Tag Archives: prison arts

Corrections . . . Because being in prison can be hazardous to your health.

5 Jan
Corrections Cover Art

by Ronald McKeithen

About the contributor: Connie Kohler is a semi-retired professor emerita at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.  She is the producer of several radio dramas highlighting health issues. She has been working with inmates since 2013. 

Johnny Gunn, aka Hardcore, played football in high school and for a while in community college.  His large, athletic frame was once intimidating, giving him a place high in the prison pecking order.  But, now in his 50’s, though Hardcore still does bench presses, much of his muscle has turned to flab, a condition he doesn’t seem to acknowledge as he continues his steady diet of honey buns and other delights from the commissary.  Now he has diabetes and must change his eating behavior.  After injuring a big toe, Hardcore is at risk of losing it or more.  But he’s more focused on being an advisor and friend and keeping his status as big man on the block.

Ron is a younger inmate who sees that Hardcore’s days as king of the block are numbered and challenges Hardcore for the position.  When a new inmate named Jimmy H arrives he asks who is the meanest guy who nobody will mess with.  While Hardcore tries to claim that distinction, other guys in the block tell Jimmy H it’s Ron. Ron is the toughest.  But Ron has issues, too.  Back home his mom and siblings aren’t doing so well – which causes Ron much stress.  He’s had a couple of passing out spells that might mean high blood pressure. But he’s not one to go whining to some pathetic prison doctor.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to emulate Ron, Jimmy H seeks out the local tattoo maker, a guy called Skillet.  He gets a homemade tattoo from Skillet who uses ashes and soap for ink and a makeshift tattoo gun.  When Jimmy H starts feeling sick, he learns that his tattoo has led to Hepatitis C.  Now it’s Jimmy’s turn to use a homemade instrument as he goes after Skillet with a shiv.

Unfortunately, when Charles McCracken, one of the older lifers, tries to stop Jimmy H, he gets the sharp end of the shiv in his arm.  Charles has been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease and has spells of confusion.  He tells Johnny Gunn (Hardcore) that he is scared about what will happen to him as he looses control of his wits and body.  When he wanders uninvited into another inmate’s cell and comes very close to getting beaten, he’s put into a cell in the infirmary for his own protection.  But Hardcore and others worry that Charles will only get worse in solitary.

These are some of the inmates in the fictional prison called United Correctional Facility.  They were created by a group of prisoners in an Alabama maximum security prison as the cast of characters for “Corrections”.   “Corrections” is the title of a serial drama (in audio format) that prisoners write and perform.  The first season was aired by a local radio station and the second season script is near completion.  The tagline for Corrections is,  “Because being incarcerated is hazardous to your health!”

I facilitate weekly meetings of this group of writers and performers.  Because my background is in public health, the drama revolves around health issues common in prison. The writing follows what has been called the “entertainment education” (EE) methodology.  Serial drama is a particularly good EE platform because it allows the story to model typical healthy and unhealthy behaviors and their consequences.  The goal of the drama is to change audience expectations about the consequences of behaviors such as overeating and smoking. This is done by showing a character suffering the negative health consequences these behaviors often lead to, such as getting a dirty tattoo leading to Hepatitis C.  Another goal is to promote a confident attitude toward changing unhealthy behaviors by having characters model how to do it with all the setbacks and small successes that are part of it.  By showing how the prisoners in the drama overcome typical obstacles to changing unhealthy behaviors, the drama gives the audience the sense that, “If he can do it, then I can do it.”  The primary intended audience is inmates but the group hopes to reach people in the free world to give them a different idea of what prisons and the people in them are like.

For season one the group identified TB (something the warden wanted addressed as well), diabetes and poor eating practices, Hepatitis C, stress and aging in prison as the most important health issues to address. Aging in prison is seen as especially important because many who were given long sentences during a “tough on crime” era are over 50 years old. As these inmates age, their health declines leading to chronic disease and dementia.  These are costly problems that the prison system in this country isn’t prepared to deal with.

In creating this drama, inmates have learned more about health and staying healthy.  For season 2 we are addressing the issue of screening for prostate cancer.  Several men were confused about the digital rectal exam versus colonoscopy.  One member of the group who had repeatedly refused to be screened by digital rectal exam, actually changed his mind after a few weeks of discussing how to influence inmates to consider getting checked.  Another health issue that the group researched and wrote into the script is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and it’s relationship to depression and violent behavior.

While writing this blog I asked inmates to write down what they would say in a blog. Below are samples of what several inmates wrote.

INMATE CONTRIBUTIONS

Daoud Boone

Imagine waking up every day to someone telling you when to eat

When to sleep

When to make your bed

When you will have the opportunity to visit with friends and family

Imagine waking up behind a barbwire fence

With limited rights . . . with limited sight . . . imagine be out of sight out of mind

Imagine a world of cell mates and lethal mazes

The men at United Prison don’t have to imagine this life

They live it . . .

For some it will be the death of them!

Corrections is a story written by inmates

Addressing issues revolving around health in the prison environment

These inmates are using art to create a fictional radio drama that is true to life and will hopefully bring awareness and produce health behavior and social changes

These inmates are using a negative environment to grow, build, and be productive and positive

We call this program Corrections.  We meet, we discuss, we write, we record

We hope you listen and enjoy.

Alecio Randall (Alecio wrote the following as if he were me, Connie, in first person.)

This challenge takes me into the underside of society. There I help to identify health issues and corrective habits with men (whom) most have cast away from thought and mind.

We embattle (sic) a variety of topics, writing scripts, creating cast, and recording dialogue from inside prison. From high blood pressure to dementia to violence, any and every health issue is explored combined with real life inside on a fictional scale.

Various challenges of going to prison on a weekly basis don’t diminish the rewards of implementing change, hope, and positive ideas and habits. For the very men I know will re-enter society. Hopefully, the message of good health, getting rooted into these courageous and bright minds provides a toehold for change.

 Brandon Hawkins

We have a plethora of common goals and purposes in our agenda. We do not write just for entertainment, but so as not to bore our audience we do throw a healthy dose of entertainment into the mix.  One of our most vital goals is education. Educating the public on prison issues usually kept suppressed from the public, such as: aging, diseases, deficient health-care, drug abuse, etc.  And furthermore, not just how the day-to-day prison life affects inmates, but also how the officers, faculty and staff face challenges and risks daily by working a prison facilities.

Another one of our goals is to give the public an inside view of the issues prisoners face on average inside of prison facilities So when our audience listens to seasons of “Corrections” on the radio, they not only hear the drama, but we place them in the midst of it all, giving them a simulation effect of actually being there, and causing them to visualize the “writings on the wall” painted by our cast members.

James E. Rogers, Jr.

(Providing two examples of the issues we struggle with as a group. The group struggles often with whether to go for maximum realism vs. getting administration’s approval to air. Recently the question has been raised about possible harm from modeling illegal practices, such as using contraband cell phones to video bad goings on and get it out to the public. James commented on the issues below)

We debated whether or not we should use a cell phone to do a documentary of the elderly inmates. (Note: not in real life, but as an element of the scripted plot.)

A Side: the administration would view this as unacceptable. A way to promote b/s.

B Side: cell phones are being used throughout the US system.  Therefore those on this side of the debate want to be as realistic as possible and put the facts out there.  Also that cell phones are not being used as escape devices as the administration states. The majority of the cell phones are used so people can keep in touch with their loved ones, research to help with their appeals. Mainly to stay in touch with their loved ones, trying not to become so distant that when they do talk or see one another that it wouldn’t be strange, awkward or whatnot.

That debate led to another debate: how realistic should we be?

A Side: we don’t have to be 100% correct.

B Side: we don’t have to be 100% correct but we should be as realistic as possible because we are putting a lot of valuable information out there and if I was to do some research and find most of the info inaccurate then how would I know how much of this information that I could take as true.

Curtis Henderson

How arts brings awareness to health issues?

Expression is shown in many forms and the arts has its forms. Visual is the easiest to grasp, where shown through TV and being verbal. You once had silent TV as well to show these issues.

Radio is another form, but you need a hook or to be very creative to hold the audience’s attention. Promotion or with the health issue(s) at had they need to dramatize.

Outbreak

Epidemic

Out-of-control

Deadly

Virus

Contagious

Non contagious

Cancer

Stacey Manning

A lot of people in society view people in prison as big, hulking, tattooed killers. They can’t fathom the thought of them as humans that age, get sick, and die in here like people do in society.

For victims of crimes, when the judge says I sentence you ( . . . ) the saga ends. For criminals, it just begins. Often times the criminals end up in an overcrowded prison suffering from various ailments, not able to take care of themselves and no help from anyone to help them with day to day activities.

I hope that these dramas entertain as well as offer insight into these matters.

It has been the best experience of my life. I had never participated in anything like this. At times it’s so much fun it should be against the law. At other times it makes you want to scream. You just have to realize that we are not professionals or perfect, and we are here to entertain and spread a message. At times the message is lost because the entertainment takes over. So as you listen, remember that is as realistic as we were allowed to make it. The memorial (scene) was so close to me because I’ve attended several while here. The aging because I’m old now. I was 32 when I came. I’m 51 now. The health issues because I have some of them now. I hope you enjoy listening to Corrections and learn something, too.

“Corrections” Archive of Episodes

 

 

 

 

 

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Meeting the Woman, Not the Crime

24 Jan
by Peggy Lamb
About the guest blogger: Peggy Lamb organizes Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity program. Truth Be Told is an Austin, TX based non-profit organization that provides transformational programs for women who are or have been incarcerated. Exploring Creativity classes use expressive arts to enlarge the women’s sense of themselves, release pain and express despair and without harming oneself or others. Leaders vary from storytellers to singers to visual artists to dancers – to quilters and yoga teachers and writers.

Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body and my heart opens wide.

These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18 month cognitive therapy program. They live together in a special dorm in which community is emphasized. Each of these 28 women has committed a crime which will brand them for life as sex offenders.

Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things, men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.

I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ web site but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong. I, or the artist I bring, share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and re-define oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am Large, I contain Multitudes”. I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than just sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses and visual artists with gifts to share.

When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost four years that I’ve been going up there once a month – it is work that deeply feeds my soul.

Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call “Elements”. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core – pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out. Shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!

My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on “I am Earth” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture – a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, nature, etc. Each woman shares her gesture and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming) and we go around the circle dancing each women’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance! 

We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts: “I am Air”, “I am Fire” and “I am Water”. By the end of the class we’ve created four dances and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of.

The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community. One woman comments “I didn’t know I was creative!” Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.” One that touches my heart so deeply is “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

I am filled with awe at their willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I LOVE this work – my soul is filled with joy and gratitude.

 

 

 

 

Seeking input on building a national prison arts association

5 Jan

Dear friends of The Prison Arts Coalition:

Building upon a new level of cultural awareness regarding the benefits of arts in corrections programs, we would like to know if an expanded national organization would be a valuable asset to you and the work you do.

In these early stages, we feel the association could offer the following to its members:

  • Raise awareness of programmatic efficacy
  • Host national or regional conferences
  • Share best practices
  • Foster community
  • Support, collect and disseminate relevant research
  • Offer professional development opportunities
  • What else can you imagine?

The following 5-minute survey is designed to help better understand the need for a national prison arts association and how it can best serve potential members like you.  Your input is incredibly valuable during this early stage.

National Prison Arts Survey

We are hoping to collect all responses by January 29th.

Thank you for your time!

This survey has been developed with input by an ad hoc steering committee of prison arts advocates and practitioners, including:

Cynthia Gutierrez – Barrios Unidos Prison Project

Ella Turenne – Artist, Activist, EducatorOccidental College

Freddy Gutierrez – Community Worker, Performing Artist

Illya Kowalchuk – Pop Culture Classroom

Jonathan Blanco – Oregon State Penitentiary Hobby Shop

Laurie Brooks – William James Association

Lesley Currier – Marin Shakespeare Company

Nate Henry-Silva – Imagine Bus Project

Nathalie Costa Thill – Adirondack Center for Writing

Treacy Ziegler – An Open Window

Victoria Sammartino – Voices UnBroken

Wendy Jason – Prison Arts Coalition

Alma Robinson – California Lawyers for the Arts

Weston Dombroski – California Lawyers for the Arts

Dances for Solidarity

27 Sep
by Sarah Dahnke
About the guest blogger: Sarah Dahnke is a Brooklyn-based choreographer, multimedia artist, and arts educator. She creates performance experiences that often feature non-performers, highlighting and celebrating the nuances of natural, untrained human movement. She works with public school students to facilitate the creation of their own choreography and video projects, makes giant group dances to teach to the general public, and films instructional videos to disseminate dance sequences widely. Her video work has been curated nationally by Dance Films Association, DCTV, Tiny Dance Film Festival, Hyde Park Arts Center, Ruth Page Center for the Arts and Gowanus Ballroom as well as internationally across The Philippines. Her choreography has occurred on stages, in streets, on the Internet, in music videos, on roofs, in galleries and more. Some of these places include The Kitchen, CPR-Center for Performance Research, Grace Exhibition Space, Dance Theater Workshop, The New York Transit Museum, Northside Festival and Lollapalooza.

Dances for Solidarity is my newest project, and it aims to create ephemeral connections between people who are in solitary confinement and those who are not through written correspondence and dance. Myself and my collaborators have created a 10-step written movement sequence, and this is included in a letter that we mail to those in solitary (an initial list was provided by Black and Pink). From there, we engage in more individualized correspondence with those who write back.

As a choreographer, I often create work that falls under the categories of “participatory performance” or “community-based performance,” where people who are not trained dancers end up as the main performers. I’ve been interested in working with incarcerated people for a long time, but I didn’t exactly know how we could make a dance together even if I were granted access to a prison.

In 2013, I saw a traveling photography exhibit created by Solitary Watch at Photoville, titled Photo Requests from Solitary. In this work, the project leaders wrote to people on in solitary confinement and asked what image from the outside they would like to see, then the artists crowd sourced these images and sent them back. These images then made up this exhibit. It was incredibly powerful, and it sparked the idea that one way I could create dances for and with incarcerated folks would me through written correspondence. After letting that marinate for a little while, this project manifested.

This project requires a lot of support, and I’ve been lucky to tap into a growing network. I’ve been granted space by Abrons Arts Center to hold weekly letter writing clinics. Culture Push awarded me the Fellowship for Utopian Practice, which offers logistical, moral and financial support. I have some dedicated artistic collaborators and regular letter writers. As we continue to write to those in solitary around the country, this network will also need to grow. One thing I’m working on is setting up satellite letter writing groups around the country.

The prison mail system is slow, plus not everyone who we write will necessarily respond. But responses are coming in, and so far they are really wonderful. Many people thank us for showing our support, for reaching out, for offering a lifeline to the outside world. Many people have terrible things to say about the conditions they are kept in, about how their prisons are short staffed and therefore unable to give them the one hour of recreation time they are supposed to have outside of their cell each day. But inside of these letters we are also given lovely descriptions of how this dance made people feel. So many of our pen pals felt awkward or silly doing a dance all alone, but once they gave it a try, it became fun or empowering or uplifting or transformative. One man told us a story about how he said “hell no I’m not doing this” but ended up doing it with six of his fellow inmates during their rec time.

I’m excited to see how this project continues to grow and the responses we continue to get, and I’m trying to get more people involved. If you are in the New York area, please follow us on Facebook to find out when we are holding letter writing clinics. If you are not in the New York area, you can contact me about setting up a letter writing clinic for Dances for Solidarity in your area: sarah (at) sarahdahnke.com.

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 correctionswriting@gmail.com

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 http://www.correctionswriting.wordpress.com. Please circulate this call to any individuals or organizations you know involved in prison writing.

Call for Submissions – Re-entry Organizations and Resources Alliance Newsletter

30 Jan

The ROAR (Re-entry Organizations and Resources) Alliance is a collaboration of over 40 non-profit, faith-based and government agencies working to promote successful reentry from incarceration to the community. This is achieved by coordinating existing resources in the community, catalyzing collaboration and mutual learning among reentry organizations, and promoting greater awareness of reentry issues in the general public. It is our belief that successful reentry results in more productive lives for these individuals, healthier families and neighborhoods, and greater public safety and economic stability for our community.

The ROAR newsletter is a digest of resources, events, local and national news, action items, and volunteer opportunities addressing the specific needs those of us working in reentry.
We at ROAR believe the newsletter would be an excellent venue for featuring artists whose work speaks from their experiences with incarceration and reentry, either directly or as a loved one, friend, or supporter. Our goal is to compile a library of work and short bios from artists willing to share their work so that each ROAR issue will introduce our readers to a new artist and a little bit of their story.
If you or anyone you know are interested in having their art featured, please contact Maura Jess (maurajess@ymail.com) for more information.

 

I Wanted To Remind Us We Were People

9 Jan

by Elana Pritchard

About the guest blogger: Elana Pritchard is a cartoonist in Los Angeles.  Before she landed in jail she worked as an animator on Ralph Bakshi’s film, Last Days of Coney Island.  She is currently doing a Kickstarter to finish her animated cartoon, The Circus: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/341471863/the-circus

It’s been about a week since the comics I did inside the LA County jail system were first published in the LA Weekly, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the response.  People from all over the world have written to me expressing their support for what I have done and their contempt for inhumane practices for incarcerated peoples everywhere.  I have been in communication with the LA County Sheriff’s department and they have told me that due to these comics they have issued a new policy that all inmates must be given showers within 24 hours of entering the jail.  We are scheduled to meet next week to discuss further improvements.  And throughout all of this it seems the original, humble message of these comics is sticking: that we were people.  Even though we had a barcode on our wrist with a number and were called “bodies” by the staff, we were still people.

Many people in jail are still on trial and haven’t even been found guilty or innocent yet.  Many people made mistakes that you or I have made before in private, only they got caught.  There were mothers in there that missed their children.  There were kind people in there that cared about the arts and cared about each other.  I drew these comics to make us all laugh and remind us that even though there was a whole group of of people with badges and better clothes than we had telling us we didn’t matter… we DID matter and we WERE PEOPLE.

In that the comics were successful, and for that I am proud.

Elana Pritchard

All images were first published in the LA Weekly, 2015

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