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The Centre for Christian Spirituality: Arts Programming in and about Prison in Cape Town, South Africa

28 Aug

I’m now back in Michigan, getting ready for the start of the new school year. I apologize for not doing any Brazil blogging while in Brazil, but we had such a lovely, jam-packed trip that my schedule simply did not afford the time. I am going to post a little more on South Africa before writing about our adventures with the PCAP Brazil Exchange this year, but rest assured, I’ll get there as soon as I am able.

A poster from the Robben Island Museum.

A poster from the Robben Island Museum.

When Andy and I were in Cape Town, South Africa, our first order of business was to head to Robben Island to see the historic prison turned museum where Nelson Mandela had spent the majority of his incarceration. Unfortunately, we only got to see the small museum on the mainland shore where one catches the ferry to the island itself. August is winter in South Africa, and a rain storm and high tide caused the cancellation of all boats to Robben Island on the one day when we had time to make the trip. It feels wrong to have been on a prison-focused research trip to South Africa and to have missed Robben Island, but we couldn’t do anything about that.

Despite this, our time in Cape Town was quite productive. We met with staff members and formerly incarcerated participants of two local theatre projects and learned quite a lot about the nature and content of prison theatre in this part of South Africa. The rest of this blog post is devoted to one of those projects, and a later post will describe the work of another group called Young in Prison.

In the lobby of the beautiful Baxter Theatre, we met with Laurie Gaum from the Centre for Christian Spirituality and a reentrant named Lesley who has performed in a couple of theatre projects organized by the Centre. Laurie coordinates events for the Centre and has done a number of projects both inside Pollsmoor Prison (for some interesting photos of the prison and those who live within it, click here) and with reentrants in Cape Town. The Centre for Christian Spirituality was founded in 1986 by Father Francis Cull and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Centre’s website and the brochure that Laurie gave me both indicate a strong predilection towards addressing social justice initiatives as well as worship and spiritual contemplation. The language of justice and reconciliation appears frequently in their promotional materials, and this seems fitting not only because of the South African nation’s history with Apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but also because of the Centre’s active work in and around prisons. As Laurie described the Centre’s programming to us, he talked a good deal about masculinity and gender-based programming to help incarcerated men and reentrants explore both their spirituality and their family histories.  The Centre engages in visual art workshops which encourage prisoners to work with clay in silence and writing workshops which focus on gender biographies, family history, sexuality, spirituality, and leadership. He spoke of using theatre to enact “images of the male soul.”

The Centre is currently engaged in producing a series of dramas based on spirituality as it relates to social issues. The first of these, entitled Other, focused on stigmas of sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Though we didn’t hear a great deal about this production, we did learn that it involved a chorus and projected images on stage.

The second of theses dramas, called Fatherless, used three real life stories portrayed by their authors. Lesley Thomas, the reentrant who accompanied Laurie to meet us, was one of these author/actors. Fatherless grew out of a workshop that Laurie had been co-facilitating on masculinity in which a number of participants described instances of fatherlessness. In the production the three author/actors each told their own stories in different areas of a church. The audience stood in the middle and shifted to face each performer in turn. Lesley’s story had to do with going to prison and leaving his children as a result. Lesley grew up without a father and then was not present for his own children before or during his incarceration. He theorizes that everyone in prison is there because they focused too much on themselves and not enough on the other significant people in their lives. Lesley noticed while he was in prison that most of the men around him told stories about being fatherless and that the vast majority of visitors to the prison were women. He saw no fathers coming to visit their incarcerated sons.

Fatherless had two performances at the church in its initial run, and now officials in prison are talking about wanting to bring this performance inside the walls. Because the performance was created by volunteers, three of whom are professional actors along with a director and his assistant, Laurie worries that the group will be hard to hold together long enough to take the show to a new venue. They are also talking about the exciting possibility of taking the production of Other to the professional stage at the Baxter Theatre.

The Centre’s drama project focuses on masculinity because the participants find this theme both significant and difficult to address. They want to continue creating original performances and hope to address the issue of violence against women and children in one of their upcoming projects. The Centre works with a major NGO on issues of gender violence, and Laurie and Lesley are both trained as Gender Reconciliation facilitators. They see performance as an ideal medium for raising awareness and stimulating community involvement in social justice issues.

Lesley wants to change cultural perceptions in South Africa about incarceration as a rite of passage into manhood. He feels that many South African men actually want to serve time in prison because becoming a part of a prison gang earns them respect both inside the walls and on the streets when they return home. He says that many people believe that if you have not been in a prison gang, you aren’t a real man.

In our travels throughout South Africa, people kept recommending journalist Jonny Steinberg’s book The Number which recounts one man’s journey through life in a prison gang. (I confess here that I have not yet read Steinberg’s book and apologize if I am in any way misrepresenting prison gang culture in South Africa. I cannot tell you how much accuracy the following account holds, but I can say that we heard basically the same story from a number of different people throughout our trip.) The three main prison gangs in South Africa all identify themselves by numbers: the 28s, the 27s, and the 26s.  Apparently there are a few other numbers, but those three are the largest and most powerful. The shorthand explanation of the gangs that we received from several different people went something like this: The 28s control sex inside the prisons–both protecting some people from rape and bartering with the bodies of others. The 26s control drugs and money, and the 27s negotiate between the two. Once you are inducted into one of these gangs, you are a member for life, and your gang status and rank (accorded in military terms with the titles of general, captain, etc.) follows you both after you leave the prison and throughout any subsequent returns to prison.

Lesley managed to serve ten years in prison without joining a gang, and he now works with incarcerated boys, encouraging them to eschew gang life as well. He says many people believe that you have to join a gang in order to survive but that he teaches boys how to avoid this fate.

Lesley studied music throughout his time in prison. During Lesley’s incarceration (and perhaps now as well), imprisoned musicians had special privileges to sit outside and play their instruments. Les bonded with his children during visits by playing music for them, and since his release, he has grown closer to his son and daughter by playing music with them at their local church. Lesley plays the clarinet, and his children play the clarinet and trumpet. They have a new life as a reunited and committed family, and Les and Laurie continue their work with the Centre, striving to help other men learn to live peacefully.

*Many thanks to Laurie Gaum for his helpful feedback and edits on this post!

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The Atonement Project: Restorative Justice and the Arts

10 Feb

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) is excited to announce an opportunity to be part of its new Atonement Project initiative—an arts-based restorative justice program that seeks to start meaningful conversations about crime, incarceration, and reconciliation.

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is invited to join a weekly Atonement Project arts workshop in either Detroit or Lansing. Workshops are facilitated by University of Michigan students enrolled in PCAP Director Ashley Lucas’ Atonement Project course. Workshops began February 1 (Detroit) and February 4 (Lansing) and run for 12 weeks. Contact Ashley Lucas at lucasash@umich.edu for more information or to register. You are welcome to join even if you already missed the first weeks of the workshop.

Project Description

The Atonement Project is an innovative, arts-based approach to addressing issues that many crime victims and people who have committed crimes find difficult to discuss (i.e. forgiveness and reconciliation). We wish to create spaces, both through an interactive website and through arts workshops in prisons and in communities affected by crime, where the arts and creativity can help us bridge the divides created by crime and incarceration. The ultimate goal of the Atonement Project is to bring together people whose lives have been shaped by crime so that we can join our efforts to prevent further harm to our families, loved ones, and communities.

Drawing on a broad variety of art forms, including visual art, creative writing, theater, music, poetry, and dance, the Atonement Project uses creative expression to engage participants in tough conversations about crime, punishment, and reconciliation. Technology, including the Atonement Project website, video, digital photography, social media, and interactive online tools will enable web users to have access to the products of our arts workshops and participate in larger conversations about forgiveness and atonement.

The use of creativity and art in examining issues related to atonement and reconciliation is a central component of the Atonement Project. Many people respond more openly to and are able to connect with the experiences of others when they read their stories and experience visual art. The art created in our workshops and displayed on our website will focus on the following three areas of the atonement process:

  • Acknowledgement: Recognizing how we have hurt and how we have been hurt by others.
  • Apology: Apologizing to those we have hurt, and apologizing to ourselves for the hurt we have caused ourselves.
  • Atonement: Atoning through direct actions in our community, with people we have hurt as well as ourselves.

Community Workshops

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is welcome to participate in community workshops, and there is no cost involved in participation. Workshops will take place once a week for two hours and will run for twelve weeks. We ask that participants try to come to all workshops, but we understand that not everyone who participates will be able to attend every single week.

Each workshop will be a space for participants to collaborate as a group on creative writing, performance, and/or visual art. No prior artistic training or previous affiliation with PCAP is required. Everyone is welcome, and no particular skill set is necessary for participation.

Detroit Workshop

Saturdays, 1-3pm

February 1-April 19, 2014

U-M Detroit Center (South Studio)

3663 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

Lansing Workshop

Tuesdays, 6:30-8:30pm

February 4-April 22, 2014

Michigan State University

Snyder-Phillips Hall C301
362 Bogue Street (close to the intersection of Bogue and Grand River)
East Lansing, MI 48825

Contact Ashley Lucas at lucasash@umich.edu to register.

About the Prison Creative Arts Project

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) was founded in 1990 with the mission to collaborate with incarcerated adults, incarcerated youth, urban youth and the formerly incarcerated to strengthen our community through creative expression. Housed in the University of Michigan’s Residential College, faculty and students work with community members both inside and outside prisons to engage in theatre, dance, visual art, creative writing, slam poetry, and music.

More information, including a link to the Atonement Project website (which we hope to launch later this month) will appear on this blog soon.

Meanwhile, my dear friend Margarita Mooney (a sociologist at Yale) visited our class and wrote a fantastic blog entry of her own that explains our work beautifully.  Thank you, Margarita, for your support of the Atonement Project and for your wonderful visit to the Atonement Project class!

Sesame Street characters have parents in prison

18 Jun

I didn’t realize that it was possible for Sesame Street to tug at my heartstrings even more than it did when Big Bird got the news that the beloved grocer Mr. Hooper passed away when I was a child in the 1980s.  However, Sesame Street is now addressing one of the great crises that children in this country face today: parental incarceration.  Both a human and a muppet character on the show discuss the pain of having a father in prison, and the Sesame Street website provides a very useful tool kit and activities for caretakers of children with an incarcerated parent.  The tools are designed to help young children, ages 3 to 8, but their lessons are useful for all of us with an incarcerated loved one.

Thank you, folks at Sesame Street, for your attention to this serious issue and your compassion for children grappling with a frightening experience which will undoubtedly shape their lives.

Ashley Lucas to speak in El Paso on June 27, 2013

14 Jun

Doin’ Time: Families and Incarceration
A public lecture and performance
by Ashley Lucas

Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 7 PM
Hanks High School Theater
El Paso, Texas

Proceeds from this event benefit Community Solutions of El Paso (an organization that provides services to prisoners’ children) and the Prisoners Family Conference

Tickets: Adults $20, Students & Children $7

Click here to see the poster.

Straight Talk: A Support Group for Prisoners’ Families in Durham, NC

13 May

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.

Good Friday, Medical Care in Prison, & the Anniversary of Pepper Ramirez’s Death

29 Mar

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.

Luke 23:34

                  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.

Call for Submissions of Writing by Prisoners’ Families

25 Mar

Journal of Prisoners on Prisons

Call for Papers

Special Issue on Prisoners,

Their Families and Loved Ones

General Information

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.

Submission Guidelines

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

is encouraged.

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.

Submission Process

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,

Ottawa, Ontario

K1N 6N5

Canada

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.

Additional Information

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:

Stacey Hannem

Assistant Professor

Wilfrid Laurier University

shannem@wlu.ca

Erin McCuaig
PhD Candidate
Queen’s University Belfast
eringayle@hotmail.com

We look forward to hearing from you,

Stacey and Erin

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