Friday, July 11, 2014

Crimes of the Art

We focused on criminal justice today, and found ourselves once again on an adventure in a new part of the city. We walked in the heat (OH MY GOD EAST COAST HEAT) to Eastern State Penitentiary for a tour. We waited outside for a while (we're a group of about fifty high school students, so we're a bit of a hassle to deal with), and after we questioned the tiny French flags around part of the wall, Sarah gave us a fun fact: Philadelphians celebrate Bastille Day with a celebration at Eastern State Penitentiary. I researched this later, and found the following on The festival's main event...features dozens of French revolutionaries...storming the grim walls of "the Bastille" (Eastern State Penitentiary) and dragging Marie Antoinette to a real, functioning guillotine, built for the occasion. As Antoinette yells, "Let them eat Tastykake!", a flurry of 2,000 Tastykakes will be flung from the prison's towers.

The exterior of Eastern State Penitentiary
We split into two groups, and my group got Adrienne, a guide who quickly started the tour with the basic facts about the prison. Well, the ex-prison. Eastern State Penitentiary was open from 1829 to 1971, and has since been opened as a historical site. 

What Adrienne told us about the architecture of the building was particularly interesting to me, beyond just the walls (thirty feet high and ten feet deep). Eastern State was designed to intimidate with fortress-like arrowslits and crenellations, but instead of using these features to scare inmates, they were targeted at people on the outside as a means of discouraging crime. Over three hundred prisons are based on the floor plan of Eastern State Penitentiary. It originally had seven cell blocks stretching like the spokes on a wheel from a central guard room, and connecting to one point in the center. With this plan, a guard could stand in a certain spot and see down every cell block simply by turning in a circle. Unfortunately, the architect (John Haviland) had to change the plan partway through construction, as people realized that the prison was filling too quickly, so second floors were added to some of the cell blocks.

Prisons in the 1800s used to have just one large cell, which kept eleven-year-old pickpockets next to fifty-year-old murderers, and inmates basically just learned the "tricks of the trade" in jail. Eastern State used a new model, in which inmates were kept in cells for twenty-three hours, and moved into their own exercise rooms for one hour each day. In its early years, Eastern State Penitentiary was a prison that used nothing but solitary confinement. In the 1910s, it switched from a solitary to a congregate system, so people could exercise in a yard together. 

The point from which guards could see into the seven cell blocks

The view down some of the rows of cells from the center point
The graph
We stopped to talk in front of a graph coming out of the ground, representing the U.S. prison population (proportional to the nation's population), and from the side of the graph, we learned that the U.S. imprisons more of its population than any other country in the world by far. 
We explored the small "Death Row" in Eastern State. While the prisoners in that cell block were to be executed, no one was ever killed on the grounds. Then we talked for a bit about riots and escapes, saw Al Capone's cell (he had a lucky cellmate, it was pretty luxurious), and went into a yard for our fifth Qigong exercise with John. 

The electric door panel and "Death Row"
We walked from the prison to a church nearby, and once we climbed the stairs in the church, we found that the building had become an art studio. The class stood around what appeared to be chunks of canvas with beautiful artwork laid out on the floor. 

We stared at it and attempted (without success) to understand the piece. After a while, Jesse Krimes, the artist, introduced himself to us. 

Jesse made the mural in prison.

The piece, entitled Apokaluptein: 16389067 (the numbers are Jesse's serial numbers from prison) was made on prison bed sheets. He transferred images from the New York Times onto the sheets using hair gel and a plastic spoon, then used a colored pencil to enhance the images. 

Jesse told us his story. After he found out he was having a son, Jesse stopped selling drugs, but he was caught two weeks later. He faced a sentence between forty and fifty months in prison, but his mandatory minimum sentence was raised to twenty years after the presentation of hearsay evidence from people who had no connection to him. 

He described the conditions of life in prison, and told us that his art helped him keep his sanity and his identity. In fact, he was so passionate about art that he shared it: he started giving art classes inside the prisons. Jesse took up a "tough guy" persona and got tattoos, which he described as a "defense mechanism" of many inmates. However, he found that when he actually talked to other prisoners, "...everyone else was just as terrified as I was." He said that prison was not full of deranged, cruel people. They were hardened to become "the most victimized and abused people" he had ever met. He said that in prison, you don't feel like you're a part of society, that it makes you feel "like you're not a person." 

Jesse moved on to explaining the mural on the floor in front of us, and as he showed us the significance of each detail, his piece became a masterpiece.

The magazine images are transferred in reverse, like a mirror image, to represent the twisted reality that the media presents. Jesse showed us his disapproval of celebrity worship and the unrealistic standards that these magazines set. The work has the New York Times images, plus his own images layered above that, figures of ballerinas. Jesse pointed out the three sections of the piece to us: hell, earth, and heaven, and showed us that the "hell" figures were drawn without heads—without intellect—, the "earth" figures were regular bodies, and the "heaven" figures showed the outline of a body. He chose the ballerina to show an "ideal human form" to represent "artificial" norms. 

One of my favorite parts of the work, though, is this: Jessie used images from the New York Times. These were things that were happening in the world outside of prison, things he was missing while he was removed from them.

The lesson from Jesse was my favorite one so far. 

After we left the church, Andy bought us all (yes, all) pizza at what he said was the third-best pizza place in Philadelphia. I got a pineapple Fanta, which I wasn't even sure existed. Fun fact: it exists. We saw some cool murals while we walked back to the train station. We went straight back to class, and Dr. Kirk James  was waiting to speak to us. 
Dr. Kirk James

Kirk started his lecture by talking to us about education, and the correlation between education level and chance of committing a crime. He talked about the recidivism rates in the United States, and how race is a factor in the justice system. 

Andy asked the class who had done drugs before, and received a huge laugh from the class when, after an awkward moment, he pulled a plastic bag with medication from his pocket, and said simply, "My little green pills." It was a pretty awesome moment. 

Kirk moved on to the connection between poverty and crime, and discussed the psychological damage our prisons cause people. He said, "hurt people hurt people." One of my favorite points of his was that there is no clear definition of "criminal," because we had all jaywalked, and that we can't categorize people into "good and bad" people.

Why don't we have fireflies on the
West Coast?!? They're so awesome!

I picked up a care package from my mom (all I have to do is say the word "sick" and this happens) containing the following: hand sanitizer, soup, Goldfish, Oreos, M&Ms, four kinds of cold medicines, and twenty-three packs of tissues. Thanks, mom! I am feeling much better though, so I won't be needing most of the contents of the package. 

Penn Summer Discovery booked some movies for us, so Julia and Donna and I went to watch Tammy, which was pretty funny. We caught fireflies on the way back. Well, mainly, Julia and I did, while Donna watched us freak out. 

It was a great day.

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