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.
“Prison does not define who we are as people, but instead reflects poor decisions we have made. I would ask that those who judge us to perhaps look past the blue and orange state clothes we wear, and to try to practice empathy. Please try to understand us. Please try to look past our imperfections and most importantly, try to forgive us. I believe that many inmates struggle with, yet desperately desire to express who they truly are, and the reasons are numerous. Creating art is one avenue I personally use to express myself. All of my paintings reflect either my sadness, my happiness, my dreams, my desires, my passions, or I just find them beautiful. Whatever painting of mine you may be looking at right now, please know that while you are certainly seeing a part of me, there is far more to understand and discover about me beyond the blue and orange I wear.” G. Allen, 2018
23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners
March 21 – April 4, 2018
Duderstadt Center Gallery
University of Michigan North Campus
2281 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor, MI 48109
The Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners is one of the largest exhibitions of art by incarcerated artists in the country. Each year, faculty, staff and students from the University of Michigan travel to correctional facilities across Michigan and select work for the exhibition while providing feedback and critique that strengthens artist’s work and builds community around making art inside prisons.
The 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners is supported by the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, University of Michigan Office of the Provost; College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; School of Music, Theatre & Dance; Stamps School of Art and Design; Residential College.
Exhibition hours are 12pm-6pm Sunday and Monday; 10am-7pm Tuesday through Saturday. The gallery will be closed April 1.
Opening Events, 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Celebrate the opening day of the 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. Gallery opens at 10am. Sales begin at 6 pm. Opening Reception will begin at 7 pm, with guest speakers from the University of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Corrections, and artists from previous exhibitions.
Keene Theatre Performance with Friends from Brazil
Friday, March 23, 2018 from 7 to 8 pm
Keene Theatre, Residential College, East Quad
Join PCAP as we welcome visitors from the theatre departments of two universities in Brazil, UDESC in Florianópolis and UniRio in Rio de Janeiro. Students and faculty from both universities host a group of PCAP students and Prof. Ashley Lucas each summer as part of our ongoing exchange program. Our friends from Brazil will perform various short pieces of theatre, dance, and music in the Keene Theatre as a way to share some of their phenomenal performance work with us.
Artists’ Panel, 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners
Sunday, March 25, 2018, 11am – 12:30pm
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Artists from previous Prison Creative Arts Project exhibitions share their stories and answer questions about life as a prison artist in this informal panel discussion, moderated by Professor Emerita Janie Paul.
The 10th Anniversary Edition, Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing Volume 10, Ann Arbor Reading
Sunday, March 25, 2018, 4pm – 6pm
East Room, near the Duderstadt Gallery – North Campus
Hear selections from this year’s 10th anniversary special edition, read by family and friends of contributing authors. Books will be for sale. Cosponsored by LSA Residential College, LSA Department of English Language and Literature, and the Jackson Social Justice Fund of Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Ann Arbor
PCAP’s Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing seeks to showcase the talent and diversity of Michigan’s incarcerated writers. The review features writing from both beginning and experienced writers – writing that comes from the heart, and that is unique, well-crafted, and lively.
Maine Inside Out Performance
Wednesday, March 28, 2018, 6:30-8pm
Keene Theatre, Residential College, East Quad, Room B-141
Maine Inside Out (MIO) artists facilitate the creation of original theatre to engage the community in dialogue about issues related to incarceration. Chiara Libertore, one of Professor Emeritus William “Buzz” Alexander’s first students (LSA English Language and Literature) in what would become the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), co-founded the MIO non-profit in 2007. MIO provides year round voluntary theatre workshops for more than half of the young people at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, Maine. Its reintegration program for newly-released Maine Inside Out participants includes weekly community groups, mentoring, and transitional employment opportunities for youth in three Maine communities that incarcerate the highest number of young people.
MIO’s transformative justice curriculum includes a new original production created by young adult artists debuting in 2017. Join us for a public performance and dialogue in the Residential College’s Keene Theatre.
Keynote: “Voices from the Abyss: Twenty Years of Journalism with the Angolite Magazine,” Kerry Myers
Thursday, March 29, 2018, 7pm-9pm
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Kerry Myers grew up in a small town suburb of New Orleans. He holds a B.A. in Communications and Journalism. In 1990, he was sentenced to life without parole. Kerry served his time in the Louisiana State
Penitentiary, know famously as Angola. In 1996, Wilbert Rideau, the incarcerated editor of the prison’s news magazine The Angolite, recruited Myers to write for the publication. In June 2001, when Rideau left prison, Myers became only the second editor of The Angolite in the previous 25 years. Under his guidance, the magazine reported on the death penalty with a depth and clarity that was recognized with the Thurgood Marshall Journalism Award in 2007, the first of many honors and awards.
Taking on subjects like human trafficking, juvenile life without parole, aging, Alzheimer’s and dementia in prison, sentencing, pardons and parole policy and more, Myers guided the magazine as it became a resource for many top criminal justice and law programs in the US. In 2011 and 2012, Myers wrote a critically acclaimed series on the history of women in the Louisiana penal system, from Pre-Civil War to the present. In December 2016, Governor John Bel Edwards signed Myer’s second unanimous commutation of sentence, recommended by the Board of Pardons and Parole. Since that time, Myers has been working as a free-lance journalist and photographer, and is active in criminal justice reform in Louisiana, leading a wave of change in the state.
Michigan Art for Justice Forum
Tuesday, April 3, 2018, 9am-5pm in the Rogel Ballrom, Michigan Union Reception 5:30-7pm in Duderstadt Center Gallery
In partnership with the California Lawyers for the Arts, Shakespeare Behind Bars, Creative Many, and the Art for Justice Fund, we are hosting the Michigan Art for Justice Forum. This all-day symposium will bring together lawmakers, artists, scholars, and formerly incarcerated people to discuss the necessity of arts programming in the criminal justice system. This forum is part of series of six forums happening in six states: Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York, and California. For more information, please send an inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org. Reception to follow, featuring a performance by Wayne Kramer.
Artwork Pickup, 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners
Wednesday, April 4, 2018, 6pm-8pm Thursday, April 5, 2018, 10am-4pm
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Please bring your proof of purchase or your letter from PCAP if the work was not for sale. Volunteers will be available to help locate and package your artwork. Artwork selected for the Award Winners and Selected Work exhibit will be available in July. Art is not available for sale during artwork pickup times.