The Pulitzer Center’s Talks @ Pulitzer Focus on Justice Series continued on Tuesday, July 8, 2020, with a discussion on the potential of art and activism to bring about transformational change. Art for Justice Fund Project Director Helena Huang interviewed Norris Henderson, founder and executive director of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) and Voters Organized to Educate, and Brian Frank, photojournalist and Pulitzer Center grantee.
Huang placed the webinar within the context of a national “reckoning and opening,” a moment where art is facilitating the reimagination of policing, criminalization, and mass incarceration.
Demands “for reallocating resources from police and law enforcement, abolishing prisons, shrinking the footprint of our punitive punishment culture” have provided “a chance to liberate our imaginations and really begin to allocate resources to all the things that we all need in order to live healthy and full vital lives,” Huang explained.
Throughout the webinar, Henderson and Frank reflected on the role of visual storytelling to create opportunities for transformational justice and systemic reform. They covered a range of topics, from art as a form of therapy to felony disenfranchisement.
Henderson, who was wrongfully incarcerated for 27 years, spoke about his experience politically “organizing inside.” In addition to building a hospice program, “we created an organization that became the political arm inside the prison,” he said. For his part, Frank highlighted his photography documenting the stories of some of the 40% of Californian firefighters who are currently incarcerated–working 24 hour shifts alongside professional firefighters but unable to work in this field once released because of their convictions. He also shared his work with court-involved youth through photography workshops.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation and Question & Answer segment of the webinar, moderated by Huang. Portions of this text have been revised for clarity and/or length.
Helena Huang: Could you share your origin story, the work you’re doing, and specifically, how art has been a unique tool that you have used to bring about individual and macro change?
Brian Frank: I'm formerly incarcerated myself, and my experiences in that world, and the ways in which I was policed differently than other young boys of my age, shaped my whole view on society. I really started focusing my journalism on criminal justice when I was about to become a father, and I found myself on assignment in a juvenile facility just by sheer chance. I was thinking about my experiences with authority and how that often was tinged by racism coming from a mixed-race family, and how I didn't want my boy to have to have to go through the same things that I went through. And then I find myself in this juvenile facility. I was introduced to this facility as an ‘Inmate Firefighter Camp,’ and I think it's important to talk about branding here and what the state has done with that. I was brought there to show that California has these inmate firefighters doing good in the community. What we’re really talking about here is prison labor. As I kind of started to work with a lot of these kids, and they were kids, it shook my whole worldview. I started seeing myself in a lot of these guys. It was it was a really powerful experience as an artist, it was a real awakening for me. I think it's important to understand some of the crossover here between journalism and art. It's okay for me to have opinions and it's okay for me to use a medium to share my opinions on a visceral level.
I wrote down how I felt about the fear and the pain of being dragged into adulthood too quickly, by being put in cuffs and being persecuted. I've found that it's been a really therapeutic experience for me to be able to share my emotions, my pain, my experiences through the arts, but in a journalistic manner, because I do rely on ethics and truth telling first and foremost. To be able to use mediums of art to get these feelings across has been a really powerful thing for me. I've found that through the arts, through visual storytelling in particular, I can reach out to people that I just couldn't reach out to in any other way because I can focus on our common humanity. I can focus on our shared experiences. I can focus on our common loves and fears. I can focus on that with my camera, as opposed to focusing on the typical images that we would see around criminal justice in the media. I can then hopefully reach folks that in a way that hits them emotionally and maybe they think about things in a different way. The power of the arts and visual mediums is to share these things with folks so that they can feel some of that as well.
HH: Could you share your story, your work, and a little bit about how art and your advocacy have come together?
Norris Henderson: Angola Prison was known as the bloodiest prison in America. And it was known for its brutality more so than anything else. What that hospice program taught me more than anything else, was about man's humanity for other men. One of my friends got sick, was in the hospital, I went to visit him. As a volunteer, I had carte blanche to visit the hospital and patients. I asked if someone had been around to give him his bath. And he said no. I said I’ll get you your bath. The look on his face that here's a man saying he's willing to give you a bath. This was kind of like taboo inside an all-male prison. It taught me that these are the barriers that we break down. We were blessed that it was documented. It actually humanized us. It began to open the door for us to represent ourselves in a different way. That documentary shined the light on what was going on behind those fences. People who would visit and say man this is a massive place, I'm saying yeah don't let it deceive you. Those fences are not to keep us in, they’re to keep you out because they don't want people to come in to see the human side. They don't want this narrative to change.
We made a conscious decision. We can either change our conditions or change our circumstance. We chose the latter, and we started to collectively work together. I worked in the prison law library as a librarian. And we started recruiting other guys with good legal minds, but at the same time guys who were other leaders inside the prison. It's kind of funny when people talk about organizing outside. Organizing inside is tough. What came out of that was this sense of we can do something, we can really change this narrative around what is going on with us. We created an organization that became the political arm inside the prison. We actually started filing legislation. We were successful in early ‘90s, getting a parole bill passed that created parole eligibility for everybody in the prison, but lifers. But the lesson learned from that was that sometimes being on the cutting edge of change, you don't benefit from the change you bring about. We created this change, but none of the lifers inside the prison were able to benefit from it. Fast-forward 30 years to 2017. We were able to get that legislation passed, to create parole eligibility for those lifers. I've had a lot of internal and external successes, but I think that hospice program really set the tempo because it showed people what our potential really was. Moving from an environment where everyday you're thinking about, will I have to hurt somebody today or will I be hurt today, to an environment, where, all we wanted to do was take care of each other. Because we realized at that moment all we had was each other.
HH: Did Brian stay in touch with any of the youths photographed at the camp? Where did he publish the initial images?
BF: I'm touch with a lot of guys. I get letters all the time and I reach out. Some of the guys, I’ve followed up with and photographed their returns home. Some of the guys unfortunately have gotten locked back up. Most people end up getting locked back up due to probation violations, etc., which is a whole other discussion. The reason the majority of people go back to prison in this country is for technical violations, not for new crimes. I end up being an advocate for a lot of them in court, I write letters to the court, etc. I stay in touch with their families because I become friends with a lot of these guys. I feel a kinship with a lot of them and I know that I could have easily been them and by some fortune, I was able to escape the trap. And we’ve become really tight. And yes, several of them I'm in touch with all the time.
HH: Peggy (from the audience) would like to hear your opinion on the struggle to give parolees and formerly incarcerated individuals the right to vote. It's just beyond unthinkable that people coming home don't have the right of full citizenship.
Norris Henderson: I've been an advocate for voting rights for almost 40 years. I actually saw inside when I was doing some research and realize that our constitution-we had just changed our constitution in 1974-and it didn't prohibit formerly incarcerated people from having the right to vote. Its challenge was that most folks outside believe that once a person went to prison they actually lost their right to vote, which is true in a lot of states. I think in 2000, Bush v. Gore peeled the onion back on the impact of felon disenfranchisement. I've been beating that drum ever since. We were instrumental in the campaign in Florida with Amendment 4. The very same year we got the right resorted to people on probation and parole here in Louisiana. Again, that's the drumbeat that I march by. There's no correlation between a person going to prison and losing his right to vote; there’s no statute in any state that once you get sentenced by a judge, they say oh and by the way, I'm sentencing you to lose your right to vote. That's just the collateral consequence from Jim Crow. The Jim Crow era realized that if we took the right away from people of color, we can rule with an iron fist and that's what they've done for the last hundred years. Now, in light of George Floyd, a lot of people starting to revisit that. If you look at Mississippi, they got rid of the Confederate flag. They’re looking at all the Jim Crow policies that impacted felony disenfranchisement. Not just registering, but getting people to actually participate. I'm kind of proud to say that in the last 17 years that I've been home, and even before I came home, we were helping elect people from behind the walls. And since I've been home, I've helped elect two governors, a mayor, and umpteen judges. People who are closest to those problems, they’re much closer to the solution. We understand the impact that these positions, offices have on people's lives. We've watched the impact from a distance and now we’re not bystanders, we're participants. So, it's easy for us to push the envelope in that direction.
HH: Can you say a little bit about the ways in which formerly incarcerated leaders are organizing—voter engagement, voter registration, FICPFM—a little bit about the structure and maybe some of the plans that are in the works for this November?
NH: That network, FICPFM, is Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People and Families Movement. It's a core group of us who got together, we are from California, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida New York, Carolina, and we kind of came together and realize that we’re all doing the same work across this country. Let's collectivize the work that we're doing to pull something together. We formally, in 2011, created FICPFM. We've had several national gatherings every, regional gatherings, to educate organizations that are led by direct impact leadership. Building all for, what we've been able to do here in Louisiana, what we've done in Florida, what we've done in Alabama. That election with Doug Jones. We're gearing up now, we're working in California now about AB 6, trying to restore the right to vote to people on parole. We awaking up this sleeping giant across this country because not only are we 2 million people inside, we’re the families of those 2 million people that are inside. We have this inside-outside strategy where we’re still connected with our folks inside, and when it comes to this time of the year, election season, we’re on the phone with our folks educating them to educate their family and friends about what they need to do. COVID-19 put some water on us too because we were planning our national gathering to butt up against the conventions of the two parties and to move the needle in that direction in the sense of what we want. What's the base station for us? Everybody is talking about what they're doing or what they’re planning to do, but we have a wish list, these are not requests, these are demands that we're making because we're tired of going to people with hat in hand. One, we understand now the power that we actually have within our hands at the ballot box. Just like Brian was saying, he stays in touch with those young men, they follow his leadership. One of the things that we've been able to build across this country and in our network is the kind of credibility that we need to move a mass movement of people. Our biggest push to people now is that if we have thrown caution to the wind around COVID-19, and we in the streets, we have to show up this very same way in November. Our life is on the line right now. This is a life and death moment for us in this country. We have to see it that way. The way we change that is going out and selecting people to do our bidding for us.
HH: Recommendations, good organizations to connect people to if they want to get involved?
BF: The way that I've been able to really tangibly get into the community and help folks directly, has been through local universities. For instance, by brother-in-law runs a program for formerly incarcerated students trying to get into university. I took my first journalism class while I was living in a work-furlough program, and it changed my life. I have found those higher education institutions to be totally integral. In those places, there are support networks for folks that are getting out and really need basic fundamental help. It could just be like a bus pass to get to school, little stuff that we don't even think about. In my local university, there’s a program called Project Rebound. They literally are just there to bridge that gap and help some of these guys and girls find these opportunities and expand their minds which is really the key. As folks get educated, they really start to understand the system and their place it and how they're being exploited by it for their whole lives. It just can open up all types of opportunities, so I’d encourage people to be helpful in those in those areas. That's where I've had the most success.