Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, To Angola We Go!

Yesterday, Boxer and I motored up to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the spring Arts and Crafts Fair. Most folks also attend the prisoner Rodeo which is always held the same week-end, but I can't support a gladiator-style competition where untrained prisoners bleed and are sometimes permanently disabled in events (such as bull riding) for which they are completely unprepared. All to make money for the prison.

I always have mixed feelings about hanging out with prisoners. And Angola -- with its 5000 prisoners (many of whom are Black and doing ridiculously long sentences) and 1800 "staff members" (some of whom are second and third generation guards and most of whom live on the prison grounds just like the prisoners) -- is larger than many towns in this state. A former(?) plantation, its 18,000 acres are meticulously kept (by its "inmates," of course) and resplendent with flowers. Riding through Angola, with its mile after mile of manicured lawns, always creeps me out, frankly, when you consider the unmitigated, continual anguish of those who are as surely held in bondage as their ancestors ever were.

As we prepared for our first hejira together to the Mecca of this desolate place, where Boxer spent twenty years of his life, he regaled me with stories. One told about a prisoner that just dropped his hoe one day and said, "I'm tired. I'm sittin' down."

"A guard, looking at him, shocked, said, "Whachu mean, you're tired? You better get back to work!"

The prisoner just shook his head and matter-of-factly replied, "I been workin' five hundred years and I'm tired..."

At which point the guard paused a moment, nodded, and said, " right. I 'magine you are tired. Go sit down."

Another story Boxer told was about the first time he was sent to the fields with the others shortly after he arrived at Angola.

It was mid-winter, cold, with a sharp wind blowing and they were sent out to the far north part of the to pick spinach. They were given no jackets, no gloves, no boots or caps to ward off the bitter weather, despite, needless to say, the guards on horseback who sported all of the above.

Boxer, new to the drill and unbroken, looked down the football field long row of plants he had just been assigned and said, "I'm not doin' it. It's cold out here. You sent us out here to work like slaves with no warm clothes and I'm not doin' it. Call me a cab!"

Why they didn't just march him off instantly to be given a proper "attitude adjustment" in a darkened cell somewhere off to itself, I don't know. It's fairly standard practice. But they didn't. And the others quickly picked up the refrain. In a bit, the bus rolled up and the men were re-loaded and returned to the dorms, with Boxer going to the infamous Camp J (also called "the dungeons"), where he was locked in a one-man cell.

Every week or so, they would appear at the bars of his cell with a "Ready to go to work?" Solitary lockdown isn't for everybody.

"Is it spring yet?" Boxer would ask.

And when told no, he would politely decline the offer of "freedom" from the cell. Again.

I met some of his long-time friends yesterday. A couple of them didn't know what had happened to him or where he went. He's been gone from Angola since 2000 and from the prison system since early 2008. But when a prisoner is moved, it's typically done rapidly and without notice, so maintaining contacts can be tricky. One learns to roll with the punches, as it were, to have the fewest possible expectations of life, to maximize patience, to let go of frustration -- in order to survive with one's physical, mental and emotional health intact to whatever degree possible.

I was reminded of the sociological concept of "master status." Your master status is the principle role you see yourself filling. For example, I spend a LOT of time teaching and mentoring and relating to students; I'm an activist on my campus and in my community; but I think of "writer" as my master status. I revel in not teaching for a while. I engage in activism on the basis of whatever is happening to which I must respond. But when I don't write for two weeks, I get edgy. I'm a writer.

In prison, the role of prisoner (with all that entails) becomes like a creeping rot on the soul of the individual. The man or woman who spends any time at all locked up -- let alone a long period so treated -- is modified in some very characteristic ways. But if a prisoner can embrace a master status other than prisoner while incarcerated, they are, while unquestionably shut down in a thousand other ways, still able to hang on to a greater portion of their humanity. Boxer, of course, was a winning boxer and later a trainer of other winning boxers. And in a system where wardens spend real cash on their boxing teams, pitting them in competition state-wide, this was a very cool master status indeed.

One of the men I met yesterday is Jeffrey Lewis (far left in the photo above), who's been down a long time for a double manslaughter conviction and was refused parole for having a juvenile record (which he does not, in fact, have). Apparently, the latest addition to the "how-we-gonna-keep-'em-down-on-The-Farm" repetoire is having a juvenile record. Consequently, for example, a 76-year-old man who went up for parole the last time the Board met was refused release because he had a juvenile record. Which means exactly what at this late date? It's stuff like this that makes me incapable of walking away from the prisons once and for all, no matter how much of a bummer they are. What kind of society allows such a system to brutalize people in such cruel and arbitrary ways and doesn't feel in any way responsible for its actions?

In any case, Lewis has been involved with the hospice program at Angola for seven or eight years now, a program that has been ruled the number one such program in the country for five of the past eight years, from what I understand. Nationally-recognized photographer Lori Waselchuk has put together a traveling exhibit on the program entitled "Grace Before Dying", which I'd like to see brought to my university, if possible. And Lewis' master status, it occurs to me, is that of "hospice worker," which has enabled him to avoid having "prisoner" be his primary personna, in spite of his being at Angola now for a very long time.

I also met Michael Johnson and Daniel ("Phantom") Washington, two really extraordinary artists that reminded me of an idea I once had and have now rebirthed: a brokerage to handle prison art from a catalog or online website. Prisoner artists are always hamstrung by their inability to access basic art supplies, training, and exposure to other art and artists to stimulate their muse. Because of this, much prisoner art is constituted of drawings and has a particular (however accomplished) tone to it. But some artists -- inside or outside of prison walls -- just have that "x factor," that inexplicable quality that stops the viewer in his or her tracks. And Johnson and Washington are two such artists.

Johnson's painting of an arrogant Black man walking away from a dejected Black woman sitting on the side of a bed has all the earmarks of an artist with an extraordinary internal eye for the human condition embodied in and expressed by the human form. Unfortunately (and this is not peculiar to prisoner artists), Johnson has had to pander to the tastes of the folks who attend the Angola Arts and Crafts Fair -- running in the direction of children in straw hats looking at a sunset -- to the detriment of the development of his edgier and far more interesting capabilities.

Washington's nod to the hoi polloi manifests more as nicely done oil or acrylic (I never figured out the difference) studies of famous and beautiful women (why am I not surprised?). But the one I was compelled to charge (shit! I'm trying so hard not to do that these days!) and bring home where it's hanging now on our bedroom wall is a butt-kicking 24 by 30-inch painting of three women. The two in the back, under a large umbrella, are so shadowed as to look almost gone, like apparitions hovering in the background, though just behind the principle figure, which is a disgusted-looking Black woman staring aggressively into the eyes of the viewer with such potency as to leave one fixated. The strength of the piece, as well as the use of color, line and shadow, is so highly developed as to suggest the artistic breakthrough of a real talent in my mind, though what little understanding I have of what makes art "good" has come largely as a function of just hanging out with artists and loving art.

Regardless, the work of these two men is pushing me to encourage them and to create an online window to the world for them in the way of a website that would offer their work (and that of others). Obviously, I don't need something else to do, but what the heck, right? I'll sleep when I'm dead. I'd be honored to have a role in introducing interesting and extraordinary artists from inside the walls, so I wouldn't be doing them any favors.

In the meantime, meeting and talking to these and other men at Angola reminded me also of a quote I found decades ago. I came across it again last week and now I feel urged to reproduce it here:

"There will come a dreadful time in the shame-ridden history of Mankind when The Kings of the East will meet The Kings of the West on the Vast Plains. A battle for Ultimate Justice shall be waged, as all Life trembles in the Confusion between Good and Evil; while the blind existence of Mankind violently struggles and desperately searches in deep ignorance for the Final Truth. That Truth SHALL BE FOUND, but the knowledge of it will only exist in the Sinful Soul of Mankind, as the Spirit of Life rapidly descends to the Netherworld, vanishing from all memory. Nothing shall remain of Mankind's cruel glory and false pride in their greatly mistaken theories toward Civilization and in Scientific Advancement. For even as the Seed Of A Fruit creates a Tree that independently GROWS; Full Bloom, the same Tree will shed its Fruit and discard it down to Earth...and so also will Mankind's technology come to outgrow its need for Mankind. But at this End, the Harvest will turn rotten; and when the Last City erupts in its Final Blaze, it will THEN be revealed that only those who have risen ABOVE the Qualities of Mankind shall survive..." -- A.U.P.S. (circa 7000 B.C.), Thudamen*


*The Thudamen is the sacred book of the ancestors of the ancient Egyptians. This quote comes from the chapter called "The Fruits."


Anonymous said...

I bought M johnsons painting- it was the best piece there so I agree with you on that. You lost me on the quote though, a little too D&D.

changeseeker said...

You bought the painting I wrote about? Awesome! How did you happen to wind up on this blog? I feared that not everybody would connect with the quote, but I'm knocked out that you actually saw this...

Anonymous said...

I was looking up m johnson to see if I could get info on him, as I was more curious to know anything about the artist I collect

changeseeker said...

I gave Johnson my card when I was there, but have not heard from him. I subsequently attempted to reach him through another process and that has been unsuccessful to date, as well. If you'll email me at changeseeker(at) I'll send you whatever I learn. If you kept the "receipt" after buying the painting, it will have his prison number on it. You could write him at the prison using that number (his first name is Michael). And if you have it and you're willing, you could send me the number so I could write him, too. Thanks.

LaShawn Johnson said...

Michael Johnson #244283. La state penitentiary. Oak unit #3 mpwy. Angola, Louisiana 70712

changeseeker said...

Thank you, LaShawn. I appreciate it. I'll send Mike a JayPay email.

changeseeker said...

LaShawn, I tried sending an email using Michael's name and that DOC number at Angola and it wouldn't go through. Then, I realized that I have a different number for Michael already in the JayPay system, but when I wrote him, he never wrote me back, so maybe that's the wrong one, too...?