Saturday, February 21, 2009

Building to Terre Haute

What do you know about the creative expressions of prison inmates? What is known about doing architectural and construction work with prisoners?

February 2010. A onesmallproject installation in Terre Haute, Indiana. 3000 SF of gallery space. The chance to explore creativity within severe constraints.

Including prison cells.

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OSP foregrounds squatters' shadow cities, neighborhoods, and constructions in some of the world's exploding and shrinking cities. Now, these lenses shift to include inmates.

According to a February 29, 2008 story in the Washington Post titled "New High in U.S. Prison Numbers," more than 2,300,000 people are in U.S. jails and prisons. The U.S. leads the world in the number and percentage of people incarcerated.

Prison toothbrush

The Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex is armed and dangerous. THFCC consists of two main complexes: a high security Federal Correctional Institution (more commonly known as a United States Penitentiary) and a medium security Federal Correctional Institution. In addition, there is a "camp" for nonviolent felons.

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3000 inmates live at THFCC. The penitentiary includes the only "Death House" in the federal correctional system; 50 men reside there, waiting. Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was one of them until he was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001.

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Two books, by Temporary Services (Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin, and Marc Fisher) and available through Half Letter Press, establish an inmate/artist's and an artist/publisher's point of view. The first, "Prisoners' Inventions" by Angelo (an alias for an inmate in California), features his sketches and descriptions of the devices inmates design, build, install, and conceal in their cells to make the harsh living conditions a little more livable. I purchased "Inventions" in L.A., curious about how and why men and women design, build, and create in very little space with almost no material means even as they must hide both process and product. A follow-up, "Prisoners' Inventions -- Three Dialogues," considers the conflicted energies of the artist/publishers working with Angelo.

A package of books recently arrived from Half Letter Press. Among the items ordered was "Prison Toothbrush," me thinking it would be another book, the third in the series. Not finding the book in the packing, maybe the Press crew didn't send it. Later, rummaging, there it was: one prisoner's toothbrush, about 2" in length, rounded handle, bristles, white plastic.

When my father died fifteen years ago, I kept the cup and whisk he used to make shaving cream. Wanting an artifact that touched his face, knew the lines and crevices and undulations of his beard. That knew his hand.

My dad's shaving whisk

This prison toothbrush, like my dad's whisk, knows the thumb and index finger of millions incarcerated in the United States.

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I met Michael Orange in October 2008, sidewalking Camden, New Jersey, Mechanic between 4th and Broadway. Orange loudtalking:





Rapid-fire Orange. Ten years in the Army, trained to "walk point" in a war zone helps his survival these days.

An eight-year prison hitch.

Three brothers murdered here, a fourth dead from cancer.

Distress Too Tour, as organized by Olon Dotson, Nihal Perera, and me, with students a 6-day drivathon through the Rust Belt. We'd stopped because Olon saw the good condition of the block's row houses and wanted to ask why--the architecture got his attention. Twenty minutes of conversation later, as we stepped off, Michael said, "There's serious creatures around here, in these buildings. Don't be fooled."

When his mother returned, moving up the stairs, she backed through the door, eyes scanning. Pointwalking. Everybody but us pointwalking.

Earlier, Orange showed us forearm goosebumps he gave himself describing his Camden. Me thinking: if this man scares himself, how afraid should I be?

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Brian Willingham is a poet/photographer/police officer in Flint, Michigan, the city where he was born and raised, the only child of a teenage mother and an autoworker father. Brian attended schools in Flint and served in the Army in Germany as the Berlin Wall was falling. He was honored with the City of Flint Human Relations Commission Police/Community Relations Award in 2001, and on February 20, 2006 President George W. Bush personally presented Brian with the President's Volunteer Service Award. (Willingham was recently profiled in a subtopia "If there is life in Flint . . ." post by Bryan Finoki.)

"Soul of a Black Cop," published in 2004, marks moments from his daily activities as police officer in Flint. Titles of the short stories give some sense of the scenes: "Street-corner Judge and Jury," "But I Love Him," "A Lesson in Dying," "The Discarded Child," "No Room at the Shelter," "Sons of Crack," "Tears of a Young Father," "Veterans of Wars, Foreign and Domestic," "Ghost of America's Conscience," and "On the Seventh Day" among them.

This excerpt is from "Answering our Brother's Call," Willingham's first suicide, where the victim's brother points the police officer to the dead body hanging in a dark basement:

". . . it is the words of the grieving brother that haunt me the most. They are a metaphor for all humanity. 'I should have answered by brother's call. I should have answered my brother's call.'"

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Different dimensions.

Designers organized to resist the design of prisons and jails. Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. Critical Resistance.

Products made by inmates. Prison Blues.

Products for prisons. PX: Direct Jail Products.

Books and other works produced in prison. CELLTEXTS

Floating Prisons. Fantasy Prison. (Both via subtopia.)

Education Behind Bars. Women Behind Bars. Art Behind Bars. Children Behind Bars. Puppies Behind Bars. Yoga Behind Bars. Shakespeare Behind Bars. Criminals Behind Bars. Literacy Behind Bars. SOS Behind Bars. Bonds Behind Bars. Dogs Behind Bars. Growing Old Behind Bars. Family Life Behind Bars. Sex Offenders Behind Bars. Martha Behind Bars. Americans Behind Bars. Books Behind Bars. Lullabies Behind Bars. Reporters Behind Bars. Birth Behind Bars. Terrorists Behind Bars. Predators Behind Bars.

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2,300,000+ people in U.S. prisons and jails. That's 1 inmate for every 132 U.S. residents.

Odds are, you know somebody in prison.

I know Jim, the former husband of a good friend of my wife. A good man, two great kids, a good job. A good life. Then, very drunk, driving a super-sized pick-up truck, runs over a small car making a turn, killing a woman and her two sons.

Now, Jim's doing 19-30 years.

Maybe it's time for me to contact Jim, to see what his life is like. To reconnect with a friend forgotten. To connect to another, in-need.

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So . . . yes . . . Building to Terre Haute.

Anyone with experience or ideas, contact me at: or add a comment below.

If interested, go to:


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