After a year and six months of corresponding with the incarcerated students enrolled in our arts classes in a dozen state prisons across California, we were invited to start to return to in-person classes. Like the rest of the world, things were beginning to open back up. Also, like life outside of prison, nothing was exactly as it had been. While planning events takes more preparation than it used to, the already time-consuming planning for programs in prisons is doubled or tripled by the added layers of preparation in place during the pandemic to ensure that everyone inside and out is as safe as possible. We Zoomed with our administrative partners in the prisons, redesigned classes based on limited space and reduced numbers of participants, pored through expanded CDCR regulations for visitors, and sent the requisite paperwork for team members who had joined us since COVID-19 to be cleared to enter. This has resulted in eight workshops in two of the prisons where we teach.
Postcard response, Amber, 2021
On one of our first in-person workshops this summer, five of us arrive from points across the Southland, some driving two hours to get there. We greet one another, check in, and make our way across the prison yard to the gym. All of us are vaccinated (visitors who are not must demonstrate a negative COVID test before entering) and all of us wear required masks. Some of our team joined us after the pandemic began and have not yet been in a prison, despite working with our program for over a year and corresponding with students by mail. One of our team, Stan, was released from this institution just three years before. Some of the men on the yard recognize him and call out. His presence a beacon of hope.
I have been reading the news and understand from these stories how difficult it has been to be in prison during a pandemic. I had learned firsthand from our colleagues in corrections about the difficulties for those that lived and worked there. And I had spoken by phone with some of the fortunate among the incarcerated that were released during that time. Each had contracted COVID. They didn’t talk much about what it was like for them inside, but their quiet elided a bravery to move forward, not to dwell on the past and not to share their fear. Now we would go back inside. I hated to think it, but wondered: Who would remain?
Postcard response, Joseph, 2021
As we entered the gymnasium, it was a relief to recognize familiar faces, albeit a reduced number. The prison had limited class sizes to allow for appropriate airflow and distancing. Where we once had more than 60 individuals in multiple simultaneous art classes in a large prison gym, we now had 15. Of these, all but one has taken part in our classes in person in the past. The man new to in-person classes has only ever experienced our distance learning packets. Throughout the pandemic, we have corresponded with our class participants via mail. We developed and sent thousands of distance learning packets in art, yoga, and creative writing to hundreds of individuals incarcerated across California. Two of our team are meeting their students in person for the first time, having read their mail, admired their art, and provided written feedback on their progress through the lessons for over a year.
After a brief introduction, we asked them how the distance-learning packets have been going. I was a little surprised that we received such detailed feedback. It’s not that I didn’t agree that our lessons were strong, but I had been concerned whether these stacks of paper with lines of words, however fun the lessons had become, would inspire people locked up during a pandemic. One man told us he received the packet and, even though he was busy doing schoolwork and couldn’t do it all, felt grateful to be seen and remembered. Some expressed their appreciation, with a bit of awe, for the amount of work that was put into packets for them at this difficult time. Some apologized for not sending the work back. We understood, of course, but one man shared openly that he felt it was hard for us to understand how difficult it was for them to be able to do these art lessons with everything going on. He explained that he had been moved multiple times in just a few months and it was hard to keep track of where his homework was, what had been sent back, and not.
Postcard response, Earnest, 2021
This launched a discussion of our word of the week: connection. We gathered into clusters of two or three, teachers spread among the groups. Here we were, talking about the meaning of connection in a vast gym, in a state prison, in the middle of a pandemic. I was sitting with two men. It was a little quiet at first and then they both kind of began at the same time. We laughed. They paused. I nodded gently to one to continue. He began by sharing how startling it had been to be in a global pandemic while locked up, punctuating his experience by acknowledging that he thought he had adjusted to prison and now this was something entirely new. Bringing it back to connection, he shared how difficult it was to think of his family outside. In relaying his experience, he used the word “helpless” more times than I could count. It was both unifying and heartbreaking. We have all experienced fear and helplessness during this time of COVID-19 but this was distinctly on another level.
After a time, we returned to the main circle and each group related what they had discussed. Some expressed that they missed the connection of their brothers (peers) on the yard. Others spoke of the positive impact of having more chances to connect with families as the prison system added more opportunities for phone calls and in some cases video visits. One man said that he experienced self-connection and spent time during the lockdown working on his self and his growth. Another said that he felt that connection was more important now than it had ever been before. But lurking at the edges of this dialogue about connection and expressing it in art was a sense of fear and confusion. Similar of our uncertainty outside of prison, these men wondered what was safe and what was not. Their concerns were both poignant and pragmatic. They questioned if the mail could carry the virus, casting a pall on what is, for many, their only means of connection to family and friends. Others noted that they showered collectively and wondered at the possibility of spread through steam. A few openly shared their grief at the loss of loved ones.
We shifted into drawing and gave time for everyone to express their thoughts and feelings about connection through words and images. We passed out squared of paper and pencils. Heads bowed over their work. The room grew quiet. We walked around, passing out additional pencils as needed, commenting on images, connecting. As the men drew, I was reminded yet again how important it is not only to cultivate opportunities for people to create community and creative spaces behind these walls, but also for us to visit and facilitate lessons that empower participants to express their experiences, to find and share their voices, when many feel disconnected from their identity as self in day-to-day life.
Postcard response, James, 2021
I have heard some well-meaning folks compare quarantine to being in prison, but I have never felt that to be a fair comparison. We might be unable to leave our homes, but most of us have homes we choose, with family or at least cell phones or internet, to connect to family and friends. Most of us can leave to go to the grocery store, wash our hands with hot water when we get home, wear a mask; some of us get to try out different masks to see what works best. Granted, there are those without homes or who are crowded into small spaces, who caretake children or elders, and there are those without internet. But many of us, particularly those that tend to compare the experience to prison, are gifted with freedoms that are barred from those who cannot choose with whom to share a small space, where or when to take a shower, what type of mask to wear, or if a mask is available.
One of the men draws a scene with the caption “barriers disconnecting people.” In the center of the page is a rectangle with bars and under it, the word “Covid,” with arrows pointing right and left. On the left is a boat at sea with people fishing under a sunny sky. On the right is a stormy night with a row of anonymous people all dressed alike. While the pandemic has unified our experiences in many ways, it has also drawn more brightly the lines that divide us, illuminating a path for change if we have the courage to make it. Maybe this time of heightened empathy and shared grief will be the catalyst for a deeper sense of connection, where those most directly impacted by systemic injustices can find and express their voices and those with the freedoms to create change in the system, pause and listen.
Topmost Image: Postcard response, Anonymous, 2021
Each of the above images was sent back to Prison Arts Collective as a result of a postcard mailed to participants in two prisons asking, “What does art mean during this time of increased isolation?” All images courtesy of Prison Arts Collective.