Our Volunteer Work with Prison Inmates Utilizing the Creative Process
In 2004, we became involved in the Prison Creative Arts Project sponsored by the English Department at University of Michigan http://www.lsa.umich.edu/english/pcap/. We had been asked to serve as mentors to discharged parolees who had been involved in the PCAP program during their incarceration.
The PCAP program takes U of M English students (for credit) into Michigan prisons to work with the inmates in a variety of creative endeavor. They were concerned about the lack of follow up after discharge and were seeking mentors involved in the creative arts to help facilitate the adjustment back into the community.
During a training program to facilitate our role as mentors, we had the opportunity to learn about our potential work through interaction with several parolees. We were deeply moved by the experience and impressed by what possibilities creativity can play in rehabilitation.
As a result, we made the decision to do more than serve as mentors to parolees, we decided to initiate our own little creative project in the Carson City, Michigan Prison near our home.
The following accounts were written within a few days of our experience with the inmates.
A splendid spring day with a cleansing breeze, the glaring sun reflects on the wound razor wire which would be dazzling in its pattern had I not been reminded of its shredding affects on any flesh that challenged its intricate authority.
Keys, doors, lists, papers to sign, searches, questions, a beeper for my belt to use if I’m threatened, more doors, buzzers . . . As I spiral deeper into the land of the forgotten, a sense of distrust squeezes inward. “What’s in your pocket? You can’t take that in. What’s that? Take off your shoes. I need to shake you down”.
Jesus, walk with me. This is a world I have always feared. Show me your acceptance, your healing power. Allow me to openly be with these men.
No trees, no textures, no color . . .
The men . . .
Pacing in blue and orange uniforms with numbers on their backs. My red shirt shouts an envied origin from the outside. Keys, more doors.
The men . . .
I look right into their eyes, and see warmth, gentleness, knowing, acceptance, graciousness. These are eyes that have seen terror, hunger, desire, brutality, depression, despair from inside and out. These are the eyes that have touched the depths of hell and cried for mercy.
The men . . .
Larry tells me about his art work and playing the accordion. Another tells about playing the saxophone. They efficiently set up the sound system and quietly ask questions about the instruments. They ask how we happened to come to the prison. They fill the room and politely wait for us to begin our program.
We tell the story about “The Man Who Planted Trees”, and subtly the air in the room begins to shift. I play the harp. The men’s minds float to the ceiling, swirling and searching. Their faces squint with thoughts and emotions as they are sucked down into the despair of the story, the charcoal burners’ existence in their bleak and hostile landscape. They yearn for the healing trees, waterfalls and gardens of the French villages reestablished by the old peasant tree planter.
The men . . .
Their creativity stirs and memories wander through their heads, detached and confused. We offer pencil and paper, and the words race toward liberation. . . Emotion seeps from dusty forgotten wells onto the paper. Locked doors crack open and words focus the frightening images.
One man. . .
Stands and reads his creation, taking the time for his own voice to remind him that his breath rises from his own tender heart. Its sound soothes his spirit and nourishes his creative soul. His words hesitate in trapped space and then flutter freely as they softly descend onto the brokenness of each of the other men in the room.
And then another man. . .
Stands to read his words, and another wheels, without legs, up to the front in his wheelchair. And then the papers of others, limited by shyness are passed forward for us to read to the group. And so we go on into the afternoon, playing our instruments, accompanying the courageous offerings of their past wounds, present struggles and tentative desires for the future.
And Jesus stands next to me as I watch this miracle, this healing, as I fill with gratitude and awe at the possibilities of the human soul. I forget that I am in a prison. I inhale the sweet scent of the human heart as its tender bud ascends through the wound razor wire within its dazzling pattern of creativity.
I have never felt so totally in
the presence of God’s love.
Gary W. Wakenhut
As a writer, musician, and a performing artist, my perception of myself includes being unemployed and underpaid and continually providing my services as a “volunteer”. In order to remedy this predicament, I attach my identity to the modem of my computer and subscribe to the many postings of grants and other artist’s opportunities. Attached to the “receive” button is a dream that I may somehow fit into the narrow perspective of what others feel my “creation” should be and the green growth that will pay my taxes and place food on my table. That illusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is continually being erased by my morning exercise program of manipulating the “delete” button.
Then a “new arrival” flashes on my screen. The Prison Creative Arts Project is looking for artists to mentor their parolees upon discharge, and they pay $500 a year to cover my expenses. I immediately hit the “reply” button. At least this would pay for my gasoline and phone bill, and I might even see a little left over for the checking account. And even better yet, I might just be able to use my creative spirit to assist someone.
With their acceptance of our desire to assist, Anne and I head for Ann Arbor to formally meet with these P.C.A.P. folks. We anticipate the rigid structure associated with anything that touches the government and are surprised to find all that thrown aside. Instead, we sit with the organizers who have only one goal in mind, the improvement of their creativity experiments with those deprived of freedom by their criminal acts.
We sit in an informal circle and excitement brews. Our fellow explorers include U of M students (and their teachers) who, for a credit class, make weekly sojourns into the depths of our state’s incarceration systems. There, they provide a stage for the inmate’s repressed creative individuality.
Also present are prison parolees (adolescent and adult) who have found a breath of fresh air and possible future through P.C.A.P. One is a black man, whose voice and being reaches out and encompasses, easily releasing my silent tears under his life experiences. Not one to generate eye moisture easily, I quickly realize that I am being affected, changed for life. I have never been in the presence of a person who is more open, honest, and real than this man. Could this be what it was (or is) like to experience Jesus?
Others surround us, including consultants from other prison rehabilitation programs around the country. One is an extremely attractive, well dressed and articulate black woman who shocks me with the awareness that she has also done many years of incarceration.
What is happening? Is my perception of the inmate changing? Am I finding a new direction for my life?
On the long drive home, I find myself pleasantly surprised to discover that Anne feels as much responsibility and a desire to explore this new direction as I. We immediately move beyond just being mentors to parolees. What if we were to actually go into the prisons like the P.C.A.P. students and offer the creativity experiences we usually share with grade school students in our artist residencies?
Awareness shifts to a fellow musician who also serves as the Chaplain at the Carson City Correctional Facility close to our home. A phone call, and he, in turn, refers us to the Activity Director. We set up a date, surprising us with the simplicity of negotiating such a plan in such a formal controlled atmosphere.
Excited and a slight bit anxious about our new directions, we play a bit of avoidance and are not prompt about getting out of bed on the morning of our engagement. We go through our loading processes still a little anxious, but, for some unusual reason, not pushing with the usual “hurry up, we are going to be late” attitude.
Arriving almost a half an hour tardy for our usual two hour set up period for performances, we are greeted by twenty foot fences lined with coil upon coil of razor wire, the spring afternoon’s sun reflecting its silver piercing qualities into the brilliant blue cloudlessness of open sky.
The smells of stale cigarette butts taint us as we open the door, leaving behind our freedom. We announce our presence, only to wait for more valuable set up minutes to transpire while our escort is located. He finally arrives. We are surprised that it is our Chaplain friend.
Having taught in a prison before, I had anticipated the “search” process and left home much of what I usually carry to cover all our emergencies, including the proverbial duct tape. What remained was all our whistles, flutes, dulcimer sticks, harp strings, music, etc. I had arranged them for easy visual display, thinking that was all that would be required. Then it was stated that we had to have a manifest, a written statement of absolutely everything that we were bringing in. More valuable time.
That completed, we again waited to be admitted to the isolated gate room. Would we even have time to tune the harp? While waiting, I ask our host if there was anything we should or shouldn’t do in this incarceration environment. His response was a surprisingly gentle “Do what you usually do”.
Once we were inside the gate room with our cart loaded with all our paraphernalia, we waited to be “patted down”. Anne’s eye drops were in her pocket and were contraband to the guards. More valuable minutes as she returned to the entrance to place them in a locked locker. Then we were given belt alarms in case we should find ourselves in harm’s way. These had to be checked out, and we were finally on our way.
The first set of doors were closed and firmly locked behind us, and the sound of motors and moving metal released those in front of us. We stepped out into the confined open air of the courtyard. Progressing into our vulnerability, we moved out onto the cement sidewalk dividing the spring’s green grass. At the same time, our eyes were drawn to the multitudes of male bodies marked by blue prison garb highlighted with bright orange stripes and stenciled numbers across backs.
They were busy with rakes and other yard equipment cleaning up the winter’s remains. I was aware that they were “there” and I was “here”. Even though I was within their domicile, I was far from being a part of them.
The long walk, pushing the cart with our instruments through the openness of our presence, ended as the door of the Education Building was unlocked, and we left behind us the freedom of air offered by the courtyard. We were taken to a classroom, plain with its cement block walls, high ceiling and fluorescent lights. One wall had glass between it and the corridor so that all within could be seen by those without. The other wall, between us and the courtyard, had translucent glass letting in light, but failing to let vision reach the true sunlight and images of the beyond .
A couple of small 8 ˝ by 11 posters were the only adornment taped to one wall, their inscription so small that I was unable to read their message. Three box fans ran at high noisy revolutions, reminding me that those incarcerated are not only cut off from external air, but air conditioning as well. Would our audience be able to experience the subtleness of our gentle approach with such competition?
Two young men, limited by their orange marked blue suits, were assigned to running our sound. Immediately, the barriers shifted, and we unconsciously found ourselves becoming one with them. I guess this is why we call ourselves the Collecting Consort, consort meaning a group of people who have come together for a common interest of expression. They are extremely eager to assist, and we immediately forget the meanings of the “blues” that mark their identity.
Slowly, one by one, our audience arrives, choosing seats either in the far back or close to the front, the late comers falling in-between. I am amazed. As the room fills, we find ourselves present with forty souls. They don’t seem to fit my “movie” image of toughened bodies like the front line of the Green Bay Packers, faces scared by their extreme ways of living. They seem no different than you or I, but perhaps a little more open. You could easily encounter these men at a baseball game, church or shopping at Wal-Mart. They are the same as we.
I think about how we have been billed as “presenting a concert”. We are a pretty laid back ensemble, and the major portion of our program is the reading of a short story. How long will they remain before laughing at what we consider creativity and entertainment and then departing by the back door of the room?
Anne and I hadn’t talked about how we would begin, and after we are introduced, I find surprisingly that Anne is setting the scene with “Simple Gifts” on the keyboard. I discover myself slipping into a “many times told” story of its creation and then join her in its music notes with my flute.
I am not sure what happened next, but I eventually discovered myself with the need be reaching out to my fellow men with the depth of my eyes and every bit of “being present” I can create as I recite the opening words to “The Man Who Planted Trees”.
This is an environmental story written back in the 1950’s before we had any awareness of the “environment”. A Pulitzer winning short story, it portrays a simple French shepherd who, as he takes his sheep to pasture each day, plants 100 acorns. The story follows him over a forty year period. The land in the beginning, a forgotten wasteland, contains inhabitants, one step above primitive man, who because of the uninhabitable environment, commit suicide and kill each other.
I have chosen this story because I suspect it will parallel the limitations of our audience’s past and present marginal existence. In addition, it also offers hope as the story, over a forty year period, documents the results of acorn planting and the development of a natural forest complete with streams, wild flowers, birds and animals, and most important of all, new families who have “developed a taste for picnics”.
I work hard at maintaining my presence, playing off Anne’s musical platform upon which my evolving story is being placed. My mind wanders between being present, reading my script, making that all important open eye contact and trying to figure out their reaction to my art. Are they bored? Do they want to leave? Am I taking them down a path they do not wish to experience?
At one point, Anne misses a cue for her music. We stop and start again, me joking about the error. Then, working hard on my “presence” with them, I also loose my place. I again stop and joke about how we can afford to make errors like this because no one is paying us. The tension continues to resolve for all as our openness grows like the natural forest of trees in the story.
We conclude with the final line, “And Ellezard Boufiee, the French shepherd, died at the hospice in Banon in 1957".
Anne finalizes with a soft uplifting arpeggio on the keyboard, and I nod my head in conclusion. All forty men, spontaneously leave their chairs in a loud standing ovation that almost seems like too many decibels for my limited ears. I smile gently and warmly with the awareness that we have somehow reached across our barriers and become one in our togetherness.
In our school residencies, we follow our performance with an opportunity for exploring creativity through the arts, including visual arts and creative writing. We have planned to do the same here. Again, my anxiety increases? Will they play our game? Where are their writing skills? Will they exit the room, leaving us to pack our instruments for home?
They eagerly grab pencil and paper, and using an empty chair as their desk, begin writing to our instructions. We ask for a few possible themes, and they quickly raise their hands to offer their awarenesses, only to be off into a discovery of their own creative beings. We, in turn, hoping to help with the creative spirit, share some of our favorite Irish airs and the room suddenly becomes quiet with the gentleness of the Creative Spirit.
After several minutes in this open space, most seem completed, and we ask if any wish to share their creations. To our amazement, several come forward with unbelievable pieces to read with our musical presence supporting them. Many have great depth and insight, and I am undone by the attention, respect, and applause they give to their brothers’ creativity.
One man expertly wheels his chair to the front of the room, and I notice that not only are his legs missing but probably part of his hips. How can he be alive and functional? Questions run through my mind. What happened? Has he been this way most of his life? Did this happen before he was incarcerated? Questions are lost as he begins to read a letter of apology he has written to his niece. It is evident he is deep with emotion as he is gently accompanied by the soft musical support created by Anne’s harp.
Some lack the presence of mind to read their own work. They are passed forward for me to read, and I again find anxiety about not being able to read these creations because of poor writing skills. But they are polished with good handwriting, punctuation and spelling. This is not my image of prison.
I launch into some of the most important reading of my life. I must find within me the inspiration of their writing and communicate that sincerest meaning to their fellow brothers. Oh, the depth that I feel, the wonder of what is transpiring for all of us in this experience.
Finally as we are ready to conclude, another member of our newly formed spontaneous creative society comes forth with his wheel chair, foot in cast. He wants to dedicate his writing to us. He mentions that today, he has rediscovered his creative spirit from his past and expresses his appreciation for our willingness to bring our presence to them.
I ask if we can return, and we receive another standing ovation. Eventually, they come forward with their many questions about our instruments and our work. We stand together, sharing and touching each other’s presence, totally unaware that there might be anything separating our beings.
From there, it was an easy downhill trip as we packed music and instruments and left the confines of the cement block walls that had somehow become a magical conversion beyond the past, into the present, and, with tremendous hope, a leap into the future.
As we pushed the cart loaded with our instruments, two of our new brothers were in the court yard, one with a guitar. The other gave us the gentle salute of his wave as we responded in same, making our departure.
After loading the car, we began our journey back to our home, our paradise, our sanctuary of thirty acres, our solitude, and our freedom. The immensity of the experience was beginning to reach us. Was this miracle real? Did they really want what we opened? Were they just nice? Would they come and be with us again if we did return?
And then the feelings of extreme concern began to immerge. Had we done too much too quickly? Had we opened Pandora’s box? Had we taken some of them where they weren’t ready to go?
The answer occurs for me the following morning at 5:30 AM. I awaken from a dream, apparently about the prison experience.
I find myself closer to You, God, and with more peacefulness than I ever thought possible. I owe you the deepest of thanks for guiding me into this new “peace” of my being. Yes God, you are the true Creative Spirit that resides within me. Thank you for “making me an instrument of thy peace”.
Other descriptions of our
volunteer work can be found at: