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, at Sacramento State University on October 16, at the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University in Alabama on October 19, and at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16 (register for the NY event here). For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org.

Images from Behind Prison Walls offers a rare opportunity to see artwork from incarcerated men and women

Contributed by Rehabilitation Through The Arts

 

Ossining, NY, June 13 2018 – Images from Behind Prison Walls is an exhibit of more than 60 pieces of artwork from men and women incarcerated in five maximum and medium security prisons, including Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the only maximum-security prison for women in New York State, that will be on display at the Ossining Public Library Art Gallery throughout the month of July.

All the artwork has been created by prisoner members of RTA – Rehabilitation Through The Arts, a non-profit organization operating in the prison system over twenty-two years. Because of their long-standing and positive relationship with NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, RTA received approval to exhibit and sell the artwork.

A public Gallery Reception will be held in the Ossining Public Library Art Gallery on Saturday, July 14 from 3:00 to 5:00 pm and will feature refreshments and the opportunity to talk with formerly incarcerated RTA artists including Jeffrey Clemente and Amaury Bonilla.

Jeffrey Clemente, who was a member of RTA while serving seven years at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, said, “When I got involved with RTA it expanded my imaginative mind about art and took me to another creative space. It was like I was able to express myself in this creative environment without any judgment…art is really the platform that allowed me to express myself.”

Amaury Bonilla served 10 years at Sing Sing. About the Ossining exhibit, he comments, “Society only looks at people convicted of a crime as criminals and that’s all they know, when it’s not reality – prisoners are still human beings who have different talents and skills, and through this exhibit, visitors will gain awareness that we’re not just a number; we’re human beings able to express ourselves in numerous ways.”

RTA is partnering with the Ossining Public Library (OPL), the Ossining Arts Council (OAC) and the Sing Sing Prison Museum (SSPM) to make this important exhibit available to the public. These three Ossining-based nonprofits share RTA’s belief in the transformative power of the arts to change lives and build communities. By providing the space, expertise and historical context for the artwork, the OPL, OAC, and SSPM aim to enhance RTA’s work in telling the stories of incarcerated people and how they benefit through the healing power of art in all its forms.

Rehabilitation Through The Arts uses the creative arts of theatre, dance, visual art, creative writing, and music to transform lives. Its curriculum develops and expands critical life skills for the more than 200 incarcerated men and women they serve. Two evidenced-based and published studies have proven the arts curriculum RTA delivers is effective in changing discipline records and is a catalyst for learning. RTA prisoner members do not return to prison.  While the national recidivism (return to prison) rate is more than 50%, RTA’s recidivism is less than 7%.

The Ossining Public Library (OPL) is located at 53 Croton Avenue. For more information visit www.ossininglibrary.org, or call 914-941-2416.  For information on RTA, visit www.rta-arts.org, email to info@rta-arts.org or call 914-232-7566.

All I see is freedom
All I See is Freedom by John McKeever

 

Magical Garden
Magical Garden by Hector Rodriguez Green Haven CF

 

All Color Matter #1
All Color Matter #1 by George Tucker Sing Sing CF

 

Contacts: Barbara Branagan-Mitchell 860-210-0149; Jackie Kunhardt 860-271-1694

About the Ossining Public Library

The Ossining Public Library is a School District Public Library chartered by the State of New York to serve all residents of the Ossining School District. As a member of the Westchester Library System, it also provides services to a larger community. The Ossining Public Library enriches, connects, and inspires our community. For more information, visit www.ossininglibrary.org.

About the Ossining Arts Council

The Ossining Arts Council (OAC) is a not-for-profit volunteer organization devoted to demonstrating that art, in all its forms, is an important, vital and affirming force—both in the life of a community and in the life of each individual it touches. OAC helpsits artist members and promotes their work through OAC hosted events, use of its physical Gallery Space in the OAC Steamer Firehouse, a dedicated artist profile and showcase through its Online Galleries and various other channels. OAC offers a social and creative hub, where like-minded people can meet, share ideas and foster new projects and collaborations. For more information, visit www.ossiningartscouncil.org.

About The Sing Sing Prison Museum

Sing Sing Correctional Facility is a working maximum-security prison where the theories and realities of criminal punishment and rehabilitation have played out for almost 200 years. It’s a place with many stories to tell from many sides. Housed just outside the prison walls, the new Sing Sing Prison Museum will unlock the history of this world-famous institution through exhibits, artifacts and experiences. At the same time, the museum aims to take center stage in the urgent national conversation about social justice and incarceration. In illuminating these issues, in telling these stories, Sing Sing Prison Museum will tell us much about ourselves. For more information, visit www.singsingprisonmuseum.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sketches from Inside

insideoutINSIDE | OUT

Sketches from Inside

In January of this year, we started a Prison Arts Pilot Program here at Avery Mitchell Correctional Institution (AMCI) in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. We set out to do a series of 9 drawing classes with 15 incarcerated men each of whom are serving sentences from a few years to life. Our original intention was to solely focus on drawing exercises as many of the men were most interested in learning skills and art terms that others are able to learn in school. Over the weeks though, our drawing exercises turned into communal teaching opportunities in which all participants taught each other and we all learned to grow together as artists.

Our classes are now comprised of technique sharing, looking at work of artists both inside and outside the prison walls, and talking about the purpose and benefit of making art. We meet weekly to laugh, talk, and draw together and our sessions last just an hour and a half. In May, we will begin round two of our program and we are excited to bring in guest artists, look at more artwork, and to keep sharing the talents of these men.

More than anything, the men at AMCI would like you to know that they have talent, heart, and soul and do not want to be forgotten.

This program is generously funded and supported by the Penland School of Crafts Community Collaboration Program. Special thanks to Stacey Lane for her tireless work.

Thank you to Angela Lamm, Dawn McMahan, and Jason Penland at the Avery Mitchell Correctional Institution, and Aaron Buchanan at Fox & the Fig.

With sincere thanks to the 12 artists in this show, we are so happy to be working with you.

Daniel T Beck, Sarah Rose Lejeune, and Rachel Meginnes

About AMCI:

The Avery Mitchell Correctional Institution currently has 846 occupied beds, and has a capacity for 856. They have 95 men incarcerated there with life sentences, and 53 that have been “promoted” to minimum custody, who will soon be sent to a lower security facility that has more opportunity for work release and transitional programming. The men incarcerated at AMCI are between the ages of 22 and 73. This facility is classified as medium custody, although many of the men would describe it as run closer to that of a maximum unit, with rules enforced tightly across the board. The men currently participating in this prison arts program are predominantly active artists, most of whom hold long sentences. Very few of these men were practicing artists on the outside, their interest in making predominantly began as therapy and hobby once incarcerated. They take their craft very seriously, although only two of the program participants have had minimal formal training. These men teach and share knowledge and skills with great compassion, their artwork a common thread that builds community and commonality.

reception (11 of 20)

Angela Lamm is a Correctional Case Manager and Volunteer Coordinator at the Avery Mitchell Correctional Institution. She has worked tirelessly with us to make this program a reality.

Inside Out opening reception

The Inside Out exhibition included written statements by many of the artists, and a notebook for viewers to record their thoughts and feelings about the work. We were able to share these responses with the artists, opening up dialogue between those inside and outside the prison walls.

The artists:

Ted Brason

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Nick Tucci-Caselli

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Robert Reid

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Bobby Autry

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David Jones

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Antonio Trejo

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David Bauguess

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Eric Hughes

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Juan Santiago

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Michael Lewis

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Michael Sheets

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Tyvon Gabriel

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As instructors we continue to grow alongside the students, always challenged by and learning from class conversations. This initial pilot program is continuing. Moving into summer we are expanding the structure of the course to include a mixture of slide lectures, open studio time, prompts and exercises, and a series of guest instructors. The Inside Out exhibition currently on display at Fox and Fig in Spruce Pine, NC has plans to travel to Boone, NC, and potentially additional venues, with additional exhibitions slated to culminate future course segments.