Address for the HOC Mural Project Unveiling Celebration with MIT at the Suffolk County House of Correction
Feb. 15, 2019
Lately, we’ve all been hearing a lot about walls – whether we like it or not.
And as a result, we can’t help thinking about what a wall represents: division, protection, confinement – all of which are a necessary part of a facility like this.
But a wall can also be a canvas that inspires imagination and creativity.
And big walls, like this one, communicate a message with a particular kind of power.
The message of the women in the Women’s Program here, who designed this work of art in just four, one and a half hour classes, was conveyed in this way:
One might interpret the eyes as the eyes of the soul, and our sorrows illustrated by tears. And so often – if we’re patient enough – we find our sadness leads to new growth represented in the form of the tree. Jellyfish are unconfined by walls and water. Walls become the universe, a ceiling the sky, and flowers break through anything that might stop them from blooming. All of this saying, that no matter what, we have to capacity to break through what may confine us. And that’s why everyone wanted a doorway that leads to the light of possibility and hope.
And so, art transformed a blank wall into the image, I would say, of human resilience, showed how we can dissolve, scale and transform any wall that may threaten to permanently confine us. Walls like: disappointment, failure, addiction, poverty, fear, heartbreak, prejudice, and any number of traumas we encounter as we live our lives.
If we are human, it’s pretty hard to avoid one or all of these things — no matter our life circumstances.
That is why a large part of the HOC Mural Project’s vision was to form an unlikely union between two groups of people in two very different life circumstances.
One group would be considered to be privileged, celebrated for their skills and the social and technological contributions they will make to our country and even the world. The other, once back in society, will have a great deal to face and overcome, including stigma and a sense of alienation, in order to establish a life that is secure and settled, productive, and healthy.
And yet, put these two groups together in this room to learn together how to make what you see before you, and what lies between them is no division, only respect, camaraderie, and friendship.
My role in this project was small. I thought of having the women here paint a mural long ago, and I made the first overture to MIT. Other than that, I pretty much just stood around; and while standing around, I couldn’t help but observe. And this is what I saw:
I saw an immediate bond develop between Mijin and Sokhee, created not only by a common purpose but by a common language.
I saw and heard everyone express admiration and respect for Johanna’s portrait of mother and child, and I saw Johanna glow with new-found confidence in herself as an artist.
I saw admiration and respect for Yahaira’s leadership, and the patience and perseverance that she and Jennifer brought to the two full weeks they worked together to perfectly execute the leaves on the tree.
I saw the moment that Allison, urged on by everyone’s encouragement, broke through her hesitation to put paint to canvas. I saw Lesley and Farrah, Norma and Graciane let go of self-doubt to engage whole-heartedly in every aspect of the experience. Along with the creative work, they often took on the less romantic yet equally important task of prep work and clean up.
I saw the group’s dependence on Taylor and Johanna’s ability to make the sky, and dependence on how all the MIT students effortlessly measured and strung the grids that showed everyone where to place each image.
I watched how everyone arrived each day to immediately plunge in and work without a break (unless there was pizza and doughnuts) until it was time to go.
And I saw everyone, without exception, contribute his or her individual strengths to a single purpose and goal — in no way motivated by ego or the need for individual recognition.
And I have to mention Yinka. Yinka’s candle, the image she suggested be in the design and the image that perfectly depicted Yinka’s spirit, one that brought her to come and work cheerfully on this mural just a few hours before she knew she would be deported to Nigeria and separated, perhaps permanently, from her husband and two young sons. Yinka’s optimism and courage and faith was an example to us all, and I believe we will always think of that candle as the symbol of the light Yinka brought to our lives.
So again, there was no wall at all between the individuals who made this work of art. And because they experienced that unity in a tactile and visceral way, they will disperse what they learned here throughout their lives, and I hope influence those who might see only division where there is unity and only difference where there is always commonality.
This may just have been this project’s greatest achievement of all.
I am proud to have been part of this institution, the Suffolk County House of Correction, and to have witnessed two very different institutions cooperate and collaborate to make all of this happen, spurred by a common belief in the value of art to heal, unify, and inspire.
Funding for this project was provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of the Vice Chancellor and The Council for the Arts at MIT.
About the guest contributor:
Peggy Rambach M.A., M.F.A., is the author of several books and is recognized primarily as a writer, though she has become intensely devoted to pastel. She has studied with local pastel artists and is otherwise, self-taught. She has taught as a non-benefit employee at Suffolk County House of Correction since 2008.
Along with her work in Corrections, Ms. Rambach has taught in healthcare, in social service centers, and in the Medical Humanities. She has received grants and fellowships from the Schwartz Center, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, The Massachusetts Literacy Foundation, and the Yaddo and MacDowell artist colonies. Ms. Rambach is also a featured artist in the documentary film: The Healing Arts, New Pathways to Health.
by Rosie Worster, Director of Programmes at The Fair Justice Initiative
Nsawam Medium Security Prison is the largest in Ghana, located not far outside the capital of Accra. It is a place associated with utmost shame, particularly for the eighty or so women held in the female section. Crime is thought dirty, ungodly, unfeminine. Many of the detainees hide the fact of their incarceration from their families, deliberately isolating themselves to avoid that rejection. Others maintain a desperate line of contact with relatives who as the years pass change their numbers, visit less frequently, or forget them altogether.
It’s difficult to link this to the series of brightly coloured portraits in ‘Remember Me’, one for each of the 12 women serving death penalty and life sentences at Nsawam Prison. That contrast is deliberate, as part of an attempt to change the conversation around incarceration in Ghana. Rather than seeing these women as irredeemable, lesser and other, the project tells a story of creativity, hope and connection. It seeks to grant these women the validation of being remembered as people with identities more complex than their incarcerated status.
The portraits are the last stage in a collaborative and participatory art project conceived by photographer Francis Kokoroko and artist and stylist Rania Odaymat, and facilitated and supported by The Fair Justice Initiative, a local NGO. Throughout 2018, Rania and Francis visited the prison to conduct different workshops that would encourage the women to express their own aesthetics, views and aspirations. The first focused on collage making, the results of which were later used to provide direction and inspiration for the final portrait making session. A second image-making workshop using a Fujifilm Instax instant camera explored body language and expression, a way to circumvent the prison restrictions on photographing faces whilst the permit to lift that ban remained pending. Finally, permission for the final portrait session was granted. The portraits were produced within a stipulated two-hour time window with the assistance of a team of volunteers from Dark and Lovely, and from make-up artist Sandra Don-Arthur.
In each photograph, the women swap their blue and white prison garb for traditional dress, elaborate headpieces and carefully coordinated accessories. They are strong, beautiful, and smiling. These are women who want to be remembered not just for their crimes, but for being Adwoa, Abena, Agnes, Ama A, Mary, Lamisi, Ama Y, Esther, Akosua, Salamatu, Zelia and Talata.
After being shown as part of the ‘Make Be’ exhibition at La Maison in October 2018, the advocacy work of the project is expanding to new forms. Rania, Francis and The Fair Justice Initiative are working to develop a coffee table book to present to diplomats and politicians in Ghana with the power to influence policy change. The book contains both the photographs and testimonies from the women themselves on their challenges, hopes and dreams. It is hoped that a second edition and a calendar will also be produced to raise awareness through sale to the general public, and that the exhibition will be able to travel to new audiences.
Rania and Francis’ work is available to see on their Instagram pages, @accraphoto and @rania_odaymat. You can follow the development of the ‘Remember Me’ project through The Fair Justice Initiative’s social media (Instagram/Twitter/Facebook) at @fairjusticegh, and on their website www.fairjusticegh.com.
About the guest contributors:
Rania Odaymat is an artist, stylist, creative facilitator and curator. She is one of the founding members of the Beyond Collective, a Ghanaian non-governmental organisation whose aim is to promote creative awareness and education, as well as facilitate artistic exchanges and collaborations. She is also a trustee of the Fair Justice Initiative.
Francis Kokoroko is a creative and photojournalist with a keen interest in documenting the ever-evolving cultures and everyday life on the African continent. He uses his images to communicate a personal message, and believes that emotion is the most important element of any picture.
Rosie Worster is the Director of Programmes at The Fair Justice Initiative (FJI), a Ghanaian non-governmental organisation (NGO) working primarily with detainees at Nsawam Medium Security Prison. Their mission is to combat discrimination and prejudice against current and former inmates, ensure equal access to effective legal representation, and improve the conditions of confinement in Ghanaian prisons.
A note from PAC’s Manager: Though PAC typically focuses on programs and artists in and around the US justice system, when we learned about the Remember Me project, we were eager to help expand its reach. We hope you’re as inspired by it as we are.
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.