It all started with a call-in meeting. The police department was hauling in the 10 most notorious ex-cons in the city for a little get-together about both the error of their ways as well as a celebration of the excellent police work that had netted these men years behind bars. Member of the Madison Police Department, FBI, Dane County Sherrif’s department and drug units were there. Community entities like Madison Urban Ministries and Urban League were present.
Concerned citizens showed up as well. Some were there to support the men being paraded around like slaves at an auction in front of everyone and having their past misdeeds re-litigated. Others were there to Stand with the Badge, hoping the police would continue the quest to rid the community of this unseemly type.
Mugshots were shown. Examples were made. Thinly veiled threats were issued.
For local artist and activist Pat Dillon, it all seemed like some kind of over-the-top charade.
The police decided a visual example was needed to provide context for this meeting. A screen dropped down. The police told the attendees this would be a prime example of a good arrest.
Dillon sat flabbergasted when she saw who it was. Pat knew the face instantly. It was a member of her own family, her grandson’s father.
Of course, it was just his mugshot. Hardly representative of the actual him. But the police hooted and hollered and celebrated in the background about how this was the face of a criminal removed from our midst. A midst that was now better for it.
“In the middle of this meeting they drop a video screen and they project a photograph of my grandson’s father,” says Dillon. “And they start talking about him as the most notorious offender in the city. They’re using him as the best example they have of catching the bad guy and putting him in prison. And I’m sitting there and I see his face. I feel voiceless. I know this person. I know his story. I know the path he took to prison. I know his homelessness, everything that led to prison and how transforming it was. He is transforming his life now. He is now a college student. He was a straight A student in high school. And I was voiceless, I couldn’t tell his story.”
The mugshot didn’t even represent him, good or bad. It was a snapshot of one moment in time at a police station somewhere. It didn’t show his crime. It didn’t show his kids or his marriage or his college studies. For Dillon, it was the face of a whole, three-dimensional human being. A man who’d had ups and downs, laughs and cries. A man who had done awful things. A man who had done great things. He lived and breathed and thought and felt, which one snapshot can’t portray.
“He had quite the sophisticated drug raid. I mean he was notorious! But to me I know him and I know how he’s changed his life and I know what took him to prison,” Dillon said. “I know the whole man. And all they do is show a portrait. All they show is a picture of a bad guy. A bad guy. And, of course, it’s a mugshot. So as an artist and a writer I decided that I was going to do what I could to tell the real stories of people who have been traumatized, dehumanized and then stigmatized.”
Dillon reached out to other artists she knew locally and also to ex-offenders to see if she could pair artists with offenders to paint portraits more revealing than a mugshot.
The artists she lined up heard the stories of struggle, disorder, chaos, fear, rage, lust, hopelessness, faith and perseverance of the ex-offenders they painted. The oil paintings now hang elegantly in the Playhouse Gallery on the lower level of Madison’s Overture Center. The exhibit will hang until August 27.
On Saturday night, the people who posed for the portraits gathered with the artists and members of the community to celebrate the deepening of understanding those who have gone to prison. The men and women who have been imprisoned need to be acknowledged as real human beings, and this gave opportunity to those seeking that acknowledgment.
“I think it’s definitely inspiring to see people who aren’t directly linked to the experience come out and show support to become aware of the impacts of mass incarceration and the over incarceration of our people,” said Caliph Muob-El, who helps lead the Focused Interruption Coalition and is Executive Director of Breaking Barriers Mentoring Inc. “I think that when you have people like Pat Dillon who was able to put that in an artistic format, I believe that’s a really creative format to put it in and reaches different kinds of people and different demographics of people.”
Muab-El is one of the subjects portrayed in the paintings on display at Overture. He said that posing for the portraits allowed him to sit in silence and reflect on the journeys his life has taken him on while at the same time allowed him to be portrayed as a full human being.
“I think that it’s powerful, just the paintings, the imagery,” Muab-El said. “You can see the pain captured in a still form but yet not really know what’s happening in the mind of the person being painted. Whether they’re reliving the experiences or whether those experiences are passing through. I think it’s a powerful, powerful statement. It’s a powerful and artistic way to really touch an issue that’s prime in our time right now.”
The issue. What exactly is the issue? For the police who paraded in the notorious ex-offenders, it’s a matter of pride. They seemed proud, at least to some in attendance, of the kind of work it took to get the streets clean. For the fans of that work, it’s about not wanting to be afraid of the others in our midst who may breaking the law.
But for many, many people, the public and the system is guilty of rejecting the humanity of entire races and groups of people, seeking ways to shove them down to second class status. That’s what inspired Muab-El to pose for the paintings.
Caliph Muab-El paused during this discussion to look around at all the people. There was Pat Dillon, there were members of the public, the artists and ex-offenders. Muab-El hoped awareness was being raised by everyone being present for this Overture exhibit.
“I’m certain that it has brought awareness,” Muab-El said. “I wish that more people would come up with creative ideas to humanize the issue of mass incarceration because we’re not talking about animals. We’re not talking about cave people. We’re talking about human beings. Some have paid their debt to society. Many of these people are suffering because they have mental health illnesses. Over 60 percent of our system is consumed with people who are mentally ill. So we’re talking about criminalizing people who are in need of help as opposed to people who are in need of discipline. And I think that arresting our way out of a situation is never the right way to go. We have to always reflect on the humanity of people. We have to always recognize the importance of people. Because when we get away from that, that becomes the issue. That becomes the real issue.”
Jerome Dillard, the founder of Voices Beyond Bars in Madison, agrees. But he says the issue won’t get dealt with as long as we sweep the issue of mental illness under the rug.
“You can’t heal what you don’t reveal. There’s so many people walking around with mental health issues, with traumas, with stress,” Dillard said while touring the Overture exhibit. “What I love about what Pat did, she put a face to it. And this exhibit shows that these are real people who have experienced incarceration. Many on the walls here that I see have turned their lives around. They’re doing great things in the community. So I say we have to humanize the issue.”
For Jan Richardson, an artist who participated in the project, the people she painted were easy to see as human. While at the exhibit Saturday she was visibly emotional.
“One of the most moving things about it was hearing what’s happened to these individuals and what they’ve gone through,” Richardson said. “One guy came in and someone noticed that he had an ankle bracelet on and it turned out he had to wear it for life and we were just astounded. I know we all learned a lot and I know it was just an incredible experience for me. I think hearing the stories as we were painting helped us incorporate more into our pieces.”
Rudy Bankston was one of the first models used for the project. Bankston was incarcerated for over 20 years before having his conviction overturned. But sometimes coming home can be just as challenging as going in.
Time stops for people who are serving time. These men and women spend years, decades even in suspended animation while the rest of the world spins. Bankston used his time while incarcerated to write haiku and self-reflective works.
Since his release, Bankston has distanced himself from the dangerous lifestyles that threaten so suck so many former offenders back into the system. Today he serves as a community leader working with the Madison Metropolitan School District.
“Pat knows my story. I’ve shared my story through the work I’m doing,” Bankston said. “I love it because it’s re-humanizing people. I lived through it. So to allow these different stories to be told is important. There’s all races represented on these. It affects all communities.”
Bankston has participated in several showings of the ex-offender portraits. As an accomplished author Bankston represents the best of why it is important to embrace people who have been incarcerated.
Overture Center for the Arts is making a concerted effort to embrace different aspects of community arts and this exhibit represents that effort.
“The message people need to receive is that there’s several paths to prison and a lot of them start with disparities in our city,” Dillon said. “It isn’t just about people who are incarcerated and the treatment of them. I want people to come away with one thing they can do to change what the disparities of people of color are. Whether it’s hiring someone or volunteering to do reentry support, there are a number of different things. That’s what I want people to come away with. This isn’t just about how brutal corrections is but inequity in our system that led a lot of these people to prison while people who are not of color get a pass and opportunity.”