In the classic book by Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, the main character, Dantes, is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit and spends years of his life in solitary confinement with no relief. I remember reading the passage and imagining the hopelessness of the situation:
“He descended fifteen steps, and the door of a dungeon was opened, and he was thrust in. The door closed, and Dantes advanced with outstretched hands until he touched the wall; he then sat down in the corner until his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. The jailer was right; Dantes wanted but little of being utterly mad…Then gloom settled heavily upon him. Dantes was a man of great simplicity of thought, and without education; he could not, therefore, in the solitude of his dungeon, traverse in mental vision the history of the ages, bring to life the nations that had perished, and rebuild the ancient cities so vast and stupendous in the light of the imagination, and that pass before the eye glowing with celestial colors in Martin’s Babylonian pictures. He could not do this, he whose past life was so short, whose present so melancholy, and his future so doubtful. Nineteen years of light to reflect upon in eternal darkness! No distraction could come to his aid; his energetic spirit, that would have exalted in thus revisiting the past, was imprisoned like an eagle in a cage. He clung to one idea—that of his happiness, destroyed, without apparent cause, by an unheard–of fatality; he considered and reconsidered this idea, devouring it.”
For those wrongfully imprisoned, or even rightfully imprisoned, I can imagine how toxic it can be for the mind to have nothing to do but think of guilt, suffering and revenge in a solitary cell for days, months and years. Prison is an unfortunate part of society but a necessary one, to keep people safe, mete out justice and rehabilitate those who can be into good citizens again. But what if prisoners can learn, be educated and given constructive tasks to rebuild their mindset?
When I heard about the organization Art for Justice, I was fascinated and moved by the idea. Art for Justice facilitates art classes, programs and exhibitions for convicted prisoners. All prisoners involved are either self-proclaimed innocent, wrongly convicted, or guilty and seeking redemption. The organization was started by Anne Marie Kirk, an artist, and Charles Lawson, a prisoner serving life sentence. When Anne saw one of Charles’ pieces exhibited at a local exhibit highlighting prisoner art, she wrote to him expressing interest in the piece and her desire to purchase it. From there, the two began communicating, and eventually, Art for Justice was founded as a focused initiative to bring art as a tool for reflection, hope, and meaning to the prisoners. In Charles Lawson’s words:
“I strive to inspire youth to look at their own talents and turn away from violence which can lead to the halls of the criminal justice system and eventually to prison. If I can inspire just one or two persons, then I can count myself among those who have tried and succeeded.
My second goal is HOPE! I hope that in viewing my artwork you will recognize that even in prison there are individuals who have worth and have something to contribute to their communities. I believe redemption is possible, even for long term offenders. If you see value in my artwork, then I truly HOPE you come away with a determination to see that changes are made so that such worth is no longer wasted, but put to a constructive use.”
Prisoners convicted for serious crimes have hit bottom, coming to face the consequences of what they have done. But it is when we have no further to fall that often we begin to look to a different way of life. As Lera Auerbach says in her book Excess of Being, “Sometimes being broken results in becoming whole.”
The organization Art for Justice was founded in Philadelphia in 1997. To learn more about this incredible organization, click here.
Article by Jessica Libor, 2016
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