In the spring I attended a daylong forum about how the arts could help those men and women who are living in prison and building new lives back in their communities.
Officially the session was called “Michigan Art for Justice,” held in a historic hall on the campus of University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I was so gratified to see how many people were interested in this critical issue and many were already deep into solutions. Some of them were just explaining their job responsibilities and others were true advocates.
And that’s where I stand. After serving my time in prison, I earned degrees in social work, the majority at the University of Michigan. That work became very personal as I looked around and realized the shortages of help for returning citizens. In addition I saw the burdens the absence of a parent placed on the family. I would call this an epidemic, as the professionals say that 1 of 10 children have a parent in prison.
The person who stepped into this void was most frequently a grandmother. That’s me. Building an organization for other grandmothers who are tackling this challenge is now my mission. I’m in my early 70s and know my peers need support and advice. We also need to let people know we exist, not just in a brief news report, but in our own 24 hour world.
At the recent forum I was hoping to hear more about this special group of people. Not this time.
Generally, the speakers spoke about the responsibilities of their public and private offices to returning citizens. Specifically, some offered ways the arts can inform discussions on criminal justice. Exposure to programs such as Shakespeare Behind Bars, the Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project and the Arts in Corrections initiative of the California Lawyers for the Arts has proved extremely helpful. They have awakened or rekindled creativity in those inmates, from producing plays to writing about their lives.
The arts can help before interaction with the prison system begins. Alma Robinson, the Executive Director of the California Lawyers for the Arts, said, “If we had more arts education in schools, we wouldn’t have so many people to correct.” Amen to that!
As positive proof of this impact, the Prison Creative Arts Project organized an exhibition of art by Michigan prisoners. This was the 23rd year. Bravo was all I could think as I walked among the paintings, prints and sculptures of men and women whom I wanted to meet. The evening reached a high point as Hazelette Crosby told her story about her incarceration and sang the songs of hope she wrote in prison.
When she spoke on her panel Crosby emphasized the need to have complete participation among all sides of the prison crisis.
There is a value, she said, to established “communications between those who have had the experience and those on the outside who want to contribute.” Though those in the audience believed in all these efforts she described how hard it is to get hired and work after release. Crosby reminded everyone “we have a lot to bring to the table.”
We all know the system is a mess, and I don’t think we can ignore the language and the actions of the national lawmakers. My view is the politics of the current White House are only making matters worse. You can’t have this discussion outside the context of what is happening nationally.
There is enough energy to help with fundamentals when someone comes home. Learning the soft skills—how to act on the job—is so important. There is enough interest in human rights issues to tackle abuses, overcrowding and the lack of rehabilitation programs. All the speakers pointed out these horrible conditions, as the oversight and ownership of prisons change to private hands.
Except in a few presentations, I didn’t hear the advocates talk about the impact those years of separation have had on the families. I wanted more from both sides of the story.
About the guest contributor:
Melnee Dilworth McPherson, PhD, Dr. McPherson earned both her PhD in the Joint Sociology and Social Work Program in 2004 and her MSW in 1996 from the University of Michigan. Her dissertation entitled, “From a feminist perspective: An investigation of the relationship among dual diagnosis, intimate partner violence and parenting stress” formed the unifying theme of her research with a focus on domestic violence, mental illness, and substance misuse.
Dr. McPherson serves on several community initiatives including the Livingston-Washtenaw Substance Abuse Advisory Council and the Washtenaw Prisoner Re-entry Initiative. She is also a board member of The University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center. Dr. McPherson has taught courses at the University of Michigan- School Of Social Work and the Washtenaw Community College. She is also a consultant on a national project aimed at developing trauma-informed reentry programming for women. Dr. McPherson, a returned citizen, is also an advocate for supporting the grandmothers who take care of young people whose parent is incarcerated.
About the Art for Justice Forums:
California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.
Additional forums will take place at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta on September 28, at Sacramento State University on October 16, at the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University in Alabama on October 19, and at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16 (register for the NY event here). For more information, please send an inquiry to email@example.com.
About the guest contributor: “Though I don’t like being labeled, or “summed up” by definitions, there are two tags I must live with. First, I am an artist… I have been my entire life. I dabble in different mediums and play with many forms of expression. I call myself an illustrator because the intent of all my work is to share a story. Places I’ve been. Things I’ve seen. Feelings I’ve dealt with. Second, I am a felon… I will be one for the rest of my life. I was released from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections custody in April, 2018. I was allowed to concentrate on my work, watch it mature, and see other’s talents grow. Through creative competition we became a collective.”
Hi! My name is Todd or, for the past 3 years, Wisconsin Department of Corrections #632011. I will have my numeric “nickname” for the next 6 years in Community Custody. For those unfamiliar with the term, I will be on “paper” and continuously monitored. I was incarcerated 2/13/2015 for violating the terms of my bond and in July 2015 was handed a 4-year sentence, mandatory release date of February 10, 2019… my 51st birthday. Fortunately, I’m a non-violent offender. I integrated smoothly into the prison lifestyle and routine. For this I was eligible for an Earned Release Program and cut 10 months off my ‘bid’. Unfortunately, the time I saved on my time ‘in’ was tacked on to my early release.
Let me tell you a little about where I come from! I grew up in an upper middle-class suburb of Milwaukee, WI. My family isn’t what I would call wealthy but we definitely were raised “privileged”. We were never denied anything and rarely heard the word ‘no’. I believed I was invincible… my family would get me out of every situation I got into. If I was broke, they’d give me money. If my bills were late, they would catch them up. When I got arrested, they covered my bail and got me the best possible legal representation. I was a well-adjusted kid who never got into any trouble… well, except getting suspended for smoking on school grounds and skipping gym class. I have 7 DUIs under my belt now and never was in prison. This time there was no getting out of it! The Judge told me clearly, “… you’ve gotten away with this too many times and haven’t received enough punishment…”. He handed down the sentence of 4 years in, 6 years out for a grand total of 10 years, the maximum punishment he could legally impose.
So, here I am at 47 years old on my way to the prison Intake facility! I’m in handcuffs and shackles, locked in the back of a bus, with a bunch of ‘real’ criminals. Most of these guys are murderers, rapists and abusers (they’d done things I couldn’t even fathom). My offense didn’t hurt anyone… I’d had no accidents or damaged any property. I’m thinking, “OMG”, what are these people going to do to someone like me? Am I going to have to live with these men or be housed with ‘lesser’ offenders? What are the living conditions going to be? We’ve all seen the movies… is it really like that?
I wasn’t so much scared of my situation, it was more anxiety that dominated my mind. The more I was around these soon-to-be “roommates” the more I decided I wasn’t going to be around them. I withdrew into reading novels. I found it a way to transport myself to other places, different stories and a better class of people. In Intake we weren’t allowed to have much. I read about 5 books a week, all day and night long, to take me away and avoid speaking to the characters I was forced to room with. I was so thankful when I got moved out of intake into a regular medium-security location where I could finally purchase my own clothes, shoes, TV and hobby supplies!!
I found television to be a very temporary, mindless escape… maybe solely a distraction from the world I was residing in. Books are great but reading became more of a tedium than a diversion. I had ordered a sketchpad and some drawing pencils, colored pencils and pastels but I hadn’t actually created anything in a long time. As we all get older, responsibilities and obligations often force us to put our passions to the side. While I’d created art on the outside, and I was devoted to it, I didn’t have the time to express myself the way I truly desired to. Now, on a forced break from reality, I didn’t have to worry about anything. I had no bills to pay. I had no commitments to family or work. Even though it was barely edible, I didn’t have to think about what I was going to eat, go grocery shopping or cook. I could go to bed and get up whenever I felt like it… except for count times and the occasional fire drill! It seemed to be the perfect time to return to my first love, drawing.
My first attempts were primitive, at least in my eyes, but they impressed others. I didn’t care about, or need, the approval of others but it was flattering. These drawings were/are a part of me! I could transport myself to new worlds, make them tangible and be however I wanted them to be. My fellow inmates would sometimes question my images. They didn’t understand artistic vision doesn’t have to be representational… it doesn’t have to consist of recognizable imagery. My work wasn’t for them though, it was for me! I refused to draw portraits for them. I absolutely wouldn’t make greeting cards! My work is art… not crafts! Later on, I did start to do portraits but there were a few conditions. I didn’t set a “price” for my work but they had no input into the finished project and I would accept tokens of gratitude. They couldn’t view the piece until it was complete. And don’t bother me, it’ll be done when it’s done.
I must explain that I’m not an anti-social kind of guy! I’d made a conscious decision to separate myself from the environment to which I was subjected. I didn’t want to get to know anybody. I knew I’d do my time for me, get it over with, and never have to see any of these people ever again. The chances of myself, and most of the others, being in the same social circles and spaces on the outside was slim. In this context, my art became my downfall. The more I created the more others wanted to talk to me. They wanted to see my work. They wanted to talk about my projects. They wanted to show me their talents… with words, visual images, crochet, needlepoint, leathercraft, beading, some dance and the list goes on within the perimeters of the prison’s restrictions. For many this was their first exposure to expressing themselves in ways that weren’t destructive to themselves or others. And they were proud of their work. They valued my opinions and asked for my suggestions as to how to improve their visions. Even though I was keeping my distance and not letting down my “walls” (I thought), I developed superficial (again, I thought) relationships… more than acquaintances but not quite friends.
To elaborate on the ‘I thought’ statements. I believed I was hiding behind “walls” to protect myself from getting to know the other convicts in my personal space 24/7/365. What I failed to recognize was that my work, and my input into theirs’, slowly exposed pieces of myself. I gained insight into their lives because, when asked to view or make suggestions on their works, I could see into their minds. I could read their emotions about where they’ve been, are currently and where they want to be in the future. We developed an unspoken form of communication. A way to maintain our masculinity while “discussing” our feelings of fear, on relationships, about caring for one another. All the things men don’t usually talk about with each other.
One of my favorite statements, I heard it all the time, was “I can’t draw.” Or “I can’t do that”. There is no right or wrong in art. There is no good or bad in creation. I’d tell people, “Yes, you can!”. It doesn’t matter if it’s a stick figure or a colorful “scribble” with colored pencils. “I’ll help inspire you!”. “Are you having fun?”, “Relaxing?”, “Releasing the frustration of another taxing day?”. The point being, are you feeling anything?!! Art is about reaction. If you have an opinion or elicit a reaction you’re alive. You’re expressing a view, a viewpoint and that’s creation. I was able to introduce technique but had to remind guys not to try to do what I do… one of me is enough. Be your own person! See through your own eyes! Interpret according to your own beliefs and values! Of course, one of the toughest principles is always OBSERVE, OBSERVE, OBSERVE! Shut your mouth and listen… don’t just hear, LISTEN. Open your eyes but don’t just look, SEE! Absorb the good and the bad around you. Visualize what makes you happy. Express the things that piss you off. Whatever it is, get it out!!
The arts are one of the few positive things about prison. For me, it allowed the opportunity to see my craft mature. Looking at my early works with only #2 pencil on typing paper to what I’m accomplishing, and still growing, now is amazing. I saw others experiment successfully in a variety of mediums. One of my co-artist inmates, who claimed he’d never been creative, composed a spectacular “collage” (all hand drawn and cut out) representing his favorite football team, the San Francisco 49ers. Others did brilliant portraits from photographs of their loved ones using a grid technique. Patterns were available for purchase to those who preferred to work in brightly colored yarns. Some got their friends and family to send them adult coloring book pages to enjoy and release tension. It wasn’t unusual to see groups of guys sitting around the same table conversing and immersed in their activities of choice!
Sometimes, however, our efforts were stifled by the subjective rules of the DOC. For example; I drew a New Orleans Mardi Gras scene in which there was a woman flashing her breasts to get beads that were thrown from the balconies. Another inmate drew a very artistic topless woman with large boobs. He got cited for “inappropriate material” where, when the correctional officers were questioned about it, my drawing was considered acceptable because of the context. We had to be very careful about anything depicting violence but not all was seen as unacceptable. Subjects construed as racist could land one in the “hole” but, again, it depended on context. I illustrated my frustrations about the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri (I forget what year that was) depicting a racially diverse group defending themselves against the police while stores were being looted and cars were on fire. It wasn’t considered unacceptable since the violence was implied more than vivid. It was tricky to sometimes push the line as serious disciplinary action could be imposed upon you. But really, who wants to concentrate on drawing bunnies and pretty flowers in a place where it is difficult to wake up in the morning and smile at your cellie!
It’s really fascinating to look back on the whole experience now… even though it hasn’t been that long. To think about the conversations that started over a drawing, a poem, or a song. The feelings that were communicated without speaking. The bonds created by my knowing, somewhere, someone may be thinking about the positive aspects of being incarcerated because my work is hanging on their wall or framed on their desk. Even if it’s just held by a magnet on a refrigerator, I’ve impacted somebody else’s life in any number of ways. A reminder of where we’ve been, where we’re going and to be thankful in the moment that we’ve survived (hopefully overcome) our shortcomings. I like to believe some of the men I inspired, and who inspired me, have continued to pursue their newly found freedom of expression. A constructive outlet for their emotions. A diversion from returning to where they’ve been. A way to create a future they can visualize. In some way everyone is in a prison of their own creation….