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In the conventional definition of the word, there are not many funny things about prison. In spite of that, those oppressed by the system are still leveraging humour in order to process and overcome America’s dehumanising and oppressive prison industrial complex.
The Poetic Justice Project (PJP) is a case in point.
“Poetic Justice Project is California’s only theatre company comprised of formerly incarcerated actors appearing in plays that examine crime, punishment and redemption,” explains PJP whose latest production is INSIDE/OUT: A Comedic Look At Prison and Re-Entry
Bay Area audiences will witness a unique marriage in June: the happy union of a 500-year-old art form with cutting edge social justice theatre. Poetic Justice Project will present its Commedia Dell’Arte play, INSIDE/OUT, at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland and on Alcatraz Island.
Commedia Dell’Arte is a style of masked, improvisational slapstick comedy that dates back to 16th Century Italy. INSIDE/OUT follows character Damian from prosecution to prison to parole as he wears whatever mask he needs to survive. Damian is saved by the love of a good woman, and by his determination to never return to prison.
The play is directed by Gale McNeeley, a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre and Scuola Internazionale Dell’Attore Comico in Italy. INSIDE/OUT was co-created by McNeeley and actors Leonard Flippen, Jorge Manly Gil, Janet Guess, Nick Homick and Caroline Taylor-Hitch. The actors have all been incarcerated—in prison, jail or juvenile facilities. Most have no previous theatre experience when they come to Poetic Justice Project.
INSIDE/OUT shows Friday, June 19 at 6 p.m. at St. Mary’s Center, 925 Brockhurst St., Oakland. Tickets are $15 and available from Brown Paper Tickets, 800-838-3006, and at the door. On Saturday, June 20 at 2 p.m., there is a free performance on Alcatraz Island.
Based in Santa Maria, the project was founded by Artistic Director Deborah Tobola in 2009. Tobola and Poetic Justice Project recently received the the Santa Barbara County Action Network’s “Looking Forward” Award for Leadership and Vision.
Poetic Justice Project It is a program of the award-winning William James Association, which provides arts instruction to prisoners, people on parole and probation, and youth at risk of incarceration.
QUESTIONS? MEDIA CONTACT
Deborah Tobola, Artistic Director
tel: (805) 264-5463
P.O. Box 7196
Solutions. Prison reform debate rages around solutions. Even when everyone at a given table agrees on the problem, the propose solutions can differ widely. There are many, they overlap and they are often interdependent.
(For the record, here’s a sampler of my long list of forward steps we could take: Release old and infirm prisoners; sentence children as children, do away with the death penalty, scale back on LWOP (life Without Parole), implement radical and retroactive sentencing reductions for all drugs offenses and non-violent offenses, eradicate solitary confinement, treat addiction with hospitals not prisons, fund services for youth and families to avoid the use of custody later in life, drawdown the bail system, issue an amnesty for outstanding warrants for non-violent misdemeanors, ban the box, make criminal record expungement available as a right, scale back sentencing guidelines to that of the European average, make prisons smaller, provide prisoners nutritious food, subject all staff to yearly self-care and mental health checks, reinstitute Pell Grants for access to college for prisoners, continue all voluntary work programs but provide more than cents on the dollar wages, increase the number of family days and trailer visits, and PROVIDE EDUCATION)
What last solution, what education looks like differs hugely. Some prisoners need parenting classes, some only want practical training (welding, HVAC, electrical, plumbing etc). Other prisoners want business training. Then there are some that want liberal arts college classes.
A staggering number of prisoners need a GED.
In the film, we’ll meet students, teachers and staff. Referred to as the “crown jewel” of the SF Sheriff Department, enrollment in Five Keys Charter School is all but mandatory for incarcerated people who never received a high school diploma.
The problems for mandated GED programs are well known among prison and jail educators — it can be very difficult to engage a class of students with a high school curriculum when they did not respond to high school on the first round. This in-built tension makes any GED project in a prison or jail that more difficult as compared to other programs (with voluntary sign-up). Therefore, Five Keys represents a genuine innovation approaches to criminal justice.
Custodial staff maintain safety in a jail that houses members from a reported 22 active gangs. Meanwhile teachers follow a strict policy of not knowing their students’ criminal charges (in my experience, both common sense and common policy).
The Corridor follows lessons, learning, challenges and graduation in a school that won the 2014 award for best charter school in Northern California.
Filmmakers Annelise Wunderlich and Richard O’Connell began shooting in May 2013 and made over 100 hours of material. It took them over two years to negotiate access. Former Sheriff Michael Hennessey was the man who gave the green-light.
“Hennessey built his reputation on creating programs that go beyond what is mandated by law,” says Wunderlich and O’Connell. “He has said that what he enjoyed most about being the sheriff was to make and experiment with policy. His legacy lives on with the current staff.”
Wunderlich and O’Connell want to create “an immersive portrait that focuses on the inner workings of the school and the programs, capturing along the way conflicts, dilemmas and breakthroughs that arise in the course of carrying out its mission.”
They aren’t trying to make an argument for one type of custodial approach or another. They are interested in observing how education (in this particular case) is shoehorned into a criminal justice system to satisfy some of the system’s objectives — lowered recidivism, empowerment, self-realisation, reductions in violence.
I wish them luck.
Unbelievably, Five Keys has barely been replicated elsewhere. This is despite its measured achievements and despite growing research that education-based jail programs are the most effective way to reduce recidivism.
If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, Annelise Wunderlich will be speaking next Tuesday, 16th June at Bay Area Video Arts Coalition (BVAC).
“This edition of Storytelling Across Media,” reads the BVAC blurb, “brings together three innovative Bay Area media makers who will speak to the power storytelling holds for those “behind bars”. Although each panelist comes from a different artistic background (performance, documentary film, and fine art photography) they all share a commitment to helping incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals tell their stories and put their voices out in the world, whether through dance, film, or radio.”
Tuesday, June 16
2727 Mariposa Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94110
Tickets are $10 for BAVC Members, $15 general. Seating is limited. Buy tickets here.
My pal Nigel Poor will also be speaking.
Some art and artists abide. Works crop up time and time again. Sometimes it’s as if society has demanded a need for the message; it strikes a chord. Sometimes hype and PR operates to elevate average work above the average median (that’s just how it goes). Sometimes, controversy gets something seen. Sometimes a particular artwork is afforded more attention because of an artist’s prior successes. And sometimes, very occasionally, a piece of art is relevant down through the ages, to all ages, and warrants repeated visits. I saw a Joshua Reynolds at the Legion Of Honor last week. I was captivated. It deserves to be hanging on a wall and still demanding attention 250 years after its paint dried.
Prison-related art is not in the same demand as portraits of rich patrons. Now or in the 17th century. Maybe, then, I am more impressed when a prison-related art project keeps going and going. One such example is Julie Green’s plates painted with the meals of the executed. This is good art and I’d like to share why.
There’s no fixed number of plates and Green plans to continue painting them in memoriam until the U.S. outlaws the death penalty. It goes without saying that every show, just in terms of numbers, is a new show. Also, some venues haven’t enough wall-space for the sheer scope of the project. Green’s The Last Supper: 600 Plates illustrating Final Meals of U.S. Death Row Inmates is currently on show at the Block Museum at Northwestern University until August 2015.
“In fifteen years of the project, this show is unprecedented in terms of planning, installing, engagement, and press,” said Green in an email.
She’s not kidding. In the past few weeks, it has done the rounds at Huffington Post, WBEZ Radio, Chicago Tribune, WGN Radio, Chicago Business, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune- Evanston and the KU Alumni.
The Last Supper is a project increasing in stature and reputation. Not without discomfort, it does so as more and more people are killed by the state. Needless to say, Green is not a malicious observer of murder. She has rooted The Last Supper in a core activist position; which is to say that she wants to paint herself into obsolescence; she wants to have nothing to push back against. Green wants the injustice of the death penalty gone.
But as the reputation of a piece of art such as The Last Supper grows, so too does the responsibility to deliver perfectly-pitched programming/discussion around each exhibit. When I have curated in the past I have not always succeeded in achieving this — mostly due to scarce time and resources. Great programming often relies on multiple partners and even then it is a mammoth task. For me, fear of not delivering grows proportionately with the responsibility toward, regional and reflexive exhibition programming. Green has named many individuals key to the Block Museum show — she, like most of us, has managed more when assisted by, and in the assistance of, others.
This post isn’t really a reflection on The Last Supper as it is a reflection on what it means when an abolitionist work, or a work with stated political goals, or a anti-prison artwork assumes a momentum that is rapid and big — a momentum characteristic more of the art world than that of the political-activist world.
How an artist responds to such momentum will differ dependent on experience, advise and, yup, the partner(s). Some makers are better at maintaining strong authorial control over their projects. Others are newer to the grooves along which art and art promotion move, and they might be persuaded toward changed elements of the work.
Working with others will almost always increase the audience and the amplification of the message but it’s something that must be exercised consciously. What mouthpieces are in use? Who’s ears are listening? The last thing I want to suggest is that artists with political message should shy away from partnership. Merely, that partnership brings different institutional biographies and political legacies to the fray. Art and politics cannot exist in separate silos and so when art emerges from a political need it must stay true to that need and struggle.
There are structural forces at work in the art world. Makers need to carry out due diligence to ensure that the politics of their patrons and sponsors are in line with their own. Audiences need to know that occasionally work rears up because of partners’ involvement or championing and not because of an inherent message in the work or of the artist.
Again this is no comment on Green’s work. In fact the amount of travelling The Last Supper has done is daunting and I cannot imagine how Green has managed the “office” tasks and emails alone — let alone the press, the shipping, the installation details, the admin etc. The Last Supper repeatedly appears at US cultural institutions across the nation because it is good art (here’s what I think of bad art). The Last Supper is good because Green’s act of making is devotional; the simplicity of the concept makes the scope of the project not daunting but, paradoxically, familiar; the artist is passionate in talking about the work. The project is living.
It is living and it is growing.
The Last Supper is only going to get bigger. Big can be beautiful. And it is powerful. As it ships, relocates and appears in different venues, we audiences need to handle its political message as conscientiously as the installers do the porcelain plates. There can be no lack of concentration or complacency. This is life and death.
Everyone keeps telling me it’s going to be alright. Everyone keeps telling me they didn’t understand my work when I began in 2008 but now they do. They understand it because prison reform and criminal justice reform is in the news. They understand it because Orange Is The New Black is on their screens.
Everyone keeps telling me it is going to be okay because politicians and Departments of Corrections are trying to fix the problems. What? Back up. What makes you think that those who built the Prison Industrial Complex are best positioned to reverse its crimes and abuses?
Much has been made about the bipartisan nature of contemporary efforts to end mass incarceration, as everyone from Newt Gingrich and the Koch Brothers to Van Jones and the American Civil Liberties Union, and now even Hillary Clinton, says that the United States needs to reduce the number of people it incarcerates in its own gulag archipelago. If all these people agree, the conventional wisdom goes, surely we can get something done. Are prisons the only thing that can end Washington gridlock?
And it ends:
To paraphrase the poet Gil Scott-Heron, “decarceration will not be incentivized,” decarceration will not be incentivized, decarceration will not be incentivized. Decarceration will not be incentivized.
Any OpEd that ends with that flourish gets my vote. A MUST READ.
Image source: CUNY
“We cannot build up a system of sanction on supposed danger, in my view.”
Nils Christie, Norwegian sociologist and criminologist, died Wednesday May 27th at the age of 87.
Christie’s great achievement was to detach discussion of prisons solely from discussions of crime and to afix them firmly to conversation about economic inequality and the definitions of behaviour we attach hastily to those outside of our social class.
Christie ushered in the modern prison abolition movement. Activist group Critical Resistance writes:
“Christie challenged the accepted notions of crime and the legitimacy of imprisonment throughout his career. Along with Thomas Mathiesen and Louk Hulsman, Christie was at the forefront of a tendency of European social scientists that pushed prison abolition into mainstream conversation.”
In this very accessible Q&A, Christie explains that someone stealing money or threatening violence inside or outside the family is an unwanted act in both cases, but only in the latter is it defined as “crime” and therefore more likely to be dealt with courts. Transgression has other “solutions” and responses than prosecution. Judicial systems have to be more than merely punishment.
At different times, Churchill, Mandela and Dostoyevsky encouraged scrutiny of a society’s prisons in order to understand a society itself. Christie asked us to go further and scrutinise the level of pain — psychological, physical, medical — induced by a society’s systems of crime control and punishment in order to understand a society’s character. What level of widespread revenge and hurt are American prisons willing to enact under the auspices of “justice”?
Christie’s seminal book Limits To Pain was the most rounded delivery of his ideas. It was translated into 11 languages. You can read it in full online here.
IN EUROPE, IN THE UNITED STATES
Christie was able to stave off, somewhat, the drive toward punitive sentencing and warehousing in his home nation Norway. He and other thinkers in the social sciences had a place at the table.
Unfortunately, the U.S. prison boom was driven by politicians’ fear of losing votes, guards’ fear of losing jobs, and the public’s fear of the ever-present, media-manufactured predator. The Prison Industrial Complex emerged as a result. Christie describes this money-driven brand of American exceptionalism:
It is quite a fantastic situation when those who administer the pain-delivery in our society have such a great say. It’s as if the hangman’s association got together to work for more hanging. We might feel a bit uneasy about this. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a trend in the military industry to turn to law-and-order production. There has been a series of meetings between defence contractors and penal authorities. The US Secretary of Defence addressed them saying: ‘You won the war abroad, now help us win the war at home.’ It is the electronics industry that is most heavily involved wiring prisons, producing electronic bracelets, electric monitoring both inside and outside prisons. It involves lots of industries – construction, food-catering, even telephone companies. The journal of the American Corrections Association is filled with ads to tap this billion-dollar market.
Rest in peace, Nils.
STATE BILL 124
The indubitable Ella Baker Center alerted me this morning to the efforts by activists and good-headed politicians in California to prevent the use of extended solitary confinement for people under the age of 18.
The Ella Baker Center is working to end the solitary confinement of youth with the Youth Justice Coalition,Children’s Defense Fund California, and California Public Defenders Association. Senator Mark Leno introduced the bill, SB-124
DeAngelo Cortijo who is formerly incarcerated explains why SB-124 is a good thing.
The first time I experienced solitary confinement, I was 11 years old.
Now, 11 years later I’m fighting to end the widespread use of solitary confinement in California’s youth prisons.
As I would stare out of my cell window I could see the other kids outside and I remember feeling empty and afraid. On several occasions I contemplated suicide.
My own experiences in solitary are the reason I am supporting Senate Bill 124, a bill introduced by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that would limit the solitary confinement of youth. SB 124 is about to come up for a vote in the Senate and we need you to let senators know that we will no longer stand for this torture of our youth.
Along with Youth Justice Coalition, Children’s Defense Fund-California, and the California Public Defenders Association, the Ella Baker Center is a co-sponsor of this legislation, which would also provide a uniform definition of solitary confinement and require statewide reporting of its use.
If we unite and make our voices heard, we can end this cruel and inhumane practice.
I was most recently placed in solitary confinement last year for two months. I spent at least 21 hours per day alone in a tiny cell. I kept thinking, I could be in college right now, but instead I’m just wasting away in here.
Today, I am still affected by these experiences. I am afraid of being alone. I went into prison feeling angry and confused and I ended up coming out of the system feeling even worse than when I went in.
Now, I am an intern at the National Center for Youth Law, working to ensure that young people like me have a chance at a better life. This bill is an important first step toward that goal.
Kids in California’s youth prisons and jails cannot wait—Will you stand with me and all of the other young people who have been victims of this abusive practice?
In solidarity, DeAngelo Cortijo, Intern, National Center for Youth Law
Yup. If you live in California, sign this and let them know you support the bill.
Image © Richard Ross, from the series Girls In Justice.
I was recently alerted about a disturbing change in policy within the California prison system. There are numerous reasons to be alarmed and thankfully Kenneth Hartman details them below and in the linked Los Angeles Times Op-Ed he wrote.
Californians United for Responsible Budget (CURB), for whom Hartman is an Advisory Board Member, forwarded me his open letter.
Dear Friends & Colleagues:
As you may already know, the CDCR has implemented a new screening system for visitors that includes the use of Ion Scanners and dogs. The upshot of this is visitors, and only visitors, if found positive by either of these highly inaccurate methods, are required to submit to a strip search in order to have a contact visit. For the details of what constitutes a strip search, please see my opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Strip-Searches Will Keep Helpful Visitors, Not Illegal Drugs, Out Of Prison.
Over the past few weeks, at this prison alone, a 77-year old woman with a recent knee replacement was ordered to squat naked, another woman who refused to submit to the humiliation of a strip search was denied contact visits, but when she reluctantly agreed the following weekend she was forced to strip search twice as punishment, and multiple other visitors were placed on non-contact visiting status for not surrendering their dignity.
The goal of all of this is clear. The CDCR wants to do away with contact visiting. They are heaping their own failure to control the drug problem in the prisons onto the backs of the visitors. It’s a terrible thing we all have to fight back against now before it’s too late, before we’re all on non-contact visiting status forever.
As a starting point to this campaign, there’s an online petition called “Stop Strip Searching My Mom.” I encourage all of you to sign the petition and get everyone you know to sign the petition. Further, please forward this to all your contacts and ask them to do the same thing. We need 100,000 signers before we send it to the governor. Let’s get to work!
And there will be more to this campaign, so please get ready to participate again when we press for legislative help and seek legal help in the not too distant future.
Thank you in advance for your help in defeating these unreasonable policies.
Take the best of care and strive to be happy. Peace…
Sincerely, Kenneth E. Hartman