Art at Guantanamo

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In prison, those things withheld from and denied to the prisoner
become precisely what he wants most of all.

~Eldridge Cleaver~

 This morning at the gym, I was watching the news as I worked out on the treadmill. Then a woman changed the channel to Fox. I watched as one of the panelists carried on about how awful it was that prisoners at Guantanamo were allowed to produce art. The implication was that they should be punished and allowed no amenities. The prisoners at Guantanamo are detainees and it does not appear that any of them have been convicted of a crime by a court. It also appears that these detainees are not allowed private access to lawyers, a right central to the American sense of justice.

Several years ago I volunteered through Americorps at Genesee Orleans Council on the Arts. One of the projects I considered was a display of art by inmates at local prisons. The bureaucracy involved became too much for me to contend with and I did not complete the project. Yet I did spend considerable time exploring prison art and had a chance to consider its usefulness.

I learned that art for prisoners is no different than it is for anyone else. It is a chance to express ideas in ways which words cannot always do. Art expresses hopes, despair, longing, rage and frustration among other feelings. Of course there are more direct ways of expressing feelings.

Direct ways of expressing rage and anger are among the major causes of people being in prison in the first place. In the case of Guantanamo detainees are there due to suspicion of such behavior. Further dehumanizing prisoners before and after conviction through years of punishment and allowing little if any chance to act as a human being makes it harder for prisoners to readjust to society when they finally get the chance. It also reinforces any antisocial tendencies they might have.

What if we encouraged prisoners to find more constructive ways to express their feelings rather than acting them out? What if that helped them confront their own feelings? What if the rest of us relearned the place of art in humanizing our society? Something to consider.

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