Marlowe Brown was born in Asheville, North Carolina but moved coast to coast and back again before he was old enough to go to school. He describes having had “a typical childhood of a young person of color”: he went to school, joined the track and field team, and participated in other school-related activities. But things changed, and ‘typical became atypical’ when Marlowe’s classmates noticed he had blue eyes. The girls seemed to like it, but the boys didn’t, resulting in a couple of fights a week. Although the fighting came naturally to him, talking to girls did not. Girls liked him but conversing did not come easily: “I would often get tongue-tied.”
Marlowe Brown first became ‘O.G. Blue’ when a particularly pretty girl passed him a note in class. He wrote back and was able to say exactly what he felt on paper. She shared the note with her friends, and after that, every girl in the class wanted a note from him. He wouldn’t label himself as the smartest kid in school, but his favorite class was English, where, he says, “I did learn one thing, which was that pen and paper are a powerful communication tool.”
Blue’s creative process is simple. “I think of exactly what I want to say, sort of like putting a puzzle together in my head, and when it’s done, I lay down the completed puzzle.” These days he finds inspiration in a lot more things than he was able to when he was younger. When he first started writing poetry, it was only about a particular idea or person, but later in life, he discovered he could turn anything into verse. “Real people inspire me, smart people. A happy situation inspires me; a special lady inspires me, one that you think of even when you’re supposed to be concentrating on something else.”
Writing has helped him throughout his years of incarceration because, through his text, he can paint a picture with words, whether he’s writing to family, friends, or for business purposes. “When I was in high school, I could actually relate to people and situations better through pen and paper rather than in person, but as I grew, attended a few civic organizations, I can speak and express myself in person, even public speaking now.”
Writing has also helped him in processing his experiences and emotions. He says that a lot of his writing is inspired by real-life: “[Everyone knows that] the sun doesn’t shine every day, and I bring that to a point.”
“Poetry and writing awaken my mind to things that I could only dream of and I wanted to hold onto that thought for as long as I possibly could; therefore, I put it to pen and paper for a lasting reminder.”
Although O.G. Blue’s primary focus is poetry, he is currently expanding his portfolio and writing three thriller novels: High Anxiety, Why Are We Here?, and Never Die Alone. Writing comes to him more naturally now, whether in verse, letters, or novels. The real challenge he faces with writing is when it comes to legal matters, and he says his difficulties in that area exist for a reason. “Most people of color are laymen with the judicial system. After all, it was meant to be that way”. The COVID-19 crisis has made Marlowe feel more aware of life because, for now, the world is in a vulnerable position like never before. He reflects on his personal losses and shares: “An old associate of mine just recently passed due to the COVID virus, everyone that knew him would acknowledge him as Old Joe, he will be remembered”. Things have never been this different. He misses the idea of the ‘old world’ — a world older than COVID, a time with fewer technologies. A simpler time, “when you could tell the make of a car just from its sight, a handshake was prevalent, and when you were invited into your neighbor’s house, you could take your shoes off and sit a spell.”
“The mental picture on the poem, ‘Old Friends’, was how life was in what I consider now, ‘the old world’, when you could leave your windows up on a hot summer’s nite, a handshake between men sealed a deal. When a man’s word represented him even bad things had a reason, not accepted but they were less complicated and demented. When our kids went to school and returned safe and sound.”
“The poem ‘Between Us’ was based on the fact of something all humans long for. In other human-beings which is trust, compassion, understanding and respect. Once these emotions are acquired and acknowledged; it’s like magic. Then you have a relationship as strong as King Kong.”
You can view more of O.G. Blue’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like O.G. Blue, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
This is the second in a series of four blog posts for the Justice Arts Coalition, excerpted from the series, “Art Inside,” published by Los Angeles Review of Books. The full series is available here. To read the first post in Buckley’s JAC blog series, see: Oasis in the Desert. Stay tuned for the third blog, which will be posted on Friday, October 16th.
For this series of posts, I am focusing on our Arts Facilitator Training (AFT) program with Prison Arts Collective (PAC). This is a program that is close to my heart as I developed it with the goal of empowering and giving agency to the hundreds of men and women that we are privileged to work with in prisons across California to develop and teach their own art classes. Initially, I fused elements of my art education classes at the university with skills to support leadership in cultivating creative communities in prisons. Since then, the AFT has evolved with input from peer facilitators in the prisons, my colleagues in PAC, and faculty and students in the four California State University campuses where we have PAC chapters. I am thrilled that the students in our first AFT program have been teaching weekly classes to their peers for the past four years. In addition, at least three have been released and two of them are working full time as teachers of rehabilitative programs in prisons.
I have been thinking a lot about the integration of art and restorative justice. I decided to take this question behind the walls, asking incarcerated participants in our Arts Facilitator Training program what they see as the benefits and limitations of the arts in the realm of restorative justice.
I typically begin by asking if anyone knows what restorative justice means. I start with the two or three raised hands, most of whom learned the term in other rehabilitative programs. They explain that restorative justice depicts crime not purely as an individual act but as an embedded community issue with an emphasis on healing for victims and the opportunity to make amends.
From here, we read a short text on the topic and ask whether art can be part of restorative justice. We chart their ideas on a large piece of paper. The prevailing responses are, “family connections” and “connecting to community,” followed by “art is therapeutic” and “art promotes healing.” Another response that comes up often is the way that “art brings people together” and “builds community.”
I also ask where art falls short, how art does not meet the needs of restorative justice. That chart is generally much shorter but, on a recent visit, it inspired a spirited conversation. One student argued passionately that “a pretty picture” does nothing to ease the suffering of his victims and or make communities safer. The others listen respectfully but several rebut the idea, citing funds from sales of art that could be used to promote victim awareness and public safety and the value of connections they have re-formed with families and communities through their art.
When I offer that art does not put victims and offenders in direct dialogue, a few students rebut this, too, sharing that they use journaling to tackle forgiveness and write letters of amends. The subject of shame comes up often and, with it, identity and bias. Students mention that art is a means of “personal transformation” and a way to create a positive identity. Many speak of the way that others only see them as “bad” and continually associate them with their worst acts. Many share a passion to change misperceptions and stereotypes of those that are incarcerated through art.
One thing I love about the Arts Facilitator Training is that I have learned so many new and fascinating ways to combine art with the principles of restorative justice from our peer facilitators. In one peer-led class, a former student in our training leads his students through journaling to build empathy and promote healing. In another peer-led class that grew out of the training, the teacher guides students to connect interpretation in art with interpretation in life, developing an innovative way of applying criticality and openness of art interpretation to how we see life, from interactions with correctional officers to calls with family. Coming from shared experience, the peer-led classes more specifically integrate the tools and principles of community building and personal healing inherent to restorative justice.
About the Author:
Annie Buckley is a professor and the director of the School of Art + Design at San Diego State University and the founding director of Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. PAC provides multidisciplinary arts programming and peer facilitator trainings in 12 prisons across California through an innovative partnership between California State Universities and state prisons. Buckley’s writing on contemporary art is published in Artforum, Art in America, The Huffington Post, and she is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, where you can find the full series of “Art Inside.”
Peter Merts has been photographing California’s prison art programs for 15 years; his images have appeared in TheNew York Times, The Economist, and The Huffington Post. He co-published, with Dr. Larry Brewster, a book on the topic—Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (2nd ed)—and is on the advisory board of the Prison Arts Collective.
On October 1st and 3rd, audiences from around the globe are invited to a live Zoom performance of The BOX, a play about solitary confinement. Written by a survivor, Sarah Shourd, in collaboration with other survivors, The BOX is a story of human connection and resilience — a piece of transformational theater that asks us to re-examine long-held notions of punishment as it reveals the tragic, and sometimes painfully comic and absurd, realities that dictate life “inside the box.”
This unique Zoom production comes at a moment when millions of people around the world have new reason to resonate with the message of isolation. While Shourd certainly didn’t write The BOX to be performed during a global pandemic, she explains how “the experience — of being separated from loved ones, of being quarantined, of living through a crisis of epic proportions with no clear end in sight— can be a window into the ongoing suffering, deprivation, and resilience of our incarcerated population.” These stories demonstrate the fortitude that has kept these men and women alive, and offer insights into the perseverance we need as individuals and as a society to get through this pandemic and whatever we face next.
Despite the remarkable parallels between The BOX and our current global moment, the story behind this play actually begins over a decade ago. In 2009, Shourd was working in Syria as a journalist and ESL teacher when she was captured by Iranian border police while hiking around a popular tourist destination in Iraqi Kurdistan. She was tortured and imprisoned as a political hostage, spending 410 days in incommunicado solitary confinement — a form of detention considered cruel and unusual punishment under international law.
Upon her release and return to the United States, Shourd was shocked and horrified to discover that tens of thousands of people in the U.S. are held in similar conditions to what she experienced in Iran but for much longer — years or even decades. She began writing and advocating against the overuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, investigating and uncovering stories from the “deep end of the prison system.”
“I had a need to tell the story in a more intimate, personal, way,” Shourd recalls. Journalism and theater had always been inter-connected in her work: in her 20s, she used theater to demonstrate against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell the stories of Zapatista indigenous communities in Southern Mexico. Empowered by her experience, she turned to political theater.
The question on Shourd’s mind was how to reach people who may not see the humans behind the statistics: “someone that may not be persuaded by the data, that may not be persuaded by the scientific studies or the facts, or may not be able to make something real and tangible and human out of the number.” While the numbers themselves are staggering — of people we incarcerate in this country, of people in solitary confinement, of how long people are kept in these conditions — Shourd points out that such disturbing statistics can have the unintended consequence of depersonalizing the issue. “How can you wrap your head around 80 to 100 thousand people in isolation a day? You really need to focus on a few of those people to understand their stories and get to know them as human beings.” And so, the idea for The BOX was formed.
Shourd spent the next three years conducting an in-depth investigation into solitary confinement in the United States, interviewing 75 prisoners in 13 prisons across the country. She explains that while the suicide rates in solitary confinement are much higher than the rest of the general prison population, many people “still choose life.” Shourd was struck by the kindness and resilient humanity of the people she met: the way they could make her laugh and would make the most of every human interaction. Informed by her personal experience and the people she got to know, The BOX was born.
“The BOX is about how humans will find a way to connect with each other, regardless of the obstacles and the barriers between them. The more governments or carceral systems try to separate us, the more hungry we are to find each other.”
In 2016, The BOX premiered at San Francisco’s Z Space Theatre to sold out audiences of over 3,000 people. The show went on to be performed in a historic production at Alcatraz Island in 2019, and has been adapted into a graphic novel called Flying Kites. Shourd is always writing and rewriting and adapting the play, breathing new life into the story. Now, with this Zoom production, Shourd is working with what she views, in many ways, as an entirely new piece of art. “Storytelling is always taking advantage of new mediums, and I think that Zoom as a medium is still in its really early stages when it comes to entertainment… I think we’re on the eve of a new way of engaging with live theater virtually.”
Stepping into the role of director, Shourd describes how she and the cast have tried to approach the work with no preconceived notions. They are drawing from the experience of the previous productions, but with “a beginner’s mind,” responding to the current moment. For Shourd, being able to draw on the parallels to people’s “shrinking world” during the COVID pandemic is one of the most powerful things about this performance: “we’re all suffering that isolation and can relate to the subject matter in a new way.” Shourd reflects that there’s a rawness with a Zoom production: this performance is streaming live into the audience’s homes, directly from the actors’ homes.
While working with Zoom has been wonderful and expansive in some ways, Shourd has found it limiting and frustrating in others. There are aspects of the production that have proven to be easier through the virtual platform, such as how the consistency of what audiences will see allows Shourd and her technical designer to more specifically craft what is in every viewer’s frame. But at the same time, Shourd laments that there’s, “an intimacy and a visceral quality that’s lost over Zoom… It can be quite alienating.”
The medium of Zoom, by nature, puts everyone into disconnected boxes — reducing each person to a disembodied face. “There’s not a lot of depth to Zoom, so the physicality is lost and Zoom theater becomes a lot about face and hands and voice.” Nevertheless, the loss of intimacy makes this virtual production all the more impactful. In this way, Shourd remarks, “the message of the play is kind of baked into the platform itself,” emphasizing the dehumanization of reducing someone to a pair of eyes or a food slot.
The costumes and props have been shipped to the actors, and the cast is rehearsing virtually. A large part of using Zoom, Shourd explains, is finding creative and interesting ways to use props and taking advantage of the camera’s ability to create illusions. One of the most difficult elements of the show in traditional live theater is showing how prisoners pass notes to each other, through what is known as “kite flying” or “fishing.” Using a line made from elastic in their shorts or a torn piece of sheet, prisoners in solitary confinement across the country learn to very adeptly sail notes to each other underneath their doors. In live theater, actors struggle to learn and accurately portray this practiced art, but through Zoom, they’ve been able to embrace the platform’s potential for smoke and mirrors and craft a consistent method.
The “kite flying” is essential to conveying one of the largest themes in the play: how do these prisoners find themselves and find human connection against all odds? Shourd states, “It’s a play about resistance – about how these prisoners find each other and get to the point where they were ready to risk their lives to participate in a collective resistance against the conditions they’re in.”
The BOX can be meaningful for those who have survived solitary confinement, as well as their families and loved ones.
“Art and theater is absolutely necessary as a form of witness, and for the healing and restoration of dignity to communities of people who have been deeply wounded by this practice. I think that art is like a fire or a hearth around which communities can join or gather and reignite their spiritual connection and heal.”
Shourd also hopes The BOX can reach an audience of people who have never been to prison and are not at risk of going to prison. It’s these communities of privilege that really need stories, “to help them mine their own experiences of isolation and hopefully deepen their empathy for and outrage against what we’re doing in our prisons.” Shourd hopes that youth in particular can connect their experiences of separation and disconnection to our senseless and cruel “justice” system — to see that it doesn’t rehabilitate people and it doesn’t make our society any safer — and be called into prison reform and prison abolition.
Shourd invites anyone who is feeling alone during the pandemic to join this global audience. Unlike anything theater-goers have seen before, the three virtual performances are sure to be powerful and moving. There is no admission cost, but registration is required to attend. Additionally, the Pulitzer Center is hosting a webinar discussion the week after the performances with Shourd and Damien Brown, one of the actors who is also formerly incarcerated: “we want the conversation to keep going.”
Come see this incredible story of human resilience in the face of dehumanization and isolation: October 1st at 4pm PST and October 3rd at 11am and 4pm PST.
“We can do so much better, and we deserve better. I really hope that this is a moment of reckoning and awakening.”
Sarah Shourd is an award-winning author, investigative journalist and playwright based in Oakland, CA. Over the last decade the majority of her work has centered around exposing the inhumanity of solitary confinement and the ways it which the practice enables mass incarceration in U.S. prisons. Shourd’s approach to her work in many ways reflects her unique life experiences. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, she became actively involved in the antiwar movement while finishing her undergraduate work at University of California, Berkeley. During this time, Shourd also lived as an International Human Rights Observer in Zapatista indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico. In 2008, she moved to Damascus, Syria to study Arabic, teach Iraqi refugees, and start out as a journalist. In 2009, Shourd’s life took a dramatic turn when she was captured by Iranian border guards while hiking near a tourist site in Northern Iraqi Kurdistan and imprisoned as a political hostage. Shourd was tortured and imprisoned in incommunicado, solitary confinement for 410 days in Iran’s Evin Prison.
After her release in 2010, Shourd became an internationally known advocate against the overuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. As a UC Berkeley Visiting Scholar, she conducted a 3-year investigation into isolation in U.S prisons, interviewing 75 prisoners in 13 prisons across the U.S. Based on this investigation, Shourd wrote and produced a play, The BOX, which premiered in San Francisco in 2016 to sold-out audiences. She also co-authored an anthology, Hell is a Very Small Place, comprised of the stories of incarcerated Americans she collected. Her Op-eds and journalism have been published by The New York Times, Mother Jones, The Daily Beast, CNN, San Francisco Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters and many more. In 2015 she was a Ragdale Artist-in-Residence, one of 7×7 Magazine’s HOT 20 in 2016, a recipient of the GLIDE Memorial Church Community Hero Award in 2016 and in 2018 she was chosen for the prestigious John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University.
I rarely miss a dawn. I missed 20 years worth at the federal supermax so I have an outsized appreciation for all sorts of things many others take for granted. My cell window at the federal penitentiary in Beaumont, TX faces east. I watch the summer sun touch fire to the horizon behind distant oil refineries beyond the sand colored walls and gun towers. It is still beautiful to me.
This hive of unfortunates doesn’t bustle with activity. There is little buzz in the year of covid. They bring breakfasts on styrofoam tray’s called clamshells, a train of carts crossing the compound to bring cold congealed oatmeal and tasteless little donuts that inexplicably someone in America is being paid to make. They put 2 pints of cold milk in plastic bags and a banana or unsweetened applesauce in the tray. It jostles around so everything is coated with slimy oatmeal or applesauce. 130 something prisons generate an inconceivable amount of plastic trash. The machine of those incarceration is not operated by people concerned with the environment. These carts of tray’s make their run to cell blocks 3 times a day so we get all our meals delivered to our cells, a cold, soupy mixed up mess. The quantity of food is minimal! Grown men existing on, for example, 1 cold hamburger, a 130 calorie bag of potato chips plain, all with a light coating of applesauce of course. The trash piles up somewhere I imagine. The bureau of prisons doing the best they can.
At 6:30 am they may begin letting us get out of cells. 5 cells at a time. We get one hour to make one 10 minute call, use 15 minutes to email, and shower. Of course if you are housed in the east but are from the west coast and you come out at 6:30 am, the time difference can leave you at a loss for using the phone. The irony in this is that because of the pandemic the B.O.P cancelled all visiting and put us on “modified” lockdown. We are all worried about loved ones in this time of crisis. Being fathers, brothers and sons made powerless to help them by out incineration only adds to our plight. Because of this the prison system afforded us 500 minutes of no cost phone time per month during the crisis. The irony is that if we all only get one ten minute call per day, we can’t even use the 500 minutes. It looks good on paper. Just like the stipulation in the first step act signed into law in 2018 that mandates we be housed within 500 miles of our families. It’s just paper.
They have the technology to implement video visiting. It already exists in some federal prisons. There are countries issuing prisoners cell phones. I often ask myself why is America like this. Why are there so many people, millions of people in prisons that are fixated on implementing the harshest regime possible upon them. This should be said is you system. It operates in your name carrying your will with your dollars.
We’ve been locked in our small cell for 23 hours a day for 3 months now. We have limited access to the commissary. We cannot purchase art supplies. We have no programming activities really. Some cells have a view of the T.V. that hang on posts outside the cells unlike those state prisons where prisoners can purchase T.V.s and tablets for their cells.
Thus we endure as best we can each in his own way. Stagnating or stewing as we go from sunrise to sunrise in the other america.
About the guest contributor:
“My wildlife art is my story of redemption. My desire is to demonstrate respect, compassion and love can thrive in the darkest of places…Each painting captures the animal in its authentic habitat.
I am self-taught. I have never taken a lesson. I use wildlife photography from magazines and books for my source.
I do my paintings on the floor of my cell. I am not allowed an easel, high quality paper or any medium but chalk pastels. I use my thumb to blend and soften the background. Each painting takes many hours of layering colors to highlight depth and light.”
Lori Lovely and Kelly Pringle, close friends who share a passion for painting, recently submitted photos of their beautiful new piece, “Vacation Trilogy,” and asked that we share them with you. We’re honored to be able to do so.