An Appeal for Art for Justice

by Melnee D. McPherson

In the spring I attended a daylong forum about how the arts could help those men and women who are living in prison and building new lives back in their communities.

Officially the session was called “Michigan Art for Justice,” held in a historic hall on the campus of University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I was so gratified to see how many people were interested in this critical issue and many were already deep into solutions. Some of them were just explaining their job responsibilities and others were true advocates.

And that’s where I stand. After serving my time in prison, I earned degrees in social work, the majority at the University of Michigan. That work became very personal as I looked around and realized the shortages of help for returning citizens. In addition I saw the burdens the absence of a parent placed on the family. I would call this an epidemic, as the professionals say that 1 of 10 children have a parent in prison.

The person who stepped into this void was most frequently a grandmother. That’s me. Building an organization for other grandmothers who are tackling this challenge is now my mission. I’m in my early 70s and know my peers need support and advice.  We also need to let people know we exist, not just in a brief news report, but in our own 24 hour world.

At the recent forum I was hoping to hear more about this special group of people. Not this time.

Generally, the speakers spoke about the responsibilities of their public and private offices to returning citizens. Specifically, some offered ways the arts can inform discussions on criminal justice.  Exposure to programs such as Shakespeare Behind Bars, the Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project and the Arts in Corrections initiative of the California Lawyers for the Arts has proved extremely helpful. They have awakened or rekindled creativity in those inmates, from producing plays to writing about their lives.

The arts can help before interaction with the prison system begins. Alma Robinson, the Executive Director of the California Lawyers for the Arts, said, “If we had more arts education in schools, we wouldn’t have so many people to correct.” Amen to that!

As positive proof of this impact, the Prison Creative Arts Project organized an exhibition of art by Michigan prisoners. This was the 23rd year. Bravo was all I could think as I walked among the paintings, prints and sculptures of men and women whom I wanted to meet. The evening reached a high point as Hazelette Crosby told her story about her incarceration and sang the songs of hope she wrote in prison.

When she spoke on her panel Crosby emphasized the need to have complete participation among all sides of the prison crisis.

There is a value, she said, to established “communications between those who have had the experience and those on the outside who want to contribute.” Though those in the audience believed in all these efforts she described how hard it is to get hired and work after release. Crosby reminded everyone “we have a lot to bring to the table.”

We all know the system is a mess, and I don’t think we can ignore the language and the actions of the national lawmakers. My view is the politics of the current White House are only making matters worse.  You can’t have this discussion outside the context of what is happening nationally.

There is enough energy to help with fundamentals when someone comes home. Learning the soft skills—how to act on the job—is so important. There is enough interest in human rights issues to tackle abuses, overcrowding and the lack of rehabilitation programs. All the speakers pointed out these horrible conditions, as the oversight and ownership of prisons change to private hands.

Except in a few presentations, I didn’t hear the advocates talk about the impact those years of separation have had on the families. I wanted more from both sides of the story.

About the guest contributor:

 Melnee Dilworth McPherson, PhD, Dr. McPherson earned both her PhD in the Joint Sociology and Social Work Program in 2004 and her MSW in 1996 from the University of Michigan. Her dissertation entitled, “From a feminist perspective: An investigation of the relationship among dual diagnosis, intimate partner violence and parenting stress” formed the unifying theme of her research with a focus on domestic violence, mental illness, and substance misuse.

Dr. McPherson serves on several community initiatives including the Livingston-Washtenaw Substance Abuse Advisory Council and the Washtenaw Prisoner Re-entry Initiative. She is also a board member of The University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center. Dr. McPherson has taught courses at the University of Michigan- School Of Social Work and the Washtenaw Community College. She is also a consultant on a national project aimed at developing trauma-informed reentry programming for women. Dr. McPherson, a returned citizen, is also an advocate for supporting the grandmothers who take care of young people whose parent is incarcerated.

About the Art for Justice Forums:

​California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.

Additional forums will take place at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta on September 28 (register for the Georgia event here), at Sacramento State University on October 16, at the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University in Alabama on October 19, and at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16. For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org.

Sports or Arts?

by Treacy Ziegler
About the guest contributor: Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 2,300 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.

Binaries are a way of being:  We can choose either “this” or “that;” or we can take this binary to the interpersonal where there is a “them against us.”   It is not surprising, therefore, that sports and arts are often pitted against each other.

Most often, sports and arts are in competition for financial support as in education with school boards asking,   “Do we drop sports or arts?”  Are sports ultimately privileged because of the much higher number of individuals attending sports events than those who attend art performances or exhibitions?  Why do we pay sports players more than artists?  How many contracts have been given to artists before a season in the studio?

In prison, arts often take a back seat to sports.  Jesse Osmun, prisoner at  Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution recently wrote to me about his concern that the arts program was losing ground over the gym programs.

Jesse writes:
“Here at FCI Ft. Dix, we have a program for Hobbycraft/Arts that is run by inmates under the supervision of the recreation department and assigned staff. For the entire time I have been here, this program has run smoothly and had a dedicated space at the top floor of the Education building with actual classrooms and instruction by inmate instructors. These classrooms have worktables, lighting, basic supplies/tools, and good ventilation. These are all necessary for the program. No complaints about the space ever really came up. The program as it stands has strong leadership and dedicated hours and so is running better then it has in the past. Materials are purchased and arrive within a reasonable time frame. Tools and basic supplies are available, and classes fill very quickly.

However, more recently the staff decided that the best place to have the program is in the gym, competing with other recreational programs such as basketball, soccer, etc. and crammed into space that is not properly ventilated for use of materials such as oil paint, turpentine, glues, etc. Many of these areas are cramped and do not have proper lighting for programs such as drawing and painting. These areas are also subject to gym hours, meaning if the gym is closed, these programs cannot run.

 My current drawing class has 5-7 students with 10 or more active participants working on art projects in the room. It has been very active and well utilized, as are all the programs.  If these changes are made, the classes will be ultimately abandoned with the only kind of instruction being art instruction books that inmate will need to buy for themselves.  In addition, the inmates will not have ta dedicated place to work on art even on their own.”

 It’s easy to assume that money is the basis of such changes, but there are other dynamics working.

When I was a volunteer art teacher in a mid-west maximum-security men’s prison, under the direction of the programming director, the prison had a sophisticated art room where prisoners were allowed to work on their art on a regular basis.   There were some classes taught – mine being one – but each prisoner who was invited to the room (based upon behavior and ticket records) also had a dedicated space in which they could work; areas that I referred to as their “studios.”  The program director had minored in art in college developing an experience and understanding of art beyond what I typically see in prisons.

When that program director transferred to another prison, the subsequent program director, while very supportive of programming, had no experience whatsoever in art.   His background was in sports and recreation.  Unfortunately, the program and room lost its integrity as a place to create art and became more of a space for busywork.

This inability to understand art seems to be common in prison.  Well, lets be truthful, an inability to truly understand the depth of art is common in and out of prison.  Art’s existence has been challenged for a long time.  Some might argued since Plato threw out the poets from his Republics.  But an irrelevance of art seems even particularly so in the United States – how often does the average person in United States go to an art museum?

This lack of art experience is typical for most prisons in which I have volunteered. But in those prisons that did support a successful art program, there always seemed to be someone in authority who had first hand experience in art; maybe, they minored in art, had a spouse as an artist and so on.  A commitment to art in prison seems to demand that someone in authority have this first hand experience of art – call that person a lover of art.  How many lovers of art run prison, though?

A big discrepancy between someone who has first-and experience/commitment in art and someone who does not is that the former understands that art is not a recreation. This became apparent when I volunteered at a maximum-security men’s prison and each week the guards taunted me as to how was my “finger-painting” class going?  What they didn’t understand, and what I didn’t tell them (because would they really listen to me?) was that art is a means to self-discovery, self-reflection and self-challenge.

But as readers of this blog, I’m speaking to the already convinced.  If you would like to voice concern to the warden at Jesse’s prison the address is: Warden Hollingsworth,  Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution, 5756 Hartford and Pointvile Rd. Fort Dix, NJ 08640.   Perhaps as artists involved in prison, you would like to share your positive experience with him (or us.)  Or share an experience where art and sports were integrated equally in prison (or anywhere).

A gallery selection of Jesse’s work completed in his art room at the prison:

1
Beauty Fades, Jesse Osmun
2
Detox, Jesse Osmun
3
New Growth, Jesse Osmun
4
by Jesse Osmun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“My body may be imprisoned, but nothing can keep my creative vision from reaching out beyond these walls.” – the unbounded heartwork of Carole Alden

Woman Impaled - Part 1 of Bars Triptych
Prison Cell Bars Triptych, part 1: “‘Woman impaled upon bars’: I originally did this concept when I was very first incarcerated and facing a sentence of 20 – life. I had been unexpectedly ripped from my children’s lives. Out of five children I still had two that were young enough to be at home. A 14 year old son and a 9 year old daughter. The positioning of the woman represents the overwhelming pain and mental anguish at seeing my hopes and dreams disappear beyond a horizon. I felt helpless and hopeless for a long time.”  
Woan Crocheting - Part 2 of Bars Triptych
Part 2: “The woman crocheting is an act of defiance. This is a mindset developed after over a decade. My body may be imprisoned, but nothing can keep my creative vision from reaching out beyond these walls. Whether it’s beauty, or a statement…it’s going to places I may never. This piece is about finding your voice in whatever manner available to you.”
Untitled - Part 3 of Bars Triptych
Part 3: “In this cell, the fish represents the protective mental and emotional barriers we construct to keep ourselves safe. The child represents the changes we go through to nurture our new dreams.”
“The pregnant mermaid and the male with his back turned has to do with domestic violence. Being held captive by a spouse who hides their true nature. Feeling trapped, dead inside, and praying for your children.”
Baby Peeling Head Open
“Baby Peeling Head Open – This represents therapy in prison. You’re treated like a child in a steel playpen. Painful but necessary to examine the content of your head in order to grow beyond your circumstances.”

Mermaid and Fish

Mermaids
“There are four drawings that incorporate mermaids with children or fish. These are simply joyful pieces.”

Mermaid and Fish

Mermaid

 

 

Girl with Dragon
“‘Girl with Dragon’ represents the desire I had as a child to feel protected.”
Hippocampus
“The horse sea creature is a hippocampus from mythology. Just for fun.”

 

Cadillac - When I'm Free
“The Cadillac fiber sculpture (crochet) is a piece that is part of a “When I am free” series. It helps me to visualize a day when I am no longer in prison. I feel that it is crucial to develop a freedom within yourself regardless of your surroundings. It gives you that reservoir of spirit that keeps you intact mentally and emotionally no matter what you have to cope with behind bars. If you believe that they can’t take who you are away from you, then they won’t be able to ever silence you completely. Creating works of art and words are the best way to continue your connection with the larger world.”

When I Am Free

When I Am Free

When I Am Free