Making Meaning: a caged bird sings

by Page Dukes

I was released from prison last May, after serving ten years for a crime I committed as a heroin-addicted teenager. I have spoken publicly many times since, about the decisions and circumstances that led me to the criminal justice system. However, at the Art for Justice Forum held at Emory University Law School, I was asked to talk about the role music has played in my life, how it both kept me free on the inside and has helped me to have confidence and livelihood in my newfound freedom.

I was around music my entire life. The daughter of musicians, I toured the country and sang on stage with my mother from as early as 3 years old. I played the cello in elementary school, switching to the guitar when I discovered punk rock. My best friend and I formed a band when we were 13 and played on stages (with big black X’s on our hands) all over Atlanta. It was around that time that I began to “experiment” with drugs— my ambition to use matched and eventually surpassed my ambition to play music. By 18 I was shooting a deadly mix of heroin and cocaine daily, and by my 21st birthday I’d committed armed robbery.

In the jail, I got clean for the first time in many years. I realized all I had given up, all I had to lose and to live for. At the Art for Justice forum, I remembered the time a volunteer let me play her guitar after a jailhouse church service—how grateful I had been to her, how I probably scared her with my weeping, and how that moment was the first time I had felt anything in a long, long time. That was perhaps the first in a series of releases—in which I opened up a little at a time, and began to grow, in the darkest, dankest of places: the basement of the Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice Street.

There were long years when I didn’t get to play at all. I sang a lot when it was all I had. I remember finding spaces where the acoustics carried and amplified my voice— in the dungeon below the courthouse, where we sat shackled, anxiously awaiting an uncertain fate, or to be sent back without any answers at all; or in the visitation room, where we waited to be “shaken down,” having watched our families leave crying, trying to reassure them that we were okay.

It was in that room that I last saw Kelly Gissendanner, who was killed after 18 years on death row, having turned her life around and become a pillar of hope and encouragement in the prison community. She’d been visiting with her children in the room where they kept her quarantined from the rest of us. After her death warrant was issued, they had stopped letting her attend church and classes with us. I knew it may be the last time I would see her, so I sang for her. I cried, and she cried, and she thanked me. In Kelly’s last hours, she sang “Amazing Grace.”

Music is something that could not be taken from us. In a place designed to dehumanize you, where you’re told you are worthless—a uniform, a number, a discarded sub-citizen—you must make your own meaning. The system is not designed to rehabilitate, but to “correct–” to punish. I knew where my meaning was—music was my first religion—and I also believed that I would survive and thrive no matter how large the obstacles I had placed in my way.

How many others bought the view that their lives were worthless? That they were defined by their crimes, that they will never be anything more than a number, a statistic, an “offender.” The system will strip you of everything, even your humanity, if you let it. And once that happens what do you have left to lose?

The first panelist, Rachel May, a co-founder of Synchronicity Theatre, hosts theater workshops, where they give young girls in juvie the platform to tell their own stories. I remembered young girls who were in solitary confinement until their eighteenth birthdays. I remembered the ones who felt they had nothing to lose, facing long sentences, longer even than the one I had faced in my youth. And I hope that they find the freedom I did in music and in art and in words, that they will inspire others inside, and one day speak to an audience who wants to know how they made it through.

Another panelist had been making art since a childhood teacher had encouraged him to do so. In prison, he honed his portraiture skills, capturing the character of each person who lived in his unit, in graphite on paper. Like music, it was more than just a talent. It helped him to know who he was, and how he could serve a purpose in a void of meaning. It also helped him to develop his skill—one that would sustain him when he faced the task of finding work with a record.

I sang and played in the chapel services for my last three years at Lee Arrendale State Prison. I’ve since met women who tell me they remember hearing me sing in church— and they thanked me. It humbled me, that my voice and my music could have such an effect, could be a conductor for the same peace, beauty and transcendence that it brought me.

I talked and talked and talked at the Forum, until I realized I had taken up all the time. It was strange and wonderful to be asked about my experience with music in prison. The transformative power of art is no new idea—everyone has felt it, and yet we forget that the people who have been condemned, hidden out of sight and out of mind, need it too. The artist in a world without color, the musician in a room with only her voice bouncing off cement walls, the writer stripped down to the basics of pen and paper and his words—they are bound and confined, but their inner lives are rich, and they matter.

About the guest contributor:

Page Dukes is a formerly incarcerated writer, musician and college student. She grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of a touring singer/ songwriter who brought her along on the road during school breaks. She experienced life on the road with her mom and played in her own band back home, but started using drugs in her early teens, and by the age of 18 was hopelessly addicted to heroin. She committed armed robbery at 20 and served the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison. While incarcerated she taught writing classes in the GED program, studied theology with the Atlanta Theological Association, trained and re-homed shelter dogs with the Forever Friends Canine Rescue, and performed with the Voices of Hope Choir. She was released last May and since has studied journalism and philosophy, worked as a reporting intern at the Marshall Project in New York this summer and the publications chief at the Roar, Piedmont College’s student media. As a founding member of the Athens Reentry Collaborative, she and several post-incarcerated peers work with academics and advocates to provide resources and support to reentering citizens in Athens, Georgia. She recently celebrated 11 and a half years clean.

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 the 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.

 

The 2018 New York Art for Justice Forum at Columbia University

by Philip Hall

In 2018, the creation and discussion of art is widely acknowledged as a vehicle for social justice. Years ago, such a concept would have been largely ignored. Current tightened state budgets, plummeting crime rates, as well as an examination of mass incarceration, is prompting the investigation and support of art as a vehicle for social justice.

New partnerships are helping to force that change.

On November 16, 2018, I attended the New York Art for Justice Forum. This event was presented by Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, Kernochan Center for Law and Media and the Arts at Columbia Law School in collaboration with California Lawyers for the Arts and the Center for Institutional & Social Change at Columbia Law School.

The Art for Justice Forums, convened in five other states (Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia and California), and attended by government officials, educators, teaching artists, advocates, policy makers, and lay persons, was an impressive effort to examine how art can further the national conversation to end mass incarceration by improving rehabilitation services, delinquency prevention and community reentry.

The daylong event had a good turnout, despite a snowstorm that hobbled travel across the state. When I arrived, Katherine Vockins, CEO of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, greeted me. I met Katherine in 1996 at Sing Sing and joined the Theater Workshop program she started with some of the men serving time. Later during the morning, Katherine spoke passionately about the benefits of arts programs in prisons and how she believes that the arts can transform the language around criminal justice.

Anthony J. Annucci, Acting Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the Keynote Speaker, expressed how programs such as Rehabilitation Through the Arts enables the corrections system to reach its goal of improving the institutional and post-release lives of men and women. Commissioner Annucci acknowledged the “traction” rehabilitation has gained as a “penal philosophy,” and the importance of putting a “human face on every incarcerated individual.”

Elizabeth Powers, State Policy Advocate for the Innocence Project, moderated a panel discussion on the impact of the Criminal Justice System upon youth. Panel members took questions from the audience and spoke of art as a bridge to help young people cope with trauma, and to be empowered through sharing their personal narratives. JoAnne Page, Chief Executive Officer of the Fortune Society, led the Arts in the Community discussion. She told the audience how a play written by an incarcerated man in the 1960s, about brutal, dehumanizing prison conditions, became the conceptual pillars for the Fortune Society. Panel member, Piper Anderson, writer, educator and Founder of Create Forward and Mass Story Lab, spoke about her belief that the restorative power of storytelling can be utilized to address the harms of crime, punishment and mass incarceration. She shared the positive impact of storytelling upon the life of Mass Story Lab participant, Lewis Conway, a formerly incarcerated Austin, Texas resident, who became a community organizer, City Council member and mayoral candidate.

After lunch, three breakout sessions were formed: “Youth,” “Adults in Prison” and “In Community to discuss strategies for supporting and gaining recognition of the arts as a viable tool in the struggle for social justice. Forum members reassembled and presented the following ideas:

  • Helping formerly incarcerated persons to sustain interest in the arts after release
  • Surmounting the funding challenges for jail/prison-based arts programs
  • Creating value for arts programs inside correctional facilities
  • Advocating for the recognition of teaching artists as valued professionals in the correctional setting
  • Creating a coalition of arts organizations to share ideas, resources and support
  • Influencing law makers and governors to share resources
  • Demonstrating how arts programs save money
  • Artistic engagement with correctional staff
  • Supporting the artistic work of community engaged practitioners
  • Creating justice for youth as a model
  • Utilizing art to address the anti-social and dehumanizing power of the Prison Industrial Complex
  • Engaging the services of a public relations expert to gain wider support for criminal justice Reform
  • Creating a documentary film about the transformative power of the arts

“Art as a vehicle for social justice” is part of a national discussion that is both timely and overdue. Because it is not a new idea, its advocates must find innovative ways to chart its course. Failure to navigate the current swelling tide of public interest will find the concept receding from focus.

One idea that impressed me called for the creation of or use of an existing documentary film about the transformative power of the arts to be submitted to a film festival. This generated a discussion about the support such an effort could garner. I immediately liked the idea because I have always been awed by the power of film.

Throughout the day, I thought about the power of words as I listened to speakers use terms like, “justice-impacted,” “criminal justice involved” and “returning citizens” to refer to men and women impacted by the Criminal Justice System. Words are loaded with powerful ideas. The old language is stigmatizing and dismissive. But there’s something about the new lexicon that I don’t like; the clinical sound of it all. Those shiny, officious terms always give me the impression that great effort is being made to appear sensitive. Hearing them at the forum made me want to stand up and say: “Your intentions are good. You are invested in the human dignity of the populations referenced. What’s wrong with saying ‘men,’ ‘women,’ ‘children,’ or ‘persons’ when discussing those impacted by the justice system?”

As a playwright, I often consider how we are born into complex social systems that, much like the world of a play, influence our thoughts, sense of self and behavior. Writers like to believe that their characters act upon their own volition, pursuing their needs, sometimes tragically, independent of the story’s context. Undoubtedly, there are social determinants of criminality: poverty, social exclusion, income inequality, racism, and economic factors, to name a few. Neither I, nor the men I knew on the inside, who have taken responsibility for our actions, believe that we have been victims of inexorable social forces, or actors without agency. Instead, we examined our lives, wrestled with our pasts, and took steps to change.

During my incarceration, art was a catalyst for change that compelled me to accept responsibility, develop empathy, a broadened perspective and a sense of myself as more than my past.

As the conference drew to an end, I reflected upon how my friendship with David Rothenberg, Fortune’s founder, began after he attended a public showing of a play I wrote during my incarceration.

That play, “The ‘Nigger’ Trial,” was performed at New York University in 2001, and in 2005 at Sing Sing. I will always appreciate David for taking the time to see the play and recommending it to the public as he hosted his Saturday morning radio show for WBAI. The playwriting skills I developed as a member of Rehabilitation Through the Arts continue to factor into every meaningful, supportive relationship I enjoy today. They gave me what Katherine Vockins referred to as an “honestly earned self-esteem.” That’s a wholesome way of seeing myself. Yes. Art works.

About the guest contributor: 

Philip Hall, 52, born August 17, 1966 in Brooklyn, New York, is the youngest of the five children. In 2016, he was released after a 30-year period of confinement and continues to write. He thanks God for the opportunity he was given to rejoin society.

While incarcerated, Philip participated in numerous rehabilitative programs. He developed his love for plays and playwriting after joining Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) at Sing Sing. In 2001, his play, “The ‘Nigger’ Trial,” was performed at New York University, and in 2005, he was transferred to Sing Sing from a medium security prison to attend the run of the same play.

Several of Philip’s other plays, “Front & Back” and “Corridors” have been performed at Sing Sing and at Playwrights Horizon in New York City to support the work of RTA. Today, Philip works as a Health Counselor at MetroPlus Health of New York and has been accepted into The Fortune Society’s transitional housing program.

Charlie Ghost

by Chelsea Garner-Ferris

I first met Charlie on a humid, London summer’s day in June 2016. A true mountain of a man he was tall, broad, and covered from shaven head-to-toe in elaborate tattoos. We were meeting for the very first time to begin our Mentor/Mentee relationship at a crowded museum café, amidst crowds of people chatting over their designer coffees and overpriced baked goods. I remember being nervous; not because I was meeting someone who had been to prison, but for more common and rational reasons such as: Would he like me? Did I have enough experience to help him? Who was I to think I was in any position to mentor someone else, someone older than me, especially someone who had been in, and then out of prison?

As soon as we started talking, we hit it off. Charlie is smart, charismatic and confident. He presents himself very professionally and is well-spoken. He is a talented artist. He proceeded to show me some of the work in his portfolio as well as the many tattoos that cover his legs, arms and hands that he designed himself. The ultimate goal is to graduate, earning a BA degree in Contemporary Art and Professional Studies, and to also be an exhibited and selling commercial artist. Anyone who has spent time working in the lucrative art world knows, this is no easy feat for anyone in the industry regardless of background, connections, means, etc.

La Vie en Rose
La Vie en Rose, Posca paint pen on card

Over the next year we would meet once a month, usually somewhere in London. We would traverse the city, visit museum and gallery exhibitions, discussing our findings over lunch at Pret-A-Manger. We would work on his Artist Statement, Biography and CV, research the launch and use of a website, as well as integrating social media to try and get his name and profile out into the art world. We would canvas, critique his work, and usually end up discussing rugby or American football at least once every session – he’s a big fan.

I think I was always most impressed by Charlie’s drive and entrepreneurial spirit. He has sold spray-painted shoes, tote bags, T-shirts and canvases locally and at Camden market stalls. He was always the first to strike up a conversation with gallery owners or fellow artists. He had cards and stickers made, which he designed. He entered (and was often selected for) countless exhibitions and art contests. He bought an old VW caravan and restored it for use as a traveling studio space. He is, and always was motivated and keen to succeed.

Tea for Turk
Tea for Turk, spray paint

The next few years were not always easy for Charlie. He faced criticism, had trouble finding steady employment because he legally has to disclose his past, and put himself through school which was a financial strain. All the while he persisted and maintained this intense, but also very assertive positivity. He was always incredibly grateful for my time, but in all honesty I think I probably learned more from him than the other way around.

Dead Ringer
Dead Ringer, Charcoal on Fabriano Paper

There are moments in Charlie’s past that he is not proud of… events that occurred that if given the chance to do over, he would behave differently. But don’t we all have those moments in life? I realized that we were more or less the same, he and I, one life-altering difference being that I have never had my mistakes made public, my dirty laundry hung out for everyone to see. I made the decision then that it was not within my rights to judge him. As part of the mentoring program’s privacy and security, the details of their participants’ offenses, and their legal names, were never disclosed.

My time working with Charlie through the Koestler Trust program came to an end after about a year of meetings, and a couple of years later my husband and I moved back to the US. We keep in touch though, via email, and I try and check in on his website from time to time to see what he’s been creating. Recently we were in touch and he had some great news to share: he recently graduated and completed his degree with First Class Honors (the highest level of achievement in the UK’s degree system); his artwork was recently shortlisted, making it through to the final round of the juried Royal Academy’s 250th Summer Exhibition in London; he is employed full-time at a local Tattoo Studio, some of his recent work can be viewed on his Instagram feed; and he has been selected as one of Posca Pens/Uniball’s sponsored artists for their upcoming marketing campaign.

If Horses Were Wishes, Beggars Would Ride
If Horses Were Wishes, Beggars Would Ride, charcoal on Fabriano Paper

I wanted to write this post and tell his story because I believe his efforts, and his artwork deserve recognition. To this day, I do not know what Charlie was convicted of or why he served time, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is his unwavering determination to use his love for art, and his talent and skill to create a fulfilling life for himself and his family moving forward. I hope by sharing this, it will inspire and encourage others. I am immensely proud of his accomplishments and to know him, and wish him every ongoing success in future.

Charlie resides in the United Kingdom and goes by his artist’s pseudonym Charlie Ghost, his mural tag is Ghost13 Murals. You can see further artwork on his website, http://charlieghost.wixsite.com/cghost and his Instagram handle is @charlieghost1886.

About the guest contributor:
Chelsea Garner-Ferris resides in Florida after spending nearly a decade in London, UK. She holds a BS degree in Interior Design from The Florida State University and an MA in Art History and Visual Culture from Richmond, The American International University in London. Chelsea has experience in the contemporary art market, artist liaison and mentoring experience through the UK-based Koestler Trust. She is also a freelance writer, editor and published author. Chelsea can be contacted via email at chelsgarner@gmail.com.
In Crust We Trust
In Crust We Trust, acrylic on wall
In Crust We Trust
In Crust We Trust

All artwork by Charlie Ghost.