About "Marking Time"

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Rejoinder, a new web journal from the Institute for Research on Women (IRW) at Rutgers University. We are excited to introduce you to our latest online forum for feminist, queer, and social justice-inspired work. Building on IRW’s innovative, interdisciplinary programming, each edition of Rejoinder will provide a space for intellectual exchange at the nexus of scholarship and activism. We hope you enjoy getting to know us and subscribe to Rejoinder (it is free!) in order not to miss out on future issues.

This edition of Rejoinder was inspired by “Marking Time: Prison Arts and Activism,” an IRW project designed to explore the cultural aspects of imprisonment with a focus on art produced by prisoners and in response to mass incarceration. “Marking Time” began in October 2014 with a large conference on prison art and activism—the first of its kind—that included scholars, artists, activists, and community groups. The conference brought more than 130 individuals from throughout the United States and overseas to Rutgers to serve as panelists. Alongside the conference, we curated a month-long exhibition of art by current and formerly incarcerated individuals on six different sites in the city of New Brunswick. A 3-day art workshop at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in Annandale, New Jersey, enabled us to provide prison-based arts education in an environment where such programming was previously limited. We also developed and published a resource guide, which included an extensive compendium of organizations working on prison arts and a selection of art, poetry, and essays.

This edition of Rejoinder complements our resource guide by featuring additional art and writings related to prison arts and activism. Essays by Treacy Ziegler and Dana Greene explore the visual and affective aspects of prison landscapes. Ziegler walks us through two maximum security prisons where she teaches visual arts, powerfully describing the interplay of light and space inside, and providing a poignant meditation on the aesthetics and emotions of confinement. Through dramatic photography and descriptive text, Greene’s work chronicles the quotidian controlling mechanisms that structure life in New Mexico’s prisons. Eschewing photographs of bodies, her work seeks to “expose everyday penal realities” through images that range from massive stores of dry food to a closet full of wigs. In so doing, she candidly illuminates how the vast apparatus of the prison system is structured to “disappear people, manage bodies, and conceal the social institution of punishment.”

Theatre is renowned for its capacity to move actors and audiences alike. In their discussion of The Phoenix Players Theatre Group, a grassroots theatre company located in the maximum-security Auburn Correctional Facility, Nick Fesette and Bruce Levitt describe theatre’s power not just to move, but to transform. Born from the motivations of the participants themselves, The Phoenix Players Theatre Group helps its members “to repair and restore the aspects of their humanity fractured in incarceration,” while also serving to change public perceptions of the incarcerated. The theme of transformation through theatre also runs through Ron Jenkins’ account of his prison and performance-based workshops on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Jenkins argues that Dante’s work speaks profoundly to those doing time. “Dante depicts himself as someone trying to find a way out of hell and into paradise,” he writes. “It is a personal journey that most people can relate to, but spending time in prison makes the trip more urgent.”  

As Courtney Polidori’s article shows, the written word can also be a potent tool for personal growth. In a vivid account of her experience co-teaching a memoir-writing workshop in a women’s prison, Polidori describes her students—or wisewomen—as “butterflies imprisoned in chrysalis-like cells.” Sharing pasts marred by poverty, violence, and abuse, they seek to reclaim their silenced voices through crafting detailed narratives of their lives. Polidori indicates that the incarcerated women find this process profoundly empowering. “What was meant for my detriment will be my development," asserts one of Polidori's students, Wisewoman L., in a poem composed during the workshop. "My pen is mightier than a sword and my mind is my most powerful weapon.”

This edition of Rejoinder also features evocative poetry by Samantha Zimbler, one of Polidori’s two co-teachers at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, reflecting themes of transformation and healing. Finally, this issue includes two powerful sets of photographs from inside a women’s prison in Venezuela. The first set, enigmatic and haunting in black and white, is the work of artist and activist Violette Bule. The second set of photographs, atmospheric color prints, is the work of the talented women prisoners in one of Bule’s photography workshops.

We thank everyone who submitted materials for Rejoinder, and helped make its publication a reality. Considered collectively, the writings and images we feature here demonstrate the importance of prison artistic practices—as aspects of contemporary culture, mechanisms to reinforce prisoners’ inherent dignity, and survival tools for those behind bars. We dedicate this issue of Rejoinder to all those who mark time through art.

Sarah Tobias