Nate Fish: Brick of Gold

JAC recently spoke with Nate Fish, founder of the Brick of Gold Publishing Company. Brick of Gold publishes the art and writing of incarcerated people and offers art, copy, direction, design, video, and print services. Since 2016, they’ve published three books containing work from incarcerated artists. 

Words Uncaged, 128-G: Art and Writing from a California State Prison is Brick of Gold’s most recent book, a collection of art and writing from inmates at Calipatria State Prison in Southern California. “What you have in your hands is not only a collection of art but a collection of voices,” says Joel Baptiste, one of the inmates. “[We] have amazing stories to share if you’re willing to look and listen.” 

128-G consists of scans of original artifacts from inside Calipatria – drawings on paper, napkins, and other found materials, typed and handwritten letters, birthday cards, and powerful photos from filmmaker Danny Dwyer. All the material in 128-G comes from Words Uncaged, a non-profit organization running art and writing programs in several California prisons.

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

NF: I started Brick of Gold in 2016. I never intended to publish art and writing from prisoners. It was just a vanity press to publish my own work and the work of friends. But my childhood friend, Ray Adornetto, was working in prisons in California for an organization called Words Uncaged. Ray sent me the work of the prisoners, and I knew right away I was going to stop publishing myself and start publishing them instead. It was just more impactful than the work professional writers were producing, myself included. We published two collections of prison writing in 2018, and just released our third book with Words Uncaged, 128-G: Art and Writing from a California State Prison. It’s broken into the artbook circuit which was one of our goals for the book. 

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

NF: Well, first, Words Uncaged deserves the credit. They are the experts, and they are the ones going into the prisons and doing the difficult work. But as for Brick of Gold and the books we’re putting out, we are trying something a little different because we are taking artbook sensibilities to prison publishing. We are basically taking what can be interpreted as gritty, outsider work and making it into beautiful artbooks. I do not think that’s been done before. We want to challenge the art establishment to include this work in their definition of what’s important, and get the books into museum shops and artbook stores so people with resources can see it. The ultimate goal is policy change, but we think we can help move the dial that direction by presenting the work this way. It is very difficult to continue denying people their humanity and liberty once you see and read the books. 

JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art or creative practices? What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

NF: I have been writing less and editing more. I have to read and edit and art direct the books with the designers we hire and that takes a lot of time, so I have shifted a bit from writing to curating. But I still do write and publish my own work as well. I am also a visual artist. Crafting our books has definitely sharpened my ability to conceptualize large scale projects in general. I would say though that the work of the prisoners we publish has had more of an emotional impact on me than a professional impact. They’ve taught me more about being a good person than being a good artist. 

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

NF: Yes. Words Uncaged cannot get into prisons right now, like most organizations and individuals doing this kind of work. WU runs programs in Calipatria, Lancaster, and Donovan prisons. There are outbreaks right now in Lancaster and Donovan, and a lot of the guys we work with are very sick. I keep getting messages that Joel or Jimmy or Cory are struggling. I have never even met any of the artists whose work we publish, but I feel like I know them, and it hurts to hear they’re sick. 

JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, both concerning Covid-19 and anti-racism protests, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

NF: One of the things we’ve done as a reaction to the times is put out a call for work from prisoners specifically about race in America. We want to hear about their experiences and see what solutions they have to offer. It’s important to us that in our projects we are not learning about prisoners, but are learning from prisoners, about ourselves. It’s a bit of a flip in the power dynamic we’re used to seeing with all the voyeuristic prison docs and stuff that have been coming out for decades that sort of fetishize prison. Things are magnified in prison. Every element of life is sort of laid bare, especially when it comes to race. A lot of our guys have transitioned from racist to anti-racist and we want to hear from them how they did it. We should be releasing the book on race in America in 2021. 

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

NF: The prison reform scene is awesome but fragmented. There are dozens if not hundreds of orgs working on the same thing often not even knowing about one another. You guys know that better than anyone. It would be awesome to see a unifying organization, one place where all the work lived, and we got some collective bargaining power.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, as well as this period of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the justice system?

NF: I think the protests are more impactful than the epidemic when it comes to people examining themselves and our society. If anything, the epidemic may cause people to withdraw from thinking about the pain of others because their own resources are likely diminishing. The protests in 2020 are mostly focused on police reform. That’s great. But there was not as much talk about top to bottom reform that includes prison reform. But prison reform will inevitably come back up to the top of the news cycle at some point. It is part of the national conversation and very few things if any are as glaringly in need of reform as the prison system most people agree, even conservatives. I am not a huge fan of the word reform in general. It sounds like we need to just move the line a little bit when I think we need to move it a lot. 

JAC: What led you to JAC, and how has your experience with JAC served your own work?

NF: You guys are at the forefront of bringing awareness to prison art so it didn’t take me long to track Wendy down for a call. She’s helped me get a better understanding of prison art on a national scale, because we have only worked specifically with California Prisons. JAC has a broader reach so I can learn about when and where and how prisoners are making art all over the country because I am still pretty new to this world. 

Head to the Brick of Gold website to purchase their books and learn more about what they do. Profits from 128-G go to Words Uncaged. 

A.B.O. Comix

JAC recently spoke with Casper Cendre, co-founder and director of A.B.O. Comix. A.B.O. is a collective of creators and activists who work to amplify the voices of LGBTQ prisoners through art. By working closely with prison abolitionist and queer advocacy organizations, they aim to keep queer prisoners connected to outside community and help them in the fight toward liberation. The profits A.B.O generate go back to incarcerated artists, especially those with little to no resources. Using the DIY ideology of “punk-zine” culture, A.B.O. was formed with the philosophy of mutual support, community and friendship.

A.B.O. believes our interpersonal and societal issues can be solved without locking people in cages. Their mission is to combat the culture that treats humans as disposable and disproportionately criminalizes the most marginalized amongst us. “Through artistic activism, we hope to proliferate the idea that a better world means redefining our concepts of justice.”


JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today? Have your views changed since then?

CC: As a teenager, I had a difficult time connecting with my peers and making friends. Coming to terms with my queer and trans identity in high school often left me feeling alienated, misunderstood and at times, even inhuman. I found an outlet through pen-palling as it seemed easier for me to write out my thoughts than it was to speak with people in person, and in my last year of high school, I found a website you could pen-pal with folks in prison. At the time, there was only one person on the website that openly identified as LGBTQ, so I sent her a letter not knowing that to this day, she would be one of my closest and dearest friends.

Writing with her became therapeutic for the both of us – we explored our intersections of feeling alienated and inhuman together, and both ended up transitioning around the same time. I learned about what life was like for queer and transgender people in prison, and all too often the degradation, abuse, sexual assault and severe neglect that they endure. She introduced me to her friends and soon I was writing with quite a few people in different prisons. Many were artists, and I quickly had a large collection of beautiful drawings, paintings and crafts that my pen-pals had sent me.

I was enamored with the beauty and creativity that manifested in spite of the bleakness of prison life, and I felt compelled to help share this art and their stories with the world. My ever-growing family behind bars helped me start to see the beauty in this world, especially in times that seem the darkest. They have helped me realize that despite the mistakes we make in this life, each one of us (with a little help and encouragement) can blossom into the best versions of ourselves and find our paths to redemption. 

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

CC: In 2017, A.B.O. Comix was started with no road map, no long-term goals or aspirations, and no general understanding of how to become the organization that we are now. Two of my friends and I set out to publish a book with our incarcerated pen-pals and get a little bit of money into their commissary account. We hadn’t seen any comic projects like this before, and had no idea how much of a positive impact it would have.

We started this project with the change in our wallets but soon had fundraised enough to open a P.O. box and buy a used perfect binding machine to painstakingly hand press our books, one copy at a time. Our hand-drawn Call for Submissions ad in the Black and Pink newspaper had our P.O. box flooded with comic storyboards and requests for information the first week. A couple months later, we were throwing our anthology release party at Classic Cars West in Oakland, with hot glue burns on our fingers and a table of hand-screened custom t-shirts with smudged ink.

After our first anthology was published featuring the comics of our incarcerated LGBTQ friends, the trajectory of A.B.O. split into different directions. One of the co-founders no longer had the capacity to continue with the project, and our other eventually moved across the country. For several years though, I’ve found my permanent home as Director of A.B.O. Comix and couldn’t imagine a better thing to dedicate my life to.

Our one-off anthology of queer prisoner’s comics has since become a project I’ve done every year. The list of 20 queer and transgender artists we write with has since become over 250. Our modest fundraising to buy some holiday gifts for people in prison became almost $40,000 donated directly to the commissary accounts of our contributors so they can afford food, art supplies, medical co-pays, gender-affirming items, phone time and legal counsel. Hundreds of letters are written a month, multiple books, anthologies and zines have been published, and I get to dedicate my work on the daily to advocating for our all our contributors for everything from internal grievances to accessing medical care to parole letters to creating artist portfolios.

This last year we created a graphic-novel making curriculum for LGBTQ prisoners, secured our own office space and art gallery, linked up hundreds of free-world people with new pen-pals in prison, helped with re-entry support for our friends getting out of prison, formed relationships with dozens of organizations to better assist our contributors, had our publications featured in college textbooks and course curriculums, and helped introduce the world to the amazing creativity of so many of our incarcerated community members.

Our incarcerated community has helped me aspire to so much more for this coming year: to grow this into an organization that can hire on our formerly incarcerated contributors when they come home; to expand to a retail storefront where we can publicly display all of the art and publications we have collaborated on; to start up our own podcast featuring interviews with our contributors; to become a national collective that eliminates gate-keeping from the publishing industry; and help create thousands of published artists inside prison with vast more opportunities and credentials.

JAC: Have your experiences with creating in prison influenced environments influenced the way you approach your own art and projects?

CC: Although we collaborate exclusively through mail and phone-calls with our contributors in prison and I’ve met very few of our contributors in person, I’ve re-learned the power that small acts of kindness and encouragement can have on a person’s growth and mental, spiritual and psychological well-being. While many of the people we correspond with were already accomplished artists, many more had never attempted a comic before and didn’t consider themselves artists at all.

In encouraging others to try a new craft, no matter what came out of the other side of their pen, it has motivated me to try new mediums myself. Previously, I considered myself only capable of writing creatively, but I now have more faith in myself to try other things just for the fun of it. I have learned how much art can be therapy, and that it is equally about self-expression and manifesting your emotions into reality as it is about creating something lasting and visually appealing.

Our contributors encourage and motivate me every day, and I can only work as hard as humanly possible to repay the kindness.

JAC: How do you think your program affects participants? Have you felt that art influences a person’s self-image or worth, while they are incarcerated? What other impacts do you hope your organization have had on individuals, both incarcerated and not?

CC: Our contributors have become the siblings I never had, and we get each other through the hardest days and uplift & celebrate with each other on the best ones. Some of our artists have been through the darkest moments imaginable, and struggled with self-harm, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts/attempts. But now they have, maybe for the first time, a community to rely on. I have seen many people grow and gain a new sense of accomplishment.

Art is a vehicle for our contributors to express what they may not be able to in words, and becoming published artists with credentials, awards, and their work for sale in art shows has given them something they’ve never had before.  

The voices and artwork of our family in prison has reached so many people on the outside, through newspapers, podcasts, college courses and libraries. We have helped introduce the concept of prison reform and even abolition to countless people around the world, and inspired many to bridge connections and strengthen our communities. I am immensely proud of the openness and vulnerability that our friends in prison have shared with us through their stories, and hope that their work will encourage and help so many others. 

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

CC: The most rewarding part of my experience working with incarcerated artists has been the friendships I have gained. I have gotten the unique opportunity to get to talk with people from all different backgrounds, places of origin, ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities and ideologies. Everyone has something to teach, and everyone has something to offer, and I am humbled and honored to get to learn what they have to share.

I have learned the life stories – the mistakes and the triumphs – of mothers and fathers, military veterans, business owners, entrepreneurs, engineers, occultists, scientists, and conspiracy theorists. I have gotten the chance to befriend believers and skeptics, Democrats and Republicans (and a healthy dose of Anarchists), immigrants and those who have family lineages here as far back as they can trace…all people our justice system has written off and discarded but who have some of the most valuable life lessons every person should know.

I have gotten the opportunity to get to know these incredible people who are often so open and happy to share their stories, and found the chance to help share that knowledge with others. My friends in prison have taught me that when we know better, we can do better, and for that I hope they never stop allowing me to learn from them.

JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include? Are there any current obstacles you are trying to overcome as an organization?

CC: I was introduced to the Justice Arts Coalition at the Connecting Art & Law for Liberation festival at UCLA in 2019, when Wendy and I had the chance to sit down over drinks and talk about the passion we had for our work. Getting to see JAC grow these past few years has been so inspiring to me and an incredibly valuable resource for many of our community members that I give out probably to too many people. My partner jokes that I want to see everyone else buried under the same mountain of letters that I am. *laughs manically* I really look forward to being able to collaborate more to better support all our artists on the inside, and being a support network for each other.

Some of our greatest challenges and obstacles are keeping up with the workload. For many people in prison, there are very few resources and people they can turn to, and most organizations that do exist are overextended, beyond capacity and swamped with the amount of work that needs to be done. A.B.O. receives thousands of letters a year and we are an incredibly small team – it sometimes takes us months to get a response out to each individual. Retaining volunteers, especially during COVID, has been difficult and the workload falls disproportionately on just a few people.

I would love to see our organizations with similar goals come together to distribute the workload and create the most amount of positive change for all involved. A supportive network of organizations we could communicate & collaborate with, each playing to our own strengths, would be instrumental in supporting our artists. 

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

CC: This year has been a rough one for all of us, but especially those on the inside who have lived with the fear of never returning to their friends and loved ones, or never getting to say goodbye to those they lost. We wanted to create a project that would allow our contributors to channel their fears, anxieties and pain into something productive and beautiful, so we published a second anthology this year called Confined Before COVID-19, featuring comics, artwork, poetry and short essays about how the pandemic was affecting people in prison. We asked them to share their thoughts and experiences while COVID spread like wildfire throughout the prison system, and received dozens of submissions that we compiled into an extraordinary collection that serves as a time capsule for this difficult year.

We’ve been working extra hard to make sure we maintain correspondence and connection with all our contributors so that they know they are not alone and not given up on. We started taking calls from prisoners this year, and trained a bunch of new volunteers on letter-writing so that we’re able to chip away at our mail mountain bit by bit. I think our relationships with those on the inside has only gotten stronger this year, and our incarcerated family has more than doubled in size in 2020. 

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, as well as this period of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the justice system?

CC: Although this year has collectively been one of the most difficult of our lifetimes, it has given us an opportunity to re-evaluate what is important and what is worth fighting for. The relationships we form with our families and friends are the most critical lifeline we have, and this pandemic has given us time to pause and sort out our priorities. Here in Oakland, the street our office is on was turned into a 2 mile long gallery of protest art (which we captured in our publication, Protest Art – Broadway in Oakland: June 20 2020), bringing our community together through the power of art to have conversations about police brutality and our justice/prison systems.

These conversations are now widespread, with many people discussing these issues for the first time. Our society is learning and engaging more now than I’ve ever seen, and it’s given me a renewed sense of optimism in the power of community. I hope that the art created during this time will encourage us to be kinder to each other, uplift one another, and work towards better days for all of us.

Visit A.B.O. Comix online to learn more about their organization and their artists. Shop for books, zines, prints, apparel, and more! The profits generated go back to incarcerated artists, especially those with little to no resources.

Artist Spotlight: Reginald Dwayne Betts

by Melissa Wang, JAC Intern

“I started reading poetry in a cell in solitary confinement,” writes Reginald Dwayne Betts to the Justice Arts Coalition. Now an award-winning poet and Ph.D candidate in Law at Yale Law School, Betts began his poetic practice in prison.

Reginald Dwayne Betts.

As a sixteen-year-old, Betts was sentenced to nine years in prison for a carjacking – and it was there, “steeped in despair,” that he began “finding a language, varied and complicated and rich” to carry his imagination to his future. Betts is hesitant to slap a label on art, to glorify it as a unique form of salvation for all. Instead, he points to the individuality of art, the way poetry took him as a teenager outside of the four walls of his cell and allowed him to build possibility. “I don’t want to lift up poetry,” he says, “but rather I want to remember poetry.” Truthfully, as much as art can be a community process, it is also deeply personal.

“Art ends up being about what the writing or reading or witnessing does to you internally.”

Cover of Felon.

Art is consummation between each individual viewer and creator, and Betts highlights the role of the witness – or the reader – in realizing the significance of a work of art. In his 2019 anthology, Felon, he marries his professions as lawyer and as poet to create redaction poems from legal documents. Rather than the poem itself doing the work of blurring boundaries, however, he writes that “readers deserve far more credit than they get. They make the work matter, and they deepen the work by their engagement.” If the reader is willing to explore Betts’s legal background and the meaning of the redaction poems, they add to the value of the work. Comparatively, the isolation of prison creates a dearth of feedback and readership for incarcerated artists – just one reason why incarcerated artists must have their work shared and responded to.

These days, Betts enjoys Basquiat’s show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as the work of Titus Kaphar, with who he is collaborating for theMillion Book Project. The project is producing a curated 500-book capsule collection that will be placed in 1000 prisons in 50 states, sponsored by Yale Law School and a grant from the Mellon Foundation. All his inspiration for the project, says Betts, “comes from being a sixteen-year-old in prison,” along with countless moments over time with various books and writers. For him, words become “a kind of codex and map for life,” and these 500 books are meant to represent the idiosyncrasies of human life and all the diversity that entails. Consequently, the curation of these books is an ongoing and evolving process.

Kaphar, one of Betts’s friends, will be constructing a bookshelf for the project. Kaphar’s art, says Betts, reminds him to be capacious in artmaking and communicating the world. The ways in which they influence each other, however, aren’t just derivative of their artistry, but rather the same way friends influence one another. The conversations between their work evoke their connection as individuals, as ordinary people who hang out and chat and spend time together. Although the arguments of their artwork take different forms, Betts praises Kaphar’s body of work as “brilliantly inventive” and “visually hypnotic.” Thinking back to the Basquiat exhibition, Betts says that while Basquiat introduces him to a world he “didn’t know existed,” Kaphar makes him “reconsider a world” he knows well. These are just a couple of ways engaging with art, whether through creation or witness, serves to alter one’s world.

Art is worldbuilding in a place that fights to limits your world to four walls – the stretch of creative expression can not only help name current realities but also take you to a place away from harm.

“I want to believe that art gives a person understanding, and imagination gives us a vehicle to witness something other than ourselves.”

To learn more about the Million Book Project, check out Yale Law School’s page or the Mellon Foundation’s page.
You can view or buy Betts’s work on his website

Art Connects Us

Dear friends,

Our team is grateful to our wonderful community for contributing to and engaging with JAC in so many ways over the last year, through some very challenging times. We’re excited to celebrate the launch of Maryland’s first multidisciplinary, distance learning arts program serving incarcerated women, CorrespondARTS, with all of our friends and supporters.

When COVID-19 began sweeping the country, shutting down visitations and programming in prisons nationwide, here at JAC we knew we had to push harder to maintain connections with artists inside. With our pARTner project and ArtLinks events in place online, enabling people on the outside to connect with the incarcerated artists in our network and engage with their creative work, we explored untapped possibilities to build even more bridges.

After much planning JAC formed a team of highly experienced, passionate local teaching artists who had lost their programs in prisons and jails as a result of the Covid lockdowns. Together with our Founding Director, they developed a 6 month pilot project, with activity packets offering prompts and lessons in theatre, visual art, creative writing, and poetry are being delivered every two weeks to the  Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, Each participant will receive feedback and reflections on the work they return to us. JAC is the organizing body for this project, but the creative control is in the hands of four fabulous teaching artists, Lori Pitts of Voices Unbarred, Schai Schairer of FIST DC, Carien Quiroga, and Leslie Bumstead.

Untitled. Joshua Earls

CorrespondARTS is being funded in part through a grant awarded to us by the Maryland State Arts Council. We are grateful for this support and hope to be able to supplement our budget to help cover the costs of art supplies and printing and to adequately compensate our team members for their time and labor.

On this Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving, help us fund CorrespondARTS and reestablish opportunities for creative expression during this time of isolation and crisis. Please donate to our campaign so we can sustain this much-needed program!

  • A $50 donation covers art supplies for 5 participants
  • A $70 donation covers printing costs for 20 packets of art curriculum
  • A $150 donation covers the full cost for 3 participants for 1 round (incl. printing, curriculum design, and supplies)
  • A $500 donation covers the full cost for 10 participants for 1 round (incl. printing, curriculum design, and supplies)

“It is enough that our time with loved ones is taken from us in penalty. Our voices and hearts expression should have a continuum always, this is the essence of life and no one should be allowed to take that from any individual under any circumstances. So thank you so much for providing an outlet for this; it’s rewarding to me to have this form of expression, correspondence, communication. I sincerely hope this is reciprocated to you and the members of the Coalition committee who work to make this possible that they can continually feel their efforts are making a difference and receive a beneficial impact in their own lives as well.” –Cedar, artist

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for being a part of our vibrant community and supporting us in so many ways!

In peace, love, and solidarity,

The JAC team

ImageWhat can you give this Giving Tuesday?

We are setting out to raise $10,000 to ensure the sustainability of CorrespondARTS. Please help us reach our goal!

Your donation through our fiscal sponsor, The William James Association, is 100% tax deductible.

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Gabriel Ross

JAC recently spoke with Gabriel Ross, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Gabriel (MA Catechetics and Liturgy, University of St. Thomas) is the founding director of Creative Spirit, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring spirituality through the arts. Gabriel has facilitated adult education courses and intergenerational programming for over 25 years. She leads women’s spirituality groups and teaches courses on comparative religions, eco-spirituality, creativity and spirituality. Gabriel designed and leads the Soul Journal programs for incarcerated women and Befriending Creation camp for girls. Her unique program offerings include drum and ritual groups and Mystics at the River.

The goal of the Soul Journal program is for the women to leave prison stronger than when they arrived. Prison Mother’s Soul Journal invites the participants to a deeper level of self-understanding, leading to more positive ways to communicate with and parent their children. Creating the journal gives incarcerated women a unique and creative way to see their lives as a process of change and transformation, which is vital to the rehabilitation process. The process itself has transformative power that is extended when journals and new knowledge are shared, helping to heal wounded relationships with children, other family members, and the broader community. The mothers in this program learn positive parenting techniques and new ways to share their values and hopes with their children. Prison leaders see the positive results of creating new circles of support within the prison.

Gabriel is generously sharing the Soul Journal Curriculum for Mothers in Prison with the JAC network as a resource to use once it is safe to go back into prisons. It can be accessed here and under Practitioner Handbooks/Curricula in the JAC Resources tab. 

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

GR: I founded a small non-profit called Creative Spirit that is dedicated to the imaginative expression of spirituality through the arts. Part of my work was teaching Soul Journal Classes to women in the general public and one of our board members thought it might be a good fit for women in prison.  Our board member had a friend who worked at the local women’s prison and she set up the connection to begin the Soul Journal programming.

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

GR: Our Women in Prison Soul Journal Programs use the power of narrative art to explore new paths to heal, become stronger, and find hope for the future. The work is unique because the curriculum has been written specifically for incarcerated women with input from the women.

Since the first Soul Journal class at the prison in January of 2012 we have developed four different courses based on the needs of the women and prison staff requests:

  1. Mother’s program
  2. Program for women with long-term sentences
  3. CIP (boot camp) program
  4. Native American program

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

GR: Teaching in prison has absolutely impacted my teaching practices.  Most of my students have never been given the opportunity to sit quietly and reflect on their lives and their values.  Having the opportunity to explore these ideas and express them with art, poetry and writing is new for the women and can be challenging.  I need to provide engaging exercises, thought provoking material and a variety of strong images to enable their self-expression.  It is also about being able to facilitate discussion about their work, finding safe ways for them to share their journals.  And of course teaching in prison means finding alternative ways to be creative with the limited art supplies that can be brought into the building.

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

Seeing what visual journaling can open for them, and the positive effects the program can have for the women.  For the Mother’s program, seeing the women find a new creative way to connect with their child/ren.  For the Native American program, seeing the women discover Native teaching and values and being proud of their tribal heritage.  For the CIP (boot camp program) seeing the women experience confidence and self-worth as they approach graduation. I always leave the prison feeling like I made a difference in their lives and they express their gratitude.  Here are some comments from participants:

From the Native American program:

“Soul Journal helped me reflect on what being a Native American woman means and what it means to me and it also inspired me to want to get more involved in ceremony and be more traditional when it comes to raising my children.”

“This class reminded me not to be ashamed/embarrassed of who I am. It helped me remember how much I love who I am and how beautiful my/our culture is. I cannot wait to start going to ceremonies again and help educate the youth about who they are.”

From the Mother’s program:

“I have learned all the ways to express my love and expectations and dreams to my children.  I loved that this group made me know and feel better to express my dreams and also share and be open to the wrongs I’ve done so my children don’t do or follow my negative ways.  This class helped me to have strength to change and become a positive mother.”

“This was awesome.  I was skeptical – once in the class I was surprised at how much I was able to open up about as well as see even on the inside.  I’m still able to be a positive influence with my children and hear what a good parent I actually have been and will continue to be.  Thank you for this opportunity to do this – it was tremendous.”

From the CIP (boot camp) program:

“Soul Journal has given me a sense of power I didn’t even know that I had. It is the greatest gift I have been given. I’ve been able to find a lot of inner peace and reflect on how I feel.”

“Soul Journal helped me reflect on my life in a less negative way.  I was able to begin the process of letting go of resentments.”

“Soul Journal got me looking at what I want in a relationship and about some things I need to deal with from my past to heal.  I would only suggest that as many squads as possible get this opportunity – it IS an amazing journey.”

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

GR: I have not been allowed into the prison here since the middle of March 2020.

There are no opportunities for on-line or correspondence courses.  About a month ago a group of formerly incarcerated Native American women (I had in classes at the prison) contacted me and asked me to do a reentry Soul Journal program with them.  We have started to meet and hope to continue to gather.  Not being able to go into the prison has been disheartening for me and the prison program director said that the women really miss the Soul Journal programs.  There is no certainty about when the women’s prison will open to program personnel.

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

A supportive network includes a place to present, discuss and get ideas for this very important work with incarcerated people.  The network might also include the opportunity to connect with other local artists looking toward the possibility of collaboration.