WHAT IS THE FREEHAND ARTS PROJECT?
The Freehand Arts Project is a group of volunteers committed to bringing the creative arts to people incarcerated in Texas prisons. Our program strives to address the deep wounds found in the incarceration system by providing a safe avenue for self-reflection, the opportunity to develop emotional awareness, and a supportive community. Our classes give inmates the experience of control and introspection through art, allowing them to engage in the world more confidently and authentically. Founded in 2009 by Benet Magnuson as the PRISMS program, our project employs highly qualified volunteers to teach weekly creative arts classes in Austin and Dallas jails. Our program has inspired hundreds of inmates and officers, who have created anthologies, a jailhouse newsletter and creative writing contests.
The United States locks people in prison at a higher rate than any other nation in the history of the world. It is one of the most daunting systemic problems we face, an issue of deep social inequality that wounds inmates, families, and communities. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has spent billions to build a mass incarceration system with staggering incarceration rates. Over the past 30 years, the population of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. has increased from 300,000 to over two million inmates. America’s incarceration rate is four times its historic average and seven times higher than that of any country in Western Europe.
Mass incarceration is an enormous problem, but art is one step we can take now to relieve some of the hurt incarceration has caused to inmates, to families, and to communities. Art rests at the intersection of introspection, technicality, community-building, and communication – giving it the power to address the deep wounds found in the incarceration system. Art as a craft offers individuals a chance to work hard to produce something they can be proud of. It builds technical skills and work ethic. Art as a community tool offers individuals a chance to collaborate and interact with groups to share ideas. Art is a communal experience, so whether individuals are working on a community piece or are sharing their work with others, they are building vital interpersonal skills for a socially-driven, cooperative world. Art as a communication instrument offers individuals a chance to make their voice heard. Art gives individuals the power to tell others what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling, a power that many inmates may have never really had. Art can give inmates the confidence to realize that their story is worth telling, and that they’ve got something worthwhile to give, a sense of worth.
THE FREEHAND ARTS ANTHOLOGY
By raising $500, we will be able to print 50 high-quality anthologies. These anthologies include the poetry of 15 incarcerated women who have been meeting each week for close to a year to read, write, edit, and share their work inside the Travis County Jail. The anthology will be distributed to each poet and each funder, and be made available in local Austin-area bookstores.
TEACHING POETRY IN JAIL
The first time I walked down that lonely corridor to the Multi-Purpose Room in Building 12 at the Travis County Correctional Complex, I was alone. The air was shockingly cold for a Texas winter, and the sky was a deep evening blue. I am one of the lucky members of the white middle class who had never stepped foot in a prison before that moment. Though exposed to the travails of poverty in the tiny Texas town where I spent much of my childhood, I had managed to escape the vicious maws of the criminal justice system that seized so many other wayward youths. So, in addition to being alone, I was also terrified — two sentiments every inmate undoubtedly feels their first night inside. I, however, was free. I had come to a place so many people relentlessly cycle in and out of, and spend much of their lives perpetually evading. Like so many poets I love, I felt a calling to bring my art to the people who need it most. Despite the harsh tone of the guards that night, the endless white hallways, and the shock of a classroom full of students dressed in the timeless black and white striped uniform of the oppressed poor, I managed to teach an hour and a half of poetry. Over the next year, I would come to anticipate these classes with great joy. Even on days when I was terribly sick, reeling from heartbreak, or at the end of my wits from an infuriating boss, I would pack two books in my bag and make the 30-minute drive to Del Valle, Texas. There, I would be welcomed with warm smiles from eager students with poems itching to find paper. They became my friends, my colleagues, my sure-fire cure for life's beatings. There are not enough words to detail how these weekly poetry sessions changed my life. The women whose work you will read in this book are exceptional. There are far more arts programs for incarcerated men than women, which means the few voices we do hear from the inside are subject to the same patriarchal leanings of the rest of our society. But, women do not write like men. In these poems, you will hear stories of motherhood, heartbreak, regret, repentance, body image, sex, lesbian love, childhood abuse, fear, and deep friendship. Because the nature of county jail is temporary, there were many more poems I would like to include, but their authors abruptly departed before the publication of this book. Some went home, some went to state facilities. I certainly hope none of them will be back. I want to thank each of my students for their enthusiastic attention, willingness to be vulnerable, and for reminding me every week who poetry is for: the injured, the suffering, the dispossessed, the survivors. You have healed me by sharing a small part of your lives, and I hope you will always turn to poetry when you are in need of a cure. Keep writing.
Risks and challenges
As soon as we get funding secured, this project is going to happen. In incarcerated life, time is of the essence.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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