The Stories We Save May Include Our Own

by Matt Malyon

 

I. Birdwatching

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.  No—it reels, dizzy in the vibration of its unplanned encounter with steel.  It flaps its huge wings and begins to make sounds that might best be described as cries of terror, as it moves in and out of cars unable to stop their hurtling forward for the sudden and surprising descent of the large white bird.

*

I spend most Wednesday afternoons with youth in orange jumpsuits, holding a yellow No. 2 pencil between my fingers, and leaning over a black-marbled cover notebook.  Our county’s incarcerated youth have landed “inside” for various reasons—gang related incidents like drive-by shootings or territorial violence, domestic disputes, harm to animals, or items involving alcohol and drugs.  Unless they write about their past, which they often do, we leave such matters at the door. I shake their hands and welcome them as equals. After introductions we settle into the work at hand—reading literature together and responding to it through discussion and creative writing.

In the early days of facilitating Underground Writing workshops, I began to notice our tendency to bring literature of a darker vein.  These included, among others, Dante’s dark wood, Sherman Alexie’s poetry of lament, the non-fiction-fiction of Tim O’Brien, the wars and adventures in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the migrant experience of Juan Felipe Herrera, environmental issues in Martha Serpas’ poetry, the tragedy and loss in the poems of Langston Hughes, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Osip Mandlestam, Suji Kwock Kim, and Natalie Diaz, and the darker undercurrents hidden within Robert Frost’s well managed forms.  

I caught myself introducing workshops by saying things like, “I know we discuss a lot of darker stuff, but . . .”  In time, I realized our students did not share a similar anxiety. They recognized their own stories in this very type of difficult literature.  

The truth is that our Underground Writing students, in one way or another, are struggling—the youth in the adult crimes they wake to discover they have committed; our adult students in the physical and mental aftershocks of drug addiction and incarceration; our migrant leaders caught in the intricate web of cultural and familial tensions, in a country seemingly half against them.  Such darkness needs to be named, and the dynamic discussions we’ve been having indicate our students intuitively know this.    

*

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.

The story that opened this essay was a story told during a workshop by my friend and colleague in Underground Writing, Chris Hoke.  Chris has a gift for images, and this one stuck with me for some time.  I could see it. I could hear it. I wanted to include it in a piece of my own writing.  But it wasn’t my story.  

In the days that followed, however, something began to evolve.  

I recalled what came to mind immediately in the workshop when I heard the story—my father in an auto parts store in Anaheim, California in January of 2000.   

Two months before my father’s death—returned home from the hospital after his fifth surgery, and unknowingly a few weeks away from hospice care—he decided to get new seat covers for my mom’s car.  He would have nothing to do with anyone telling him anything different. And so, with a body emaciated from years of radiation, cobalt, and chemotherapy in the 70s, and again during the return of his Hodgkin’s Disease in 1999, my father climbed carefully into his golden yellow Volvo 1800 sports car and drove to the local auto parts store.  He was nearly a ghost by this point. A perfectionist for his entire life, he had only recently given up shaving due to a lack of energy. He weighed less than a hundred pounds.

I was in Iowa at the time, so I wasn’t there to see him walk gingerly down the aisle, past the various car fluids, on his way to where the seat covers were located.  And I didn’t hear the break, as somewhere between the ankle and the knee his tibia simply snapped. My beloved father, a man of dignity and grace unlike I’ve ever known, fell to the floor in agony, surrounded by bottles of motor oil and antifreeze, his brief descent ending as he rolled onto his back, stunned by the white light and the faces above him appearing quickly from all angles of his vision.

*

As Underground Writing has grown, as we’ve journeyed from the adrenaline burst of new beginnings, articles in the press, and T-Shirts into the settled rhythms of a more established program, one of the facets of what we’re doing that has become increasingly important to me is how our stories overlap, how they connect us.

In January 2016, my beloved mom passed away.  It was a grief unlike I had known in years. Part of the intensity was due to the fact that both of my biological parents are now gone.  When I shared this news at various times at each of our sites, invariably the room grew quiet. It was as if I could see in slow-motion-time-release the change in the students’ perception of me—white, middle-class teacher to fellow human in a shared journey.  We were now strugglers together, and with a common language. We sat together in that moment of silence. Mere seconds, usually, but it often felt as if time expanded so as to contain the gravity of death. And I suspect we each sat in that silence with images and stories flickering through our minds.  Stories of blood and lineage and loss and grief, the students unconsciously experiencing a transformation as my narrative merged briefly with theirs then faded into other thoughts based in their lives, their stories.  

*

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole . . .

In the days following my hearing of this tale, I realized that the stories I was hearing in the workshops were no longer easily defined as something other, as “theirs.”  And the stories I was sharing from my life were not exclusively “mine.”  In fact, my friend’s story was becoming mine, or a part of it, as were the stories shared by our students.  In my hearing of them—my taking them in, as it were—they had not been merely received. They had some sort of agency, something that is ongoing.  The stories, I believe, are generating connections with stories from my life. They are intertwined with my own and are changing my perception of my past.  My stories are also becoming part of others’ stories. Located in the Skagit Valley for a little over a year now, I join them. My life now includes these lives.  I am being changed day by day, reeling in the reverberations of such beauty and sorrow.

*

Weeks later, I recalled a photograph famous in our family for its seeming absurdity.  In the foreground my beloved father and his brother are horsing around with their father, my grandfather, on the west-facing, hard brown sands of Manzanita, Oregon, our family’s preferred place of sojourn for four generations.  My cousin is building a sandcastle in the background, and behind the small edifice, the Pacific Ocean in all its glory—deep blue, brightly glistening under the evening sun. The lighting is appropriately the golden hour. My father, who is on the left side of the photo, separated by a human-width gap from his father and brother, has his hand held up and out like one side of a cross.  Far in the background, but clearly visible, and seeming to rest on my father’s fingertips: a gull, its wings expanding, about to take flight.

 

II. Gravedigging

In our line of work, my colleagues and I often talk about bringing life into places of death.  Whatever a literal resurrection might entail, I’m learning most people need first to discover their entrapment.  They also need hope, something that is in scarce supply for many of the students with whom we work. What little remains often needs to be exhumed.

We use creative writing as a shovel.  

It’s hard work, but the willingness to dig is quickly evidenced in the discussions that follow our group reading of a text.  And the soil, prepared by the literature, is pliant. By the time the writing prompts are finished, students—through some grace moving in language itself—have often dug down deep enough into the self to reach a grave.

*

Spaces like these are shelters for decay, narratives of darkness.  I hear such stories on a weekly basis . . . The young man who confesses to me he’s locked up for killing his grandma’s dog and doesn’t know why he did it, who then proceeds to tell me of his long history of physical abuse at the hands of an angry father; the man in his twenties I’m asked to speak with on the phone in the glass-protected booth, who is missing an arm he himself sawed off, who has swastikas below his eyes and “perdition” written backwards on his forehead so he can read it in the mirror, who tells me he’s from Manson’s farm; the look on the guard’s face the other night when I asked if any pastoral care had been given to the Cascade Mall shooter, who is currently being held in Skagit County Jail; the young man I counsel who tells me he’s having flashbacks of standing over a rival gang member he’s unwittingly stabbed six times in self-defense, listening to him beg for mercy.

*

There are other movements in the darkness, too.

We’re privileged to see some of our students on a regular basis and build long-term rapport.  It’s satisfying to see the maturing work they produce. Many of our students, however, we see only once, maybe twice, for an hour or two at most.  These are the students I wonder about. Will their notebooks ever get used for creative writing again? Will the impact of encountering literature in a given session spark something, anything?  Will they contact us on the “outs”? Will they remember writing is a gift and a tool for life? I continue to hope. I continue to believe that literature read together in a hospitable atmosphere, paired with writing prompts connected to both the readings and the students’ lives, begins something beyond what we can quantify.  Words matter. Literally. They take shape, and form a space in which things can grow.

Leaving the workshop with a notebook full of words and photocopies of good literature is not our only goal, of course.  We’re seeking both inspiration and transformation. This may take the form of a participant’s continuing to pursue the craft of writing and reading in a more purposeful manner.  It may simply mean they read more. Or it may mean they discover writing as a tool to help process a world that usually leaves them confused, angry, and sad. Whatever the case, we endeavor to resuscitate and nurture hope, something tangible that can be built upon, furthered to the point that an imagination of a different future begins to arc toward what they might become.  It is across this bridge of the imagination, as it were, that the participants can begin the long journey towards embodying a different future.  

I’ve seen writing work this way for two of the students who participated in our program’s initial week of workshops.

R. is from another state, but when I met him he was being detained on various charges in our local area.  Although he was noticeably quiet, I often caught him grinning at certain things read aloud or said in our workshops.  There was a light on. I liked him immediately.  

A month or two after Underground Writing’s debut, our workshop group was discussing the letters of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time.  “Letters can be literature,” we told the youth.  “Let’s try it, too.” For our writing prompt, we asked them to write a letter to someone.  When it was open-share time, R. decided to read. “I call this one ‘Dear System’,” he began. 

Dear System,

Ever since I was born you’ve been there.  You were there when my biological mom would relapse and let my sister and I run around free.  You were there again as I began to realize how to work on my own and take care of my mom and little sister.  You were there when my biological dad went into a rage and hit someone. You were there when my mom used up her last chance.  You took me and my little sister from her. You weren’t there when I passed from family member to family member. You were there to give me a new family.  You were the one who put both my parents in jail. You put my biological dad in prison. Now you are here again, but this time just for me. You are here putting me in JRA for the same reason my biological dad’s locked up.  You have brought me nothing but pain in the 14 years I’ve known you. You have torn apart my family time and time again only to put me in a new one where I’ve done nothing but disappoint or make people angry. So, System, before I finish this letter, I just want you to know I will never forgive you.

R.

The room was silent.  Not only because we’d just heard a sort of foundational text that solidified we were on to something important, but also because R.’s writing was inarguably powerful.  In five minutes, his emotions had been honed into something concise that moved beyond mere self-expression. He’d interacted with literature in a dialogic manner, and by the look on his face, something transformative had happened to him during the process.

R.’s out of state now, so we stay in touch these days via letters and the phone.  During the course of our last phone conversation, he told me he’s working on a section of a long autobiography project, as well as completing a set of song lyrics.  His letters, too, bear witness to the continuing impact of writing . . .

I’m happy that “Dear System” is helping people.  That’s a side of my writing that I never considered.  I am still writing. So far I have gone through three notebooks . . . I miss going to Underground Writing sessions.  I liked it there, I always felt welcomed.

I’ve also seen it in J.—a native to our county, held inside for a record number of months, due to the serious nature of the charges against him.  J.’s interest in writing has had extremely tangible benefits. In our workshops he was always eager to share his work.

Thinking

So I’m in deep depression now

There’s nothing I can do about it

I’ve been sleeping all day

I get real tired when I’m this way.

I start thinking and thinking

And my mind goes crazy.

I get the same thought

Over and over—

What would things be like if

I ended my life today?

I stare, and I stare

I think everyone

Who loves me hates me,

Who wouldn’t care

If I just disappeared one day

I think and I think—

Wouldn’t it be better if it all

Just went away.

J. is determined to survive.  Likeable from the start, he’s a person I’ve come to appreciate for his strong desire for change and restoration.  In the fifteen months I’ve known him, he’s taken to writing as if it were an iron lung. His first letter to me implied it might, in fact, be something of the sort.

As you know, I missed creative writing.  I was really bummed out because that’s my favorite programming that I look forward to all week.  I’m a ‘security risk’. I’m really stressed out and just going crazy.  I’ve never had such severe, strong, and sudden emotions.

Near the end of his stay, we began meeting once a week.  I met with him as a teacher or a chaplain, determined by his need on any given day.  By the time he was finally sentenced and sent to a juvenile prison, we’d also written seven letters back and forth.  

So I made it to [prison]!  I was in Shelton for about 3 hours then they took me.  I’ve been here almost 24 hours. I’m not sure what to say about this place other than it’s definitely a prison…I found a small section for poetry in the library, but they have like 80% Shakespeare and really old stuff . . . I’ve been writing a ton but most of it is private stuff or my new book, ‘To My Love’.  I’m really excited to hear what you think about my prologue. My mom is sending all of my writing from the outs and Juvie. It is so much that she had to put it in a package in the post office.

When I look back over the past fourteen months, writing is the thread that is so apparently woven through J.’s future progress and restoration.  More so, what I believe propels J. is what to one degree or another propels all writers and poets—he has encountered the self through writing, and, in that process, imagination, mystery, and hope.

Our correspondence has notably increased in the six months since his transfer, most of it being driven by J.’s own desire to continue learning the craft of writing.  He is an exemplar of our program’s hoped-for impact. In 41 letters and counting, we’ve edited and re-edited draft after draft of various poems and short stories. We’ve shared a bit of our own stories.  And we’ve also been working on a co-submission to a literary journal, an item that has facilitated further momentum toward change for J. 

I’ve been inspired once again to be a part of Underground Writing or a similar group/organization when I get out.  This program changes lives. I am a prime example. I now have something to work towards, to strive for. I have something I want on the outs.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, I was able to visit J. in another part of our state.  Amidst a room full of families and loved ones visiting their sons, their boyfriends, their dads, I sat with J. for one and a half hours.  We talked about life in his new surroundings, as well as his hopes for the future. He’s feeling settled in his living unit, and his medications have finally stabilized.  There have been challenging and good reconnections with his family. He’s just turned eighteen and is registering to vote. He’s applying to take classes through a local community college, and is determined to use what little money he has left to help his mom in paying for his tuition.  In my estimation, the hope for change has transformed into actual and definable progress.  

“You’re doing great,” I say to J. as we shake hands.  “Really great. So glad to see it.” I tell him I’ll return in a month or two.

He smiles.  “You’re going to send out our submission next week—right?”

*

Reading Flannery O’Connor recently, I was reminded of a story received from the ancient tradition of the desert fathers and mothers.  There was a hermit living in the region of Scetis who had become seriously ill.  His fellow monks, upon visiting him one day, discovered that he had died, and began to prepare his body for burial.  All of sudden, he awoke, opened his eyes, and began laughing. After recovering from their surprise, the brothers asked him what he was laughing about.  He told them he was laughing because they feared death, because they were not ready for it, and, finally, because he was passing from labor into his rest.  With this he rolled over and died.

Death for such monastics was a way of life.  A way to life.  And reportedly, some monks in ages past did indeed sleep in their coffins.  When presented with this bit of history, my son tells me the monks were probably hiding from something.  I asked some of the youth in Underground Writing what they thought.

A: “To get away from everything for a while.”

O: “Maybe it was part of their praying.”

L: “Because they’re getting ready to die.”

In some sense, all of these answers are correct.  Monks have always been consciously mindful of death.  Sleeping in coffins was simply a more obvious way of facilitating this.  It was likely their way of hiding from the very act of hiding—a way to actively seek an encounter with reality.  Whatever the people in surrounding communities may have thought of the practice, to say nothing of the explanation, it was not a sorrowful thing.  Nor did it lead to depression. In fact, a monk’s literal descent into his future place of death allowed him to more fully engage life. It became a conduit for joy, allowing a monk to wake to the freeing realization of his mortality.  

In the literature we discuss with youth and adults, in the writing we do as a generative response, we more often than not enter into the darkness of our lives.  These unlit places may be as simple as a general lack of clarity or as complex as navigating the extrication of oneself from the clutches of drug addiction, gang involvement, or repeating cycles of shame and perceived failure.  Whatever a student’s degree of darkness, by directly descending into it—through the profound mystery of reading/writing—something begins to happen. They begin to voice the ineffable. Words become sentences become beauty. In less than an hour, it’s surprising to witness the claustrophobic encasement of each student’s life opening up a bit.  So begins a fissure. And through such gaps daylight begins to filter in. 

About the guest contributor:

Matt Malyon is the Executive Director of Underground Writing, as well as a jail and juvenile detention chaplain.  He is the author of the poetry chapbook, During the Flood.  His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has been featured in various journals— including the University of Iowa’s 100 Words, Rock & Sling, Measure, and The Stanza Project.  He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.

The essay above was first published in Iron City Magazine.

You can read Matt’s previous article on the JAC blog here.

 

The Becomings of a Master

by artist R. Zumar

What makes a master artist? How does one achieve that title? Become a master in their own right? Is it going to school for decades and being under the tutelage of an artist? Achieving several degrees and certificates that look good on paper like a good resume? What is it?

I remember maybe a year ago I had a piece of artwork on the table. It was a passion flower. Everyone commented on it, even officers asking who did it and how did I get it to look so real. One dude in here asked if someone white or a Spanish guy did it and I thought, how ignorant can you be and told him as much. He apologized and said it was excellent work, he just didn’t think Black people did things like that. Oh, by the way, he was Black. I wasn’t mad at him, but mad at the fact of how deep that statement really went. Then I looked back and realized in my environment we don’t expose our kids to what’s out there in the world. Well me coming up I wasn’t exposed to art and theater, rocket science, clean energy, space travel, etc….
Trust me the list goes on. And the thing is now I have a profound interest in it all.

With all that being said, I have found myself through art. It allows me to express my thoughts visually and create sceneries that I have love for. Like how I feel, nature scenes with animals, and endangered species.

Some ask how long have I been into art and don’t believe when I say I just got into it within the last 5 maybe 6 years and that it was just a way to pass time. I really got serious about it within the last two years and started getting into color. I drew one thing when I was a kid cause I liked the thing, that’s the Rock Man from the Fantastic Four, and never drew anything again after that. There’s a whole story behind that, but we’ll save that for another day.

I’m not schooled in the arts, have no formal training, and don’t really know or understand the jargon dealing with art. All I know is that I have a love for it. Now I’ve started reading up on it and just learned about tint, tone, and shade, scumbling, burnishing, glazing, and things like that. I didn’t know what light fastness was until yesterday, funny isn’t it. It’s also funny that I have an understanding of these things through trial and error. I have no one to guide my hand and tell me what I’m doing wrong. My hand is guided by God, my imagination, and my patience. I wish I had let my life been guided by those principles. Either way, what makes a master artist? Is it the atelier way? I say that cause I just read a book on the subject saying you can’t become a master unless you have proper schooling and the atelier is the best way to go about it. That doesn’t make sense to me. I ask, who taught the first master artist? He learned from doing and figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Truthfully I’m glad that I’ve learned this way. The more I read the more I discover what I’m already applying to my work. Now I’m just learning what it’s called.

I’m not a master as of this date, but I will become one. Not because some books or some people say I can’t, I don’t really care what others think is possible for me. But because my love for art will show through my work and my work will show my understanding and speak for itself. I’m still learning and hope I will always discover more as I go. This is The Becomings of a Master.

Struggle to Climb by R. Zumar

About the guest contributor:

“I’m Rayfel Zumar Bell known as R. Zumar and discovered my passion for art while incarcerated. I’m a self taught who strives to break into the art world even from a cell. I spend the lions share of my time thinking about and creating art, the rest working out and my favorite pass time, snacking :)! Through art I want to help others and contribute to various charities I care about; cancer, autism, sponsoring kids in need around the globe, and preserving wildlife.”

Contact Info: You can email me through Jpay.com and typing in 1067546 or reach me through snail mail at
Rayfel Zumar Bell #1067546
RNCC
329 Dellbrook Lane
Independence, VA. 24348

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.

REDEMPTION SONGS: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A COMMUNITY PRISON CHOIR – Book Release

Innerworld Publications

San German, Puerto Rico

Iowa City-based writer Andy Douglas’s new book, “Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir”, was released on April 1, 2019. For six years, the author volunteered with the Oakdale Community Choir, a performing chorale composed of both volunteers and inmates and directed by University of Iowa associate professor of music education Dr. Mary Cohen, based in a correctional facility in Coralville, Iowa. Taking the reader inside the walls of this medium-security prison, the book offers a glimpse at how music and the arts are offering second chances to the incarcerated.

The United States incarcerates more prisoners per capita than any other country, with more than two million people in U.S. jails and prisons. In addition to exploring the role of singing as a rehabilitative tool, the book examines some of the pressing issues facing the criminal justice system.

In doing so, it reflects on several questions – how can music and the arts inspire prisoners to change? Should the underlying philosophy of our penal system be one of retribution or restoration? What can restorative justice offer to all those touched by crime and the criminal justice system?

Dr André de Quadros, Professor of Music and Chair, Department of Music Education, Boston University, notes, “More than an account of the choir’s work, the book is a deep insight into musical humanity under dehumanizing conditions. Douglas’s work is evocative and thoughtful, deeply compassionate and humble, and brings the reader close to the troubled lives, wounds and hopes of the incarcerated men.”

Andy Douglas received an MFA in Creative Writing from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where he was the recipient of the Marcus Bach Fellowship for Writing about Religion and Culture. His first book, The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga, was published in 2013 by Bottom Dog Press. He is available for readings, and review copies available upon request.

      

TO ORDER: The book is available from Amazon.com (including ebook), in selected bookstores, and directly from the author. To support the author, order directly from him! Pre-order by sending your mailing address, $16, plus $2.75 for shipping and handling, to Andy Douglas, 2721-D Muscatine Ave, Iowa City, IA 52240. Or send your info to andy.c.douglas@gmail.com and pay by paypal. A percentage of sales will be donated to Inside Out Reentry Community, a returning citizens support organization, and should you wish to donate any amount above the $16 cover price, this will go to the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance.



Kindness as Hostage

by Treacy Ziegler 

(This is the second installment on kindness in prison.  The first installment can be read at Incarceration of Kindness.)

Drawing by Jimmy Anderson

On my first trip to the super-maximum security prison, I see a high stonewall building perched over distant trees. There is something surreal in the sight of this fortress-like building with its small windows on a lovely country road surrounded by trees and I think of Rapunzel. When I subsequently meet the prisoners in my art class, the image of Rapunzel is in strange contrast with the men who for the most have shaved heads. I mention how the prison on the hill sparked the image of Rapunzel for me. One prisoner shrugs, suggesting that if he could actually see out of his cell’s small window, he would be happy.  

With their rural locations, high walls, and barbed wires, it’s not particularly profound to say prisons are closed systems….duh. However, it is not the barbed wires and high walls creating the strongest locks for the prison. Instead, the prison is a closed system because of the psychological isolation created for its inhabitants; created through developing the single and absolute identity of those inhabitants as inmates. It doesn’t matter if that individual is a husband, father, mother, son, daughter, sister, and so on. In prison, the only identity granted to the prisoner is inmate. A very closed system indeed.

Closed and open systems were terms describing families when I trained as a family therapist at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic (where I worked as a social worker before leaving social work and entering art school). In a closed family system, the family had rigid ideas dictating how each member should act and followed strict expectations for mothering, fathering, being a wife, a husband, and a child. In the most closed of families, these rules became more important than meeting the needs of individuals in that family. With needs not met or acknowledged, behavior and psychological problems emerged and the family was often referred to the Child Guidance Clinic. Of course, this is a very simplistic interpretation of families and behavior.  Most families have preconceived ideas of what constitutes a family and what their members should do in fulfilling these roles. However, when faced with real experiences – faced with the ambiguity of actual living – most families adjust and change their expectations; albeit, sometimes with the help of therapy. Likewise, a society functioning as an open system enables the redefinition of what constitutes a family with the changing needs of societal members. In other words, open psychological systems of families and society become fluid in order to meet the very diverse and changing needs of its members; thus, changing rules to fit those needs.

Prison, of course, is not a family. But like a family, prison is required to participate in the everyday intimacy of the individuals living there. Unlike a family, prison is not required to respond and assist to the changing needs of those individuals. Prison operates upon the absolute principle of isolating out individuals who society deems as bad. Therefore, prison’s main rule is to maintain a single unchanging identity of the individual – an inmate. As the ultimate closed system, prison can ignore the ambiguity and nuances characterizing people. More importantly, prison is dependent on this unchanging identity of inmate for its very survival.

When I ask prisoners if they ever think of themselves as other than inmate, the most frequent answer is, “When I am sleeping.” However, living with prisoners on a daily basis, the prison staff could be expected to eventually recognize those individuals as more complex than inmate. What then prevents many guards and staff from seeing prisoners as full people, capable of a complexity beyond  “bad”? The inevitable complexity of being seen as human is prevented through the institutionalization of hate directed at an inmate; institutionalized both in prison and in society. Hate becomes the active element in keeping the label of inmate intact.

That a proportion of the public do not like prisoners (I don’t know to what extent, but sizable to maintain the system as it is) is certainly not surprising. The hate for prisoners outside of prison can be seen by the polarizing responses to activities in which prisoners are able to express themselves outside the single identity of inmate. One recent example is the art exhibition of Guantanamo prisoners. There was controversy over this exhibition, a possible threat, and then the exhibition was closed.

In one prison where I volunteered, the administration does not publicize their art and music programs developed for the prisoners. The program director says, “It’s better to keep things somewhat quiet instead of making them public through media outlets like newspapers and such. Several programs I have started were cancelled when the public read about them and became outraged – even though the projects were privately funded and didn’t cost taxpayers’ money.”

While it may be assumed public complaint is about money spent for prisoners’ enrichment, the real anger seems to be about expanding the identity of an inmate. A portion of the public does not want to see the inmate anything other than inmate. In making a film about a particular prisoner, I not only got permission, but also the enthusiasm of the prison warden and captain of security for making the film. When I arrived at the prison on the morning of the film shoot, I was stopped from making the film. A victims rights’ group objected to the project, complaining that they, “didn’t want any inmate to be seen in a positive light.”  

Of course, it certainly does not come as a surprise that institutionalized hate for prisoners exists within prison and no surprise that guards for prisoners most often vocalize this hate. In an upstate New York prison where I volunteered for almost a year on a weekly basis teaching nine-hour days, I heard guards repeatedly say, “I hate inmates!”  I heard this phrase so often it seemed as if it was the prison’s mantra. When I heard the captain of security emphatically state it, I understood how the other guards were emulating their captain – it was the expected voice of the guards.

One guard took his hatred to the extreme, adding that he hated all Black people – using the derogatory term. When I didn’t respond with the emotional rise he wanted, the guard then described the several anger management courses he was required to take because of his violence to prisoners in five years as guard. When I flatly commented that I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to hire him, he replied, “I’m exactly the CO they want.” And he was probably correct.

But hate does not only exist in anecdotal material of guards’ treatment to prisoners. Hate has been institutionalized by the prison system through its rules and regulations dictating non-prisoners’ behavior towards prisoners. Obviously the rules do not instruct hate towards the prisoners. Instead, regulations transmute hate through the insistence that prisoners are never to be trusted. The primary rule in every prison in which I have volunteered – seven prisons in four states – is “never trust an inmate;” dictated on every page of my volunteer handbooks citing all sorts of scenarios in which the inmates will trick me into doing things for them through their acts of niceness. Trickled-down hate is the result. There can be civil behavior and examples of kindness between guards and prisoners are described in the last installment of this post. However, overt trust of an inmate is against every rule in every prison. To the contrary, there is no rule against the hatred of inmates.

Consequently, kindness is never a simple act of kindness (remember, we are talking about kindness). Kindness in prison becomes a powerful act of defiance against institutional mistrust and hate. Kindness seems to create a network of solidarity. That sense of solidarity is what I felt watching prisoners help Richie up the stairs. Solidarity is what I feel when I hear one prisoner complimenting another prisoner on their artwork or in sharing materials. It is more than one person acting alone in kindness towards another – it becomes a statement addressed to a larger issue of hate. (See Todd Hollfelder’s comment to the first installment of Incarceration of Kindness, addressing this point in his own experience of incarceration.)

Because kindness involves solidarity between individuals, it has the potential to become powerful in a way that violence cannot. Unlike violence, kindness cannot be controlled.  There is no throwing someone in the hole for being too kind – unless it can be redefined as something other than kindness.

Prison – particularly guards – seem to intuit the danger in kindness. Sensing danger when prisoners act kindly with one another, some guards create situations that instigate violence. Some guards even admitted this to me and I’ve seen guards provoking prisoners. In one prison, guards repeatedly came into the art class reminding me of the crimes my students have committed (in front of my students) – “Inmate Z threw his wife off the cliff, or inmate X torched his victim and watched him die.” This happened so many times until I asked one guard, “This is a maximum security prison. Do you really think the inmates are here because they downloaded a couple of DVDs?” Thus, making his comments a bit naïve. Violence can be controlled by more violence, but kindness cannot.

But, what does a closed system have to do with my second question to prisoners about “kindness that seemed to be masquerading for something else?” Fundamental to this question is another question – how will kindness be known? Given the ambiguity of kindness, what happens to kindness in a closed system where there is little or no room for interpretation? In a system like prison that fears ambiguity, interpretation becomes misinterpretation and kindness is always held suspect. As the prisoner Logan writes, prison is filled with misinterpretations:

“The incidents of this (masq kindness) are far, far too numerous to single out any given one, Treacy! ‘Masquerading kindness’ is the primary foundation of probably 80 percent of the Con-games played in prison.”

Robert describes an example of someone using kindness for other gains:

“In the first few months being off death row, I went on an extreme learning curve that in many ways is disturbing and enlightening. I watched disturbing events between two people. One was a smallish white boy named Quintan and the second was a want-to-be gangbanger named Terrence  – he likes to be called Murder. Quintan has some seriously distasteful charges and everyone knows it and to make things worse he is smallish and does not get any money so he is always bumming cups of coffee and things like that. Murder had been watching this for a while and he started to give him coffee here, soups, there, and after awhile started letting Q eat with him and become real friendly. That didn’t last long because all this kindness Murder was giving him wasn’t for free. Murder finally braced “Q” and wanted sexual favors from him. I won’t go into detail because some things aren’t for the free world. I will say that Q stayed strong and wouldn’t give in.”

Since prison does not recognize change, through insisting inmates are always just inmates, do some prisoners come to believe change is impossible, also?  If people don’t change, then if something does change in a relationship, is it a ploy? I thought about this while reading the following description. Did other prisoner deceive Tony from the beginning as Tony suggests, or did the nature of this relationship change over the course of ten years? Could it be possible that intimate feelings developed over time and not a ploy from the beginning?  Tony writes:

“In here we live in a close environment so we build close relationships. There was a friend (Black). In here you were told who we can hang around with. Well, never let anybody tell me what to do. I’m not this bad ass guy. So anyway we became close friends and we talked all the time. We made sure we did not need anything. At this time my Dad was still alive so I never had to ask for money. Saying that, I did not need any friend looking out for me. Our friendship lasted for years (10) and I believe we had a real friendship. One that would last in and out of prison. Well, it turn out that this Black guy was just trying to get close for other reasons (sex). I know your saying 10 years I should have known.  In here people do a lot of bad things not just what got us in here. So in a way I was trying to help him change his life. So yes, I did know his past life. When I found out that he wanted something else, I was so mad. I wanted to hurt him bad, but I just walked away. I never talk to try to see him when he was around.”

Kindness is a strange thing. By nature, it can only be ambiguous: if kindness were determined by rules, it would not be kindness. While all human experience demands nuanced interpretation, kindness, given this ambiguity, demands even greater nuance. In a system that demands mistrust of nuanced living, kindness easily slips into mistrust, leading to the third experiences asked of prisoners; “Describe experiences of kindness that turned into violence.” …The next post.

About the guest contributor: 

Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 6,500 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.