Tag Archives: prison pen pal

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.

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Beyond our Prisons

12 Sep

“Sometimes you gotta get ‘pulled away’ from your life in order to realize that you were already ‘away’ mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”

                                                                                         -Glenn Robinson

Glenn Robinson is 33 years old. J.R. Furst is 31. Glenn Robinson is of African American descent, and J.R. is white-ish. Glenn was hustling, stealing and providing for his family by the age of 12, while J.R. was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. Glenn is serving 40 years at Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, LA. J.R. is not serving 40 years. These two individuals started corresponding—via handwritten letter—in November of 2012. Together they founded Beyond This Prison.

THE STORY

Bold Italics = Glenn’s Voice

Standard Font = J.R.’s Voice

Most of my friends are either dead of in Angola State Pen serving life sentences. As for family, well, I only have a few that are still on this journey with me. Everyone isn’t built to withstand the struggles and sacrifices that are to be made when dealing with an incarcerated loved one.

I had totally blocked contact with family & friends, because I figured that was a perfect solution—blocking all communication from the outside world. It turns out that I was only paralyzing myself.

Imagine going in for surgery. The anesthesiologist puts the needle in your arm. You lose the ability to move or speak, but you are still aware and can still feel. They wheel you into the operating room. You’re trying trying trying to let the doctors know that you’re still awake. They’re about to SLICE INTO YOUR SKIN! Stopppp!! Stopppp!!

…All is lost though. Your efforts are futile. Everything except for your mind and heart are comatose. You simply can’t connect with the outside world. As the knife cuts into the skin, you SCREAM bloody murder, but no one can hear you.

That’s sort of what my young life felt like…

In the environment where I grew up, everyone has some kind of motive for their affiliation, so trust isn’t something you give away easily. It’s actually been in prison (where I’ve resided since I was 17) that I’ve learned that everyone isn’t out to gain off of me. Prison has taught me how to love, respect, appreciate, trust and accept people in a whole different light. In here, you’re alone! You can own your reality and grow as an individual, or you can die inside of a barricaded mind.

My ‘waking up moment’ came in the form of writing. One night, I felt so isolated and so deranged that something just popped. I’d gotten so low that I ended up coming out the other side. I was 16 years old.

I’d gotten stoned with some ‘friends’ of mine. Smoking marijuana was not pleasant to me, but I didn’t feel well anyways, so what was the difference? We drove around doing nothing. I was dealing with three different kinds of fog: the misty one descending on the city streets, the smoke of the marijuana in the car, and my foggy mind. That’s a lot of fog!

Later, after having been released from my duties as a ‘friend’, I was in my room feeling demonic. Feeling sick. Feeling ill. Feeling like a monster. I turned on the television to distract myself, and I also turned on a Bob Dylan record. I needed all the white noise I could get.

Bob Dylan was loud. The television was louder. I wasn’t touching the volume dials of either, but it felt like the levels were rising. My ears felt like they were going to bleed. It was too much!!!!!! I lost my sh*t. I flipped. I reached a boiling point. I wanted to scream, but I’d lost my voice a long time ago—if I ever even had it. Because I had no voice, my body screamed for me. It heaved itself, and it awkwardly fell into the chair at my desk. Without full control of my motor skills, my hands flopped onto the keyboard like dead fish…

That’s when it happened. The chair was like an electrical outlet, and my tailbone was like a plug. Once the circuit was connected, my spine straightened, my shoulders pulled back, and my eyes focused. I regained the motor skills in my hands…and BLAST OFF. My fingers moved like gigantic spiders across the keyboard. My body was literally shaking. As fast as my fingers were moving, I would’ve liked for them to move faster! The energy surge was that strong.

I thought to myself, THIS IS FREEDOM!!!! I FEEL FREEEEE!!

Well, I’ve chased that feeling ever since. Everything I do in my life is an attempt (consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously) to be in touch with my core truth, and to express and nurture it in a courageous way.

Through chasing this feeling of freedom, I came across Glenn Robinson. I needed an ally. I needed to create a resonance chamber. Unconsciously, my Yang was looking for a Yin—and the cosmos obliged.

I checked out www.writeaprisoner.com, and I scanned through hundreds of profiles. Out of all those individuals, I just happened to find Glenn. Right from the first letter, I got this sense from him like, “It’s about time, J.R., I’ve been waiting for you!” We hit the ground running.

I’d gotten on www.writeaprisoner.com to meet new people and to try and establish healthy relationships with some down to earth, unbiased individuals. II was basically just throwing rocks in a big pond trying to create ripple that stood out from the others.

I was self-conscious of how J.R. might be viewing me. I’m a young black man that’s doing time for a capital offense, and I came from a rough upbringing. He, on the other hand, is a well-bred white guy from the other side of the tracks. Usually my type is looked down upon by his type—or so I thought.

After a few correspondences, though, I learned that he’s a genuine brother with a beautiful outlook on life, and that he and I are 2 soljas fighting the same war—just from separate sets of circumstances. It’s a war of bringing people out of their mental & spiritual prisons.

I’d spent my life dealing with internal incarceration and he’d spent his life dealing with external incarceration. His world looked like what my world sort of felt like, and vica-versa. Both of us sought freedom. In fact, as I did more and more research, I found that most humans are looking for freedom on some level. Whether it be that nice sense of freedom that comes from finally clocking out of work at 5:00, or the freedom to marry whomever we choose, or the freedom to be out of debt, or the freedom from anxiety, anger, fear and stress. Most of us seem to want to feel free.

Large swaths of society (consciously, or unconsciously) see color, status and background as an important factor when getting acquainted. That’s an ugly disease that doesn’t exist between myself and J.R. He’s become a brother to me. He’s a vanguard and a second spirit. When you’re going through hardships in life, it’s isn’t about who started that journey with you; it’s about who helps you cross the finish line. It’s about the ones you can count on to help you make it through. That’s J.R.! He’s a right-hand man…sort of like a 1st grade homie.

It’s as if we’ve been through life 2gether. We’re the best of both worlds! “The Gangsta & The Gentleman”! Through viewing our friendship, hopefully the world can see that true friends aren’t built off of color or upbringing. We are BEYOND This Prison!

As part of our co-founded organization, I edit chunks of Glenn’s letters, have them illustrated, and then post them on www.beyondthisprison.com. I host Youth Programs where we connect youngsters with their own incarcerated pen-pals, and they create art based off of the correspondences. I also facilitate all inclusive workshops called UNSHACKLINGS where we run highly participatory activities using prison not only in the literal sense, but in the metaphorical sense as well.

Over the past 3 years, Glenn and I have composed hundreds of handwritten letters, written dozens and dozens of emails, and have a phone conversation on at least a weekly basis. In December, I took an epic 54 hour Greyhound bus ride to Louisiana to meet him for the the first time.

The journey’s just beginning…

JRWeez

J.R. can be contacted at beyondthisprison@gmail.com.