The Prison Project took place in the summer of 2014. Twenty-two YSA youth met with local, Senior Artist JR Furst to discuss the topic of Freedom. JR has been sending hand-written letters to a Louisiana inmate named Glen Robinson since November 2012. Based on their correspondence, the youth engaged in a dialogue about the issues surrounding harsh sentencing for crimes and the resulting loss of freedom. The project aimed to build awareness of Mr. Robinson’s mistakes, and encourage more youth to recognize and appreciate their freedom. The project also provided the youth with opportunities to interact with other citizens and engage in a dialog about local issues of freedom.
Every Tuesday, JR came to the studio to talk. One young woman said:
“JR brought in letters from his friend Glen Robinson who was in jail for armed robbery. He wants to share his experiences to stop the next Glen Robinson, so they don’t end up where he is. For instance, Mr. Robinson wrote to JR, “I’ve been in this box for years, but I’ve always maintained my ability to think outside this box. Even when I was trap’d in my house, surrounded by 20+ police, I thought outside the box. I knew there was a possibility that I’d die in prison, but I chose to ‘take my ride’ anyways. Other folks might’ve opened fire and ended it there. But I chose to come to prison because I knew what I did was wrong, and that it was time to man up and face the music.”
“It helped me think about my life more about what I want to do with it. It makes me want to help people more, lead them way from a life of crime.”
The youth took Mr. Robinson’s thoughts to heart. Because of the Prison Project, the youth began to appreciate that every choice made is an exercise of freedom, even if it leads to negative consequences, such as going to prison. They held many different discussions about what freedom meant to them. One youth said,
“I learned good morals about how we view people in society, how institutions affect viewpoints. Glen Robinson told us: ‘you don’t have to be in jail to be doing time.’ That taught me to view society in a whole different way. It makes you feel more aware of restrictions and limitations.”
The youth also began to appreciate that freedom means something different to everyone. A youth affirmed,
“I thought that was interesting because you got so many different perspectives. It’s never the same for any two people. I got to self-reflect a lot because I never really thought about what freedom means to me.”
Another one of the lessons Mr. Robinson preached was: “True freedom is freeing yourself from your most notable enemy—YOURSELF. If we pay close attention to our lives, we’ll see that 75% of our problems are caused by ourselves.” Many youth agreed with this assertion. A youth said:
“I thought: freedom is the space to just listen to my own heart beat and follow my own mind without crazy barriers around me. Sometimes you’re the biggest enemy. You can hold yourself back. I can say that it got me to realize my fears mostly. Thinking about freedom you start thinking about boundaries, and how they’re created by fears. You start to see what fears are unnecessary, and once you make goals to break down those fears, you expand and you grow yourself, and you give yourself a chance to achieve opportunities that have been waiting for you the whole time. And that’s freedom.”
At the same time, youth made art in response to the letters. Over fifty pieces of art came out of those sessions. The art came as participants began asking: “what is it about freedom that gets you to fight for it?” It also connected them to their peers and made them feel close to someone they had never met:
“I related to Glen a lot: ‘The mask that you choose to wear for others is the mask you wear to fool yourself.’ If you lie to others, you’re lying to yourself. We would read Glen Robinson’s letters. Then, we would make art that reflected those words.”
In the fall of 2014, the project continued with doing ‘Actions.’ The youth took on the role of Social Advocate. They had to confront their fears of talking to strangers, and used art as the medium. They went to the mall, famers markets, flea markets, and subway stations to talk to people about Glen’s story as well as relate it to Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative (a measure that passed on the California ballot November 4). One youth describes his experience:
“I am not really social, but the project encouraged me to act with other people. There was this one guy in downtown Berkeley. No, it was a couple. They asked us what we were doing. It was kind of cool that they like it and asked for a flier.”
Through these conversations they built awareness: “There was this one story about a guy who got sent to jail, because there was drugs in the car or something like that. He got 15 years. The drugs weren’t his. They were just in his car.” They also learned to listen to different opinions, circling politics: “[the other advocates] were ranting saying that we should vote no on D.” Measure D, a City of Berkeley Sugary Beverages and Soda Tax, was another freedom initiative the youth learned about through talks with others. They did not always hold the same opinion as the people they spoke to and it became a good exercise in listening.
Over twenty youth participated in the Beyond this Prison Project for 6 months. The youth engaged in discussions that evolved from hand written letters from a prison, learned about the criminal justice system and considered the implications of Proposition 47. They went on ‘Actions’ in over 5 different locations where they spoke with the public about Freedom. These experiences brought hope: “What I learned from it was youth who are basically going down the wrong path, they can be saved. We just have to get them on the right path.” Through self-reflection, community talks, and advocacy, the youth chose to play a part in Proposition 47 passing. They learned to appreciate their use of freedom of speech.