by Lydia Gans
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his autumn, Californians will have the opportunity to vote for a ballot proposition that promises to bring a degree of fairness to the criminal justice system. Proposition 47, Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, would reduce the penalties for most nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
Furthermore, the significant amount of money that would be saved by keeping many minor offenders out of prison is designated for mental health and substance abuse treatment, for programs to help young people most at risk of dropping out of school, and for services for victims of crime.
Among the crimes that would be sentenced as misdemeanors instead of felonies are drug possession, shoplifting and petty theft no greater than $950. It is these crimes that are currently keeping inordinately large numbers of poor and minority people incarcerated, and, when they are released, stigmatizing them with a felony record that makes them permanently disadvantaged in seeking a decent living.
Passage of Proposition 47 can make a significant difference in their lives. The importance of this speaks to at-risk youth in our own community. Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) is an interfaith art training program dedicated to empowering and providing job training to homeless and low-income young people, ages 16 to 25.
YSA is located in a large studio space on Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley. Here the young people create art that they can sell, for example the individually designed tote bags they’re currently selling at Berkeley Bowl. They also create art for the community, including some beautiful murals. From time to time, the young artists have exhibits in local venues.
It is through their art that many of the young people are able to express their passions and their concerns for social justice. For some months now, they have been engaged in the subject of prisons and all that is associated with them.
It all came about when J.R. Furst dropped in at the YSA studio. Furst, age 30, is an artist, musician, street performer and writer. “Art is sort of like my salvation,” he says.
Furst explains how he “gravitated toward letter writing” and has connected with many pen pals. He recalls seeing the movie “Hurricane” about Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, “a boxer who was sent to prison for a murder he didn’t commit and a young man writes to him.”
Furst says, “That stuck in my head. I went to this website called writeaprisoner.com.” He now has five incarcerated pen pals. One of those five, Glen Robinson, made a profound impression on him.
“He has a very powerful message,” Furst says. “From the beginning is his strong desire and pledge to be of service to the community and to find a level of transcendence. He’s there (in jail) 24 hours a day with the ghost of the past, but the powerful part is not victimization and self-pity. He really dug deep on some level of acceptance.”
For two years, he has been corresponding with Robinson and saving all his letters. He set up a website, beyondthisprison.com connecting specifically with Glen Robinson, and a project he calls Beyond This Prison for “bringing out his themes and ideas in the community and creating art based on that.”
Seeking to involve young people, Furst approached Youth Spirit Artworks with the project and found they were interested. He brought them some of Robinson’s letters and it lit a spark with the youth.
Furst said it was very meaningful to see the young people of YSA respond intently to Robinson’s letters. “They often say he’s saying things that I’m experiencing that I didn’t have words for,” Furst says. Several began their own correspondence with Robinson.
YSA Executive Director Sally Hindman and Art Director Victor Mavedzenge decided that the summer would be devoted to the Beyond This Prison Project, “making art on the topic of freedom and imprisonment.” It would tie in with the campaign for Proposition 47.
They decided to work on “art actions,” which will be flash exhibits at local malls where they will pass out literature about the ballot initiative.
Teacher and artist Mavedzenge explains, “What this project aims to do is to make the youth reflect on what freedom means to them. So the whole concept of freedom can be looked at from a lot of different angles, but when you consider the fact that some people go to jail for minor crimes such as stealing diapers, then the whole question becomes: why did somebody have to steal diapers?
“It’s such a basic necessity and they get a jail record for that. This is why we support Proposition 47. So within this project, we then question what is it that led people to be in a situation that limits their freedom, like being in prison. And it all boils down to the economic situation we’re living in. People of color have been subjected to less opportunity, stigmatization, police brutality. So many things have gone on in the community that has affected people’s freedom.”
Mavedzenge refers to the correspondence with Robinson whose writings have inspired the youth. “He writes to us about his reflections about what life means. What does it mean to be on the street and dealing and hustling and living a life of crime to survive? And these reflections really have told us to look into ourselves and ask what life is all about.”
Mavedzenge recites one of his favorite quotes from Robinson’s letters: “The mask we wear to fool others is the same mask we wear to fool ourselves.” One of the young artists at YSA, Brendon Harris, used this quotation on his painting.
According to Mavedzenge, it is important for the young artists to see “these reflections from somebody who is in prison calling out to the youth to say, ‘Do not walk the road I walked.’ There are better choices to be made — no matter what circumstance you are under.”
Approaching the subject of Prop. 47 and incarceration from the aspect of freedom, Mavedzenge invited the young people to write short statements on “what freedom means to me.” He received some thoughtful and inspiring responses. We quote a few short excerpts.
Julia Tello observed that, “We cannot truly exercise our freedom until we allow everyone to be free, and most important, free ourselves.”
She also said, “Here at Youth Spirit Artworks, I’m trying to incorporate what I think freedom means in my art, as well as trying to spread the awareness of how people are taking others’ freedom away.”
“When freedom comes to the mind, it makes me think about the Black Panthers or the Civil Rights movement,” wrote Zayfi RA Ashe. On another note, he said, “Possessing freedom in your imagination helps you create things that you never thought you could ever do, and in that process you might become an inspiration to more people.”
Georgina Woodlaw wrote, “Freedom to me means free of judgment to express yourself in life — not to judge people — be caring, kind to one another.” Referring to her participation in the Beyond This Prison project, she added, “I also think the prison project helped me through with writing my dad more while he’s in jail.”
Michael Blanco got straight to the point. “The system we live by is flawed. That’s why 38 percent of the prison population is Black and 21 percent of the prison population is Hispanic. That’s why I get butterflies and cold sweats when I see an enforcer of the law. A man that is supposed to by my savior becomes my tormentor.”