An Appeal for Art for Justice

by Melnee D. McPherson

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 (register for the Georgia event here), 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. For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org.

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