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I spent last Friday inside the walls of San Quentin State Prison watching the presentations of TEDxSan Quentin. Most talks were by prisoners and almost all were moving, reasoned, hard-hitting. It reminded me, once more, of the incredible intellect of men, women and children inside America’s prisons. It made me think again of how foolish we are as a society to waste talent, ignore positive contributions and crush lives through our addiction to incarceration.

Arthur Longworth was not at that TEDx; he is imprisoned not at San Quentin, but at Monroe Correctional Complex near Seattle. Nor did Longworth make the presentation (above) at a TED event. While Monroe has had its own TEDx event, the prisoners own Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO) has been hosting an annual conference for longer.

Longworth’s talk Mass Drownings at the 2015 CLO Conference is an eloquent, 18-minute-long metaphor of the prison industrial complex as the ocean. Longworth was sentenced to Life Without Parole (LWOP) meaning he has for the past 30-some-years lived behind bars knowing he’d never get out from them. This is a special-type of torture reserved for he and tens of thousands of other Americans. Longworth has witnessed more and more people tossed into the ocean and describes the cruelty of hope.

“This news that people outside of the ocean are actually talking about what’s happening in it spreads across the water in the form of hope. A piece of which you reach out and grab on to. Your instinct isn’t to hold on because by this time you’ve been in the water so long and you don’t know what hope is. But when you try to let go you discover that you can’t bring yourself to do it because this thing you’ve grabbed on to is warm and buoyant. For the first time since you were put into the ocean you cease to shiver and you feel like there might be something to swim toward.”

It’s here that our relationship with those on the inside comes into sharp focus. Politicized prisoners know that there’s a major shift in public attitudes. They are working, too, to help in the balanced and restorative debate we have ackowledged we need. Recognising there’s a problem is the easy part; we need to find the solutions. We need to meet these mens’ hopes. We need to replace a bloated and cruel, cruel system with humanity.

I watched this video for the first time in the wee hours of Thursday, 14th January. I was due that afternoon to open Prison Obscura at Evergreen State College. I have presented so many times on Prison Obscura and the ideas around it that it’s hard not to feel jaded at times. Sometimes, I go into auto-pilot. But, just because I have communicated things multiple times doesn’t make the human rights abuses to which they respond any less urgent.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Longworth several times during my role as a teacher with the University Beyond Bars at Monroe (2009-2011). We never spent any time in the classroom together. He had no use for the art classes I taught and it was not feasible for me to take his Spanish lessons! Arthur Longworth is a brilliant mind and an inspired leader. From within a system that has abandoned its moral compass he has maintained his own. Somehow.

Longworth bristles with controlled fury and a nailed-on sense of injustice. He can’t fathom why a society might throw people away so readily. Then he recalls the monarchy system from which the United States emerged. Kings used to condemn men by decree without ever seeing their faces. Only high and mighty arrogance could enact such disregard.

Mass Drownings reduced me to tears. I also felt shame; shame that I’d got lazy, on occasion, with the presentation of Prison Obscura. The show remains on the walls of Evergreen State College through March 2nd, but I am inclined to tell Washingtonians to watch Arthur Longworth before they seek out any online video about Prison Obscura. Longworth’s argument, grace and dignity are why the fight against mass incarceration must continue. His words carry more meaning and weight than any I, or any other outside activist for that matter, could ever.

Of course, to people familiar with prison literature, this is no surprise. Longworth won the PEN Center ‘Best Prison Memoir’ Prize in 2010. Pulitzer-winning novelist Junot Diaz read Longworth’s Walla Walla IMU, a story about ants in solitary confinement, on stage to a New York crowd. College students nationwide are assigned his works. Last year, The Marshall Project published an essay of his. Longworth has been the feature of Seattle Times and KUOW pieces about LWOP.

Listen to Longworth. Simply put, he’s one of the few remaining persons who talks any sense about a maddening system that condemns hundreds of thousands of men, women and children without ever seeing their faces.

As I have mentioned here, NON-SUFFICIENT FUNDS, an exhibition of prison art by my students is ongoing in Seattle.

Prior to the show, the gallery asked that I try to make some portraits of the artists. I am not a photographer, so I was fortunate enough to secure the expertise of friend and Seattle Times photojournalist Erika Schultz.

The wall on which the portraits and their accompanying bios hung have been incredibly popular among the audience. Erika’s portraits are phenomenally unexpected. In this instance, text and image combine and challenge the damaging stereotypes of prisoners that usually hamper prison reform.

The non-existent genre of “prison photography” just expanded by one project.

PHOTOS AS EMOTIONAL CURRENCY

Not surprisingly, Erika’s portraiture has gripped the attention of the students too. For a US prisoner, sitting for a professional portrait is very, very, very rare. Photographs play a crucial part in the unorthodox family relationships that persist despite prison walls. The students are aware of this and incredibly eager for prints, which I will provide.

You should see more of this project on Erika’s blog.

NON-SUFFICIENT FUNDS, the prison art show I organised at Vermillion opened to much fanfare, good feelings, silent-auction bids and sack-loads of positive feedback. Quite proud.

Photographs of the opening and artworks to come soon. In the meantime, watch this video of our students at University Beyond Bars (UBB). We showed this at the opening too.

When You Learn, You Don’t Return, is a documentary by Gilda Sheppard an award-winning filmmaker and sociology instructor at UBB.

Many UBB students are unpacking the fact the world is a complex place and our existence (and its comprehension) is based upon the complex brew of individual responsibility AND societal circumstance. In other words, we only have choices within the parameters available to us and those vary widely town to town, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, block to block.

UBB students absorb material like sponges; engaged in a process of transformation.

PLEASE SPEND YOUR MONIES

I hope that all the interest and praise in the art show converts to bids on the pieces. University Beyond Bars is an important cause, but unfortunately prison reform initiatives are not as popular as the more visible charitable causes (animal shelters, children with chronic disease, common cancers, etc.)

Bidding on the silent auction continues until May 12th. If you’re in Seattle please stop by. Notify your benevolent friends.

PRESS

Insider Art: A Show from the State’s Most Unlikely Art Academy (Seattle Weekly)

Slideshow – “Insider” Art: Prisoner Art From the Washington State Reformatory (Seattle Weekly)

Suggests. Non-Sufficient Funds, Thursday 28th. (The Stranger)

Blog: Monroe Prison Art on Display at Vermillion on Capitol Hill (Seattle Weekly)

Now You Can Own Art By Monroe Inmates (Seattle PI)

UPDATED

Since going to press, University Behind Bars has changed its name to University Beyond Bars. The new website for UBB can be found at http://www.universitybeyondbars.org/.

FREEDOM THROUGH EDUCATION

The Prisoners Education Network is hosting FREEDOM THROUGH EDUCATION, a fundraiser for its main program, University Behind Bars.

Greenwood Senior Center is the venue for an evening of music, fine foods and silent art auction. Many students from my art class have donated paintings and other from outside the class have made crafts for auction. Local families and a local church group have pooled resources to make this happen. If you want to know why so many different people are invested, I think it is because they share PEN’s values and mission.

Buy tickets at Brown Paper Tickets

Freedom Through Education on Facebook

BACKGROUND

The Prisoners Education Network (PEN) is five years old. I have been with PEN for nine months now. In this current quarter, the University Behind Bars (UBB) offered is widest selection of courses – including Art, Business Law, Child Development/Psychology, English Composition, Human Geography, Intro to Math, Music Theory and Sociology.

PEN is the only organisation in Washington State providing college level education and credits to prisoners.

PEN is currently expanding its UBB program to preserve its widened curriculum. All teachers are volunteers and 98% of donations go directly toward tuition fees and books. Our teachers are passionate professionals, but our students are the heart of the program. Via the correspondence course set-up, students receive credit from Ohio University. Beyond matters of credit, the students are building a shared community of learning within Washington State Reformatory at Monroe Correctional Complex.

This is the first big fundraiser of the year. It would be great to see you there, but if you can’t attend because you are in another state or on another continent, please consider donating to PEN via the website.

Thank You

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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