How to Serve Those Who Are Serving

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Prison Obscura exhibit at Newspace sees the need for humanity to revise Justice.

Around 8 p.m. on the Sunday before last, I pulled my bike to the side of Interstate Avenue and stood in the gust of a maroon sedan speeding past, followed by a dozen police cars, sirens wailing. The chase pushed through the red light at the Rosa Parks intersection, blazing north on Interstate. Fleeting chaos; light traffic came to a halt and people came outside to watch, but before long, the sirens faded and quiet returned.

I was on my way home from Re-Envisioning Justice: What is Between Reform and Abolition of the Criminal Justice System? a discussion at Newspace Center for Photography in southeast Portland. It was presented in conjunction with the current exhibit, Prison Obscura, photography show curated by Pete Brook, combining audio, video and text features to portray inside the prison system.

So on Interstate after the talk, my mind darted to the future and the probable incarceration of the person driving that shaky old Honda. I was left guessing at the stranger’s life. What had informed that moment when he sped up? The momentum of that decision accelerates like the car, impossible to turn back and harder to slow down.

A report from KGW informed me that the driver and one passenger were arrested. They may spend some time in prison, joining the 2.3 million incarcerated people of the United States. How will their experiences there serve them

Reenvisioning justice panel

“Re-Envisioning Justice: What is Between Reform and Abolition of the Criminal Justice System?” Panel discussion at Newspace Center for Photography, April 24, 2016. Image courtesy Newspace Center for Photography. Left to Right: Stallings, Squires, Salazar, Puracal and Amir

Heading the discussion at Newspace were people who spend much of their time with the incarcerated. They are bringing art programs to prisons and trying to improve communication, providing conversation as a tool. Maybe they are just trying to make the inside resemble the outside, what the outside could be. They present the idea that prison offers nothing but to serve people on the outside with a sense of safety, as an archaic, inhumane, and illogical one. It does no good if the door to a better life only opens on one side. Prison should serve the incarcerated with opportunity, second chances that may actually be their first shots.

It does no good if the door to a better life only opens on one side.

Beginning the discussion was Janis Puracal, a lawyer who co-founded the Oregon Innocence Project. Her brother was wrongfully imprisoned and served time in a Nicaraguan jail and working on his case led to the founding of OIP’s mission: free innocent people and prevent future erroneous incarceration by reforming the conviction process. She pointed out that faulty science is as much to blame as flawed eye-witness reports.

Melissa Salazar instructs a non-violent communication class at Columbia River Correctional Institution as part of the Oregon Prison Project. Her brother is incarcerated in Texas. She emails him, they get into arguments. At CRCI, she’s observed students going from, “my wife is crazy” to saying, “I am hurt” after a few sessions. Most people in prison who she’s spoken to say they are worried how we will treat them when they get out, not how they will treat us.

Artist Emily Squires spoke about volunteering at CRCI, leading art projects such as 30 Flags. It’s an art installation where inmates designed flags to hang in the common area of the prison. She spoke largely about the logistics of making art on the inside — no scissors, 24 hour surveillance and how these considerations effect the process.

When the last speaker, Johnny Stallings shared his philosophy about the prison system, I imagined fists unclenching everywhere. He quoted the Buddha, “In this world, hate doesn’t dispel hate, love dispels hate.” His love and warmth hovered above him while he spoke like a rainbow colored lightbulb, this compassion the best idea we could all hear.

“To punish someone after imprisoning them is counter-intuitive,” he said. He assured us there is a difference between justice and the criminal justice system. We need nurturing, he said, and asked us to imagine receiving “blows instead of hugs” upon first stepping into this world, recalling the childhoods of too many inmates. “It’s overdetermined — how could they not end up there [in prison]?”

Projected slides displayed what his organization, Open Hearts Open Minds, does inside prisons here in Oregon. At the Two Rivers Correctional Institution, “Hamlet” was performed by inmates. His images showed men in full costume, standing in grand poses fitting for the Shakespeare prose, smiling. Johnny speaks over the slides, “he’s in for life.” Another slide, “he gets out in a few weeks.” Another slide, a man kneeling down smiling and meeting a little girl’s eyes, “he’s in for life.”

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Installation view of Prison Obscura at Newspace Center for Photography. Image courtesy Jim Garrison.

These speakers see people in prison as people. Not as threats, or lost causes, or as the discarded trimmings of an otherwise perfectly just and functioning society. Newspace Executive Director Tricia Hoffman and Curator Yaelle S. Amir say that the nonprofit seeks to include discussions which accompany current exhibits to further connect their audiences to the subject matter. Prison Obscura shows inmates’ humanity as fact, no sentimental flourish or abstraction.

I didn’t write much about it here but it’s up all May. I will say that there is something exotic about the photos, even set within the stark background that fit expectation, along with deep-lined unsmiling faces. You recognize the human being as such in the picture but the scope of imagination hits a wall. Understanding life in seclusion is as inaccessible as knowing the wilds of a jungle. 

That Sunday as the caravan of sirens blared from behind, a guy stopped near me on his bike, and we watched the hot pursuit plow on. “They’re going to have a bad night.” He said in my direction. “I think it’s going to extend beyond tonight,” I said, reflexively.

Prison Obscura is on display at Newspace until May 28th.




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