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Breaking the cycle: Artist helps change inmates’ post-prison lives

Gregory Sale, a professor at Arizona State University, is in his final weeks of a retreat in Saratoga. The Lucas Artist resident at Montalvo Arts Center has been here since early June working on expanding the mindset of incarcerated men and women to imagine their lives outside of prison.

“I’m working with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, this incredible advocacy group that’s really trying to promote justice reform and safer communities,” Sale explained over the phone. “And so we’re hoping to visualize some of the good policy and advocacy work that they’re doing, add a visual component, a cultural and visual component to their work, and hopefully help amplify it and expand it.”

If that sounds big-picture and esoteric, that’s the point. The work Sale does is primarily aimed at changing world views, starting with personal ones.

Sale has worked side by side with individuals who have conviction histories for serious crimes, survived jail and prison and are now rebuilding their lives with the help of support networks, policy advocacy and art.

One art project called “Future IDs,” involves individuals drawing out their prison identification cards on large pieces of paper, then juxtaposing them beside new identification cards, like ones for college or a new job.

The question they’re hoping to answer is, “Can arts and culture help reframe the narrative of re-entry?”

Sale and members of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition are bringing the “Future IDs” project to San Quentin, where they’ll also be running a workshop Sale is preparing curriculum for. A group of men who are incarcerated at San Quentin have volunteered to be a part of the workshop.

Montalvo offers big thinkers like Sale a chance to step away from their every day and imagine. Resident artists are recommended from around the world and then invited to spend three months working on a project. Sale is here on his final month, which he elected to take one month at a time over the course of a few years.

“It’s a reflection thing that I’m able to do here,” Sale said. “That’s hard to do in my regular life and sometimes hard to do in the moment of engagement and activity. So I’ve gotten clearer on the questions I need to bring back to the co-collaborators. It’s about thinking through things—a reflection and refinement piece.”

Playing a key-facilitator role and co-authoring major projects, Sale says it’s been good to have some time to step away from his life and reflect on what it is that he and his co-collaborators are doing. He’s also been able to invite some of his collaborators to be with him in the hills for a couple days at a time, so that they can work together as a team during that reflection process.

The type of work that Sale does, connecting art with criminal justice reform, can be a challenging concept to grapple with, he says. Rather than serving as actionable change toward policy reform, it changes things on an individual basis, which not only changes the collective narrative of re-entry but can in turn have policy effects down the road.

At Montalvo’s June Open Access Event, Sale showed a video clip of Anti-Recidivism Coalition member Dominique Bell telling the story of when he shared his “Future ID” project with a busy U.S. senator.

“‘Listen, you don’t have a lot of time. I just want to show you something,’” Bell said to the senator in the clip. “And I reached into my pocket and pulled out my old prison ID. He looked at it, and then I went in my other pocket and showed him this college ID. And I said, ‘This is the different side. That is the difference.’ And (the senator) responded, ‘Enough said.’”

Also speaking at the Open Access event was Michael Mendoza, who was formerly incarcerated and is now a political science student at San Francisco State University. He discussed the ways art helped him reframe his own narrative while he was incarcerated at age 15 for a total of 17 years.

“Within our institutions, there are not a lot of rehabilitative programs that we have access to, especially in the higher-level maximum security prison programs,” Mendoza said. “So you take up little hobbies of your own. … For me it was art, it was expressing my anger and expressing whatever emotions my situation was causing me to deal with. For a lot of years, I was able to build on my imaginations of who I wanted to be as a person.”

Mendoza’s narrative is the essence of what the “Future IDs” project embodies. He now works with an organization called #cut50 to establish new Senate bills that allow fairer sentencing and more opportunities for parole for young people who are incarcerated.

When people who are incarcerated can make sense of who they want to be upon their re-entry, it gives them an incentive to make the moves to get out. So Sale’s question of whether arts and culture can help reframe the narrative of re-entry is answered through anecdotal evidence.

Brandy Miceli
The Mercury News

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