That's the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston) to you and me.

That’s the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston) to you and me.

In late March, I attended a conference at ASU that focused on the value of prison education—a topic easy to overlook, even in a high-incarceration society. (I previewed the event here.)

The conference was terrific, and you may still be able to see tweets by me and others by looking for @PEAC_ASU and the hashtag #PEC15. And as long as you’re online, be sure to follow ASU’s Prison Education Awareness Club.

The topic of education for correctional inmates is pretty specific, one that I would think does not recur in my life too often. But a recent trip to Boston threw the issue in stark relief again.

As I strolled through the Institute of Contemporary Art in that city, I was pleased to see so many compelling and provocative pieces. It is worth a stop—the longer the better—if you get the chance.

This is the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Yes, it’s as cool as it looks. Yes, you want to visit.

This is the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Yes, it’s as cool as it looks. Yes, you want to visit.

One particularly striking exhibition (sorry, it closes May 10) was called “When the Stars Begin to Fall.” The ICA describes it here:

“When the Stars Begin to Fall gathers 35 artists of different generations who share an interest in the American South as both a real and fabled place. Key to the exhibition is the relationship between contemporary art, black life, and ‘outsider’ art, a historically fraught category typically encompassing artists who have not received formal art training and who may have been marginalized in society. When the Stars Begin to Fall includes artworks by self-taught, spiritually inspired, and incarcerated artists alongside projects by prominent contemporary artists such as Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, and Theaster Gates. It presents diverse artworks—from drawing and painting to performance, sculpture, and assemblage—unified by an insistent reference to place.”

Read more about the exhibition here.

The entire show was amazing, but I was especially struck by the work of the incarcerated artists. (That may not be a surprise, given the number of times I’ve covered corrections issues before. For instance, here is my review of the film Herman’s House, about former Louisiana inmate Herman Wallace, whom I’ve written about numerous times.)

It may be more than a coincidence that some of our most evocative art arises from people in adverse conditions. And a few artists represented in Boston cause viewers to stop and consider what we value and how fragile our sense of normalcy is.

Causing me to pause was the work of Frank Albert Jones. As I gleaned from the museum-curated detail: The artist created the drawings with colored pencils he salvaged from the accounting office of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, where Jones was an inmate at the end of his life. The pieces on display were from the late 1960s, soon before Jones’s death.

Here are photos of his pieces on display:

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Also compelling were pieces by Henry Ray Clark, as described by the museum:

“Conjuring alternate realities, Clark creates drawings populated with figures that appear to be from another planet. He builds his compositions by repeating geometric shapes to form patterns and elaborate borders around central subjects. As Clark’s titles imply, his works express feelings of isolation while humorously suggesting possible places where people can exist with their multiple identities.”

Clark also was in the Texas Penitentiary. Upon release, he got involved in Houston’s artist community and participated in community-based organization Project Row Houses. Here is some of Clark’s work:

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The work by Jones and Clark was noteworthy, but I also was struck by the artists who had never been incarcerated but whose work complements and comments on a society heavy on incarceration. Like the dedicated students in the Prison Education Awareness Club, these artists feel that prisons say a lot about us and that they have lessons to tell—about those within the walls and those without.

Among those intriguing people were video artists Kara Walker (and her video titled 8 Possible Beginnings; or the Creation of African-America, A Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker) and Lauren Kelley (and her video titled Unbleached Objects).

Kelley’s work (photo below) communicated consciously with the pieces by Frank Albert Jones on a facing wall. As the museum explained:

“Kelley’s series of videos on view are inspired by the blue and red drawings of Frank albert Jones featured in this gallery. To create these animated drawings, Kelley sourced images of miscellaneous goods on Etsy, an online marketplace for arts, crafts, and vintage items. She envisions these as ‘portraits of the playful spirits captured in the spaces Jones ornately rendered.’ The objects sourced from the free market of the internet contrast sharply with Jones’s reality as a prisoner … but they make reference to the types of mass-produced goods currently made by incarcerated individuals for large corporations.”

Prison arts Boston Unbleached Objects by Lauren Kelley_opt

Unbleached Objects by Lauren Kelley

Here are a few of the inmate-created works displayed at the March ASU conference, as described by Kyes Stevens from the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project (click to enlarge):

And here are photos from the packed-to-the-gills room as PEAC president Jessica Fletcher opened the conference (click the photos to enlarge):

Given the wall-and-wire chasm that lies between millions of inmates and the society that imprisons them, art may be a necessary bridge. Based on the conference message, art can play a powerful role in humanizing a dehumanizing situation. And based on my visit to Boston, it can play a similarly powerful role in reminding us all of the need to remain fully human, even as we dole out justice and retribution.

How serious do Americans think our incarceration crisis is? Their word choice provides a clue.

How serious do Americans think our incarceration crisis is? Their word choice provides a clue.

It may be wonkish and nerdy to admit, but I enjoy the etymological side of public policy quite a bit.

Wait, that sentence itself is pretty incomprehensible. So let me start again.

We may all know “mass incarceration” when we see it (especially in the United States). But where did the term come from? Who used it first? And is it a neutral phrase, or laden with ideological baggage?

That is the conceptual adventure a reader embarks on when they begin a recent article on the Brennan Center website titled “Just Facts: Quantifying the Incarceration Conversation.

In the article, Oliver Roeder explains the roots of the term mass incarceration. That alone makes the article worth your time.

But of special interest is the kind of research that a digitized knowledge base allows us. The existence of digitized articles and scholarship permits talented people like Roeder to track trends in word use. Because of that, he’s able to explain, among other things, how use of the phrase ramped up, and to compare it to the increasing size of our prison population. Here is an example of one of his tables:

Mass incarceration table Brennan Center

Roeder earned his economics Ph.D. at the University of Texas in Austin. Perhaps not coincidentally, Texas is one of the states trying to make inroads in the mass incarceration challenge.

A few years ago, I wrote a story about the possibility for altered sentencing laws in Arizona. It appeared way back in 2012, when the prospects had brightened and then dimmed.

But if Roeder’s analysis shows anything, it is that the concept of mass incarceration has entered the collective consciousness. Supporters and detractors both understand that they must wrestle with the propriety of a historically large prison population.

So maybe it’s time for an updated look. What do you think?

prison_green haven NYYou may not have known that a Prison Awareness Club was a thing. But in a nation apparently committed to that growth industry, it only makes good sense that college students might engage on the topic of corrections.

This Friday, March 28, the third annual Prison Education Conference will be staged at ASU.

The all-day event is sponsored by the Department of English, the School of Social Transformation, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The free event (open to the public) will include speakers, discussion panels and the screening of what looks to be a compelling film.

Writer Sought

I may be able to attend, but I currently have a conflict. If you are a law student, student of the law (most generally defined), or a lawyer—and you are NOT one of the event organizers—I invite you to contact me to discuss a guest blog post. It might cover the entire event, or perhaps be just a review of the film Zero Percent. Write to me at

Keynote Speaker

The conference includes a keynote by author Marshall Frank. As a news story describes his work:

“This year’s conference features keynote speaker Marshall Frank, a retired police captain from Miami, Fla., who led more than a thousand homicide investigations during his career and has since written hundreds of op-eds and articles about the state of America’s justice system.”

“In his most recent book ‘Criminal InJustice in America,’ Frank explores inequities of the prison system, “a multi-billion-dollar industry, which would collapse if there was a sudden downturn in inmate residency.” Perhaps that’s why the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but a staggering 25 percent of its prisoners. Critics have hailed ‘Criminal InJustice’ as ‘challenging,’ ‘thought-provoking’ and “daring.’”

Read the complete ASU News story here.

Panels Cover Prison Education

The complete agenda is here.

Among the speakers will be a representative from the Arizona Department of Corrections, and his compatriot from the New Mexico prison system. The organizers also feature the insights of educators from three Arizona prison complexes.

A second keynote will be Sean Pica, head of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. And it is the Hudson connection that may yield one of the day’s most enlightening aspects—a film.

Zero Percent Film To Screen

The film trailer for Zero Percent explains—a little—about the challenges faced by incarcerated individuals. Watch the trailer here.

More information about Hudson Link is here. And you can follow their posts on Facebook too.

The event location is the University Club on the ASU campus. A scalable map is here.


flier Prison Education Conference 2014_opt

Hermans House movie posterBeginning tonight on most PBS stations (including in Arizona), a documentary film will air that describes one inmate’s long confinement in solitary.

Herman Wallace is in a Louisiana penitentiary, where he has spent decades in solitary. Here is a description of the movie and his situation:

“Herman Wallace may be the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States—he’s spent more than 40 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell in Louisiana. Imprisoned in 1967 for a robbery he admits, he was subsequently sentenced to life for a killing he vehemently denies. Herman’s House is a moving account of the remarkable expression his struggle found in an unusual project proposed by artist Jackie Sumell. Imagining Wallace’s ‘dream home’ began as a game and became an interrogation of justice and punishment in America. The film takes us inside the duo’s unlikely 12-year friendship, revealing the transformative power of art. A co-presentation with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).”

Want to know more about the movie? Go here and here.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to screen the film, and I posted my review here.

For a quicker (and less verbose) synopsis, watch the trailer below.

Hermans House movie posterTonight, a film will be screened at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art that may interest lawyers and many others who seek to examine the U.S. corrections system. (Jump to the bottom for times, tickets, etc.)

Herman’s House is a feature documentary that explores what the filmmakers understatedly call “the unlikely friendship between a New York artist and one of America’s most famous inmates as they collaborate on an acclaimed art project.”

The inmate is Herman Joshua Wallace, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison on a bank robbery sentence. While he served his sentence, though, he and a fellow prisoner were accused of murdering an Angola (La.) prison guard, which landed him in solitary confinement. Though claims have been made that he may be innocent of the death charge (including claims by a widow of the guard), he has remained in solitary confinement for decades.

The film opens with an artist forming and sanding a uniquely shaped object: Is it an egg? Perhaps a stylized womb?

What looks to be a remarkable program is on tap for this Friday at the ASU Law School.

Titled “Dialogues on Detention: Applying Lessons from Criminal Justice Reform to the Immigration Detention System,” it is part of the Public Dialogue Series of advocacy group Human Rights First. (CLE credit may be available.)

Discussions will focus on: gaps in legal representation, alternatives to detention, privatization; and conditions of detention. Panelists also will explore whether lessons we have learned from criminal justice reform can inform immigration detention reform.

Here is more information about the Friday event:

Speakers include:

  • Dora Schriro, former director of the Arizona Department of Corrections
  • Lindsay Marshall, Executive Director, Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project
  • Arizona State Representative John Kavanagh (R-8)
  • Dodie Ledbetter, Deputy Court Administrator and former Detention Director for the Pima County Juvenile Court Center (Tucson)
  • Victoria Lopez, ACLU Arizona
  • Milagros Cisneros, Assistant Federal Public Defender, District of Arizona
  • Andy Silverman, Joseph M. Livermore Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs, University of Arizona James E. Rodgers College of Law

You may register here. More detail on the Dialogues on Detention Series is available here.

Helpfully, organizers also provide a list of reading materials related to the dialogues.

Rod Blagojevich headed to prison, March 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

In mid-March, I came across a truly fascinating piece of writing in the Chicago Tribune. It purported to be some useful advice from one (former) convict to an incoming con. Not knowing any prisoners firsthand, I can’t tell you how spot-on the counsel is.

But as I read it through a second time, it struck me how valuable much of the advice was for lawyers, or anyone who seeks courteous relations with their fellow-travelers.

The advice was for none other than former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who’s just starting his prison term in a federal pen in Colorado. As the Associated Press describes it, “Blagojevich was convicted of 18 criminal counts over two trials, including charges that accused him of attempting to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. The 55-year-old Democrat is due to report to a prison in Colorado on Thursday to begin serving a 14-year sentence, making him the second Illinois governor in a row to go to prison for corruption.”

The writer of the advice article was Jeff Smith, whose bio in the newspaper I reprint in its entirety:

“Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator, is a professor in the Milano Graduate School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy. He spent 2010 in at the Federal Correctional Institution in Manchester, Ky., as a result of charges stemming from a 2004 campaign-finance violation.”

A professor, eh? Well, he certainly landed on his feet.

Anthropologically, convict–convict communications are something we’re typically not privy to, and so I found his advice intriguing. He opens his piece—simply titled “12 Tips for Blagojevich”—thus:

“After spending a year in federal prison on an obstruction of justice charge stemming from a 2004 congressional campaign violation, I have a few tips for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich as he heads for prison.”

If you were worried that his article would be filled with advice that’s too insider to be of use, his first piece of counsel eliminates that concern:

“1. As your grandma probably taught you, God gave you two ears, two eyes and one mouth—use them in proportion.”

Bullet points further flesh out this and every recommendation.

Read the full story here. And below is a graphic that details what Blagojevich faces in prison.


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