An Appeal for Art for Justice

by Melnee D. McPherson

In the spring I attended a daylong forum about how the arts could help those men and women who are living in prison and building new lives back in their communities.

Officially the session was called “Michigan Art for Justice,” held in a historic hall on the campus of University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I was so gratified to see how many people were interested in this critical issue and many were already deep into solutions. Some of them were just explaining their job responsibilities and others were true advocates.

And that’s where I stand. After serving my time in prison, I earned degrees in social work, the majority at the University of Michigan. That work became very personal as I looked around and realized the shortages of help for returning citizens. In addition I saw the burdens the absence of a parent placed on the family. I would call this an epidemic, as the professionals say that 1 of 10 children have a parent in prison.

The person who stepped into this void was most frequently a grandmother. That’s me. Building an organization for other grandmothers who are tackling this challenge is now my mission. I’m in my early 70s and know my peers need support and advice.  We also need to let people know we exist, not just in a brief news report, but in our own 24 hour world.

At the recent forum I was hoping to hear more about this special group of people. Not this time.

Generally, the speakers spoke about the responsibilities of their public and private offices to returning citizens. Specifically, some offered ways the arts can inform discussions on criminal justice.  Exposure to programs such as Shakespeare Behind Bars, the Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project and the Arts in Corrections initiative of the California Lawyers for the Arts has proved extremely helpful. They have awakened or rekindled creativity in those inmates, from producing plays to writing about their lives.

The arts can help before interaction with the prison system begins. Alma Robinson, the Executive Director of the California Lawyers for the Arts, said, “If we had more arts education in schools, we wouldn’t have so many people to correct.” Amen to that!

As positive proof of this impact, the Prison Creative Arts Project organized an exhibition of art by Michigan prisoners. This was the 23rd year. Bravo was all I could think as I walked among the paintings, prints and sculptures of men and women whom I wanted to meet. The evening reached a high point as Hazelette Crosby told her story about her incarceration and sang the songs of hope she wrote in prison.

When she spoke on her panel Crosby emphasized the need to have complete participation among all sides of the prison crisis.

There is a value, she said, to established “communications between those who have had the experience and those on the outside who want to contribute.” Though those in the audience believed in all these efforts she described how hard it is to get hired and work after release. Crosby reminded everyone “we have a lot to bring to the table.”

We all know the system is a mess, and I don’t think we can ignore the language and the actions of the national lawmakers. My view is the politics of the current White House are only making matters worse.  You can’t have this discussion outside the context of what is happening nationally.

There is enough energy to help with fundamentals when someone comes home. Learning the soft skills—how to act on the job—is so important. There is enough interest in human rights issues to tackle abuses, overcrowding and the lack of rehabilitation programs. All the speakers pointed out these horrible conditions, as the oversight and ownership of prisons change to private hands.

Except in a few presentations, I didn’t hear the advocates talk about the impact those years of separation have had on the families. I wanted more from both sides of the story.

About the guest contributor:

 Melnee Dilworth McPherson, PhD, Dr. McPherson earned both her PhD in the Joint Sociology and Social Work Program in 2004 and her MSW in 1996 from the University of Michigan. Her dissertation entitled, “From a feminist perspective: An investigation of the relationship among dual diagnosis, intimate partner violence and parenting stress” formed the unifying theme of her research with a focus on domestic violence, mental illness, and substance misuse.

Dr. McPherson serves on several community initiatives including the Livingston-Washtenaw Substance Abuse Advisory Council and the Washtenaw Prisoner Re-entry Initiative. She is also a board member of The University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center. Dr. McPherson has taught courses at the University of Michigan- School Of Social Work and the Washtenaw Community College. She is also a consultant on a national project aimed at developing trauma-informed reentry programming for women. Dr. McPherson, a returned citizen, is also an advocate for supporting the grandmothers who take care of young people whose parent is incarcerated.

About the Art for Justice Forums:

​California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.

Additional forums will take place at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta on September 28, at Sacramento State University on October 16, at the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University in Alabama on October 19, and at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16 (register for the NY event here). For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org.

Events Calendar for the 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners

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“Crying Inside” by G. Allen

“Prison does not define who we are as people, but instead reflects poor decisions we have made. I would ask that those who judge us to perhaps look past the blue and orange state clothes we wear, and to try to practice empathy. Please try to understand us. Please try to look past our imperfections and most importantly, try to forgive us. I believe that many inmates struggle with, yet desperately desire to express who they truly are, and the reasons are numerous. Creating art is one avenue I personally use to express myself. All of my paintings reflect either my sadness, my happiness, my dreams, my desires, my passions, or I just find them beautiful. Whatever painting of mine you may be looking at right now, please know that while you are certainly seeing a part of me, there is far more to understand and discover about me beyond the blue and orange I wear.” G. Allen, 2018

23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners

March 21 – April 4, 2018
Duderstadt Center Gallery
University of Michigan North Campus
2281 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor, MI 48109

The Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners is one of the largest exhibitions of art by incarcerated artists in the country. Each year, faculty, staff and students from the University of Michigan travel to correctional facilities across Michigan and select work for the exhibition while providing feedback and critique that strengthens artist’s work and builds community around making art inside prisons.

The 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners is supported by the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, University of Michigan Office of the Provost; College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; School of Music, Theatre & Dance; Stamps School of Art and Design; Residential College.

Events Calendar

Exhibition hours are 12pm-6pm Sunday and Monday; 10am-7pm Tuesday through Saturday. The gallery will be closed April 1.

Opening Events, 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners

Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Celebrate the opening day of the 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. Gallery opens at 10am. Sales begin at 6 pm. Opening Reception will begin at 7 pm, with guest speakers from the University of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Corrections, and artists from previous exhibitions.

Keene Theatre Performance with Friends from Brazil

Friday, March 23, 2018 from 7 to 8 pm
Keene Theatre, Residential College, East Quad
Join PCAP as we welcome visitors from the theatre departments of two universities in Brazil, UDESC in Florianópolis and UniRio in Rio de Janeiro. Students and faculty from both universities host a group of PCAP students and Prof. Ashley Lucas each summer as part of our ongoing exchange program. Our friends from Brazil will perform various short pieces of theatre, dance, and music in the Keene Theatre as a way to share some of their phenomenal performance work with us.

Artists’ Panel, 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners

Sunday, March 25, 2018, 11am – 12:30pm
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Artists from previous Prison Creative Arts Project exhibitions share their stories and answer questions about life as a prison artist in this informal panel discussion, moderated by Professor Emerita Janie Paul.

The 10th Anniversary Edition, Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing Volume 10, Ann Arbor Reading

Sunday, March 25, 2018, 4pm – 6pm
East Room, near the Duderstadt Gallery – North Campus
Hear selections from this year’s 10th anniversary special edition, read by family and friends of contributing authors. Books will be for sale. Cosponsored by LSA Residential College, LSA Department of English Language and Literature, and the Jackson Social Justice Fund of Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Ann Arbor
PCAP’s Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing seeks to showcase the talent and diversity of Michigan’s incarcerated writers. The review features writing from both beginning and experienced writers – writing that comes from the heart, and that is unique, well-crafted, and lively.

Maine Inside Out Performance

Wednesday, March 28, 2018, 6:30-8pm
Keene Theatre, Residential College, East Quad, Room B-141
Maine Inside Out (MIO) artists facilitate the creation of original theatre to engage the community in dialogue about issues related to incarceration. Chiara Libertore, one of Professor Emeritus William “Buzz” Alexander’s first students (LSA English Language and Literature) in what would become the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), co-founded the MIO non-profit in 2007. MIO provides year round voluntary theatre workshops for more than half of the young people at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, Maine. Its reintegration program for newly-released Maine Inside Out participants includes weekly community groups, mentoring, and transitional employment opportunities for youth in three Maine communities that incarcerate the highest number of young people.
MIO’s transformative justice curriculum includes a new original production created by young adult artists debuting in 2017. Join us for a public performance and dialogue in the Residential College’s Keene Theatre.

Keynote: “Voices from the Abyss: Twenty Years of Journalism with the Angolite Magazine,” Kerry Myers

Thursday, March 29, 2018, 7pm-9pm
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Kerry Myers grew up in a small town suburb of New Orleans. He holds a B.A. in Communications and Journalism. In 1990, he was sentenced to life without parole. Kerry served his time in the Louisiana State
Penitentiary, know famously as Angola. In 1996, Wilbert Rideau, the incarcerated editor of the prison’s news magazine The Angolite, recruited Myers to write for the publication. In June 2001, when Rideau left prison, Myers became only the second editor of The Angolite in the previous 25 years. Under his guidance, the magazine reported on the death penalty with a depth and clarity that was recognized with the Thurgood Marshall Journalism Award in 2007, the first of many honors and awards.
Taking on subjects like human trafficking, juvenile life without parole, aging, Alzheimer’s and dementia in prison, sentencing, pardons and parole policy and more, Myers guided the magazine as it became a resource for many top criminal justice and law programs in the US. In 2011 and 2012, Myers wrote a critically acclaimed series on the history of women in the Louisiana penal system, from Pre-Civil War to the present. In December 2016, Governor John Bel Edwards signed Myer’s second unanimous commutation of sentence, recommended by the Board of Pardons and Parole. Since that time, Myers has been working as a free-lance journalist and photographer, and is active in criminal justice reform in Louisiana, leading a wave of change in the state.

Michigan Art for Justice Forum

Tuesday, April 3, 2018, 9am-5pm in the Rogel Ballrom, Michigan Union
Reception 5:30-7pm in Duderstadt Center Gallery
In partnership with the California Lawyers for the Arts, Shakespeare Behind Bars, Creative Many, and the Art for Justice Fund, we are hosting the Michigan Art for Justice Forum. This all-day symposium will bring together lawmakers, artists, scholars, and formerly incarcerated people to discuss the necessity of arts programming in the criminal justice system. This forum is part of series of six forums happening in six states: Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York, and California. For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org. Reception to follow, featuring a performance by Wayne Kramer.

Artwork Pickup, 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners

Wednesday, April 4, 2018, 6pm-8pm
Thursday, April 5, 2018, 10am-4pm
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Please bring your proof of purchase or your letter from PCAP if the work was not for sale. Volunteers will be available to help locate and package your artwork. Artwork selected for the Award Winners and Selected Work exhibit will be available in July. Art is not available for sale during artwork pickup times.

All events are free. No ticket required.

In My (Our) Shoes

By Mary Walle

About the guest blogger: Mary Walle is a Senior at the University of Michigan studying History. She’s been involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project since January 2012. Through PCAP Mary has participated in three theater workshops and performed in four original plays, one with the young men at Wolverine Human Services and three with two groups of men at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility. Their final production was February 7. Mary continues to work with PCAP but is not currently participating in any workshops in order to focus on her Senior Thesis Project on the Sanctuary Movement in Detroit. She dedicates her thesis to the men she worked with at Gus Harrison. 

I was always conscious of my clothing going inside nearly every week of this past year. Wear something baggy to cover my form. Make sure I have socks. (One time, I wore sandals and panicked in the parking lot. Thankfully, I was let in.) Definitely wear a bra. Nothing ‘revealing’ or ‘suggestive.’ Suggestive of what? That I am a woman in a men’s facility? Turns out that’s pretty hard to hide. And the catcalls made it clear that everyone has eyes and no baggy sweater can hide: I’m a woman inside.

I walked inside Gus Harrison Correctional Facility every week for a year. For a year I’ve been part of two successive theatre workshops. For a year I have walked inside Thursday evenings at 7pm and left at 8:30pm. Yesterday I walked out for the last time.

I was purposeful with what I wore. My shirt and pants as unattractive as I could manage. But I was also purposeful to wear something that might share some of myself without a need to exchange words. Shoes. Shoes tell something about a person. Inside and outside but perhaps they can tell a particularly important story inside.

Danny wears plain black shoes, always covered in dirt and dust. He’s a gardener. He tends and manages immense gardens, cultivating greenhouses of poinsettias and more. 5.7 always had meticulously shined shoes. They were beautiful and spoke to me of self-respect and pride.

Glover-Bey mostly wore brown boots that didn’t look like they were made for actually working in. On occasion though he wore white high tops with a glossy sheen. The day of our play he wore the high tops. They took his hunched form across the back forty. White shoes against blacktop. We walked from different points to the same destination unable to acknowledge each other on that barren blacktop, but our shoes took us to the same place. A place, if only for a moment, where we could.

My shoes too said something about me when I wasn’t allowed to say much about me.

I first always wore my Birkenstocks. I got them in eighth grade. It’s a big deal in my family to get Birkenstocks, a right of passage if you will. I wore them for ease. Easy to slide off and on in the bubble. Then I branched out one week, I’m not sure why.

I’m not sure if it was at first conscious or not that I changed my shoes. One thing I could, with some freedom, change to mix up the monotony of baggy sweaters and those same jeans. My own prison uniform. I think it was the converses next: one red pair, one with a colorful pattern. Two of my favorite shoes. I bought them in high school. The red ones are worn down, beaten by my plodding feet which hustled through the hallways and campus walkways, up many flights of stairs, through puddles and slush.

Now they carried me through the prison yard, a place my high school self would never have expected to be.

I love my red shoes. I once wrote a poem about them. The others are fresher. I’ve taken better care to not beat them up so badly and maintain that crisp new shoe look. One week I must have felt particularly feisty and I wore dark green shoes that had bright green spiky bottoms. Ricky commented, “What shoes are you wearing? I’m down with the chucks but what are those?” They’re another side of me. The spunky, wacky, stand out, side. I didn’t say this but maybe my shoes did for me.

Shoes can be controlled in a mostly uncontrollable place. They say something about a person. I didn’t notice everyone’s shoes. Most were of a uniform variety, black and simple, scuffed and broken to various degrees. Most I suppose blended with the uniform I became so accustomed to seeing that sometimes I didn’t see it at all. Except when my purple jacket laid next to a set of their same blue and orange jackets.

But some shoes stood out. I felt were prided or told a particular story. Some I could infer others still a mystery, much like the men I knew.

In a way shoes inside are just the same as outside where people wear all sorts of shoes to “express themselves” and also just practically for different reasons. When so many forms of expression are denied a person, when everyone wears ‘prison blues’ with the orange stripe across their back, down their pants, and an orange hat so bright it hurts to look at, I imagine shoes begin to mean something more. Any show of difference would. It’s so natural, so human to want to be different, special, unique.

I wish my shoes and Glover-Bey and Danny’s shoes could talk. They might speak of everywhere they’ve been with me and them, of when they were bought and why. So much of what needs to be said can’t be said inside. So much of what is said is not spoken at all. It’s said through body language and eyes. I look into a man’s eyes and my eyes are saying with all I am “I see you.” Do you see me? Just as I am. Incomplete and imperfect but I come. Every week I came. I saw you and you saw me. We knew each others shoes.

I don’t know what shoes mean inside. I can only imagine, as I can only imagine what it means to live, be, and survive in there. You don’t hear their voices or see their shoes except through the mediation of my eyes and voice. I wish you could.

NATION’S LARGEST EXHIBTION OF PRISON ART CELEBRATES 15 YEARS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN

PCAP Artwork - Ket Painting
Title: Why my baby? Artist: dara ket

ANN ARBOR, MI – The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) presents the Fifteenth Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners.  Running from March 23 – April 7, 2010, the show will be held at the Duderstadt Center Gallery on the University of Michigan North Campus at 2281 Bonisteel Boulevard.  Over the past 15 years, this nationally recognized show has grown to be the largest exhibition of prisoner art in the country.  This year’s exhibition will include more than 300 works of art by over 200 artists, shedding light on the talents to be found behind prison walls and encouraging the public to take a second look.

Free and open to the public, the exhibition and surrounding educational events raise awareness and inspire dialogue between the incarcerated and the community at large. The public is invited to an opening reception on March 23th from 5:30 – 8 p.m. in the gallery.  University of Michigan Provost Theresa Sullivan will join the curators of the exhibition along with the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, Patricia Caruso in addressing the gallery. Formerly incarcerated artists who have now re-entered into the community will also speak about what the show means to those in prison.

Participating artists express gratitude to organizers and gallery visitors alike, stressing the show’s impact on their lives and the community at large.  “I believe that your program gives the public a glimpse into the type of things that inspire even the most downtrodden of us all” writes one artist. “When people see our work, for a few moments, they forget that this work was done by a felon, but by another human being.  A human being who has the same thoughts, emotions, and inspirations as they do, and for that one moment, a major social and political barrier is shattered.”

Despite limited resources, exhibition artists create work in a rich range of styles, mediums, and themes.  This year artists have also been asked to address the current economic situation in the state of Michigan visually if they so choose. Visitors return to the show year after year to glimpse art that is remarkable for its originality, beauty, and sheer expressive power.  Last year, over 4,000 people came to the exhibit.  Organizers expect even higher attendance this year and an exciting array of new work.

This year’s exhibition, curated by Professors Buzz Alexander, Janie Paul, and Jason Wright, exhibits work from over forty prisons throughout the state.  The curators, PCAP Administrators Lashaun phoenix Moore, and Sari Adelson, along with various volunteers travel to these prisons to hand select the strongest work from the artists. As a result of this annual event, the amount of art created in Michigan prisons has increased dramatically, and Michigan prison artists have become national leaders, inspiring others to create art behind bars.

The Prison Creative Arts Project will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in conjunction with the 15th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners.   A symposium will be held at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus with a Keynote address being delivered by Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project on March 26, 2010. Fellow practioners, Judith Tannebaum, Phyllis Kornfeld, Leslie Neal, and others, along with PCAP associates will hold panel discussions throughout the day on Saturday, March 27, 2010.

The exhibition is to be accompanied by the release of the 2nd Annual Literary Review of Creative Writing by Michigan Prisoners, readings of works from the publication by formerly incarcerated individuals are set to take place both in Ann Arbor and in the Detroit area, a screening of the film “Concrete, Steel, and Paint” and dialog with filmmakers will be held at the Michigan Theater, Natalie Holbrook from the American Friends Service Committee will address issues of Health Care inside Michigan’s Prisons, youth from Detroit will join us for a dialog about what’s on their minds, as they speak about their lives and their communities.  For full listing of events please click here.

Exhibition hours are 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday, and 12 p.m. – 6 p.m. Sunday – Monday.

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For more information: call 734-647-7673, email prisonart@umich.edu, or visit www.prisonarts.org
Watch a brief preview of the PBS documentary “Acts of Art: The Prison Creative Arts Project” here: http://www.michigantelevision.org/

Sean Case: from Ojibway Correctional Facility in Michigan

I’ve always needed to write – to think out loud across the page, agonize over the smallest turn of a phrase, edit the same stanza over and over until I’ve come as close as I can to perfection or abandoned it in favor of some fresher verse. But it wasn’t until my incarceration that I developed the corresponding need to be heard. Whereas before I was content with private journaling, with English as catharsis, now I required an audience, an energy to bounce my ideas off of. At the bottom of the social casserole, I suddenly needed assurance that I was worth something – on paper, at least.

So I met with fellow poets on the yard to share our prose aloud. I sought out prison creative writing programs and worked to start them where none existed. I found publication for my own writing and that of my peers. With the assistance of people like Buzz Alexander, Suzanne Gothard, Eric Gadzinski, Judith Tannenbaum, and others directly or indirectly involved with Michigan’s PCAP, I learned methods not only to refine my own writing, but also to help others improve their own.

Through forums created by prison arts programs (and a few willing publishers), I’ve been able to remain a part of the reality outside these fences by sharing my view from within them, and that connection has enabled – more than any other aspect of this experience – my development into a socially-mindful (I hope) human being.

Listen to an essay of Sean here.