Franklin County jail program fosters artistic talent

  • Since Think Tank was founded five years ago, the inmates involved in the Franklin County Jail program have contributed art to five exhibits at Greenfield’s Artspace. The most recent exhibit, shown here, was held in October and November. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Since Think Tank was founded five years ago, the inmates involved in the Franklin County jail program have contributed art to five exhibits at Greenfield’s Artspace. The most recent exhibit, shown here, was held in October and November. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Inmates in the Think Tank program at the Franklin County jail most recently exhibited their work at Artspace in October and November. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Since Think Tank was founded five years ago, the inmates involved in the Franklin County jail program have contributed art to five exhibits at Greenfield’s Artspace. The most recent exhibit, shown here, was held in October and November. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Since Think Tank was founded five years ago, the inmates involved in the Franklin County jail program have contributed art to five exhibits at Greenfield’s Artspace. The most recent exhibit, shown here, was held in October and November. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Inmates in the Think Tank program at the Franklin County jail most recently exhibited their work at Artspace in October and November. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • To date, Think Tank has produced three magazines featuring work by writers and artists incarcerated at the Franklin County jail. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • To date, Think Tank has produced three magazines featuring work by writers and artists incarcerated at the Franklin County jail. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • To date, Think Tank has produced three magazines featuring work by writers and artists incarcerated at the Franklin County jail. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • To date, Think Tank has produced three magazines featuring work by writers and artists incarcerated at the Franklin County jail. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • O’BEIRNE

Staff Writer
Published: 1/2/2019 4:40:21 PM

Editor’s Note: Inmates’ last names have been omitted from this article so as to not impact their ability to secure employment following release from the Franklin County jail.

While inmates find themselves at the Franklin County jail because of criminal behavior, jail staff want to ensure their time in prison results in personal reform.

That’s why Greenfield Community College professor Joan O’Beirne runs the twice-weekly Think Tank; it’s not exactly an art class, but it often results in art of different kinds such as drawing, poetry and songwriting.

“Art is healing,” said O’Beirne, who founded the program with fellow GCC professor Revan Schendler five years ago. “Often it’s just about punishment, throwing people away and locking the door, and forgetting about them. Some kind of healing has to take place.”

Providing food for thought

On Mondays, O’Beirne visits the large brick building on Elm Street to meet with minimum security and pre-release inmates, who have been divided into two separate Think Tank sessions as of late. On Thursdays, she visits the building classified as medium security.

A Think Tank session can have up to 20 participants, with sessions proceeding more or less organically. A stone is passed around, and only the person holding the stone may talk, giving everyone an opportunity to share both their artwork and their personal thoughts.

On a recent Monday night, a guard announces that Think Tank is meeting in the “chapel” tonight, a room laid out like a classroom but with a drab color scheme and bars on the windows.

Five men show up to the minimum security session, all wearing street clothes but only in blue, gray or white, matching the room. They set up chairs in a circle and pass the talking stone to introduce themselves, with O’Beirne trying some icebreakers.

No one has anything in particular they want to present to the group. The jail’s programming, especially Think Tank, is well received when O’Beirne brings it up.

“They treat you like a human being here,” says Robert, who has been in prison elsewhere.

The conversation settles on work responsibilities. In minimum security, most people have to work, getting paid a dollar a day. People at churches and at town halls tend to be very grateful for the help, the prisoners say. With some municipal departments, not so much.

“I don’t know if they appreciate us, or if it’s like, ‘You’re in jail, go do it,’” Craig says.

They continue on the topic for a while. The session is half as long as usual, to allow time for O’Beirne to visit the pre-release section, too.

Before she leaves, she asks if anyone needs another notebook. She encourages them to try writing — a story from their lives, a poem, whatever they’re thinking about — and to consider sharing it at the next session.

Pre-release is in Kimball House, which is attached to the same building. The men in here wear street clothes without color restrictions. Music is playing.

The session comes together around a table in a communal kitchen. Work is still a talking point for the four participants, but in pre-release, inmates have full-time or part-time jobs at local businesses.

“You’re held to a high standard,” says Mitch, noting he recently got in trouble for coming back from work with a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. “You’re a representative of the sheriff’s office. … You have to show you’ve been rehabilitated.”

Emmerit talks about his “bucket list” of things he wants to do when he gets out of jail. Mostly, he wants to do something to educate children, to give them opportunities and outlets so they don’t get into legal trouble. He also wants to travel.

“Hopefully I can change and transition to the real world,” he says.

‘Planting the seed of possibility’

Think Tank started five years ago, when O’Beirne participated in a sociology class taught by Schendler. Half the students were GCC students, half were inmates — a model developed by Temple University as “Inside-Out.”

“It was kind of profound,” O’Beirne said. “We learned a lot about the whole institution of corrections. It was a real eye-opener. After the class was finished, we kind of didn’t want it to end. We thought, ‘This is kind of powerful.’ We wanted groups from outside meeting with groups from inside.”

Schendler recently retired, but Think Tank members remember her fondly.

“Rev has touched everybody,” said Nelson, who is in medium security. “Everything I wrote was because of her.”

“We worked well together,” O’Beirne said. “I approach things like a college teacher. Revan has taught college, but she approaches things more like a sociologist.”

Case in point, last year Think Tank helped conceptualize and launch a garbage-composting business that employs former inmates and is structured as an employee-owned co-operative.

Still, creating a space for inmates to explore artistically is a major focus.

“It’s validating to the people inside,” O’Beirne said. “And maybe planting the seed of possibility, like, ‘Maybe I could do this.’”

Since the program’s inception, its participants have produced three magazines of writing and art, and have contributed to five exhibits at Greenfield’s Artspace.

“They are human beings in there, with talents,” O’Beirne said of the inmates. “Some are funny, some are mathematically minded. They all have different kinds of strengths and talents. When you go inside and you actually meet people, you see individuals. When you think they’re a bunch of felons, it’s not reality.”

From stories to songs

Thursday is when Think Tank sessions are held for medium security inmates. The sessions are held in the library, which is set up with bookshelves and a projector, but with two-way mirrors where windows might have been, and is only accessible through multiple airlock-style double doors.

The 10 men who show up are in color-coded jumpsuits. Red means pre-trial, or not sentenced, and green means sentenced. Eight are in red, two in green.

The session starts like the others. Now, when O’Beirne asks if anyone would like to present anything, someone volunteers. A man named Eric reads a story he calls “Welcome to the Sandbox,” inspired by his time serving in the military in Iraq.

“We were surrounded by miles and miles of sheer emptiness,” he reads. “Depressing in its emptiness, but beautiful in its simplicity.”

A few people share poems they’ve written. Everyone claps after each one. With a little prompting, a man named Josh beatboxes something he’s been working on. His sense of rhythm is consistent and precise, and the beat he plays is intricate and varied.

“It’s nerve-wracking for me,” he says. “You can’t write down beats. Pow pow, chee chee chee?”

Toward the end of the session, O’Beirne plays music from her laptop. Some is pop music; most is recordings from Think Tank. There’s a few solo raps, a few with beats, and a trio of a rapper, a singer and a beatboxer that was recorded when GCC President Yves Salomon-Fernandez visited Think Tank.

Before the session ends, the participants talk a bit about Think Tank itself. For several, the group is the highlight of their week. Many nod at someone’s comment that you can’t just recite poetry in the pods.

Alan, who is 19 and wears a red jumpsuit, meaning pre-trial, says that Think Tank has given him “a more open mindset” and affected his view on being in jail.

“It still sucks,” he says. “But it’s not as bad as I thought it was gonna be.”

Staff reporter Max Marcus started working at the Greenfield Recorder in 2018. He covers Northfield, Bernardston, Leyden and Warwick. He can be reached at: mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.


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