Coronavirus in Prison

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

michael p riley poem
“If any or all of us die,” Michael P. Riley
IMG_0012 (1)
” Real Talk,” Michael P. Riley

“Thankfully, we do not have a positive case here. Several staff have been exposed but the prison has done quite a good job at keeping contact with inmates to a minimum and at quarantine. Our meals are still hot and some of us still get to go to work, like me! I am definitely thankful for that. It is hard to get much of a workout in and things feel tight but otherwise, it is okay right now. 

Really, my thoughts are all on my brother right now, who some of yall know is incarcerated at FCI Seagoville. The virus is blowing up over there right now. 3 weeks ago they had zero cases, and now they have 488. They, like all federal prisons, are overcrowded and unprepared for this sort of thing. My sentiment is that if they can’t keep us safe… then they can’t keep us! And it looks like some congressmen and congresswomen are starting to agree, calling for the closure of the federal prisons. I expect that we’d go to our states then but the states are ahead of the feds in terms of prison reform with matters of sentences and probation and so forth. I am under no delusions, the BOP has pretty much just ignored the many attempts to reform and better the situation. First step, CARES act, heroes act and so forth. And now, by basically refusing to grant release to any significant portion of their population, they show that they would rather gamble with our lives and a pandemic than let anyone go. OKAY, that’s all the politics from me! My bro though, is on my mind at his prison but he’s healthy and doing his best to stay safe.”

– Joshua Earls | August 17, 2020

*****

“CORONA”

BLLEEEEEEAAAAAAPP…..
This is a public service announcement.
We are officially at war.
Extreme times — calls for extreme measures.
Therefore,
We are advising all citizens,
As a matter of life and death
To stay home, shelter-in-place,
Wash your hands,
And keep them out of your face.
Because the Invisible Killer from Wuhan,
Who cannot be negotiated with —
Is on the loose
And indiscriminately leaping
Like a wingless flea on a dog
From person to person
All around the globe,
Without a care in the world
If you didn’t already know.
—-
*Coughing sounds can be heard*
—-
19,19….
Is that you?
In that dry cough that I hear in the background?
Identify yourself.
Covid-19….tell me…is that you?
—-
Ssshhhhhhhh…..
Please don’t say my name too loud,
Because it’s now official,
The (W-H-O) is looking for me.
They have labeled me as a viral bandit.
In fact,
Due to my disregard to lungs, organs,
Kidneys, and human life,
I have the whole world
Now shook with panic
And on the lookout for me.
In just a short span of time
I grew from an epidemic, to a pandemic,
And now I’m a full-blown crisis.
The Chinese, Americans, Italians,
And Boris Johnson….
Will tell you without the debate —
I’m the number one Enemy of the State
And living proof of the philosophy
That states:
What effect one of us affect all of us.
—-
My grip on the world is so tight —
I paralyzed Easter and the Olympics,
Now ain’t that a sight…?
I made the Business World shake,
Turned Las Vegas into a ghost town,
Put Paris on lockdown,
And made Wall Street numbers fall down.
Now tell me,
If you don’t think my existence
Isn’t up against the clock.
Tick tick tock, tick tick tock.
—-
The reality is
1 million is already at harm.
Astronomical figures.
Somebody —
Sound the alarm.
We need ventilators and PPE.
People are dying,
We cannot meet the demands
Somebody — somebody —
Anybody.
Please help us.
Send us PPE.
And make it a matter of National Security.
If need be!
—-
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
People of all ages.
Symptoms or no symptoms.
Underlining conditions or not.
Y’all all at harm.
I’m the new norm.
And what you’re witnessing now
Is just the calm before the storm.
—-
6 feet of separation!
Social what!
Social who!
Social distancing.
Is that the best your leaders and the CDC
Can optimistically tell you to do?
To help flatten the curve,
Contain my outbreak,
And hinder what I’m about to do?
—-
They say art imitates life,
But this is not a movie.
The world have seen
Numerous examples of me before.
Have any of y’all read the Bible before???
You see,
Back then,
Microorganisms,
Plagues, and complex molecules
Like me — just wasn’t labeled as Wars.
But today…..
You over sophisticated fools
Labor my dire consequences — as a war.
When I’m only the new influenza
By another name.
Regardless of the factors,
I’m here and banging on Humanity’s door.
—-
BBBLLLEEEEEAAAAAPP…..
Again this is a public service announcement.
We are advising all citizens,
As a matter of life and death.
Stay home, shelter-in-place,
Wash your hands,
And keep them out of your face.
If you’re not taking heed
To these precautions
Then…….
You must already be dead,
Affected,
Or simply out of your mind!
—-
Corona.
—-
Written by Kenneth Reams,
In the wake of the virus,
© April 2020
SIGN THE PETITION ADVOCATING FOR KENNY’S RELEASE HERE!
*****
Screen Shot 2020-08-07 at 5.57.21 PM
Gary Farlow
*****
Screen Shot 2020-07-20 at 6.27.29 PM
Vince Vader
Screen Shot 2020-07-20 at 6.28.31 PM
Christian Trigg
Viral watercolor by Sam April 2020
Sam Loynachan
Sams Corona Virus Prose April 2020
Sam Loynachan
the miracle worker, joshua earls
“The Miracle Worker,” Joshua Earls

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

From correspondence with someone in a federal prison:

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

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

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

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

2 days later:

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

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

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

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.