February 17, 2006

Prisoner Express Rolls Into Town

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Hip-hop, dance, jazz and poetry readings will be performed at Ithaca Unitarian Church Saturday to benefit Prisoner Express, a program working for the rehabilitation of incarcerated people through artistic means.

“The mission behind Prisoner Express is focused on creative self-expression, and the artists at Saturday’s performance support our efforts by mobilizing and performing,” said Gary Fine, assistant director of the Durlands Alternative Library and founder of Prisoner Express.

The hip-hop acts at the performance include 1000s of 1 and Little Egypt. 1000s of 1’s performance this Saturday will be its last before they leave to tour in Hawaii.

“Hip-hop’s a good choice for the show because it’s the culture of a lot of people in the nearby prison, Auburn,” said David Graff, a community outreach volunteer for Prisoner Express.

Sarah Foster, a choreographer and co-founder of Wide-Eyed Dance Theatre, will perform a dance solo accompanied by pianist Tsitsi Jaji grad.

According to Jaji, Foster’s piece mimes the act of finding a piece of paper, reading and writing. Once she discovers the paper, the dance becomes more active and playful as she mimes reading and writing. Foster will be using movement to interpret Prisoner Express’ mission and how the organization helps incarcerated people.

Jaji, founder of music group Cyren, will also be performing original and standard jazz compositions with saxophonist Lester Goodson, drummer Anthony Reed grad, and bassist Dan Wilks.

According to Fine, there will be a performance around the artists’ performances: the reading of testimonials, essays and journal entries by prisoners.

Last summer Prisoner Express organized an art show that included incarcerated people’s creative expression, as Saturday’s performance will.

Prisoner Express sends books to approximately 1,500 incarcerated people across America. The proceeds from the performance will help pay for the $3 postage cost for mailing the books.

According to Graff, shipping costs are $8,000 to $10,000 per year. The organization also publishes a newsletter three times a year, manages a pen-pal service and maintains a website, prisonerexpress.org, that features prisoners’ journal entries.

“Prisoner Express is a great experiment with community building because it allows the outside to get in touch with prisoners – it creates a dialogue,” Graff said.

The rationale behind programs like Prisoner Express may puzzle some – why help convicted criminals?

Fine, Jaji and Graff all acknowledge the financial burden of incarcerated people on state and federal budgets. Imprisonment costs per year range from $20,000 to $60,000.

Fine questions the advantages of housing criminals in prisons, an environment that he calls “degrading and [that will] only makes them crazier and more abusive.” He feels this is especially true for those who will eventually re-join society after their sentence ends.

“With opportunities for creative self-expression prisoners can be more productive and break the behavioral patterns that got them arrested,” Fine said.

Fine’s inspiration for founding Prisoner Express began with a letter from a prisoner sentenced to life in Texas. Daniel Harris, the prisoner, wrote to request books, but Fine wrote back that he couldn’t send any. A few weeks later Fine received another letter from Harris brimming with gratitude just for Fine’s reply.

Fine said that he “realized that his small act, simply writing a letter, could have a huge impact on someone’s life.” This fueled the creation of Prisoner Express.

Through Cornell at Auburn, a 10-year old program that aims to help rehabilitate prisoners before their terms end, Jaji has taught writing courses at Auburn Correctional Facility.

“It’s a sobering way to stay in touch with reality,” she said.

Jaji has also experienced the gratitude and kindness of incarcerated people. When she fell ill during a her first year teaching through Cornell at Auburn, the inmates – her students – sent her get-well cards. She has kept them to this day.

“Writing seems like a space of freedom for prisoners. It seems like a mental space, a more imaginative realm that can seem closed in prison but also has an air possibility,” Jaji said.

Archived article by Jessica DiNapoli
Sun Staff Writer