This is baby Harmoni, born January 27th, 2020. I look at her at peace with no worries in the world. A new little human gifted to us, a life with so much potential. Like all children, at least in our country, she will have the basics to survive and grow. She will have clothes on her back, food in her mouth, and a roof over her head; but like for my son I think of what the future holds for her, for all children born to us. What will they become?
Will we teach them to be like us? Be worse than us? Or will we help them grow to be better than us? I can only wish for the latter. Each generation should be a little better than the last generation. Just because we’re not going to live forever doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about the quality of life for our descendants 100 to 1000 years from now and more. But to do that we must be better than we were.
Each life is a blessed life, it’s only hell if you choose it to be.
I am R. Zumar and this is Blessed Child. These are The Becomings of a Master.
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.”
Rayfel asked that we include this note within this post:
“The Justice Arts Coalition!
What can I say about The Justice Arts Coalition?
I could say that they do good work. I could say that they are wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, but those would be understatements.
They don’t only do good work they do great work. They are not only wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, they believe in what they do. They are not looking to exploit artist they deal with, they are looking to help the artist grow and I greatly respect and appreciate that.
Wendy, the founder of JAC, and those that work with her does a lot. This isn’t their jobs, this is work that they volunteer to do because they believe in the concept that people can grow to be better than they were. That when you give the voiceless a voice and let them speak their truth, you can bring forth the good that’s deep within them.
I trust that JAC will always do the right thing and I don’t have much in the world in way of wealth, but what I can contribute I will. So I ask of you out there in the world to contribute how ever you can. Even $1.00 can help in contributing to the cause.
I am the artist R.Zumar and I thank you all for just being here whoever you are. This is The Becomings of a Master.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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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.
About the writer, Logan Crannell: I’m a visual artist from Provo, UT who opted to move into my truck with my dog Jack, after I got divorced. We travelled together and ended up in Boise, ID to visit a friend. Things spiraled out of control, and I got imprisoned for 4 months, facing a ten year sentence. I got released on Oct. 5th, 2016.
From Wendy, PAC Administrator: Logan Crannell wrote to PAC seeking some support in promoting his memoir, Hands Down – a story of incarceration, which hits Amazon today. I asked him if he’d like to contribute a blog post about it, and he eagerly agreed, requesting that I provide him with a few questions to get his thoughts flowing. I did so, and the following is what he offered in return. I’m sure you’ll be as moved by his words as I am, and I ask that you share this interview, and Logan’s book, with anyone who might find them meaningful — WJ
WJ:How did the process/act of writing help you to cope with being incarcerated?
LC: Writing grounded me and kept my mind from circling in on itself. Being locked in a concrete cell for twenty-one hours a day, you get consumed by repetitive and irrational thoughts. It’s important to get them out of your system, otherwise they eat you alive.
Excerpt from Hands Down:
I rested there, despondent. Zach, walking laps along the yellow line, stopped and approached. He took a seat and put his elbows on the table.
“You’re not overthinking, are you?” he asked, leaning in.
“Yes, I am. I can’t help it.”
“Listen, bro,” he said, “You can’t think about the past and the future in here because they’re not ours. They don’t belong to us, anymore. All we get is today. You have to focus on the things you can control. It’s the little things that save you.”
It was wisdom, what he told me.
WJ: You mentioned that you have a background in filmmaking. What similarities and differences did you discover between the way you told a story in writing versus in film?
LC: Yes, I grew up in a family of professional filmmakers and photographers, so I naturally told stories that way, but I was never comfortable with words. They felt foreign to me; my interest lay with capturing images and feelings visually. When it came to dialogue, I’d bring in writers to deal with it. I didn’t care to be involved.
Then, in jail, in court, listening to my life and reputation get dismantled, I realized that words would ultimately set me free; they were my only tool of defense. They became invaluable to me. No one seemed interested in my version of events, or claims of innocence, so documenting my words was a form of retaliation. Then, it turned into something far more personal, as I examined my life and choices leading up to my arrest, which comprises the first section of the book.
WJ:How did your surroundings influence your voice? Your perspective?
LC: It got raw. I came face-to-face with my fears, insecurities and failures, and I absolutely could not progress until I challenged them directly. I couldn’t hide behind the distractions of the outside world. I felt bare, with nothing left to lose by writing my honest observations.
As I got closer with my cellmates, my own story took a backseat, and I focused on their lives and outlooks. The book transformed into our story. Not just mine.
“How many mattresses are out there?”
It was our nightly ritual; the counting of the mats. At 10:30 pm, the deputies placed mattresses on the table by the control desk, the number of which signaled to us how many new inmates were on their way to cell block. On our Walk, we had the only cell with a vacancy. The lights went out. I waited for my eyes to adjust, then continued reading The Screwtape Letters, by C.S Lewis; a rare find from the jail library.
“Did anybody come in?” Zach asked
“Not yet,” Zeek replied
“Well, I’m going to bed. God bless, you guys!” Zach said, pulling down his headband
I’d fallen asleep when Rick Kellner made his entrance, and he came in with a bang. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I’d like Rick – he bragged of his charges with such enthusiasm, though I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that underneath his thunder, there might be a man that grew up too damn fast.
WJ: How has your experience within the criminal justice system changed the way you perceive art and/or the creative process?
LC:Art has a vital role in lockdown. It’s not disposable. I noticed inmate reactions to watching television; so many societal issues were irrelevant to them, and advertising commercials had no effect. We couldn’t have any of those things, so the broadcast registered as noise to us. I was relieved – I’d finally found a place where marketing didn’t work. I thought to myself, ‘These people are picking up on completely different signals. That’s awesome.’
It’s funny, because I got housed with inmates who lamented over how much better the conditions were in prison, as opposed to county, because they had access to art supplies. My cellmate Rick did incredible drawings, but blank, white sheets of paper were a scarce commodity. We had to be resourceful and work with our limitations. It didn’t stop us. I kept a 2-inch pen, wrapped in paper and adhesive labels to make it less pliable, safely in my sock since the jail considered it contraband.
Rick produced a work of art, while free, at a stable point in his life, on a canvas measuring roughly four-foot-by-six. He did the drawing in pencil; the image of an Elk, beside a river, on a cold morning.
He lost track of how long he spent perfecting it; each blade of grass, drop of moisture and dew, the hair of the Elk’s coat, its breath, all of it in vivid detail. He spoke of its majesty, regarding it as his finest achievement, creatively. I believe Rick thought of that drawing often, in the darkest moments, pulling strength from it, when he felt at a loss. I think it helped him see the goodness of his capabilities.
WJ:What inspired you to keep writing? Were there times you lost the motivation? If so, how did you find it again?
LC: I don’t recall losing motivation. On the contrary; my cellmates would have to pry me off my journal, bring me down to earth, and encourage me to exercise and joke around. I formed tight bonds with my cellies. We fueled one another with ideas and inspiring stories. Art kept us sane. We balanced it with spiritual practices and kept each other laughing.
Zach didn’t waiver from his routine, and his daily yoga session piqued Rick’s interest. By that point, I joined Zach a few times a week, and it improved my flexibility. The floor got cramped with three of us, so I let Rick take a lesson. Zach gradually taught him the steps and proper breathing techniques.
Rick’s body trembled, as he labored to maintain a stance.
“Zach, I can’t hold it. I’m losing balance,” Rick pleaded
“You gotta breath deep with the motion, bro. You can do it.”
Rick’s feet slid on the smooth concrete, “This is way harder than I thought.”
“Yoga ain’t no punk, Rick.”
WJ:What gave you hope? Who/what inspired you?
LC: Seeing my dog Jack again. He means the world to me. On the day of my arrest, I got far more concerned for his well-being than my own. When the cops allowed me ‘my one phone call’ it wasn’t to a lawyer. I wanted to verify that Jack was safe and cared for. My friends and family came through in a big way.
WJ:What advice would you give to other creative thinkers who are locked up? Or to artists and writers who teach in prisons/jails?
LC: Keep it unfiltered. Don’t get influenced by history. The art you do doesn’t have to be monumental. That’s not the point. Your goal shouldn’t be to impress others. Real art isn’t about your ego; it’s the release of ego that makes it sincere. If it doesn’t heal you, don’t expect it to help others.
While finishing the final draft of my book, page by page, I’d follow one instruction: Did I keep it real and from the heart? Then, I’d ask two questions: What am I bringing awareness to? And, am I ready to put this into the world?
To be a teacher in that environment, well, I think you have to create a circle of trust and safety, or the results won’t happen. Everyone involved has to be comfortable and meet at eye level before they open up. My cell mates were hesitant when they saw me keeping a journal, but once they trusted my intentions, they wanted to be involved and contribute to it. I’d quote ’em all day long.
July 20th – Through the windshield of the transport bus, I witnessed sidewalks busy with people, wandering, arms full of shopping bags, wanting things. I saw advertisements for phone plans, menu options at fast food restaurants, and bands wearing the latest fashion. I wasn’t missing anything; Cell 846 was my comfort zone; I’d power through the day, and go to my bunk and rest.
My gaze shifted from the windshield to a black man seated in front of me, in the maximum security section; an iron gate divided us. He reminded me of Tupac Shakur – maybe it was the nose ring.How did he get to keep his nose ring?How strange, that you can sit next to a person on a bus, and say nothing to them – and a month later, that person changes your life forever.
WJ:What gave you the confidence to publish your story? What impact do you hope it will have?
Well, I felt a sense of obligation to publish since it wasn’t simply my story. I promised those men I’d see it through.
I have a dear friend, on the outside, that read the book. Unfortunately, his long term relationship with his girlfriend had hit a rough patch, and they decided to take a break. She moved out of state. Unbeknownst to me, he would read the book to her over the phone at night, and it helped them to rediscover and be grateful for what they had built. That touched me deeply. It made my struggles worthwhile. That’s what I want for the book; to have the reader find a negative in their life and convert it into something positive. That’s the victory.
WJ: What are your goals for the future? How has the transition coming home been for you? Have you continued to write? If so, has it served a purpose during the transition?
LC: Actually, I’m studying for my degree in floral design. I’d practiced Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, throughout my adult life. It brought me peace. I committed to making it my new career when I got out, so I’m really concentrated on that now. The transition was rough. By the time they kicked me to the streets I’d lost my home, my car, my camera and computer equipment, both of my jobs, etc. On top of that I now had a criminal record to contend with. At least I had my dog, and solid friends. I think that’s ultimately what the book is about; true friendship.
About the guest blogger: Leah Thorn is an artist/activist, using spoken word poetry for the autobiographical exploration of identity and liberation. She frequently performs in collaboration with dancers and musicians and her work is published through performance, film, anthologies and magazines in England and the United States. Leah also leads poetry-as-empowerment workshops, primarily in prisons. In 2013 she received a Royal Society for Public Health Special Commendation Award for her contribution to Creative Arts and the Criminal Justice System.
I was recently invited to give a talk at a TEDxWomen event on a subject in some way related to women’s liberation. The event was part of the TEDWomen initiative that started in San Francisco at the beginning of December ’13 and inspired day-long events in over one hundred countries.
I chose to focus my talk on incarcerated women, feminism and the transformational power of poetry, mostly because issues of sexism and male domination are so starkly apparent within the setting of women’s prisons.
I go into women’s prisons as a spoken-word poet and as a women’s liberation activist. The starkness of prison keeps me rooted and alive to the rawness of sexism, male domination and misogyny and to the lived experiences of working-class Black and white women. I have had a two-year writing residency in a high security women’s prison and I undertake short projects, for example with women who self-harm or with older women. In my workshops and one-to-one sessions I enable women to express their thoughts and experiences through talking, writing, publishing and performance and provide a safe place where they can release pent-up emotions. This can lead to a sense of empowerment and agency and a development of trust and openness. Although the focus is not to produce crafted work, many women do. I also speak out as a poet/performer on issues of women’s liberation and incarceration. It often feels that this is a deliberately well-hidden subject.
in a naked state
the women who name
those women have to be contained
those women who disclose, expose
those who show, too eager to show
show scars, who hurting
take them, scapegoat,
I write from the perspective of living in England, the ‘lock up capital’ of Europe, where 45 out of every 100,000 of the general population are in prison. I have also had the opportunity to see first-hand the female System of Corrections in the United States, the carceral nation of the world with 724 per 100,000 of the general population in prison. The situation for women in the two countries is very similar, understandably so as sexism is sexism and there is a universality to women’s narratives. The stories and poems I heard were interchangeable in the similarity of their detail and emotion. Once a safe creative space is made, women tell hard stories, eager to share with each other, often for the first time. In both countries I have been audience to poignant poems and monologues on themes of domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and involvement in prostitution.
A woman’s pain is universal.
A woman’s tears are global.
We love the same. We cry the same.
We lose the same. We all settle for less of the same.
We prostitute our minds. Sell our emotions short.
Sometimes at no price at all.
We trust the same, fallin’ prey
as victims of abuse and misuse.
We are all the same. Our struggle the same.
Extract from a poem by Star
However, there are also some stark differences between the US and the UK in the treatment of incarcerated women. In the UK, there is a groundswell of alliances to end the incarceration of women. For example, the Corston report was commissioned by the then Labour government in the wake of a series of deaths of women in custody, with a remit to address the need for ‘a distinct, radically different, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach’. One of the successes of the report was to stop the regular strip searching of women – “Regular repetitive unnecessary overuse of strip searching in women’s prisons is humiliating, degrading, undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy. For women who have suffered past abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation.” Strip searching is still common practice in most states of North America.
Unlike the States, there is no regular shackling of women in the UK, nor a blanket use of uniform. There are also routine schemes in UK prisons that, although very limited, do go some way to supporting women – eg Storybook Mums, where women write, illustrate and record stories for their children; Toe By Toe, a peer literacy scheme; Listeners, offering emotional peer support; and programmes to support women who have experienced domestic violence or prostitution.
I hope the talk shows in some way that the community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm. More needs to be done to divert women not just from court but also from prosecution and to divert young women away from criminal activity before they start offending.