ANN ARBOR—Artist and entrepreneur José Rivera spent 10 years in prison. Being isolated gave him the ability to learn more about himself, reflect on his past actions, read lots of books, become a critical thinker and be stronger mentally. It was when he became "a do-er" instead of "a say-er."
From behind bars, he designed the first Detroit Forever 313 logo, which after his release in 2018, would become an important mark of his clothing business. Today he has his own store in Detroit, with dozens of designs and logos that are printed on hoodies, tees, hats, tank tops and more.
"During my time, to try to escape, to try to feel like I was outside of the fences, art was what actually helped me," Rivera said. "I had to look inside myself, find my desire, and actually take the initial step to make it happen. It became a passion [and a business]."
Rivera is only one of the narrators who will share insights about how to navigate physical separation and avoid letting isolation be a hazard during this COVID pandemic, in a new summer video series called Living on LOP: What We Learned in Prison.
Loss of Privileges, or LOP, is when an incarcerated person is forced to be confined and restricted in a way that is more severe than the ordinary prison restrictions. Typically, this looks like a 24 hour lockdown with the exception of food and showers, and no access to other prison “privileges” such as commissary, recreation time, the attendance of “special” events—including religious events.
Created by formerly incarcerated artists Patrick Bates and Cozine Welch, the video series will feature stories of formerly incarcerated people who will share the lessons they have learned through their time in isolation that can now help us all adjust to this unfamiliar territory after being hit by the coronavirus.
"While incarcerated you learn a method of survival that, in its way, is deeply rooted in human ingenuity. You are forced into subhuman conditions where your ability to express as a living being is severely curtailed and contained," said Welch. The Living on LOP series hopes to highlight that ingenuity by offering to society as a whole the lessons and coping strategies formerly incarcerated folks learned while serving time inside, according to Welch.
For Bates, the goal of this series is to teach people during these times of confinement that you can utilize the same lessons and skills that incarcerated people use to cope with their isolation.
"In prison, we are deprived of our humanity as well as the privileges freedom gives. People are getting their small dose of something being isolated! In prison we suffer from something that is far beyond any social distance," he said. "We are trying to serve as consultants to those who are being affected as well as give a voice to those that have been completely deprived of their freedom and humanity."
Welch and Bates are working closely with a group of scholars and students from the University of Michigan. Each video will be about 4 minutes long and will feature a different theme that is topical to the lockdown experience such as exercise, mental health, rationing food, making the most of small spaces, dealing with uncertainty and creating daily structure.
Associate professor Ashley Lucas, who is also the former Director of the Prison Creative Arts Project and the current Co-Primary Investigator for the Carceral State Project, said she had no doubt about the strength of the project when Bates shared his first thoughts with her.
Instead of the angry reactions that have been explored in some YouTube videos— you don't know prison, you don't know what we've survived—this project wants to show the world that the formerly incarcerated population has something positive, beautiful and wise to give to the world, Lucas explained.
"I've been really touched by all the prison work I've ever done, but especially in moments of crisis like this. People in prison and people who've come home feel very disempowered, they want to contribute," she said. "Isolation is a very new reality for most of us, and unfortunately, super familiar to people inside."
Lucas also believes there is a strategy in this project to acknowledge the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of people who have lived in isolation and overcame this trauma.
"This project is trying to help people to find that, in their own small ways in their own lives, but also to bring a much greater awareness of the thoughtfulness, the compassion, the wisdom, the expertise of people who've survived incarceration," she said.
For Welch, it is important to find ways to fulfill the human need to exist beyond just basic living, but also the need to survive mentally and emotionally. "This is where the ingenuity of human beings forced to live as prisoners finds both its expression and its desperately needed purpose," he said.
This project is a partnership of the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, The Carceral State Project, A Brighter Way and formerly incarcerated participants. All the videos will be up on the Carceral State site.