CAROL MATROO and JORDON BRIGGS
Art helps prisoners to change their lives, making peace with themselves during their confinement. This was the shared feeling at last Tuesday's TT Prisons' 10th Inmates Art Exhibition – Beyond the Bars – at Long Circular Mall, St James, last Tuesday.
The exhibition featured 86 pieces, 53 of them new, from ten inmates, including two-dimensional, three-dimensional and relief pieces. Some of the works are collaborations between inmates.
Leslie Huggins, an inmate exhibiting his work, said art helps relieve stress.
“I paint with my soul, my heart. Once I’m feeling the flow, I could be there for hours and not realise. I would look at the time and see that it’s suddenly three o' clock.”
Huggins said he and the other inmates look forward to the opportunity of using their art to help, change and have an impact on society. He uses his art as a message to youth and to express his feelings about being in the prison system. Huggins believes the system needs to be updated as both the prisoners and guards are limited, but he appreciates what they are able to do.
Krishan Bedassie, officer in charge of programmes and industries, explained that the art programme started ten years ago and was funded by the Raja Yoga Centre.
Money made from the exhibition is distributed among the inmates and used to buy art materials and a donation to a charity of their choice.
Bedassie said the programmes are advertised internally in the prisons and inmates can choose which ones they want to engage in.
The inmates are given daily access to the studio space to work and are allowed to work later in the studio as the exhibition draws nearer.
Inmate and lead artist Alladin Mohammed said through practice and contemplation, even the most "deformed mind can be reformed." Art was therapeutic in the reformation of the inmates, he said, noting the prison system has moved away from retributive to restorative, helping inmates to be part of the solution in the system.
He said his artistic ability comes naturally and is rooted in him, as his father and grandfather were artists.
“I came in as a graphic artist. I was on death row for ten years.”
In prison, Mohammed noticed other inmates were gravitating towards art as he saw some of them drawing. He was able to recognise this as a form of expression especially for those who were not as versed with words.
His experience with art was recognised by the officers and, also because of his engagement with the Raja Yoga programme, he was invited to teach the inmates art, and decided it would be good to take up the challenge.
He remembered a teacher telling him art is something you have or don’t have. His experience as a teacher has led him to believe the mind is a sponge and that it is up to a person to keep his or her mind open to learn and experience new things. Mohammed believes that is the key to doing good work.
While a lot of prisoners did not have any formal training, he has certification from the YTEPP commercial art programme.
Mohammed sees value in the inmates being able to express themselves through art and the positive impact it has had on himself and other inmates. There are times when he has to speak to his students firmly as any teacher would when required, but he is astounded by their ability to express themselves and find a voice through their work.
For Mohammed and the other inmates, engaging in the studio space is a form of therapy.
Andrew Douglas is a testament to this.
Douglas has been in the prisons' system for 30 years. He was just 22 when he was sentenced to 75 years on a capital charge. He is now 51.
His home is now Carrera Convict Prison where he produces beautiful paintings.
Despite being incarcerated, Douglas has put the time to good use by participating in every programme in system.
"I am a mentor, broadcaster, radio announcer, deejay, a minister of the gospel, and a certified ALTA (Adult Literacy Tutors Association) tutor. Mentoring is my way of giving back. Art is my way of expressing myself with respect to giving back to society. The harm I have done I can't make up for it, but I can improve on myself and improve on my work. I can educate young men not to come into the prison system.
"Prison is not a nice place, but it is a place for you to learn, to be motivated. I became closer to God. Out there I couldn't understand who God was. Now I know who God is, I know my purpose and I know who I am. Prison has been a blessing to me, in disguise. I am not saying I like prison, but I have made every use to develop and transform myself."
Douglas said he trusted that something positive could happen and he would get an opportunity to be a free man once again. As much as he wanted to get out, he was waiting on God's timing.
"I lost my son, my only child two years ago. He was killed in a fight. He was stabbed in his chest. As much as I want to go out there I am waiting on the right time. I might go out there and something might happen. I learned to wait on Him, to trust Him. I am here on a capital charge, so karma... That's how I look at it. What goes around comes around.
"I think I should say this. I didn't go to kill anyone. I panicked and the person died, so I am not glorifying the act. I am extremely sad and remorseful as to what happened. I was young, immature and never listened to my parents."
This was why he can say prison didn't break him, it made him. It was not easy, and he thanked God for who he was now. "I cannot change anybody but I can encourage them by example.