Making Meaning: a caged bird sings

by Page Dukes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the guest contributor:

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

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.

The 2018 New York Art for Justice Forum at Columbia University

by Philip Hall

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

New partnerships are helping to force that change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the guest contributor: 

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

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

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

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

by Kenneth E. Hartman

As I sit in the audience of assembled artists and corrections officials, writers and performers, along with a smattering of fellow returned citizens, I reflect on the magical nature of my own journey to this meeting, provoked to reverie by a tale of emotional torture and abuse told by a gentle, kind artist who once walked the same yards and felt the same arid winds of isolation I experienced for 38 years.

The story of a prisoner locked inside a cell, alone with his thoughts and fears, is a trope that defines prison narrative in fiction and movies. There is something both heartrending and heartwarming to consider in these tales of solitary “definement” – this act of finding oneself within the confines of the steel and concrete of a prison cell. While I listened to him recount his own harrowing experience of this, I became lost in nightmarish memories of other places and times. I could hear the clanking sound of heavy brass keys in the far distance. I felt the weight of those decades leaning on me.
But it’s October 16, 2018, on the vast, tree-lined campus of Sacramento State University in a large, windowed room in the Alumni Center. This is the California Art for Justice Forum; this is the place for “Addressing Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform Through the Arts.” Along one side of the room, tables are stacked with breakfast food: bagels and cream cheese, muffins and cut fruit. At the end of the last table, large brown Cambro drink dispensers – the exact size and color of the containers in the chow hall of the last prison I served time in, mere months ago. The coffee is much better here. Throughout the rest of the day a small army of food service workers keep replacing the offerings with new items. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser to serve the participants a box lunch like what prisoners eat every day.

In the opening panel, as the Chief of Rehabilitation in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation bats back requests for more programs, more art, more of anything, California Arts Council Deputy Director Ayanna Kiburi points out that eight million dollars a year is being allocated toward arts in the California prisons by her organization. I whip out my smart phone and do the math. It works out to about 7/1000ths of a percent of the twelve billion dollars pouring into the prisons for all the rest they accomplish for society. Obviously, art isn’t valued that highly.

During the first breakout sessions, I walk around the room, listening when I can, standing back when I can’t, and what I see and hear leaves me with that kind of déjà vu that feels heavy. It strikes me that many people with obviously big hearts and real commitment are having an argument with the past. How do we measure this? How do we get the system on board? I think it’s different now, right? We shouldn’t ask for too much! When I came to prison back in 1980, it was at the tail end of the last rehabilitation surge. In those days, at Old Folsom, no less, whole sections of Five Building were dedicated to painters and sculptors. Art Alley it was called. It vanished into the maw of the “get tough” era that followed.

When keynote speaker Luis Rodriguez, former Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and both personal hero and close friend of mine, takes to the dais to address the crowd he’s vibrating with righteous energy. He compares the current moment to the “birth of a new era,” and I pray right there that he’s right. His poet’s voice rises and falls, emphasizing and exhorting, calling to action all assembled. In what holds personal significance for me, he makes the point that his own troubled youth was rescued by one adult who “cared him straight.” Like most of us who fall off the rails and land on the other side of the law and society, he needed to be seen and heard, to be cared for and nurtured. Instead, the system of mass incarceration had steel and concrete, isolation and suffering in abundance, ready to break us down and destroy our spirits. I discovered a vocation for writing, and I found a way to write my way back to humanity. That my spirit wasn’t destroyed is a testament to the power of the arts, but I am a lucky exception to the rule. A few millions buy a few programs; many billions buy lots of concrete and steel cages.

The second plenary session addresses the convergence of arts education and criminal justice reform. Two of the five panelists are fellow returned citizens. The wise and measured jazz musician, Wesley Haye, and the fiery, impassioned Shakespearean actor Dameion Brown, both provide the kind of experiential knowledge that only those of us who have lived inside the lethal, electrified fences can impart. Dr. Larry Brewster, a giant in the field of arts education in prison, spends a considerable amount of time explaining to the room the Gordian knot of proving to the uninterested that arts matter for the unloved. He is valiant in his commitment and radiates charm.

Breakout sessions again continue the debate from the morning and discuss the various systems and obstacles that hamper the provision of substantial and meaningful arts education within the jails and prisons. The well-meaning and the hopeful confronting the hard end of current reality is on display.

At the closing remarks, the voices of Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts, and Laurie Brooks, executive director of the William James Association, eloquently express appreciation for what change has happened inside the prisons and jails and the fervent, desperate desire for still more that has been evident all day.

My mind drifts back to Henry Frank, fellow returned citizen, and his gripping recounting of being able to draw on a used lunch bag while being held in solitary confinement. I could feel him slip back inside the terrifying isolation of a cell, alone, unsure how long he would be held out of touch, out of the healing rays of the sun. That he could call on his training as an artist is a wonderful thing, to be sure. That he was placed in a situation where all he could do to maintain his sanity was draw on the inside of a crumpled bag is a damning indictment of the system of mass incarceration.

This state, all of this country, still has miles to go to achieve something like a system that values human beings more than the infliction of pain. We must not ever forget that sad truth.

About the guest contributor: Kenneth E. Hartman served 38 years in the California prison system. He is the author of the award-winning memoir “Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars. “His other books are “Christmas in Prison,” and “Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough.” He lives and works in the Los Angeles area as a writer. Ken can be contacted at: kennethehartman@hotmail.com

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.

Additional forums have taken place at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta on September 28, at Sacramento State University on October 16, at the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University in Alabama on October 19, and the last forum will be held at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16 (register here). For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org.