What are human rights to the incarcerated?

click to enlarge Alex Koehler's illustration of UDHR Article 12 as seen in Carving Out Rights - ALEX KOEHLER/COURTESY HAT & BEARD PRESS

  • Alex Koehler’s illustration of UDHR Article 12 as seen in Carving Out Rights
  • Alex Koehler/courtesy Hat & Beard Press

“Art helps to free people even while incarcerated,” Renaldo Hudson says in the new book Carving Out Rights from Inside the Prison Industrial Complex. Hudson should know. In September 2020, he was released from Danville Correctional Center, after spending 37 years behind bars. “There’s a tremendous amount of freedom when you can say what you want to say with your art, do what you want to do with it,” Hudson continues. “Prison may restrict the tools you use to express yourself, but it can’t restrict your expression.”

The importance of art to the incarcerated is made plain in Carving Out Rights, published in February by Hat and Beard Press, as well as in another recent book Prisoners’ Inventions, published in December by Half Letter Press. Carving Out Rights is built around a class taught at Stateville Prison where student artists created block prints for each of the 30 articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Prisoners’ Inventions takes a more off-the-wall approach. It’s composed of drawings and descriptions of the ingenious improvisations that incarcerated people undertake to meet their wants and needs in the purposely grim, inhospitable environment of prisons. While these books look at the creativity of incarcerated people in completely different ways—the former taking a sober, more legalistic viewpoint, the latter taking an often humorous tack—both highlight the lack of access to even the most basic human rights: adequate food and shelter, proper health care, not being held in servitude, or subjected to cruel or inhuman treatment.

The class at Stateville was taught by artist Aaron Hughes, as part of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project (PNAP). PNAP is a wide-ranging organization that connects teachers with incarcerated students at Stateville Maximum Security Prison in Crest Hill, Illinois, about an hour’s drive southwest of Chicago. Hughes borrowed the idea for the printmaking project from Meredith Stern, a Providence, Rhode Island-based artist, and a colleague of Hughes’s from the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative.

The PNAP version of the project was rudimentary, due to the prison’s rules around materials. Block printing is typically done using wood or linoleum. First, you draw an inverse image of what you want your print to look like. Using transfer paper, you then trace your design onto the block. Next you carve out the image on the block, before finally applying your ink or paint and stamping your image onto the paper or other material. In Hughes’s class, the images were carved into Styrofoam blocks using pens and pencils, the sharpest tools the prison would allow. The ink was rolled onto scraps of cardboard, and the artists pressed the prints onto the paper by hand. Knowing the bare-bones way these prints were made makes them all the more remarkable.

Article 12, which touches on one’s right to privacy, is portrayed in an incredibly detailed print by Alex Koehler. The text of the article takes up the top half, clearly laid out in all caps, while the bottom half shows a pair of eyes staring out of a desktop computer, set atop a table which reads “Your Privacy is Our Own.” Similarly, the illustration for article 20, by Charles McLaurin, is impeccable; the lettering looks almost computer-generated. Below the text, on the right to peaceful assembly, are three split scenes of people gathering, while in the foreground spectators look on.

click to enlarge Charles McLaurin's illustration of UDHR Article 20 as seen in Carving Out Rights - CHARLES MCLAURIN/COURTESY HAT & BEARD PRESS

  • Charles McLaurin’s illustration of UDHR Article 20 as seen in Carving Out Rights
  • Charles McLaurin/courtesy Hat & Beard Press

The book does not consist solely of these prints. There are also poems and essays from teachers and students at Stateville, among others. An essay by Barbara Ransby, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, on her experience teaching at Stateville was particularly affecting. In it, she candidly walks the reader through her preconceived ideas of what teaching incarcerated men will be like, as well as what the process really is: the pat downs, the surveillance, the chipped walls, but also, the engaged, thoughtful students who all seemed to truly cherish the time they were able to spend engaged in learning and debate. Though Ransby makes it clear that any growth the students experienced behind bars occurred “despite the prison environment, not because of it.”

It was then striking to read, in Hudson’s interview in Carving Out Rights with Alice Kim, the director of human rights practice at the University of Chicago’s Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, that people sentenced to life without parole don’t get access to education privileges like taking classes or getting a GED. As Hudson tells it, those with shorter sentences take precedence for such privileges. Hudson, who served 13 years on death row, then had his sentence commuted to life without parole before receiving clemency, can speak directly to the experience of being told you have no hope of being free. “No one should be placed in a state of mind in which they have no hope,” Hudson tells Kim. “The inhumanity of having a life sentence is that you don’t belong to yourself. You’re telling me that the only way my family will have possession of me again is through me dying.”

Throughout the interview, the two discuss how life without parole is increasingly regarded as a violation of article 5 of the UDHR (“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”). Even so, arguing for an end to such inhumane treatment can be difficult, as the declaration isn’t legally binding in the U.S. It exists more as a guidepost, or an ideal to strive for, though it has paved the way for the fight for human rights around the world and was instrumental in shaping our understanding of human rights following World War II.

The UDHR, though largely shaped by western thought—Eleanor Roosevelt spearheaded the committee—was drafted in 1948 by representatives from all regions of the world. Its creation followed closely behind the formation of the United Nations, which was necessitated by the desire to maintain peace during and after World War II. That the U.S. could back such a sweeping statement of human rights while still maintaining draconian Jim Crow laws was not lost on African Americans. An essay by Christophe Ringer notes how the National Negro Congress and the NAACP both mounted international campaigns in the 40s aimed at highlighting the human rights abuses against Black people. (Ringer also notes that Eleanor Roosevelt, then an NAACP board member, did not support this effort.) Two subsequent efforts to bring these abuses to light had more success. In 1951, activist William Patterson delivered a report to the U.N., titled “We Charge Genocide,” which documented the racial and state-sanctioned murders against Black Americans. This act led the way, in 2014, to a new report documenting a pattern of police torture by the Chicago Police Department. Written by a Chicago-based group dubbed We Charge Genocide, in homage to Patterson’s earlier work, the document was presented to the U.N. in Geneva, and eventually resulted in a historic reparations package for survivors of police torture. Including this history of agitation, this incremental progress is crucial not only to this book, but to PNAP’s mission, to ensure that the most impacted people must be at the center of any fight for rights.

The violation of human rights is just as apparent in Prisoners’ Inventions, though here the violations make themselves apparent in more commonplace ways. The book is a collaboration between Half Letter Press, the publishing imprint of Temporary Services, and a formerly incarcerated artist who went by the moniker Angelo. (Angelo passed away in 2016.) Angelo started as a pen pal to Marc Fischer, who runs Temporary Services along with Brett Bloom. Angelo often sent along detailed illustrations that depicted historical scenes, and sometimes included descriptions of inventions he had seen in prison. Eventually, Temporary Services had the idea to put together a booklet illustrating these inventions, resulting in numerous exhibitions as well as an earlier version of this book that was published in 2003 by WhiteWalls, but has long since been out of print. The new book is completely re-envisioned and includes new drawings, a new foreword, and blueprints Angelo drew of his cell.

click to enlarge Blueprint of Angelo's prison cell featured in Prisoners' Inventions - COURTESY TEMPORARY SERVICES

  • Blueprint of Angelo’s prison cell featured in Prisoners’ Inventions
  • courtesy Temporary Services

Bloom and Fischer had long fielded calls to reprint the book, and felt it was important to reissue in part to keep Angelo’s memory alive. “I do think that we felt an underlying urgency with the murder of George Floyd and the exploding discussion around police and prison abolition, that now was an important time to reprint this,” Bloom told me over e-mail. “Our thinking as a group has moved from where it was with the initial printing to a solidly abolitionist understanding of prison and its overwhelming disservice to our society.”

In the new printing, Temporary Services could be more explicit with their anti-carceral politics. When Angelo was still incarcerated, there was a need to avoid explicit politicization in order to maintain his safety.

The inventions are organized by category—home furnishings, personal maintenance—and each is depicted with a detailed technical illustration and a brief description. In an introduction, written for the first edition, Angelo marvels at both the inventions themselves and at the resiliency of inmates to undertake such projects in the first place. The materials for these objects must be either painstakingly acquired over time, such as emptied cigarette lighters or the glue from pastry containers, or cobbled together by whatever raw materials are around. He notes that anything that can be altered is considered contraband, and “can be confiscated on sight.” Thus, many inventions are made, confiscated, then made all over again in a never-ending cycle. As Angelo notes, “The prison environment is designed and administered for the purpose of suppressing such inventiveness.”

As the reader will come to see, many inventions do in fact seem essential. Take, for example, the need to make an ad hoc pillow, as most inmates don’t receive one. Angelo recommends a plastic bag filled with air, or a pillowcase stuffed with clothes. Both of these are out of the question, however, if one is in the even more spartan “administrative segregation,” where, due to the cold temperature, Angelo resorts to rolling one end of the mattress and curling into a fetal position, which is “a warmer way to sleep.” Similarly, there are multiple designs for air vent covers, needed so you have some degree of control over the temperature of your room. These range from plugging each individual vent hole with paper to creating an elaborate, removable cardboard cover.

Several seem incredibly dangerous, and in fact, the publishers include a cautionary tale not to try these at home. There are “toilet paper bombs,” which involves setting fire to rolls of toilet paper, putting them under a metal object that conducts heat, such as a shelf, and then putting whatever food you are trying to heat on the metal. In this way, meals like grilled cheese can be made. Others involved making impromptu appliances, such as an immersion heater or a cigarette lighter, using paper clips or razor blades as makeshift electrical plugs.

click to enlarge Angelo's drawing of his cigarette lighter invention - COURTESY TEMPORARY SERVICES

  • Angelo’s drawing of his cigarette lighter invention
  • courtesy Temporary Services

Many more were purely fanciful or for personal enjoyment. Angelo describes the popularity of homemade picture frames, stipple-brushed portraits, and a cottage industry of embellished pages for stationery. He creates neat containers to house his drawing pencils and narrows the tips of paint brushes with masking tape in order to get more use out of them. He uses paper to make a game of memory based on an Atari game he played at home. One of the most heartbreaking descriptions is for “An Ad. Seg. Christmas,” where Angelo’s cellmate wants some sort of Christmas tree. “These words immediately triggered a flashback to a time when I was about five, and my mom wowed me by making a Christmas tree out of rolled newspaper,” Angelo writes. The men decide to use “inmate 602 Appeal forms,” which are on green paper. You roll the paper up the long way, tear it lengthwise about halfway down, and then gently pull on the center strips. The resulting drawing resembles more of a palm tree, but it seems to have satisfied the cellmate’s desire for a holiday.

Article 27 of the UDHR reads, in part, “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” It is notable that the arts were considered important enough to enshrine in this document. A 2019 report from the World Health Organization found evidence on the value of the arts in the promotion of good health and well-being. While it is clear from these books that at least some incarcerated people do enjoy the arts, they are not doing so freely. To echo Barbara Ransby, any enjoyment or cultural participation is undertaken despite the realities of incarceration, not because of them. Or as one of Angelo’s cellmates, Ron, put it, “It’s the cops’ job to keep us down, and ours to show them that they can’t.”

What these books also make clear is the extent to which the human rights of those behind bars is violated every day in this country. In ways large and small, we send the message that the incarcerated are less than human. Despite that constant degradation, those inside prison walls fight everyday to carve out rights, to resist their dehumanization. But they can’t succeed without the support of those of us on the outside, which is why projects like these are crucial as tools of education and awareness, as ways to bring to our attention what has been purposely put outside of our fields of vision. Just as PNAP’s students learn to build alternative modes of autonomy in their classes at Stateville, we can learn to disentangle what we’ve been taught about what justice and healing look like, what it means to be human and deserving of dignity.   v

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