Teaching Artist Spotlight: Judy Dworin

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

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

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

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

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

JAC: How do you think your program affects participants?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artist Spotlight: David Green

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

“I want to show the world that in imperfection there is beauty.”

For David Green, every day is a struggle to express his creativity. Hindered by his institution, it would be easy for David to give up and stop making art. Still, he is determined to keep creating, saying, “I will continue to try and reach and hopefully help others in the world know that no matter what we go through in life, be it poverty, death, or losing someone or something, something beautiful is there in the end and we can overcome.”

Though David never received a formal education in art or poetry, he has always been able to discover new ways to improve his drawing and writing. Every time he closes his eyes — since the day he started creating at a very young age — he is flooded with ideas: poems to write or ways to better his art. He laughs, saying, “I have suffered from a long life of insomnia since I was six.” 

It’s not always simple or possible for David to create. He describes how the people he is incarcerated with, the staff, and the lack of funds for art supplies all pose challenges. He adds with a laugh that the lack of tables and chairs also hinder his art making. But David views these difficulties as minor problems. The greater obstacle is that “there is a time when people’s ungratefulness makes one discouraged from wanting to draw.” Yet, despite these challenges, David finds ways to continue making art and writing poems. 

With limited access to art supplies, David has found he can use any media he lays his hands on. When he begins a piece, David simply envisions the art or what is in his mind on the paper and draws it into existence: “I pick up, I look at my paper and just do.” 

People often ask David what inspires him, but the question is harder to answer than it may seem. “I’ve lost so much inspiration in my life that I honestly do not know what inspires me.” Still, David is confident that this will not always be the case, saying, “I do know that one day inspiration will enter my life and when that happens, I will know.”  

As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, David reflects that though at first he felt unaffected, he has grown increasingly concerned for his loved ones. “I do have many people out there in the world that I love no matter if they love me back or even remember me.” Feeling disconnected, David explains how, “It scares me not knowing if they are okay or not, I just hope they are okay.” 

David is grateful that he can share his art with the world and hopes he can inspire others. He wants to share the following words: 

“I love and count you all as equals in my life. Just pass what I give you to the next you see. Because we need that more than anything in this world.”

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

Guest Blog: Annie Buckley – Art and Healing

By Annie Buckley

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.

Notes To Self, Gregory A. Coglianese, graphite and colored pencil, 2015.

Art and Healing

Excerpted from Art Inside #8: Does Art Contribute to Restorative Justice?, 09/03/2018

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.

image by author

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.”

In Flight, Henry Frank (Hawk), colored pencil and pen, 2014.

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.

photo by Peter Merts, courtesy of the California Arts Council

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.”

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

About the Photographer: 

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

“The BOX” Virtual Performance: A Play About Solitary Confinement by Sarah Shourd

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

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.

Hillside High Art Students reach out to incarcerated artist with Artist Trading Cards and motivational messages

by Cynthia Garcia, Hillside High School Art and Leadership Teacher, Upland Unified School District

Artist trading cards made by the students

Hillside Continuation High School 11th and 12th grade students in Upland Unified School district in Southern California had the opportunity to connect with an incarcerated artist using their own art thanks to the Justice Arts Coalition pARTner project. The idea was inspired by the stories of students who have shared their own personal hardships. Many of these hardships revolved around having a family member, friend or themselves being incarcerated. Since I have family members of my own in the prison system, I felt it would be a great opportunity for students to have a chance to reach out and learn how to connect with other people who understand their circumstances. It would also help the students find hope, reach out to the community, and to think about making better choices.

I stumbled upon the Justice Arts website while researching prison art programs and was inspired by the stories and art of the incarcerated artists who were trying to use art to help them cope with prison life and give them opportunities to learn new skills. Around the time I discovered the website, the students were working on creating six artist trading cards inspired by the artist Steven Quinn and learned what it means to create a narrative by repurposing images from old dated history books and modern magazines. The idea behind the cards was to allow students to trade, collect, and give away cards to other students, family and friends. I had the students create digital artist trading cards, due to restrictions in the correctional facility, to be printed and sent out to our pen pals to trade and collect amongst each other. The theme was open for the most part, but I reminded them that the purpose was to tell a story that has some type of significant meaning to their own lives.

I had previously reached out to Wendy Jason, the managing director of the Justice Coalition, about my interest including Hillside art students in the program. She gave me all the information we needed to reach out to one of our pen pals, Mr. Cromwell, who was both shocked and very excited to receive our letter. In our first letter we let him know a bit about the school and the project we were currently working on. He was completely on board to help inspire and motivate our students and answer any questions the students had about his life in prison.

After the students finished up their final trading cards, I asked them what questions they would be interested in asking Mr. Cromwell in our next letter. Below are a few of the long list of questions asked by the students:

-Do you find being in the prisons unsafe?  I have a brother that is also in prison.

-Do you have a family?

-Do you get commissary? 

-How do you make a spread?

-Do you play sports?

-What is your ethnicity?

-What were you sentenced for?

-Would you take back what you did?

-Do you like art and what type do you like?

-What do you plan on doing when you get out?

-How old were you when you got in?

-How tall are you?

-Do you get into fights?

-Are the prison guards nice?

-Do they let you watch TV?

-What are the hours of your phone calls?

-Do you get visits from your family?

-Where you born in Louisiana?

-Were you the only one involved in the crime you commited?

-Is prison punch real?

In the letter I let Mr. Cromwell know he was in no obligation to answer any question he was uncomfortable with and explained that the students were curious to know these things. I felt as their teacher it was necessary for them to be honest with their questions. Included in the letter was a large set of our trading cards for him to distribute, collect, and spread around the correctional facility. Below are a few examples of the student’s work using a free online program called Pixlr.com:

It took a while before we got our letter back from Mr. Cromwell due to him relocating to a new area in the facility. Inside the envelope was not only his letter, but artwork from him and another incarcerated artist named Mr. White. It was a surprise for the students and myself since we only expected one letter back. 

In his letter, Mr. Cromwell shared that he loved the trading cards and decided to share his cards with his friend Mr. White. Mr. White was interested in being a part of the exchange after seeing our cards and letters. He wanted to contribute by answering questions the students had and included his own artwork. As we read Mr. Cromwell’s letter he did leave some details out of his responses to the students questions including what he was sentenced for, but he did share words of wisdom and encouraged the students to stay in school, finish their education, stay out of trouble, and stay positive even if times get tough.

In Mr. White’s letter, he was more open about sharing his experience and told us that he has been incarcerated since he was 19 and is now 44 years old. This elicited a big response from the students and prompted some to share their own stories about their families in prison. One student asked about violence in prison which Mr. White replied, “Yes, but you only fight when you need to. Getting into a fight only means you couldn’t think your way through a problem.” We spent some time talking about this particular question. I asked the students what happens when they get into a fight and the majority of them said they would “black out” and not remember what happened because they were full of anger.

Letters and Artwork from Mr. Cromwell on the right and his friend also serving time Mr. White on the left

Before we worked on sending our final letter, I wanted to get more in depth with discussion about art in the prison system. I had the students watch a small segment called Prison Art Thrives in Mexico. We watched the video in class and afterwards I had the students answer the question, “Do you agree or disagree with allowing prisoners to create and sell art? Why or why not?” The following are responses from the students:

“Yes I agree with prisons allowing inmates to create and sell art. Not all prisoners have family to support them while in prison so if they are able to make money it will be able to help them keep up with their art. Also it’s a good distraction for them it can keep their mind off of things as in trouble or as in keeping their minds of their time.”

“I say no because they decided to give their rights up when they decided to break the law.”

“I agree with the prison allowing inmates to create and sell art because there are a lot of people in the prison that want to express themselves and fulfill their goals and dreams through art. They should be supported and even provided with materials. They can explore themselves and express their emotions.”

“I agree because some people are locked up for uncertain reasons. Not everyone should have to struggle to make money in prison because no one knows the full story. Art can help prisoners make money while escaping the prison walls through their imagination.”

The majority of students responded positively and felt that inmates creating and selling art would help them to minimize stress, build new skills, and focus on staying out of trouble.

For their final letter we let Mr. Cromwell and Mr. White know how much we appreciated their honest responses and that their words will help to educate our students about making better choices and that making mistakes is a part of learning. We also included motivational posters created by the students. They were asked to pick a quote that uplifted them in a time of need so they could spread the message to other incarcerated individuals inside the correctional facility. Below are a few quotes chosen by the students:

At the end of our last letter I included these final words to Mr. Cromwell and Mr. White:

“With these final words said, thank you for inspiring our youth and showing them that despite our mistakes, we can learn from them to help use make better choices. These students just need another chance and someone to listen and guide them on the path of success.  I will leave you with a quote from my favorite educator Rita Pierson, “Every child deserves a champion, an adult that will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insist they be the best they can possibly be.”

Overall it was an eye opening experience not only for my students but for myself as a teacher. It showed us that art can create powerful connections with the community and help to show support to those in need. I plan on continuing to work with the Justice Arts Coalition project and I’ll have my next group of students reach out to more incarcerated individuals through different art projects. I hope this post will encourage other educators and individuals to get involved and reach out to more incarcerated artists. I look forward to another great year working with the Justice Coalition Project and our artist pen pals.