From left, facilitators Bruce Noddin of the Maine Prisoner Reentry Network and Robyn Goff of the Maine Coastal Reentry Center listen to community members share stories and learn from one another during the Nov. 2 Franklin County Community Action Meeting on local reentry and recovery efforts for formerly incarcerated people at UMF’s Emery Community Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Emma Pierce

FARMINGTON — University of Maine at Farmington’s Emery Community Arts Center is hosting a multimedia exhibit, “sea/sky, blood, earth, you” — via artwork advocating for the rights of incarcerated people and challenging the mass-incarceration systems —  until Thursday, Dec. 9.

Specifically, the exhibit is advocating for the liberation of aging and terminally ill incarcerated people and the overall rights of incarcerated people.

The exhibit is part of the state-wide initiative “Freedom & Captivity,” which calls for an “abolitionist future”; the “dismantlement of oppressive and racist systems of policing, incarceration, captivity and surveillance”; and “the commitment to community-led systems of care, strategies to reduce harm and life-nurturing futures.”

In addition to the exhibit, UMF is hosting a series of community action meetings on incarceration in Franklin County through the New Year. The next one will be Tuesday, Dec. 14.

The first one, held Nov. 2, was attended by community leaders, representatives from local health-care providers, local organizations, law enforcement, and representatives from various prisoner advocacy organizations and re-entry support initiatives (“the process by which prisoners who have been released return to the community”).

The attendees and organizations included Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols, Franklin Community Health Network, Maine Prisoner Re-Entry Network, Greater Franklin Development Council, Western Maine Community Action and Maine Prisoner Advocacy Project (MPAC).

The exhibit was organized by interdisciplinary arts collective TUG Collective in collaboration with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Restorative Artworks, The Cannery and Downeast Restorative Justice.

TUG Collective is directed by Gaelyn Aguilar, UMF associate professor of anthropology, and Gustavo Aguilar, associate arts professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.

TUG was approached by Freedom & Captivity coordinator Catherine Besteman to provide a platform, visibility for formerly incarcerated people recently released from prison and re-entering society, also known as Returning Citizens, Gustavo said.

“That stuck with us,” he added.

Prior to the exhibit, TUG first made public service announcements with Jan Collins and Bobby Payzant of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Organizations that call for legislation and action to provide aging and terminally ill incarcerated people with assisted-living or long-term care.

In the exhibit and PSAs, they state that “although Maine does not have the death penalty, there are many who will, nonetheless, come to the end of their life while incarcerated.”

The exhibit is poignant and moving in the art-forms, pieces it features as a call to action. It calls for legislative reform on mass-incarceration and “reform for elderly and terminally-ill incarcerated individuals.” It also seeks to “raise awareness of the presence of Returning Citizens.”

The introductory description for the exhibit states that the artworks exhibited are intended to help attendees find “empathy – literally, the capacity to feel (pathos) together (em)” and “tap into the part of ourselves that is relational.” That much is required for “freedom,” “decarceration” and “abolition,” TUG states.

This intent to channel the empathy in attendees was certainly palpable inside the exhibit.

An exhibit titled “sea/sky, blood, earth, you” at the University of Maine in Farmington focuses on the need for prisoner-advocacy and mass-incarceration reform. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

The PSAs ask for “support of public policy that would allow inmates, or their advocates, to petition for an evaluation of their need for assisted living or long-term care.”

Most moving is the final statement: “No one should die alone.”

A video of performance art, which features Payzant among others, is projected onto the walls abstractly depicting (what this reporter believes to be) the separation of soul and body upon dying. The word “liberation” rings throughout the exhibition room.

In particular, “liberation” can be heard in a recording of “What does liberation sound like?” performed by the collaborators in a collective music-making event where the group performed on mbiras, “a family of musical instruments native to the Shona people of Zimbabwe … that became instruments of resistance to colonial rule…” At the end of the performance, the collaborators yell out “this is what liberation looks like!” Not a yell of anger, but rather in voices laced with hope and joy followed by sunny laughter.

There are also a series of digital printworks, three of which are aptly entitled “sea/sky,” “blood” and “earth.” There was no you, perhaps because that piece of the puzzle is the attendee.

In the exhibit, Gustavo and Gaelyn wanted to “create a platform where some of these issues and themselves become visible to us,” Gustavo said.

Payzant, who also served 35 years in Maine prisons, believes the visibility provided by the exhibit, community action meetings and overall project is important because it helps expose the general public to the humanity of incarcerated people.

“It’s incumbent upon people out here in society to take the time to get to know individuals, to put faces to names and colorize this black and white thing that we have about actions (or crimes),” Payzant said. “I think when we get more connected to the individuals that make bad decisions, we can get a feeling of what we can do to help — not just to keep society safe, but help these people be a better representation of themselves.”

Collins, who’s father and son were both incarcerated, said it is powerful to “see … upfront and personal” the lives of actively and formerly incarcerated people, as well as the incarceration system.

“We, the public, tend to think of people who are incarcerated as the menacing thing they did to get in prison without thinking about them as a whole person.

“I have never met someone who could honestly tell me that they’ve never broken the law, whether it’s speeding … shoplifting, etc.,” Collins added. “They were lucky enough not to get caught. And if they were caught, they were lucky enough not to get prosecuted.”

While there is no state prison locally, Franklin County is immensely impacted by the carceral system and cyclical nature of incarceration.

“If you live in rural Maine, you have a greater chance of going to jail than you do if you live in the more populous parts of the state,” Collins said. “One of the reasons why we think that is true is because rural Maine does not have a lot of services.”

Collins and Bruce Noddin, Founder and Executive Director of the Maine Prisoner Re-Entry Network, identify these essential services in “rural, spread out” areas as access to adequate and affordable housing, treatment for substance-use disorder, substance-use recovery support groups and services, mental health counseling, transportation services, homeless shelters.

Collins pointed to more populous areas such as Portland where these services are readily available and compared it to a concerning lack thereof in Franklin County.

In the region, some of these services, such as a homeless shelter, are nonexistent. The ones that are around are in high demand and subsequently harder to access. In Franklin County, there is a severe shortage of psychiatric-services providers and there is limited public transportation. Franklin County and Farmington in particular, are also battling housing shortages – or a “crisis” as some have said. Subsequently, organizations and services that try to fill these gaps have incredibly long wait lists.

“The resources that you might be able to reach out to that would help stabilize you in a way that would help you to avoid going to jail (or back to jail), we don’t have,” Collins said.

These services all fight against one of the root causes of re-incarceration: substance-use disorder.

“Recovery relies on all supports … mental health and substance-use treatment, housing, employment, peer support … recovery residences,” Noddin said. “Anything and everything is part of the resources that can determine whether a person has a successful journey and reentry and recovery or not.”

That formula for a successful reentry and recovery was one of the discussions at the first community action meeting on Nov. 2 that will be expanded upon at the next meeting Tuesday, Dec. 14.

“These meetings in Farmington are a plan to look at ‘what’s good about the community?’ … and then ‘what’s missing?'” Noddin said.

“Franklin County Detention Center is starting at programs in jail (to tackle incarcerations for non-violent offenders), we have a whole group of people who are working on dealing with the opioid (and substance-use disorder) crisis that we have in the state and Franklin County,” Collins said. “We do have a great group of people who are working on these issues, and care deeply about these issues, and wants to strengthen our communities.

“But we also have some things that we need to put in place in order for all of that to work,” she added.

At the next meeting, Collins said the group is “going to choose what our priorities are. And then we’re going to work together to find solutions.”

Ultimately, all of those involved hope that the meetings result in action, and perhaps a permanent group or committee to address restorative justice and mass-incarceration reform in Franklin County.

The second meeting (out of a series of four) will be held Tuesday, Dec. 14 from 3-5 p.m. at the University of Maine at Farmington’s North Dining Hall in the Olsen Student Center. “sea/sky, blood, earth, you” will be on exhibition until Thursday, Dec. 9.


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