How I Spent My Summer Vacation in Prison
by Julia CarnesI never planned on going to prison this summer. I was going to Los Angeles. I was going to work at an art museum. I was going to interact with kids. This was the Plan, and I loved it! This Plan made sense—I work at the Yale University Art Gallery and am considering a museum job post-graduation; last summer I interned at a nonprofit that served local youth, and I think underserved kids deserve more attention.
But life happens, and life changes plans, and life changed my Plan. The art museum in Los Angeles determined it did not want an intern, and I started scrambling. The scrambling led me to contact Johnny Stallings, the founder and executive director of Open Hearts, Open Minds, which is a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that leads discussions and jam sessions and theater rehearsals in the community. More specifically, in the prison community.
I was reticent. This was not the Plan. This was not Los Angeles, this was not an art museum, this was not youth. But Johnny was convincing, and the OHOM mission statement drew me in further: “Open Hearts Open Minds’ mission is to nurture inner transformation through dialogue, silence, education and the arts, in order to promote peace, love and understanding.” It sounded blissful, pertinent not only to my academic study of the arts and my passion for expanding access to the arts, but also to my general state of mind as a 21 year old trying to Figure It Out. Soon I was on a plane to Portland.
Here is what I knew about my summer: I would visit three prisons every week.
Here is what I knew about prison: nothing.
My summer, at least, had an outline, had names and places—there was Columbia River Correctional Institution, a minimum security male prison that had an arts and dialogue group with a focus on music. Then there was Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, a minimum security women’s prison with a theater program; the inmates there had recently wrapped up a production of Twelve Angry Women. Finally, there was Two Rivers Correctional Institution, a medium security male prison with two programs, one a dialogue group and the other a theater group which had been putting on Shakespeare plays for the past several years and was currently working on Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman.
As far as prison went, though, I had no idea what I was walking into. I knew that Orange is the New Black existed but had never seen it. I took a course on African-American history last fall, and we read a chapter of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, a book that argues that mass incarceration is the modern-day equivalent of Jim Crow law. Perhaps, then, I felt a hint of sympathy heading into my summer experience—mixed with a healthy dose of anxiety, followed by frustration at myself for being anxious in the first place. If I had no expectations of what it would be like inside the prison, how could I be anxious?
Reflecting on it now, I don’t think it was just my fear of what might happen inside a prison that worried me. I was worried about my privilege that led me to enter prison in the first place. Here I was, a white student from Yale, spending my summer watching prisoners make art. I was worried there would be a chasm separating me from everyone else.
Fortunately, Johnny gave me a long reading list before I started, a list I took seriously and am still working to finish. The first book I read from that list, Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle, ended up being the cornerstone of my summer. The book is about Gregory Boyle’s experience working with gangs in Los Angeles, but it is really about boundless compassion and pure love. Boyle focuses on expanding the circle of compassion so that it includes every single being, a circle of which we must be a part if we are truly committed to loving everyone. This idea of boundless compassion was important to Johnny and the OHOM mission, and it gave me a framework for my entire experience.
So I went to prison. Though each program had a slightly different focus, they were rooted in inclusion, in love, in expanding the circle. The volunteers and I would sit in a circle with the inmates, all of us together and equal. Sometimes we would come in with an idea for that week’s dialogue or rehearsal, a poem we wanted to read aloud or a topic we wanted to discuss. Sometimes we would come in with no plan at all, hoping that we would organically pick up on a theme. Even if there had a been a plan in the first place, organic discussions always occurred, and they were always thoughtful. And we all participated—it was less of a teacher-student relationship and more of a co-teaching environment, a space of equality and mutual respect. I still thought and talked about privilege, but there was no fear in it, only awareness.
I started writing songs. I had finished about two songs ever up to this point in my life, always too self-conscious to start writing or too frustrated to finish. But I wrote twelve songs this summer, and I absolutely have the people I met to thank. Every week I watched inmates perform breathtaking covers and brutally honest originals—raps about growing up on the streets, poems about unrequited love, and song after song after song, raw and emotional. The inmates created content, and it was good content, remarkably good. And when I started writing, I came in and performed what I wrote. They were respectful and encouraging, and on more than one occasion I wrote a song that was directly inspired by something one of them had said. In fact, I wrote an autobiographical song about my experience, written just in time for my last week so I could perform it for all of them. (If you’re interested, you can find it here: https://soundcloud.com/jcarnz/open-hearts-open-minds.)
I could write way more about my experience, stories about the people I met and stories shared by the people I met, but instead I will shift to what this summer means for my future. At first I thought this was a random, if cool, opportunity, but I already see how it is connected to what I have done and what I want to do. It’s simple: I want to expand access to the arts. Art is a valuable tool for self-expression, and I want everyone to get the chance to see it and make it. Had I gone to Los Angeles, I would have been working towards this goal; my current jobs at the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art are aligned with it; my extracurricular involvement with groups like Hear Your Song and Whim’n Rhythm are geared towards it as well. I am also thrilled to say that I hope to write an advocacy paper for arts-in-prison programming for my senior thesis in American Studies.
I am deeply grateful to the Yale Glee Club for their support through the Marshall Bartholomew Summer Arts Fellowship, especially their flexibility concerning my Plan. Thanks to this fellowship, I was able to contribute to Open Hearts, Open Minds through my unpaid internship, and I now have a sense of direction as I enter my senior year, having spent the summer learning more about prison and art and compassion than I could have imagined.