4 Days Inside Grafton Prison
2.7 million children have a parent behind bars—1 in every 28 children (3.6 percent) has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. (PEW)
As we walked up to the red brick guard house on that Thursday night, May 25, 2006, I really had no preconceived ideas around what to expect on the other side of the gate. Roy, my cousin, had said that it was going to be loud and abusive and he was concerned about how it would affect me. He said that it would be a life changing event, either positive or negative.
The young, female guard on duty patiently checked in the six boxes of art and supplies that accompanied us into Grafton Correctional Institute, Ohio. We stripped the metal and jewelry off of our bodies, our shoes, our coats, our briefcases and placed them in the customary plastic security bin. We walked silently through the metal detectors, signed our names and received our first visitor’s passes. Then through the sally port gates and onto the prison grounds.
In Ohio, everything is wet, almost marshy. Grass covers all dirt, and mallards replace pigeons. The prison was designed like a wheel of cement spokes leading to separate buildings, with grass in between. No straight lines from one place to another. Mostly one story buildings with flowerbeds. No visible bars except horizontal ones on cell block windows: the only external clue of the buildings’ usage. As we walked, slowly calculating the risks and surroundings, one of the prison teachers led us toward the Visitors Center. Suddenly our small talk was interrupted by “Excuse me! I’m coming through.” We turned, stepped off of the sidewalk, and waited while a large guard pedaled past us on a small mountain bike. Our minds went whimsical, but we remained focused and returned to our social bantering as we walked to our destination.
As we entered the Visitors’ Center, we looked up to see a handful of men, dressed in blue, entering from the other side of the building. I had thought there would be a couple of minutes to regroup myself, when I realized these were the ten core Prisoners we had come to meet with, most of which were officers of the sponsoring NAACP. My heart skipped a beat as I turned and walked towards the men. Let it begin, my heart whispered, as I made eye contact with each individual presented to me, shaking hands in friendship established through months of mail. There was an energy of excitement that softly filled the air and made me want to dance and giggle. We went about our business of sitting in a circle and discussing the weekend that was unfolding in front of us. Who were we, and who were they, and what was expected? Who was attending and what did the rooms look like? What supplies would the guys need to bring? Then the questions turned to ones of and about us. Lots of heads nodded up and down, and the smiles remained, so I figured we were on the right track for the workshops that would engulf the next three days. The clock hands signaled that the guys had to leave and so did we. Everyone stood, and I instinctively hugged each one good night. Prior to our leaving, the staff sponsor took me aside and told me that I couldn’t be hugging Prisoners. Most of them are murderers and little to no physical contact can be made safely. Okay, I replied. I asked if there were any other rules that I needed to be aware of. He said he was trying hard to think about that, and at the moment he couldn’t think of any.
The staff sponsor escorted us off the property and then we followed his car to the new Mexican food restaurant to meet his family and be his guest for dinner. That was indeed a treat. We laughed when we saw a dictionary on the back of the menu, explaining the foods that we were accustom to eating daily in New Mexico. We meant to bring a menu back with us to show around, but got busy visiting and forgot. We talked about combat in Viet Nam, about GCI, and about his passion, being the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church in a northern state. And, oddly enough, both he and his wife had extensive experience in the printing and book distribution industry. We laughed at the coincidences each day brings to us. He shared how the OPI (Ohio Prison Industries) print shop was looking for work to print. All this time, Roy was at the other end of the table entertaining their young sons, of course.
We drove to the hotel, in deep contemplation of the next morning. What would it be like? Roy again warned me of how awful he had seen things turn in some of his prison visits. We held tight to the words of the staff sponsor that though he would not be there, he had hand-picked everyone that would be our security and guides for the weekend.
It was four o’clock New Mexico time when the wake up call came down. Jet lag and all, we sprung out of the bed and got busy preparing for our adventure. Seventy-three men had signed up and gotten a pass for the workshops. The same guys would be in each class. That helped. I wouldn’t have to start over on each class and we could gain more ground in a continuous flow of workshop topics. If a Prisoner hadn’t gotten a pass, they could not get one now. It was a holiday weekend and no one was available to issue additional passes. We had been told that this was a good turn out. We were also forewarned that ninety percent of the time, ten minutes into a presentation, the group will stand up and walk out because the presenters are there about themselves and have demeaning attitudes towards their audience.
The first gathering was in the chapel on Friday morning at 7:30 A.M. It was an open forum for Roy and I to address whatever questions the group had about us, about art, about the weekend program, and about the Prison Coffee Table Book Project™. The questions were quite varied and the room was warm and welcoming. We were so glad to finally be right where we were. We were excited about the weekend together, like Christmas, or a new puppy, or falling in love. Or, all of that rolled into one. We explored each other’s minds for an hour and a half and then the Deputy Warden took us on a tour of the facility, and then to the officers’ dining room for a quick lunch. He then cordially extended the tour to the entire 2000 acre, state-owned operation. There are four prison facilities right there together, each with a different profile. We went inside the camp, or farm, facility which is housed in a building that has seen a century of Prisoners. It had been raining since we left the chapel, and by now, I was soaked. The Deputy Warden took us back to his office to wait for the few minutes before the next workshop started, and he loaned me his rain coat for the weekend. He apologized for not noticing that I was not prepared for it. We laughed about having to fly from the desert to Ohio to get rained on, and about his Sponge Bob desk accessories. We assured him that we would help him grow his collection. We laughed about the gifts people give him. He was very gracious.
The first workshop was held in the library. Prior to the guys coming in, I spread out forty some odd books that I had brought to donate. After five years of university studies, I saw this as an opportunity to share my collection of books. The men were so excited to get to read new material that pertained to the arts, that I had to actually stack the books back up to get their attention regarding the hand made books workshop. It felt good to know my books were in a good home, where their knowledge would be gleaned and appreciated. I proceeded to talk about all of the sample handmade books that I had brought with me. About their uniqueness, their history, and their functionality. I could hear the gears turning as the poets and writers visualized filling the pages with their words. The artists began designing books in their heads and illustrating them. I could see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices. It was very gratifying to have the topic so well received.
Between each workshop, Roy and I were escorted off the grounds for a two to three hour break while the guys went to eat and reported back to their cell blocks to be counted. Each time, we had to go back through the security processes, always being checked and escorted. Always gracious guards. Numerous times, both I would take off across the yard in a crowd of the students and would be called back or have to wait for a security escort. “Ms. Briney, you can’t be doing that!” they would say to me. I’d laugh and keep bantering with the men who had brought questions and comments to me. I felt like Socrates walking with his students. Many questions going both ways. There was not one instance where we felt fear. Contrarily, we felt tremendous love and adoration and it had a lasting impact on us. In fact, we were all students in this experience.
The three day weekend was comprised of some thirty hours of workshops, lectures and critiques. Ten units total. The weekend closed with a poetry slam and jazz music on Sunday night. The workshops focused on hand made books, print making, Frieda Kahlo style and diary, and a slide lecture on my manuscript, The Retablo Affect. The theme for the entire weekend was “Seeing Things Differently.” We explored ways of expressing self through multiple media and how that would show up in the art work and make the art more interesting to the viewer. We talked about putting ourselves into the pictures like Frieda did. We talked about breaking through the boundaries that we instill on ourselves and thinking, painting, drawing, writing “outside the box.” We talked about getting through the garbage and seeing the God in people and in ourselves and what attributes might show up to define the spirit inside, to define what that person is truly all about. We focused a lot on seeing ourselves differently and being okay with our goodness, our self expression, and our individuality. We talked about change.
While I was in the front of the room lecturing or demonstrating hands-on work, Roy was about the room bonding through jokes, laughter and bantering. He said a request he got numerous times was for him to describe what life looks like outside the walls. Some of the guys had been there for twenty-five years. They joked that it is their retirement home. Every now and then, the joke was about me and I would become the focus of a set-up and we would all laugh. We laughed a lot and set our intention to have fun together. The setting was playful, but in the same breath, very high energy, incredible intelligence, and unpretentious, unfiltered truth. Roy and I have had many discussions around the telepathic energy and communication that we were allowed into. It was unbelievably easy and clear. I had been told about the telepathic atmosphere in prison settings, but took it lightly until I was in the midst of it. I can still hear it today.
On Saturday morning, the fog was so thick that the yard was closed and the 7:30 AM workshop was cancelled shortly after we got set up for it. That meant that we had to scrunch the remaining time to get everything in. The corners cut meant that the hands-on time shrank. But, this group of men was so sharp and attentive that I knew they were picking it up enough through the lectures to be able to implement it themselves after we left. I made the decision to leave the samples that I had intended to bring home. They would need the samples and I could make more. I was really feeling time begin to squeeze me and I knew I was going to leave feeling that I didn’t get enough work done with the group.
The yard was locked down for the two hours that the workshop had been scheduled for, and the guys were going to lunch after that. So, we had to remain inside the buildings until the yard was unlocked. This gave us a great opportunity to visit with the staff who were with us. One of the teachers took me over to the classrooms and showed me photos of the teddy bears that Prisoners make for traumatized children, and quilts made by blind Prisoners using sticky notes to count stitches. She showed me shelves of donated material, yarns, and findings. Her job description was to help the Prisoners complete their GED so they could go forward with their education. Her only duty was to school with books and computers. But her passion was introducing the men to hands on crafts that would also teach them many skills that would help develop patience, patterns, and self expression. Not to mention give them a product they could not only be proud of but they could also sell. She loaded up a box of goodies for us to use in our book making class, and as we gathered things up, she told me stories of working in the female prisons and we stood there and we cried about the children, and about the fact that Ohio has no “in self defense” clause.
The second slot of time on Saturday was set aside for me to critique their work. They filled the general purpose room with everything they wanted to talk to me about, or to show us. As I stepped into the room, I felt overwhelmed and immediately realized that I had to accomplish three things in the next two hours. I had to time it so I could spend time with each artist. I had to search my education for new information to challenge each one, including the very seasoned masters. And I had to be able to critique them in such a manner as to not cause any harm, but to encourage their creativity and inspire them to reach deeper within and capture themselves, or challenge them to explore new techniques, and more self expression. The latter was the most challenging for me. My stomach actually felt nauseous as I pondered how to proceed. They were all looking at me and waiting. They were more nervous than I. So, I decided to use my university experiences and explained how it would work in college classes. I invited them all to follow me around to each piece of art and to hear what I would say. Doing that, they would learn from all of the critiques and scenarios. I asked their permission to proceed and stated that I had no intention of embarrassing them or harming them. They swallowed and agreed. And away we went. It was great and I surprised myself on my ability to gift something to everyone. I became more aware and confident of my own knowledge and insight, and that was a great gift for me.
Each night prior to each workshop, I would quiz Roy and wonder within myself as to whether what I had chosen for the topics would be interesting and challenging enough for these 73 men. I was really quite unsettled about each workshop, feeling that I might bore my audience. So, when the feedback was beyond my imaginings, I, myself, grew inside. They were hungry for any new knowledge. They told me that was the first real art classes they had ever had. They began to bring other pieces of art into the last couple of workshops, to show me what they had been doing privately, fearing peer criticism of their experiments. Now they stood proud and vowed to continue down the paths they had been curious about. New techniques. More self expression. We all bonded on a level that none of us expected. On a level that some never knew existed. We know that we are an alumni that will remain energetically connected through time.
This whole process started when one of the Prisoners, John Sepik, had told the other men about the Prison Coffee Table Book Project™ that we are producing. It is a book of writings and art by Prisoners across America that came to fruition from an article run in a prison newsletter. The warden of Grafton, felt that it would be beneficial for the Grafton Prisoners to produce their own book and had assigned a staff sponsor to the project, which was to be sponsored by their NAACP chapter. As this conversation expanded, I had asked if we could fly in and hold workshops at the same time we discussed the book production. They said yes, we booked our flights and the rest is history. In fact, the NAACP historian said that we actually did make history. It was the first time “outside people” had flown in on their own nickel to hold such extensive workshops. I’m still going “No Way!” on that one.
There were pictures taken of the smiles and tears that flashed across the weekend. We have stories of miracles and how boundaries that had dominated for decades crumbled and men became friends where tradition and fear had stopped them before. There was a unification of spirits that is continuing to reshape lives and encourage seeing things, each other, and selves differently. The letters we receive from the alumni speak of love, joy and creativity. They are now inspiring each other, and my heart swells from the growing experience. The plans of collaborative and collective efforts are on the drawing board for writing, music, and drama workshops inside several prisons. There is talk that the workshops will be part of their educational course syllabi. We hope to create a public awareness of prison anthropology.
As we look back on this and try to find the golden thread of what exactly happened from May 25 through May 29, 2006, we examine the puzzle and believe that it was the fact that we looked the men in the eye, touched them, focused on who they have become, and treated them as the individuals they are. They felt validated and loved. They were validated and loved. They talk of finding love and joy, of not being a number with pre-conceived labels. They speak of respect, intelligence, laughter, truth. Of being seen and touched. We speak of the same things. Perhaps this process has and will continue to have a positive affect on recidivism in America.