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The Art of Storytelling—Words Uncaged

WordsUncaged: Voices from inside Lancaster Prison

May 17, 2018–December 31, 2018

In the United States, 49,000 people are currently serving life without parole sentences. The thoughts, hopes, and dreams of prisoners are silenced the moment their sentence is delivered, and the prison door slams shut. We forget that a change in environment doesn’t strip you of your emotions and your ability to grow as an individual. Prisoners still feel happiness, sorrow, and remorse as we do. WordsUncaged is an attempt to explore those silenced feelings.

WordsUncaged is a creative platform created by the men of A-Yard California State Prison, Lancaster, most of whom are serving a sentence of life without possibility of parole (LWOP),  envisioned by California State University, Los Angeles professor Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, and funded by California Humanities. Its purpose is for incarcerated artists, writers, students, and poets to critically engage in dialogue with members of the public through portraits, paintings, and oral and written history. The project began as a journal with a collection of creative and autobiographical stories, poems, and visual art made by some of the incarcerated men in California State Prison, Lancaster and has since expanded into an art exhibit and a second journal.

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Bradley Joe G. Arrowood, age 48, admitted 1995

Photo credit: F. Scott Schafer

I am Bradley Joe G.  Arrowood.  I am responsible for the death of Mark Albanese in 1993. I was 23 years old and sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole the “Walking Dead” I became. I had nothing left to live for. I had self fulfilled the prophecy of my father that I was worthless and would amount to nothing. In 1996 I quit drugs and returned to church. I quickly realized that everything  bad in my life was by my choices to use, sell, and collect money for drugs. In  2000, I found out I had a daughter in the foster care system. Another victim of my actions. I now realized that if my daughter was a victim, what about Mark’s children, Mark’s family, witnesses, my community and society itself; where does it all end…. I was ashamed I had done all this. From that point on I knew that I had to change forever. I had to be better for others, not just myself.  I started with life skills, parenting and anger management classes. I started going back to school.I had to make sure if my life was over, someone else’s would not be. I killed a man and cannot undo this, but I can still change; I did change; and I am giving back.

I AM:

Remorseful and ashamed of myself

A college graduate

A Cal State University, Los Angeles Student

Saving dogs’ lives who were slated for death

Training Service Dogs for Military Veterans

diagnosed with PTSD

A College  and GED tutor

An example of change for others to follow

A community minded person

A loving Father and Grandfather

NOT WORTHLESS

and now I have hope too. The Governor of California has granted me mercy, based upon  change, education, helping juveniles, Veterans and other prisoners; has commuted my sentence to Life With the possibility of Parole to allow me to prove myself to the Board of Parole Hearings.

An excerpt from WordsUncaged the book written by  Bradley:

I have been, and continue to be, reintroduced to the uncomplicated, joyful colors of my humanity.

Tobias Alfonso Tubbs, age 47, admitted 1993

Photo credit: F. Scott Schafer

I identified me as a man who has grown tremendously in the last three decades. A man who regardless of being   sentenced to death, housed in the most horrendous and terrifying conditions positively changed his life, and helped others change their lives. Identify me as a man who has reconnected to his humanity and fully understands  the preciousness of all living beings. Please identify me as a man who has taking full advantage of the time allotted to me to address the childhood fears, shame, trauma, and hyper-vigilance that lead me to point I assisted in taken of human life. Identify me as a person who totally dedicated to a life of atonement, amends, and service. I am a man who has cultivated his talents, skills and gifts though  higher education, intense rehabilitative efforts and profound spiritual endeavor. Please identify me as a man who offers loving-kindness, critical consciousness, vision and voice to every space he enters. Lastly, identify me as a man if, when, I return to my community, know that I am humbled, appreciative, and driven by emotional literacy, holding tremendous social capital.  Thank you!

Tobias Alfonso Tubbs was sentenced to serve 27 years, LWOP commuted to 25 to Life (juvenile offender).
An excerpt from WordsUncaged the book written by Tobias:

Prior to my incarceration, my life reflected that of a productive law-abiding citizen. I was not gang-affiliated, nor did I have a criminal record. I wore many hats: I was a youth mentor working with a  police basketball league, a co-business owner with my father (electrical construction), a coach, a social activist, a junior mentor at my church, high school graduate, a loved son, big brother, stepdad, and  pillar of my community.

Hidden amongst those admirable qualities, was a young man that exercised inexplicably poor  judgment. Misguided trust put me on the path of destruction. Innocent lives, like candlelight, were extinguished in an appalling wave of devastation, shattering countless lives in its wake. Twenty-six years of relentless remorse and pain have driven me to better myself, to prove I am worthy of redemption. This is when Critical Pedagogue One, or CP¹, was born.

Tin Tri Nguyen, age 45, admitted 1995

Photo credit: F. Scott Schafer

Within my Prison Blues

P24706 was 24 when he committed a horrific crime, and was incarcerated at the age of 25. He was scared, hurt, angry and fill with hate. He was “dumber than cow; lets’ hope he is good with his hands,” thus, insecure. He was a gang member , drug addict and criminal; “He’s either gonna  be buried under dirt or concrete.” He was an inmate, convict or CDCR prisoner; “He’s an animal; lets lock him up.”

Beyond Prison Blues

Tin is a son, brother, uncle and friend. He is loving, kind, and gentle.  He is honest and trustworthy. He has compassion, patient and empathy. He is intelligent and is a student at CalState LA. He is a tutor for fellow inmates who wish to acquire their GED or AA/BA degree. He is a service dog trainer for veterans with PTSD, and a mentor for Paws For Life (PFL) newer members. He is a human being, a man.

I Am

I am serving “The Other Death Penalty,” Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP). I am a living amends with an apologetic heart for the crime I committed against  Mr. Stanko Vuckovic , families friends, and the community. I am remorseful. I am a Catholic, and regardless of who I am, or where I am, my place is next to God. There, I am hopeful; I am happy; there I am alive and I know I will be alright.

I am my past and present, and with positive changes, I will make my future.

An excerpt from WordsUncaged the book written by Tin:

Coming to America at a young age was confusing to him. He was trapped between the generation of Vietnamese refugees that knew they were Vietnamese, and the generation of Vietnamese Americans that were born here. At the age of five, he had to learn a new language, but he did not yet understand his first language. Trying to learn his ABC’s at school, and speaking Vietnamese at home was taking its toll. He would rather play marbles. Falling behind in his English as he grew. His family was too busy (earning monthly rent) to teach young Tin proper Vietnamese. The community labeled him unintelligent. Through the years, he heard comments ranging from “dumber than a cow” to (in its most polite form) “some are good with their brain, and some are good with their hands. You’re the latter.” Using this as his justification, he decided school was not for him. This is the heart of Tin’s insecurity.

Charlie Praphatananda, age 41, admitted 2001

Photo credit: F. Scott Schafer

In 2008, I earned my A.A. degree, and in 2009 I co-founded the inmate activity group A.C.E. (Achieving College Education) which supports indigent inmates       enrolled in the Coastline program and I started  volunteering  my time to tutor inmates studying for their  GED. In 2012, I co-founded the inmate activity group H.E.A.R.T. (Helping Everyone Attain Real Transformation).  And I co-founded the peer-to-peer group  F.O.L.C.C. (For Our Local Community Charities) which  donates crocheted items. I am an activist in the struggle to abolish LWOP, and to end the oppressive nature  of the Prison Industrial Complex. I am a pro-active and valued member of The Other Death Penalty Project (T.O.D.P.P.) a non-profit organization that fights to get the word out that LWOP is not just a death sentence, it’s a cruel death

sentence that needs to be abolished.  In 2013, I was  featured in T.O.D.P.P.’s anthology Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough (available on amazon.com or at www.theotherdeathpenalty.org). In 2016, I was also one of the first prisoners selected to be in the pilot cohort of incarcerated Cal-State-L.A. students. I continue my living amends through charitable work and crocheting for those in need, while mentoring my nieces and nephews in the  importance and power their choices have.

I AM:

My identity is that of a Son, a Brother, the world’s greatest Uncle, and an Activist in the struggle to end the inhuman sentence of LWOP, a Cal State-L.A. Student, an Innovator, Creator, and a Crocheter.

I am a Man, who has flaws, who makes mistakes, and who struggles daily to make amends to the community I have harmed. I am Charlie Praphatananda, not T-05163, but a Human Being.

Lorenzo James Flores, age 42 , admitted 1998

Photo credit: F. Scott Schafer

I am Lorenzo James Flores. I am 42 years of age. I was   incarcerated at the age of 21. I was sentenced to 3  consecutive 20 year gun enhancement (that is 25 to life, plus life, plus life, plus 20 years).

The insight of my life has awakened me. Wrong choices are a matter of life and death; the grave or life in prison. The right choices I now make, lead me to a life of service unto others. My main concern is our at-risk youth who come from broken homes as I did. I will continue to work,  intervene, counsel, and find some way to detour our youth from ending up in prison for life. I will continue to do this work from in here and when I come home if I am granted a second chance. I am sorry for the wrong I have done to the community and to our country as a whole. I find solace  living a life of amends. Thank you for listening.

Roel Escobar, age 67, admitted 1990, Recreation

Chris Branscombe, age 43, admitted 1996, Mother and Son

Mother and Son is taken from a photo of Allen Burnett, one of the WordsUncaged writers at Lancaster. It is painted from a picture of Allen and his mother in South LA to commemorate her passing while Allen was still in prison – both men currently have life with parole sentences.

I am Life Without Parole, J30016
I am whosoever will.
I am changing.

I am her Daddy, her big brother, her grandson.
I am husband, love of my life.

I am their inspiration and motivation, the example – their example.

I am leading, learning, and growing, i am Black / Asian,
California multicultural.

I am change.
I am Allen Burnett.

Brian Hefner, age 54, admitted 1983, Through a Mother’s Eye

This painting symbolizes a mother watching the scene in the final moments leading up to her son’s execution. Even in this moment, being present shows the Mother’s support.

Sadiqu Saibu, age 34, admitted 2007, State of Mind

The painting is a combination of a “happy accident” and a “screw you.” The painting underneath was a tank scene I painted for a commission of a Correctional Officer, and he flaked me. Also, I always wanted to do a painting of Malcolm X, and I became tired of waiting on the C.O…so I started painting over the tank scene and my co-workers told me to stop and look at what I was doing.

​I started to see how both paintings began to meld together and what it started to say to me, “conflict between politics and religion.”

Chris Branscombe, age 43, admitted 1996, Entangled Illumination

This is about transformation and being thrashed between our primal urges and conscious mind. We have all experienced this in some way only to find that we cannot accept our actions or do not find them as fulfilling as the fantasy that produced them. Sometimes an action is so all consuming  it destroys that part of the person utterly. In its place is born insanity or enlightenment… Such things can be hard to distinguish at times, outwardly anyway. So this is a vision of madness and enlightenment. Much like Tibetan mandalas sacred moments can be quite ugly & contradictory.  We are the product of how we see our short-comings. The idea of perfection is the illusion and the seed of all real failure.

 

Chris Branscombe, age 43, admitted 1996
Chris Mann, age 44, admitted 1995
Irredeemable

Life Without parole (LWOP) offers no hope or path to redemption. Cast aside like trash — and regarded as such — viewed differently than all mankind and stamped “Irredeemable” by a system built on failure. LWOP inhumanely assess that a human-being is incapable of positive change and lacks the capacity to make a positive  contribution to society. To be permanently defined  by a    moment in time — a singular senseless act, lacks the practical purpose to rehabilitate or serve society. The purpose for labeling something is to be able to quickly identify it. In prison we are labeled and transformed into a commodity… no longer human beings; we are inmates. If the outside world sees my self-rehabilitation, desire to change,   or the value I have developed; the Department of Corrections ensures that the stencil on my clothes “CDCR PRISONER” announces that I’m labeled as IRREDEEMABLE.

Brian Hefner, age 54, admitted 1983, Transcendence

My painting is a symbolical representation of my own struggles in understanding what kind of man I want to commit to being and building the courage to live in this better way, even in the face of all opposition.

 

Kwebb, age 27, admitted 2011, Queen Kunta

This is a portrait of the sun, moon, and constellations, light the darkness,  embodiment of god’s creation. She is beauty in the flesh; she is every synonym of love that exists.This is my heart, my love, my best friend.

“THIS IS MY WIFE.”

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Exhibit Opening

See below for a video of the opening reception on May 17, 2018 with remarks from WordsUncaged Project Director Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy and Jon Grobman, a life without parole (LWOP) inmate recently pardoned by Governor Jerry Brown, as well as a live musical performance by Tim Stafford playing original songs inspired by his conversations with Lancaster Prison inmates.

Exhibit Closing

See below for a video of a panel held at the WordsUncaged exhibit reception on September 27, 2018 including opening remarks from the project director and professor at California State University Los Angeles,  Dr. Bidhan  Chandra Roy, and special remarks from Travielle Craig Pope, DeAngelo McVay, and Jon Grobman – three men who were serving Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) sentences until recently when Governor Jerry Brown pardoned them.