Art project attempts to humanize Cook County Jail
Thursday, November 27, 2014
Chicago Tribune by Steve Schmadeke
As a young child, Melissa Garcia thought her absent father was away studying at school.
It was how her mother concealed the fact that the father Garcia had never known was in prison. Only when she was 5 and the family visited him at the Danville Correctional Center did the truth dawn on her.
"I saw the barbed wire and thought what kind of school is this?" Garcia said.
The Humboldt Park native, now 24, says she really only knew her father through the letters he sent her from behind bars. Now those letters will be part of a unique art project designed to humanize one of the city's harshest institutions.
The project — called 96 Acres, a reference to the size of the West Side jail compound that includes the Cook County criminal courthouse — began last month with an afternoon of poetry and theater outside the jail led by Visible Voices, an ensemble of women who have been incarcerated.
Earlier this month, youths with the Yollocalli Arts Reach used a power-washer to stencil catchy, uplifting phrases onto the dirty sidewalks outside the jail. And some visitors to the jail will be invited to write down their thoughts in a handmade book. A local artist's comic book will also be distributed about a mother's return to her children after her release from custody will also be distributed.
In addition, photographers took shot portraits of visitors to people walking into the imposing, eight-story, limestone George Leighton Criminal Court Building, where tens of thousands of felony cases are heard each year. Some could be used for a symposium planned for next year.
Another artist is working with former inmates on ideas for a temporary mural on a wall outside the jail.
Excerpts of letters written by Garcia and many other inmates' relatives will also be displayed by a projector on the outside wall next year.
The entire project is funded by a with $60,000 in grant money from private entities in addition to $20,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, organizers said.
"I'm not asking the public to feel sorry for criminals," Garcia said of her participation in the project. "I'm just asking them to understand that criminals are human just like you and they make mistakes. Some make worse mistakes then others."
"It's important to understand the place we are neighboring — what we can do as residents to help (people who are released)," said artist Maria Gaspar, a 96 Acres' project director who grew up near the jail and made a "scared straight" visit there as a sixth grader. "We really hope to just create more consciousness and raise the issues of how incarceration, for example, has increased in this country ... how that impacts people of color and people who are poor."
Garcia grew up with an alcoholic mother and a father who was deported after spending years in prison. Months before she graduated from Wells Community Academy High School in 2007, her mother and a grandmother who raised her both died, yet she still was able to win a full-ride scholarship to Dennison University, a private school in Ohio.
"I don't consider myself a victim," she said in a video interview from China, where she is teaching English and Spanish at an international high school. "I think you can can take the beauty out of any situation and try to make a positive out of it."
"Susan Mullen, Garcia's high school art teacher, said many others would have given up.
"There were thousands of kids applying for that scholarship, and she got it just by being herself," she said.
Garcia was still a toddler when her father, a gang member who sold drugs on West Side streets, went to prison for a narcotics conviction. Her first prison visit was a rare instance of the family being together in one room.
She still remembers pulling plastic pieces of food from a crate of toys in the visiting room and pretending she was working at a restaurant.
In a letter soon after the visit, her father praised her skills as a waitress.
"My baby you've gotten so big and you're so full of life," he wrote. "You'll never know how much you keep your father going. I hope you will learn to forgive me for not being a 'full-time' father. A decision that lives with me every day and one that I regret."
"I'm hoping when I'm finally able to go home, you and daddy can make up for lost-time," he wrote in another letter. "I know I've missed out on so much. I'm just looking forward to being close to you."
They were promises that Jose "Pepe" Garcia didn't keep, his daughter says. By the time he was freed from prison, she was almost 11. For a year she saw him occasionally but watched as he fell back into the street life that was all he knew.
Soon it no longer bothered her when he stood her up on the weekends that they were supposed to spend together.
"I didn't expect anything from him," she said.
One day when she was about 12 she came home from school to find another letter from her father. He told her he was being deported and that he was sorry.
She never saw him again. When her mother died days before she graduated from high school, Garcia called him.
"He pretty much just told me there was nothing he could do for me, that he got deported to Mexico and he's not allowed back in the country," she recalled.
"All right," Garcia said she answered, then hung up.
Though she has never really had a father, she has his letters, punctuated with hearts and smiley faces.
Garcia said she has chosen to take comfort from the words in the letters, even though she knows her father may have only seen her as a lifeline or source of encouragement while he was in prison.
Reading the letters, which still carry the musty odor of the basement apartment she grew up in, bring back memories of her childhood.
She gathered them in a black binder labeled "Father's Prison Letters" that she took with her to China, where she plans to teach for a couple of years.
Then she hopes to return to Chicago to attend the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago as a graduate student.
"People have bet against me before," Garcia said with a laugh.
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