ART IN PRISON
"Freedom in the color orange: Arizona prisoners and their art" by Patrick Breen, AZ Republic, April 2023
Bell (an incarcerated participant) said the performance was a display of women in the making. “You saw creation. You saw reality, tenderness, pain, desire, hope, anticipation. You saw freedom,” Bell said. “That's what you saw today. Freedom in the color orange.”
WHY IS ART IN PRISON IMPORTANT?
Susan with the 12-week participants.
12-Week Grant Created
A Pathway to Freedom
If Only for a Moment
Deputy warden says,
"The program can help the women find their voice."
Perryville Deputy Warden Kimberly Johnson has been with the department for 28 years. She said compared to the other programming she’s been involved with, the Think-Motion experience is more out of the box.
“It’s not like anything else,” she said of the performance art programming. “It gives them the opportunity to be who they are, and how they are, and dance how they want to dance — however they want to move and express their emotions.”
Johnson says offering programming to incarcerated people is essential in accomplishing the goal of helping the women reenter society successfully. In order for that to happen, she said, the women need to find their voice.
“These women are able to express themselves when they're angry, appropriately and positively,” Johnson said. “They're able to express their need for their drugs, but express it through their stories or their poems, or they're singing, instead of actually going out and finding more drugs. They're able to express how hard it is to be an addict.”
"A SAFE ZONE"
Art in Prison Program Offers Escape for Two Hours
Samantha & Andrea reflected on the experience while sitting outside the visitation room at picnic tables bolted to a gray concrete slab as pink bougainvillea petals scuttled and swirled around their feet.
Samantha said the programming gave the women their power back and allowed them to do things they can’t normally do in prison: “yelling, writing poetry, speaking our truth — without hindering who we are.”
She recited a poem about how there are different kinds of addiction in the world.
“I talked about shame, guilt, fear — it’s really about the things we don’t allow ourselves to heal from,” Rucker said of her poem. “It doesn't matter if you're in prison, or if you're out of prison, you're rich or poor, we all have those same addictions that nobody wants to talk about.”
Samantha called the programming time a “safe zone.”
“What happens here stays here,” she said. “It allowed us to be emotional, to be vulnerable with one another, get to know people, express ourselves, and not worry about the nonsense that happens on the yard. It gave us an escape for two hours out of the week. Every week.”
She said everyone in the program looked forward to their Wednesday rehearsals “because it was that place where I'm finna go off and have a good time.”
“It might get a little emotional, but it's all love,” she said. “No judgment, no resentments. Unconditional love is accepting people for who they are. And that is exactly what this program teaches us: Flaws and all — we’re beautiful.”
Andrea, 54, is in prison for the first time. She started using drugs at an early age and is worried about staying sober when she gets out of prison. “I’m going to need to be somewhere that offers stability, or else I won’t make it,” she said. She wrote and recited a poem about what her ideal sober home looked like. “There’s a pathway from the sidewalk to the front door that’s a yellow brick road, and it would be open to everyone,” she said. “My sober house is your sober house, with love from me to you.”
During the performance, Krystal sang a stirring and powerful version of the song “Killing Me Softly,” in which she changed the words to honor her mother.
“My mom passed away while I was in the county jail,” she said. “When they told me, I sat there and I screamed, and I cried, and I threw things, and I just made a mess of myself.”
When she was able to gather herself, she wrote the song that she would eventually perform at the prison. “Killing Me Softly was my mom's favorite song,” she said. “So I turned the words into my own and it was about being in jail and being without my mother, because now I don't have her anymore.”
She said rehearsing and performing the song have kept her out of trouble in prison as well as helped her process her mother’s death.
THINK-MOTION EMPOWERS PEOPLE THROUGH MOVEMENT
It was the result of weeks of work and rehearsal, led by Susan Bendix and a team of teaching artists. Bendix is a professional dancer, choreographer and improvisational artist who runs a performing arts organization called Think-Motion, which she says works to empower people through movement and reflection.
Bendix and her colleagues have taught programming to schools and business groups as well as inner city youth and incarcerated populations. “Art deals with authenticity and depth, and often a lot of pain and a lot of tension,” Bendix said. “And people in these kinds of settings are about as authentic as you can find.”
Bendix says she has had family members who have experienced incarceration and who struggled with addiction, so the themes she helped the women develop over the weeks were familiar to her. “These women are all struggling,” Bendix said. “But we grow from struggle, and I think that’s where the artistry comes from.”
The Perryville group met once a week on Wednesdays for two-hour sessions over 12 weeks. Bendix said more than 45 women cycled through the program during that time. The programming was funded by a $7,500 grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts.
The voluntary program was promoted by fliers
within the San Carlos unit and the incarcerated
individuals enrolled by their own choosing.
FROM PRISON TO PERFORMANCE
Inside the unit, past the security checkpoint and sliding mechanical doors, fluorescent bulbs and skylights brightly illuminate a large visitation room.
Normally this is the place where families gather to see their incarcerated loved ones once a week. Coloring sheets with pictures of Dumbo and Disney princesses, cats and bunnies taped to the front desk with messages written by the hands of children say, “Happy Easter!” and “I love you mom.”
But today the heavy institutional tables have all been pushed to the sides, and plastic chairs are lined up in front of a large common area to form a stage. After corrections officers, prison administrators, and incarcerated women take their seats in the audience, a dozen women wearing bright orange shirts and pants with white belts and shoes assemble beyond a blue stripe with white paint that says, “No Inmates Beyond This Line.”
One by one, the women read from lines of poetry as the rest of the group performed choreographed movements beside them.
“I call for soil to feed this small seed
I call for the sun to shine down on this dark space
I call for mother earth to rain down
So this happy seed may quench its thirst.”
The performance consisted of several scenes that featured group and solo performances. The women moved in unison at times, waving their arms and bending their bodies in alignment with original words, recited poetry, and recorded music.
“I have been sleeping on dirty concrete streets, to the beds in the highest penthouses and everything in between,” another woman said. “Through desert flats to the tops of mountain peaks. Tents, trap houses, condos, custom homes and mansions, to the point of no return and came back victoriously where many go, but few come back. In the sunshine, the rain, the snow, high winds and aggressive storms. I have been on the inside and the outside.”
The women spoke of their struggles with addiction, their pursuit of peace and quiet amidst a noisy and chaotic prison life, and their longing to return to society and to their families.
“What do I know?” One performer asked. “I know none of these places has ever kept me, but they all have made me. Why these places? They are a direct result of my choices, presenting divine opportunities to test and reveal my authentic character, build and solidify it.”
The women moved into formations, which dissolved and reformed again. They held up masks while reading poetry, then lowered the drawings, ripped them in half, and allowed the crumpled paper to fall to the floor.
“I am from wildflowers and rain,” one woman said.
“I am from mountains and rivers” another followed.
“I am from the west side, the hood,” another woman smiled as she delivered her line.
Gina said being a part of the performance group was a humbling experience that helped her overcome her severe social anxiety.
“This was something I felt like I needed to do so I could grow,” she said. “It was a very healthy thing for me to do, because I learned something that I could do when I’m outside again instead of going back to my old habits.”
She recited a poem in response to the people in her life who put her down and criticized her. “Thank you for telling me that I couldn't do it,” she said. “Because now you’ve shown me I can. Thank you for telling me that I wouldn't achieve my goals, because you helped me catch the moon and the stars.”
It was Gina's first time in her life performing, and she said she hoped more women would try the programming.
“I think this would be a very positive experience for them,” she said. “It’s something to help them grow within themselves also to step out of their box and experience something new.”
Gina was still smiling after the performance and said she was carrying “a little slice of happiness” with her now that it was over.
About the Perryville Women's Prison
The Perryville women’s prison in Goodyear is a large complex spread out over several acres of what was once fertile farmland. Inside the gates, brown, untilled fields stretch between the units of the prison that house the 3,100 people who live here. There are hardly any trees or cacti or landscaping, a security measure common in most Arizona prisons. But outside the entrance to the San Carlos unit, a bougainvillea plant with pink flowers is blooming against a bland, beige building.
According to a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, the amount of programming available at Perryville varies from person to person, “depending on security level and the specific needs of a particular incarcerated individual.”
The women at San Carlos, a minimum custody unit, are allowed up to 120 hours of work and programming combined each week.
However, Arizona state law requires incarcerated people to work jobs during their sentences. During a debrief after the performance, one of the women asked administrators if they could devote more time to programming, saying that work schedules had prevented some prisoners from participating.