Prison is a Monster: Pastor Isaac Scott and The Confined Arts

Reflections on incarceration, by those who are currently and formerly incarcerated.
art

In conjunction with Coby Kennedy’s Summer 2021 exhibition Kalief Browder: The Box, Pioneer Works, For Freedoms, and Negative Space presented Beyond The Box, a four-part program series that considered the realities of mass incarceration through the lens of art and activism. Over the course of four weeks, Broadcast is releasing Beyond The Box’s accompanying video series, each paired with a newly commissioned text that further elaborates on the thematic pillars charted by For Freedoms: Awakening, Listening, Healing, and Justice. Below, for Listening, Pastor Isaac Scott speaks to the harms of incarceration and introduces works by several writers whom he’s worked with through his program The Confined Arts.

PRISON IS A MONSTER by PASTOR ISAAC SCOTT

Prison is a monster without taste buds, but with an inexhaustible appetite. The isolated, hyper-regulated nature of the prison environment is so radically different from the outside world that we must begin to imagine incarcerated life as existing in a society that is hidden within a larger society. Every year across this nation, thousands of people enter the prison system and everyone is chewed up, but not everyone is spit back out into society in a way that ensures a safe and successful reintegration. The deprived social environment of prison can impede one’s capacity to navigate various social obligations post-incarceration. Research shows that incarceration has negative psychological effects on people in prison. These include a dependence on institutional structure and contingencies; hypervigilance, interpersonal distrust, and suspicion; emotional over-control, alienation, and psychological distancing; social withdrawal and isolation; incorporation of exploitative norms of prison culture; diminished sense of self-worth and personal value; and post-traumatic stress reactions to the pains and memories of imprisonment.

The importance of public attitudes toward people impacted by the criminal legal system cannot be denied. Dehumanizing language and depictions, alongside misrepresentative storytelling, is often used to address and describe people who are impacted by the criminal legal system. The spectacularization of true crime television and criminal trials, together with false depictions of institutional life in and by the media, has provided a misleading and individualistic image of people touched by the criminal legal system, by depicting them as irrational, undisciplined individuals who willingly break the law and harm others for the sake of their own interest or pleasure. Such misrepresentations have fueled negative beliefs within public opinion and undeniably influences the general public’s pervasive negative perception of those incarcerated. The legitimacy of our current criminal justice system continues to depend on the willing participation of members of the public. Furthermore, the perpetual dehumanization of society’s lost sheep continues to fuel punitive attitudes, abusive penal policies, physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, general desensitization to such abuse, and reluctance to societal reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals.

We live in a nation where the line between accountability and punishment is not clear, and because there is no distinction, the two concepts become one in their application. The people of this country call for humane justice from the highest hills, but “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the way this nation handles its own failures. Moving toward and creating a more harm-reductive criminal legal system means that we must define accountability outside of the context of punishment.

AN INTRODUCTION TO THE INCARCERATED CONTRIBUTORS OF THE CONFINED ARTS

In 2014, one year after my release from prison, I started The Confined Arts (TCA) as an exhibition featuring the artistry of individuals who are currently and formerly incarcerated. Eight years later, The Confined Arts has developed into an interdisciplinary public art and advocacy program that cultivates and showcases the creative talents of artists directly impacted by mass incarceration and intersecting social justice issues. TCA enables artists to express their voices through the visual and performing arts, poetry, and music as a means to abolish inhumane narratives and socially degrading stigmas that are used to describe the past experiences and limit the futures of individuals impacted by incarceration.

These artist have collaborated with TCA through the following projects:

Justin Anderson

The Power of Language by Justin Anderson, who is currently on death row in Arkansas, was written for the 2019 LANGUAGE IN JUSTICE CONFERENCE hosted by TCA and partners. The poem did not arrive in time to be properly represented at the conference.

Samson "Sam" Loynacan

Loved ones and Poem by Samson "Sam" Loynacan was written for Open Call for Clemency, an online exhibition featuring works by artists who are currently incarcerated. The works reflect on personal responses to the current COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on the urgency and importance of clemency. This exhibition was organized by TCA and Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP) and was curated by Claire Kim.

RE: Kenneth Reams

Before his death sentence was recently commuted (he is now awaiting re-sentencing), Kenneth Reams led a collaborative group called Spoken Pen, of which Justin Anderson was also a member. For the 2019 LANGUAGE IN JUSTICE CONFERENCE, four people who were formerly incarcerated performed a monologue written by Spoken Pen. Kenny has his own platform: freekennethreams.org.

John Barton

John Barton is a poet, writer, and follower of Christ, who is serving a life without parole sentence in Texas. His writings explore aspects of spirituality, morality, and divine justice. By written request, John Barton’s writings have been read by Pastor Isaac Scott at events hosted by the Women’s Prison Association, Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, and more.

THE POWER OF LANGUAGE by JUSTIN ANDERSON

THEY call me SK961

HOWEVER, when I was born on March 24, 1981, I was given the name Justin Anderson.

I bet as my mother lay there in that cramped hospital room, holding her bundle of joy, she never imagined that 20 years later he would be called a number...

….But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The process of dehumanization is slow like the wheels of justice.

As an adolescent, I wore labels such as “BAD” and “TROUBLE MAKER

Sometimes I felt ashamed and other times I felt proud because it gave me the respect I desperately wanted from my peers…

By 18 my elders began using phrases like “DEAD” or “IN JAIL” when discussing me. Some of them looked upon me with pity while others kept their distance as if I was contagious...

I WILL NEVER FORGET the day that my best friend told me that he wasn't allowed to hang out with me anymore it seems as though everyone knew where I was headed

EVERYONE BUT ME!

The language that was used to describe me made me feel like a prisoner [even back then] although I didn't fully understand it....

I FELT RESTRICTED BOXED IN AND COUNTED OUT

The fact that I feel the same way as a prisoner [today] as I did when I was free [as a child] is something that I always thought that I would take to my grave,

BUT if my story can help change how we use the power of language then I will bear this shame a thousand times over

I FIRMLY BELIEVE THAT, the key to unlocking change is by recognizing that the language we use (our words) [that is] have the power to influence the minds and behavior of others.

If I am correct then my hope is that you will ignore all the labels incarcerated men and women have been forced to wear. And by the power invested in these words...

LET THE RE-HUMANIZATION PROCESS BEGIN

LET THE RE-HUMANIZATION PROCESS BEGIN

LET THE RE-HUMANIZATION PROCESS BEGIN

LOVED ONES AND POEM by SAMSON "SAM" LOYNACAN

Loved ones

18 April, 2020

Dear Mom & Ken,

Happy Corona Virus Week! I guess that there are a LOT of people on the unit that have the virus and so our lockdown keeps getting extended by 14 days every day. Fun.

Well, this is about all for this time folks.

Trying not to go insane.

Love, Sam

Poem

The gravity and enormity is understood,

and sobering

Still, I cannot help but observing,

the fairness, with which it strikes.

No regard is taken, nor exception made.

Wealth, power, race, gender.

Social Status.

No shield can be raised.

Threats, bribes, nothing dissuades.

It spreads, infects. Yes, devastatingly,

yet with parity.

From this unique perspective I can appreciate,

if not admire,

a fairness, impartiality,

too often bereft in this world

So,

when the virus comes for me,

I will embrace it,

and as the weeks pass, until I recover,

or succumb,

I will suffer with gratitude,

an equal of mankind,

and enjoy being a person again

Loved ones and Poem by Samson "Sam" Loynacan.

Originally Published at the Open Call for Clemency Exhibition 2020. Organized by The Confined Arts (TCA) and Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP) and curated by Claire Kim.

THE DAY I DIE by KENNETH REAMS

On the day I die…

I wonder if my principles and beliefs will have meant anything.

I wonder if I will have truly served my purpose in life

or if there was still more left for me to do.


On the day I die…

I wonder if the world will miss me

or if I’ll even be remembered for anything that I did (whether good or bad).


On the day I die…

I wonder how my heart will feel about death

and the life I lived.


On the day I die…

I wonder if anyone will pray to God “for me” and ask Him to open the gates

for the coming of my soul.

CIRCUITOUS INJUSTICE by JOHN BARTON

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is the name of Texas' sprawling prison system. It also has the distinction of being the biggest state system in the most incarcerated country of the world.

In the TDCJ, one begins with every last possession and freedom being taken from you. Even who you sleep next to is not yours to decide. Therefore, this is also a place where privileges are the coin of the realm.

To be able to get up off your bunk and go to the open area around your bunk is called a dayroom, and it is a privilege. To be able to use a payphone or watch TV is a privilege. To buy vitamins or earplugs or a soup on commissary is a privilege.

In many ways it makes sense to make these various actions, if utterly mundane, into privileges, because this then gives prison administrators something to take away, as a tool to instill day to day crowd control.

But the problem with this seemingly straightforward tactic—and the backwards phenomenon that arises from it, which I am about to describe—is that unlike in the free world, where one chooses to attend an unruly demonstration, or chooses to join a crowd in a park teetering on getting out of hand, in prison we are housed and herded in groups that have been chosen for us. So when such a blanket strategy of punishing individuals to control crowds is applied in prison, it also empowers those who care about these privileges the least, which is then leveraged over the prisoners who care about them the most.

An inmate may not even be cognizant that this is the source empowering them. They might falsely conclude it’s the gift of their charisma or the pure might of their brazenness giving them their noticeable sway. Yet they are still the direct beneficiaries of this imbalance all the same.

For example, let's say in a cellblock of 50 people, a group of three or four obstinate inmates are stirring up trouble with the officer on duty, putting the whole group in jeopardy of losing privileges, for any sort of reason. Maybe they disagree with a recent unit decision to run their building last to chow. Maybe they're feeling bored and want to create a display of stick-it-to-the-man spite. Maybe they're intoxicated. Or, maybe stemming from some unpacked sadness that while others around them get to make store [purchase items at the commissary] and have people to call on the phone, they haven't received a single dollar or letter in the mail for years. But, for whatever reason, a small group is deciding to get riled up and is acting disorderly.

All the while, the other 46 inmates in this example are having a very different experience. They are thinking to themselves, "Will these guys just chill out? They're gonna get our whole section racked up to our bunks, and I'm supposed to be next on the phone." Or, "What are they doing? The news is about to start." Or, "I want to go to outside rec, and these guys are about to mess that up. Again."

Despite this inner disagreement, most stay silent, which is the smart thing to do. Because if one of these uninvolved inmates confronts a troublemaker or situation directly, that carries a strong likelihood of escalation and possibly (with some types, "probably") a physical fight.

And due to the whole "zero tolerance" policy on fights that most prisons, including TDCJ, adopt, this means it's not exactly the fight that's most likely to injure you, it's the subsequent year or so of even more restrictive housing, the loss of privileges, and the letter of denial from the parole board you have to write home and tell your family about.

So, instead of this trajectory, inmates trying to seek a better life and have the best chance of going home have to sit and watch the most immature and reckless personalities set the collective ethos of their prison environment every day. Moreover, even though an inmate has practically no say in who they've been grouped with, their individualness is traded for group treatment, and the few regularly mess things up for the many.

Inmates trying to seek a better life and have the best chance of going home have to sit and watch the most immature and reckless personalities set the collective ethos of their prison environment every day.

This contrasted tension between the Cares and Care Nots also leads to one of the most backwards realities of prison you can imagine—one that's rarely discussed because it seems to fly in the face of typical sense, yet it is entirely real—and it is this: the further into the abyss of punishment and restrictive housing one falls (or chooses), the lusher the illegal contraband black market is, and the greener the pastures become of being able to freely do what you want without accountability. The man who has nothing to lose is king.

While this backwardness is ponderous, it also has a very simple explanation. The enforcers of prisons tasked with the controlling of inmate living areas and behaviors are themselves humans, obviously, with their own tendencies, desires to avoid trouble, and wanting to return home to their own families.

Therefore, it's much easier, and safer, for an officer to go into a dorm where the most common response you're likely to hear is "yes, ma'am" and "no, sir," and start rifling through inmate property or go on a case writing spree of finding every minor infraction you can—a towel hanging here, an untucked shirt there—than it is to walk into a highly hostile cellblock that smells like piss, has charred paint from yesterday's fire, and where you are just as likely to be violently cussed out or attacked as dashed in the face with some mysterious liquid.

What sane person wants any of that? Ergo, picking your battles becomes very essential to the officers working in the latter cellblock. Additionally, and just as often, an officer who is daring enough might simply decide it is not worth either their effort or time to write such cases, since these inmates openly display their indifference about cases or the loss of privileges that don't even apply to them in the first place. These restricted inmates already rarely make store, don't get much dayroom, and receive the minimum amount of outside recreation required not to violate the Geneva Convention.

So what ends up happening is that the "Dorm A" full of individuals trying to keep their heads down and return home are overpoliced, receiving little minor cases all the time for the most inconsequential infractions that aren't serious or dangerous in the least by one set of officers, and the most egregious and violent inmates in "Dorm Z," who plainly need the most behavior modification and intervention, are getting away with the vast majority of their more severe infractions by another set of officers just wanting to make it through their shift.

Come time for parole review, these wildly different inmates living wildly different lives might look very similar on paper. Or, even crazier, the guy in Dorm A with seven minor infractions might actually look "worse" than the inmate in Dorm Z screaming and setting fires, while Firebug Doug was doing every bit of those seven infractions, and so much more.

Every Texas inmate can tell you stories of how regularly they see some of the worst inmates they've met go home, and some of the nicest be denied parole.

Every Texas inmate can tell you stories of how regularly they see some of the worst inmates they've met go home, and some of the nicest be denied parole.

While parole boards may not understand this devious record keeping approach, most inmates do, acutely well. So when an inmate is witnessing wrong, or deciding whether or not to speak up in the midst of trouble in their unchosen group, it must be weighed on a scale that regularly advantages the louder, brasher, more chaotic personalities over their own.

Inmates who would otherwise be receptive to an environment of growth instead learn that those with the most to lose, where even infractions of technicality can have far reaching detriment, are at the mercy of the biggest disruptors with the least to lose, who have near impunity from these same minor infractions.

This unfortunate lesson reworded—the more someone cares, the more harshly they and their record are treated.

There needs to be a serious rebalancing of the near harassment level of case writing that happens in the Dorm A’s of TDCJ versus the "what's the point?" pragmatism of the officers working in Dorm Z’s. These very different rules of engagement don’t merely result in an unimportant deprivation of an inmate's ability to make nachos, it's grossly unfair, incentivizes not caring, and is an unjust violation of America’s equal treatment under the law.

Furthermore, these written cases, or lack thereof, are also one of the only things that document—that is, “substantiates”—to a parole board who to release and who to retain. This unequal treatment can and does carry over into an inmate's ability to go home.

No matter how carefully or objectively one believes they are reading an inmate's disciplinary record, it is not the truthful account of their behavior it is perceived to be. Nor does it directly correlate to the amount of problems they were causing while incarcerated. And it most certainly does not scale up to demonstrate one's readiness for assimilation back into society.

As things are, these so-called records we've kept reflect, at best, who an officer was, not who an inmate was.

While there is definitely no shortage of areas in the TDCJ prison system that could benefit from outside intervention, these greatly concerning, system-wide imbalances I'm presenting have a terrible impact on motivating change and are THE primary issue affecting all four corners of incarceration: group control, behavior modification, accountability, and eventual parole.

A third party, non-TDCJ oversight panel who can account for, coordinate, and resolve exactly these kinds of on-the-record inconsistencies would be the single most effective step the public could enact, to achieve a fairer, safer, and saner corrections system; one that actually rewards you the "more" you cared. And not the other way around. ♦

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