I had never been to a prison before, I had never thought about going to prison, suffice it to say prison was not on my radar. Yet, there I was, in prison with no pencil.
Richard J Donovan State Prison. A men’s high security correctional facility.
I was a new employee of Project Paint (a non-profit which brings art to prisoners).
After passing a background check, my first task was to attend four hours of paid prison training. On a sunny Saturday morning, instead of heading to the tennis courts in La Jolla, I drove south to the border then banged a hard left and drove to the middle of nowhere. When I first spotted the facility, it looked like an oasis on the horizon, the mountains glowed in the background, it was pretty.
I am going to cut to the chase, prison training was a huge disappointment. Of the fifty people who slowly filtered into the room roughly 45 of them were men, most of whom were carrying bibles. I am going to be generous when I say that the training went for about an hour, an hour and a half if you include the welcomed donut break. What did I learn? What were the skills and knowledge I acquired? Well, there was one lesson, one message repeated over and over again – and that was - do not have sex with the prisoners.
Every time this was repeated, I couldn’t help myself, my head would whip around scanning the room to see if this was some sort of inside prison joke and then looking to see if anyone else was as shocked as I was – no – no one reacted. Apparently, this is a problem. And then I started wondering which bible carrying person was having sex with a prisoner.
A few days later I was back to teach my first weekly drawing class. As I approached the area this time around there was no glowing aura or oasis. My working partner and I went through 3 check points, a large dark empty space of land, and huge gates until we arrived at the yard where we waited for guards who were to let us into the gym where the class was to be held. Throughout this rather unnerving journey of getting into the inside of a high security men’s prison, I kept looking around wondering where the bible carrying people were having sex.
Most prisons are numbered 1 to 4. 1 being the lowest level of security, 4 the highest. I was in a level 3. On my first night in the yard, a man in prison blues approached, introduced himself and tried to shake my hand – I froze and was unable to speak. My partner spoke up and said “No touching”. He backed away, pointed at me and casually said, “newbie”. If being scared as hell in a desolate wasteland of wandering unknown men in blue meant that I was a newbie, then yes, he would be correct. He walked away and we walked to the gym.
The gym is a large dark, drafty, dreary and empty room with the exception of exposed urinals against the side wall. The guards unlocked the gym and the cabinet where the art supplies are kept and then they left. The prisoners, my students, came in and set up tables and chairs. Before I knew it, I was sitting ever so silently and small in front of 25 men wearing blue staring at me.
My partner went about her business of checking in the students, collecting id cards, and keeping track of everyone and everything. She bustled about with ease, chit chatting, and checking out the supplies - every pencil and ruler is numbered, every eraser is accounted for because heaven forbid someone instigates an escape with a one inch rubber eraser… I sat there. She checked out my supplies and handed me a numbered pencil and a piece of paper since I was actually supposed to teach the class and I was slated to give a drawing demonstration.
She gave me an incredibly enthusiastic introduction – what she failed to notice was that I was in a catatonic state. After an eternity, and I can say that time in prison is an eternity, I stood up and slowly started rambling and giving away way too much private information about myself – I was getting strange looks from quite honestly some scary looking dudes with impressive facial tattoos, so I picked up speed and was speed rambling, I told them about my mother’s dog Reggie and my love for Tom Brady and that I like box wine. In an attempt to slow down this train wreck my partner stepped in and suggested I give the demo. Good idea. I had my paper but I couldn’t quite put my finger on my pencil. Surely it was in on me somewhere, in one of my pockets. I had four layers of black on, black pants, black shirt, black sweater, black jacket…In front of 25 prisoners I started feeling myself up and down and all over while still maintaining a constant flood of words. Now the prisoners were in shock. And then I saw it…right in front of me….one of the guys had his hand cupped on the table. I looked at him and softly chirped, “You have my pencil.” He might as well of flipped me off, instead he smirked and said, “I was holding it for you.”
So began my first class.
A class soon after, I got into the gym without incident and was getting supplies when I notice a half-naked man in a cage. A man in a cage. Obviously during my first class and my heightened state of extreme fear, I failed to notice the two telephone booth size cages which I learned were used for men who were not being good prison citizens. They were held in a cage until they were moved no doubt to another cage. The only other time I have seen a live person in a cage was in the 90’s in a trendy bar in Greenwich Village – there, two hot, bikini clad female go-go dancers were in cages hanging down from the ceiling over the bar and gyrating to Baby D’s Let Me Be Your Fantasy - it was sexy as hell. But there was no imaging sex in this cage in the gym. I whisper to my partner, “Hey, there is a scantily dressed man in a cage.” She shrugged and said, “Ya, that happens sometimes”. So I quickly weighed my options, stay in the gym with the naked caged man or stand-alone out in the dreaded yard and wait for the guards to come to remove the man - the yard was a known entity to me, the man in the cage, not so much, I chose the yard.
For weeks and weeks, after each class, I drove home in tears. I would weep and weep. I was a mess. Everyone asked - “hey how’s the job going?” and my standard answer was, “It’s daunting on all levels.” The fact was that I couldn’t wrap my head around any of it. We were not allowed to trust a person with a pencil sharpener. I cried for how we treat human beings, I cried for the crimes they committed, I cried for the victims, I cried for everyone’s families, I cried for humanity.
My mom kept urging me to quit, just stop – but I kept showing up. As for their art, there was a wide discrepancy of ability – some students had never drawn before, and some were accomplished artists. I encouraged them to really personalize their work - this backfired a few times – one student drew disturbingly over sexualized drawings of nude women in war-zone settings and he was a little too eager to see my reactions to his creations. He creeped me out, but I kept my game face and would give him inane compositional suggestions. I never asked, but yes, many told me their stories – not surprisingly the major themes were youth, gangs, drugs and bad decisions. One particular assignment I gave was to draw “the landscape of my life” – this was a heart breaker. A baby faced student divided his paper in two halves, on the right half he drew his childhood home, toys on the yard, his dog sitting on the front steps, and his four family looking out the windows – on the left-hand side he drew a very small tomb stone with only his name on it, sitting alone in a vacant space. When I asked about his drawing, he looked at me in a kind of pleadingly way and said, “I was just in the car; I didn’t pull trigger.”
I am now at a second prison, Centinela - a 2 hour drive straight down the 8 to scenic Imperial Valley. Shockingly, this prison is more intense than Donovan. Centinela is gang driven and gang controlled and these gansters are my new level 4 students
People ask me, “Do you feel safe?” – At Donovan yes, Centinela, hmmm, “sort of”. Some of these men I would invite over for dinner – ok maybe not dinner but I would sit down to a tea – in a very public space like a crowded Starbucks - and others – there are a few I never want to see leave an enclosed space.
Inevitably the students ask me to be their advocate, to help them try to get a new sentence or trial. I say no pretty fast but I do tell them that I am there to help them become the best artist they can be so that they can have their own voice and to be their own advocate.
I have now been teaching at men’s correctional facilities for over two years. I still weep for all involved and I still get flustered and lose pencils.