Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Finding Spiritual Freedom in Prison Through Art

“Treat those who are in prison as if you are in prison with them. Treat those being tortured as if it is happening to your body.” –Letter to Hebrews, Chapter 13, attributed to the apostle Paul.

There are over three million people incarcerated in the US prison system, and each of them has a story. I admire those who visit inmates or do AVP training, and get to know them as people. So far, I have not felt called to this kind of ministry. Instead, I have been led to correspond with inmates and find this to be extremely rewarding. One of the first inmates I corresponded with was a Quaker named Leo. He is highly intelligent and eloquent, and enjoys reading writers like Bonhoeffer and yours truly. He also has a keen sense of social justice. Here’s a passage from a letter he sent me several years ago:
“Your letter brought me abundance of Joy and encouragement. The tug of my heart is felt daily from something deep within, I brush against the fences of insecurity of knowing my full potential. I collaborate my ideas, thoughts through an attempt of empathy. One part is to guide others to understanding that no obstacle is too big and how healing takes place in prison. Surely you tasted this in your visits to the correctional department. I remain saddened by the large amount of forgotten men. Men who never receive mail, money, visits and seem to slowly deteriorate on a steel bed. This has sensitized me to take more responsibility for myself and stand for the rights of other.”
About a year ago, I sent a bunch of Christmas cards those forgotten inmates here in California. One of them began writing me on a regular basis. He is 46 years old and has been incarcerated for 17 years. He is facing a 25 year to life sentence and expects to die in prison. His family and friends have long forgotten him, and he is yearning to connect with someone on the outside who cares. He wants to make some kind of difference in the world through his art, the art of making beads. A woman in my wife’s church befriended him and offered to help sell his bead work, but she died of cancer. He has reached out to me, sharing his dream of turning his bead work art into a way to earn some money, and to redeem his life from meaninglessness.
“Greetings, along with best wishes sent your way. I just received your warm birthday greetings you sent me. Thank you! It’s the only birthday card I received this year…Enclosed  are three [bead work] items for you. Please donate what you feel is a worthy donation for whoever you feel is deserving….As far as price goes, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m just happy that I’m in a position to make Art and bless somebody with a little something and that I’m able to contribute something beautiful for our world from a place that has no beauty.”  
Ken [not his real name] makes bead necklaces out of paper. They are exquisitely delicate—like butterfly wings, is how someone described them. I asked him how he made these necklaces and here was his response:
"Well, it’s a very long process and very time consuming. First, I measure ½ inch strips of paper and cut them into [strips] ½ inch wide by 6 inches long. I then use a clear protractor as my guide and using a razor I cut little strips of paper until have 1,000 strips of that color and 1,000 of that color and etc. Then I make a clue concoction. I use floor wax and soap and then I make glue since they don’t have glue or sell it here. I just make my own. I then use a paper clip as my dowel and I roll the strip of paper on the paper clip. Then I smear the end with glue and finish the roll and it stays together. It takes me one hour to roll 70-75 beads. Once I get a couple thousand rolled up I then begin the waxing process. Another time consuming process. I put 800 beads onto one long piece of thread that hangs from my cell wall. I have three of these hanging from my cell wall. They’re about 7 ½ feet long. I then use a brush that I made from my hair since they don’t sell art paint brushes here so I made my own. The first coat I apply, then wait 2 ½ hours and apply 2nd coat. Wait another 2 ½ hours and apply a 3rd coat. I then let them dry. Then I have to break each bead apart. This takes one hour. I then to repeat the process 2 x more. So with three strings it takes three hours to break beads. Then I sew the beads together. Sewing takes a long time."

How long does it take?

"That depends on the project I’m doing. The necklaces take 9 hours, maybe a little longer to make."

How did you come to make them?

"A wise old sage who introduced me to the Orthodox religion.... taught me how to roll beads and I also learned to sew from him. I’ve come a long way and my beads are  a lot smaller now. I needed to do something constructive with my time. I needed an outlet to kill all these hours. Hours that I used to spend making knives and politicizing on getting people hurt. I had a need to use this energy in my day to create positive energy. I feel that Jesus directed the wise sage to teach me because I was in need of something to create.
"Through bible studying and creating art I had no time to dwell on prison politics and my surroundings. I learned patience through this. I began to change as  a man slowly through our Lord’s grace and my drive to create beauty from a place that has no beauty.
"It was funny now that I look back on it. I remember Don [not his real name] showing me a wall hanger when we were back in the S.H.U. [solitary confinement] and when we went through the debriefing program together I practically begged him to teach me, and he said he’d never taught anyone before. He taught me because I pestered him constantly to teach me. So I promise to stop drinking and to this day I’ve not drank. Through the Lord’s works and my art I stopped drinking. (Praise Jesus)"
[It came as a surprise to my wife that alcohol was available to inmates, but drugs and alcohol are actually quite common. Drugs are usually smuggled in, but alcohol is often made in the prison. Homemade prison alcohol goes by a multitude of names, including juice, jump, raisin jack, brew, chalk, buck, hooch, and pruno (a once popular ingredient was prunes, but the name now applies to any fruit-based home brew). - See more at: http://www.chacha.com/question/what-is-prison-alcohol-called#sthash.RhwDt7m0.dpuf.]

How do you feel when you make your projects?

"When I was first learning, it didn’t feel so great. I would get upset and hit my wall and scream out of frustration. I would get upset at other convicts and want to inflict physical destructiveness on them. But instead I would go home and pick up my bead work instead of a knife. And with beading you have to stay focused on what you’re doing or you’ll make a lot of mistakes. Well, pretty soon, I would be all messed up because I messed up my bead work because I wasn’t paying attention and I would scream and punch the wall and after the 20th episode of this it forced me to learn patience. I would read the bible every night to ease my mind and heart, but it was the art work that kept me from hurting others along with anger management and conflict resolution courses. Now I rarely get upset.y I have I don’t even think about hurting another human being out of anger. (Praise the Lord!)
"With Jesus’s help I was able to forgive people who never even asked [me] to forgive them just so I could heal from anger. Jesus helped me to want to love people again, even my enemies. Today I feel I have no enemies in my heart. I learned to listen and accept others for who they want to be and I no longer care about prison politics."

Ken also expressed appreciation that I fasted for those incarcerated around the world:

“I want to thank you for your personal sacrifice and self-discipline in your support for prisoners both political and domestic….”
  “I sit here and think about how you’re rallying people to support hunger strikers. As my last word there are around 300 people still going strong. I’m worried about those convicts up at the Bay. They’re very close to death right now. They started the 8th and today is the 3rd (26 days. Word is they plan on going until their hearts stop beating. CDCR officials could care less.”
Ken is afraid that some of these hunger strikers will die. Many of those in solitary confinement are people just like my friend Ken. They are not monsters; they are human beings "made in the image of God," and each has a story.  

I thank God for Laura Magnani and others like her who are speaking out on behalf of prison inmates. They need and deserve our support, if only a friendly word of encouragement, or a prayer. Writing a letter to the Governor would also be a big help.)

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