Expressions of feelings, pain, individual journeys

Maine State Prison inmate art: ‘Every one of these portraits has a story behind it’

Posted:  Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 3:45pm
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ROCKLAND — Art gallery visitors have been making a point of contacting the Art Loft since the Rockland studio mounted a special exhibit of painting and mixed media art, as well as one large carving of a golden eagle, all the work of inmates at Warren’s Maine State Prison. People want to see this collection, and the Art Loft, which hosts classes, is now scheduling extra time for the public to view the work.

For obvious reasons, the inmate artists were not at the Oct. 6 opening of the “Behind the Wall” exhibit, but Maine State Prison Warden Randall Liberty was, and he spoke to those who had crowded into the Art Loft.

“Every one of these portraits has a story behind it,’ said Liberty, who has been warden for two years. “I hope you see the depth of emotion, and the journey they traveled.”

The art is unpretentious, honest and has depth. The inmates whose work is hanging there are identified only by their first name, and many of their pieces are accompanied by written narratives, offering their perspectives on life, crime, imprisonment and the creative spirit.

Kathryn Matlack, founder of the Art Lofthad teamed up with art teacher Dan Daly to schedule art classes at the Warren prison over the past year.

She had learned that the existing prison art program was under the operation of inmates, with no outside instruction. The Art Loft hired Daly, and soon he was teaching classes once a week, taking into the prison with him a variety of art books and magazines. He focused first on the craft, and then expanded the conversations to include art processes and art theories.

The Art Loft will be open Thursday, Oct. 12, from 4 to 6 p.m., and the next three Fridays, 2 to 5:30 p.m., Oct. 13, 20 and 27. For more information visit artloftrockland.org.

At the Oct. 6 opening, Warden Liberty spoke briefly yet powerfully about the role of art in rehabilitation, and his mission to reduce recidivism.

His entire presentation follows:

At the Maine State Prison we have 927 inmates, all males. It is the maximum security facility for the State of Maine. So any of the serious crimes that you have seen on the news over the last years, all those gentlemen are there with us.

The climate there is very good. We have a lot of hard working men. A lot of men of talent. A lot with integrity. They are just like us. They are on a journey.

We can all agree to that. Right?

And we can all agree, I believe, that we believe in redemption, and people able to be reborn, and find themselves. And some of the gentlemen have done that through some of the work you see here tonight.

The reasons why people are incarcerated in the State of Maine — I’ve been in corrections and law enforcement for 35 years. I have arrested many hundreds of gentlemen. I’ve arrived at many horrendous crime scenes, many involving death. I’ve been involved in many aspects of that.

I was also sheriff of Kennebec County and I ran the Kennebec County Correctional Facility and Sheriff’s Office, was elected four times, and was nine years there, and five years as chief.

So I’ve seen all aspects of crime and corrections, and I will tell you this: over those years I’ve learned that very, very few people are evil.

Most people are incarcerated and commit crimes because of addiction. We know that. Right?

The opiate addiction we have here in the State of Maine, mental health: We have issues where people are untreated and don’t get the resources they need. I have family members on both sides of those primary reasons they are incarcerated.

I believe they are incarcerated because of neglect, abuse. As younger folks. And I think poverty is a big driver there, also. Many of them were raised in homes in anti-social environments, where social activities weren’t encouraged.

Some people have a very difficult time. Not to excuse anything that they’ve done, but to say that, after doing 35 years in the industry, and being involved in all aspects, I think we should think broader about this whole issue of criminality, addiction and mental health. It’s a much more complex societal issue than people would lead to believe.

I’ve been the warden for the last two years. The time that I’ve been there, we’re trying to transform the prison, and give individuals that are incarcerated the opportunity to grow and to flourish, and to become better men.

And 97 percent of those 927 gentlemen in that prison will be released back into the community at some point. So, we have a duty, I think, as a criminal justice system, as Maine State Prison, Maine Dept. of Corrections, and the folks that run the jails in the State of Maine, to invest those tax dollars that you give us, wisely.

So if we address the issues of mental health, substance abuse, educational disabilities, all of those sorts of things; work on trauma issues, whatever they may be, I am confident people can come out and be good citizens, can be good neighbors. They are going to be your neighbors at some point. Someone’s neighbor. 

I am very comfortable in knowing that my my mission is to reduce recidivism. Reduce those causation factors that brought them to the criminal justice system. Does that make sense?

So you invest about $42,000 per inmate at the Maine State Prison. So it’s important for me not to warehouse. It’s important for me to do things like, we have 42 individuals who attend the University of Maine of Augusta in the facility. It’s no cost to the taxpayers. Doris Buffet funded that program and she granted us $2 million to do that.

URock is there all the time, the local community is there all the time. 

We have a couple hundred individuals working on GEDs. How can you be successful in the community if you have a sixth grade education? Very difficult. So it is our duty to encourage somebody to do that.

Of the 927, we have 320 paying jobs. So they get out of bed and have reason to get out of bed and do their work.

We have an aggressive agricultural program, where they are raising most of the food. We have tilled up most of the land inside the compound. They will do about 10,000 pounds of produce this year. 

They are doing all the composting, recycling. They compost almost a quarter-million pounds of organics a year, and rotate that back into the soil. This year, they donated 650 pounds to the local food pantry. 

There is a lot going on that is working well. 

We just started a beekeeping class there. So it’s not only education and substance abuse and heavy, heavy all the time. It is also enriching their lives.

So when Kathryn [Matlack] came to me she brought Dan in. What a great opportunity for individuals to be able to express their innermost feelings, their pain, their observations, their view on the world, than through the art program.

They were doing their own thing, self taught, some internal inmate instructors teaching, doing the best they could, but I will tell you that the artists work you see before you is profoundly impacted by Dan’s expertise and Kathryn’s work. To come in there and assist them from the outside.

One of the most important things is that they feel they are not forgotten.

When I have visits, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – 927 guys there today – I’ll have 20 visits. Think about that.

For any of you who have been away from home for a while, deploying or wherever you have been, if you haven’t seen your family for many years it can be very difficult.

So it’s important when volunteers come in and people care about their lives enough to say, ‘I’m going to come in and I’m going to care about you. I’m going to be there every Wednesday, every Thursday, and we are going to spend time with you.’

Because what’s the most valuable thing that we have? Time.

A lot of people ask, ‘what can I do to help, to volunteer?’

Literacy is a big one if you want to come in to help. Mentorship. If you had a young man who is 22 years old and never had a positive male role model, that would be very difficult to know how to be a man.

Think about that.

If no one ever taught you how to be a man, and the man you saw was abusive to women, or was an alcoholic, or was addicted, or didn’t work, that’s your role models. 

Oftentimes, if you didn’t have a well-intentioned male in your life, maybe a coach, maybe a teacher, maybe a mentor in the military, you don’t know how to do that. So mentorship is an important one.

We have a lot of faith-based individuals that are in there, helping them move along.

I would like to say thank you to Dan. I appreciate it. Well done. Kathryn, thank you.

I think that many of us search for something in life that has meaning. I think these two individuals have found something that is meaningful to them, and it is not always an easy system to navigate. 

It’s my job to knock down those hurdles and navigate and do the best we can. 

Ken Winsey. Ken is always generous and with his time and resources, with industry operations, part of that is the golden eagle. Individual’s first carving. Look at the detail, at the talons and claws and in the feathers. He is working on bald eagle. 

Every one of these portraits has a story behind it. I hope you see the depth of emotion, the journey they traveled. 


 

Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657