Work > Writing

Co-Editor - Prison/Culture

96 pages, paperback, 11'' x 9''
City Lights Foundation Books (December 2009)
ISBN: 1931404119
Click here to purchase book

Over two million individuals are behind bars in U.S. prisons, living in isolation from their families and their communities. Prison/Culture investigates the culture of incarceration as an integral part of the American experience through a compilation of stunning and often heartrending art by inmates, as well as artists on the outside, such as Sandow Birk and Keith Antar Mason, who address incarceration, criminal profiling, wrongful conviction, prison labor, and the death penalty. The book also includes essays on prisons and prison art by Angela Davis and Mike Davis, and poetry by Amiri Baraka, Ericka Huggins, Luis Rodriguez, Sesshu Foster, and more.

by Deborah Cullinan and Kurt Daw

In February 2008, the Pew Center on the States issued an astonishing report on the contemporary levels of incarceration within the United States. As well as indicating that one in one hundred U.S. adults were currently in prison, the report, titled “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,” reveals how the impact on specific communities is even more acute. Clearly this is a hard time to be a young person of color in America. One in nine African American males aged 20 to 34 are incarcerated, and large percentages of young Latino and Native American men are also jailed. Pew’s March 2009 follow-up showed that one in thirty-one Americans - that’s more than five million people - were on probation or parole, and the United States now leads the world in its population behind bars: 2,245,189, or 1 percent of all adults, plus 3.2 percent living under criminal justice supervision. What could any art exhibition bring to the recognition of this stark and grim reality?

This book represents several years of dialog on incarceration and culture in America, a process that resulted in two related exhibitions and a host of public programs in San Francisco, California, in 2007 and 2008. Utilizing our strengths as arts organizations and as artists, we wanted to make tangible some of the profound ways that imprisonment manifests and reverberates in our society. Through a collaboration between San Francisco State University and Intersection for the Arts, we were presented with an opportunity to address and challenge traditional barriers - between “inside” and “outside,” between “professional” and “amateur,” between institutions and people - and to bring marginalized and misunderstood stories to light. Indeed, this was an opportunity to imagine and empower realities different from those we have been encouraged to accept.

Criminal: Art and Criminal Justice in America, the exhibition at San Francisco State University, featured the work of noted artists who have explored such issues in their work. Bringing together powerful and sophisticated painting, photography, sculpture, and installation from across the country, this exhibition was initially proposed by University Gallery Manager Sharon E. Bliss, who served as its curator with University Gallery Director Mark Dean Johnson. A host of campus affiliates, including the departments of Criminal Justice Studies and Sociology, the Poetry Center, Associated Students, and Project Rebound, played critical roles, especially in an all-day public symposium. The Prison Project exhibition at Intersection for the Arts concurrently featured California artists and, significantly, included work created by artists working both inside and outside regional state and federal prisons. Principally organized by Kevin B. Chen, Program Director for Visual Arts, Literary, and Jazz at Intersection, and in collaboration with Education and Community engagement Program Director Rebeka Rodriguez and advisors, this exhibition was part of an ambitious and far-ranging two-year, organization-wide initiative. The Prison Project was initiated in the summer of 2006, in response to a serendipitous array of artists, activists, and organizations who had approached intersection with the desire to create collaborations that would address the elaborate criminal justice system in our state. each collaborator - whether working in visual arts or poetry, new jazz composition, dance, or theater - set out, from very distinctive artistic and conceptual starting points, to consider the reality of the prison industrial complex and its effects on the human beings, families, and communities both inside and outside of prison.

While this publication includes images and texts drawn from both exhibitions, it is more than a straightforward catalog. Juxtaposing work by professional artists with artists who are working inside a prison, the book challenges us to rethink notions of community and culture. It presents poems, selected by San Francisco State University Poetry Center Director Steve Dickison, by poets Amiri Baraka, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Chuck Culhane, George-Thérèse Dickenson, Sesshu Foster, Robert Hayden, Jack Hirschman, Ericka Huggins, Keith Antar Mason, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Janine Pommy Vega, that further amplify the issues. it also features an extended interview with photographer Deborah Luster, in conversation with San Francisco State University Criminal Justice Studies faculty Lizbet Simmons, and a beautifully provocative suite of drawings created expressly for reproduction here by artist and activist Rigo 23. in addition, composer Howard Wiley’s Angola Project jazz suite is discussed, and placed alongside excerpts from the related theatrical production, A Place to Stand, a new work by Campo santo that adapts writings by Jimmy Santiago Baca and Ntozake Shange and forges them into an original and moving theater experience. Rounding out this book are two revelatory essays by renowned California scholars Angela Y. Davis and Mike Davis, who each challenge the embeddedness of the prison industry in American society.

Ultimately, this book is about the ways that these artists, poets, and scholars bring into focus contradictions between criminal justice and social justice. For those who care to regard this horrifying and so often invisible aspect of our contemporary American experience, such uses of art and activism, and the cultivation of shared cultural space that challenges the separation of art and daily life, can encourage a sense of participation, of communion. This project exemplifies ways that artists, arts organizations, and educational institutions might grapple with the most difficult realities, generating ideas and mapping pathways to a better future. Work of this order, conceived on the premise that the best solutions to the challenges we face in our communities and country will originate from inspiration, imagination, creativity, and collaboration, can bring vital issues into public dialog, and possibly even engage society to rethink its own failed paradigms.