Despite the fact that we number in the millions in the U.S. alone, prisoners’ families do not have very many opportunities to come together to share our experiences. Fortunately, some folks in Durham, North Carolina, have formed an organization to support one another. Read more about it here.
Every year for the last five years students at the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) have volunteered to undertake the incredibly unwieldy task of soliciting, receiving, reviewing, and responding to creative writing submissions from hundreds of prisoners throughout the state of Michigan. Every single person who submits writing receives personalized feedback on his or her work; PCAP sends no form rejection letters. The result is a remarkable collection of writing called the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, published annually in conjunction with the PCAP Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. This year’s review is a particularly good one, and I highly recommend it to those of you might be looking for prisoner writing to teach in your courses next year and to those of you who just want something great to read.
To order this year’s review or one from a previous year, use this order form. Each copy of the review is only $15, and all proceeds go directly back into making the next year’s review.
The front page of this morning’s New York Times describes the latest move in the Corrections Corporation of America’s unceasing efforts to find new ways to make money on the backs of prisoners. They have found a giant loophole in U.S. tax law that enables them to avoid all federal taxes by declaring themselves a real estate trust. In practice this means that the folks who engage in the utterly unethical practice of financially investing in keeping a certain segment of our population in captivity now do not have to pay any federal taxes which would fund many of the social programs that help combat mass incarceration.
Jodie Lawston and I have both previously written on this blog about the inextricable links between economics and mass incarceration, and it always boils down to the simple fact that as long as major corporate interests and the government itself have strong financial incentives to lock up lots of people and keep them there for extended periods of time, we cannot reasonably believe that our criminal justice system actually functions to punish or prevent crime. Instead it works to make sure that people who do not have the resources to defend themselves will continue to be disproportionately incarcerated and used as a cheap–or in the case of Texas prisoners, free–labor source.
The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is not a real estate trust, and our government should not enable it to escape taxation. In actual fact the CCA has been entrusted with the lives of human beings who live under conditions that no outside party can effectively regulate. This means that the health and well being of thousands of people are subordinated to the corporation’s main objective, which is, of course, to make money.
Those of you who keep up with this blog may remember an earlier post about Iris Morgenstern and her former student Robert Avila, who now lives on death row in Texas. Iris and a team of lawyers have continued to lobby for Robert’s life, and yesterday, within a week of his execution date, they received good news. Judge Ana Perez granted Robert a ninety-day stay of execution, putting his new execution date in July 2013.
Robert received an earlier stay in December. He was then scheduled to be killed on the feast day of the Virgen de Guadalupe–a significant date in the religious calendar for many people in Robert’s hometown of El Paso, Texas. The criminal justice ministry group at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Robert’s family, and other supporters successfully campaigned to have his execution date moved, which is how he received an execution date of April 10, 2013.
Iris and Robert’s lawyers are very hopeful that new evidence will grant him a new trial. Robert, Iris, and I are all very grateful to those of you who wrote letters to Robert in response to my earlier blog post. People in prison, especially those on death row, need to know that they are not forgotten and that their lives have value, and those letters helped Robert through a terrible time. Mil gracias. Robert’s battle for his life is not over, but this is a significant victory for him and for those of us who oppose the death penalty.
The following post was originally delivered as a reflection on Good Friday as part of a service at St. Titus Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina, in 2011. My husband and I had been asked to write reflections based on Bible verses connected to Good Friday, and this was mine. A dear friend of my father’s died in prison shortly before Good Friday the year that I wrote this, and I post this here today to honor his memory and to remark upon the sad state of medical care in Texas prisons, which only appears to have gotten worse since I wrote this. –Ashley Lucas
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
We tend to think of forgiveness as something personal—a thing we ask of those whom we have wronged directly: the person whose car we rear-ended, the loved one to whom we spoke in anger, the acquaintance about whom we thought unkind things. This sort of forgiveness gets us through each day by helping to mend our relationships with those around us, repairing and strengthening our ties to those with whom we interact each day. Without it we would be in shambles, but God’s forgiveness is much larger than we can imagine.
When Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. He was not addressing his executioners, who had just nailed him to the cross. He was speaking to God, his Father, asking a parent to forgive not just those who were there that terrible day at Calvary. Jesus asked God to forgive each of us throughout the millennia that would follow his death because he knew we would continue to harm one another and that we would need to be forgiven for an enormity of offenses.
As the child of a prisoner and a scholar who studies incarceration, I think often about the fact that Jesus was a prisoner executed by a government with the approval—indeed the zealous insistence—of the populous. We in North Carolina are subject to both state and federal governments which execute those around us, and the majority of our fellow citizens are in favor of this practice, though few of us know much about life on death row or the individuals who are being killed. However we personally feel about the death penalty, the fact that it is part of our culture and our system of government is well-known and at times hotly debated. We know that this is a thing we do, even if we don’t fully understand it.
I awoke this morning wanting to speak about offenses that we almost never realize we have committed. Just before last night’s Maundy Thursday service, I learned that my father’s best friend had died. My father has been held captive in Texas prisons since 1994, and over the years he has grown close to a fellow prisoner named Pepper Ramirez. I never got to meet Pepper, and all I know of him is what my father has told me in letters and in visits. From what I understand, Pepper ended up in prison because he killed a man who was harming his sister. Though I do not know the length of his sentence, I am sure he served well over a decade, perhaps two. Pepper was a good friend to my father, told funny stories, and made big plans for what he would do when he got out of prison. He had a large and loving family who desperately wanted him home and who remained steadfast throughout the many years of his incarceration.
In the last few years, my father’s news about Pepper always had to do with his health. Pepper suffered from severe glaucoma which required medical treatment. Medical care in Texas prisons is a terrifying thing. In order for a prisoner who is held in a rural area to receive treatment, he or she must be handcuffed, shackled, and chained around the waist to another prisoner. These patients are then loaded onto a bus and driven to another prison where they may spend a week waiting to be transported to the medical prison. For men on my father’s unit, the Robertson Unit where the men wait before they are taken to the medical unit is one of the most violent prisons in the state. Several years ago when my father’s friend Pepper was on his way back from the medical unit where he had been treated for his glaucoma, he was held at Robertson for several days. The violence surrounding him at Robertson was so stressful that he had a heart attack and was taken back to the medical unit for open heart surgery. Pepper never received even one doctor’s visit for follow up treatment after his open heart surgery. He would not risk enduring the trip back to the medical prison. My father tells me that many men would rather die from their ailments than have to take that trip. It is widely believed by both prisoners and staff that the process of receiving medical care in Texas prisons is deliberately constructed to discourage the ill from seeking treatment. It costs the state less to let the elderly and infirm die of their own accord.
Earlier this week my father’s prison was undergoing a shake down. Pepper has been very frail in the years since his heart surgery, and he collapsed after carrying his possessions either to or from the gym. I do not know if an emergency response team could have saved his life, but there was not one on hand. The only doctor on staff is the elderly country doctor who delivered most of the guards who work in that prison, and even he is not on duty every day. Pepper Ramirez died this week on a cement floor far from his family, and I feel responsible for his passing.
We live in a country where we think we know what justice is, where we are told that get-tough-on-crime legislation makes us safer, where we are encouraged not to think of prisoners as people but as beings not like us who have forfeited their civil and human rights by being irredeemably bad. The jury that convicted Pepper Ramirez likely did not know that he would not be given adequate health care. They may not have considered what his family would endure year after year as they watched him deteriorate. Even if they had thought about these things, they may have felt that he, and perhaps also his family, deserved what they were getting. I am not a witness to Pepper’s crime, but I am a secondary witness to his character and his suffering. He was a good friend to my father, and for this I will be forever grateful. Please pray today for Pepper’s family. Pray for my father and the other men who lost a friend and who saw too well the fate that might await each of them. Pray for all of us that we might not forget the lives and struggles of those who are deliberately hidden from us. Pray that we find ways to end violence, addiction, and suffering through compassion, treatment, and forgiveness. Pray for guidance to stop cycles of institutional violence. Pray that we may learn not to be passive bystanders to the suffering of others.
Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.
Rock Center with Brian Williams recently aired a story about the terrible things that minors–some as young as nine years old–endure in solitary confinement in United States prisons. Watch a clip of this story aired on the Today Show here.
If criminal justice administrators routinely agree that minors are so much at risk in adult prisons that they must be kept in solitary confinement to protect them, shouldn’t we rethink our decisions to send children to prison?
The new pope has sworn to dedicate much of his papacy to serving the poor–an admirable goal and one which will be very difficult to uphold in the long run as the demands of administration at the Vatican settle in. However, Pope Francis is off to an auspicious start. When he emerged on the Vatican balcony in his first appearance as pope and asked the people to bless him, he displayed a level of humility seldom seen in a world leader. What’s more, he appears genuine in his efforts to live in close contact with the poor and to serve them directly. He never lived in the auspicious residence reserved for the bishop of Argentina, and on Thursday, March 28, 2013, he will wash the feet of twelve prisoners in Rome, as Jesus washed his disciple’s feet the night before his crucifixion.
For Christians, the act of washing another person’s feet engenders a mix of humility and honor. The person washing the feet humbles herself in cleansing what in Jesus’ day would have been the dirtiest part of a person’s body–rough and covered in the day’s dust. The person who allows her feet to be washed is simultaneously honored by the act of another person’s service but also humbled in having another person care for her in this intimate way.
Regardless of our systems of belief, we could all learn from what the pope will do this Thursday. This act is a public reminder that we should remember those whom we have shut away from our sight. We should honor them with human dignity, concern, and care, as we should all people. We should not be afraid to lay compassionate hands on those whom we have been taught to fear.
Thank you, Pope Francis, for remembering the incarcerated. May this act inspire people around the world to treat prisoners with kindness.
Journal of Prisoners on Prisons
Call for Papers
Special Issue on Prisoners,
Their Families and Loved Ones
The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (JPP) is a prisoner written, academically oriented
and peer reviewed, non-profit journal, based on the tradition of the penal press. It brings
the knowledge produced by prison writers together with academic arguments to
enlighten public discourse about the current state of carceral institutions. This is
particularly important because with few exceptions, definitions of deviance and
constructions of those participating in these defined acts are incompletely created by
social ‘scientists’, media representatives, politicians, and legal and justice industrialists.
These analyses most often promote self-serving interests, omit the voices of those most
affected, and facilitate repressive and reactionary penal policies and practices. As a
result, the JPP attempts to acknowledge the accounts, experiences, and criticisms of the
criminalized by providing an educational forum that allows women and men to participate
in the development of research that concerns them directly. In an age where `crime` has
become lucrative and exploitable, the JPP exists as an important alternate source of
information that competes with popularly held stereotypes and misconceptions about
those who are currently, or those who have in the past, faced the deprivation of liberty.
Prisoners, Their Families and Loved Ones
While imprisonment has been the focus of a number of important studies, the impacts of
imprisonment on the families and loved ones of prisoners has rarely surfaced in
academic discussions. The difficulties faced by prisoners who wish to maintain links to
those outside prison walls has also been under-researched. The Journal of Prisoners on
Prisons invites prisoners, their families and loved ones to contribute articles that discuss
their experiences of enforced separation including the challenges and negotiations of
maintaining relationships affected by imprisonment.
This issue will offer prisoners, their families and loved ones the opportunity to voice their
concerns so their life experiences can be acknowledged and their insights appreciated.
In doing, so it will shed light on the struggles of population that has traditionally been
overlooked in society and to a greater extent within criminology.
Prisoners and former prisoners are encouraged to submit papers, collaborative essays,
discussions transcribed from tape, book reviews, and photo or graphic essays.
The journal also encourages submissions of illustrations, drawings, and paintings to
appear within the special issue or as cover art. Artistic work should also include a short
description of the inspiration for the work.
The journal does not usually publish fiction, and does not generally publish poetry.
The journal does not publish material that focuses on the writer’s own legal case,
although the use of the writer’s personal experiences as an illustration of a broader topic
The journal will not publish any subject matter that advocates hatred, sexism, racism,
violence, or that supports the death penalty.
Articles should be between 1,000 and 10, 000 words, and maybe handwritten (legibly) or
typed, in English, French or Spanish. The author may elect to write anonymously or
under a pseudonym.
Editors look for developed pieces that address topics substantially. Manuscripts go
through a preliminary reading and then are sent to review by the board, and those of
suitable interest are returned to the author with comments or suggestions. Editors work
with writers on composition and form, and where necessary may help the author with
referencing and bibliographic information, not readily available in prisons.
If your submission is not accepted for publication in the special issue, the Editorial board
will consider it for a later publication.
If you are interested in contributing to the JPP please your writing and/or art to:
Journal of Prisoners on Prisons
c/o University of Ottawa Press
542 King Edward,
Please include: a clear and accurate contact details for the author, and a brief
description of the work. Once your work has been received and reviewed you will be
notified by the JPP.
For more information regarding this project or the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, feel
free contact the editors of the special issue through mail at the JPP office or at the e-mail
addresses listed below:
Wilfrid Laurier University
Queen’s University Belfast
We look forward to hearing from you,
Stacey and Erin
A few years ago I had the privilege of directing an undergraduate honors thesis written by Anita Rao, who was then a senior at UNC Chapel Hill. Anita took on an ambitious original research project, interviewing formerly incarcerated women in the Triangle Area of North Carolina about the time they spent as part of an arts workshop in a women’s prison in Raleigh. Anita’s senior thesis was awarded highest honors and now sits in bound form in the UNC library. Her research inspired me to write an article about the same prison arts workshop for a forthcoming special issue of the academic journal American Music.
After graduating from UNC, Anita went to work for National Public Radio’s StoryCorps program, where I know she is doing wonderful things. She recently sent me an email with this link to a StoryCorps clip in which a formerly incarcerated mother and her daughter interview one another about their experiences of the mother’s imprisonment.
Thank you, Anita, for the great work you are doing! We need many more thoughtful young people like you to help bring stories of women and families’ experiences of incarceration to light.
Those of you who know something about the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) might recognize at least one of the very silly people in this picture.
Buzz Alexander–the taller of us–founded PCAP in 1990 at the University of Michigan, and in the years that followed Buzz built this extraordinary program into the largest organization in the U.S. (and perhaps the world) that links university students and incarcerated youth and adults through arts programming. PCAP sends undergraduates into Michigan prisons, juvenile detention centers, and urban high schools to facilitate arts workshops. PCAP also hosts the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, which displays over four hundred works of visual art from every prison in the Michigan Department of Corrections. PCAP’s annual literary review publishes writing by Michigan prisoners, and the organizations many workshops host dozens of performances each year. In fact, last week PCAP celebrated the performance of its 600th play.
Now I have the honor of succeeding Buzz in running this incredible organization. As of January 1, 2013, I am a new Associate Professor of Theatre & Drama at the University of Michigan and the Director of PCAP, and I am deeply grateful to Buzz and to Janie Paul (the other long-serving member of the PCAP faculty and Buzz’s wife) for the years of preparations that went into the process of getting me hired at Michigan. Many other people worked very hard to get me to Michigan, including Priscilla Lindsay, chair of the Dept. of Theatre & Drama; Dean Christopher Kendall of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, & Dance; and Angela Dillard, chair of the Residential College. Half of my faculty appointment at Michigan is in Theatre & Drama (the field in which I was trained), and the other half is in the Residential College (RC) where PCAP will soon be moving.
PCAP has long lived in Michigan’s English Department because that’s where Buzz founded it. Though PCAP will maintain connections to the English Department through Buzz and my husband Phil Christman, who will be teaching as a lecturer in the first year writing program in English, the PCAP’s administrative operations will move into the RC in Fall 2013. The PCAP staff–Sari Adelson, Shannon Deasy, and Vanessa Mayesky–and I will all have offices in the RC, while Buzz and Phil will be the PCAP faculty with offices in English. I also have an office in Theatre, and Janie, of course, has an office in Art & Design, which gives PCAP a strong presence on North Campus as well.
Buzz is considering retirement in the coming years but has not set a date for his retirement. We hope to have a few semesters or years of working together before he stops teaching, though he will never truly leave PCAP or stop participating in its activities. (Thank goodness!) Though I will undoubtedly do many things differently than Buzz has in the past–because I could never hope to fill his shoes completely–I endeavor to honor the incredible work that he has done and continues to do with hundreds of students, volunteers, and incarcerated people. Buzz’s main purpose in bringing me to Michigan, and mine in coming here, is to protect PCAP’s sustainability so that this organization can thrive for twenty more years and beyond.
My husband Phil–a writer and former lecturer at North Carolina Central University–will play a significant role at PCAP as well. Starting with the 2014 issue, he will be the editor of PCAP’s annual Review of Literature by Michigan Prisoners.
We have taken up residence in Ann Arbor, though neither of us will start teaching until Fall 2013. Though we already miss many friends and colleagues at UNC, we are very happy to be at Michigan and plan to be here for years to come. The PCAPers, colleagues at Michigan, and our neighbors have done much to welcome us and make us feel at home here. We are grateful for all the good will and kindness that is being shown to us, and we look forward to meeting all of the current PCAPers and to teaching our first Michigan students in the Fall.
My friend and colleague Professor Kathy Perkins is hosting a performance of excerpts from my one-woman show Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass at the end of this month. Kathy is a renowned lighting designer, and her students this semester needed something to light for their final project. I will perform about half an hour of my play in conjunction with an hour-long student performance directed by Joseph Megel, who is also the director of Doin’ Time. The performances are free and open to the public. Please join us if you are in the area!
Drama 468 (Lighting Design) cordially invites you to our final design presentation on Nov. 29th (Thursday) at 5:00pm & Nov. 30th (Friday) at 7:00pm in the Kenan Theatre where we will present:
Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass, a one woman show, written and performed by DDA faculty
member Professor Ashley Lucas. Through a series of monologues, Lucas will perform excerpts from her play
that examine the impact of incarceration on families.
“RITES OF SPRING” – PERFORMING MODERNISM DEVISED BY COMM 263 CLASS
Using the historic rupture of the opening performance of the Rite of Spring as a prism, this performance of modernist
prose and poetry includes the works of James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolfe, T.S. Elliot, William Carlos Williams,
Marianne Moore and Samuel Beckett.
Both performances will be directed by Joseph Megel -Artist in Residence Department of Communication Studies
The following words are a reproduction of a letter I received yesterday from Robert Avila. He requested that I post his words on this blog so that he could communicate directly with this website’s readers. In the interest of not implicating parties unknown to me, I have omitted certain names in connection with Robert’s legal case. As mentioned in my previous blog post about Robert’s impending execution, I do not know Robert personally nor have I done anything to investigate the circumstances surrounding his conviction. I post his words here not as a journalistic or scholarly account of the events he describes but as a personal essay from a condemned man who wishes to communicate with the rest of the world. –Ashley Lucas
Words of Gratitude and Awareness
by Robert Avila
November 2, 2012
I’d like to start off by saying thank you to Andrew Martinez from San Jose, CA, Andrea Ridgard from Ann Arbor, MI, Nancy Loiselle from El Paso, and Jim Dankovich from Birmingham, MI, for their words of encouragement and support. Of course none of this would be possible were it not for someone whom has touched my life instantaneously. Her name is Ashley Lucas. Without even knowing me personally, she reached out and introduced me on her blog here. I can’t thank you enough, Ashley, you’re amazing! This was all made possible by my dear friend Iris. Words alone can’t describe what this wonderful woman means to me. Iris, I love you infinitely!
Now then, I want to take this opportunity to tell you what happened to me back on February 29, 2000 so that this doesn’t happen to you or your loved one(s). That evening around 6 PM at [name omitted]‘s apartment in El Paso, TX, while siting in her living room, she asked me if I would watch her kids while she went to night school at the University of Phoenix (El Paso campus). I said yes because I had done so on numerous other occasions. Right afterwards she got up from the couch and went to her bedroom with her son [name omitted] (19 months old). I meantime was watching TV. About 5 minutes later [name omitted] comes to the living room all in a hurry. I thought it was strange but didn’t pay attention like I should’ve. She then walks to the front door and tells me, “I’ve got to go.” I got up from the couch and walk towards her and tell her, “Why are you leaving so in a hurry?” She tells me, “If you say anything about this to anyone, I’ll have your Mom killed.” I told her, “What are you talking about?” She just looked at me and didn’t answer, then left. I knew she was serious because her brother [name omitted] has connections with this notorious gang in west El Paso. All she had to have done is called her brother on her cellphone and then he in turn contact his connection, so they could carry out the hit. I wasn’t about to let that happen to my Mom, so I took the fall. Back at the apartment I went to her bedroom, no sign of [name omitted]. I then went to the kids’ room and found [name omitted] lying on the floor face up. His body was motionless and his lips were bluish. I right away picked him up in my arms and took him to the living room where the phone was. I immediately dialed 911 so I could get assistance on performing CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation). As I was doing so, the paramedics arrived and took over. They were able to get a pulse and immediately took him to Providence Memorial Hospital. Unfortunately though, several hours later he passed away. I was then arrested and charged with the capital murder of [name omitted]. On May 7, 2001 I was convicted and sentenced to death. No evidence was proven in my trial because there didn’t exist any. I was told that the reason I was convicted was because I showed no remorse. Well, I couldn’t for something that I didn’t do to begin with. Anyhow, I’ve stayed quiet long enough. I can’t just sit back and let the State of Texas execute me for something I didn’t do. I have the necessary proof that excludes me of this crime. I just need to have it filed by an attorney. Right now I have no attorney though. So stay tuned, as soon as I hear something I’ll be sure to let you all know. . .
Iris Morgenstern has to figure out how to say goodbye.
In her decades of teaching high school in El Paso, Texas, Iris has only had a few students who have stayed in her heart and her life for many years after they graduated. She taught a boy named Robert Avila in the late 1980s, and today he is even dearer to Iris than he was when he captured her heart as a witty, energetic teenager with a knack for writing.
In an email to me about Robert, Iris wrote:
I met Robert was he was a sophomore in my English class at Bel Air High School. He was crazy enough to sign up for my class when he was a junior and again as a senior. He has a very quick mind and was able to analyze literature without any help often looking at different aspects of readings. His writing is usually humorous.
We have kept in touch on and off since then. He was in the Navy and has a 15 year old son.
Those are the basics by they don’t tell anyone about his kind gentle nature and his humorous spirit. He was always making comments about having to bend in half whenever he gave me a hug and asked where I could grow just a couple of inches — tall not wide with a twinkle & laugh in his eyes.
I have seen Robert help kittens who were only days old. His huge hands held the tiny creatures while he fed them with a dropper or bottle. There was one I truly believed he willed to live.
These are the things Iris wanted me to know about Robert as she tried to figure out what to say to him in their last visit. Robert now lives on death row, and on the day after his birthday–a few weeks ago–he was given an execution date: December 12, 2012. Iris, Robert’s family, and some Catholic death penalty activists in El Paso lobbied to have Robert’s execution date changed because December 12 is also the feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The state of Texas acquiesced and changed the date of the execution, but for a few agonizing days we did not know if his date would be postponed or moved earlier. This morning Iris wrote to let me know that Robert’s new execution date is April 10, 2013. The faithful among us might say the Virgen gave him one more Christmas and four more months to live.
Iris is on her way to visit Robert this week, and before she found out about the new execution date, she believed this would be the last time she saw Robert alive. Before he had the chance to invite her to witness his execution, Iris told Robert that she cannot watch the state kill someone she loves. It would break her. Instead, she planned this trip but does not know how to say goodbye. Now perhaps she will have the chance to see him again before April, but her dilemma has not been solved. The state of Texas still plans to take the life of a person Iris helped to nurture into adulthood, and these months of reprieve will prove all too short.
I didn’t know how to advise Iris when she called me asking for advice about how to say goodbye to Robert, but I was able to tell her about a young man named Matthew Puckett who was killed by the state of Mississippi on March 20, 2012. I never knew Matt Puckett, but we had a mutual friend in common–a man named Matt Erickson who asked a whole lot of people to write letters to Matt Puckett in his last days. I wrote to Matt Puckett shortly before his execution, and after his death, Matt Erickson told me that Matt Puckett had said that my letter and the others he received comforted him in the days leading up to his execution. Matt Puckett’s mother received those letters after her son’s death and also relayed her gratitude for them to Matt Erickson.
I proposed to Iris that we do the same thing for Robert in these months that remain to him. If you are reading this blog, chances are that you oppose the death penalty. I have no idea what crime Robert Avila was accused of committing, and it’s not my job to try or judge him. What I do know is that I don’t want him or anyone else to die in the name of justice. The death penalty compounds one tragedy with another, and as a Texan, I do not want Robert to die in my name. What I know is what a great person Iris Morgenstern is and that she truly loves Robert. I stand with Iris, with Robert’s family, and with the many families, like my own, whose loved ones are kept from us by concrete, razor wire, and a legal system that values vengeance more than either compassion or public safety.
I’m asking you to write to Robert Avila while he is still with us. It can be awkward or even intimidating to write to someone you don’t know, so don’t over think what you might say. Just let him know that you care, that you oppose his execution, that he will not be forgotten. You can send letters to Robert at this address:
3872 S. FM 350
Livingston, Texas 77351
Keep Robert and Iris in your thoughts. When we see people for their full humanity, it ought to be harder for us to condone their deaths. Out of context, Robert might just look like a death row prisoner, but more than that, he will always be one of the students Iris Morgenstern loves best.
I sincerely apologize for not yet finding a moment to write about the incredible experiences I had performing Doin’ Time last month at Illinois State University and at Lincoln Correctional Center, but I promise to provide an update soon. In the mean time, here is a link to a radio interview I did with the local NPR station in Bloomington just prior to my performances there.
Please note that at the end of the radio interview I stated the wrong name of the activist organization I was describing. The organization I’m actually describing at this moment in the interview is Our Children’s Place, which is an amazing group of folks in North Carolina who provide support for the children of prisoners. The organization I named instead is another great activist organization called All of Us or None, which serves prisoners and reentrants nationwide. Both groups are doing vital and difficult work, and I am proud to support their efforts.
More soon. . .
About a year ago, a woman named Sherrin Fitzer contacted me out of the blue, asking if she could get a copy of the script of my play Doin’ Time to share with a group of women in an Illinois prison. Sherrin works at Lincoln Correctional Center for Women and leads a theatre troupe comprised of incarcerated women; they call their ensemble Acting Out. Sherrin and I exchanged many emails and conjured up a plan to collaborate. Janet Wilson, director of the School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University in Bloomington, has collaborated with Sherrin and the women of Acting Out for many years, and Janet extended an invitation to me to perform Doin’ Time on her campus. With support from many corners of the university, including the School of Theatre and Dance, Latino Studies, Crossroad’s Project, Honor’s Program, School of Social Work and the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences, Janet and Sherrin arranged a week-long residency for me:
- On Tuesday, September 18, 2012, from 10 AM to noon, I will lead “Writing Social Justice: A Writing Workshop for the Community” in Stevenson Hall, room 133.
- On Tuesday, September 18, 2012, from 5 to 6 PM in Centennial West 207, I will speak about UNC’s Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (MURAP) and diversity issues in higher education.
- On Wednesday, September 19, 2012, at 7:30 PM, I will perform Doin’ Time in Westhoff Theatre. Click here for more information about the performance.
My time at Illinois State will be very exciting, but what will happen at Lincoln Correctional later that week is the most amazing opportunity I’ve had in eight years of touring with this play. The women in the Acting Out troupe have read my script and written their own monologues about visitation and families. Sherrin has been emailing me drafts of their monologues, and in this manner the women and I have been able to respond to one another’s work. They have written some very powerful pieces, which they’ve been rehearsing with Sherrin. Doin’ Time‘s director, the incomparable Joseph Megel, will travel to Illinois with me, and we’ll spend all day on Thursday, September 20th in rehearsals inside the prison with the women of Acting Out. We’ll weave their eleven monologues into my play, and we’ll all perform together on the afternoon of Friday, September 21st for an audience of 150 to 200 incarcerated women. Two more incarcerated women will run the tech cues for the show.
I have performed in a handful of prisons now in the U.S., Ireland, and Canada, and I’ve seen prisoners perform plays of their own in Michigan, North Carolina, and Louisiana. I’ve also conducted and participated in improvisational theatre workshops in quite a few prisons, but this will be the first time that I’ve actually performed in a play with incarcerated theatre makers and the first time that anyone ever wrote or performed new material in response to my play Doin’ Time. I have never performed Doin’ Time with other actors, and though I haven’t yet met any of the women of Acting Out, I am already deeply moved by their words and their willingness to enter into this adventure with me.
If you are going to be near Bloomington this week, please come to the show! I’ll be posting more about my time in Illinois after my trip there.
My favorite bookstore in the whole world is a little place called Resistencia in Austin, Texas. They have a fantastic selection of rare and out of print books as well as a wide variety of titles by Native American, Latina/o, and black authors. They specialize in literature by people of color, poetry, Southwestern writers, and nonfiction on social justice issues, particularly incarceration. (Those of you who know me can see clearly why this is my kind of bookstore!) The books are just the beginning. A very active and progressive community organization called Red Salmon Arts also resides in this bookstore (which is in truth more of a community center than anything else) and hosts a ton of really exciting readings and social justice events. If I lived anywhere near Austin, I would be there all the time.
Resistencia’s founder, raulrsalinas (also sometimes written as Raul R. Salinas) was one of the greatest human beings I have ever known, and his life and legacy are honored every day by the work of the good folks who keep Resistencia and its programming going every day.
I first encountered raul’s poetry when I was in high school–about a year and a half after my father entered prison. raul spent many years in prisons all across the US and wrote some of the most enduring poetry of the Chicano Movement from solitary confinement, including his landmark poem “Un Trip Through the Mind Jail.” His poems were the first pieces of writing that helped me begin to understand what my father experiences every day behind the walls. raul’s strength, fortitude, and passion for life gave me hope that my father and our family might be able to endure this particular form of devastation. After he got out of prison, he went home to Austin and spent the rest of his life doing work that served others–those in prison, struggling youth, and the people of his beloved Austin.
I cannot do raul justice through mere description. Here’s a taste of him performing some of his poetry:
My senior honors thesis when I was an undergraduate at Yale dealt with the subject of poetry written by Latina/o prison–a project inspired by raul’s writings.
By the time I actually met raul in person, I was a graduate student at UC San Diego, living in Sherman Heights–a historic Chicana/o neighborhood in the heart of the city. The next neighborhood over from mine hosted a Barrio Book Fair in 2004, and raul was one of many distinguished speakers. I introduced myself to him and told him how much his work had shaped my understanding of incarceration and its impact on communities. By the end of the day, he had invited me to perform my then very new play about the families of prisoners, Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass, at Resistencia. He was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of the play, and in hosting my performance, he not only provided opportunities for my work to grow but also introduced me to the incredible community of folks who make up Resistencia and Red Salmon Arts.
raul left this earth in 2008, and those of us who loved him continue to raise his name and honor his life by doing the kinds of community work he taught us to do. The folks at Resistencia do an unfathomable amount of service for the people of Austin, for youth, for the queer community, African Americans, immigrants, Chicana/os, Native Americans, prisoners, and a whole bunch of other gente, and now in these tough economic times they need our support. Here are a few things you can do:
- BUY THEIR BOOKS! You don’t have to be in Austin to do that. I order books from them through the mail on a regular basis. You can also order by phone: (512) 416-8885. If you are lucky enough to be in Austin, check them out in person:
1801-A South First St.
Austin, TX 78704
- GET THEIR EMAIL NEWSLETTER! I often learn of new book titles from the newsletter, which is awesome. It also provides listings of all the exciting events happening in connection with Red Salmon and Resistencia. Like I said, if I lived within driving distance of Austin, I’d be there every week. Send an email to email@example.com to sign up for the newsletter.
- DONATE TO SUPPORT THEIR WORK. You can mail a check made out to Resistencia Bookstore to the above address or use their PayPal account.
Pa’ la gente de Resistencia, with gratitude and admiration.
Believe it or not, I found out about this awesome project because a prisoner emailed me about it.* Martin Vargas, an incarcerated painter who has worked with the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), sent me a message letting me know that our mutual friend and PCAP alumnus Julia Taylor was involved with this new venture called Prison Production which uses theatre to inform high school students in New York about how the prison industrial complex affects all of our lives.
Prison Production is at the tail end of a fundraising campaign and have almost met their goals. If you’d like to donate to this incredibly worthy cause and perhaps receive a postcard or piece of artwork from Martin Vargas in the process (depending on the size of your donation), go to the Prison Production Website.
*As a side note, here’s what it means for someone to be able to send email from prison. Generally speaking prisoners are only allowed fifteen minutes or so of computer use at a time, and depending on the state, they have a restricted list of people to whom they can send emails. Prisoners do not have email access as you and I know it. The computers on which they send and receive email are set up only to allow them access to their own email accounts and nothing else on the web. In some states, like Texas, prisoners can receive but not send email messages. This means that a prisoner in these states would never see or touch a computer but would receive a printed version of an email message sent by a person on the outside. The benefit of sending an email rather than a letter is that it reaches a prisoner faster than regular mail, usually within 48 hours and sometimes on the same day you have sent it. Sending an email costs the same amount as the going rate for a US Postal Service stamp, but the money goes to the corporation running the email operation. In both Texas and Michigan, prisoner email is run by a corporation called JPay. I prefer that my money goes to support the US Postal Service rather than JPay, but I will use it in a pinch to relay information that I want to reach someone quickly.
CALL FOR PRESENTATIONS
The 5th Annual National
PRISONER’S FAMILY CONFERENCE
February 20-22, 2013
Hilton Houston Southwest
For Presenter Guidelines & Application Please Visit
Please “LIKE” the “Prisoner’s Family Conference” on Facebook
For Regular Updates
˜ ˜ ˜
The Prisoner’s Family Conference is a Project of
Community Solutions of El Paso
The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) is an amazing program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, that takes undergrads into prisons, juvenile facilities, and urban high schools throughout Michigan to conduct collaborative arts workshops. One of their other programs, the PCAP Linkage Project supports formerly incarcerated artists, writers, actors, dancers, and musicians who worked with PCAP during their imprisonment. Working with returning citizens is far more difficult than working with folks in prison. Though life in prison is terribly unpleasant, the incarcerated don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, how they’ll find work and make an income, or where they will sleep that night. Returning citizens often find the free world very changed from what they knew before they entered prison, and those of them who became artists while in prison struggle to continue working creatively after their release because other concerns take precedence over the desire to make art.
On April 5, 2012, the PCAP Linkage Project held an amazing conference, organized by staff member Heather Wilson, for formerly incarcerated artists. I had the privilege of getting to attend the day’s events in Detroit, meet the artists, and see some of their work. Many of the artists brought drawings and paintings to the conference, and all the works of art collected that day are now on display at the Ridge Point Community Church at 340 104th Avenue in Holland, MI. (That’s in the western part of the state, not far from Grand Rapids.) Click here for more information about the exhibition which runs from now until May 5, 2012. If you’re out in that neck of the woods, don’t pass up the opportunity to see these wonderful works of art.