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Speaking out from the inside

When you take the inside with you

"Art is not simply a product of culture
but, more accurately, an agency of
culture, an important means through
which culture re-negotiates itself."
- Salome Chasnoff

By Amber Smock



A prison sentence is high on the list of things no woman wants. What are you going to do if you have to serve time? If you lose your kids, give birth in restraints, get bribed by guards or other prisoners, face employment discrimination afterwards, who’s going to do anything about it? Who’s responsible? Who’s going to help you heal?

Community arts organizations have a special kind of access to the core of traumatic life experiences. By teaching people to make art, and helping to make that art visible to a broad audience, these organizations can bypass the bureaucratic paper trail and allow ordinary people to tell what happened to them. The point of this art isn’t necessarily to see eye to eye, but to speak heart to heart.

This month, Beyondmedia Education, partnering with Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM), will host Voices in Time: Lives in Limbo at Las Manos Gallery in Andersonville. Voices in Time is a remarkable project that will include prisoners’ original art from across the country, an interactive multimedia installation re-creating a woman’s prison cell, a preview of a website on women’s incarceration, performances by former women prisoners and discussion panels covering such topics as race, parenting and re-entry.

Much of the art for Voices in Time has been generated through workshops in prisons, juvenile detention centers and halfway houses. Some work was produced after the former prisoners’ re-entry into the outside world. The art is evidence of the coping and healing process of life behind and after bars. And thus the responsibility of representing experience is laid on art.

Beyondmedia is a women-run media nonprofit organization unique in Chicago. Based in Rogers Park, its three staff members, and a rotating series of interns, work with communities in need of media education because of economic and/or social exclusion. The staff partners with community organizations and schools to teach women and youth to tell their stories through videos, websites, handbooks, graphic arts, performances and public education campaigns.

In October 2002, Beyondmedia presented 30 Days of Art and Education on Women’s Incarceration, the first version of the current Voices in Time project. 30 Days went on tour to five sites throughout Chicago and included a similar multimedia re-creation of the woman’s prison cell, along with performances and discussion panels. The popularity of 30 Days provided the incentive to re-present an updated and enlarged version to educate even more people and include more work from the people involved in advocating for women in prison.

Salome Chasnoff, the Executive Director of Beyondmedia, points out that “in many ways, doing time is a life sentence regardless of crime,” because prison affects prisoners not only by denying physical freedom, but also access to proper health care, employment after prison, and the ability to keep one’s family intact. An instructor on video and art education at SAIC in 1998-1999, Chasnoff has spent years considering how to use the media arts to connect people across race, gender and personal experience. She took some time to answer a few F interview questions by e-mail.

F: In what ways do you feel that American law and society is responsible or irresponsible in its treatment and attitudes towards women prisoners and former women prisoners?

C: Sentencing has become harsher even though women’s crime has not become more violent. Actually, more than 82 percent of women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses and arrests of women for murder and manslaughter have decreased 35.5 percent over the past ten years. Still, the percentage of women has more than doubled as a proportion of the population under correctional supervision. Taken together, these statistics don’t make sense, either from a humanitarian perspective or a legal perspective. Many families are destroyed by the incarceration of the mother. Another statistic: 72 percent of women in pre-trial detention in Cook County were African-American. Nationally, black women were more than eight times as likely as white women to be in prison in 1997.

F: Some might argue that those who are or have been imprisoned must bear responsibility for breaking the law. Through the same viewpoint, mothers who break the law are especially irresponsible in regards to their children. How might you counter this claim?

C: Most women in prison are there for crimes of poverty and drug-related offenses. Both childhood and adult histories of abuse are strongly correlated with drug use among women. The solution to addiction is treatment, not incarceration. More than 60 percent of women entering prison don’t have high school diplomas. Many are homeless sometime during the year preceding incarceration. Imprisonment is not the solution to effects of poverty. That’s something we’re all responsible for, not just those that suffer most from it.

F: In creating the Voices in Time project, what kinds of responsibilities did you feel, as an artist and activist?

C: I feel responsible for representing as accurately as possible the prison system from the perspective of women prisoners. That’s what the installation aims to do: recreate a prison cell through their eyes. I want viewers to enter their world and, to the extent that it is possible, identify with their pain, their hopes for the future: to see them as fully human and understand the urgent need for systemic and social change.

F: What, if anything, are you doing differently this time around with Voices in Time and why?

C: This year I’m including the voices of children because I think that’s an essential part of the story: how the imprisonment of all these women is affecting those they left behind. I’m also interviewing grandmothers, the women who are trying to take their place.

F: What are some examples of prisoners’ art that will be on display at the gallery?

C: You will see many different approaches to drawing, as most of the artists are working with very limited resources. You’ll also see painting, ceramic art, collage and appliqué, executed with widely ranging skill. And you’ll see the palpable presence of lived experience in the work. It’s very emotional.

F: A Beyondmedia website on Voices in Time will be available for preview at Las Manos prior to its April 1 launch.  What are some of your hopes for the site?  Who do you hope it will reach?

C: I envision it as a really fluid resource, where people will continually bring new work, creative and scholarly, and update links to online data. I want it to reach students and activists and anyone interested in the learning more about the issues surrounding the incarceration of women and girls, because education is the key to change, and we urgently need radical change because we are destroying countless families and ensuring another generation of prisoners.

F: The quilt on the bed in the installation incorporates writing from incarcerated teenage girls. What strikes you as unique about their experiences in and after the juvenile justice system?

C: Unique is a hard word. I don’t know about unique. I can say that what always strikes me when I’m there [at the Juvenile Detention Center] is that they are still children in many ways, needing what all children need—love, recognition, support, and advocacy. Most of them just want to go home to their moms. But the juvenile justice system is harsh and punitive, its discipline unpredictable—except in its discriminatory treatment of poor youth and youth of color.

F: What do you feel that art, in general, is responsible for? What is art’s job in this world?

C: The collective role of art in this world is to present the broadest range of images such that each individual has the opportunity to see her or his reflection somewhere in that mirror. Art is not simply a product of culture but, more accurately, an agency of culture, an important means through which culture re-negotiates itself. Art is a paradigm for meaningful action. Storytelling transforms life experience, like straw, into gold. As art, it offers a way to reconstitute subjectivity and promote communal healing. That’s what I do. I work to represent and create a more humane world, a place where I would like to live.

F: Looking back on the project, do you recall any moments you found particularly inspiring?

C: The father that flew in on the red eye from California to hand deliver his daughter’s ceramic pieces, only to turn around and go back home on the next flight, really moved me. It made me realize how important this event is for so many women inside who are getting the opportunity to speak publicly and connect with others on the outside through their art and writing. A woman who facilitates a workshop in Cook County Jail told me how proud and excited the women are. They’re hoping at least one of them gets out before the show is over to witness the event and report back. We take communication and connection for granted, as we should in a free society. But we can’t forget about those who aren’t free.

All events for Voices in Time: Lives in Limbo are free and open to the public. Opening night will be Friday, March 5, at 7:00 p.m. (reception at 6:00 p.m.) and the location for all the events will be Las Manos Gallery at 5220 N. Clark Street in Chicago. For gallery hours, call (773) 973-2280 or (773) 216-5556. To learn more about Beyondmedia Education, visit www.beyondmedia.org. Women and Prison: A Site for Resistance will launch to the public on April 1, at www.womenandprison.org.

Images courtesy of Beyondmedia Education

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