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.”
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 email@example.com.
“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.”
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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.
Of my art and illustrations, I appreciate each and all the valued interest, criticism and opinions.
However, I would like to draw attention to (no pun intended) the request that I am not to be known as a “prison artist.” As decades before my incarceration, I took art courses and completed my requirements for a Bachelor’s degree in art education at Eastern Kentucky University. At the time, I moved to Arizona, and was working on my Master’s degree in Art History. At the high school level in public school districts, I have many years of experience teaching art courses. Also, in the years prior to my arrest, I had attained tenure.
Many years before my incarceration, I’d also been a freelance illustrator. I’ve been asked to illustrate newsletters, design screen prints for t-shirts, as well as business signs and logos. All of this was before computer graphics took over. My interest and activity in art related projects began years prior to my incarceration.
I appreciate the groups who are fighting for rights of prisoners, especially the groups fighting for awareness of the private prison fiasco and hysteria caused to fill those prisons. However, I would like it to be known that although I’m in the prison system, I’m not of the prison system. I don’t want anything that I do to in any way be related to or depict my prison experience. Therefore, I will decline requests to draw any moods or inner emotions involving my feelings of being a prisoner. I choose instead to continue my work as an illustrator. My choice is to continue drawing the things interesting me. By doing so, it gives me a sense of my normal home routine. Again, I’m in the prison. I choose to keep my mind actively pursuing other topics as to not become part of the prison. Upon my release, I have ideas for oil paintings. Until then, my art is sent home to my wife who scans them and keeps the originals in binders protected in plastic sleeves.
I have varied interests including but not limited to anything historical. I have a creative imagination and tend to become part of the era when my drawing takes place. Yet, referring to my incarceration and the charge that got me to this point, I will not create any reminders. Along with any drawings/paintings that I complete while my life is on hold in prison, I’m happy to share any images of oil paintings, sculptures, watercolors or photography that I’ve done pre-incarceration. My challenge while incarcerated is that I don’t have the proper tools with which to work creating the shades, lighting and textures. I’ve had to in a sense, use what I have. I’ve seen a lot of art depicting life in prison. I find it all depressing and some of it bordering on sick or psychotic. This is not my style. I refuse to sell out to something of this nature. The only drawing I’ve done depicting any jail situation was done the Christmas before my sentencing. I called it Inmate at the Manger. It’s a simple pencil drawing of an inmate in cuffs and shackles kneeling at the manger of the Christ child surrounded by members of the Nativity. This was done at the request of another inmate to use as a Christmas Card.
I hope to make it understood that while efforts and passion for bringing awareness to the incarcerated artists and making our present situation more tolerable are greatly appreciated, I choose not to participate by using my time to limit myself to prison art. I’d like my art to be recognized for the level of talent, practice and passion I’ve put into it rather than the few years, where for a bad choice I once made, I’ve spent paying a debt to society.
Please visit our online galleries to see more of Danny’s work.
From Justice Arts Coalition Managing Director, Wendy Jason:
JAC often receives requests and calls for submissions from other entities seeking artwork for exhibitions, publications, websites, etc. We typically pass these requests on to the artists in our network so that they can determine whether or not they would like to participate. Most of the time, artists are eager to submit their work — they’re excited about opportunities for increased visibility, to connect with and educate people on the outside through their creative endeavors, to support causes they believe in. Sometimes these opportunities offer a way for artists to provide some financial support to their loved ones. Once in a while, though, there are requests that blur the line between opportunity and exploitation. Even after nearly a decade fielding inquiries, I’m still tuning my radar, learning to spot the red flags, and figuring out how to react and respond when something doesn’t feel quite right. Because I want the artists who’ve grown to trust JAC to experience as much of a sense of agency as possible, I find myself torn. Do I stand between them and the risk of further exploitation, choosing not to share requests that seem to lack integrity? Or, do I share even the requests that don’t sit well in my gut, so that artists have the chance to choose for themselves? I tend to lean towards the latter, but not without first expressing my concerns to the individuals making the request, and offering guidance around redesigning their projects if they’re interested in collaborating. Fortunately, most are.
Danny’s post was written after receiving a couple of calls for submissions from well-respected entities that are doing good, important advocacy work. For the most part, they’ve been very open to receiving feedback while shaping their projects, which will ultimately provide the public with unique opportunities to engage with people in prison through visual art and writing. Danny felt very limited by the guidelines in their initial requests, and offered this essay in response.
by Cynthia Garcia, Hillside High School Art and Leadership Teacher, Upland Unified School District
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.
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.
Art Exhibit: “Becoming Free” Saturday, May 25, Opening Reception from 7pm-10pm Suggested donation $10-20 at the door Art for sale!
Presented by the Justice Arts Coalition
The opening reception kicks off a month-long exhibit of works by incarcerated artists, running May 25-June 22, 2019. The event will include works by artwork by Tomás, Will Livingston, Carole Alden, D. Ashton, and Gary Harrell. Live music by the Tributary Project. Screening of select shorts by Logan Crannell. And a reading of works by poets in a local prison. Food, drinks, community. Proceeds directly benefit the artists and the launch of the Justice Arts Coalition as a 501c3 nonprofit. Please join us!
The Justice Arts Coalition unites people at the intersection of the arts and justice, cultivating community among system-involved artists, their loved ones, educators, scholars, activists, and advocates. Established in 2008 as the grassroots, volunteer-led online resource the Prison Arts Coalition, this event marks the launch of our efforts to develop JAC into 501c3 nonprofit. The JAC provides an invaluable resource, an advisory body and coalition of people who work to bring art into and out from the prison system.
For more information: Wendy Jason, firstname.lastname@example.org