To understand my vision for Prison Renaissance, it helps to understand my life. When I was a teenager, my criminal behavior stemmed from needs that I couldn’t articulate, and since we live in a culture where to name a thing is to know it, my inability to articulate limited my ability to understand my motivations. I didn’t understand that growing up in a home broken by domestic violence made me crave security. I couldn’t grasp that the ostracism I experienced as a black youth increased my need for acceptance, or that losing my mother to divorce made me desperate for love’s touch. I couldn’t fill emotional holes I couldn’t define, and the resultant frustration gave rise to fear, confusion, and anger.
Driven by an intense fear of death and rejection, exacerbated by a male role model who used violence as currency, I stumbled into corrupted forms of security, love, and acceptance. I felt safe when I could make others feel afraid; I felt loved if I could seduce women; I felt accepted when my friends praised me for running toward rather than away from gunfire. In many ways, I was sick. My only hope was to seek help, but a healthy reality lay so far outside my psychological cosmology that a blind bat was more likely to conceive of Pluto than I was to confide that I didn’t know why I was dying inside. The art of creative writing changed this by stimulating insights that allowed me to name my internal struggles.
E.M. Forster asked, “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?” That’s the story of my rebirth: I couldn’t see and examine the things I used to think until I started writing about them. I didn’t know my father was abusive until I wrote about my childhood. I didn’t know I hated him and that hating my father made me despise myself, until I wrote it. I learned how to name my needs. This knowledge, this light, affected rebirth.
My story isn’t unique. Some of my incarcerated friends are poets, painters, and performers; they can tell you stories about rebirth similar to mine. What amazes me the most about our stories, what inspired Prison Renaissance, is how the change we effected in ourselves is contagious. Free and incarcerated people encounter our stories and ideas, in person and through our work, and the experience shifts their perspective. In us, they see roadmaps to new possibilities, and what Prison Renaissance sees in these inspired moments is that change starts with self and spreads outward.
Prison Renaissance is using visual, verbal, and performance art to create a culture of transformation to end cycles of incarceration. This culture supports the transformation of incarcerated people from outcasts to invigorated citizens eager to partake in solutions to criminality’s roots. It aims to transform public apathy toward incarcerated people and their families into public empathy by (1) rewriting the narratives that encourage stigmatization of people in prison and (2) using artistic collaborations and presentations to create proximity between the public and incarcerated citizens.
Art is a social medium that allows an artist in California to connect with a bus driver in Florida. Through art, millions can experience who I am, who the incarcerated are. In art, we have the medium to, not only change an individual, but to present this person as a transformative force to the world.
What can you do? Increase the proximity between the public and incarcerated people by choosing to engage with us. The Prison Renaissance quarterly newsletter will introduce incarcerated artists through interviews as well as ideas that challenge traditional approaches to criminal justice. Engage us by responding to our art and our lives. Respond by talking about these artists at home and in your workplaces. Respond by debating our ideas in your classrooms. Contact our artists through prisonrenaissance.org to mentor, collaborate, or begin a dialogue. Respond to our interviews and work with your own stories, poems, visual art, critiques, and articles; submit through our website for publication starting this Spring, 2016. In this way, we begin to build a community that supports a culture of transformation to end the cycles of incarceration.
Editor, Prison Renaissance