Crossing the Border
| "Death row door" by Arthur Tyler. Monotype on paper, 19x15. Courtesy of the artist. Click to enlarge.
As a landscape painter, I explore the interior and exterior configurations of space. In my own painted landscapes, boundaries between interior and exterior are porous and the line between landscape and dwelling is fluid; the sea does not stop at the door—it comes in.
If prisons are defined by how space is contained, then there are two kinds: interior-oriented prisons and seemingly exterior-oriented prisons. The first type of prison usually has maximum or super-maximum security and the second, referred to as a “campus style” prison, is for minimally secured prisoners.
When I took my son to a “campus style” prison, surprised, he exclaimed, “It’s just like my high school!” Yes, just like a high school wrapped in three rows of barbed wire fences marking the very limits of its exterior presentation.
But on this particular day, I enter an interior-oriented, maximum-security prison and walk through the first gate separating it from the world. Some prisons refer to this initial space as the pedestrian trap. This trap leads further into interior space where corridors link the different facets of the prison. Hallways telescope out and are connected, segment-by-segment, with a series of locked gates, like the locks on a canal. I enter the standing space between the two gates and wait for the first gate to close before the second gate can be opened. I then proceed down the corridor to the next set of gates. In some interior-oriented prisons, these gated sections have no bars. Instead this space is a small room with one door leading in and another leading out. I feel the confinement of not being able to see beyond this room.
Walking down the corridors of this interior-style prison, I am struck by a confusing sense of spatial infinity. There are windows in the hallway and I see the bands of sunlight streaming across the corridor floor. These bands of light recede into the distance becoming less distinct.
I often tell my prison art students to observe these bands of light to experience one-point perspective as they walk down the hall. This is when all space and everything in that space is visually organized by a distant single mark that can never be seen. One-point perspective assumes that we are all oriented to that same single point. Of course, one-point perspective is not how we see the world unless we happen to be blind in one eye—like my son’s friend who shot out an eye while playing with a potato gun, crushing all the bones, weaving potato with eyeball. I see evidence of many injuries in prison from different sorts of guns, scars from gunshot wounds, stabbing, ripped earring holes. Boys can get rough; some end up in prison and some don’t.
My prison students and I have two eyes and do not usually see the world as one-point perspective. We see with two eyes that are always moving, never fixed on a single spatial point unless we are walking down this prison corridor or looking at a Canaletto painting of Venice.
The corridors of this prison are cinder-blocked. A yellow line is painted on the floor dividing traffic. When movement occurs—the prison term referring to when prisoners travel from one point to another in a controlled fashion—the men walk in single-file. Usually one guard is in the front of the line and another brings up the end. The incarcerated are not to cross the yellow line into the ongoing traffic of the non-incarcerated.
When I am the oncoming traffic, the prisoners on the other side of the yellow line are required to stop and allow me to go through the set of gates first. Sometimes, they do this on their own without being told. I smile as they go by not knowing whether I will get in trouble with the guards for doing this. Sometimes I recognize a student and we say something familiar: How are you? Have you been drawing? Many of the men show curiosity and smile, and most seem friendly.
There are prisoners helping others who cannot walk on their own, men wheeling men in wheelchairs. The prisoners help one another in this way. I have not seen a guard assist a prisoner who has a disability.
Sometimes the prisoners are filing out of chow hall or going to the yard. A few prisoners walk separately from the line. These prisoners have been given specific passes to walk independently. Some are going for their medication, maybe to their job. In this prison, there is a time-block schedule programming the day into five periods—much like the classroom times scheduled in a high school. There are two periods in the morning, two in the afternoon, and one evening block, structuring time as if it is a block of space. Most everyone is scheduled to be in some kind of program. In some states, a prisoner will not be freed until he gets his GED.
While I walk the corridors of this prison, there is little sense of the exterior world except what I see through the small windows. The prisoners have 3-foot by-3-foot recreation pens outside their cells—like those exterior cages connected to a dog kennel allowing the dog to go outside. From these pens, the prisoners have the potential to see the pretty landscape that surrounds the prison. But when I ask my students to draw this landscape, I get in trouble with the prison authorities. The guards consider looking at the landscape as tantamount to developing an escape plan. Drawing that landscape most certainly confirms the plan.
The smells are strong in these interior-oriented prisons; odors of bodies, sour sweat, and soap. These smells are consistent in all the prisons that are oriented to the interior. They are the smells of many people forced to live together with limited movement in small spaces.
| ""When the sea reaches my grandmother's door" by Treacy Ziegler. Oil on panel, 61x48. Permanent placement in a men's prison. Click to enlarge.
On another day, in another interior-oriented prison, I follow the director of treatment down a series of corridors to what is called the “school.” I don’t know if this is a super-maximum or maximum security prison. It has been referred to as both by different people. It houses prisoners designated as most violent.
In this prison, the corridor walls are painted with horizontal pink lines on the cinderblock as if urging the walker to go further inside. I have heard of the supposed effect of this color, referred to as Baker-Miller pink, on prisoners. Some research concludes that pink has a calming effect while other research shows that after 15 minutes, prisoners scratch the paint from the walls with their fingernails.
The pink in this corridor makes me think of a birth canal. I am reminded of my son’s birth by cesarean section, when nothing worked except a scalpel. This memory stands in contrast to other women screaming through labor and delivery and gives me the feeling that sometimes the knife is kinder, more direct, and less painful.
Here in prison, I cannot speak of birth canals or of knives as both would be totally taboo. All prisons are vulnerable to the effects of knives, but particularly so in this prison where the superintendent has recently been stabbed in the face. That another guard has also been stabbed makes for a constant reminder of the prison’s violence.
In this prison there are two sets of prisoners, some dressed in grey uniforms and others dressed in green uniforms. When I ask why the prisoners are dressed in different colors, I am told that they live in different parts of the prison. The division has nothing to do with security rank. It is merely based upon geography.
This division results in fights between the two sets of prisoners. If wearing different colors provokes such violence, then I wonder why officials do not just give everyone the same color uniform. It seems to be such an obvious solution to the fighting. I cannot help thinking that it might serve the prison in some way to maintain violence between prisoners.
I am finally led to a classroom on the second floor. I arrive by elevator. I do not know how the prisoners get from one floor to the other. I assume they do not have the luxury of riding the elevator. One luxury of this prison is its air-conditioning. No other prison I have been inside has air conditioning. During some summers in other prisons, the heat gets so bad that the men become sick from it.
The classroom I am in is small with little desks like ones in a high school class. There is a teacher’s desk and a whiteboard. When I come into this prison, I am required to eliminate many art materials that I usually bring into other prisons. Chalk is forbidden, as it is feared that it will be jammed into the locks to make them fail.
I sit waiting for the prisoners. Sometimes, the guards fail to tell the prisoners that I am here and do not issue the call pass. One time I sat for an hour without students.
In the first class that I teach at this prison I have about 10 students. After they arrive, the guard comes into the room and announces that he is going to lock the door. This surprises me. Although, I never have a guard with me when I teach and I am never issued a panic button, this is the first time I am locked in the room. It is a locked room at the end of a locked corridor. The guard station is located on the other side of these two locked doors. There is no window in the classroom.
I ask the guard what I should do when, as is always the case, a prisoner needs to use the bathroom. The guard answers my question by giving me a telephone number I can call.
After an hour of class, Anthony needs to use the bathroom and I call the number given to me by the guard. Instead of the guard’s voice, I get a pleasant but recorded voice of a female saying that she is very sorry but I got the wrong number.
It is the first time I feel uncomfortable in prison. I do not know if my rising sense of panic is the result of being locked in the room with the prisoners or merely the claustrophobia of being in a locked room and totally unable to get out.
I look at Anthony who, at almost 300 pounds, is much too large to fit into the diminutive chairs we are given. I am about to tell him that we cannot get out of this room until I realize that Anthony and the rest of the men already know this. They knew from the beginning of class that there was no way to get out of this room until someone decided it was time for us to get out.
I think about a warning I read on page after page in my volunteer handbook. It is a warning advising me never to trust a prisoner. I look at Steve with whom I was just having a heated discussion on the merits—or lack thereof—of Bob Ross, the formulaic public television artist. Dismayed with me, Steve asked, “You mean, you don’t like Bob Ross?”
Looking into Steve’s face, I realize that by being locked in this room with these men who have been designated as violent, the prison is demanding quite the opposite from the warning in the handbook. In this locked room with these men, the prison is instructing me that not only do I need to trust these prisoners, I need to trust them with my life. And so I do.
The next time I return to this prison, another guard comes to the room. When I ask this guard if he is going to lock the door, he looks at me incredulously, “You mean you want me to lock you in this room alone?!” I realize that the first guard played a joke on me; the guards often challenge volunteers.
But the joke is not on me. Because unlike the guard who cannot cross over into this room alone without being hurt, I can sit with these men. And together in this room, we can create a fluid place where the sea comes in.