long history of physical abuse at the hands of an angry father; the man in his twenties I’m asked to speak with on the phone in the glass-protected booth, who is missing an arm he himself sawed off, who has swastikas below his eyes and “perdition” written backwards on his forehead so he can read it in the mirror, who tells me he’s from Manson’s farm; the look on the guard’s face the other night when I asked if any pastoral care had been given to the Cascade Mall shooter, who is currently being held in Skagit County Jail; the young man I counsel who tells me he’s having flashbacks of standing over a rival gang member he’s unwittingly stabbed six times in self-defense, listening to him beg for mercy.

*

There are other movements in the darkness, too.

We’re privileged to see some of our students on a regular basis and build long-term rapport.  It’s satisfying to see the maturing work they produce. Many of our students, however, we see only once, maybe twice, for an hour or two at most.  These are the students I wonder about. Will their notebooks ever get used for creative writing again? Will the impact of encountering literature in a given session spark something, anything?  Will they contact us on the “outs”? Will they remember writing is a gift and a tool for life? I continue to hope. I continue to believe that literature read together in a hospitable atmosphere, paired with writing prompts connected to both the readings and the students’ lives, begins something beyond what we can quantify.  Words matter. Literally. They take shape, and form a space in which things can grow.

Leaving the workshop with a notebook full of words and photocopies of good literature is not our only goal, of course.  We’re seeking both inspiration and transformation. This may take the form of a participant’s continuing to pursue the craft of writing and reading in a more purposeful manner.  It may simply mean they read more. Or it may mean they discover writing as a tool to help process a world that usually leaves them confused, angry, and sad. Whatever the case, we endeavor to resuscitate and nurture hope, something tangible that can be built upon, furthered to the point that an imagination of a different future begins to arc toward what they might become.  It is across this bridge of the imagination, as it were, that the participants can begin the long journey towards embodying a different future.  

I’ve seen writing work this way for two of the students who participated in our program’s initial week of workshops.

R. is from another state, but when I met him he was being detained on various charges in our local area.  Although he was noticeably quiet, I often caught him grinning at certain things read aloud or said in our workshops.  There was a light on. I liked him immediately.  

A month or two after Underground Writing’s debut, our workshop group was discussing the letters of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time.  “Letters can be literature,” we told the youth.  “Let’s try it, too.” For our writing prompt, we asked them to write a letter to someone.  When it was open-share time, R. decided to read. “I call this one ‘Dear System’,” he began. 

Dear System,

Ever since I was born you’ve been there.  You were there when my biological mom would relapse and let my sister and I run around free.  You were there again as I began to realize how to work on my own and take care of my mom and little sister.  You were there when my biological dad went into a rage and hit someone. You were there when my mom used up her last chance.  You took me and my little sister from her. You weren’t there when I passed from family member to family member. You were there to give me a new family.  You were the one who put both my parents in jail. You put my biological dad in prison. Now you are here again, but this time just for me. You are here putting me in JRA for the same reason my biological dad’s locked up.  You have brought me nothing but pain in the 14 years I’ve known you. You have torn apart my family time and time again only to put me in a new one where I’ve done nothing but disappoint or make people angry. So, System, before I finish this letter, I just want you to know I will never forgive you.

R.

The room was silent.  Not only because we’d just heard a sort of foundational text that solidified we were on to something important, but also because R.’s writing was inarguably powerful.  In five minutes, his emotions had been honed into something concise that moved beyond mere self-expression. He’d interacted with literature in a dialogic manner, and by the look on his face, something transformative had happened to him during the process.

R.’s out of state now, so we stay in touch these days via letters and the phone.  During the course of our last phone conversation, he told me he’s working on a section of a long autobiography project, as well as completing a set of song lyrics.  His letters, too, bear witness to the continuing impact of writing . . .

I’m happy that “Dear System” is helping people.  That’s a side of my writing that I never considered.  I am still writing. So far I have gone through three notebooks . . . I miss going to Underground Writing sessions.  I liked it there, I always felt welcomed.

I’ve also seen it in J.—a native to our county, held inside for a record number of months, due to the serious nature of the charges against him.  J.’s interest in writing has had extremely tangible benefits. In our workshops he was always eager to share his work.

Thinking

So I’m in deep depression now

There’s nothing I can do about it

I’ve been sleeping all day

I get real tired when I’m this way.

I start thinking and thinking

And my mind goes crazy.

I get the same thought

Over and over—

What would things be like if

I ended my life today?

I stare, and I stare

I think everyone

Who loves me hates me,

Who wouldn’t care

If I just disappeared one day

I think and I think—

Wouldn’t it be better if it all

Just went away.

J. is determined to survive.  Likeable from the start, he’s a person I’ve come to appreciate for his strong desire for change and restoration.  In the fifteen months I’ve known him, he’s taken to writing as if it were an iron lung. His first letter to me implied it might, in fact, be something of the sort.

As you know, I missed creative writing.  I was really bummed out because that’s my favorite programming that I look forward to all week.  I’m a ‘security risk’. I’m really stressed out and just going crazy.  I’ve never had such severe, strong, and sudden emotions.

Near the end of his stay, we began meeting once a week.  I met with him as a teacher or a chaplain, determined by his need on any given day.  By the time he was finally sentenced and sent to a juvenile prison, we’d also written seven letters back and forth.  

So I made it to [prison]!  I was in Shelton for about 3 hours then they took me.  I’ve been here almost 24 hours. I’m not sure what to say about this place other than it’s definitely a prison…I found a small section for poetry in the library, but they have like 80% Shakespeare and really old stuff . . . I’ve been writing a ton but most of it is private stuff or my new book, ‘To My Love’.  I’m really excited to hear what you think about my prologue. My mom is sending all of my writing from the outs and Juvie. It is so much that she had to put it in a package in the post office.

When I look back over the past fourteen months, writing is the thread that is so apparently woven through J.’s future progress and restoration.  More so, what I believe propels J. is what to one degree or another propels all writers and poets—he has encountered the self through writing, and, in that process, imagination, mystery, and hope.

Our correspondence has notably increased in the six months since his transfer, most of it being driven by J.’s own desire to continue learning the craft of writing.  He is an exemplar of our program’s hoped-for impact. In 41 letters and counting, we’ve edited and re-edited draft after draft of various poems and short stories. We’ve shared a bit of our own stories.  And we’ve also been working on a co-submission to a literary journal, an item that has facilitated further momentum toward change for J. 

I’ve been inspired once again to be a part of Underground Writing or a similar group/organization when I get out.  This program changes lives. I am a prime example. I now have something to work towards, to strive for. I have something I want on the outs.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, I was able to visit J. in another part of our state.  Amidst a room full of families and loved ones visiting their sons, their boyfriends, their dads, I sat with J. for one and a half hours.  We talked about life in his new surroundings, as well as his hopes for the future. He’s feeling settled in his living unit, and his medications have finally stabilized.  There have been challenging and good reconnections with his family. He’s just turned eighteen and is registering to vote. He’s applying to take classes through a local community college, and is determined to use what little money he has left to help his mom in paying for his tuition.  In my estimation, the hope for change has transformed into actual and definable progress.  

“You’re doing great,” I say to J. as we shake hands.  “Really great. So glad to see it.” I tell him I’ll return in a month or two.

He smiles.  “You’re going to send out our submission next week—right?”

*

Reading Flannery O’Connor recently, I was reminded of a story received from the ancient tradition of the desert fathers and mothers.  There was a hermit living in the region of Scetis who had become seriously ill.  His fellow monks, upon visiting him one day, discovered that he had died, and began to prepare his body for burial.  All of sudden, he awoke, opened his eyes, and began laughing. After recovering from their surprise, the brothers asked him what he was laughing about.  He told them he was laughing because they feared death, because they were not ready for it, and, finally, because he was passing from labor into his rest.  With this he rolled over and died.

Death for such monastics was a way of life.  A way to life.  And reportedly, some monks in ages past did indeed sleep in their coffins.  When presented with this bit of history, my son tells me the monks were probably hiding from something.  I asked some of the youth in Underground Writing what they thought.

A: “To get away from everything for a while.”

O: “Maybe it was part of their praying.”

L: “Because they’re getting ready to die.”

In some sense, all of these answers are correct.  Monks have always been consciously mindful of death.  Sleeping in coffins was simply a more obvious way of facilitating this.  It was likely their way of hiding from the very act of hiding—a way to actively seek an encounter with reality.  Whatever the people in surrounding communities may have thought of the practice, to say nothing of the explanation, it was not a sorrowful thing.  Nor did it lead to depression. In fact, a monk’s literal descent into his future place of death allowed him to more fully engage life. It became a conduit for joy, allowing a monk to wake to the freeing realization of his mortality.  

In the literature we discuss with youth and adults, in the writing we do as a generative response, we more often than not enter into the darkness of our lives.  These unlit places may be as simple as a general lack of clarity or as complex as navigating the extrication of oneself from the clutches of drug addiction, gang involvement, or repeating cycles of shame and perceived failure.  Whatever a student’s degree of darkness, by directly descending into it—through the profound mystery of reading/writing—something begins to happen. They begin to voice the ineffable. Words become sentences become beauty. In less than an hour, it’s surprising to witness the claustrophobic encasement of each student’s life opening up a bit.  So begins a fissure. And through such gaps daylight begins to filter in. 

About the guest contributor:

Matt Malyon is the Executive Director of Underground Writing, as well as a jail and juvenile detention chaplain.  He is the author of the poetry chapbook, During the Flood.  His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has been featured in various journals— including the University of Iowa’s 100 Words, Rock & Sling, Measure, and The Stanza Project.  He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.

The essay above was first published in Iron City Magazine.

You can read Matt’s previous article on the JAC blog here.

 

Piercing the wall: An invitation through letters on art

by Treacy Ziegler
Henry Haro - Seeing the Sun
Prisoner Henry Haro,  “Seeing the sky” – as part of the Points of a Compass project

 

      unsignificantly      off the coast      there was

     a splash quite unnoticed

     this was

     Icarus drowning

William Carlos Williams’ poem on Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting – Landscape with the fall of Icarus:

Landscape with the fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Belgium, 1525-1569
Landscape with the fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Belgium, 1525-1569

On visiting a particular prison for the first time to conduct an art workshop with the prisoners, I averted the inevitable invitation of seeing the prison’s Bob Ross mural – that mural painted by a prisoner in the style of the famous public television personality who taught the world – and prisons – the joy of painting.

“Before you show me the Bob Ross mural, I got to tell you, I don’t like Bob Ross nor am I a fan of his teaching.”   The prisoners were surprised I knew of the prison’s mural.  More surprising was that I didn’t like Bob Ross’s art, “You mean, you don’t like him?”  Most surprising was being direct in saying so.  But teaching in various prisons in several states and having a through-the-mail art project with 700 prisons throughout the United States, I’ve learned that many prisons have such a mural, that Bob Ross has become the Godfather of art in prison, and that in teaching, it is best to be supportive but direct.

Unfortunately, in prison there is little art experience beyond Bob.  (My complaint about Bob is that he taught art as formulaic and encouraged the world to paint the sky through his eyes and not the individual’s.  This lack of visual autonomy supports the incarceration status.)  So when Wendy Jason, the site manager of Prison Arts Coalition suggested creating a network of artist-to-artist correspondence, developing a dialogue on art between artists on the outside and artists on the inside via a conversation through mail, I was enthusiastic.  I hesitate to speak of it as a pen-pal service.  Pen-pal suggests other things.  Instead, this correspondence has the potential of offering a dialogue focused on art knowledge, experience, discussing mediums and techniques, and art philosophy.  Since by definition a conversation goes both ways, the art experience of both parties can be expanded.

Most artists from the outside will probably not go to prison – there are all sorts of restrictions: time, distance, and so on.   But the United States postal service offers another avenue.  Developing a relationship focused on art eliminates some of the potential problems of pen-pal correspondence; over dependence upon the person outside, unintended romantic and other potential confusion when the correspondence has no specific focus.

Over the past eight years as volunteer art director of Prisoner Express, a distant learning program, I’ve had numerous writing relationships to prisoners. There are 4500 prisoners in the program and because it is a distant learning program, all prisoners are required to write into the program. We offer numerous projects in which the prisoner can participate.  But many prisoners write additional personal letters and inquiries.  Many of these inquiries are about art.

Most prison libraries do not have art books. Apparently, they are the first books to get stolen from the library.  Beyond Bob Ross, few artists are familiar to prisoners; Michelangelo, Picasso, Van Gogh. Frida has her day in prison, as does M.C. Escher. But other artists, even Rembrandt, are often not understood; as one art student in my prison class suggested, “I wouldn’t give 5 cents for a Rembrandt.” While it isn’t important this prisoner agrees Rembrandt is great, this prisoner’s experience of art might be expanded in understanding why some artists come to the front and some don’t; how art functions within a society beyond aesthetics taste; how art speaks for – or against – a particular race, generation, or class; and how art has influenced the beliefs of society.  Art is much more than pretty pictures and self-expression.

I personally receive lots of letters from prisoners and tried through the years to write back to most – a hard task with 4500 prisoners. Sometimes they write after their art was published in the general newsletter,  “I’ve been walking on clouds ever since I saw my drawing in the newsletter.”  Sometimes the prisoner has a question about one of the art curriculums.  Some letters and prisoners stand out.

Raymond first wrote to me six years ago when he was working on a drawing curriculum I sent prisoners who signed up for the course. Raymond seemed excited to work on the different assignments in the curriculum; light and shadow, perspective and other drawing exercises. However, he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to do a successful job because he was currently in solitary confinement and his drawing materials were limited to the single interior cylinder of a pen that is permitted to prisoners in solitary. Pencils are not allowed in the hole.  Regardless, he sent me several drawings. From this work, I thought Raymond might be interested in the work of Piranesi, Georges De La Tour and Courbet; sending him photocopies of these artists’ art in my reply letter.

While his drawings were compelling, it was his questions that evoked my interest. The questions suggested a person searching for greater understanding of both art and who he was in relationship to art.  There are those letters from prisoners who are not interested in learning.  These letters suggest a need for an affirmation of their existing skills;  “I’m the greatest artist in prison,” writes Donald.  While trying to be as supportive as possible, I am drawn to those artists who are willing to expand and challenge what they are already doing. Of course, the self can be challenged and battered in prison, and re-affirmation is important. But I understand my relationship to the prisoners is not as their counselor.  Instead I am a person to whom they can talk about art.  It just so happens that in pushing the parameters of art, people learn about themselves and gain strength from this knowledge.

Raymond’s questions seemed to reach beneath the surface exploring a deeper meaning in art.  In response to the images of Courbet and De La Tour, Raymond asked, “What is the difference between Courbet and De La Tour?”  On a superficial level, it is easily recognized they are both painters of people with the obvious difference of being from different eras.  But I realized Raymond was picking up something more fundamental.  Assessing their difference, I realized that Raymond was discerning the artists’ use of figures in their painting reflecting the sea change in how art functioned within society.  Courbet developed social commentary through social realism while De La Tour focused on an internal symbolism leaving the immediacy of the world.

Raymond’s thoughtful questions were even more surprising in that he had little formal education outside prison.  Raymond was incarcerated at 17 years of age and has been in prison for 20 years.  He received his high school GED in prison.  With no supportive family, he learned through his own means. Perhaps education has little impact on people’s capacity to understand the depth of art. I’ve heard friends with college education speak in superficial terms about a painting, reminding me of Woody Allen’s joke that after he sped read War and Peace, concluded, ”It was about Russia.”

 I often focus on paintings/sculpture of early Renaissance when I send art to prisoners – perhaps a little archaic for today’s inclusiveness.  But I understand that the prisoners with whom I write and meet in prison are often interested in classical drawing, and although some will argue, no one seems to draw as well – either before or after – as the white boys of the Renaissance.  (When Renaissance women and minorities, overlooked by history, are found, they will greatly contribute to this learning.)  I am particularly drawn to the paintings of the artists who were struggling to understand form.  Raphael gets too perfect for my taste.  My painting instructor called him divine because Raphael could draw a perfect circle.  But as I wrote to Raymond, “Why draw a perfect circle? – I’m more interested in seeing beyond to where that circle collapses under the burden of being perfect.  Hence, I send Raymond, Hans Memling’s diptych of a woman on one panel and a horse with a monkey on the other.  Raymond concludes his assessment, “This strange painting is inspiring,” after discussing its awkward-other-worldliness.

Inga Kimberly Brown, another artist writing to prisoners from the PE membership, takes a different approach and sends the prisoners Michael and Manuel more contemporary art.  When Manuel sent in art in the style of a silhouette – not knowing of Kara Walker’s work – Inga sent him a packet of her work including the legacy of the silhouette in the history of the American Black and slavery.

by Kara Walker

 

by Manuel Gonzalez, III

Some prisoners only send me their art with no added correspondence.  I have enough art from Leroy to have a solo exhibition of his work.  While I don’t have intense verbal correspondence with Leroy – often only receiving multiple drawings without a letter – his words on the drawings are humorous. Leroy reaches for the funny side of incarceration in surviving prison.  His work has an attractive design quality and I recently learned that Leroy spent much of his childhood accompanying his mother to quilt shows.

Coffee stained art
Coffee stained art by Leroy Sodorff

Clarence is another prisoner with whom I correspond – although it is mostly Clarence corresponding with me.  I receive about five letters a week from him.  Clarence is incarcerated in the mental health unit of a maximum-security prison.  There is a frenetic quality to his letters and I have boxes and boxes of his letters. I’m not sure when, but at some point of our correspondence, Clarence made me high priestess of a religion he developed.  I write this not in disrespect of Clarence or of mental illness. I actually am fond of Clarence’s thinking – he understands things other people find a bit obtuse.  Because I can’t always follow his letters, I engage with his letters on a visual plane – finding the marks upon the paper fascinating. Clarence recently sent me a string-bound notebook filled with pages in which every surface is covered with marks on worn paper shredded at the edges – a mysterious artifact. Clarence asks that I keep it safe and so I will.

In his continued letters, Raymond pondered the photocopies of art I sent him with comments and questions about different artists.  I sent him Caspar David Friedrich and in response to the painting, Monk on the Sea, Raymond writes:

“First off, the ‘The monk by the Sea’ was considered Friedrich’s most radical composition because he didn’t concern himself with creating an illusion of depth….. This lack of depth gives the piece a flat abstract quality.  So my question would be, what separates “abstract” in a painting from just being incomplete.”  A legitimate question for someone who has never encountered abstraction in a painting.

Raymond seemed intrigued with the concept of chiaroscuro – those patterns of light and shadows – and drew light as it changed throughout the day in his cell.  Light, no matter how little or how much, is always present; even in prison.   It becomes an available subject for prisoners to draw.

Exploring light extended to non-artists as when Daniel Perkins became interested in his cellmate’s drawing assignment on light and shadow.  Consequently, Daniel spent a month measuring the changing sunrays coming through the window of his cell as the sun moved across the sky:

Sunrays in cell, recorded by Daniel Perkins
Sunrays in cell, recorded by Daniel Perkins

Later, Raymond asked about that phenomenon artists refer to as lost and found – elements in painting disappearing or becoming more evident; he asked about the difference between an illustration and fine art.  In one letter, Raymond asked if art needs to explain itself and to what extent a painting/artist is accountable for being understandable.  Even if I have no answers for these questions, they offered the opportunity for a thoughtful correspondence.

 Sometimes, I get questionable requests from prisoners.  I had been writing to Jimmy for a year or two when he asked if I send him pictures of children in swimsuits. He also asked for images of Sally Mann’s photographs, the photographer who took images of her children in the nude. I have no idea whether Jimmy is in prison for sexual predatory behaviors, but the request seemed wrong.

Perhaps, it was an innocent request.  In teaching at a men’s maximum-security prison, I brought several books on paintings; including those of Raphael.  In viewing the paintings of Raphael’s baby Jesus, I realized the inappropriateness for prison.  I told my class that while I was not directing my concerns to them, there were, in fact, individuals in prison who were confused about their sexuality in relationship to children.  Therefore, the rule was made that even little baby Jesus had to wear a diaper in prison.

I’m surprised the prison guards allowed the Raphael painting book into prison.  It’s hard to believe that the postal mailrooms in prisons are more diligent than the front gate in the search for contraband.  Regardless, rules are constant.  Some mail rules are obvious with obvious reasons; no nude children, no frontal nudes; no women in chains; no guns.  Then there are some not so obvious rules: no blank writing or drawing paper; no stickers (even stickers on the envelops with the return address); no hardbound books; and so on.

Most prisoners, particularly the above Jimmy who has been in prison for more than 20 years, know what is acceptable and what is not.  When I find a prisoner making such a request, I experience it as disrespectful.  Reiterating my relationship to Jimmy as not his therapist and it wasn’t my desire to point out the inappropriateness of his request, I stopped writing to him.  There are so many other individuals with whom to correspond.

When a recent law was enacted in California stating anyone incarcerated at 17 years of age or younger would automatically be scheduled for the parole board, Raymond asked if I would write a letter of recommendation for his hearing.  In his letter, Raymond told me why he was in prison – a 17 year old involved in a gang activity.  While the other members of the gang were not incarcerated, Raymond was.  He felt it was his lack of legal representation.

The question of a prisoner’s crime is one that people often asked – should the prison volunteer know what the prisoner did?  I know what most the prisoners have done.  As a realist, I’d rather be confronted with the contradiction of my feelings in order to understand them and move on.  What I have discovered is that my feelings towards a prisoner are based upon what the prisoner currently brings to the relationship and not on the crime.

Raymond was denied parole. The board was impressed with him, but thought he was too smart, seeing his intelligence as a threat.  I wondered if my letter had been a hindrance.  For a second hearing, scheduled in the following year, I again wrote a letter of recommendation.  In this letter I describe Raymond’s humility as I saw it through his ability to learn which reflected his ability not to know – that state of being vulnerable in allowing oneself not to know.

Granted parole, Raymond will be released from prison this month.  In his most recent letter, Raymond thanked me for what he feels to be my insight and experience in helping him become not only a better artist but also a better person.  Of course, his praise is more than I deserve.  Raymond success is his own.

Raymond now faces the challenges of entering a world he has very little experience of – he grew up in prison.  He writes how exciting but also how frightening this all seems to him. Perhaps through social media, email or even writing, we will continue to discuss the issues of art – that elusive subject giving rise to hope and a structure for understanding.

It is Wendy’s invitation to both artists and individuals with a working interest in the arts to develop friendships with artists who are incarcerated through letter correspondence and the exchange of creative works.  In the next couple of weeks, there will be a new page on the Prison Arts Coalition website inviting participation in this art correspondence, which we are calling the pARTner project.  You can email Wendy at pacoalitionadmin@gmail.com if you would like more information prior to the launch of the project. We imagine that we will very quickly have a long list of artists in prison who are eager to connect with, inspire, and learn from you.

Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 2,300 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.

“Art kept us sane”: An interview with memoir author Logan Crannell

About the writer, Logan Crannell: I’m a visual artist from Provo, UT who opted to move into my truck with my dog Jack, after I got divorced.  We travelled together and ended up in Boise, ID to visit a friend. Things spiraled out of control, and I got imprisoned for 4 months, facing a ten year sentence. I got released on Oct. 5th, 2016.
From Wendy, PAC Administrator: Logan Crannell wrote to PAC seeking some support in promoting his memoir, Hands Down – a story of incarceration, which hits Amazon today. I asked him if he’d like to contribute a blog post about it, and he eagerly agreed, requesting that I provide him with a few questions to get his thoughts flowing. I did so, and the following is what he offered in return. I’m sure you’ll be as moved by his words as I am, and I ask that you share this interview, and Logan’s book, with anyone who might find them meaningful — WJ

~~~

Hands Down Cover with 0.125 bleeds-1

WJ: How did the process/act of writing help you to cope with being incarcerated?

LC:  Writing grounded me and kept my mind from circling in on itself.  Being locked in a concrete cell for twenty-one hours a day, you get consumed by repetitive and irrational thoughts.  It’s important to get them out of your system, otherwise they eat you alive.

Excerpt from Hands Down:

I rested there, despondent.  Zach, walking laps along the yellow line, stopped and approached.  He took a seat and put his elbows on the table.

“You’re not overthinking, are you?” he asked, leaning in.

“Yes, I am.  I can’t help it.”

“Listen, bro,” he said, “You can’t think about the past and the future in here because they’re not ours.  They don’t belong to us, anymore.  All we get is today.  You have to focus on the things you can control.  It’s the little things that save you.”

It was wisdom, what he told me.

WJ:   You mentioned that you have a background in filmmaking.  What similarities and differences did you discover between the way you told a story in writing versus in film?

LC:  Yes, I grew up in a family of professional filmmakers and photographers, so I naturally told stories that way, but I was never comfortable with words.  They felt foreign to me; my interest lay with capturing images and feelings visually. When it came to dialogue, I’d bring in writers to deal with it. I didn’t care to be involved.

Then, in jail, in court, listening to my life and reputation get dismantled, I realized that words would ultimately set me free; they were my only tool of defense.  They became invaluable to me. No one seemed interested in my version of events, or claims of innocence, so documenting my words was a form of retaliation. Then, it turned  into something far more personal, as I examined my life and choices leading up to my arrest, which comprises the first section of the book.

WJ:  How did your surroundings influence your voice? Your perspective?

LC:  It got raw.  I came face-to-face with my fears, insecurities and failures, and I absolutely could not progress until I challenged them directly.  I couldn’t hide behind the distractions of the outside world. I felt bare, with nothing left to lose by writing my honest observations.  

As I got closer with my cellmates, my own story took a backseat, and I focused on their lives and outlooks.  The book transformed into our story.  Not just mine.  

Excerpt:

“How many mattresses are out there?”

“One.”

It was our nightly ritual; the counting of the mats. At 10:30 pm, the deputies placed mattresses on the table by the control desk, the number of which signaled to us how many new inmates were on their way to cell block. On our Walk, we had the only cell with a vacancy. The lights went out. I waited for my eyes to adjust, then continued reading The Screwtape Letters, by C.S Lewis; a rare find from the jail library.

“Did anybody come in?” Zach asked

“Not yet,” Zeek replied

“Well, I’m going to bed.  God bless, you guys!” Zach said, pulling down his headband

I’d fallen asleep when Rick Kellner made his entrance, and he came in with a bang.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I’d like Rick – he bragged of his charges with such enthusiasm, though I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that underneath his thunder, there might be a man that grew up too damn fast.

  
WJ:  How has your experience within the criminal justice system changed the way you perceive art and/or the creative process?

LC:  Art has a vital role in lockdown. It’s not disposable. I noticed inmate reactions to watching television; so many societal issues were irrelevant to them, and advertising commercials had no effect. We couldn’t have any of those things, so the broadcast registered as noise to us. I was relieved – I’d finally found a place where marketing didn’t work. I thought to myself, ‘These people are picking up on completely different signals.  That’s awesome.’

It’s funny, because I got housed with inmates who lamented over how much better the conditions were in prison, as opposed to county, because they had access to art supplies. My cellmate Rick did incredible drawings, but blank, white sheets of paper were a scarce commodity. We had to be resourceful and work with our limitations. It didn’t stop us. I kept a 2-inch pen, wrapped in paper and adhesive labels to make it less pliable, safely in my sock since the jail considered it contraband.

Excerpt:

Rick produced a work of art, while free, at a stable point in his life, on a canvas measuring roughly four-foot-by-six. He did the drawing in pencil; the image of an Elk, beside a river, on a cold morning.

He lost track of how long he spent perfecting it; each blade of grass, drop of moisture and dew, the hair of the Elk’s coat, its breath, all of it in vivid detail.  He spoke of its majesty, regarding it as his finest achievement, creatively. I believe Rick thought of that drawing often, in the darkest moments, pulling strength from it, when he felt at a loss.  I think it helped him see the goodness of his capabilities.

WJ:  What inspired you to keep writing? Were there times you lost the motivation? If so, how did you find it again?

LC:  I don’t recall losing motivation.  On the contrary; my cellmates would have to pry me off my journal, bring me down to earth, and encourage me to exercise and joke around. I formed tight bonds with my cellies. We fueled one another with ideas and inspiring stories. Art kept us sane. We balanced it with spiritual practices and kept each other laughing.  

Excerpt:

Zach didn’t waiver from his routine, and his daily yoga session piqued Rick’s interest. By that point, I joined Zach a few times a week, and it improved my flexibility. The floor got cramped with three of us, so I let Rick take a lesson. Zach gradually taught him the steps and proper breathing techniques.

Rick’s body trembled, as he labored to maintain a stance.

“Zach, I can’t hold it. I’m losing balance,” Rick pleaded

“You gotta breath deep with the motion, bro. You can do it.”

Rick’s feet slid on the smooth concrete, “This is way harder than I thought.”

“Yoga ain’t no punk, Rick.”

WJ:  What gave you hope? Who/what inspired you?

LC:  Seeing my dog Jack again. He means the world to me. On the day of my arrest, I got far more concerned for his well-being than my own. When the cops allowed me ‘my one phone call’ it wasn’t to a lawyer. I wanted to verify that Jack was safe and cared for. My friends and family came through in a big way.

WJ:  What advice would you give to other creative thinkers who are locked up? Or to artists and writers who teach in prisons/jails?

LC:  Keep it unfiltered. Don’t get influenced by history. The art you do doesn’t have to be monumental. That’s not the point. Your goal shouldn’t be to impress others. Real art isn’t about your ego; it’s the release of ego that makes it sincere. If it doesn’t heal you, don’t expect it to help others.  

While finishing the final draft of my book, page by page, I’d follow one instruction:  Did I keep it real and from the heart? Then, I’d ask two questions: What am I bringing awareness to?  And, am I ready to put this into the world?

To be a teacher in that environment, well, I think you have to create a circle of trust and safety, or the results won’t happen. Everyone involved has to be comfortable and meet at eye level before they open up. My cell mates were hesitant when they saw me keeping a journal, but once they trusted my intentions, they wanted to be involved and contribute to it. I’d quote ’em all day long.

Excerpt:

July 20th – Through the windshield of the transport bus, I witnessed sidewalks busy with people, wandering, arms full of shopping bags, wanting things. I saw advertisements for phone plans, menu options at fast food restaurants, and bands wearing the latest fashion. I wasn’t missing anything; Cell 846 was my comfort zone; I’d power through the day, and go to my bunk and rest.

My gaze shifted from the windshield to a black man seated in front of me, in the maximum security section; an iron gate divided us.  He reminded me of Tupac Shakur – maybe it was the nose ring. How did he get to keep his nose ring? How strange, that you can sit next to a person on a bus, and say nothing to them – and a month later, that person changes your life forever.

WJ:  What gave you the confidence to publish your story? What impact do you hope it will have?

Well, I felt a sense of obligation to publish since it wasn’t simply my story.  I promised those men I’d see it through.  

I have a dear friend, on the outside, that read the book. Unfortunately, his long term relationship with his girlfriend had hit a rough patch, and they decided to take a break. She moved out of state. Unbeknownst to me, he would read the book to her over the phone at night, and it helped them to rediscover and be grateful for what they had built. That touched me deeply. It made my struggles worthwhile. That’s what I want for the book; to have the reader find a negative in their life and convert it into something positive. That’s the victory.

WJ:  What are your goals for the future? How has the transition coming home been for you? Have you continued to write? If so, has it served a purpose during the transition?

LC:  Actually, I’m studying for my degree in floral design. I’d practiced Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, throughout my adult life. It brought me peace. I committed to making it my new career when I got out, so I’m really concentrated on that now. The transition was rough. By the time they kicked me to the streets I’d lost my home, my car, my camera and computer equipment, both of my jobs, etc. On top of that I now had a criminal record to contend with. At least I had my dog, and solid friends. I think that’s ultimately what the book is about; true friendship.  

Logan and Jack
Logan and Jack

If you’d like to connect with Logan (or Jack), email films.by.logan@gmail.com.

Hands Down: A Story of Incarceration, by Logan Crannell