Ex-prisoners and police officers joined together for the Safe Streets Arts Foundation’s annual “From Prison to the Stage” performance as part of the Kennedy Center’s ninth Page-to-Stage exhibition of D.C.-based theater companies Sept. 4, proving art can unify even the most natural of enemies.
The show juxtaposed musical selections by the Prince George’s County Police Rhythm in Blues Band alongside a dramatic play written by an ex-prisoner and an operetta written by Dennis Sobin, director of the Safe Streets Arts Foundation.
Sobin spent ten years in federal and state prisons after being convicted of sex crimes in 1992. Sobin devoted his ten years in prison to the creation of the Safe Streets Arts Foundation – which now offers an artistic outlet for inmates – and to the honing of his own artistic talents.
“When I arrived in prison I had a few goals I wanted to meet,” Sobin said. He wanted to read a lot of books, try his hand at writing and pursue music on a more serious level. Sobin described himself as a “serious amateur” and campfire guitarist prior to his prison years.
While in prison, Sobin wrote letters to influential and affluent people proposing the idea of a foundation dedicated to the promotion of arts activities for the incarcerated.
“I reached out to people on the outside,” Sobin said, describing how some of those with whom he corresponded were generous with their money and ideas alike. “We were successful over the years in using an entrepreneurial model.”
Released in 2003, Sobin left prison monetarily poor, but rich with ideas for what would become the Prison Arts Gallery. The Safe Streets Arts Foundation, which now runs the gallery, also began to take shape with Sobin’s release, while he was living in a D.C. homeless shelter.
From there, the foundation used a prison publication called “Inside Journal” to introduce its ideas to inmates across the country, receiving numerous letters in response.
Though the foundation is dedicated to enrichment in all of the arts, Sobin calls visual arts its “keystone,” as they can be created from any sort of material. Because many prisons restrict or even prohibit art supplies, some of the gallery’s pieces are constructed from unexpected mediums.
Brian Diggers, an inmate from Oregon, cut off his hair, threaded it through the backbone of a pen and fastened the contraption with dental floss. His paint: coffee grounds. This pseudo-paintbrush is now displayed in D.C.’s Museum of Crime and Punishment. Diggers’ art remains in the Prison Arts Gallery and is currently for sale.
The gallery, currently containing close to 1,500 pieces, displays all artwork it receives and offers all its pieces for sale. Half of the profits go to the gallery and the other half to the artist.
“These are human beings we’re working with here,” Sobin said. “We think the art humanizes them and it certainly shows the talent that they’re capable of.”
Sobin says that the biggest problems prisoners face are boredom and negative thinking. He hopes to combat these obstacles with supporting artistic activities. “That’s really the purpose of the art, to give them something productive to do, something that really generates self-esteem. Because if you have self-esteem and self-confidence, you can accomplish anything in life.”
Alexis Chase, who serves on the board for the foundation and is the warden of Men’s State Prison in Hardwick, Ga., said, “Art gives [prisoners] an outlet to see appreciation from others and acceptance from others for the work that they do. A lot of them have failed at everything they’ve ever done. For the first time, they are receiving acceptance.”
According to Lamont Carey, who spent 11 years in prison after being convicted of attempted murder in 1992, art allows ex-prisoners to reshape their public image as they face a lack of employment opportunities after gaining a criminal record.
“I knew, being an ex-offender, that my job options would be kind of limited. By me being an entrepreneur and by pursuing the arts, I could be independent and control my own destiny,” said Carey, who has acted in the HBO television series “The Wire” and worked in various spoken-word and dramatic performances. His play, “Learning to Be a Mommy,” was the final show in “From Prison to the Stage,” and tells the story of a young girl who gets straight A’s but sells drugs to fund her mother’s heroin addiction.
Sobin’s creativity also helped him through both prison and the tough post-prison years.
“My family had completely turned their back on me,” he said, “but I still had my music. I still had my creativity, and it sustained me.”
Steven Walls, who works with Safe Streets after recently serving over two years in prison due to a robbery conviction, said working on fashion design and visual art with the organization is “helping me become more involved with helping others. It just offers so much, and a great life experience.”
As corrections officers aid prisoners in their reformation, law enforcement officials are also looking to earn acceptance through art.
Cpl. Al Moss, who led the Prince George’s County Police Rhythm in Blues Band on piano during its renditions of “Love Train” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” explained that the police department was looking for a fresh approach to community outreach.
“Music is universal, so we want to show the humanistic side of policing,” Moss said. “It gives us a chance to interact in a positive way with the community, including ex-prisoners.”
While the ex-prisoners of Safe Streets continue to pursue their artistic passions, they have the support from the men and women who put them behind bars.
“We understand that people make mistakes,” Moss said. “Once they’ve done their time, and paid their dues, they’re part of the community just like everyone else.
Sobin and the board of the foundation have high hopes, including the establishment of a major permanent gallery, a “halfway house for artists” and an expansion to more communities around the world. “I’ve achieved heaven on earth through my music and through the music of other people,” Sobin said. “What do you do when you have everything?”