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
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.
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. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. 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 2,300 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.
Binaries are a way of being: We can choose either “this” or “that;” or we can take this binary to the interpersonal where there is a “them against us.” It is not surprising, therefore, that sports and arts are often pitted against each other.
Most often, sports and arts are in competition for financial support as in education with school boards asking, “Do we drop sports or arts?” Are sports ultimately privileged because of the much higher number of individuals attending sports events than those who attend art performances or exhibitions? Why do we pay sports players more than artists? How many contracts have been given to artists before a season in the studio?
In prison, arts often take a back seat to sports. Jesse Osmun, prisoner at Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution recently wrote to me about his concern that the arts program was losing ground over the gym programs.
Jesse writes: “Here at FCI Ft. Dix, we have a program for Hobbycraft/Arts that is run by inmates under the supervision of the recreation department and assigned staff. For the entire time I have been here, this program has run smoothly and had a dedicated space at the top floor of the Education building with actual classrooms and instruction by inmate instructors. These classrooms have worktables, lighting, basic supplies/tools, and good ventilation. These are all necessary for the program. No complaints about the space ever really came up. The program as it stands has strong leadership and dedicated hours and so is running better then it has in the past. Materials are purchased and arrive within a reasonable time frame. Tools and basic supplies are available, and classes fill very quickly.
However, more recently the staff decided that the best place to have the program is in the gym, competing with other recreational programs such as basketball, soccer, etc. and crammed into space that is not properly ventilated for use of materials such as oil paint, turpentine, glues, etc. Many of these areas are cramped and do not have proper lighting for programs such as drawing and painting. These areas are also subject to gym hours, meaning if the gym is closed, these programs cannot run.
My current drawing class has 5-7 students with 10 or more active participants working on art projects in the room. It has been very active and well utilized, as are all the programs. If these changes are made, the classes will be ultimately abandoned with the only kind of instruction being art instruction books that inmate will need to buy for themselves. In addition, the inmates will not have ta dedicated place to work on art even on their own.”
It’s easy to assume that money is the basis of such changes, but there are other dynamics working.
When I was a volunteer art teacher in a mid-west maximum-security men’s prison, under the direction of the programming director, the prison had a sophisticated art room where prisoners were allowed to work on their art on a regular basis. There were some classes taught – mine being one – but each prisoner who was invited to the room (based upon behavior and ticket records) also had a dedicated space in which they could work; areas that I referred to as their “studios.” The program director had minored in art in college developing an experience and understanding of art beyond what I typically see in prisons.
When that program director transferred to another prison, the subsequent program director, while very supportive of programming, had no experience whatsoever in art. His background was in sports and recreation. Unfortunately, the program and room lost its integrity as a place to create art and became more of a space for busywork.
This inability to understand art seems to be common in prison. Well, lets be truthful, an inability to truly understand the depth of art is common in and out of prison. Art’s existence has been challenged for a long time. Some might argued since Plato threw out the poets from his Republics. But an irrelevance of art seems even particularly so in the United States – how often does the average person in United States go to an art museum?
This lack of art experience is typical for most prisons in which I have volunteered. But in those prisons that did support a successful art program, there always seemed to be someone in authority who had first hand experience in art; maybe, they minored in art, had a spouse as an artist and so on. A commitment to art in prison seems to demand that someone in authority have this first hand experience of art – call that person a lover of art. How many lovers of art run prison, though?
A big discrepancy between someone who has first-and experience/commitment in art and someone who does not is that the former understands that art is not a recreation. This became apparent when I volunteered at a maximum-security men’s prison and each week the guards taunted me as to how was my “finger-painting” class going? What they didn’t understand, and what I didn’t tell them (because would they really listen to me?) was that art is a means to self-discovery, self-reflection and self-challenge.
But as readers of this blog, I’m speaking to the already convinced. If you would like to voice concern to the warden at Jesse’s prison the address is: Warden Hollingsworth, Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution, 5756 Hartford and Pointvile Rd. Fort Dix, NJ 08640. Perhaps as artists involved in prison, you would like to share your positive experience with him (or us.) Or share an experience where art and sports were integrated equally in prison (or anywhere).
A gallery selection of Jesse’s work completed in his art room at the prison: