Lighthouses, guard towers, and the collapsing spatial planes of prison

11 Aug

By Treacy Ziegler

lawrence smith Tehachapi prison(1)

Lawrence Smith, prisoner, drawing of Tehachapi prison, California, courtesy of artist

A few years ago, my friend suggested a particular meadow I might want to draw. This friend, who is not actually an artist but with whom I draw on a regular basis, often suggests things to draw.

No, I said, the meadow is picturesque but not interesting enough — visually dynamic enough — to create a composition. I said it would be more interesting to sit on the side of the highway and draw the overpass of one road over another road: they offer light, shadow, and diagonals. The meadow merely offers nostalgia, nothing visually compelling.

Having made this distinction between the picturesque and something upon which to create a dynamic composition, I contradicted myself and suggested a road trip to draw lighthouses in Maryland and Virginia. The lighthouse seems to be the most picturesque image ever reproduced in photographs, paintings, and prints, running the gamut from the kitsch of Thomas Kinkade to Piet Mondrian’s early paintings of the lighthouse at Westkapelle

mondrian wetkapelle

 Piet Mondrian, Westkapelle

On this road trip, which developed into a kind of scavenger hunt of lighthouses, I was struck by the interesting names given to lighthouses, particularly the dislocating name of a lighthouse called Point No Point. What is a point without a point?

Identifying the point

Ambiguity surrounding lighthouses became more evident when I brought my drawings into the studio. I was working on a particular lighthouse painting and inadvertently placed it next to another working landscape. This other landscape was a nebulous scene of sky and water with just a suggestion of the horizon. When placed side by side, the paintings emphasized the lighthouse as form against the sea as non-form; the intersection of the tangible with the intangible.

On a clear day, the sea-sky nothingness is visually organized by the horizon; the irony is that this visually organizing horizon is an illusion.

Regardless of its illusion, the horizon works in conjunction with the vertical to create a world in which we understand. Our world is made up of horizons and verticals — with an occasional dramatic diagonal — and it is not surprising that Mondrian in his later works reduced his marks to lines signifying these two directions. While most creation myths of any culture begin with this horizontal line dividing earth and sky or heaven and hell, it is not until the vertical line is inserted that the world becomes inhabited. All landscape artists know this. Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea is a strong example of this inhabitation.

Friedrich Monk By The Sea

Caspar David Friedrich, The Monk by the Sea.

Collapsing planes of prison

I see many lighthouse drawings from my prison students. They are lumpen lighthouses; lighthouses for the spatially dispossessed. The sky is drawn on the same picture plane as the sea, the sea on the same plane as the lighthouse, the lighthouse on the same plane as the foreground, and the foreground on the same plane as the background.

There is no space in these drawings — as if the prisoners know what we do not; that measurable space does not actually exist. For what is measurable space in prison where 100 miles from home is equal to a single mile from home; a single mile is equal to never and nowhere from home; time and space collapsing into each other?  What purpose can distance and time have in prison?

I mention their spatial dilemma to my prison students suggesting to them; maybe you are living in a Gothic painting.

simone martini

 Simone Martini, Madonna of Mercy

I tell them that in a Gothic painting, a mountain could appear the same size as a man, or the Madonna may be 18 feet high sitting on a two-inch donkey. Space is collapsed to the foreground.

I tell the prisoners that in Mondrian’s later paintings, space also appears collapsed. Vertical and horizontal lines are painted on a white background. In neither the Gothic paintings or in later Mondrian abstractions are there any references to perspectival space.

But the prisoners are not living in a Gothic or Mondrian painting; they are living in the antithesis of that.  And unlike prison space, space in a Gothic painting is not destroyed but superseded with spirituality.  This kind of experience has no need for spatiality and, therefore, space becomes ambiguous.


 Piet Mondrian, Composition

Mondrian understands it is the ambiguity of space that gives meaningful dimension to human experience. In Mondrian’s later paintings, this ambiguous space is disclosed — space that cannot be identified by the grid of his lines or the whiteness upon which he paints this grid. This is the space between the lines and the whiteness; it is space not seen, but experienced; it is ubiquitous and mysterious space where the intangible intersects the tangible.

Without ambiguity, all is dead

There is no allowed mysterious space in prison and the dictated collapse of space is not replaced by meaning; all meaning is destroyed. Distance and time do not become irrelevant; they are totally nuked.

Where is the horizon in prison?  Why do I, anyone, need to see the horizon – a mere subjective line moving as I move; existing and not tangible; an illusion steadying me upon earth?   My students do not know and neither do I.  When a student hopefully interjects that he is living closer to home than ever before in his incarceration, I ask if this has made a difference in his life. He answers sadly: No, it doesn’t matter; no one ever visits me.

We do not live in measured space, and we cannot live in the annihilation of space.  Ultimately, we can only live in ambiguous space; space that is not dictated to fit a means or end.  Mondrian knew this as well as the Gothic painters.  I live – thrive – in subjective ambiguity to space.  If I had to run the mile to my neighbor for help, I could do it; that same mile to a person in a wheelchair could mean a death sentence. Without ambiguous space and the horizon, the fluidity of meaning is destroyed and life becomes insignificant.

The lighthouse called Point No Point compels me.  Unlike the other lighthouses that mark a specific point in space, this lighthouse makes no assumption. It is a lighthouse built upon water on which no permanent marking can be recorded; placed upon an ever-changing medium.  Like Mondrian’s space between the grid and the whiteness, Point No Point Lighthouse occupies ambiguous space facing an intangible horizon where meaning is full, always changing, and never reduced to absolutes; the lighthouse offers no clichés; it offers no false clarity.

I imagine this ambiguous space with an intangible horizon, and upon this moving horizon I imagine prisoners are walking, leading an eighteen-foot Madonna and her two-inch donkey.


Falling Leaves: Letters from Prison

31 Jul

By Treacy Ziegler

armando macias on death row

Armando Macias, prisoner at San Quentin, drawing from The Circle exhibition

Falling leaves

Letters from prison

But now you’ve got the gist 

of what my letters mean.

You’re reading them again

The ones you didn’t burn”

Leonard Cohen, “The letters”


The letters seem to accumulate indiscriminately on the furniture surfaces of my home.  At first, they were restricted to my son’s old bedroom, the room I use as a study.  But in time, the letters began to gather on my piano, table, and chairs; albeit in piles – this one to answer first, that for later, and the largest pile looming, as a question mark for which there is no ready response.

It’s hard to throw out these letters from prisoners received through the Prisoner Express program; a program that develops distant learning for 4500 prisoners.  Some are simple requests to participate in the program and are not difficult to put in the recycle bin.  It becomes more difficult to toss out letters in which I am directly addressed or where the writer seems in need of a listener.   Throwing out these letters, even when answered, feels like stamping upon the writer’s hope.  So I keep them.

As an artist, I immediately experience the physicality of the letters; what in art school we referred to as “marks upon the paper.”  Most prisoners’ letters are written by hand; although some are written on old-fashioned typewriters. The marks make evident the writer’s hand and, in doing so, convey something personal about the writer; sometimes even more personal than the actual meaning of the words. I feel Jerome’s hand holding the pen so tight and heavy that the reverse of his paper is embossed, creating its own beautiful surface.   Or the tidy block lettering of Jimmy’s letters.  I have boxes of letters from Clarence who writes almost daily. I’m drawn to his letters not so much for content but for the intensity and frenetic intent of the letter’s numerous pages, front and back, augmented by diagrams, pictures, and numbers referencing a religion of which Clarence knows or has developed for coping.

Clarence’s Letters

In the letters of the prisoners, I feel the hand that is rushed and the hand that has all the time in the world; writing slow and deliberate.  I experience the smudged ink from the pressure of the hand or letters written upon stained paper – coffee, blood, whatever.  Some letters are folded into tiny squares.  Many letters are on cheap lined paper.  Some letters are on recycled printed materials.  Jeff writes from a California prison on the reverse of his in-prison offense notice sending him back into solitary confinement.

With 4500 prisoners in the program, it seems that correspondence would get lost in the avalanche of letters, and yet, there is something so personal about the marks on these letters that I often recognize someone’s letter upside-down from across the room just from their handwriting.

Interestingly, however, these penmanship marks can be more personal than the meaning of the words – at least the opening salutations which tend to follow a similar litany; “Hope you are in good health, hope your dogs are well, your husband is well, your son’s ok,” and if the writer were to know my neighbors, they, too, would be blessed with good health. Leon always begins his letters with a variation of his holiday season letter:

“Dear Treacy,

Greeting!  Good day to you and everyone else.  I hope you enjoyed the holiday season and Happy New Year.  It’s a brand new year to start off on a good note.  I hope you find yourself in the best of health and happy spirits.”

 Yet, no matter how redundant the salutations may be, the opening greetings immediately express the writer’s hope for acceptance and to be taken seriously.   I recognize this hope – thinking of letters I have written to galleries hoping they will like my art.    But it is hard writing to an unknown person asking for validation of my worthiness, knowing more often than not it is futile.

 I’ve received letters from prisoners with no written message.   Derwin’s letters are often scraps of paper upon which he renders a drawing I sent to him.  It may be Derwin doesn’t read and write.  Some prisoners, like Jerome, learned to read and write in prison.  Despite the limitations, Derwin’s letters testifies to the US postal service’s diligence.  A letter from him, addressed with only my first name and zip code, successfully found its way to me.

Not all the letters seek acceptance; some seem to be a way for expressing remorse.  Joe wrote about murdering his wife and the regret he experiences not only in murdering her, but the loneliness he feels without her.  One could read this and become cynical – like well, what did you expect when you murdered her?  But cynicism is quickly replaced by spending time in prisons and learning murder is a very complex phenomenon.  I am convinced that anyone is capable of it but very few people who do, live without regret.   I think about James who before murdering his girlfriend high on drugs never had a single violation – not even a driving ticket.  Or Fred, who says until he murdered his ex-wife’s boyfriend in anger, “I used to be just a regular guy.” Tom writes of murdering his best friend who was also the father of his son’s best friend while high on bath salts and the pain and horror it caused everyone in his life.  I experience genuine grief in these letters or statements made by prisoners in prison. The words do not seem to be statements to evoke my sympathy or said just because the individual ended up in prison, but explicit expressions of regret for what they did.


I haven’t experienced sexual advances or disrespect of any kind from prisoners while conducting workshops face to face in prison.  Likewise, it is very rare to experience sexual references in the letters, although it happens.   Some are comical.  Logan writes imagining me as 20-year old with slinky blond hair covering one eye.  I published a photograph of myself in the next newsletter to establish that, in fact, I was not a 20 year-old blond with a come-hither look, but a middle-aged woman.  It didn’t matter.   I could have published myself with big floppy ears and a single eye in the middle of my forehead; fantasies still occur.

Jonathan’ s three letters to me were in the style of a poem.  In the first two letters, his verses expressed sexual desires toward me.  His third letter, however, seems to offer an apology for his first two letters:

I’m sorry for writing you.

I’m just bored. 

I’ve tried your program.

But I’m bored with it.

Likewise Garry’s letters contained sexual fantasies towards me.  I write back telling him I know he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by being disrespectful and that he will need to edit sexual material from future letters.   Garry follows my request for a while, but then slips back to the sexual matters.  I stop writing to him.

Reading Garry’s or Jonathan’s letters, I think about Mr. Warner, a 93-year old patient for whom I was responsible working as a nurse’s aid in an understaffed nursing home.  I was 12 years old.  It was a severe job forcing me into responsibilities no sane adult would have asked of anyone so young – bathing, dressing, nursing and administering medications to old, sick men.  On occasion, I even had to wash and prepare bodies after death for the undertaker.  One evening, while getting a roomful of men bathed and dressed for bed, it became apparent Mr. Warner was dying.  “He’s probably good for an hour or two,” the head nurse said.  Dying alone in a nursing home with just a 12-year old witness is so bleak that I wanted to provide something more dignified than the ice cream the nurse suggested me to feed Mr. Warner in his last hour.  I found a Bible and holding it in my left hand, read, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”  Instead of dignifying his dying, I was shocked to find Mr. Warner’s hand trying to get up my skirt, forcing me to repeatedly swat away his sexually active hand with my free hand and, thus, making his sad death even more pathetic.

manuel gonzalez

Manuel Gonzalez, III drawing for The circle show, prisoner in Tehachapi Prison.

Was it terror of impending death – the seemingly ultimate isolation – that reduced Mr. Warner to the biologic response of sexual aggression?  I think about what Eric said, the program director at a prison where I teach.  As we watched guards leading a young prisoner in handcuffs across the yard to the hole – his punishment for publicly masturbating – Eric said, “Some of the young kids who end up here are so reduced to terror and anxiety that that is all they can do. It’s ironic that the punishment is putting them into even greater isolation and terror.”   But the prisoners in my class are less generous with their assessment, suggesting, They’re not anxious – they raised themselves and had no one to tell them to keep it in their pants.”  Whichever way one chooses to see it, do these acts of sexual aggression mask a state of terror?

More often than sexualized is the potential for the prisoner to idealize the writer.   But pen pals are pen pals and when real limits are exposed, can be devastating to a prisoner.  The prisoner Jackey had a Cornell student pen pal for the years she attended the university.  When the student graduated and no longer wrote, Jackey became depressed.  Although I didn’t fill the gap left by the student, Jackey continued writing to me deeply hurt by the loss of his pen pal:

“It is ridiculous that me, a 60 year-old man, would fall in love with a college student pen pal who I never saw and knew I would never meet. But I feel so bad and just can’t get over it.”

jackey sollars, faces , e copy

Jackey’s drawing

It’s probably not surprising that there are fewer women than men participating in the programs – there are more men prisoners than women prisoners.  But it may also be how women prisoners experience their abilities. Katherine finished the Drawing from Life, a through-the-mail drawing course.  It is a challenging course asking the artist to work from life instead of copying photographs.  When I wrote to Katherine congratulating her on being the first women prisoner to complete the course, saying she deserved a prize, she wrote back,

“I’ve never won anything in my life, was never first at anything…. always last.  I am so thrilled!”  And then asked, “Could you give my prize to my daughter.  It’s her birthday and I don’t have anything to give her.”  I sent sketchbooks to both Katherine and her daughter.

Some prisoners write letters pontificating their incarceration with clichés heard on the prison yard.  Reading these, I remember as a teenager yelling at my dad when he’d repeat, as truth, clichés heard at truck stops or bars,  That’s just crap you learned from your beer buddies – why don’t you ever think for yourself?”

 Perhaps, I was a bit too harsh on my dad.  Can anyone express clearly an experience of living without falling back on tidy slogans to describe that life?   How more difficult is it for prisoners, who live in a world of controlled information and identity, to observe their experience without resorting to overused words and concepts?    The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben says it’s words themselves making us disabled communicators; disabled, because words are trapped in historical redundancy and cannot express the vibrancy and ambiguity of the presence.   Somehow, Agamben suggests, we have to find a way to “say the unsayable.”   Are the arts a way?

“Saying the unsayable,” demands the person giving expression be a keen observer; for without reflective observation, expression is fluff.  Is it possible for prisoners to astutely observe the ambiguity of his/her experience; and in doing so, become powerful witnesses of incarceration rather than powerless prisoners?


The Art of Absolute Loneliness

26 Jun

By Treacy Ziegler

Billy-Sell-self-portrait-1-2Bill Sell’s self- portrait

It was in June, 2013, that Billy Sell hung himself.  I assume a guard discovered him because he had been living in solitary confinement for the past six years. Billy had been in prison for 16 years.  He was 32 years old at his death.  Found hanging in his cell, Billy was first unresponsive and later died in the infirmary. Billy had taken part in the California hunger strike by prisoners against solitary confinement.

Billy first wrote to me a number of years ago.  He asked where he was supposed to send the assignments for the through-the-mail art curriculum I provide for prisoners. Billy added that he knew I wouldn’t be able to answer him personally — assuming that the rules would forbid this.  Unknown to Billy, I am able to write to any prisoner in prisons where I do not volunteer. I wrote back to Billy thanking him for his letter and said that I would be interested in receiving his completed assignments.

However, in Billy’s next letter, he apologized for taking up my time. He wrote: “I must be honest with you as I know you are with me.  As I am writing, (and have weighed this out) regrets sink in my heart heavily. I do not or will not be able to participate properly in the art program.  I feel as I have wasted your time. My tools prevent me from giving a solid effort and the poor quality is a waste of your time. It was never my intention to waste your time.”

When I read this, I felt Billy’s depression reflected in the letter. I wrote back to Billy saying, “I want to apologize for any discomfort I may have caused you in regard to the art project. It was not my intention to make you feel bad about the art.”  I continued to write that I was not interested in a display of perfectly rendered skills, but rather a visual investigation through art. I ended the letter with: “Anyway, if you don’t want to draw, that’s fine; just write back anyway and keep in the loop.”

Inspired by Bernini

Billy did write back, again surprised that I took the time to write him.  This letter also reflected a depression that seemed to prevent him from drawing.  I wrote back to him, sending art that I thought would interest him.  Then surprisingly, after several more exchanges of letters, I received a number of drawings from Billy.  These drawings surprised me mostly for the energy and because he was obviously more comfortable in drawing than he believed himself to be.  In the letter accompanying the art, Billy wrote, “I want to thank you for being the nudge that you are,” and explained that he wanted to do drawings of the Virgin of Guadalupe for his mother. He also talked about other art that he liked: Bernini and some sculpture.

Billy and I continued to correspond; he sent me drawings, and I sent him artwork that his drawings suggested to me and that I thought would inspire him.  In his May letter, he seemed excited to start a life-size drawing of his cell. His plan was a drawing that would be eight feet by six feet.  Once, during his one-hour-out-of-the-cell time, he had inspired other prisoners to draw life-size versions of their cells.  I had originally asked Billy to draw his cell this large size because I hoped it would give him space and empowerment.

In Billy’s letter right before his death, he wrote about art, about colors, about how holidays don’t mean much in prison, and about a drawing of mine that I sent him.  Billy said he liked my explanation of the drawing; the explanation gave him insight he felt he did not have himself.  He thought his own vision was too mechanical.  My response to that comment in my next letter would be to take issue of this assessment of his eye. It was my experience that his eye was not mechanical; rather it was an eye sensitive to light, shadows, and nuances.

In his last letter, Billy sent me additional drawings and his self-portrait.

What happened?

I don’t know if Billy was depressed.  Of course, death by hanging is usually considered a suicide.  Further investigation is being conducted.  State law in California requires that all prisoners who participate in hunger strikes must be monitored and screened for mental health issues.  Unofficial word has it that Billy requested help in the days before his death.  I write to other prisoners in solitary confinement who seem to be dealing with mental health issues — paranoia, delusion, and absolute loneliness.

I think it is ironic, however, to consider absolute loneliness a mental health issue when one is required to live in solitary confinement. The absolute loneliness that one experiences in a situation of solitary confinement can only be considered a normal state of being, resulting from an abnormal requirement. If, however, absolute loneliness is not a mental health issue, but a normal state of being, then it could be concluded that the prison would not be required to respond to it as a problem. Ironic.

The prison system is on a mission of destruction.

I recently read of a woman who, when she was a passenger on a plane she thought was going to crash, turned to her unknown neighbor and asked, “Can I take your hand?  I want to feel the touch of another person when the plane crashes.”

Prison is a crashing plane and all that remains is an extending hand.

billy-cellBilly’s drawing of his solitary cell

The Restorative Word

19 May

By Matt Malyon

Ted, a local youth, was booked in Juvenile Detention on July 8, 2015, the day of our first ever Underground Writing workshop. In November, Ted and I began to meet regularly on Mondays for an hour. Inside a locked 8 x 6 room, with security cameras and heavy doors, Ted began to share about his upbringing in a middle class home, the conflicts that began to tear his parents apart, and the present-day entrenched isolation within his immediate family. This familial decline led to a spiraling sense of self, and subsequently assisted Ted’s descent into depression, drugs, and criminal offenses.

Unable to discuss the details of his case (per his lawyer’s advice), we conversed around and near the subject.  And Ted continued to attend Underground Writing workshops.

Feedback from Ted’s public defender was extremely encouraging for our program early on: after beginning to regularly read and write, Ted’s whole outlook changed.  In fact, it helped him get off antidepressants. And Ted was indeed excited about writing. We talked a great deal about fiction and poetry. (He enjoys reading Sherman Alexie and Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson and Jimmy Santiago Baca.) We looked over and edited his many short stories in progress.  One day, almost like a confession, he told me he’d written his first poem. Youth are not allowed pencils in their cells . . . Ted told me he’d written the poem in soap on his mirror.

This image has haunted me for over a year. I can picture the scene in which Ted has just completed his poem. I see him, in his orange jumpsuit, gazing into the mirror at the reflection he has so often been terrified of, angry with, and ashamed of: himself. But this time he’s seeing himself with words striped across his body. Unlike the black vertical bars of a cell, these are white and horizontal, words appearing almost as stabilizing bars that he can grasp. As he gazes at the lines, proud of the poem he has created, Ted sees himself embodied in and through words, a revision in progress, a version of what could be.

“. . . attending words, revising lives” is our program’s tagline.  And I believe this is happening—word by word.


Some of the student writing I’ve read over the past year suggests an inability for students to picture a better future—sometimes any future at all.  They feel stuck in the present moment.  Underground Writing aims to facilitate encounters with good literature and to provide generative writing prompts that allow students to re-view their lives.  We hope to assist in the restoration of each student’s imagination.


“What does this image remind you of?” I ask, holding up a piece of paper for the students to view during a workshop in Juvenile Detention.

Ted smirks and looks across the table at Diana and Mary.

“Bars,” he says.  “Right?  Prison bars.”

“Yeah, prison bars,” Diana says.  Mary nods in agreement.

We talk about living in a cell.  The youth—ages 15-16—describe it as “a dark hole, a pit, a—”

“That’s vivid,” I say.  “Hold up, though, because I want you to write some of this down.”

I hand out “The Face of a Cell,” a poem written by a youth in Seattle’s juvenile detention system.  We each take a turn reading—“If my cell were a person . . .” it begins.

The first writing prompt: write a physical description of your cell.  The results are varied: “I’m behind the red metal door . . . locked until the guards unlock it . . . staring at the off-white colored walls, off-white color floors . . . I realize if I don’t stop running, I will keep ending up behind the red metal door.”

I transition the group.  “Sometimes we need to see in a different way, to have our vision altered—right?”

Ted furrows his eyebrows and tosses his head slightly back.  “What?”

I pull out a piece of paper.  What do these remind you of?


After a pause, “Lines, or like the bars turned sideways,” Diana says.

“Right,” I say.  “Now watch this.”

Out from behind the image, I slide a paper with a Reginald Dwayne Betts poem in couplets that mirrors the horizontal bars.”

“Whoa,” Ted says, leaning forward.  Diana and Mary smile and gaze at the image.

“This is a poem in couplets, or what rappers might call ‘bars’.  When we view things differently—say, hard situations like being inside Juvenile Detention—they can start to become something else.  And we can do that sort of thing through writing.”

Our second writing prompt: revisit your cell in your mind and write about the feelings and thoughts you have there.

The students read the results from their notebooks: “I think about gettin’ out . . . Sometimes I feel no one pays attention to what I want . . . I think that I don’t belong here.”

“Let’s transition to another scene,” I say, handing out Czeslaw Milosz’ poem, “A Gift.”  We discuss the narrator’s life, the way he’s chosen to see things, and his sense of the future.

After five minutes on the poem, I show the students a final picture.  It’s the same as the second image, but with a single dark line on each side of the horizontal bars.  There are a few guesses and confused looks.

“It’s a ladder,” I say.  The kids sigh and laugh.  “Difficult things can help us see differently, even better.”

“Makes sense,” Mary says.

“For the final prompt, I want you to take the writing you’ve already done today and climb up it, as it were, so that you can see a future for yourself . . . and then I want you to write about what you see there.”

“ . . . looking at the sky, thinking about myself,” Ted writes, “ . . . I think I’m a good kid.”

Mary begins, “I think I can graduate.  I always try my best . . .”

In a fitting conclusion, Diana shares last: “I want to climb out of the hole I’m digging myself and see what I can accomplish . . . I want to see myself getting past all the things I’ve been through and not let them define me anymore.”


Matt Malyon founded and directs Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in Washington’s Skagit Valley through literary engagement and personal restoration.  His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination, and has been published or is forthcoming in various journals.  He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.  His long-form essay about Underground Writing—“The Stories We Save May Include Our Own”—is forthcoming in Iron City Magazine, Issue No. 2.

The Roots of Die Jim Crow

30 Jun
Pulled from the Introduction to Die Jim Crow EP Book, available at and
by Fury Young

It’s been three years since a notebook jot-down outlining the idea for what would become the concept album project Die Jim Crow. I was on the B train to Kingsborough Community College where I was studying history. There was a book in my hand and I was about halfway through it. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.

I was twenty-three years old and I wasn’t sure what my truest pas- sion was. Music? Filmmaking? History? Activism? I’m halfway through the book, about two stops from the end of the line and I write down:

“A concept album* called The New Jim Crow (*a la Amused to Death).”

Yes, my title—not too original. We’ll call it an homage. Amused to Death? A concept album by Roger Waters about humans amusing them- selves to death with TV. The album came out pre-internet. Worth listening to. It’s use of repeating musical themes, intense builds between tracks, and dark sociopolitical commentary appealed to me. Later on Pink Floyd’s The Wall (which Waters also wrote) would become a greater inspiration.

I’m a Jew from the Lower East Side of New York City who has not been to prison. Why did I care? To start with, the book in my hand. I was reading about this very current and domestic human rights crisis, so well researched in Alexander’s book, beautifully articulated—but I was lacking the personal stories. I wanted to hear it from the folks who were living the “New Jim Crow.”

I got off at the last stop and waited for the bus. “If I take on this project, I am going to meet people who I will know for the rest of my life. People who will change my life forever.” The bus arrives.

Growing up in L.E.S, I saw a lot—drug dealers, drug addicts, prostitutes, parolees, you name it. In my late teens I met a man who was all of the above at one point or another. He became a close friend. Alexander Pridgen. You can find a movie I made about him on the internet.

I knew others who’d done time as well. A few of them I considered friends. But I had no idea, prior to reading The New Jim Crow, of the scope of the issue: so many affected, so historically rooted, so nationwide, so many things.

I could elaborate on other reasons for becoming obsessed with this project, but I’ll keep it simple and turn these reasons into a question, one I’m still asking today. What is freedom?

Three years and hundreds of prison letters later, here I am — but much more importantly — here WE are. Die Jim Crow has gone from a notebook scribble to a realized project involving artists formerly and currently incarcerated from all over the country. Recordings have been done with formerly incarcerated artists in Wichita, KS; New Orleans, LA; Philly, PA; and Brooklyn, NY. At Warren Correctional Institution, a close-security state prison in Ohio, myself and DJC co-producer/ engineer dr. Israel have worked closely with solo artists on their music, in addition to the prison’s 22-member choir UMOJA (“unity” in Swahili).

From this body of work, we are thrilled to present to you the Die Jim Crow EP — the first sample of what the Die Jim Crow full length album will sound like.

Because digital is how most people consume music these days, we’ve decided to release an accompanying book that honors the many artists and stories on this album. Die Jim Crow is a massive project in scope, and all the energy that went into this EP simply could not be contained in a short digital booklet. And that’s just the six song sample.

The Die Jim Crow LP, a full length double album of 20+ original tracks, will also have a book accompaniment, and hopefully much more. Although the project is still in its early stages (it takes years to lay the groundwork for a project like this, so far three and counting), it feels like a natural and necessary progression for this music to be toured across America, especially in areas hit the hardest by mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow. But why stop there? In order to catapult great change, the music should also reach those of other backgrounds and political leanings—so wide promotion and international touring is also part of the plan.

The LP tells a three act story: pre-prison, prison, reentry. Similar to the LP, the Die Jim Crow EP follows this three act trajectory — albeit in a looser way. The first two songs take place outside the penitentiary walls (with “My Name Be Jim Crow” in some sort of strange farcical history land and “Tired and Weary” in a jail and a courtroom), the next two strictly in prison, and the final tracks back on the streets: wandering, exhausted, in a nightmare, broke, homeless, lost, beat — but not broken.

Also reminiscent of the soon-to-be LP, this album features artists from across the country — often within the same song — both in prison and formerly incarcerated. For example, “Headed to the Streets” was written by B.L. Shirelle during her incarceration, sent to Mark Springer and Anthony McKinney at Warren Correctional Institution for composition, discussed for months between myself, Mark, and Ant over the phone and in letters, then recorded at WCI with a full band and Ant on the first hook and verse. Once B.L. was released from Muncy State Correctional Institution in December 2015, dr. Israel and I drove down to Philly and recorded her vocal there. This unique method of song-making —— a combination of production inside and outside prison walls—is what I’ll call the “Die Jim Crow model.”

The one song on the Die Jim Crow EP that does not feature vocals and/or instrumentation from Warren Correctional Institution is “Plastic Bag,” which was written, co-performed, and lived by Carl Dukes. Dukes spent 31 years in New York State prisons only to return to the streets homeless, even though his parole officer had promised him housing. The powerful outro is the voice of Apostle Heloise, who served four years also in the NYS system.

I hope this project creates constructive dialogue and action. Confronting and dismantling the broken American incarceration machine will take a mountain of work, of which Die Jim Crow is an exciting part. I hope the music makes you feel something real, something deep, something both disempowering and empowering, and puts you in the shoes of the artists who created it.

We look forward to continuing the journey.


Fury Young and DJC artist Apostle Heloise

Fury Young and DJC artist Apostle Heloise

DJC poster art, collage by Fury Young

DJC poster art, collage by Fury Young

DJC artist Leon Benson at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Benson has served 17 years thus far for a murder he did not commit.

DJC artist Leon Benson at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Benson has served 17 years thus far for a murder he did not commit.


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From the Audience and Classroom at Oregon State Penitentiary

25 Jan

About the guest blogger: Michael Zinkowski has taught college-credit writing classes at Oregon State Penitentiary as well as youth correctional facilities in Oregon.

Yesterday I was an audience member for a play-in-progress entirely written and performed by inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary. For the last year, I’ve taught college-credit Writing courses there and one of my students invited me, looking for my feedback on the script he’d largely written. As both inmates and members of the “general public” entered and took their seats in the Chapel room, two guitarists and a keyboardist, all inmates, jammed together. It was a soaring prog-rock instrumental that carried us into the headspace we’d need to be for the play.

I took my seat towards the back right and saw my student (we’ll call him David) perched atop the radiator in the opposite corner of the room, behind the musicians. He sat there, shoulder-length dreads and thick-framed glasses, his hand covering his mouth like The Thinker. With his own office and a thousand responsibilities on the education floor, I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so still or unmoving. In his late 30s, over 20 of which have been spent inside prison walls, he’s possibly the most positively-driven and focused person I’ve ever met, using every waking moment to spread love and compassion, to atone. As I took my journal out to take notes, he looked out through the barred window.

What I didn’t know, is that the play had essentially already begun. After a lanky, older guy wearing a transparent latex glove passed out chocolate chip cookies and cups of water to the crowd of about 30, David stood up, continued to glare at the world out the window, out over the walls of the prison, and began a boisterous, gripping monologue. It felt like a sermon.

His imagery wove everything in the cosmos together, including the “invisible population in the middle of a city.” He functioned as the spoken-word narrator of the play, speaking from the all-knowing perspective of a bird who’d flown into the hospice care room here at OSP. The play featured many vignettes and characters, including the personified voice of Cancer, surrounding the story of a dying inmate, Michael Popper, Sr. David’s wisdom-inflicted bird interjected to help tie the narrative together.

To underscore just how invisible a man becomes dying in hospice care inside a maximum security prison, no one performed the role of Michael Sr. Instead, family members, prison guards, a doctor and nurse all spoke to a voiceless piano bench. Michael Sr.’s silence and invisibility was powerful because it turned our attention to the interconnectivity of all these other characters, each one essentially speaking to themselves but about related struggles. We can put someone inside the walls of a prison but we cannot, the play suggested, no matter how hard we might try, sever the connections they have with the world.

After a “talk-back,” in which members of the audience offered praise and critique, I got up and congratulated David on his performance, on the script, on his ability to make it all work somehow. The audience clapped and cheered as loud as they could without calling too much attention to itself. We were inside a prison after all. However, by no means was this the first time I’d been impressed with him or any of the other student-inmates I’ve had. In fact, my sheer delight and excitement I felt reminded me, unfortunately, that I sometimes reinforce commonly held beliefs about the abilities, talents, and intelligence of the human beings who live inside the prison’s walls.

Without being too scientific about it, it’s probably safe to say that American culture assumes the worst about prisoners. I don’t simply mean of their ethical choices or their “criminal nature” but of their potential and their capacities. And though the last year has taught me nothing but how smart, focused, artistic, grateful, and compassionate my student-inmates can be, I’m sometimes left asking myself: why should I be so surprised over and over?

Realistically, yes, I’m allowed the smile across my face whenever a student here reads a moving, original poem or performs a gripping monologue from the perspective of a talking bird or shows me a hugely improved draft of a 20-page research essay. And, of course, I do. I’m allowed the instinct I have to say “that was amazing,” “great job,” or “I can’t wait to hear the next draft!” and so I do.

Sometimes, though, I struggle with the origins of my excitement. If I’m surprised, is it because I, too, carry with me this idea that these guys shouldn’t be as smart as they consistently prove they are? If I’m moved, is it because the level of work is higher quality than I expected? Did I have low expectations in the first place? And did I have these expectations because I, too, hold the belief that being a prisoner necessarily means one has intellectual or artistic limits?

Probably. It’s something I continually work to deconstruct. It’s probably also true, though, that the quality of their work often surpasses that of my students at “regular” community colleges and that the odds are often very stacked against them and have been before they even got here. Can I not feel, then, that the high quality of work they produce, creatively or academically, is indeed a triumph?

My student-inmates know the world thinks the least of them. Sometimes their families do. Sometimes they, themselves, are burdened by these expectations. Is it in spite of those attitudes that these men excel, or because of them?

Right now I don’t have a solid answer. I’m sure haven’t even asked all the right questions or listed all the variables at play. So I don’t think I need a solid answer yet, but I’d like to use this blog to explore some of the questions I’ve already asked and share stories to complicate our ideas about prisoners, about their potential, and how when we talk about “their” potential we really mean our potential.


Meeting the Woman, Not the Crime

24 Jan
by Peggy Lamb
About the guest blogger: Peggy Lamb organizes Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity program. Truth Be Told is an Austin, TX based non-profit organization that provides transformational programs for women who are or have been incarcerated. Exploring Creativity classes use expressive arts to enlarge the women’s sense of themselves, release pain and express despair and without harming oneself or others. Leaders vary from storytellers to singers to visual artists to dancers – to quilters and yoga teachers and writers.

Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body and my heart opens wide.

These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18 month cognitive therapy program. They live together in a special dorm in which community is emphasized. Each of these 28 women has committed a crime which will brand them for life as sex offenders.

Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things, men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.

I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ web site but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong. I, or the artist I bring, share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and re-define oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am Large, I contain Multitudes”. I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than just sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses and visual artists with gifts to share.

When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost four years that I’ve been going up there once a month – it is work that deeply feeds my soul.

Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call “Elements”. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core – pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out. Shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!

My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on “I am Earth” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture – a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, nature, etc. Each woman shares her gesture and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming) and we go around the circle dancing each women’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance! 

We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts: “I am Air”, “I am Fire” and “I am Water”. By the end of the class we’ve created four dances and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of.

The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community. One woman comments “I didn’t know I was creative!” Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.” One that touches my heart so deeply is “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

I am filled with awe at their willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I LOVE this work – my soul is filled with joy and gratitude.