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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.


Follow Die Jim Crow at

facebook/twitter/instagram: /diejimcrow

youtube channel




Call for submissions: writing by artists who facilitate workshops inside

3 Apr

Project: An anthology of writing by artists who lead/teach (or previously led/taught) arts workshops inside correctional facilities. I seek submissions to construct a book proposal for publication.

Submission Guidelines + Instructions: Writing must be inspired by your prison work. It does not need to be directly connected to a specific event, experience, or person. Please indicate where names/identifying information has been changed.

  • Writing may be fiction, non-fiction, prose, poetry, experimental, non-traditional, un-categorizable.
  • You may submit as many pieces as you like (though not all are guaranteed inclusion in the anthology)
  • No length restrictions
  • Previously published material is acceptable, though un-published is preferred
  • .doc or .docx format, 12 pt. font
  • Email submissions + submission form to

Submissions accepted now through September 15, 2015

About: My name is Leigh Sugar. I previously edited the Annual Anthology of Michigan Prisoner Creative Writing and facilitated creative writing workshops inside Michigan state prisons (both through the Prison Creative Arts Project). I have seen anthologies of writing by inmates, but never a collection of writing by the artists who facilitate or teach writing behind bars. My motivation to embark on this project stems from reflecting on how heavily my own writing has been influenced by my experience going inside prison, and not feeling like I have an outlet or a means by which to share that writing. I know have this writing based on my time inside, so I know others must as well. It is critical that we strengthen our connections to each other and find ways to share our experiences and writing so we can expand the reach of the creative work that is generated in connection to the criminal justice system. I feel a real artistic resonance with other writers who bring their craft to prison and am committed to creating an entire collection of our writing. No contract yet exists for this volume; accepted abstracts will be organized into a book proposal, which I will then submit to publishers.

More information at Please circulate this call to any individuals or organizations you know involved in prison writing.

Denney Juvenile Justice Center Poetry Workshop Launches New Blog, Downloadable Poetry Books

3 Apr

Denney Juvenile Justice Center Poetry Workshop founder and facilitator Mindy Hardwick writes,

In 2005, I volunteered to facilitate a poetry workshop with youth at Denney Juvenile Justice Center, located in Everett, Washington. Each week, I meet with a group of young men and a group of young ladies and we write poems which are based on the young people’s experience. As a part of the poetry workshop, we’ve published four books of the youth’s poetry. The poetry books are distributed, free of charge, to the youth themselves, as well as to others in the community. The youth always ask, “When is the next poetry book coming out? Is my poem in it?” The poetry workshop gives the teens an opportunity to express their stories and to be heard in their community. We are thrilled to have our new blog as a means for publishing the youth’s poetry, and hope the blog gives the teen writers another opportunity for their words to be heard.

Each Wednesday, one of the youth’s poems is published on the blog, and Hardwick blogs about the writing process for that particular poem on her personal blog. Here is the most recent excerpt from Hardwick’s blog, which is a fantastic resource for facilitators:

In the Eyes Of…

We have a new post on the Denney Poetry Blog. The poem, “In the Eyes of My Mother,” was first published in our second book of poetry, I Am From.

One of the poetry books I like to use with the teens in the detention center poetry workshop is, You Hear Me: Poems and Writing by Teenage Boys, edited by Betsy Franco.  The collection includes poems, stories, and essays from boys across the country. Sometimes there can be a misconception that boys don’t talk about feelings, and what I’ve found working in the poetry workshop, is that boys can and do express their emotions. Very well!

In the collection, You Hear Me, there is a poem which is entitled, What I Am (In the Eyes of My Father). When I work with the teens at Denney, we read this poem, and then I ask them to think of someone important in their life. It could be a parent, teacher, best friend, girlfriend, or sibling. Or, it could be something larger such as a community, society, or world. I ask the question, who are you in the eyes of that person?

“In the Eyes of My Mother” is the response from one young man.

Prison Theater: Performing New Lives

12 Jan

This review was originally posted on January 12th, 2011 by Lois Holzman, Director of the East Side Institute here.

“We have a play to perform. We are accountable to one another. In programs that culminate with performances for prison audiences, and (especially) public audiences, there is an opportunity for prisoners to display and celebrate the culmination of their weeks or months of hard work. They can show themselves to themselves in the mirror of the audience, as people of value, as people who can make a contribution.” Jonathan Shailor

At the end of last year, I got a phone call from Jonathan Shailor, associate professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Jonathan had participated in an early Performing the World conference I organized and we’d been in touch very infrequently since then. He called to tell me about a new book he had edited: Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre, and to see whether the East Side Institute was interested in having an event to promote it. (We are. It will take place on March 18. Check the Institute’s website for details.)

I don’t think very often or very concretely about prison life. I imagine most people don’t. We know the horrific statistics, but not the people. Unless we ourselves or friends, colleagues or relatives work in or have served a prison sentence, our forays “inside” come through film and TV. Since I’ve read Jonathan’s book, its imprisoned men and women and the theatre artist-activists who work with them have become part of my life. I think about them, remember their stories, the roles they played on mostly make shift stages, and the ways they spoke of the impact. Jonathan’s book includes chapters on sixteen different prison theatre projects in the US, and each one is a good read. There’s honesty in this book and no polemic. I recommend it!

To learn more about prison theatre programs, check out the PrisonTheatre Consortium blog.

Book Announcement: Reading Is My Window

30 Nov

Meg Sweeney, Associate Professor of English and  Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, has authored a new book! Reading Is My Window is about incarcerated women’s reading practices.  The book is available from the University of North Carolina Press.

Author Meg Sweeney writes to the Prison Arts Coalition about her book:

Drawing on extensive individual interviews and group discussions with ninety-four women imprisoned in Ohio, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, Reading Is My Window explores how women prisoners use the limited reading materials available to them to come to terms with their pasts, negotiate their present challenges, and reach toward different futures.  The book offers the first analysis of incarcerated women’s reading practices, and it foregrounds the voices and experiences of African American women, one of the fastest growing yet least acknowledged populations in U.S. prisons.

Reading Is My Window situates contemporary prisoners’ reading practices in relation to the history of reading and education in U.S. penal contexts, explores the material dimensions of women’s reading practices, and analyzes the modes of reading that women adopt when engaging with three highly popular genres (narratives of victimization, African American urban fiction, and self-help and inspirational books).  The book also discusses the many kinds of encounters fostered by book discussions in prisons, and it offers detailed portraits of two imprisoned readers, each of which weaves together the woman’s life narrative and her own description of her reading practices.

Click here to read a review of Reading Is My Window by Alyssa Vincent for Feminist Review.

Posted by Emily Harris

Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? Twenty Years of the Prison Creative Arts Project

2 May

Professor Buzz Alexander, founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan, has authored a new book celebrating twenty years of PCAP. The book is NOW AVAILABLE from the University of Michigan Press.

Buzz’s Book Tour Dates:

Battle Creek, MI
(after) Prison: Denied Opportunities or Safer Communities?
Friday, Oct. 1st @ 7:00pm
Book reading, signing & Prisoner Art Exhibit at Urban Art Museum
60 Calhoun St., Battle Creek, MI

Los Angeles
Friday, October 15th @ 6:30p.m.
Book reading & signing at Mama’s Hot Tamales
2122 West 7th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90057
More information: 213-487-4300

San Francisco
Tuesday, October 19th @ 7:00pm
Book reading & signing at the Green Arcade
1680 Market St. San Francisco, CA 94102

New York
Education and Incarceration: A Conversation with the Founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project
Thursday, October 28th @ 5:00-7:00pm
Book reading, practitioner panel & signing at Teachers College
Milbank Chapel (Zankel Hall) Teachers College, Columbia University
525 W. 120th Street, New York, NY 10027
More information: 314-651-4862

Panel Includes:
–Kathy Boudin, of the Weather Underground and Columbia University’s Incarceration Working Group
–Jondou Chen, Teachers College Student Press Initiative
–Chris Emdin, author of “Affiliation and Alienation: Hip Hop, Rap and Urban Science Education”
–Michael Rebell, Executive Director, Campaign for Educational Equity
–Carol Shapiro, seminar leader, “Rethinking Criminal Justice: Moving Beyond an Individual Approach”
–Julia Taylor, contributing author, “Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre”

Saturday, October 30th @ 2:00-4:30pm
Workshop at Teachers College (Room TBA)
Columbia University, NY
More information: 314-651-4862

Ann Arbor, MI
Wednesday, November 3rd @ 7:00p.m.
Reading & signing at Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery in Room 100
University of Michigan, Central UM Campus
More information:

Saturday, November 13th @ 2:30p.m.
Reading & signing at Enoch Pratt Free Library in the Poe Room
400 Cathedral Street, Baltimore, MD 21201
More information: 410-396-5494

Washington DC
Sunday, November 14th @ 3:00pm
Reading & Dialogue with Arts for Change Activists
Potter House Bookstore
1658 Columbia Rd NW, Washington DC

Friday, November 19th @ 7:00pm
A Dialogue on Prison Arts, Mass Incarceration and Community Engagement
Reading, panel & signing
Resident’s Dining Hall at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum
800 S. Halsted at UIC, Chicago IL
Seating is limited please RSVP:

Panelists include:
-Mariame Kaba, Founder and Director, Project NIA
-Meade Palidofsky, Artistic Director, Storycatchers Theatre
-Jonathan Shailor, Founder and Director of the Shakespear Prison Project
-Amanda Klonsky, Girls Program Director, Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy Program

Monday, November 29th @ 6:30-8:30pm
Reading & platica featuring Author, Save Our Youth, Ex-Pinta Support Alliance, & the Hutto Visitation Program
Resistencia Bookstore
1801-A South First St.
Austin, TX 78704

Thursday, December 9th @ 7:00pm
Reading & panel discussion
Leopold’s Books
15 East Kirby Street
Detroit, MI 48202

Helping Our Prisoners Elevate
Friday, December 17th @ 6:00pm
Reading and panel discussion
Urban Network Bookstore
5740 Grand River, Detroit

Panelist include:

  • Yusef Shakur Author and Activist
  • Kwasi Akwamu Author and Activist
  • Peter Martell from the American Friends Service Committee
  • Michelle Bazzetta from the Prison Creative Arts Project
  • Readings in Petoskey, Maine, and Philadelphia coming soon!!

    About the book:
    “Prisons are an invisible, but dominant, part of American society: the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world, with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners currently held within its borders. In Michigan, the number of prisoners rose from 3,000 in 1970 to more than 50,000 by 2008, a shift that Buzz Alexander witnessed firsthand when he came to teach at the University of Michigan.

    Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? describes the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), a pioneering program founded in 1990 that works with incarcerated youth and adults in Michigan juvenile facilities and prisons. Alexander recounts the genesis and evolution of this radically pragmatic and original system that begins with university courses for credit, then offers students a university-based nonprofit organization through which they may continue and deepen their practice, and finally gives them a national network as well as connections with the national movement resisting mass incarceration in this country, and with social careers in general.

    By giving incarcerated individuals an opportunity to participate in the arts, PCAP enables them to withstand and often overcome the conditions and culture of prison, the policies of an incarcerating state, and the consequences of mass incarceration.

    The book is also a deeply personal account of Alexander’s long commitment to confronting the continually rising numbers of prisoners in America, his dedication as an educator, and his attempts to provide a way to reach out on a practical and emotional level to inmates. The model he describes applies to both public scholarship and everyday politics and will inspire readers in all fields.”

    Buzz spoke recently at Dartmouth college. Read about that presentation in The Dartmouth.

    Recent news about the book….

    ‘Is William Martinez Not Our Brother?’
    Inside Higher Ed
    August 23rd, 2010

    ANN ARBOR: U of M-based Prison Creative Arts Project enters 21st year
    The Heritage Newspapers
    September 5, 2010

    Utah inmates escape through art
    by Jennifer W. Sanchez
    The Salt Lake Tribune
    September 13, 2010

    Creating art from within: A profile of the Prison Creative Arts Project
    by Chantel Jennings
    The Michigan Daily
    September 20th, 2010

    The Prison Focus radio show with Leo Brutta on KPOO
    October 21st, 2010

    Change Makers Buzz Alexander
    October 25th, 2010

    ARTFORMS: Art Behind Bars
    Interlochen Public Radio
    November 4th, 2010

    Recent panel discussion addresses the value of arts in prisons
    by Julia Eussen
    November 5th, 2010

    Literary Treats for Politics and Policy Geeks
    by Bill Castanier
    December 16, 2010

    Art Behind Bars: How an Innovative Program Changes Lives
    by Lauren Monsen
    December 22, 2010

    College to host prison art lecture
    by Rachel Brougham
    Petoskey News
    February 8, 2011,0,2480043.story

    “By Heart: Poetry, Prison and Two Lives”

    19 Feb

    We are thrilled that By Heart, a two-person memoir written by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson will be out this April.   Congratulations, Judith and Spoon, on what is sure to be a powerful and beautiful work!

    Learn about the authors here:

    Watch the book trailer by Michel Wenzer here:

    Here are a couple of reviews:

    “A boy with no one to listen becomes a man in prison for life and discovers his mind can be free. A woman enters prison to teach and becomes his first listener. And so begins a twenty-five year friendship between two gifted writers and poets. The result is By Heart — a book that will anger you, give you hope, and break your heart.” Gloria Steinem

    “A portrait of prison and of the pursuit of art. An amazing combo, a compelling read. . . years later, acting in [Waiting for] Godot on Broadway, I see how much the San Quentin production has meant to my view of the play.” –Bill Irwin, TONY winning actor, appeared in the Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot

    “This is a book about poetry, about struggle, about freedom and incarceration, and most of all about heart. It is a wonderful read.” -devorah major, San Francisco Poet Laureate 2002-2005

    See more reviews and order the book here:

    Bookstore readings:

    Thursday April 8, 2010 7 PM Diesel, a Bookstore 5433 College Avenue, Oakland, CA

    Sunday April 11, 2010 4 PM Booksmith 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco, CA

    Wednesday April 14, 2010  7:30 PM Tattered Cover Book Store 1628 16th Street, Denver, CO

    Monday May 10, 2010, 7:30 PM Capitola Book Cafe 1475 41st Avenue, Capitola, CA

    Thursday May 13, 2010 7 PM Diesel, A Bookstore in Brentwood, Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Santa Monica, CA

    Wednesday August 4, 2010 6 PM Sacramento Poetry Center @ Central Library 828 I Street, Sacramento, CA