“I will be their unconditional”

In California, there are the beginnings of a profound departure away from the entrenched punitive approach to the justice system that has prevailed for over 40 years. In 2014, Californians voters approved Prop 47, downgrading many nonviolent property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. By March 2015, already 2,700 people were released from California prisons under Prop 47. Moving forward, tens of thousands more will avoid felony prosecutions in the first place, and hundreds of thousands who have done their time are now eligible to cleanse their records retroactively. While not all Californians support reform, the commitment of individuals, groups and institutions is building momentum to a level that is simply not happening elsewhere —especially not in Arizona where I live.

My investigations into the problematic culture of incarceration began over 10 years ago in response to the heavy-handed justice and media stunts of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Since then, I have focused on producing long-term large-scale projects that invite disparate constituencies of the criminal justice system to engage in conversation.

In 2011, as participants in my socially engaged art projects began completing their jail and prison sentences, I was introduced on a more personal level to the array of challenges that the formerly incarcerated face. I had been collaborating with local, re-entry support groups and governmental agencies for a while. Working one-on-one with these new colleagues and friends, I saw another side of the human cost of incarceration. That’s when I witnessed firsthand the uncertainty, the lack of trust they faced, the daunting task of finding a job or a place to live, and the relentless barriers to something as simple as getting a driver’s license. As an artist, standing along side this silent and nearly invisible wave of people, I felt driven to investigate the complex issues of reentering society after incarceration.

Los Angeles-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition

I was impressed by the promising shift in attitude and legislative successes in California, and I felt that collaborating with individuals and organizations at the forefront of California’s prison reform movement would create a dynamic context in which to develop this new artwork. I was nominated to apply for a SPArt grant, which opened a door for me to reach out to the Los Angeles-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition, known as ARC for short. I had learned of ARC and its founder, Hollywood movie producer Scott Budnick, in early 2014. I was blown away by the depth of engagement and effectiveness of ARC’s work, both in the community and in influencing public policy.

1 Alton Pitre w grandma

(Alton Pitre with his grandmother Nechie Pettie at Morehouse College graduation)

ARC has undertaken groundbreaking work to help youth and young adults get a fresh start at a time when recidivism rates in California for 18- to 25-year-olds approach 75%. ARC’s members are comprised of formerly incarcerated young men and women committed to positive change in their lives — most of them currently attend community college or university. The ARC members benefit not only from ARC’s services, but also work with ARC allies to actively participate in an advocacy network. Among other endeavors, they share their turnaround stories with California legislators to convince the lawmakers that rehabilitation is possible. Demonstrable successes include restored budgets for California prison college programs, as well as legislation enacted to mandate more humane sentencing for juveniles.

 

After several meetings and site visits, I began a conversation with Scott Budnick about collaborating with ARC and its members. I wanted to develop artwork that would be grounded in the members’ personal life experiences as a means to engage the social and political concerns of the reentry community. These exchanges developed into my project proposal for the SPArt grant, namely, to serve in an official capacity as a kind of artist-in-residence or embedded artist with ARC for a year. During those initial visits, ARC Member Service Director Cheryl Bonacci, at Scott’s suggestion, invited me to participate in ARC’s annual three-day members’ retreat on the theme of “restorative justice,” a subject close to my heart.

2 photo Caitlin Ahern

(Photo by Caitlin Ahearn)

Anti-Recidivism Coalition Annual Retreat, January 2015

The retreat took place at a campsite/sports complex in the Angeles National Forest, a little more than an hour’s drive from L.A. This gathering provides an opportunity for ARC members to step away from their day-to-day struggles, decompress a bit, play sports together, and do some reflection/personal development work. They also have opportunities to come together with mentors, lawyers, and a range of folks from different walks of life who work with the re-entry community and restorative justice.

 

Restorative justice focuses on responding to the harms done to victims and their needs, rather than on the outlawed behaviors and the punishment of offenders. Where traditional criminal justice focuses on wrongdoing by an offender and asks —Was a law broken? If so who did it? What punishment will be put upon the offender? In contrast, restorative justice focuses on the victim and reframes the response in this way: Who was harmed? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these?[1]

 

Understandably, when individuals with histories undertake restorative justice work, they revisit difficult experiences and traumatic memories. ARC’s team worked to make its members’ retreat a space for a healing dialogue, which in my experience is a rare opportunity. To support these efforts, I was asked to present my past artwork, host an Art Room for the members, and spearhead two arts-based workshop sessions with the participation of members. The Art Room functioned as a laboratory and open artist studio space where ARC members could express their thoughts and feelings in a variety of mediums.

3 Sale speaking w #A53B069D

(Photo by Robert Jordon)

The first workshop session specifically explored the theme of restorative justice. As the more than 150 ARC members and volunteers entered the room, they were handed a 4-by-6-inch card. Each card had a hand-drawn, red-orange circle on the face and a set of instructions on the back. The instructions read: 1. Write about love, 2. It must easily fit on a button or two, and 3. But you can’t use the word “love” itself.

 

Addressing the ARC workshop, I introduced a few of my past collaborative art projects on the culture of incarceration, including one produced with men sentenced as juveniles to life without parole in Pennsylvania, and another that considered love as a social political strategy. I then revealed to the ARC workshop participants that the circle on the front the card that he or she was holding had been hand-drawn by a man on death row. These death-row inmates worked with me in Tennessee on a collaborative art project called Love for Love that utilized artmaking, creative writing skills and political campaign strategies. The men helped prepare these Love for Love cards to be used in contexts, like this one, that would support young people in becoming aware that they have more options in life than these men had realized for themselves when growing up.

4 Retreat workshop copy

(The retreat functions like a large family. Volunteers, allies and ARC members participate all activities. Picture about ARC ally and advocate Chip Warren. Photo by Robert Jordon.)

The invitation to write about love in a space that has been personally defined or outlined by someone facing a death sentence allowed the ARC members to grapple with notions of love and compassion right alongside ideas of judgment, guilt and shame. I was gratified that the short poems and evocative bits of language that the ARC members inscribed in their circles ranged from playful declarations of love, to introspective and quite intimate ideas of forgiveness and healing.

 

At the time of the ARC retreat, it wasn’t clear to me that the members grasped the power and influence their individual creative expressions could have within a larger collective frame. So I was pleasantly surprised when I walked into the ARC members’ meeting a couple of months after the members’ retreat and was greeted by a display of new Love for Love-style cards; a few ARC members had taken the initiative to adapt the exercise for a youth workshop they facilitated. That session was part of Survivors Speak, a conference that served as a forum for individuals who have survived crime or been impacted by crime in their communities.

 

It seemed particularly important that some of the ARC members decided to expand the Love for Love exercise in which they had participated at the ARC retreat. They created new Love for Love-style cards as a means of expression in a different context. I was excited, not because Love for Love was a project of my creation, but because they had made it their own, extending its life and usefulness as a medium of expression for those whose experiences are often invisible and otherwise silent.

5 their unconditional

(My favorite in this new batch of Love for Love-style cards)

When I dream up the conceptual frameworks for our collaborative explorations, I anticipate a certain impact, and I hope for others. The outcomes that are often the most rewarding for me as a social practice artist — the most provocative, the most insightful — are the unanticipated ones. These unexpected results flower and unfold from contributions I was not expecting, and they take on a life of their own. When this occurs, I know that the creative collaboration among the ARC members and the artist is deepening, and our exploration has truly begun.

6 Carlos and daughter

(ARC member Carlos Cervantes and his daughter at that same monthly meeting. Carlos works with the Jesuits Restorative Justice Initiative.)

[1] Zehr, 2002, p.21 (Social Work and Restorative Justice: Skills for Dialogue, Peacemaking, and Reconciliation, edited by Elizabeth Beck, Nancy P. Kropf, and Pamela Blume Leonard, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2011)

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