STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER
“It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.”
– Angela Y. Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle – Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of Movements.
The first time I set foot into an American jail happened in New York City in 1978, while accompanying lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights during a visit to a city jail with their clients. My familiarity with the German prison system had not prepared me for what I encountered on U.S. soil in that and later visits, starting with the physical factors of overcrowding and horrid sanitary conditions alone and amplified by reports of continual violence both among those who were incarcerated and from those who guarded them. The memory was triggered, for one, by the fact that the New York City Council voted this week to close the abominable Rikers Island Jail complex, and secondly, by a visit inside a prison, this time in Oregon, but for all intents and purposes on a different planet from Rikers.
Bureaucratic hurdles to enter the Northeast Portland minimum-security prison were surprisingly few. My pre-approved camera was checked both at entry and upon leaving, and the dress code requirements (no blues allowed, lest you couldn’t be differentiated from the inmates) were minimal. For this one-time visit I did not have to undergo volunteer training, thus being spared the instruction not to be open to manipulation from prisoners, an aspect that always struck me as sowing suspiciousness and bound to instill an us vs them attitude right from the start.
What brought me to the Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) was an invitation to attend the premiere of a video of The Inside Show, a variety show that was created, performed and filmed this summer by the men serving time at CRCI. The project was the brainchild of a gifted young woman, (Salty) Xi Jie Ng, a recent graduate of Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice Program, who directed, edited and co-produced (with Jacob Diepenbrock and Spencer Byrne-Seres) The Inside Show. The PSU program has been involved with bringing art and artists to prison through Columbia River Creative Initiatives, a series of artist-run programs and classes held at this minimum security prison in Northeast Portland.
I cannot think of a better example of collectivity, defined as the experience or feeling of sharing responsibilities, experiences and activities, than the one provided in this collaborative effort between those imprisoned, those who come in from the outside to volunteer, those who deliver material support from the outside (the media arts center Open Signal and PICA, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, among others) and an inside administration that sees the value of creative engagement and makes it possible. The notions of hope and optimism derived from collectivity were surely echoed in the conversations I had with those on the inside, as well as with one man who is currently on a re-entry path on the outside and who agreed to be interviewed after a second showing of The Inside Show, this time at PICA, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.
“The chronicle of a man, the account of his life, his historiography, written as he lived out his life formed part of the rituals of his power. The disciplinary methods reversed this relation, lowered the threshold of describable individuality and made of this description a means of control and a method of domination.”
― Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
The mess hall was filled with a big crowd, consisting both of those who had participated in the project and their friends, and those who were curious. There were certainly nowhere close to the 600 men currently serving time at CRCI (usually the last four years of a sentence), but I cannot tell if it was for lack of interest or some administrative safety rules given limited space in the mess hall. Once the video was introduced by the hosts Christian (Scotty) Freeman, David (Ohio) Phipps and director Xi Jie Ng, the mood, which had seemed relaxed to begin with, became truly upbeat. The hall was filled with loud laughter, mine included: many of the skits were truly funny.
The variety show consists of five episodes that will be published via You Tube across the span of the next several months. Central to the series is a repeated segment, Microwave Magic, that deals with recipes that can be prepared with available ingredients from the commissary. What talented cooks come up with under such restrictions is pretty ingenious. It is more poignant when you consider that food is one of the few “legal” sensory experiences available to those in prison – food that is not exactly meeting anything other than nutritional needs when delivered from institutional kitchens.
A sketch about carrots, Pocket carrots, also poked fun at the availability, or lack thereof, of food when you crave it.
Aspects of prison life are frequently targeted in those skits, in ways that make you wonder whether you should laugh or cry. Guest star Fred Armisen, who you might remember from Saturday Night Live or Portlandia, for example, participates in a fashion show that drives home the point of prison dress code, which eliminates all possibilities of individual expression.
There are musical interludes with pieces written and performed by the men,
interviews between buddies about the effects of military deployment in war zones and PTSD,
funny sports roundtables, stand-up routines with robots, and explanation and performance of Native American drumming circles.
During the braiding demo – different styles of braids are preferred by different individuals – the barber made a point that was echoed by several men who talked to me about the art project: “I meet all kinds of people who I would otherwise have no contact with: Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, they all come to get their hair done.”
Even though segregation among different prisoner populations is much less pronounced at CRCI than at, say, the Oregon State Penitentiary, the maximum security prison in Salem, it still exists. Signup for participation in the production of The Inside Show crossed those self-selective barriers. That kind of collective integration was perhaps not the main goal, but surely counts as a positive side effect.
Mark Arnold is so filled with ideas running at hypersonic speed in his head that he practically vibrates. Recently re-established outside prison walls, and facing severe restrictions still for the next four months, he nervously paces before his Q&A performance at PICA, wondering how it would go in front of a live audience. His explanations of his creative process, the way the project came together, the impact it had on those involved, turn out to be fluent, persuasive, emotionally touching.
Born and raised in Portland, he has by his reports filled many roles in life, as a sergeant in the National Guard, a general manager at McDonalds, a welder, a participant in radio broadcasts at KVAN in Vancouver, ash., and more. He was one of the main writers for The Inside Show, ideas flowing and put into form that were then meticulously rehearsed. The pure volume of output is matched by astute observation.
The day after the show’s outside launch, his stress now dissipated, Arnold returns over and over during a long phone conversation to what he considers the most important point. “There are many programs at CRCI helping to pass time, or encouraging you to do this or that with a particular rehabilitation goal in mind. THIS project allowed you to be creative in a way that expresses yourself, the way you are, and being seen for who you are. Having your humor or ideas acknowledged by others boosts your self-esteem. That matters, particularly when you are fighting life-long addiction.”
Agency, accountability, and the politics of responsibility come up a lot in my conversation with Arnold, and also in the short comments made by CRCI residents during the show’s premiere. The idea that people chose to commit crimes for which they will be locked up, and can learn to make better decisions to avoid recidivism in the future, puts the stress on individual behavior. What it omits is that structural obstacles interfere with the best of intentions, not to say justice. I, as an educated, older white woman, am less likely to be imprisoned than a young, poor person of color for the same crime. More importantly, if conditions at post-release do not provide necessary access to regular employment, safe housing, medical care that includes continued addiction prevention and/or treatment and re-integration into a community that is itself healthy at its core, re-offending is a statistically likely outcome for people with few means. To paraphrase Michelle Alexander from her book The New Jim Crow, the criminal justice system will be primarily concerned with the management and control of the dispossessed.
Art as a vehicle to regain individuality and establish personhood lost in the eyes of a society that stares at the crime, but not the person behind it, is a focus not just of the incarcerated men, but also of those bringing art to prison in the first place. Harrell Fletcher, MFA Art & Social Practice Program director and Ausplund Tooze Family Professor of Art and Social Practice at PSU, is instrumental for the Columbia River Creative Initiatives. He’s been involved with numerous projects at the prison in the last few years, bringing his students into the process, starting comedy classes, and advised on Answers without Words, a year-long collaboration between artists at CRCI and photographers around the world, initiated by German artist Anke Schüttler. In addition, The Inside Show co-producer Spencer Byrne-Seres has led a collaboration with Outerspace Gallery and Erickson Gallery to program group exhibitions and projects from artists both inside Columbia River and outside of the prison (the program is supported by the Regional Arts and Culture Council).
Fletcher is part of a skit trying to introduce conceptual art, quickly followed by one of the funniest bits of the evening, “art teacher” Ohio introducing a version of painting by numbers of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. With his self-deprecating wit and warmth, and quick retorts always at the ready, that man could hold his own at any given SNL performance.
The driving, powerhouse force behind it all is Xi Jie Ng. Salty, as she is known, was born and educated in Singapore, to parents who valued rationality, tradition and caution – not necessarily in that order. The current detente between them and their daughter, an artist and rebel since childhood, is quite a remarkable achievement, with love extended from both sides. Salty applied to the PSU program three years ago after simply having googled art programs in the USA. Her accomplishments as a communications major and photojournalist assured acceptance into the program, which takes only about five students per year. As I write this she is on her way to an invited artist residency at UMass at Dartmouth, having graduated from PSU this year with an MFA in Art and Social Practice.
As director of the variety show, she had to be able to connect to the performers but also to call the shots in an environment that was often full of tension. As editor of the videos, she had to deal with a huge amount of material and cull it into something that was representative: not too sleek, but also providing evidence of the capabilities of those on the inside. The crediting process, listing all of the varying roles that contributed to the show’s success, will hopefully enhance the CVs of those soon to be looking for employment. In her words: “By pretending we were a functioning production team, we soon became one.”
I am always drawn to people who exhibit unusual combinations of traits. Salty scores high on that assessment scale. A tendency toward deep self-reflection is counterbalanced by a steely determination to guide her projects to success, unearthing and pursuing every resource possible, with promotional skills that equal her artistic creativity. Without a smidgen of savior syndrome or do-gooder mentality, she possesses a passion for working with populations who have reached the bottom rung of society’s normative scaffold. A serious, self-contained demeanor alternates with giddy bouts of participation in some of the show’s funnier skits. If she doesn’t burn out with her candle lit at both ends, she will go far. Can’t wait to see what she does next.
“I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am!”
― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Caught in my very own stereotyping, I am surprised to hear Nathaniel Hawthorne referenced by a prison administrator when I try to get some answers to my questions. To use CRCI’s rehabilitation manager James Hanley’s own words:
“I think about Hester Prynne and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She was required to wear a scarlet ‘A”’for the rest of her life in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In his novel the ‘A’ stood for adulteress. Our society places a scarlet ‘F’ on felons. It’s hard for someone to rebuild themselves and their relationships with such a stigma.”
A writer and poet himself, Hanley is convinced that the arts help people learn to navigate the world. He associates the opportunity to express oneself through art, music, poetry, comedy, and film with people’s ability to stay in touch with who they are, or in most cases, to find themselves. His own experience with art as a source of power and purpose is something he hopes the incarcerated men will come to share. The institution itself, with new leadership under Superintendent Nichole Brown, tries to provide community connections through a variety of programs that often depend on volunteers, including Arts in Prison, Living Yoga, Music Studio, Liberation Literacy, SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Awareness), Men’s Circle, AA & NA meetings, and Inside/Out classes.
The Inside Show was a core program – and the connectedness between Hanley (who is credited as executive producer) and the men he manages was palpable. They freely gave respect and gratitude to him, not just in public but also in the nonpublic conversations I had with them. This image among the performers describes it well.
Countless films and TV shows are re-enacting prison experiences. Autobiographies by former residents of prisons tell their stories. I know of at least one film made in prison, Madeleine Sackler’s O.G.., using those serving time as actors, narrating a story that describes familiar experiences in a penitentiary.
There is writing from poets who were sentenced to life without parole at age 16, like Oregon’s own Sterling Cuneo, who is a 2019-2020 PEN America Writing For Justice Fellow, a 2019 Oregon Literary Arts Fellow and a two-time PEN America Prison Writing Award winner for his essay Going Forward with Gus (2018); he is also co-author of the play The Bucket (2018.)
There are podcasts, like Earhustle, that describe daily realities of life inside prison by those living it, as well as stories from the outside, post-incarceration in St. Quentin.
The Inside Show differs in the sense that it communicates visually between actors and viewers, expressing ideas coming directly from the performers, not a film script written by someone on the outside.
Seeing and hearing a real person who resides on the inside while we are on the outside creates a relationship, however fleeting. It might challenge our stereotypes, reframe our perceptions and perhaps ease a path to engagement or a willingness to use our political clout to help change and improve society’s post-release conditions. This kind of communal involvement is expressed in the words of the American activist Eugene Debs:
While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
Just remember: Some of us can walk out of there. Others can’t.
- The Inside Show was published on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, on Friderike Heuer’s YDP – Your Daily Picture, and is republished here with permission.