by Niall Walker
"This is about communities and healing and finding new ways of addressing harm that are not punitive"
A selection of the incarcerated artists working within the Justice Arts Coalition
The Justice Arts Coalition is a network of activists, arts practitioners and incarcerated artists across North America. For our 7th Issue, Solitude, we spoke to Wendy Jason and Jhenna El-Sawaf about Covid, the killing of George Floyd, and providing hope for artists inside.
‘LAW AND ORDER!’ was one of former President Trump’s most prolific tweets. As unmarked federal agents attempted to suffocate the largest movement for social justice in a generation, that tweet, with its aggressive capitalisation, is a reflection of the violence that spread last year from Washington throughout the country.
This, of course, is nothing new. Nearly 3% of adults in the U.S. are trapped within a criminal justice system which profiteers off its inmates, upholding the legacy of slavery. Rehabilitation, for both the individuals within and the nation itself, is no longer a dream. It seems like a nightmare.
However, resistance to trauma in the prison industrial complex is building.
“There is a movement which is coming towards transforming the system into something which...isn’t even really a system, but is about communities and healing and finding new ways of addressing harm that are not punitive”.
Wendy Jason is the founder of the Justice Arts Coalition, a network connecting prison arts programmes across North America. As well as exhibiting and facilitating the creativity of incarcerated people, its website is a resource for anyone interested in engaging with the arts and criminal justice.
Wendy’s experience gives a good indication of how far this movement has come. “I started managing the website in 2010, and there were about 50/60 arts programmes in our directory. Now there are 300.”
This isn’t an indication of a cultural shift within the institutions themselves. “By in large, facilities don’t want to fund arts programmes, and when they do, they are limited”, says Jhenna El-Sawaf, an intern at JAC. “For example, when people go in, they’re forbidden from forming friendships or communicating outside the arts programme”.
This point was most eloquently articulated by Chris Trigg, an incarcerated contributor to JAC, in a blogpost on the site in June: “All the years of getting tough on crime that has locked up millions of souls has also converted these prisons into barren wallows of boredom. Every year they take something and replace it with nothing.”
The difficulty and bravery involved, by artists and facilitators alike, to persist in engaging the creative spirit in an environment which is institutionally hostile towards programmes of rehabilitation is admirable. In recent months, this has been brought into view on a global level.
"Every year they take something and replace it with nothing"
Black Lives Matter is an articulation of a broken dream. In the Land of the Free, the movement is a powerful reminder of how arbitrarily one’s liberties can be removed when a system is founded on prejudice and discrimination.
“Systemic racism is the foundation of the criminal justice system in the US”, says Jhenna El-Sawaf. “It is the reason they got around abolishing slavery. The thirteenth amendment stated that there could be no slavery unless the person is a criminal.”
Once the protests began after the murder of George Floyd, authorities, fearing the potential volatility of prisons, acted quickly. “A lot of facilities went on extra lockdown” says Jhenna. “The Federal Bureau of Prisons stopped all forms of communication with the outside world for people who were incarcerated.”
For incarcerated artists, restrictions on communication also infringe on the most vital aspect of their work. As Wendy Jason explained, “The most important thing for them is the direct connection of getting feedback, and the most important thing we do is build relationships between people inside of prison and outside of prison through the arts”.
Creation in Confinement
The pandemic has stormed through prisons in the US. In San Quentin, California alone, 2159 of the 3500 inmates have tested positive for the virus. Trapped in cramped conditions, with inadequate access to healthcare and a higher than average rate of prevailing illnesses, they are sitting ducks for Covid-19.
Art can seem insignificant in an environment of life and death. But in a world where one is made to feel powerless, to many it remains crucial to survival. “I am an artist.” says Trigg. “There is a power in that statement.”
It is this that makes the Justice Arts Coalition’s work more powerful than ever. And despite it all, Wendy tells me, it is having an impact.
“As the pandemic began, I thought it may be worthwhile to bring folks I knew on to a zoom call to check in. That’s a weekly call now where we have teaching artists, arts programme administrators, a public defender to be in a space together with people who understand the difficulties.”
The coordination of this network allows the ideas and actions of those in one place to be adopted across the continent. Online workshops are occurring weekly, and the network of programmers and activists is expanding internationally. With the survival of these organisations in jeopardy, they are using their creativity to ensure those inside still have a channel they can tap in to.
“We have people coming on to the call from across the country, and Canada and Puerto Rico, even from Europe...and it’s multigenerational” explains Wendy. And most importantly, “Every piece of art we receive immediately still gets feedback from someone with a background in the arts”.
"I have found that prison invites a certain amount of introspection and a need to express the results. For me, art is a way to accomplish both.
It seems that I shaped my life around a distorted reality that I perceived in media at a young age. Today, I use this same media to explore my previous misunderstandings by appropriating it for artistic purposes. Primarily, I use images from fashion magazines, a common commodity and focus of much attention in a men's Federal Prison. I recompose these images, adding a new context to them that expresses my own sense of isolation, frustration, and societal impotence as well as my growing understanding of previous wrongs. I do this while also questioning the magazine's original context of economics, art, and sexuality. The resulting work, including its title, is always autobiographical and represents a terrible beauty found in both past actions and lessons learned."
For organisations like the Justice Arts Coalition, art can be a tool to break through the barbed wire, surveillance and thick walls which divide the world of the prisoner from the rest of society. “Arts are a vehicle for connection between people who have had very different experiences in life” explains Wendy. Despite all the difficulties, the goal remains the same, and quietly but surely, the community involved in this resistance is growing.
Copies of our print edition of Solitude have been sent to all artists featured in it. To purchase a copy, click here