Teaching Artist Spotlight: William Head on Stage (WHoS)

We recently talked with Kathleen Greenfield (they/them, she/her), Kate Rubin (she/her), and Emma Zabloski (she/her), our newest additions to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. In addition to their work with the Justice Arts Coalition, they are also teaching artists and theatrical collaborators with William Head on Stage (WHoS) at William Head Institution in Victoria, BC.


William Head on Stage Theatre Society (WHoS): 

WHoS is the only prisoner-run prison theatre company in all of North America that invites the public into a federal institution to experience their shows.  WHoS has been creating shows for the public for the last 39 years at William Head Institution, which you will find tucked away on the windy coast in the forests of Metchosin, a 35-minute drive from Victoria, BC.   Members of the public may buy a ticket, enter through prison security to the prison gymnasium theatre and watch the fall play performed by the prisoners.

SNAFU Society of Unexpected Spectacles:

SNAFU has been collaborating with WHoS since 2010 and has co-produced 5 productions in the past decade.  SNAFU artists create live theatre, puppet theatre, and dance theatre, based in Victoria, BC and touring across Canada to theatres and festivals.  SNAFU is led by artists Kathleen Greenfield and Ingrid Hansen, who also teach speciality workshops in theatre, puppetry, playbuilding, viewpoints, and physical comedy.


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

Kate Rubin: I had been working in the Greater Victoria area as a professional teaching theatre artist and always was interested in social justice issues and had worked on numerous projects over the years with other populations. I had heard about the work at WHoS from my colleagues and was curious and interested to be involved in some way. I was cast along with 2 other women for Macbeth in 2006 and have been involved with WHoS for the past 15 years in capacity as a performer, director, writer, facilitator, mentor and have helped launch initiatives within the prison like the Q & A, the first WHoS symposium, building a larger network of teaching artists, a screening and interview process for teaching artists wanting to work with WHoS, and general support of the men and the company in various ways that present themselves. I have spoken at a couple of conferences now about WHoS and am passionate about sharing the 40 year legacy of WHoS. 

Kathleen Greenfield: I went to see my first WHoS play when I was still a student at the University of Victoria in 2004. Over the years, many of my colleagues were hired to either direct, perform or design shows with WHoS and I would attend but my focus is on creating new work, and WHoS was working with classic published plays.

In 2010, I went to see CHALK which was devised and directed by my (new at the time) creative partner, Ingrid Hansen. This show blew my mind for all of its creativity. The entire show was non-verbal, movement-based and created from the stories of the incarcerated participants, but I wanted to make sure that I was confident enough with my boundaries and wise enough to share some skills before I stepped into the Justice Arts world.

In 2013, I was at the point in my career where I finally felt ready to devote my  time to a WHoS production. I was really inspired by the creation and storytelling work that the company was starting to produce with CHALK and Fractured Fables: A Prison Puppet Project. In 2014, after participating in some skills-building workshops to get my feet wet, I collaborated with Kate Rubin to write (and perform in) Time Waits for No One in 2014. I have since Directed two new plays, performed in three and collaborated in writing the five new scripts. SNAFU Society of Unexpected Spectacles has co-produced 5 plays with the WHOS board of directors since 2010. 

Emma Zabloski: I have always been interested in art-making that is rooted in community building and co-creation of experience.  My first experience with WHoS was going to see the production CHALK in 2010.  This was my first encounter with the prison system and it was an incredibly humanizing and humbling experience.  I was invited to join the artist team as a performer and facilitator by Kathleen Greenfield for the 2016 show, Sleeping Giants.  The experience was transformative and opened my heart to the power of art in carceral contexts.  Although I now live in Toronto, I have travelled back to facilitate movement and choreography sessions with the program and was slated to direct this year’s fall production, but… you know, Covid.  Since being in Toronto, I have also facilitated theatre workshops at a new drama program at Grand Valley Institution for Women.  These experiences inspired me to pursue social work studies, and I now have an MSW degree.  Moving forward, I am excited to continue exploring the intersections between art, social justice, and healing.

WHoS, Prison Puppet Project, 2013 - Photo By Jam Hamidi
WHoS, Prison Puppet Project, 2013 – Photo By Jam Hamidi

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

KG: I feel that one of the most unique characteristics of WHoS is the fact that it is not a program that is regulated by Correctional Service Canada (CSC). It is a not-for-profit society run by a board of directors that are all incarcerated at William Head.  The WHoS board of incarcerated participants get a chance to develop or practice skills in production and project management and liaise with the outside artists, hiring us directly. It is also unique because we get to bring outside audiences  inside the institution to experience the performance.  And these are FULL PRODUCTIONS with sound, lights, costumes, and a set all built by incarcerated folks. 

KR: WHoS has been an organic creation, initiated and led by many people inside and out for the past 40 years and has had a very unique and varied life of its own. It is valued highly by the men involved (past and present), the larger community, and by many people in both the arts and corrections and social justice worlds. It has remained alive through different political and social upheavals and challenges, and every warden so far has seen the value in the men continuing to run and keep this company going. In the past 10 years, we have been mostly devising original work with the men and building the capacity of the company,  in the hope of providing more opportunity for the men inside to engage in all the aspects of building a show.  We are also building the capacity of those of us working in this field through trainings, workshops, discussions, forums, and building our own form of creative activism within the institutional systems that we work. 

WHoS Rehearsal Photo 1- The Crossroads, 2018 - Photo by Ingrid Hansen
WHoS Rehearsal Photo – The Crossroads, 2018 – Photo by Ingrid Hansen

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

EZ: I am grateful for the openings.  Where I get to witness residents take creative risks and step into their vulnerability.  Where unlikely connections and relationships are made.  Where I am constantly being surprised and having my assumptions challenged.  And where we get to collectively resist an oppressive system through the power of making art.

KG: I like the parts where I get to listen and then accept stories that I hear as little gifts. I like to collect these gifts and mush them all together into a collective story, puzzling the pieces  into one cohesive performance. I love discovering participants’  secret talents that maybe someone told them they weren’t good at as a kid. I like to keep an eye out when we are playing drama games, freewriting, singing songs or dancing  to see what gifts people don’t even know they have, and then push them just hard enough to feel confident to share it with each other and eventually an audience. I find this process to be very organic and something hard to teach to other facilitators … like it is my own special skill. 

KR:

  •  Seeing the effects this work has on an individual, be it a momentary delight or release, a small behavioral change, or a complete lifestyle change where an individual may never reoffend
  • Watching the delight and freedom of expression that comes in the moment to moment creative work and seeing the confidence of everyone involved grow as we build the play and then perform in front of many audiences over 5 weeks
  • Witnessing the moments of discovery and mutual understanding that can develop between the men and audience members in the 20-minute Q & A period after the show
  • Experiencing and learning about different cultures represented by the men in jail, including a large Indigenous population. In Canada, there is a high proportion of  Indigneous peoples in federal and provincial institutions representing the racial intolerance, inequity and racist beginnings of our county .  We have felt inspired to help create a dialogue about tolerance and inclusivity within the WHoS cohort.
  • Helping to build understanding and tolerance within the institution (staff and security) about the work we do with the men

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?

KG: For almost 40 years, we have produced a large-scale production of with up to 30 incarcerated cast members and roughly 2000 public audience members over 5 weeks  in a converted gymnasium.  This will be the first time in 39 years where we will not present a play in the fall. We spend almost half the year writing, improvising, workshopping, choreographing and supporting the incarcerated men. This year, we will not be allowed into William Head until maybe November (but most likely January) and so we will not be able to develop the  bond that theatre inevitably creates.

BUT…we are working on the logistics of an Audio Project that we can share with a larger network of Prison Artists and Teaching Artists. We are also keeping Inside Artists engaged with the WHoS Great Creative Exchange.

When Covid [COVID-19] hit and theaters closed, SNAFU was offered an opportunity to be part of a socially-distanced live-theatre festival called SKAMpede. With a bit of funding, we were able to pay two returned citizens to perform alongside two teaching artists. It has been part of our mission for a while now to form an outside performance troupe to support Returned Citizens in the community. Now we have concentrated time to envision what an outside performance troupe would look like, and how we can carry out projects that might provide some financial support when jobs are hard to find. Our first performance was a success and we are so excited to see where these small performances in the community will take us.

EZ: Through Covid, we have been working hard to stay connected and offer SOMETHING to residents to help shake the Covid blues.  We have heard from residents that morale is low and tensions are high inside the institution right now.  Residents’ lives are even more restricted than normal with less contact and access to programs.

As artists, we  would normally be at William Head offering weekly creative workshops.  In lieu of this, we  have been developing a Creative Exchange program over the past couple of months,  which  finally launched mid-August!  We are hoping this project will help us stay connected while providing a creative outlet for residents.  Creative prompts (writing and visual art exercises) will be sent to inside and outside artists every two weeks.  We will then swap our artwork with each other and share our thoughts through writing.  We are incredibly lucky to have a program officer and WHoS board members at the institution to help facilitate the process.  We have been able to stay connected through email and phone meetings once or twice a month and collaborate on adapting  our workshops and theatre production this year.

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WHoS 2019 The Emerald City Project – Promo Project – Photo by Sam Redmond

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?

KR:

  • We have not been able to get inside the prison since the beginning of March.
  • We have had very minimal connection with the men we know through some phone calls and no connection to any potential new residents interested in joining WHoS.
  • The institution staff have had hours cut back and the men at William Head Institution are also very limited in having any extracurricular activity.
  • Our production work with the men this year would have had us in the prison once a week through the spring and then starting in mid June, we would normally be going in 2-3 times a week to devise the fall play.  By mid August,  we would be inside 4x a week, have a script drafted, and would be rehearsing and building sets, costumes, lighting,etc. 
  • Not being able to work with the men and develop a team means that we are relying on one WHoS board member and a staff member to convey anything we want to impart about possible creative ventures during Covid. 
  • The chances for exclusion are high because we can’t guarantee that all communities within the institution are being reached and we have no real way of addressing that from the outside.
  • Any networking with colleagues is mainly done by Zoom calls and these can be challenging, especially in large groups, although they at least provide some connection and support

KG: It’s challenging to not have a chance to communicate with our WHoS participants face- to-face. To try to organize and  facilitate drama workshops without direct contact with participants makes you realize how important body language, facial expressions, and inflection are when we are creating theatre. A lot of anxieties come up when we encourage participants to be vulnerable with us and with each other. When we are not present to respond to vulnerable moments and realizations, it can be discouraging. We have an “everyone welcome” policy in our workshop spaces, but it is difficult to ensure that the group is not being divided by race, faith, class or status within the prison when we are not in the space.  It is challenging to not be inside, actively ensuring that everyone is being welcomed to participate in our Creative Exchange Project.  So much of our work is “lead by example.”

WHoS Rehearsal Photo 2 - The Crossroads, 2018 - Photo by Ingrid Hansen
WHoS Rehearsal Photo – The Crossroads, 2018 – Photo by Ingrid Hansen

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

EZ: Luckily, there has not been a Covid outbreak at William Head.  The institution is starting to talk about what opening up to volunteers and teaching artists again might look like.  We don’t anticipate being able to enter the institution until October or November at the earliest.  There will no doubt  be strict institutional procedures in place when this does happen, but I think it is also  important to keep having the conversation as a team and consider what the risks are for residents.  We have also heard from the institution that they are exploring the idea of video conferencing as a teaching platform, which is new (and exciting!) territory.   

KR:

  • Strong checks and balances allowing people into the institution 
  • Temperatures taken
  • Covid testing 
  • Masks worn 
  • Hand washing 
  • 2 metre distancing. *We would normally go into the prison with as many as 12 outside artists at a time when we are working on a production.  Now, we will most likely begin with  2 teaching artists at a time. I say two because I think we still need to support each other in the work as teaching artists, and it is also important that the men have the option to creatively connect with different teaching artists.  The population at William Head is currently divided up into three bubbles.  So one idea would be to work with men that are already in a bubble together, meaning that teaching artists would just need to keep the 2 meter distance and participants can be freed up in their theatre work with each other. 
  • Not work with any immune compromised or extremely vulnerable men * Some kind of screening potentially to make that decision

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?

KG: I really like the hands-on workshops with smaller groups that connect Teaching Artists in a practical way. I learn so much more from others through working than I do with talking.

KR: It needs to include:

  • Dialogue and exchange amongst people working with incarcerated individuals,  like the Wednesday JAC meetings
  • Linking people to different programs and institutions through the database and JAC email stream 
  • Support with creating and building sustainable funding for the different work we all do
  • Online conferences and hopefully live conferences once there is a vaccine
  • Podcast 
  • Workshops 
  • Linking mentors with emerging teaching artists.

EZ: I really appreciate the opportunity to share curriculum and program ideas and successes with each other!

WHoS 2019 The Emerald City Project - Promo Project 1 - Photo by Sam Redmond birds 0
WHoS 2019 The Emerald City Project – Promo Project – Photo by Sam Redmond

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?

KR: Given a global pause unlike anything before, I hope we can take the time to reevaluate and make the beginning changes necessary to shift how incarcerated people are treated, and in particular to validate the transformative power of the arts to help build esteem, understanding, tolerance and many basic skills sets.

EZ: I am really hoping that the cracks in our systems have been revealed to the point where it will be unacceptable to “return to normal”.   It is hard to ignore racial injustices right now because protests and calls to action are happening on such a large scale.  We are seeing it in the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, in calls to defund the police, in conversations about abolishing prisons.  Structural changes of this amplitude take time.  But I do hope that folks are taking this opportunity to at least imagine what an alternative landscape might look like.

As for our artist team, I hope that we can continue to grapple with the injustices of structural racism and systemic oppression, and critically examine what our roles are in the carceral space.  Art can be an incredibly powerful tool for collectively and critically exploring issues, and for bridging divides between different groups.

KG: I really do believe that WHoS (and the structure of how WHoS operates) will weather this storm and produce a wonderful new project for their 40th Anniversary. I already have members of the public emailing to find out more about what WHoS has planning for this year and the next. It is very difficult, at this time, to see how the recent period of protest has affected the population of William Head, but it has been on my mind in every short phone conversation I have had with our staff liaison and with the leader of the WHoS group. 

Racist behaviours and power imbalances that I have witnessed working inside of William Head have always been subtle. When I have no way to engage with the marginalized groups inside, it becomes very difficult to shed light on microaggressions that are, for sure, happening. When we are finally able to meet again, I would like to start off with creating a contract with the men, identifying some of the micro-aggressions that take place and challenging us all to “be better”, instead of reporting micro-aggressions to the Prison Administration as I think this would just lead to a cycle of policy, punishment and defensive responses from WHoS’ leadership. 

WHoS, Prison Gym turned Theatre,Time Waits for No One 2014, Photo By Jam Hamidijpg
WHoS, Prison Gym turned Theatre, Time Waits for No One 2014 – Photo by Jam Hamidi

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

KR: I had heard of JAC through some colleagues and had seen its acronym through the California Corrections conference, and had been curious about it.  A colleague told me she had just joined the Wednesday group in early April and I joined up given a need for connection to others doing this work.  We are in the midst of planning a second conference symposium and it seemed like a great thing to do at this time of Covid to connect up with others who do similar work. I told other members in the WHoS team and a number have joined up including Kathleen and Emma.

KG: Right before COVID struck in March, I had reached out to a small collective of WHoS facilitators to discuss the idea of organizing a networking event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of WHoS and also host a convergence of Justice Arts practitioners from all over the world to share skills, practices and experiences. Come on, don’t you all want to come visit us in the most beautiful place on earth?

We started weekly meetings to discuss what this event would look like and what networks already existed to help make this event a reality. It still might be a huge risk to plan a large-scale in-person conference for November of 2021 based on what governments are saying about travel restrictions, but maybe in 2022? We are still doing all sorts of fun work archiving 40 years of history, collecting stories of WHoS alumni and past teaching artists.  BUT, one of the most exciting outcomes of our collective meetings has been connecting with the JAC network and learning about all of the work that Teaching Artists are doing to ensure that justice arts folks remain connected

EZ: I was invited to join JAC by other members of WHoS.  It has been exciting and inspiring to tap into such a large network of prison artists. I had no idea this existed!  Since JAC is mostly U.S. based, there are some contextual differences for us as Canadians.  But it has nonetheless been an incredible resource.   I have joined the JAC Podcast team as a core organizer.  Through this, I am learning so much about conceptualizing and planning digital projects, including receiving mentorship from a podcast producer.  These are all skills I plan to take back to William Head this fall/winter as we develop our own digital project with participants.

WHoS, Time Waits for No One, 2014 dance PHOTO by Jam Hamidi
WHoS, Time Waits for No One 2014, Dance – Photo by Jam Hamidi

Kathleen Greenfield (they/them, she/her)

Kathleen  lives and collaborates on the territories of the WSÁNEĆ, Lkwungen & Wyomilth people. As Co-Artistic Director of SNAFU, Kathleen has directed the premiere productions of Little Orange Man, Kitt & Jane and Interstellar Elder. In 2013, Kathleen joined the artistic team of William Head on Stage Prison Theatre as a performer, facilitator and writer. In 2019, Kathleen devised and directed The Emerald City Project, co-produced by SNAFU and WHOS.

Kate Rubin (sher/her)

Kate Rubin is an independent teaching theatre artist in Victoria, British Columbia and has worked over the past 30 years with many theatre companies and organizations as a performer, director, facilitator and coach. She initiated and ran her own theatre studio for 23 years and in the past 15 years has also worked in the capacity as a performer, director and teacher/mentor with William Head on Stage Theatre Company at William Head Federal Institution. 

Emma Zabloski (she/her)

Emma is a theatre creator, arts educator, and youth worker.  With her company Zopyra Theatre, she specializes in playful, site-specific, and interactive performance.  Emma is a facilitator and performer with prison theatre project William Head on Stage, and has delivered workshops with Theatre of the Beat at Grand Valley Institution for Women.  She recently completed her MSW degree from the University of Toronto.  Emma loves sewing clothes, dancing flamenco, and soaking up nature time!


For more information on WHoS and SNAFU, please visit:

William Head on Stage: https://whonstage.weebly.com

SNAFU Society of Unexpected Spectacles: https://www.snafudance.com

 

 

 

Coronavirus in Prison

This post will be updated with additional quotes and testimonials, as JAC receives further information from the incarcerated individuals within our network. If you have any details that might be relevant to this ongoing work, please contact info@thejusticeartscoalition.org.

michael p riley poem
“If any or all of us die,” Michael P. Riley
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” Real Talk,” Michael P. Riley

“Thankfully, we do not have a positive case here. Several staff have been exposed but the prison has done quite a good job at keeping contact with inmates to a minimum and at quarantine. Our meals are still hot and some of us still get to go to work, like me! I am definitely thankful for that. It is hard to get much of a workout in and things feel tight but otherwise, it is okay right now. 

Really, my thoughts are all on my brother right now, who some of yall know is incarcerated at FCI Seagoville. The virus is blowing up over there right now. 3 weeks ago they had zero cases, and now they have 488. They, like all federal prisons, are overcrowded and unprepared for this sort of thing. My sentiment is that if they can’t keep us safe… then they can’t keep us! And it looks like some congressmen and congresswomen are starting to agree, calling for the closure of the federal prisons. I expect that we’d go to our states then but the states are ahead of the feds in terms of prison reform with matters of sentences and probation and so forth. I am under no delusions, the BOP has pretty much just ignored the many attempts to reform and better the situation. First step, CARES act, heroes act and so forth. And now, by basically refusing to grant release to any significant portion of their population, they show that they would rather gamble with our lives and a pandemic than let anyone go. OKAY, that’s all the politics from me! My bro though, is on my mind at his prison but he’s healthy and doing his best to stay safe.”

– Joshua Earls | August 17, 2020

*****

“CORONA”

BLLEEEEEEAAAAAAPP…..
This is a public service announcement.
We are officially at war.
Extreme times — calls for extreme measures.
Therefore,
We are advising all citizens,
As a matter of life and death
To stay home, shelter-in-place,
Wash your hands,
And keep them out of your face.
Because the Invisible Killer from Wuhan,
Who cannot be negotiated with —
Is on the loose
And indiscriminately leaping
Like a wingless flea on a dog
From person to person
All around the globe,
Without a care in the world
If you didn’t already know.
—-
*Coughing sounds can be heard*
—-
19,19….
Is that you?
In that dry cough that I hear in the background?
Identify yourself.
Covid-19….tell me…is that you?
—-
Ssshhhhhhhh…..
Please don’t say my name too loud,
Because it’s now official,
The (W-H-O) is looking for me.
They have labeled me as a viral bandit.
In fact,
Due to my disregard to lungs, organs,
Kidneys, and human life,
I have the whole world
Now shook with panic
And on the lookout for me.
In just a short span of time
I grew from an epidemic, to a pandemic,
And now I’m a full-blown crisis.
The Chinese, Americans, Italians,
And Boris Johnson….
Will tell you without the debate —
I’m the number one Enemy of the State
And living proof of the philosophy
That states:
What effect one of us affect all of us.
—-
My grip on the world is so tight —
I paralyzed Easter and the Olympics,
Now ain’t that a sight…?
I made the Business World shake,
Turned Las Vegas into a ghost town,
Put Paris on lockdown,
And made Wall Street numbers fall down.
Now tell me,
If you don’t think my existence
Isn’t up against the clock.
Tick tick tock, tick tick tock.
—-
The reality is
1 million is already at harm.
Astronomical figures.
Somebody —
Sound the alarm.
We need ventilators and PPE.
People are dying,
We cannot meet the demands
Somebody — somebody —
Anybody.
Please help us.
Send us PPE.
And make it a matter of National Security.
If need be!
—-
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
People of all ages.
Symptoms or no symptoms.
Underlining conditions or not.
Y’all all at harm.
I’m the new norm.
And what you’re witnessing now
Is just the calm before the storm.
—-
6 feet of separation!
Social what!
Social who!
Social distancing.
Is that the best your leaders and the CDC
Can optimistically tell you to do?
To help flatten the curve,
Contain my outbreak,
And hinder what I’m about to do?
—-
They say art imitates life,
But this is not a movie.
The world have seen
Numerous examples of me before.
Have any of y’all read the Bible before???
You see,
Back then,
Microorganisms,
Plagues, and complex molecules
Like me — just wasn’t labeled as Wars.
But today…..
You over sophisticated fools
Labor my dire consequences — as a war.
When I’m only the new influenza
By another name.
Regardless of the factors,
I’m here and banging on Humanity’s door.
—-
BBBLLLEEEEEAAAAAPP…..
Again this is a public service announcement.
We are advising all citizens,
As a matter of life and death.
Stay home, shelter-in-place,
Wash your hands,
And keep them out of your face.
If you’re not taking heed
To these precautions
Then…….
You must already be dead,
Affected,
Or simply out of your mind!
—-
Corona.
—-
Written by Kenneth Reams,
In the wake of the virus,
© April 2020
SIGN THE PETITION ADVOCATING FOR KENNY’S RELEASE HERE!
*****
Screen Shot 2020-08-07 at 5.57.21 PM
Gary Farlow
*****
Screen Shot 2020-07-20 at 6.27.29 PM
Vince Vader
Screen Shot 2020-07-20 at 6.28.31 PM
Christian Trigg
Viral watercolor by Sam April 2020
Sam Loynachan
Sams Corona Virus Prose April 2020
Sam Loynachan
the miracle worker, joshua earls
“The Miracle Worker,” Joshua Earls

Josh Earls: “I wanted to paint something just to add my voice to so many others who are already expressing their love and gratitude for those medical professionals out there who are saving us all. Really, nothing makes you feel more helpless than when you see your loved ones in need and yet you are completely unable to do anything to help them. I don’t get to use my time in quarantine to add my hands to my father’s as he fixes up the house, or to pick up the things for my mother that she needs to make a trip to the store for. I can’t help prepare a meal for my sister who still has to work through this. I can only sit here. And most of all, if someone I care for is sick, I can only rely on these miracle workers to meet their needs and to make sure they are still “home” when I’m allowed to be there. So I just want to, for any who may be listening, say thanks to the good folks on the front lines. May the appreciation and gratitude of our nation point to them in this new paradigm we are moving into. As one who has all but had their voice taken from them by this punitive system, I’ll let my humble art be a voice.”

From correspondence with someone in a federal prison:

Testing is happening in rounds of 150 people per unit. After the first round, 12 people were removed from the unit and told their test was negative. The remaining 138 were left behind, and medical staff would not respond to questions about their status. After many hours of waiting in uncertainty and fear, a town hall was called by medical staff, who conveyed that if their names were not called they could safely assume that they’d tested positive, and that they’re “lucky because we are most likely asymptomatic and thus won’t be in much danger.” Staff went on to say that the BOP’s goal for the institution is “herd immunity,” with a goal of 80%+ infection rate so that everyone who can get the virus will have already gotten it.

“They are past the point of trying to prevent us from getting infected after only 3 weeks of isolation.”

Later that day, 12 more people were pulled out and told they were negative.

“After it being implied that we were positive, we are now even more confused. Maybe they just forgot to call my name? Perhaps they will call me at any minute and move me away. Everyone is frantic and nothing feels safe right now.”

2 days later:

The writer learned that there’d been another town hall on the other side of the unit. Staff told the people held there that they are best off remaining on the unit, refusing the test, staying in their own rooms, not having to move to the tents that have been erected for those who test negative, which would result in losing their property & access to commissary. They might as well “get a virus that we are going to get anyway”. So, many have refused tests.

“I have to wonder, do those people now get counted as positive cases, or since they were never tested does this facility get to hide their real numbers. Does that even matter when the whole plan is herd immunity? That the men who die in here, never knowing freedom again, do so at our governments plan does not sit well with me. I know so many of these people. They just don’t deserve that.”

For further information on the ongoing crisis in prisons, please explore this story from NPR.

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.

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.

 

Time Spent – Making Art in Prison

by Rebecca Kelly

People can start with what seems like an ever-renewable supply anger and despair. This emotional energy is sometimes the initial fuel for the creative act. But that energy may also prove kindling for a different kind of renewable energy, a positive drive. Something fresh and wonderful can be created from the dark place of rumination and frustration, giving back release to that individual and sending forward something positive into the world.

  • Art is restorative, an outlet, transformative
  • The act of creativity leads one on an engrossing adventure for the soul, the mind, the body
  • Esteem building – creating something that can be admired by peers and family and the outer world
  • Connections with the outside – valuable in forging a future
  • Validation of self worth, of productivity, of use of time
  • Gives value to time spent, creates a sense of productivity, value to a product, an understanding of sharing, a way of processing and telling oneself one’s story, a way of integrating and transforming  the personal story, a way to give
  • Passes time innocently and that brings a release
  • A new understanding of self emerges as creative output provides inspiration, self worth  even joy
  • Creativity brings to the mind solace, peace, intention, healing, and helps to organize time
  • Art is the re-creation of yesterday, inhabiting today and the making of tomorrows

Families who have a loved one in prison experience a thankfulness and an amazement by the growth of the “artist in prison.”

At first, it may be the pencil sketches on the backs of forms or random pieces of paper that come home. Then, the sheer inventiveness becomes apparent in the ideas, the way the individual creates paint and brushes – from juice, jam, from coffee, using toothbrushes. He creates when he can be in his cell alone – when others are at chow, or at night, or whenever he can find privacy. In the beginning it was intensely private. He only shared his work through the mail in letters home. But it is constant.

At first, the individual doesn’t know where to GO in prison – no place seems safe. Everyone seems to want to know about your business, and to rank you according to your past, where you are from, what you did, who you think you are now.

So there is the chapel, a community room, the sports option. There is administrative segregation (solitary).  But none of these feel safe for different reasons. How do you overcome the constant need for vigilance and the fear of being singled out or physically hurt?

There are long waiting lists for prison jobs. If one is fortunate to get a job, the daily routine keeps one relatively focused and safe for a period of many months. There are scant prison education programs. But with luck and persistence one might enroll in a 10-week group course in business, or cognitive behavior therapy workshop, and actually benefit. To note accomplishments in education or sports, the individual receives an achievement document, a citation. Congratulations, you passed the time and you did this! Families hungrily collect the awards and citations.

I began to search for a way to share his artwork with others – beyond the family. I looked for online galleries, made inquiries, visited prison art exhibits, in an attempt to make connections, to share his work with directors of these art organizations. I made an online slide show so his works could be seen more readily by friends and family. The effort itself was fascinating, encouraging, supportive. There are wonderful people on the outside engaged in projects – keeping track, looking in, drawing out, understanding…

Maybe he wasn’t ready to define himself as a person interested in art. Maybe he didn’t value or recognize his creative output. But his family DID. His extraordinary art efforts were already playing a healing role in the family, a relief from the despair and shock of what had happened. We were happy to share his work with friends. It is a beautiful, unique way to show his development in a wholly positive light, and to bring pride into our communications.

Only a year ago, he wrote in September, “I do like art, but I don’t really think it defines who I am.  I understand that everyone out there on the street only sees that part of me, but I mainly commit so much to art because that is the only constructive thing to do here that keeps me busy. To tell you the truth, painting, at times, has been pretty painful. I am not comfortable with being known as the inmate artist who suffers from a mental disability. How cliche.

And then, right after that – he discovered the art room. Who goes there?

It was his 5th year in prison, and it had been a particularly rough year of unfortunate events far beyond his control. He marveled that he hadn’t known about the art room earlier. Perhaps he couldn’t imagine in prison – that there would even exist such a “free” place as the art room. Yet, in his prison, there are actually two art rooms.

He has had to learn to respect and accept his own “drive,” and his ability. Many artists in many fields, whether it is theater, dance, music or art, struggle with that. He has always been pragmatic about his creative output. When he speaks of it, he focuses more on the technical explorations and achievements, than on the “meaning” or the effect on the viewer, or even his own creative intention. But outside feedback has played a vital role in validation, and has contributed to his development and persistence.

Now, his work can be seen in wonderful online galleries (Prison Arts Coalition PAC, and The Confined Arts, Isaac’s Quarterly) and in an online slide show of recent works. His watercolors have been used “on the street” by Solitary Watch (national), and as a menu cover design for Edwins Restaurant, (Cincinnati, OH). It continues to be a fascinating journey to observe how he expresses repeating themes in his works over the years (eg. a tree), and how he diligently teaches himself new techniques in watercolor, charcoal, multi-media. His knowledge and tools have come a long way from the lemonade and coffee painted flowers.

Today he is teaching a 12-week course in watercolor technique. He encourages other artists-mates to send works to online galleries. He has found a group of supportive, like-minded creative individuals who encourage and challenge each other to grow as artists. He has found a path he can travel, and he is bringing others with him along the way.

 

About this guest contributor:

Rebecca Kelly, daughter of a career diplomat, grew up in London, England, Khartoum, Sudan, and Washington, DC.  She trained at the School of Washington Ballet.  She holds a BA in Oriental Religion from Bryn Mawr College.  She is the Artistic Director and Choreographer for Rebecca Kelly Ballet. She lives with her husband in New York City and in the Adirondack Mountains.