When I was young, I worked with other kids in Phillips and Powderhorn putting murals up in lots and on buildings that might have otherwise just represented more of the same grime and decay that went on in much of the rest of these neighborhoods. I also took part in the Free Mumia rallies at Cedar-Riverside in the mid-nineties, only kind of understanding then what it all was supposed to mean in my life.
I certainly didn’t anticipate when I was a kid that I would spend so much of my life in a prison cell. It has been a humbling realization of my mistakes and personal misperceptions. It has also shown me how people can be dehumanized in so many ways, and has taken so much from me and from my family.
I realized a long time ago that there would be certain things I would lose as a result of what modern prison is and as a result of what time represents in all of our lives. Of the things I would lose — family, friends, my youth, a relationship to my generation — I’ve also lost a general connection to my neighborhood and its ever-changing identity.
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But I have also been fortunate enough to cross paths with some beautiful people who have volunteered their lives to share the arts with me. They helped me wipe away some of the dirt to give a clearer, much more ever-changing, organic view of myself. I know that if it weren’t for certain people like them, the vision for the Bridge Trust event on October 1, 2014 would have seemed impossible.
The men on our workshop panel wanted to show the community there were capable, serious men here who were worthy of your investment. We hope that is what we left you with, as well as probably some examples of those who have been injured in some of the ways we pointed out by the prison experience. I have come to understand how all of our lives are comprised of so many moments, and making them worthwhile comes from stringing together enough worthwhile moments to build something whole and not be overtaken by those moments full of regret and emptiness and destruction.
I hope we were able to show that, just as in any community, there is a variety of personalities, talents and experiences that exist in these facilities. Just as much, there is just as grand a spectrum of needs and dreams.
I can’t over-stress the role of the arts in the rebuilding of the whole human being, the re-crafting of how the individual conceives himself. This is not a view that is contrary to vocational training, because in so many cases the ability to live and support oneself without falling into the traps of the legal system is what is most obviously broken in so many men. I just believe the arts are what conceptually sculpt the unique dimensions of a person amidst the concrete experiences of jail. The arts are so often the first casualty in budget cuts, and the arts are so essential in the crafting of identity in prison environments.
We want men and women to be able to support themselves; then we want them to transform and transcend. The arts are so often the first casualty in budget cuts, and the arts are so essential in the crafting of identity in prison environments.
I left a rich artists’ community at Stillwater that I’m sure would’ve loved to participate and contribute to the workshop. There are so many in correctional facilities who are working and creating, who would appreciate this kind of community support and involvement. Just as you were able to see and hear some of our stories, there are more, just as rich in feeling and experience. Those men are our people, too
It is important for us to know that there are people putting their time and their lives out there to create fairness for our situations. It puts in perspective some of the things we do with ourselves and our own time. We need to work too, and part of that can come from being steered a little bit in the right direction
We are represented in popular culture as destroyers, people who hurt and break things, and unfortunately most of us have done plenty of breaking and destroying. I’m ready to build; I’ve been working to build. We just want more good.
We received a very genuine show of enthusiasm from the Department of Corrections for the workshop event and general spirit of what we are trying to do. It can only get better, we hope. Wipe away some more of that grime and decay.
Ezekiel Caligiuri is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.
A biweekly Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.