A Prisoner’s Rules for Accountable Arts Engagement

by Vern McKee and Bill Cleveland

Vern was president of the both the Art and Musicians Guilds at Vacaville Prison. Back when we started he told us that bringing the arts into Vacaville would save both lives and money.

Here they are:

1. Dress for success: Needless to say — this one seemed a bit odd. It arose from Vern’s perception of the war that was being waged inside was a kind of life and death form of theater—He felt that because there was no territory and no spoils, much of what was being contested was symbolic. He said this, and the fact that most everything about life inside was proscribed meant that costumes meant a lot. He felt that a lot of the artists that were coming in looked like beggars, so no one took them seriously. He also said as the guy running the program I needed to get a haircut and buy a suit. I bought two and went to the barber —–He was right—it made a massive difference.

2. No fools: By this he meant no proselytizers, revolutionaries, or missionaries with romanticized notions of prisoners or prisons. He pointed out that most valuable currency in prison is respect, and when someone from the outside comes in thinking that they have some version of the truth that needs to be delivered unto the wretched masses it was both disrespectful and dangerous. He said all the prisoners wanted was talented outsiders who could teach art and make art. He said the prisoners would decide for themselves how to wield its power.

3. No Hacks: Vern and his fellow artists expected their artist/teacher/collaborators to be honest about what they knew and don’t know. They said that they could recognize, and were highly insulted by phonies and fakes. They made it clear that they wanted the artists coming in to have their artistic shit together.

4. Know that you don’t know where you are: Vern held that the very fact that we could leave, made us visiting earthlings and, that unless we had done time, we would never know what it was like to be a Martian. As long as we accepted we were not hearing and seeing things in the same way the prisoners were we would be OK. He said that the trouble always starts when outsiders start to think they know where they are.

5. Do your Homework: Despite his contention that we would never know exactly where we were, Vern also believed it was our obligation to learn as much as we could about the social, cultural and political landscape we were operating in. He also admonished us not to assume that people and places that looked the same —were the same. He said, everyone has a different story to tell.

6. Good guys and bad guys are not as obvious as they may seem. Vern believed that that the game of survival and the game of life had different rules. He told me that inside prisoners and correctional staff were all in the survival game and that everybody playing has both good guy cards and a bad guy cards that they need to play in order to survive. He said that outsiders looking through black/white lenses were watching the wrong movie, and that this made them highly accident-prone.

7. Free speech = rights + responsibility: Vern lived in an extremely interdependent prisoner culture where everyone was ultimately accountable to everyone else, one way or another. In such a world the question was not whether it was right or wrong to falsely shout fire in a crowded theater, but rather, when you know that the theater is burning how do communicate that fact so that the people affected don’t get burned.

8. No one night stands: Vern was adamant that when the power and force of the creative process was made available prisoners that they should not be turned on and left behind. He said that once a prisoner had become addicted to what he called, the creative life force, we all had a moral responsibility to maintain access to support the habit. He made it clear that for some it would be a matter of life and death.

9. Take care: Places that are chaotic, unpredictable, and violent are toxic. Vern made it clear that he and his mates needed artists who were at their best. He suggested that we adopt a post-disaster self-care regimen as a standard practice. We did that and it made a world of difference.

10. You have nothing but your relationships— This was particularly true for prison life where, who you know and who has your back, can also be a matter of survival. So Vern cultivated and nurtured healthy partnerships inside and out. He was a good partner who never promised more than he could deliver and always kept his word. He was also a good artist.