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All We Need is A Little Light

The opening of Words Uncaged Gallery

Inmates%27+artworks+received+countless+complements+from+the+attendees
Inmates' artworks received countless complements from the attendees

Inmates' artworks received countless complements from the attendees

Marina Zhou

Marina Zhou

Inmates' artworks received countless complements from the attendees

Marina Zhou, Editor-in-Chief

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A small gallery in East Los Angeles was especially crowded on the night of Saturday, April 8. Cal State LA students, faculty, families, and arts fans swarmed in the warehouse-looking complex. Although the attendees were very diverse, everyone was there to support one particular group of students – the incarcerated men from A-Yard, California State Prison, Lancaster.

Photographs of inmates sentenced Life-without-Parole covered the walls in the welcome room, with captions placed above the photographs “I am a modern day slave. I am not a lost cause. I am daddy to four, a brother, a son. I am a human being. I am no longer who I was. I am lost. I am found.” Their artworks were displayed on another wall, and their first journals filled with heartfelt stories found home in many attendees’ hands.

Tonight was especially meaningful to family members of the inmates. Kadillak Kaz (alias) came to support his cousin Allen Burnett who was in one of the photographs presented. “I feel that if you look into the eyes of these pictures, you see the pain, you see the mistakes, you see life, you see progress, you see growth, you see struggle. This is what I feel, and we all make mistakes. Some of us are being held more accountable than others. It’s a beautiful reflection right now.” The last time Kaz saw Burnett was in 1999.

Julie Friedman’s boyfriend is one of the writers for the journal. “I’m excited about the gallery. I’m so appreciative of Dr. Roy for giving all the inmates a voice, especially [my boyfriend] obviously, but just to provide a space where this forgotten population can be heard and seen and humanized is really important and special for me and for everybody in here.” Friedman continued, “[my boyfriend] is very excited to hear about how the event went, what it was like, and to find out if there were a lot of people. It was just finding out how the community is responding to something like this… Writing has always been his thing.” Friedman went to see her boyfriend the next day.

Professional photographer F. Scott Shafer took the photos for the inmates. He was recruited by Dr. Roy last year and went to the prison three different times to take the photos. It was a long process for him to get permission for his camera to get in the prison, and make arrangements with the Warden and the Lieutenants. “Other photographers had been in there before but not to do anything formal, so they expect me to just go in and snap some shots and leave. We were lucky that we were able to do really formal portraits because we [had access] to lights in the prison.” Shafer had an inmate who used to do music videos in the 90s helping him with the photo shoots and he expressed that the photos came out strong and powerful.

When asked about working with the inmates with Life-without-Parole, Shafer emphasized that the men were very appreciative and kind. “[They were] so thrilled, sweetest guys, really appreciative, very approachable,” he said. “It was not what you would think. I thought it might be intimidating, [or] frightening, it was just absolutely the opposite… [The inmates] accepted where they are, they know they are not getting out, and they are making the best out of it. They are choosing to rehabilitate themselves.”

One specific person consistently mentioned by everyone was Dr. Bidhan Roy, an English professor at Cal State LA. He teaches at the Lancaster prison every week, and very committed to this project. “The idea was to create an artistic voice for the men in Lancaster,” said Dr. Roy. “We wanted it to be challenging, pleasing, beautiful, but we also want it to be political for people to think about what are we doing in this society where we incarcerate so many people for so long, in a really nonrepresentative way.”

Cal State LA is the only university in California that offers courses at a prison, according to Dr. Roy. He worked for Paws for Life before and incorporated the pen pal idea into his classes. Soon later, the Director of Community Engagement Taffany Lim brought it to the institutional level and made more possibilities happen.

The main message behind this project was meant to change Life-without-Parole in California. “The U.S. is really the only developed country that has Life-without-Parole… We think we are liberal in California, but we have some of the worst sentences for prison,” said Dr. Roy passionately. “Human nature changes. If you recognize people as being able to change, then the sentence makes not only no logical sense, but it’s unethical.”

Dr. Roy believes that after 25 years of someone’s sentence, you will re-assess him or her. If you think they are dangerous to society, they stay in prison. But if they pass the re-assessments, they deserve a second chance to rejoin the society. “In my experience, everyone I know in the A-Yard at Lancaster, I will not only trust to let them out, I would let them live in my house. I trust them that much,” said Dr. Roy firmly. “It’s not getting rid of the life sentence, it’s life with the possibility of parole.”

Dr. Roy also expressed that his students at Lancaster are very proud and thinking about the opening night of the gallery, with their families taking selfies in front of their portraits. “Just a few years ago, for a lot of the guys, there was no light outside the prison. [It is] a very closed system, suddenly now there’s light out. This is a little light shining in the darkness. I know they feel that, [and I] feel their presence.”

Some of the written works will publish on the University Times’ website and if you would like more information on the program, you can visit http://www.calstatela.edu/academic/english/words-uncaged.

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