NEWS FROM THE GULAGS
by Carol Strick
Art from Inside: Out
The idea for a prisoner art show to inform the public of the wretched condi-tions of incarceration came to me partly from writing my column "News from the Gulags" for North Coast Xpress. The column boosted the morale of prisoners, but more people outside needed be aware of their plight. As an artist, I know well the power of art. It reaches every sense and every emotion. It can enrage people, soothe them, and teach them. It can touch their most acute sensitivity as well as educate them. Art allows people to think about themselves as well as think about the artist.
Actually, this show evolved by itself. My original intention was to exhibit a 10' by 6' collage I had made of photos of prisoners and their drawings, including decorated envelopes. I wanted people to see that prisoners do not look any different from the average citizen. I was sick of looking at mug shots or negative photos in newspapers and magazines. I wanted the public to see beyond that image. I assembled the collage, had it photographed, then sent it to ABC No Rio, a gallery on the lower East Side in New York City. Vikki Law answered for the gallery. She said liked the collage a lot and wanted to exhibit it. She asked what I planned to do with the other three walls. I hadn't expected more than one wall, and only had enough work, mostly from Robert Knott in ADX Florence, to cover a second wall. What about the other two walls? I decided that the best thing was contact all the prisoners who write to me and ask them to get the word out in their prisons.
The results were astounding. Within three months, seventy-five artists had responded. I explained to each one that I needed the work to send a powerful message to the public. Things cannot remain as they are!
The artists were working from their souls. Arnold Davila in Texas created a 2 1/2' shrimp trawler from found objects. I had never seen anything like this in any craft museum. Robert Richardson in Michigan made stupendous sculpture from his own formula which included mostly paper! Debbie Sims Africa is a wonderful knitter. Clifford Boggess on death row in Texas sent excellent drawings of the row. A. Kravitz decorated palm fronds which he picked up on the compound at FCI Miami. Robert Taliaferro's professional acrylic portraits, Dyanne Peterson's hand-made paper cards, Lexi Bauer's ceramics, Jewelry from women in Camp Parks, CA, Tommy Silverstein's exceptional pen and ink of a forlorn prisoner, Sundiata Acoli's bright butterfly and buttercup, and Robert Richardson's "Boats" were only a few of the quality works.
The show opened in January with good attendance. People were amazed. Roberta Smith, from the New York Times, came and wrote a good review of the show. She discussed an uneven quality, which at that time existed, but wrote "quality isn't the only issue here. Mostly tacked unframed to walls and bulletin boards, the show includes hand-decorated letters and envelopes, newsletters, and prison announcements. Altogether, it provides a sobering glimpse of prison life and of the comfort and escape that art can provide where it is made, whoever makes it."
While I was still in New York, Bill Davenport phoned from Houston to say he knew a Houston gallery that would exhibit the show. I sent the good news to the artists and suggested that they get busy for an opening in Houston. The Art League of Houston and I agreed upon a June date for the exhibition to begin. The artists had four short months to work, but the amazing outpouring of their art left me speechless. Six artists from Pelican Bay sent drawings as good as Leonardo. People wrote from states where I had no pen pals. They heard about the show from friends. The Houston Chronicle's preview of the exhibition guaranteed a stupendous opening night. Linda Haag Carter, the gallery director, phoned to say what a terrific reception ensued. She said that she was glad she had taken the show. My purpose was to connect the public to the prisoners to generate some sales, but, most important, to let the public know what is really going on "inside."
I began receiving letters from gallery directors in other cities. Isis Gallery in Los Angeles, Jeff Cohen, Director, became the third stop. I hoped that sympathetic people in the movie colony would get involved.
It is early July. As soon as I see how all this evolves, I will put out a call for more art from prisoners.
To the artists who are part of "Art from Inside: Out," art doesn't get much better than this. The public's positive statements about the show are directed to all of you. Your talent and sensitivity and caring and warmth have come through the walls. It is only YOU who can change the public's perception of prisoners, and you are doing a colossal job.
The Last Phone Call
The phone rang at 5:45 p.m. on June 11th. A woman at the other end of the line said, "This is the office of the warden in Huntsville. Clifford Boggess would like to speak to Carol Strick."
"This is she," I answered.
"How do you know him?" asked the woman.
"I am his friend."
A man picked up the phone and said, "Hello."
"Cliff?" I asked.
"No, it's the chaplain."
Once again I asked, "Clifford?"
Another man's voice got on the phone."Hi, Carol. It's Clifford. I want to thank you for the art show and for your friendship. I love you." I was hearing a voice that was literally petrified with fear. "I wanted to say good-bye to you," he continued.
"What do you mean 'goodbye'?" I started to cry. "Didn't you receive a stay? What about our letters to Governor George Bush, Jr.?"
The letters were so logical. They explained Clifford, the baby with rickets from malnutrition, given up to foster care by an alcoholic mother who couldn't care for him. Cliff, who was truly sorry for his crimes and had sent a 5-page letter of remorse to the granddaughter of the man he killed. Cliff, who had rehabilitated himself as an artist from the ashes of injustice. Cliff, singled out by the New York Times for his talent. How could Gov. Bush, Jr. be so narrow with state policy? If Clifford was a "cold-blooded killer," what do you call this governor, who could have shown mercy but chose to be a methodical serial killer? The reality that Clifford would be dead in a few hours left me sobbing.
"You didn't wish me happy birthday," said Cliff.
"Yes, when they told me I would have to die, I told them that I wanted to die on June 11."
"Oh my God, What have they done to you?" His only autonomy was to close the book on his birthday.
"I'm ready to go," said Cliff, " ready to escape from pain and abuse."
"You have made a success of yourself, dear Clifford, and I am telling you that 'I love you' for myself and for your mother who never had the chance. I know for sure that she would have been extremely proud of your talent, your insights, and your warmth."
Once again, Clifford said that he loved me and that he was ready to go."Thanks again for everything, Carol! You have made my art, and thus my life, count for something."
I could not stop crying from sorrow, sorrow for Clifford and sorrow for this twisted nation.
In a letter dated June 8th, Clifford sent what he called "Clifford's last letter" to Penn-Pals Prison Inmate Services Network, a prison pen pal service on the web. He wrote, "I'm still anxious with anticipation at the thought of FINALLY getting to leave what has been for me (most of the time) a cruel and horrible world and going to be with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to enjoy perfect peace, no more tears, no more deprivations or abuses of any kind ever again."
In April, we talked about the prison art show that was opening in Houston in June. He wrote, "I don't really care if they have my work in the show or not. There's not much point to it now, at least not for me." Eventually he was happy that the show was dedicated to him, and it boosted his spirits. "I am just thankful that, thanks to you, I got my dream and had participated in a gallery in New York and had a favorable review too! . . ."
He wanted to extend his life to work as an artist. His head was bulging with ideas for new work. "There is too much pain and misery and suffering in the world. Art is a way to expose it."
I loved Clifford Boggess. I miss him. He and I shared an intensity about life. I loved his interest in every phase of art, even his wish to have his ashes scattered at St. Paul's monastery in France, which the monks permitted . Once he sent me a present, Art from the Ashes, a book that revealed the shreds of art hidden in secret places in Auschwitz.
Clifford, the artist, writer and poet, a victim of the economic and social inequities that plague this nation, had written to say, "And after I'm gone, continue to 'carry the torch' for me and try to get others to see, through my art, that people can change and are capable of repentance, remorse and redemption. Please feel my love in this letter and keep a little piece of me inside your heart, now and for years to come."
I am doing that, dear Clifford, even if it makes me cry. I can't forget you!"
As I hung up the phone, through a blur of tears I remember hearing, "Goodbye--friends, forever!"
The Nazi Doctors
They took an oath to save lives, but they became killers. They gassed 5,000 children to death and went home to play with their own children. They were the Nazi doctors. Without them, the holocaust could not have occurred. They planned, organized, and supervised the extermination camps.
Not every doctor in Germany succumbed to state propaganda and worked as murderers, but what about the doctors who did?
In his book The Nazi Doctors, an exhaustive, compelling study, Robert Lifton tries to explain these amoral actions. If we could understand what motivated the Nazi doctors, we could better understand prison doctors ignoring symptoms of a heart attack and letting a prisoner die. We would know how a doctor signs a death certificate as "died of natural causes," knowing full well that the prisoner was beaten to death by a goon squad.
Mr. Lifton lists four conditions which made it possible for a physician to become a killer: fierce nationalism was foremost, then peer pressure, fear of the state, and a duality in the doctors' personalities.
How did this genocide begin? Skillfully and factually, Lifton goes back to the euthanasia program as the beginning of genocide. The first step to mass murder was the death of a single human being.
The idea of genocide had been brewing in Hitler's mind for many years. How could he get the public to accept the idea of state murder? In the 1930s he devised a plan. SS aides were stationed in major hospitals throughout the nation seeking the birth of a severely deformed child and parents who would be receptive to the State's plan to murder their infant and relieve them of the burden of raising it. Eventually, such parents were found. After their infant was killed, they were paraded throughout Germany, publicly thanking the government for arranging this mercy. Thus, a way to get rid of "undesirables" was in effect.
Lifton spends a lot of time showing us "experts" from many fields who were called in to give credibility to genocide. He delves even further into the doctors themselves. We know in detail the life of Dr. Edward Wirth, chief doctor of Aushwitz, who lived on the grounds of the extermination camp. His wife and three children spent time there with him. Lifton even interviewed one of Wirth's grown children who remembered her father as a loving, concerned parent. When pressed, she saw him as he really was. He practiced medicine, spoke in medicalese, studied medical subjects, but he wasn't a doctor; he was a killer. His actions in the capacity of a physician negated any morality which society may have pretended was in existence.
After the war, like many of the Nazi doctors, Edward Wirth committed suicide.
The Farm, Angola USA
Winner of the 1998 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival,"The Farm, Angola USA," by Jonothan Stack and Liz Gorbus, gets across its message in a subdued way-- there is no justice, and the prison system is nothing more than a business, neo-slavery.
The film takes place at Angola Prison in Louisiana, America's largest lock-down facility where 5,000 prisoners work the farm, most drawing a 4¢ an hour paycheck. The 18,000 acres yield a multi-million dollar business. Originally, the farm was a plantation, hence its name, Angola. Most of the slaves who worked it before 1865 came from that part of Africa.
Two aspects of the film would annoy anyone who knows what goes on inside: the lack of noise, screams, beatings, and fights, and the drugged out appearance of the whole place. A former prisoner who viewed it called it "sugar-coated" and left disappointed.
The warden, a stereotype of the Old South, laments the public's lack of sympathy for the prisoners (ignoring that the media hype originates from his domain) and stays on course with his religious stance. He uses the party line fed to the slaves before 1865: "It will be better in the next life," and when asked to comment on a state execution, which he oversees to the most minute detail, he explains, "The prisoner is going to the same place as the rest of us, only a little earlier"!
We follow the lives of six prisoners, one of whom dies of lung cancer; another is executed. In fact, 85% of the prisoners will die in there! The plum of the movie is the case of a young Black man's extreme sentence-50-80 years for supposedly raping two white women. Fourteen years into his incarceration, he completes his own investigation and files an appeal. He had finally received a transcript of his trial, at which even his state-appointed attorney had hidden crucial evidence from the jury: The supposed victims declared under oath that "All Black men look alike." In a lineup, he was easily identifiable as the only man cuffed, and worse, the medical examiner had found both women to be virgins after the alleged rapes were supposed to have taken place.
A parole board, which consisted of two racists (one proudly identifying himself as a former cop) and one beaten-down Uncle Tom, do not believe the prisoner's innocence, despite the irrefutable evidence. The film ends when the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear the case.