The Other America

by Christian Trigg

I rarely miss a dawn. I missed 20 years worth at the federal supermax so I have an outsized appreciation for all sorts of things many others take for granted. My cell window at the federal penitentiary in Beaumont, TX faces east. I watch the summer sun touch fire to the horizon behind distant oil refineries beyond the sand colored walls and gun towers. It is still beautiful to me.

This hive of unfortunates doesn’t bustle with activity. There is little buzz in the year of covid. They bring breakfasts on styrofoam tray’s called clamshells, a train of carts crossing the compound to bring cold congealed oatmeal and tasteless little donuts that inexplicably someone in America is being paid to make. They put 2 pints of cold milk in plastic bags and a banana or unsweetened applesauce in the tray. It jostles around so everything is coated with slimy oatmeal or applesauce. 130 something prisons generate an inconceivable amount of plastic trash. The machine of those incarceration is not operated by people concerned with the environment. These carts of tray’s make their run to cell blocks 3 times a day so we get all our meals delivered to our cells, a cold, soupy mixed up mess. The quantity of food is minimal! Grown men existing on, for example, 1 cold hamburger, a 130 calorie bag of potato chips plain, all with a light coating of applesauce of course. The trash piles up somewhere I imagine. The bureau of prisons doing the best they can.

At 6:30 am they may begin letting us get out of cells. 5 cells at a time. We get one hour to make one 10 minute call, use 15 minutes to email, and shower. Of course if you are housed in the east but are from the west coast and you come out at 6:30 am, the time difference can leave you at a loss for using the phone. The irony in this is that because of the pandemic the B.O.P cancelled all visiting and put us on “modified” lockdown. We are all worried about loved ones in this time of crisis. Being fathers, brothers and sons made powerless to help them by out incineration only adds to our plight. Because of this the prison system afforded us 500 minutes of no cost phone time per month during the crisis. The irony is that if we all only get one ten minute call per day, we can’t even use the 500 minutes. It looks good on paper. Just like the stipulation in the first step act signed into law in 2018 that mandates we be housed within 500 miles of our families. It’s just paper.

They have the technology to implement video visiting. It already exists in some federal prisons. There are countries issuing prisoners cell phones. I often ask myself why is America like this. Why are there so many people, millions of people in prisons that are fixated on implementing the harshest regime possible upon them. This should be said is you system. It operates in your name carrying your will with your dollars.

We’ve been locked in our small cell for 23 hours a day for 3 months now. We have limited access to the commissary. We cannot purchase art supplies. We have no programming activities really. Some cells have a view of the T.V. that hang on posts outside the cells unlike those state prisons where prisoners can purchase T.V.s and tablets for their cells.

Thus we endure as best we can each in his own way. Stagnating or stewing as we go from sunrise to sunrise in the other america.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

About the guest contributor:

“My wildlife art is my story of redemption. My desire is to demonstrate respect, compassion and love can thrive in the darkest of places…Each painting captures the animal in its authentic habitat.

I am self-taught. I have never taken a lesson. I use wildlife photography from magazines and books for my source.

I do my paintings on the floor of my cell. I am not allowed an easel, high quality paper or any medium but chalk pastels. I use my thumb to blend and soften the background. Each painting takes many hours of layering colors to highlight depth and light.”

-Christian Trigg

Guest post: Ronald McKeithen

angel and slaves
Ronald McKeithen

Jefferson County Memorial Project

by Ronald McKeithen

When the realization of having to serve an agonizingly slow death sentence of life without the possibility of parole finally hit home, the pursuit of education became a mild sedative for hopelessness and despair, and the classroom a haven from the constant chaos of prison life.  Over the decades I’ve taken more courses than I can recall, yet only a few were able to tap into potential within me that were laying dormant and awaken a sense of worth that I had never experienced and changed how I viewed myself as a Black man as opposed to how the world viewed me.

For five years I’ve been a part of a class that addressed specific public health issues within the Alabama prison system and the health illiteracy that has played a major part in the cause of most of these ailments. Each of us was assigned a health condition, researched it and created a dialogue surrounding a character which revealed the struggles he endures to manage it while serving time, then combined the dialogue into a podcast drama – a process that none of us had any experience in doing. We named it “Corrections”.

Because of the material we produced and the attention it generated, we were approached by Abigail Schneider, director of the Jefferson County Memorial Project, and asked if we would be interested in contributing our thoughts through essays, poetry and art on slavery, lynching and mass incarceration. Ninety five percent of the class are Black, serving a LWOP sentence and have served over a decade. We were eager to participate. But when our group discussions turned from health conditions in prison to the barbaric treatment Blacks have suffered, a mist of sadness and sorrow began to drift among us as we pulled scabs off wounds while sharing our encounters with racism and the justice system. None of us had actually seen a lynched man, other than the occasional suicide by hanging within a prison cell, but we have seen the picture of black men being lynched and roasted alive as white mobs gleefully watched, and have the description of how Black pregnant women were carved open for sport, tied to horses and pulled apart, whipped and raped.

Ronald McKeithen

But these weren’t images that we often contemplated on, a sinister past that would fuel the madness that we were constantly trying to contain within the madhouse we were presently in. Because we have witnessed the same mentality in prison guards, wardens and Montgomery legislators seen in plantation owners, overseers and slave catchers, we’ve felt the shackles painfully clutching our wrists and ankles, the beating, the de-humanizing comments that pierce and benumb our manhood over time, causing too many of us to contemplate death as better than this.

Each of us differed in our experiences. Some more harsh than others. Even our instructor, one of the most compassionate white women I’ve ever met, was often teary eyed. Unaware of the horrendous treatment that men she’d come to respect and admire had to endure because of the color of their skin.  But the one thing we all agreed on is that the institution of slavery still exists. That the United States prisons are nothing more than modern day plantations where people of color are still being used as commodities to be bought, sold, evaluated and managed for profit, and that the courtroom has replaced the auction blocks. And that regardless of how expensive it becomes to house us, or how overcrowded the cages become, or how much pressure the Department of Justice places on them for the inhumane conditions they’ve created, Alabama lawmakers still refuse to let their slaves go.

The Prison Story Project

On May 23, 2020, in collaboration with The Prison Story Project, the Justice Arts Coalition will be presenting a premiere screening of “On the Row,” a documentary created by The Prison Story Project that explores the humanity and stories of men currently on death row. As part of our larger Create + Connect: Online Workshop Series, JAC feels privileged to be a part of this vital dialogue, and looks forward to your attendance at this screening. JAC recently spoke to Kathy McGregor, Founder and Project Director at The Prison Story Project. Her profound words are below.

To register for the “On the Row” screening, which will be presented on May 23 @3:00 pm EST, visit this link. 


Since 2012, The Prison Story Project has entered correctional centers in Arkansas to give
women and men the tools to tell their stories. We believe that no voice should be silenced, and we hope through staged readings of the women’s and men’s writing that we will help bridge the gap between the incarcerated and the communities to which they hope to return.

In May of 2016, The Prison Story Project gained unprecedented access to the men on death row. We knew that these men had, through violent acts, silenced the voices of innocent lives forever. We entered partly on impulse, partly on faith, and partly because we could. The men on the row initially met us with curiosity and a good deal of resistance. They wanted to know what was in it for us. They feared we would manipulate or exploit them. They didn’t trust us. Over six months, through mailings and visits, we asked them to tell their stories. Many of our proven strategies failed. The men on the row told us they were different from other prisoners and that we couldn’t possibly understand them. However, they kept trying and we kept trying. The magic of looking a person in the eye and treating him like a human being started to take hold, and without a doubt the men on the row were powerful writers with stories that surprised us with their insights and emotional depth. They didn’t dwell on their pasts or blame others for their crimes. Some of them had found an immense peace that eludes many of us in the free world, and they wanted to share it purely out of gratitude for having found it. By facing their crimes, enduring their sentences, and accepting their impending deaths, they each found ways to survive and retain their humanity. Their writing exploded, and by our final class we saw each other eye to eye. They trusted us, they said. We
had just gotten our first glimpse of them, we said back.

We didn’t know how they would react to our presentation of their writing. They had put up resistance all along and doubted that we could properly represent their stories. On October 8, 2016, the day of the inside performance, we showed up with an entourage of two poets, a storyteller, five actors, and a musician. We brought snacks. We chatted. We threw a little party in one of the darkest corners in America. When the performance started, we fell to silence and listened deeply. As one of the men on the row wrote us afterwards in a thank you letter, we were all transformed by the writing we heard that day: inmates, teachers, and actors. The writing, he said, culminated in something that’s bigger than all of us.

The Governor of Arkansas signed orders on February 27, 2017 for an unprecedented 8
executions over 10 days to begin just after Easter. Four of the men scheduled participated in this project. Stacey Johnson and Don Davis received stays. Jack Jones was executed on April 24, 2017, and Kenneth Williams was executed on April 27, 2017. Many of us held silent vigil at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, AR on each of the scheduled execution dates as the defense lawyers and Attorney General filed briefs with the Arkansas Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court literally up to minutes before the death warrants expired at midnight. One participant described the vigils as feeling like silent screams.

The film screening of “On The Row” reminds us all of the humanity of the men on the row and the redemption they have found during twenty plus years of being locked away in solitary confinement. They are profoundly grateful to be heard and share their stories. And we are lucky to be able to hear them.


For more information on the Prison Story Project:

Matt Henriksen, Prison Story Project Creative Writing Director for “On The Row”
Kathy McGregor, Prison Story Project Founder and Project Director
Fayetteville, AR
www.prisonstoryproject.com

My Block. 

by Annabel Manning

On the last day of my Hine Fellowship, the Men’s Empowerment Program (MEP) interns at the Harlem Community Justice Center (HCJC) had the opportunity to experience the power of creating their own art exhibition while drawing public attention during their graduation. MEP is a new program designed to create a safe space for men of color, ages 18-25, through placemaking, community advocacy and involvement, employment, and career/educational counseling.

Picture1

Picture2

Picture3

They created still and video/audio collages of their neighborhood blocks, inspired by Romare Bearden’s work in Harlem decades earlier. Each intern said a few words at the opening about their visions of their neighborhood blocks, interrogating concepts of belonging, community, self, and identity. Several expressed their excitement at being recognized as artists, often for the first time in their lives.

Picture4

Picture5

Picture6

Picture7

Picture8
Our plan is to mount the digitized versions of the block pieces on fencing surrounding an area of the Wagner public housing development in East Harlem, once construction for the community hub, organized by the Justice Center’s Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, is complete.

I am also working collaboratively on a series called “a self of my former shadow,” a phrase from the poetry of Evie Shockley. The idea is that the activity of art transforms a person into a self (with agency), free from being a mere shadow of his/her future self. The new series includes images from the HCJC MEP group below, but also extends to works from other projects I have been working on.

Interns reconnected at their art opening with artist Pastor Isaac Scott, who came in a prior week on my invitation to meet with the MEP interns, and who is an important role model and resource for them going forward. Pastor Scott is a previously incarcerated artist from the East Harlem community and Program Director (and Founder) of “The Confined Arts,” as well as the Arts and Communications Coordinator at the Center for Justice, Columbia University, where he is also a student.

For the past several months a group of us, including Pastor Isaac Scott, Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, and others have been organizing the Prison Art + Aesthetics Project (PAAP), an 18-month series of symposia, art exhibitions, poetry readings, plays, concerts, and other art events focused on the transdisciplinary aesthetics of prison art in the U.S. and elsewhere. All events will be centered on the lived experiences, art, and spiritual empowerment of people presently and formerly incarcerated along with their impacted families and communities. Youth involved in MEP and in other HCJC programs will be welcome as participants in PAAP.

PAAP will explore the roles of prison art and aesthetics in four overlapping areas:
before prison (e.g., education, social support, employment);
during prison (e.g., art programs, independent art activities, educational programs);
after prison (e.g., reentry/reintegration, parole, voting);
beyond prison (e.g., alternatives to incarceration, restorative models of justice and abolition).

As part of PAAP, I am proposing to organize an exhibit of art around incarceration that will include the artworks of HCJC-MEP participants along with other artists at Cathedral of St John the Divine. Our inaugural event will be on September 25-26, 2020, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

About the guest contributor:

Born in Mexico and raised there and in South America, Annabel Manning’s role as a social- practice artist is shaped by the needs of the communities with whom she collaborates to find ways for individuals to represent themselves, whether in jails, restorative justice centers, pre- schools, schools, hospitals, or art centers. In 2011, she helped to create a Spanish-language “Jail Arts Initiative” at two Charlotte-Mecklenburg County (NC) Jails in collaboration with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. For the past four years, she organized, with ArtsPlus in Charlotte (NC), a bilingual art and literacy program for Latinx families and their preschooler children.

Annabel uses photography, printmaking, painting, poetry, audio, and other tools in collaboration with individuals to express their experiences with economic and physical hardships as they struggle for recognition, respect, and rights in society.

Currently, she is a Duke University Lewis Hine Fellow working at the Harlem Community Justice Center. As part of this fellowship, Annabel is developing art projects with the Justice Center’s Men’s Empowerment Program (MEP), which works with young men of color between the ages of 18-24. In addition to creating self-portrait monoprints, they are creating audio collages based on photography, videography, and audio, around Romare Bearden’s concept of “The Block.” Ultimately, MEP hopes to digitize the blocks and install them on fencing surrounding an area of the Wagner public housing development where the Justice Center’s Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety is planning to create a community hub.

Annabel Manning
Duke University, Lewis Hine Fellow
Harlem Communiy Justice Center
annabelmanning.com
https://www.instagram.com/annabelfmanning/
https://www.instagram.com/mep_nyc/

The Becomings of a Master, Part 3: Hiatus

by R. Zumar

I’ve been pondering this in my mind over and over and over again. Trying to find a way to be able to keep creating work to send out for you to see without compromising the things I need in here. I find it to be nearly impossible to do from my position and I’ve failed to find that balance, and let things get to out of control.

So! Should this failure stop me from studying and creating artwork. No, I don’t think so. Even though I don’t have the money to continue to send my work out doesn’t mean that I should stop creating. So I’ll keep at my studies and work to be better, my becomings are far from over.

You may not see any work from me for a while cause I need to get my affairs in order in here. But once I do get things back on track you will see my progress, you will see how far I’ve come. You will see how I see beauty in all things though once upon a time all I saw was ugliness.

Like I said before, I’m fairly new to this art world and I’m learning as I go and there needs to be balance in art no matter how chaotic some of us may make a piece of artwork seem. There is still balance in it and we should also find this balance in our lives. We can only be made better for it. Trust, this experience has made me see things more clearly and can only hope it has done the same for you.

This is the becomings of a master! 

Bolgora
Bolgora, R. Zumar

About the guest contributor:

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

View the first two installments in the artist’s blog series here and here