A monthly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
On September 9, I was part of a panel at an event called PEN America’s BreakOut: From the Inside, hosted by Poetry Asylum and the Weisman Art Museum. This gathering was part of a national commemoration of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, “honoring the struggle for free expression in prison, and underscoring the importance of writing as an act of creative resistance and triumph.”
As is often our practice, I invited Kevin into the space with me and he was able to participate by phone in the panel, which focused on “Art as Healing, Justice, and Peace.” We were joined by writing instructors and advocates in a conversation about art and its liberating role in our system of incarceration.
Moderator Michael Kleber-Diggs asked several questions, and we will share here part of our conversation.
Question: If we start with the assumption that art matters, that its creation matters to the artist and the audience, how does art’s significance differ for incarcerated artists and their audiences, if at all? What is the purpose of arts education generally, and how does the purpose change when arts education takes place within a prison?
Art has the power to liberate us from the oppression of voicelessness and invisibility by opening up expression in so many forms. I have experienced this myself through writing, finding a way to understanding my own truth through the sometimes winding, mysterious process of writing.
I have witnessed this as a guest and observer inside prison. At our two community events inside the Lino Lakes prison, the house band played with such exuberance to our room — which included organizers, advocates, artists, and government leaders, as well as fellow men incarcerated — it felt like the roof could fly off and the walls tumble down. It was the sound of freedom.
Spoken word artist Guante shared the stage with a man incarcerated there, who then started beatboxing in impromptu collaboration. They were discovering a joy and chemistry right there, in front of 300 people. The arts and arts education, both outside and inside prison, can liberate our minds.
Question: Conversations about arts programming (or any programming) in prison can’t take place easily without getting into sentencing theory, without considering the overarching goal of incarceration. Some believe prison is about segregation, some argue punishment, others hope for rehabilitation. What message would you share with those who believe prison is for punishment, who might argue that arts education for people in prison almost seems like a reward at a time when arts funding is limited in many schools and difficult to access for many people in our community?
First, let’s give space to what they believe to be true and trust that their truth is rooted in their education and their life experience with the world. I then would ask that they give me the same space for my beliefs and understand that my perspective is rooted in my experience, as well.
I would say we need to make a slight shift in the way we view prison as this place that exists outside of our communities, and reexamine it for what it is — as an extension of our communities. Everyone in prison comes from a community, and over 90 percent of everyone in prisons and jails will one day be released back into the community.
So, whether you believe in punishment, segregation, or you hope for rehabilitation, we should all believe in community. Through the arts we are able to build and share community. I believe we need to support the arts wherever they exist. We must realize that wherever there are humans we will find community, and wherever there is community there should be art, because art is the beautiful strain that weaves us all together.
Question: How does the nature of conversation between artist and audience change when the artist is in prison –– and does art created in prisons have the power to transform society’s thoughts on crime and punishment? What obligations, if any, do arts educators have vis-à-vis students in prison? Do their obligations go beyond the classroom?
As a person with the privilege of living outside prison, I have an obligation to share with the outside community the stories and artistic expression I have access to from my colleagues who are incarcerated. I do believe that these narratives have the ability to change our shared understanding of incarceration and who our community in prison is.
Whether they emerge in the form of poetry like the words written by Kevin or our friend Jeffery Young, or in the form of visual art like the drawing done by Mario Jackson for the cover of the recent report Unfit for Human Consumption: Health and Healthcare in Minnesota Prisons, these forms of expression convey the humanity of our community incarcerated.
That human connection and shift in shared narrative is essential for building an understanding that mass incarceration is neither meeting a goal of rehabilitation nor is it sustainable as a system.
In closing, if prison is a result of the deconstruction of the values in our communities, then having spaces for art to be created and amplified should be a part of the reconstruction and rebuilding process of our communities. Art should lead our hearts to community and contribute to the overall richness of the soil.
Vina Kay, executive director of Voices for Racial Justice, and Kevin Reese are participants in Voices for Racial Justice’s “BRIDGE Partnership.” Vina and Kevin plan to continue their dialogue monthly over the next year, culminating in Kevin’s release in February 2019.
Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.