Unnatural Desert: The End of Arts-in-Corrections

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Spoon Jackson gives a glimpse into daily prison life and asks, “How can we heal without the arts?”

 

Daily Life

Thursday

This morning the theatre window opened with a new geese family and four fresh goslings on the backside of the cell block. I had my poetry class today and did silent poetry writing for most of the class. It has been twelve weeks since I last ran it. A free poet came in and did a twelve week pilot program on a grant from William James Association to show how positive Arts-in-Corrections can be if allowed back inside California prisons. It went well. After silent writing I let my students read their poems. However it has been a frustrating day. Sometimes it seems like I have very high highs and and very low lows only moments apart. I get edgy and verbally mean, or silently, and don’t answer even when spoken to — yes, I know that’s rude. I don’t like being that way, but sometimes the feelings of darkness is so thick and sad, I must go silent, and in that silence, get away for a moment.

Friday

For the first time allergies has hit me and the last few nights has been restless. Sometimes I wake up at 2:30 am and stay up the rest of the morning. I went to the doctor yesterday for a long overdue diabetic report on my sugar level and it was high to 7.4. Today I will start back jogging. I had cereals and coffee this morning for breakfast. The window theatre opened and it opened my heart and spirit to see something of Mother Earth. Soon the mother turkeys will be bringing their turkey chicks down the turkey trail to the feeding grounds. I ponder: do the wild turkeys grow as fast as the goslings? I jogged today and denied myself a soup which turns into sugar and is bad for my diabetics. I have been eating soup every day. The prison food is horrible and a pouch of sardines or mackerel is exquisite in comparison.

Sad days in the art room. Three weeks ago Marco, our art room clerk, Rock-‘n-Roller equipment man was transferred, which only leaves Ken, the blues man, Marty, the man of many talents and myself as teaching artists. Marty ran the visual arts, music theory classes and was also featured in the film “At Night I Fly”. He was a mainstay in all the art room bands. There was a lot of other little things Marty did to keep the art room running, flowing and real. The last day Marty was here we played the “One Soul” CD. We did Mother’s Day cards and felt our one soul.

Jim Carlson, our brother in the arts and old AIC boss, I remember whenever outside guests came inside the art room, Jim would have Marty play his guitar and sing his original songs and I would do my poetry readings. Most often the visiting guest artists and other people from the outside world would get hooked on our art programs and come back again and again. Now there is only art boss Kari and my co-worker artist Ken left in the art room. Soon Ken will be gone too, and I will also. We will all be scattered on different beaches. Marty will be around here a little longer but on another yard. I’ll be down at Lancaster prison (LAC) teaching. Perhaps “One Soul” will see Marty again. I hope I’ll get e-mails or letters from “One Soul” once I’m gone from New Folsom. If not, stay real “One Soul”!

♦◊♦

The End of Arts-in-Corrections

I am just a prisoner, a poet decades incarcerated, looking at the world from the inside out. But even I have noticed the benefits of the art programs, especially in these slim economic times and how arts everywhere have not been supported as we need them to be. I have been involved in AIC for over 25 years of its 30 years existence. I have seen how the arts program have grown tremendously and how these programs have changed lives for better. All the time costing the state nearly nothing, because the core of Arts-in-Corrections program are volunteer-based. People from the free world and prisoners inside the prisons mentor, teach and inspire from the heart and soul. How can AIC be cut when it takes only one staff member to run it and the Arts-in-Corrections facilitator makes less than correctional officers and teachers?

I started in a poetry class in AIC at San Quentin, where I sat silent and shy and listened for over a year as my heart and soul opened up like a natural desert filled with hidden life. I have never read, studied or pondered poetry before. I became a silent private poet, at first keeping all of my text to myself. Poetry led me to play POZZO in 1988’s production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” at San Quentin, with Samuel Beckett’s blessing and advice. We played to international attention and glowing reviews.

I have gone from someone lost, who knew nothing about the world, the arts and how it can fill, touch and embrace lives and open you up to yourself, others and the world, to a writer who’s won four PEN writing awards, an actor who mentored others, a poet whose work has been the subject of short film, short plays, used for character setting and the text of two musical works, a teaching artist of both poetry, and prose classes for Arts-in-Corrections here in New Folsom where I am currently housed.

I invited one of my prose students to a poetry class and I did a poetry lesson, a choice of two questions; what does forgiveness smell like? He wrote his first poem and his eyes and face was afire with the inspiration he uncovered inside himself to create his first poem. It was like he found a missing part of his soul.

Arts-in-Corrections programs here at New Folsom run by free staff Jim Carlson was adopted by KVMR 89.5, radio station, Nevada City and their radio personality Cheri Snook who taped poetry shows and provided us with guest artists, poets, singers, writers, and musicians from California to Alaska. They all shared their skills, time, wisdom and art for free. Directors, actors, conductors and film makers came from Sweden and France to film and do workshops free of charge. A 40 piece choir came from Sweden to perform a suite of songs inspired by a prisoner at New Folsom and paid their own way.

We had the internationally known performer Michael Franti and Spearhead come into New Folsom to do a show right after he had performed at Muhammad Ali’s Library dedication. No cost to the state.

We had the smooth, powerful singer/poet/musician and rising star Melissa Mitchell (who recently opened for singer/poet Jewel) and her artist friends from Alaska come into New Folsom and did a final show for Arts-in-Corrections after hearing it will be shut down. Melissa and the other artists did concerts, writing and music sessions and workshops for six days and they all paid their own passage.

Arts-in-Corrections has been cut as of January 2010, and with it goes a history of self rehabilitation and restoration, with it goes a history of deep change and realness from within. How do we heal without the arts? There is no garden if it only contains weeds. With the destruction of Arts-in-Corrections, what’s left behind is an unnatural desert and no forum for the hearts and souls of people trying to heal. A desert with no hidden life.

 

Photo credit: Flickr / Tatiana12

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About Spoon Jackson

Poet/writer/artist/teacher. In prison since 1977. I had two books published in 2010 “Longer Ago Poems by Spoon Jackson” and “By Heart Poetry, Prison, And Two Lives”, a double memoir by Judith Tannenbaum and me. I've been featured in films, plays, articles, books and music suites. I've found my niche in life despite being in prison for over 35 years. I have found that prisons are created internally and are truly found everywhere. I have also discovered that the secrets to break down prison walls are inside each person and I treasure sharing this realness with people. I keep my light glowing through expressing my inner thoughts, vibes and feelings in my poetry and prose writing. Write to me! Address on the blog: Spoon Jackson Realness Network.

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  1. [...] Came across an interesting article about the state of  arts are in correctional institutions:  http://goodmenproject.com/health/the-good-life-unnatural-desert-the-end-of-arts-in-corrections/ [...]

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