Crossing the Border: An artist’s experience of a super-maximum security prison

by Treacy Ziegler

Chris Shira’s interpretation of a horizon in prison

As a landscape painter, I explore the interior and exterior configurations of space. In my own painted landscapes, boundaries between interior and exterior are porous and the line between landscape and dwelling is fluid; the sea does not stop at the door—it comes in.

If prisons are defined by how space is contained, then there are two kinds: interior-oriented prisons and seemingly exterior-oriented prisons. The first type of prison usually has maximum or super-maximum security and the second, referred to as a “campus style” prison, is for minimally secured prisoners.

When I took my son to a “campus style” prison, surprised, he exclaimed, “It’s just like my high school!” Yes, just like a high school wrapped in three rows of barbed wire fences marking the very limits of its exterior presentation.

But on this particular day, I enter an interior-oriented, maximum-security prison and walk through the first gate separating it from the world. Some prisons refer to this initial space as the pedestrian trap. This trap leads further into interior space where corridors link the different facets of the prison. Hallways telescope out and are connected, segment-by-segment, with a series of locked gates, like the locks on a canal. I enter the standing space between the two gates and wait for the first gate to close before the second gate can be opened. I then proceed down the corridor to the next set of gates. In some interior-oriented prisons, these gated sections have no bars. Instead this space is a small room with one door leading in and another leading out. I feel the confinement of not being able to see beyond this room.

Walking down the corridors of this interior-style prison, I am struck by a confusing sense of spatial infinity. There are windows in the hallway and I see the bands of sunlight streaming across the corridor floor. These bands of light recede into the distance becoming less distinct.  

I often tell my prison art students to observe these bands of light to experience one-point perspective as they walk down the hall. This is when all space and everything in that space is visually organized by a distant single mark that can never be seen. One-point perspective assumes that we are all oriented to that same single point. Of course, one-point perspective is not how we see the world unless we happen to be blind in one eye—like my son’s friend who shot out an eye while playing with a potato gun, crushing all the bones, weaving potato with eyeball. I see evidence of many injuries in prison from different sorts of guns, scars from gunshot wounds, stabbing, ripped earring holes. Boys can get rough; some end up in prison and some don’t.

My prison students and I have two eyes and do not usually see the world as one-point perspective. We see with two eyes that are always moving, never fixed on a single spatial point unless we are walking down this prison corridor or looking at a Canaletto painting of Venice.

The corridors of this prison are cinder-blocked. A yellow line is painted on the floor dividing traffic. When movement occurs—the prison term referring to when prisoners travel from one point to another in a controlled fashion—the men walk in single-file. Usually one guard is in the front of the line and another brings up the end. The incarcerated are not to cross the yellow line into the ongoing traffic of the non-incarcerated.

When I am the oncoming traffic, the prisoners on the other side of the yellow line are required to stop and allow me to go through the set of gates first. Sometimes, they do this on their own without being told. I smile as they go by not knowing whether I will get in trouble with the guards for doing this. Sometimes I recognize a student and we say something familiar: How are you? Have you been drawing? Many of the men show curiosity and smile, and most seem friendly.

There are prisoners helping others who cannot walk on their own, men wheeling men in wheelchairs. The prisoners help one another in this way. I have not seen a guard assist a prisoner who has a disability.

Sometimes the prisoners are filing out of chow hall or going to the yard. A few prisoners walk separately from the line. These prisoners have been given specific passes to walk independently. Some are going for their medication, maybe to their job. In this prison, there is a time-block schedule programming the day into five periods—much like the classroom times scheduled in a high school. There are two periods in the morning, two in the afternoon, and one evening block, structuring time as if it is a block of space. Most everyone is scheduled to be in some kind of program. In some states, a prisoner will not be freed until he gets his GED.

While I walk the corridors of this prison, there is little sense of the exterior world except what I see through the small windows. The prisoners have 3-foot by-3-foot recreation pens outside their cells—like those exterior cages connected to a dog kennel allowing the dog to go outside. From these pens, the prisoners have the potential to see the pretty landscape that surrounds the prison. But when I ask my students to draw this landscape, I get in trouble with the prison authorities. The guards consider looking at the landscape as tantamount to developing an escape plan. Drawing that landscape most certainly confirms the plan.

The smells are strong in these interior-oriented prisons; odors of bodies, sour sweat, and soap. These smells are consistent in all the prisons that are oriented to the interior. They are the smells of many people forced to live together with limited movement in small spaces.

On another day, in another interior-oriented prison, I follow the director of treatment down a series of corridors to what is called the “school.” I don’t know if this is a super-maximum or maximum security prison. It has been referred to as both by different people. It houses prisoners designated as most violent.

In this prison, the corridor walls are painted with horizontal pink lines on the cinderblock as if urging the walker to go further inside. I have heard of the supposed effect of this color, referred to as Baker-Miller pink, on prisoners. Some research concludes that pink has a calming effect while other research shows that after 15 minutes, prisoners scratch the paint from the walls with their fingernails.

The pink in this corridor makes me think of a birth canal. I am reminded of my son’s birth by cesarean section, when nothing worked except a scalpel. This memory stands in contrast to other women screaming through labor and delivery and gives me the feeling that sometimes the knife is kinder, more direct, and less painful.

Here in prison, I cannot speak of birth canals or of knives as both would be totally taboo. All prisons are vulnerable to the effects of knives, but particularly so in this prison where the superintendent has recently been stabbed in the face. That another guard has also been stabbed makes for a constant reminder of the prison’s violence.

In this prison there are two sets of prisoners, some dressed in grey uniforms and others dressed in green uniforms. When I ask why the prisoners are dressed in different colors, I am told that they live in different parts of the prison. The division has nothing to do with security rank. It is merely based upon geography.

This division results in fights between the two sets of prisoners. If wearing different colors provokes such violence, then I wonder why officials do not just give everyone the same color uniform. It seems to be such an obvious solution to the fighting. I cannot help thinking that it might serve the prison in some way to maintain violence between prisoners.

I am finally led to a classroom on the second floor. I arrive by elevator. I do not know how the prisoners get from one floor to the other. I assume they do not have the luxury of riding the elevator. One luxury of this prison is its air-conditioning. No other prison I have been inside has air conditioning. During some summers in other prisons, the heat gets so bad that the men become sick from it.  

The classroom I am in is small with little desks like ones in a high school class. There is a teacher’s desk and a whiteboard. When I come into this prison, I am required to eliminate many art materials that I usually bring into other prisons. Chalk is forbidden, as it is feared that it will be jammed into the locks to make them fail.

I sit waiting for the prisoners. Sometimes, the guards fail to tell the prisoners that I am here and do not issue the call pass. One time I sat for an hour without students.

In the first class that I teach at this prison I have about 10 students. After they arrive, the guard comes into the room and announces that he is going to lock the door. This surprises me. Although, I never have a guard with me when I teach and I am never issued a panic button, this is the first time I am locked in the room. It is a locked room at the end of a locked corridor. The guard station is located on the other side of these two locked doors. There is no window in the classroom.

I ask the guard what I should do when, as is always the case, a prisoner needs to use the bathroom. The guard answers my question by giving me a telephone number I can call.

After an hour of class, Anthony needs to use the bathroom and I call the number given to me by the guard. Instead of the guard’s voice, I get a pleasant but recorded voice of a female saying that she is very sorry but I got the wrong number.  

It is the first time I feel uncomfortable in prison. I do not know if my rising sense of panic is the result of being locked in the room with the prisoners or merely the claustrophobia of being in a locked room and totally unable to get out.

I look at Anthony who, at almost 300 pounds, is much too large to fit into the diminutive chairs we are given. I am about to tell him that we cannot get out of this room until I realize that Anthony and the rest of the men already know this. They knew from the beginning of class that there was no way to get out of this room until someone decided it was time for us to get out.

I think about a warning I read on page after page in my volunteer handbook. It is a warning advising me never to trust a prisoner. I look at Steve with whom I was just having a heated discussion on the merits—or lack thereof—of Bob Ross, the formulaic public television artist. Dismayed with me, Steve asked, “You mean, you don’t like Bob Ross?”

Looking into Steve’s face, I realize that by being locked in this room with these men who have been designated as violent, the prison is demanding quite the opposite from the warning in the handbook. In this locked room with these men, the prison is instructing me that not only do I need to trust these prisoners, I need to trust them with my life. And so I do.

The next time I return to this prison, another guard comes to the room. When I ask this guard if he is going to lock the door, he looks at me incredulously, “You mean you want me to lock you in this room alone?!” I realize that the first guard played a joke on me; the guards often challenge volunteers.

But the joke is not on me. Because unlike the guard who cannot cross over into this room alone without being hurt, I can sit with these men. And together in this room, we can create a fluid place where the sea comes in.

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.

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.

 

It’s a start, but we’ve got a ways to go, still

by Kenneth E. Hartman

As I sit in the audience of assembled artists and corrections officials, writers and performers, along with a smattering of fellow returned citizens, I reflect on the magical nature of my own journey to this meeting, provoked to reverie by a tale of emotional torture and abuse told by a gentle, kind artist who once walked the same yards and felt the same arid winds of isolation I experienced for 38 years.

The story of a prisoner locked inside a cell, alone with his thoughts and fears, is a trope that defines prison narrative in fiction and movies. There is something both heartrending and heartwarming to consider in these tales of solitary “definement” – this act of finding oneself within the confines of the steel and concrete of a prison cell. While I listened to him recount his own harrowing experience of this, I became lost in nightmarish memories of other places and times. I could hear the clanking sound of heavy brass keys in the far distance. I felt the weight of those decades leaning on me.
But it’s October 16, 2018, on the vast, tree-lined campus of Sacramento State University in a large, windowed room in the Alumni Center. This is the California Art for Justice Forum; this is the place for “Addressing Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform Through the Arts.” Along one side of the room, tables are stacked with breakfast food: bagels and cream cheese, muffins and cut fruit. At the end of the last table, large brown Cambro drink dispensers – the exact size and color of the containers in the chow hall of the last prison I served time in, mere months ago. The coffee is much better here. Throughout the rest of the day a small army of food service workers keep replacing the offerings with new items. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser to serve the participants a box lunch like what prisoners eat every day.

In the opening panel, as the Chief of Rehabilitation in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation bats back requests for more programs, more art, more of anything, California Arts Council Deputy Director Ayanna Kiburi points out that eight million dollars a year is being allocated toward arts in the California prisons by her organization. I whip out my smart phone and do the math. It works out to about 7/1000ths of a percent of the twelve billion dollars pouring into the prisons for all the rest they accomplish for society. Obviously, art isn’t valued that highly.

During the first breakout sessions, I walk around the room, listening when I can, standing back when I can’t, and what I see and hear leaves me with that kind of déjà vu that feels heavy. It strikes me that many people with obviously big hearts and real commitment are having an argument with the past. How do we measure this? How do we get the system on board? I think it’s different now, right? We shouldn’t ask for too much! When I came to prison back in 1980, it was at the tail end of the last rehabilitation surge. In those days, at Old Folsom, no less, whole sections of Five Building were dedicated to painters and sculptors. Art Alley it was called. It vanished into the maw of the “get tough” era that followed.

When keynote speaker Luis Rodriguez, former Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and both personal hero and close friend of mine, takes to the dais to address the crowd he’s vibrating with righteous energy. He compares the current moment to the “birth of a new era,” and I pray right there that he’s right. His poet’s voice rises and falls, emphasizing and exhorting, calling to action all assembled. In what holds personal significance for me, he makes the point that his own troubled youth was rescued by one adult who “cared him straight.” Like most of us who fall off the rails and land on the other side of the law and society, he needed to be seen and heard, to be cared for and nurtured. Instead, the system of mass incarceration had steel and concrete, isolation and suffering in abundance, ready to break us down and destroy our spirits. I discovered a vocation for writing, and I found a way to write my way back to humanity. That my spirit wasn’t destroyed is a testament to the power of the arts, but I am a lucky exception to the rule. A few millions buy a few programs; many billions buy lots of concrete and steel cages.

The second plenary session addresses the convergence of arts education and criminal justice reform. Two of the five panelists are fellow returned citizens. The wise and measured jazz musician, Wesley Haye, and the fiery, impassioned Shakespearean actor Dameion Brown, both provide the kind of experiential knowledge that only those of us who have lived inside the lethal, electrified fences can impart. Dr. Larry Brewster, a giant in the field of arts education in prison, spends a considerable amount of time explaining to the room the Gordian knot of proving to the uninterested that arts matter for the unloved. He is valiant in his commitment and radiates charm.

Breakout sessions again continue the debate from the morning and discuss the various systems and obstacles that hamper the provision of substantial and meaningful arts education within the jails and prisons. The well-meaning and the hopeful confronting the hard end of current reality is on display.

At the closing remarks, the voices of Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts, and Laurie Brooks, executive director of the William James Association, eloquently express appreciation for what change has happened inside the prisons and jails and the fervent, desperate desire for still more that has been evident all day.

My mind drifts back to Henry Frank, fellow returned citizen, and his gripping recounting of being able to draw on a used lunch bag while being held in solitary confinement. I could feel him slip back inside the terrifying isolation of a cell, alone, unsure how long he would be held out of touch, out of the healing rays of the sun. That he could call on his training as an artist is a wonderful thing, to be sure. That he was placed in a situation where all he could do to maintain his sanity was draw on the inside of a crumpled bag is a damning indictment of the system of mass incarceration.

This state, all of this country, still has miles to go to achieve something like a system that values human beings more than the infliction of pain. We must not ever forget that sad truth.

About the guest contributor: Kenneth E. Hartman served 38 years in the California prison system. He is the author of the award-winning memoir “Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars. “His other books are “Christmas in Prison,” and “Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough.” He lives and works in the Los Angeles area as a writer. Ken can be contacted at: kennethehartman@hotmail.com

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.

Additional forums have taken 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 the last forum will be held at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16 (register here). For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org.