Drawing at the Baltimore Detention Center

On Friday, I took my students to the Baltimore City Detention Center to draw and interview some of the inmates in Cell Block E. I am most grateful to Dr. Kevin McCamant for working all semester to help make this a reality for us. Dr. McCamant is a psychologist who works with MICA’s community arts program to use art therapy with the inmates there. Most inmates on Block E are in for light crimes like, theft, vandalism, and trespassing. However, there are a few who are in for more serious crimes. To be clear, the detention center is NOT a prison. The men there are awaiting trial. In my understanding the men there cannot be held over three years. Most of the men I talked to had only been there between 2 months and a year. Longer sentences are carried out in prison.

Before entering the facility we all had to pass security inspection, which meant removing all jackets, sweaters, coats, jewelry, watches, and sometimes shoes (similar to what you would do to pass airport security). Afterwards we had to walk through a metal detector. One student and I did not pass the metal detector due to the metal in our underwire garments and had to wait for a supervisor to scan us with a wand before heading upstairs. Once we walked through a few corridors and many locking gates, we arrived in the dayroom where some of the inmates were having lunch – not unlike what you would see in any high school cafeteria.

The day went very well. The men were happy to see fresh faces from outside and have their likenesses drawn. The students and I enjoyed the stories that they shared about their families, talents, and passions. One of my students joined me in walking down to draw some of the cells. I chose cell 49 and after bringing the drawing back to share, the men teased Clarence, it’s inhabitant, because of the messy state of his dormitory. In contrast, my student drew cell 48, which was very neat and tiny. When he shared the drawing, the inmate it belonged to beamed with pride at his neatness.

The experience was valuable to all. I personally thought about institutionalization and how we are all conditioned at a very young age. There wasn’t much difference between the environments of public school and the detention center. Both are under very strict supervision and rules. We are told when to eat, when to use the restroom, when to go outside (a lot of men hadn’t seen the outdoors in months). I am much more sympathetic now to the “problem children” from my days in elementary, middle, and high school who acted out and struggled with performance in that very rigid climate. It is a highly sterile and unnatural environment. I think of myself, who was a model student. I stayed in line, didn’t question the authority in place and made it through the system sucessfully in order to become a “model citizen”; therefore reinforcing the system and the production of more and more model citizens . . . drones . . . slaves . . . etc.

One of the men, Charles, asked us if we would find it strange to see someone standing in front of a mirror drawing themselves. We laughed and said, we do it all the time, and are often required to at some point in our development as artists. He laughed and said if they (the administration) saw one of the inmates drawing themselves in a mirror and talking to themselves they would probably strap them into a straight jacket. We all laughed and said, yeah, it’s typical of most artists too, but that most artists are also a tad “off”. Charles then shared with us his fantastic talent in impersonation and character voice overs and then asked how he would get into that type of work.

From that, I thought how lucky we are as students and myself, as a professional artist and professor, to be around people who are invested in helping us grow and succeed in our fields. To have a community of thinkers and dreamers who constantly offer advice and share their own stories of triumphs and failures is invaluable in these types of careers. We learn to be problem solvers and to use all of our resources to further ourselves instead of remaining stuck in a position of, “What if?” or “How can I?”. Though it has shaped the way I see the world, I don’t credit my institutionalization for this primarily. My education began at home first. Being raised by a single mother and strong grandmother who believed strongly in self education and good old fashioned common sense is where I first learned how to answer questions and then seek answers through books and people who have learned through their own experiences.

We wrapped up the day by coming together in a circle and sharing our drawings and thoughts about the experience. I hope to do this again in the future. We all share similar beginnings and experiences in this life, and I believe the more we share those commonalities, the better off we all are.